Birch Lake provides ‘fabulous’ fishing just outside BWCAW
Birch Lake in St. Louis County is conveniently located between Ely and Babbitt, making it one of the area’s more popular fisheries. At more than 7,000 acres, it’s also the largest lake in this region outside the BWCAW.
Shoreline development is minimal, and with a series of quality public accesses, anglers have no problem getting on this tucked-away gem and cashing in on its robust walleye, northern pike, crappie, and smallmouth bass populations.
Steve Koschak, of River Point Resort, grew up in these parts and has owned his resort on the north end of Birch for 41 years. To say he knows this lake well, and appreciates its beauty and fish-producing potential, would be an understatement.
“About 90 percent of the shoreline is undeveloped – the east side resembles the Boundary Waters and the west side is more rugged with tons of islands,” he said. “You can fish anywhere on Birch. It’s just a fabulous lake.”
Birch is full of walleyes that have continued to build in numbers through natural reproduction. The lake hasn’t been stocked with walleyes since 2002, but it doesn’t need to be, according to Jeff Eibler, DNR assistant fisheries supervisor in Tower.
Eibler says the most recent assessment of Birch Lake, conducted in 2015, produced more than 13 walleyes per net, which was up from the previous survey in 2012. The lake has a reputation for producing eating-size walleyes, as well as trophy-caliber fish.
“In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect setup – plenty of fish for people to keep, and with ciscoes providing a strong forage base, it has big walleyes, too,” Eibler said. “In 2015 we saw quite a few walleyes around 10 inches, so they’re prime for keeping now. The lake’s in good shape.”
Koschak says to pitch a jg and minnow or slip bobber and leech in the spring on the edges of any current areas. Look just outside those spawning areas, downstream from the South Kawishiwi River, for example.
During the summer, crankbaits, live-bait rigs, and jigs will produce walleyes on the main-lake humps and breaks in 20 to 25 feet. The fish tend to be more scattered in the fall, but typically bite well after the lake turns over.
“We consistently see numbers of nice, eating-size fish throughout the year and they’re dark, golden-colored,” Koschak said. “But Birch has big walleyes. We saw four of them over 31 inches during the first two weeks of June last year.”
There has been a 24- to 36-inch protected slot for northern pike in place since 2003 on Birch Lake. Both Koschak and Eibler noted that this regulation has really increased the number of big pike in the system.
Prior to the regulation, only 29 percent of the pike sampled were over 24 inches long. That jumped to 52 percent in the 2015 survey, and 34 percent of them were over 36 inches, compared with just 9 percent prior to the protected slot.
“People were OK releasing those fish because they saw the quality going up,” Koschak said. “We still have good numbers of pike to eat, but now we see fish in the 20-pound class every year.”
There isn’t a lot of vegetation in Birch Lake, but the ciscoe population is fueling these bigger pike. Find a weedline off a reef, point, or in a bay and you should find pike.
You’ll find panfish and smallmouth bass in Birch Lake as well. Crappies are bigger and more numerous than bluegills, while smallmouth bass numbers are exploding throughout it.
“Crappie fishing is popular in the winter and they are nice when you find them,” Koschak said. “With all the smallmouth people are catching, there are a lot of positives happening here.”