Fishing the Boundary Waters, Quetico, and Gunflint Trail

2012 Jung Supper! Anglers around the world love fishing the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, Quetico Provincial Park, and the Gunflint Trail region of northeastern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters’ countless lakes provide endless fishing opportunities. We help guests get the most out of fishing in this unique wilderness setting with world class fisheries of lake trout, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and walleye. Prepare for your next BWCAW fishing trip with the information below, or call us anytime with your fishing questions.

MN Licenses and Regulations

Minnesota-dnr-logo-SmallThe Minnesota Department of Natural Resources requires all anglers to have a valid MN fishing license on their person whenever fishing Minnesota waters. We recommend buying your fishing licenses online before your trip or at any MN gas station on your way to Tuscarora. When purchasing a MN fishing license, MN residents must provide a valid MN driver’s license. Out of state visitors must provide their social security number.  

Ontario Licenses and Regulations


To fish in Quetico Provincial Park, you need both an Outdoor Card and a fishing license from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Purchase online before your trip. 

Be sure to review Ontario fishing regulations before your trip since they differ from Minnesota’s.

For anglers fishing within the Quetico Provincial Park:

  • No live and organic bait allowed.
  • All fishing hooks must be barbless.

How to Fish the Boundary Waters and Quetico

Basic Tackle Box and Supplies

A tackle box for a fishing trip in the BWCA or Quetico will be refined with every trip.  Overall, the most important thing to remember is “pack it in – pack it out”!  Everything you bring with you will be carried over every portage so weight and bulk are big factors.  Refine your list to the essentials.  After your trip make notes of what you pack too little or to0 much of for your next trip.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Fishing Rod & Reel – We recommend a 6′ to 8′ medium weight rod with a reel that you are comfortable using.  Take it for a few test casts before packing to make sure everything is in good working order.
  • Fishing Line – We recommend 6 lb to 8 lb monofilament.  Restring your reel with new line at least once a year depending on usage.  This is the best way to limit line breakage due to UV damage and age which reduces line elasticity and strength.  It’s not a bad idea to restring and fill your reel all the way up before a long trip so you can be confident you have enough to reach those deep lakers!
  • Fishing CrocodileExtra Reel – Pack an extra reel with line, especially for longer trips.  It is easy enough to improvise a rod out there, not so much with a reel.
  • Fillet knife – Sharpen it up before you leave and make sure it has a good sheath.
  • Pocket knife/Nail clippers – Invaluable on any camping trip, a pocket knife or small multi-tool will help with switching up lures.   Consider finding a pair with a wire cutter as well to remove embedded hooks from the fish and from hands.  Nail clippers are also a safe and effective alternative for cutting line (no sharp points to drop!).
  • Forceps/Pliers – Helps grab on to and remove hooks from those toothy predators!
  • Stringer – A nice light 6′ poly stringer will not take up much room and will keep your catch safe.
  • Minnow Bucket/Leech Locker – if you are planning on fishing with live bait, make sure you pack the appropriate container to keep your bait alive as long as possible.
  • Net – One sturdy medium sized net per canoe makes landing fish less stressful on the fish being released.
  • Map – A high quality map with lake depths such as Fisher or McKenzie.  Get out a Sharpie and mark up the map with all the research you have done.  Bring that marker along and add to it while you are out there.
  • Polarized sunglasses – Polarized lenses help reduce glare allowing you to see into the water to find beds, sunken structures and fish.
  • Hat & sunscreen – Time on the water fishing means a lot of sunshine!
  • Gloves – Gloves are helpful when dealing with toothy fish such as northerns.
  • Tackle Box – Pick out a small tackle box, about the size of a cigar box, and that is it.  You don’t want to haul in all your fishing supplies with you on every portage!  Keep it down to a small tackle box and focus on your specific tackle needs to reduce weight and waste.


Artificial Lures and Tackle

Now to fill that small tackle box!  Take along enough of the basics (leaders, swivels, hooks, etc.) then add to it the specialty items needed for what you are hoping to catch.  Take a look at our fish pages (walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, lake trout) to give you an idea of what each species prefers.  Many lures will work on multiple species.

  • steel leaders
  • snap swivels
  • slip bobbers and stops
  • weights/sinkers – assorted sizes and weights
  • hooks – assorted sizes for live bait or soft artificial baits
  • jigs heads – assorted colors and sizes (1/8, 1/4, 3/8 oz)
  • crank baits
  • spinners
  • top water baits
  • spoons

When selecting your tackle, pack an assortment of colors.  Recommended colors may work, but if the fishing is slow, switching things up can be just the trick.  General rules to keep in mind when selecting lures include –

  • chartreuse in spring / white in summer
  • light lures for bright days / darker lures for cloudy days
  • mimic natural food sources

Tuscarora does have a selection of tackle and fishing gear in our Trading Post.  While it is always advisable to sort and organize your tackle box at home before starting your trip, our Trading Post can fill in anything forgotten at the last minute or to pick up your next lucky lure!

