Crooked Lake Fishing Trip Report, May 26th– 29th, 2020
By Eric Glasson
For the last six years, a group of my high school and college buddies have ventured into the Boundary Waters to chase fish at the earliest opportunity – fishing opener weekend. It has become a tradition, which we were very disappointed to break this year. 2020 was the first year since we began in 2014 with a trip to Disappointment Lake that we couldn’t make our BWCA fishing opener trip happen. Unfortunately, the Boundary Waters was closed to overnight travel due to Coronavirus closures and the unnecessary risk to visitors and safety personnel, and our group decided it was not a wise idea to travel, so the trip was canceled.
Fortunately, I had a Mudro Lake permit in my back pocket for Tuesday May 26th. I had booked the permit right away when permits became available back in January, knowing that it might be one of my only opportunities other than fishing opener weekend that I might be able to get away during the busy season. As manager of the retail store, I can rarely take more than a few days off at a time between Memorial and Labor Day to make trips happen.
Here’s some insider information if you’d like to visit the BWCA when the weather and water are starting to warm up, there are not yet clouds of pesky insects, the fish are incredibly active and feeding and there are very few people visiting the BWCA; go the two weeks after Memorial Day weekend. The BWCA sees a huge spike of visitors Memorial Day Weekend, then it slows down for 2-3 weeks before picking up again leading into late June and the Fourth of July.
This is exactly why I booked my permit for the day after Memorial Day. The store would be slower, the BWCA visitors would be fewer and the fish would be biting. For this trip, I convinced my best man (also named Eric) to take a few days of PTO in the middle of the week after a holiday weekend and join me for four days of chasing walleye and paddling around Crooked Lake. He gladly burned some of his PTO to join me in the wilderness.
Our fishing opener trips are generally base-camp trips where we paddle and portage our butts off the first and last days of the trip, usually getting a tow close to our end destination to give us a jump-start. We always fish as much as we can (at least 12 hours/day) based at a luxury campsite close to good fishing water. We have spent time on Disappointment, Ensign, Birch (Canadian Border, Birch) and Knife. We have always found decent fishing but have always known it could be better.
This trip wouldn’t look like our opener trips. The goal would still be to chase walleyes-specifically large walleyes-being as mobile as we could to cover as much ground as possible. We choose Crooked Lake because it was accessible in a half-day (which would make our short 4 day trip more impactful), has tons of moving water (walleyes love moving water, especially early season) and we have gathered information from reputable sources, customer trip reports and YouTube videos that the walleye bite can be on fire.
I am proud to say that we were shoving off paddling towards Mudro Lake the second the sun started to lighten the sky, half an hour before it peeked out from behind the treeline. Not one minute would be wasted in our pursuit of walleye. After completing a few quick and short paddle-portage-paddle sections we were across the southern end of Horse Lake and heading towards the mouth of the Horse river by 7:15 A.M.
Eric and I had actually done this same exact trip (Mudro to Basswood falls, across Crooked and back down via Friday Bay, Boot/Gun Lakes and south through Fourtown) back in May 2013 with some other friends. Since it was 7 years ago, it was like we were seeing things for the first time. We were also brand new to canoe camping back then, only having one trip each under our belts. This time around, we brought with us years of canoe fishing experience, the best lightweight gear and much faster and lighter Northstar Northwind Ultralight Kevlar boat. You would be surprised at how much further you can travel, more you can see and enjoyable a BWCA experience can be when you free yourselves of the yoke of the aluminum canoe, double and triple-portaging and overpacking.
This trip would be minimalist, as we had one main goal, to catch big walleyes. We have always found decent fishing on our early-season BWCA trips, but never anything spectacular. Enough to have shore lunch walleye fish fries most of the evenings, but never any craziness we knew the BWCA and its many healthy fisheries were capable of.
The Horse River was a bit frustrating, as the water was unseasonably low which really slowed us down. We were forced to add another portage due to low water, and there were many sections very difficult and slow to travel over, which we would have normally cruised by without a second thought with the typical high water in late May. A few quick photos of Lower Basswood Falls (LBF), our first walleye of the trip, a short stop to take a few pictures of the pictographs and we were continuing towards Wednesday Bay.
It was hard not to stop at every dropoff, rocky point, and area next to current along the way to “jig, just for a minute.” There is tons of good water north of LBF before you get to the narrows of Wednesday Bay, but we knew we didn’t want to waste any time fishing areas that didn’t provide us the best opportunity to catch walleyes, so we moved along efficiently, only stopping for the occasional drop of the jig. At 1 P.M. We reached a campsite on the western shore of Wednesday Bay that looked “good enough,” so we unloaded, set up camp (which included cleaning up A LOT of trash left by the previous campers), went for a quick swim and were back on the water by 4 P.M.
