As 'Plan B' fishing trips go, they don't come much bigger than Lake Superior and Isle Royale
Picking a date on the calendar in hopes of navigating Lake Superior in a 20-foot boat is a roll of the dice, to be sure, but we couldn’t have asked for better conditions as we headed for the massive island that was visible on the hazy horizon.
ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK, Mich. – Lake Superior was showing its gentle side as three of us headed east from the marina in Grand Portage, Minn., on a recent Saturday morning for the 18-mile boat ride to Isle Royale National Park.
Picking a date on the calendar in hopes of navigating Lake Superior in a 20-foot boat is a roll of the dice, to be sure, but we couldn’t have asked for better conditions as we boated toward the massive island that was visible on the hazy horizon.
There would be no whitecaps, no motion sickness-inducing rollers, to contend with on this day. Only a light ripple of waves.
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That would be the story throughout most of the six days and nights we would spend at Isle Royale National Park, camping on islands, staying in sturdy, three-sided wooden shelters with screened-in fronts and probing Superior’s depths for lake trout.
We saw moose, marveled at Superior’s gin-clear waters and enjoyed northern sunsets that were somewhat eerie, at times, because of the smoke from Canadian forest fires that filled the air every day.
The big lake they call Gitche Gumee treated us well.
Months in the planning, our trip to Isle Royale was a Plan B, of sorts, to replace an Ontario fly-in fishing trip that had been rescheduled yet again because of the U.S.-Canada border closure to nonessential travel.
The Canada fly-in trip, originally on the books for 2020, now is rescheduled for 2022, but as Plan B’s go, they don’t come much bigger than Lake Superior and Isle Royale.
About Isle Royale
Covering more than 45 miles from southwest to northeast and 9 miles wide at its widest, Isle Royale National Park and its complex of some 400 smaller islands was established as a national park in April 1940 by President Franklin Roosevelt and was designated as a wilderness area in 1976, providing additional protection from development, according to the National Park Service.
Isle Royale is the largest island on Lake Superior, and the boundaries of the national park extend 4½ miles from shore into Michigan waters.
Mining and commercial fishing were important industries historically, and remnants of that history can be found throughout the national park.
The Windigo Visitor Center at the southwest corner of the park and the Rock Harbor Visitor Center on the northeast side of Isle Royale are the two developed areas, with camp stores, showers and other amenities. They serve as arrival and departure points for the ferries that shuttle campers, backcountry hikers and paddlers from Grand Portage and the Michigan communities of Houghton and Copper Harbor.
We spent our time in the Windigo area – the closest access point to Grand Portage – where the three-night camping limitation required us to change campsites midweek, first at Beaver Island and then at Grace Island, both in Washington Harbor.
Veterans to newbies
Two of us had been to Isle Royale before, the youngest eight times on backcountry hiking excursions that saw him camp and hike “every inch on every trail possible” from one end of the island to the other over trips lasting 10 days or so.
Fishing the waters of Isle Royale on his ninth trip to the island was a new experience for him, but his experience with park permit protocol served us well. He purchased all of our necessary camping and boating permits online well before the trip, saving us the time and inconvenience of having to buy our permits at the visitor center upon arrival.
More time wrangling lake trout and less time wrangling paperwork is always a good thing in my world.
I had been to Isle Royale twice – in 1993 and 1994 – as part of a crew that made the 7-hour drive from Grand Forks to Grand Portage for weekend fishing trips. We’d arrive on a Friday night, board a charter fishing boat for the trout-filled waters near Isle Royale the next morning and fish all day. We then would spend Saturday night in camping shelters near Windigo and fish part of the day Sunday before boating back to Grand Portage and hitting the road for the long drive home.
We caught plenty of lake trout both times, but I cringe today at the memory of making such marathon trips in a single weekend. Six full nights was a much more relaxing option.
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The captain of our boat was the newbie on this year’s trip to Isle Royale. No stranger to big water, he’d fished halibut, salmon and rockfish off the coast of Alaska on three occasions, but Superior was a first for him.
He’ll have to travel a long way to find bigger water to launch his new boat, a Yar-Craft 209 powered by a 250-horsepower Suzuki outboard.
As he said our last night in camp:
“When you head east out of Grand Portage and you’re halfway across, you better know where you’re going and what you’re doing. That part is a little bit of anxiety, knowing you’re responsible for three lives, but I think we did it right.
“We went when the crossing was as smooth as you could imagine.”
About the fishing
All of the boats we saw during our stay – and there weren’t many – trolled with downriggers, planer boards and other big-water gear, but we probed the depths with large jigs and fished vertically.
Michigan regulations allow anglers to fish with three lines, which gives trollers another advantage, but the feeling of a lake trout slamming a jig in Superior’s clear depths was worth the disadvantage of only fishing one line.
We had our best luck targeting drop-offs in 60 to 75 feet of water near submerged structure, such as Finlander Reef and smaller reefs closer to camp.
In typical fashion with this crew of friends, fishing days started at the “crack of 10” after morning coffee and wrapped up about 5 p.m. for happy hour back at camp. Evening meals ranged from steak with garlic mashed potatoes, and pork loin with rice and spicy port sauce, to grilled lake trout with a honey glaze, spicy lake trout tacos and lake trout linguine.
My fishing partners handled the chef duties; I washed the dishes.
We landed six to eight lake trout a day, mostly of the perfect “keeper” size, and lost our share of others that shook the lure before we got them to the surface. Full days of harder fishing likely would have produced a dozen to 15 lake trout or better.
Considering we didn’t have any intel to go on other than our experience jig-fishing lake trout in Canada, we did just fine – even though we didn’t find the best fishing spot of the trip until the last two hours of our final afternoon.
That can only mean one thing: We’ll have to go back.
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IF YOU GO
Isle Royale National Park, located in the Michigan waters of Lake Superior, is only accessible by ferry, private boat or floatplane.
More info on ferry services is available at https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/ferry-transportation-services.htm .
Isle Royale Seaplanes offers daily floatplane service between Hancock, Mich., and Grand Marais, Minn., to Windigo and Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. Info: https://www.isleroyaleseaplanes.com.
There’s a $7 daily fee to enter or remain within Isle Royale National Park.
A better option, especially for longer stays, is an I sle Royale Season Pass , which costs $60 and covers up to three adults traveling with the pass holder – four adults total – and is good for the entire park season from April 16 through Oct. 31. Passes are not required for park visitors 15 and younger.
The Isle Royale Season Pass also covers private boaters, who are required to have a permit onboard if fishing or boating within 4½ miles of Isle Royale
Federal Recreation Passes, which include annual, military, senior, access and volunteer passes, also are honored and cover the holder of the pass and three additional adults.
The preferred option for purchasing passes to Isle Royale and other national parks is online at www.pay.gov . The least preferred – and most time-consuming – option is in person upon arrival at the Rock Harbor or Windigo visitor centers.
A permit is required for boaters who stay overnight in campgrounds, at dock or at anchor within park boundaries. Permits can be obtained by calling (906) 482-0984.
Isle Royale National Park drew 26,410 visitors in 2019, a number that declined to 6,493 in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May 2021, the most recent month for which this year’s statistics are available, 847 people visited Isle Royale, compared with only 26 people in May 2020. Numbers for this year to date likely have risen exponentially since May.
More info: nps.gov/isro.
– Forum News Service