May 8, 2023
By Dave Simonett
After several days of camping and mostly unsuccessful fishing, my son Jack hooked a whopper. “Get the net!” I shouted a bit too impatiently, Jack’s rod bending to the water. As my buddy Blake complied, the shift in weight nearly tipped our canoe clean over. Following a quick and unanimous moment of thankful pause to collect ourselves after we and our gear nearly took a swim in a frigid backcountry lake, we resumed the work at hand.
A few hours earlier, Blake, Jack, and I had paddled and portaged a healthy distance from our basecamp and the rest of our crew to find this good-looking spot about which a passerby had told us a few days earlier; two lakes connected by a stretch of river, wider than usual thanks to some healthy spring rain. It was the last day of our annual trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and I had promised eight year old Jack I would do everything in my power to get him a fish on the line.
The fight was real. Jack was surprisingly cool about it all even though Blake and I were freaking out. I really wanted that kid to land that fish for fear there may not be another opportunity on the trip. I was doing my best not to hover and shout commands at my child, but unsolicited advice was slipping through the cracks like water through a busted dam. But he knew what he was doing. The fish leapt about two feet out of the water: a great, big, beautiful, smallmouth bass, easily the largest we’d seen all week. Jack asked me to get my hands next to his on the rod for the final fight while Blake carefully leaned over the side with the net.
Oh no! We’re going to lose him!
Finally, success. I am sure If there had been anyone in earshot, our hoots and hollers would have been heard for miles around as we swung that hard-earned fish into the canoe.
The Boundary Waters represent a million acres of backcountry lakes situated along the northern border of Minnesota, and thus the northern border of the United States (hence the name). It is the largest United States wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, and the first real wilderness I ever saw as a kid. There’s right around 2000 lakes in there, groups of them connected to each other by portages; overland walking trails upon which the traveler must tread and over which the traveler’s belongings, including their boat, must be lugged in order to leave behind all modernity in favor of silence, darkness, and the basic needs of camp. One can be sure that a portage will either be steep and rocky or low and muddy, and depending on the time of year, either populated by waves of mosquitos or freezing rain. White pine, tamarack, cedar, birch, aspen, and maple line the singletrack trails that, when in a generous mood, may offer a view of a moose or a shot at a ruffed grouse.
Once the walk is through, heavy packs slide off sweaty backs and into canoes. No motors of any kind are allowed within the confines of the Boundary Waters. No boat motors, no trolling motors, no cordless drill motors to run an auger through the ice in the winter. It’s human power, baby. This rule has several tangible effects, my favorite being the very real feeling of strength attained by several days of paddling your way around or drilling holes through three feet of ice with a hand auger. As far as fishing goes, the effect is a tremendous lack of pressure on a very large population of walleye, lake trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and various panfish. In short, and all things considered, it’s paradise.
We paddled our canoe back down the river, carried it across a small portage and paddled across the lake on which we were camped. As we got within sight of our camp, we could see the other guys spot us and gather around by the shore. I’m always proud of Jack but I was bonus proud of him that day. He beamed as I held the smallie up for our friends to see. The fish ended up being about four pounds. Not a record breaker by any means, but a nice fish for that part of the world. Jack helped clean her and the few other fish the group had managed to round up that day. Everyone attentively listened as Jack gave his account of the mortal fight with his bass and I watched him take his place in that group of grown men. He and I talked about respecting the life that was given. As the sun set, we sat around the fire and had what I consider to be the best meal money can’t buy: fried fish on the shore of a wilderness lake.
About the Author
Dave Simonett is a songwriter and lead singer of the band Trampled by Turtles. He's an avid upland bird hunter and a mediocre to poor fly fisherman who also enjoys a spinning rod now and again. He serves on the Board of Directors for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and on any given day he would prefer to be wandering around a patch of woods with his wife and kids and dogs.