For those of you counting (because I always do) that is 15 miles of paddling and 1.8 miles of portaging in 8 hours (let’s say 6.5-7 because we couldn’t help ourselves and did spend too much time jigging on the way). We would not have been able to move this quickly if we hadn’t had an UL kevlar canoe and forced ourselves to pack light enough to allow for single portaging. We saved hours on this trip which allowed us to be on the water fishing, instead of traveling or recovering from traveling.
That first night we found walleyes pretty much everywhere we dropped our jigs in the water. Let me be clear-our favorite method of catching early season walleyes is a jig and a minnow (on this trip we brought medium rainbow shiners, chubs and giant creek chubs), but we did catch them on pretty much anything we put in the water (slip bobbers with live minnows, jig and many different sizes and types of soft plastics and floating and deep diving crankbaits). In my opinion, location is far more important than bait used or technique being employed when it comes to catching canoe country walleyes.
Our most productive spot that evening was an area no more than 100 yards from our campsite where we were able to lash the boat to shoreline in 12’ of water. The right side of the boat was parallel to and directly touching shore, the left side of the boat was over a 12’ flat area with moderate current. We found-as with every single one of our productive spots on this trip-the area of slack water directly butting up to swift moving water (usually sheltered by shoreline or boulder) was the most productive.
That evening we caught 43 fish, 37 of which were walleyes. The largest we caught was 18”, which is pretty small for such a large sample size. We had a blast but were still looking for a big walleye. I am proud to say that we let every single fish go that day because we had massive ribeye steaks for dinner that needed to be eaten. Freezing steaks (usually Ribeyes because of their fat content) and eating them night one has become a tradition for us in the BWCA, even on the fast and light trips.
On this trip, I am happy to report that I have found the perfect way to cook a backcountry steak. High heat over a campstove, in my case using the MSR Wind Pro II (more heat control) in a nonstick skillet, cooked very hot and very fast (almost deep-fried) in copious amounts of Kerrygold pure salted Irish butter to medium rare. I like to go simple on my seasonings – McCormick’s Montreal Steak and smoked salt. Those of you who have figured out a go-to dynamite backcountry favorite recipe like this one, know I’m not exaggerating when I say this steak quite possibly changed our lives forever.
We had a tremendous night’s sleep and were back at it very early on day two, heading for a campsite less than 1 mile away, as we wanted to spend one more day fishing the legendary narrows of Wednesday Bay (we joked that we didn’t really care if we never left Wednesday Bay). Day 2 was set to be a hot one, with highs in the mid-80s and almost zero cloud cover all day. As seasoned walleye fisherman, we knew this was statistically a terrible day to be fishing for walleye. After setting up camp and collecting enough firewood at another 3-star campsite, we again took a minute to cool off in the freezing water before heading out to fish for the afternoon.
We had scoped out a spot using Eric’s Navionics phone app the night before where a pinch-point between two islands close to our campsite quickly went from a 6’ flat, to a 12’ flat, to a 20’ basin. We figured this would be a good area for walleye to congregate and wait for baitfish to wash downstream. After paddling around for a few minutes near the spot, we found both dropoffs and started to mark fish. Much to our surprise, the first drop produced fish for both of us. We anchored in 12’ of water so we’d have the ability to fish the shallower water to our West and the deeper water to our East.
The fishing did not slow down – this is the day we would shoot for 100 fish – something we’d always dreamt about, but never been able to accomplish. All afternoon we pulled in walleye after walleye, with a few bass, pike, rock bass and sauger in the mix. At roughly the 40-50 fish mark, our bodies needed a break from sitting in the boat and we headed back to the campsite to rest and eat dinner, so we could fish late into the evening.
We were back on the water by 6pm ready to climb towards that 100 mark. The fish were still biting-they didn’t skip a beat. As before every trip, I go crazy on YouTube and social media to see if there is any new information from my fellow BWCA canoe anglers on the area I will be visiting. One post by someone on Instagram who went the week before us kept popping back into my head, “Spent the week on Crooked, nonstop bite.”
The bite only intensified as it got closer to dusk and the piercing sun began to lessen its fiery grip on the day. As soon as that sun hit the tree line, the signal was out to all flying insects that it was safe to leave the cover of the forest, and we were quickly swarmed. We stuck it out until thirty minutes after sundown, but to our surprise, the walleye bite completely shut down. It is likely they went shallow with the disappearing sun, but we were beat from a 13+ hour day of fishing and decided it was a sign to head in and enjoy 2 of the plump 17” walleyes we had caught that evening for dinner with some Cache Lake fry pan bread.