Live Bait

Depending on the season and what you are fishing for, live bait can be just the ticket to catch your next trophy fish.  Be sure to know all live bait regulations for the area you are planning on fishing (no live/organic bait allowed in Quetico).  Please make sure that you pack any unused live bait out with you and dispose of it properly in a garbage can.  Do not release any live bait back “into the wild”.  Diseases and invasive species can quickly ruin this pristine fishing paradise.  Typically leeches work well in the spring and summer while minnows are a better choice in the fall.

Tuscarora sells leeches during the summer months.  Please call ahead for availability and quantities.  If you are looking for something other than leeches (minnows, night crawlers, etc.) stop at one of the following live bait shops in Grand Marais before heading up the Gunflint Trail.  It doesn’t hurt to call ahead for availability!

Live bait is a bit of a hassle to portage but it can be worth the effort.  For leeches, a good Leech Locker or similar container makes transporting easy.  Be sure to keep leeches cool in the shade and change water frequently.  Minnows take a bit more care and more frequent water changes to keep them squirming.  Remember to keep these guys as cool as possible as well.  If caring for live bait sounds like too much work, there are always other options such as salted, frozen or freeze dried which can also prove successful.

Fish Species

2014 Colbert Mavis Brookie

The wilderness of the Quetico and BWCA are home to four major sport species of fish –

Get to know a little about each of these fish with the links above.  Some people choose to concentrate on one type of fish during their trip.  Others target the Grand Slam of at least one fish from each of the big four.  Keep in mind, not every lake out there holds all four species.  Give us a call when planning your trip and we can help you target the best lakes for what you are hoping to catch. It pays to spend a little time researching the fish you want to catch ahead of time.

Brook trout and rainbow trout can also be found in the BWCA in very specific lakes.  These fish tend to prefer the smaller, rockier lakes with good flow.  While brook trout are native to Minnesota, rainbow trout were introduce in the 1800s.  A list of stream trout lakes can be found below.  Tuscarora and the Gunflint Trail are located in Cook County neighboring Lake County.

Any time you are fishing on a designated trout lake or if you are actively fishing for any species of trout on any lake, a trout stamp is required on your fishing license.

Fishing Seasons

Fishing seasons in the north country vary greatly from year to year.  When the ice leaves in the spring can range from mid April to mid May.  The fishing opener in Minnesota for walleye is generally the kickoff for the angling season which falls on the second Saturday in May.  The walleye opener for Ontario is generally the week after that.  Below is a very general breakdown of the fishing seasons and what is active during each.  Keep in mind that each year is different and the timing of spawns can be quite different.  Give us a call anytime to see how the fishing is progressing!

Can’t wait for the ice to go out so you can get an early jump on the angling season?  Neither can we!  Watch our blog in the spring for updates on when the ice on Round Lake is going out.  Watch the ice out dates progress across Minnesota with the DNR link below.  Remember that Quetico is even further to the north so ice out dates will lag a little behind Round Lake.

Spring – May and June.  This is the time of year when water temps are colder and the bugs are thicker.  Lake trout are the hot topic in early May.  June is all about the smallmouth spawn and walleye fishing.  June is the month that is probably the best all around for those who want to focus their canoe trips on fishing.

  • Lake Trout are high and hungry.  May is the best time of the year to catch a lake trout right along the shoreline.  During the spring, lakers typically can be found in 10 to 40 feet of water.
  • Walleye are spawning early, soon after ice out, after which they can be a bit sluggish.  As soon as late May and into June rolls around, walleye action is fantastic.
  • Smallmouth bass spawn sometime in June which is when the bass fishing really begins.  The topwater bass action this time of year cannot be beat!
  • Northern pike are spawning as soon as the ice clears out which leaves them hungry and in the shallows this time of year.

Summer – July and August.  The summer months typically see a little more fishing pressure but the trade off is a trip that can keep everyone in the group happy, regardless of their fishing interest!  Smallmouth and pike action continue to be a lot of fun during the summer.  As the water temps increase during the summer, the walleye and lake trout action slows.

  • Smallmouth bass continue to be active but will be hitting less topwater lures as they are spending more time lurking around 10 feet of water or more depending on water temps.
  • Northern pike fishing continues to be great but the bigger pike will be found a little deeper as they try to keep cool.
  • Walleye are seeking out cooler water which pushes them anywhere from 15 to 40 feet deep.  The hotter the water temps, the more sluggish the walleye will become but with a little patience, walleye is still definitely on the menu in summer.
  • Lake trout are delving deeper this time of year looking for the cold they prefer which sometimes pushes them below 40+ feet.  While it is still possible to catch a laker in the summer, it takes the right tools and knowleage.

Fall – September and October.  Fall is a beautiful time of the year to fish canoe country.  Fall lasts through November until the lakes freeze up, however September and October are the best months for a trip.  Less people and cooling water temps can make for some decent fishing.

  • Smallmouth bass top water action picks up again in the fall as the fish begin seeking out warmer water temps closer to the surface. Be sure to check current regulations for seasons and dates when fishing for smallmouth in the fall.
  • Northern pike fishing picks up as the fish start to feed heavily in preparation for winter.
  • Lake trout begin to come back up into the shallows as water temps drop. Remember that lake trout season closes on September 30th to protect them during their spawn.
  • Walleye begin to move to shallower water but can continue to be finicky.

Ice Fishing

IMG_0934Ice fishing?  You betcha!  With plenty of fresh white snow and thick ice, the ice fishing potential is only limited by how far you are willing to go!  Tuscarora Lodge has three cabins open all winter long that are perfect for an ice fishing base camp.  Stay with us and ice fish on Round Lake, Seagull Lake, Duncan Lake or Gunflint Lake all right off the Gunflint Trail.  Grab your cross country skis or snowshoes and trek out to Missing Link Lake or Tuscarora Lake to pull a lake trout or brook trout through the ice.

If you are planing on an ice fishing trip, make sure your fishing license and trout stamps are valid!  Check on ice fishing seasons and regulations inside and outside the BWCA which are different.  Be sure to ask about current ice conditions, slush, and what lakes are hot.  As always, be careful out there on the lakes.

BWCAW and Quetico Fishing FAQs

What’s the deal with fishing on lakes that are half in Minnesota and half in Canada?

Both the Minnesota DNR and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources agree on the same thing when fishing in U.S./Canada Border Waters; stay on your side of the line!

Anglers with a Minnesota fishing license may fish only the Minnesota portion of Canada’s border waters. The MN DNR seasons and regulations concerning border waters apply to specific lakes which are listed in regulations books. If you want to fish on the Canadian side of lake, you must possess an Ontario fishing license.

Which Gunflint Trail lakes can I use a motorboat on?

As a corridor between two sections of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Gunflint Trail provides access to lakes both inside and outside the BWCAW. The general rule of thumb is that if you can drive up to the water’s edge, you can use a motorboat on that Gunflint Trail lake. Exceptions to this rule are Seagull, Saganaga, Clearwater, and East Bearskin Lakes which all sit partially in the BWCAW. To motor into the Boundary Waters on Seagull, Saganaga, Clearwater, and East Bearskin Lakes, anglers need a day use motor permit (availability subject to permit quota) and to abide by motor horsepower restrictions.

Check out this comprehensive list of Gunflint Trail lakes with boat access.

Does my kid need a fishing license? What about all the Boy Scouts I’m traveling with?

Minnesota residents age 15 or younger, do not need a fishing license to fish and keep a limit of fish. For nonresidents, a child age 15 or younger does not need a license as long as they’re fishing in the presence of their licensed parent or guardian.

Both resident and nonresident youth ages 16 and 17 and any age nonresident youth fishing without a parent or guardian must purchase a $6 youth fishing license.

In Quetico Provincial Park, non-Canadians under the age of 18 do not have to have a fishing license if accompanied by an adult with a fishing license from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.  

How many lines can I fish with?

In Minnesota you can fish with one line during the open water seasons. In the winter you can fish with two lines with the exception of designated trout lakes which limit anglers to one line.

Wait, what’s a designated trout lake?

A designated trout lake is a lake specifically managed in Minnesota DNR for stream trout species. With many designated trout lakes in Tuscarora’s backyard (including nearby Missing Link Lake) be sure to review the DNR’s list of designated trout lakes before setting out on your trip.

When fishing on designated trout lakes, anglers are limited to one line and can not possess minnows as bait “except live leeches and processed minnows in a dried, frozen, or pickled condition.”

Do I need a trout stamp?
The Minnesota DNR requires a trout stamp “for residents and non-residents over age 18 and under age 65 to fish designated trout streams, trout lakes and Lake Superior and when in possession of trout or salmon.” Our interpretation of this rule is that anyone targeting lake trout should purchase a trout stamp in addition to their fishing license.