For many people, fishing is one of the main reasons they come to the BWCAW, and for good reason. The BWCAW is home to a wide variety of game fish, and thousands of miles of canoe routes, which make for an endless supply of fishing opportunities. The lakes in the Boundary Waters are relatively small, and the fish are abundant, so with some basic knowledge, and a little hard work, catching fish is generally not a problem. When you arrive at Sawbill, we can help you choose appropriate tackle, and give you advice on places to fish and techniques to try. However, there are a few things that you can do before heading into canoe country to help your fishing success:

  1. Good fishing line, and sharp hooks will help you catch more fish. We recommend 6 to 8 pound test line for most situations. It is a good idea to change your line every year; if you haven’t put new line on your reel in a while, now might be a good time. Sharp hooks are also very important, and a small file for sharpening your hooks is a good addition to any tackle box.
  2. A small tackle box with a variety of lures in different shapes and sizes is all you will need in the BWCAW. For most people, a giant tackle box stuffed full of lures is unnecessary, and will be harder to lug around on the portages. We have a variety of reasonably priced tackle that works well in the Sawbill area for sale in our store. When you arrive, our knowledgeable staff can help you choose tackle that works best in the lakes you will be visiting.
  3. A Boundary Waters Fishing Guide, by Mike Furtman is a wonderful book that can teach you everything you need to know in order to have a successful fishing trip in the BWCAW. From lure selection to cooking and cleaning specific fish, this book has it all.

Small Mouth Bass

Fishing for small mouth bass can be a lot of fun. What these bronze backed beauties lack in size, they make up for with unmatched strength and determination. When hooked, some small mouth bass leap into the air shaking their heads as they try to expel your hook, while others make a hard deep run as they try to free themselves. They fight hard for their size, and a 1 to 2 pound small mouth can put up a memorable fight. The small mouth in the BWCA average 1 to 2 pounds, but a some 4 to 6 pound fish are caught every year.

What do small mouth eat?

Small mouth bass eat a wide range of aquatic animals, but crayfish and minnows are two of their favorite foods. When choosing a lure, remember that their mouths are small and they usually prefer relatively small food. Lures that are 1 to 2 inches long usually work well. Generally, small mouth prefer natural colored lures that have the colors of crayfish or other bait fish that they love to eat. On bright sunny days, light colored lures usually work best, and on dark, cloudy days, darker colors are better.

Small mouth also love live bait, and fishing with a leech or worm can be very productive. You can also catch crayfish or frogs and use them as bait. Two good ways to fish for small mouth with live bait are with a plain hook and a bobber, or using a floating jig head and some split shot attached to your line about 18 inches above your hook.

Where do small mouth live?

Small mouth bass like cold water and are usually found in lakes that are at least 25 feet deep. Crayfish, their favorite food, live among the rocks, so bass are usually found in areas that have a rocky bottom. Areas with rocks that are between the size of your fist and your head generally hold the most small mouth. The best spots usually have a rocky bottom that gently slopes from the shoreline to 5 to 15 feet of water. Rocky points and places where a stream flows into a lake are also great places to find small mouth bass.

Northern Pike

Of all the game fish in the Boundary Waters, northern pike are probably the easiest to catch since pike will hit just about any lure. The most popular lures for pike are the “Red and Silver” and the yellow “Five of Diamonds” Dare Devils. Pike also hit jigs, Rapalas and Thundersticks. Northern pike are found in most Boundary Waters lakes, and a large pike can put up a great battle. When properly cleaned and prepared, small to medium sized northerns are also very good to eat.

Northern pike have large teeth, and it is a good idea to use a steal leader when you are fishing for pike to prevent them from cutting your line. As a general rule, northern pike like a fast retrieve, and large, flashy lures.

What do northern pike eat?

Many wise fishermen have said you can’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water, and that is certainly true with northerns. Northerns are not picky eaters, but you have to put something big and flashy in front of them. One of the best ways to do this is to troll a spoon or minnow plug behind your canoe as you travel. Many of the small lakes in the Boundary Waters, which most people quickly paddle through on their way to the next portage, are full of small to medium sized northern pike. Trolling across the lake can be a good way to catch a few fish without exerting much effort.

