Elbow Lake: a less restrictive version of Boundary Waters
By Glen Schmitt
Cook County’s Elbow Lake is just a few clicks south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness within the Timber-Frear Loop Semi-Primitive Area of the Superior National Forest.
This means the 527-acre lake provides opportunities for canoeing and camping in a BWCAW type of setting but without the restrictions that go along with it.
Boat motors and electronics can be used on Elbow, and permits are not required. But don’t expect to drop a boat or motor of any size into the lake. Again, this is a primitive setting that requires small boats or canoes to fish it.
There is no traditional public access to Elbow Lake, either. The only way it can be accessed is via portage trails from adjacent Whitefish Lake, Finger Lake, Timber Lake, and Lost Lake.
“It has that enticement known as the Timber-Frear Loop. No roads, any access involves hiking, and it’s all surrounded by forest land,” said Dean Paron, DNR Fisheries supervisor in Finland. “Elbow definitely has the Boundary Waters atmosphere, but without the permitting and restrictions.”
While the lake is off the beaten path, it is by no means a secret. The handful of fine campsites around it are used regularly throughout the summer months, although fishing pressure is rarely high.
Those who visit Elbow come for the scenery, solitude, and its walleyes. In fact, it’s nearly a walleye-exclusive lake with a few northern pike mixed in.
The only other fish species in the lake are yellow perch and white suckers, both of which are forage bases for its walleyes and pike – not targets for anglers.
Elbow is surveyed by the DNR on a six-year rotation, and due to COVID-19 restrictions last year, the lake hasn’t been surveyed since 2015. According to Paron, a survey will take place again in 2022.
Probably not much will change next year from past surveys, meaning the lake will likely still hold a strong population of total naturally produced walleyes. These are slow-growing walleyes that are usually more of the eating-size variety than trophies.
“The lake never has been stocked, and it has excellent (walleye) spawning habitat,” Paron said. “We see consistent natural reproduction and historically high catches in our nets.”
Nine year-classes of walleyes were sampled during the 2015 survey. Overall, numbers were down a bit compared with past catches on Elbow, but near average when compared with lakes similar to it.
The fish averaged almost 14 inches in length – about one pound in weight – and the largest walleye sampled was just under 22 inches.
“We see a few larger fish, but we typically see good numbers of eating-size walleyes,” Paron said. “There was a slight decrease in walleye numbers in 2015, but anglers seem to keep consistently catching walleyes. I’m anxious to get back out there in 2022.”
Northern pike numbers in Elbow are pretty comparable to similar lakes throughout the Arrowhead region. The pike population is considered low to moderate in density and consists of mostly small- to medium-size fish.
Pike averaged just 20 inches in length and weighed less than 2 pounds on average during the 2015 sampling. The largest pike in the survey topped out at just more than 24 inches in length.
“It’s always had relatively low northern pike numbers and they don’t grow real fast,” Paron said. “People who fish Elbow fish it for walleyes.”
If, for some reason, the walleye bite is a bit off on Elbow, it’s worth noting that you have other options. All you have to do is portage into one of the other lakes, which in itself is a pretty unique opportunity.
Nearest town…Sawbill Landing
Surface area………………….527 acres
Maximum depth……………..23 feet
Shore length…………………….9 miles
Water clarity……………………….8 feet
Fish species present:
Walleye, northern pike, yellow perch, white sucker.
DNR area fisheries office (218) 353-8855, the DNR website http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind