Breaking BWCAW ice for opener lake trout

Paddling into the BWCAW on Friday, May 10, the group navigated around several ice sheets that still remained from winter. (Photos courtesy of Spencer Shaver)


Spencer Shaver hoists a healthy ice-out laker from a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lake off the Gunflint Trail last Saturday, May 11.

Fishing opener in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness usually is hit or miss. I’ve learned not to expect good weather in the wilderness during mid-May, but I still consider every sunny day an opportunity to fish holes that have seen almost no angling pressure for months.

The Friday before the Minnesota fishing opener, three friends and I set out with two aluminum canoes from the Gunflint Trail. After one portage, we stumbled onto our first BWCAW surprise: a sheet of ice covering half the lake.

After poking around the south side of the lake, we chopped our way north toward the campsite we’d picked one more lake away. We paddled all the open water we could, but ran into an impassable 100-yard sheet of 6-inch thick ice separating us from an open stretch of lake and the next portage.

Above and below: The author’s party coated their lake trout fillets with batter, then cooked them in bacon grease, before fixing up some tasty laker tacos.

After a half-hour of head-scratching and mediocre Titanic jokes, the wind shifted, blew the sheet toward the west end of the lake, and a stretch of water opened wide enough for our canoes to pass.

The next morning we expected a waiting game on fishing because of the melting ice, but we set up for big lake trout. After a few heartbreaking fights that ended with a headshake or a spit hook, I dropped my jig between 15 and 20 feet of water right next to a 40-foot hole. The 27-inch laker we landed made all the ice-chopping and portaging the previous day worth it.

That afternoon we cooked up a backcountry classic: batter-covered lake trout fillets cooked in bacon grease. After a voyageur breakfast with bacon, the grease makes for a perfect combo with lake trout. The flesh of the trout stays firm, but still flakes apart after a few minutes over a hot fire. Once the trout has a crispy coating of batter, it’s ready to eat as an appetizer, in a taco, or as your main dinner course.

There’s nothing like hitting the water with old friends for opener, and I’m always astounded by the ability of Minnesotans to tolerate variable weather, mixed fishing prospects, and even ice to get out and enjoy this tradition. It makes me proud to know these traditions will exist for future generations.

I used to guide in the BWCAW, but now work for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, a group of hunters and anglers dedicated to permanently protecting the BWCAW from proposed copper-nickel mining in its watershed. If these traditions and the BWCA are something you also want to ensure for the next generation, visit or stop by one of our events this summer to help conserve Minnesota’s world-class fishing in the BWCAW.

The author is the conservation director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters.

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