Where do northern pike live?

Northern pike can be found in many types of water. But, for most of the summer, rocky points and weed beds are a good place to look. In the early spring, when the water is still cold, you will find northern pike in shallow bays, and near the mouths of rivers or streams where the water is warmer. On windy fall days, northerns will congregate off windswept points to ambush bait fish.


When many fishermen think of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, they think of walleye. Walleye are found in many of the lakes in the Sawbill area, and following a few basic rules can help increase your chances of landing some monster marble eyes. Walleye are often found in schools; if you are drifting or trolling when you catch a walleye, make sure to note the spot where the fish was hooked, so you can go back to that spot and try your luck again!

When you catch some walleye you will notice they have very large eyes! Their large eyes help them see well during low light conditions; because of this walleye are generally most active at dawn and dusk. Sometimes, walleye fishing can also be very good at night!

What do walleye eat?

The main rule for walleye fishing is to fish slow! Walleye like their food presented in a slow and deliberate manor. This is especially true in the spring and fall when the water is cold, but the rule holds true throughout the year. Jigging is often a good way to catch walleyes, and a 1/4 oz. to 3/8 oz. jig head with a plastic body usually works well. It is best to carry jigs and bodies in a variety of colors because certain color combinations may catch more fish depending on the prevailing conditions. Experiment with different colors to figure out which ones the fish like best. Tipping your jigs with live bait also helps your chances of success. In the spring and fall, minnows usually work best. In the middle of the summer, most fishermen prefer leaches or worms. Using a bobber and a leach, minnow, or worm is also an easy and relaxing way to catch walleye. It is usually best to use a slip bobber, since this allows you to vary the depth of your bait more easily and fish in deeper water. If you do not know how to use a slip bobber, we can show you how when you arrive at Sawbill.

Where do walleye live?

On sunny, calm days, the walleye are generally deep and hard to catch. Often the best thing to do on calm, sunny days is fish for northern pike or small mouth bass during the middle of the day, and then turn your efforts towards walleyes as the sun is setting. On windy days, walleyes will move out of deeper water, and feed on bait fish. blown against a windswept point or shoreline. These areas will usually be close to drop offs or deeper water.

Lake Trout

Many lakes in the BWCAW contain native lake trout. These fish average one to three pounds, but lakers topping 25 pounds are landed each year, so a trophy is always a possibility!

Trolling can be a fun and relaxing way to fish for lake trout. The key is paddling slowly. It works best if the person in the stern paddles at a moderate rate. The person in the front of the canoe is free to turn around and face the back; it will be easier to chat with the stern paddler, and also easier to fight the fish once it’s hooked! A shiny, Dare Devil type spoon about an inch and a half in length generally works well as a lure. Often times, tipping the spoon with a small minnow increase your success. It is also a good idea to add a small swivel between your line and the lure to keep your line from twisting.

To get started, cast your lure out behind the canoe, and leave the bale open while your partner starts paddling forward. You will need to let out a lot of line so your lure will reach the depths where the lake trout are lurking. If you are fishing with more than one rod, you can troll a second line by holding one pole out to each side of the canoe. With your lines out well behind the canoe, slowly troll across the lake. Every 5 minutes or so, stop and let your lures sink into deeper water, and then start paddling again. When you feel a tug, or your rod starts to bend, set the hook hard! When a lake trout hits, it is often very hard to tell whether it is a snag or a fish. Often, the fight doesn’t really begin until the trout sees the boat, when the fish will make powerful runs into deeper water.

What do lake trout eat?

Minnows work well for lake trout, and bottom-fishing with dead ciscos or suspending live minnows beneath a float is a good way to catch lake trout during most times of the year. However, in the middle of the summer, lake trout are usually in very deep water. Troll with spoons, minnow plugs, or spinners. Cast or troll with white bucktail jigs, crankbaits, or flashy spoons.

Where do lake trout live?

After ice out, lake trout roam the shallows, where they remain until water temperatures warm in early summer. However, in the middle of the summer, lake trout are found in very deep water–usually at depths of 40 feet deep or deeper. In September, when the water cools, lake trout return to the shallows. Lake trout are often most active at dawn or dusk.