What an improbable day – our instincts told us it was going to be a tough day with the weather not cooperating. Luckily, the moving water which was still close to 60 degrees at the surface kept the walleyes active. We ended up with 76 fish that day, 70 of which were walleye. We were not the least bit disappointed that we didn’t hit the 100 mark, as this was hands-down the best day of walleye fishing either of us had experienced. While I did land a large walleye that day that came in at a rough measurement of 22.5,” we estimate that 80% of our walleye were between 13 and 17 inches. “Oh, look…another 16-inch fish,” became our mantra that day. We again slept peacefully after an incredible day on the water.
While the first two days were marked by high temps and no wind, the last two days were exactly the opposite. Day three started out hot and stagnant, but by 10am, by the time we made it to another honey hole pointed out to us by Adam in the Outfitting Department at Piragis, the winds started to pick up and we decided we needed to start looking for a campsite ASAP. Against our instincts, we decided to give the honey hole another hour of attention and on back to back to back casts I landed an 18” smallmouth, a 19” smallmouth and a fat 10lb pike that would have measured between 34 and 36.” Thanks again for the tip, Adam!
I will always opt for ‘one more cast,’ but we paid for it on day three. For the next 4-5 hours, we paddled straight into the wind across Thursday, Friday and Saturday Bay until we finally found an open campsite on Sunday Bay that wasn’t totally exposed to the West/Northwest wind. Due to 30 mph gusts and 15 mph sustained, we did not go out in the boat until later in the evening. We did, however, have a campsite with a shoreline facing the wind, and we were able to catch some sizeable walleyes from shore! Jigging back towards the wind-blown shoreline, we caught 5- 6 more walleye very shallow, sometimes less than 10 feet from shore in 3-4 feet of water. This time the average size being slightly larger, probably 17” with the biggest being 21.”
That evening we ventured about a mile to the Northwest and fished around the large island in the middle of Sunday Bay. It was still too violent in the wind to fish the high-percentage areas (windblown shoreline on the north side) so we fished just barely out of the wind, casting into the choppy water along the edges of the island. It was tough fishing, we did not find the numbers, but again, the fish we did find were larger on average. This time of year, 17-22” walleyes put up an incredible fight on a lightweight jigging rod. We had a blast catching 2-3 of these each before heading back to our campsite for a very small campfire and a shore lunch dinner. Again, we slept great.
Day four was our exit date, but since I live in town, only about 20 minutes from the Mudro Entry Point, we had all day to casually paddle and portage our way back to the car. We had another 16 miles to paddle and 2.5 miles of portaging. We figured, once we got to the portage on the south side of Friday Bay, we would have a 5-6 hour trip back to the car, so we could afford to fish until 2 or 3 and still make it back before dark.
We decided to spend all our fishing energy for the day on Friday Bay, as that gave us the best chance of finally landing that trophy walleye. From 8am – 2pm we spent our time trolling and drifting our way back to the portage at the south end of Friday Bay. We had the most success fishing a series of rocky islands surrounded by a boulder field and steep drop-offs in 12 feet of water (offshore structure seemed to be holding the larger female walleyes who were likely looking for large meal to recover from spawning, moving water seemed to contain larger numbers of the smaller males). Again, the numbers weren’t there, but the average size was great. We caught another 15-20 fish, able to land a few after noon that we cleaned and packed out with us.
As we headed back towards civilization, we saw more and more people, culminating with us passing a group at every campsite on Boot and Fourtown Lakes. For someone looking to escape the crowds, I would totally recommend a trip to Crooked for most all experience levels. While we did end up traveling 40+ miles, portaging 4+ in addition to probably 10+ while fishing in a little less than four days, this was a relatively easy route I would highly recommend to anyone who loves good fishing and great campsites (not to mention river paddling, big water paddling native pictographs and Lower Basswood Falls). I would probably recommend at least 5 and ideally 7-8 days to enjoy Crooked and not feel rushed.
For its size, there are fewer campsites than you’d expect, due to its remote location and not needing to accommodate many visitors. The remote location will ensure the fishing will be world class indefinitely, as long as anglers remain responsible with their harvest. The trip ended with our official count being 155 fish in less than 4 days between two guys-which is more than we could have ever hoped for.
We didn’t keep track of individual species, guessing at least 120 of those were walleyes. Rainbow Shiners likely accounted for the largest total number of fish, but as I said before, anything we put in front of them seemed to be working. The largest remained the 22.5” fish I caught on day 2 on Wednesday Bay, although we did catch roughly 15 over 18 inches. Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish left for everyone, we only kept 8 walleyes total including the 4 we packed out on the last day, none were over 18.”
We didn’t set any new personal best records, which was the main goal of the trip, but that only makes us want to return that much more. I guess we’ll have to come back next year to continue our search.