Planning a Whitetail Hunt in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
If you are anything like me you are itching to get back into the woods and rivers and mountains as soon as safely possible. Assuming all goes well, I have plans to fly fish in Idaho, and backpack/fly fish in Wyoming this summer as well as Elk hunt in Montana in the fall. For me half the fun of a trip like these is the planning, because it lets you extend the experience.
And while I truly enjoy this part of the adventure it can be daunting as well. I reached out to my friend, Josh Hillyard, to share some insights on planning an out-of-state hunting/fishing trip based on his experience last fall chasing Whitetail in the Boundary Waters with three of his buddies.
Here are his tips:
Where do I even start? Why did I volunteer to take the lead on planning this trip? Maybe I should start looking at this more tomorrow? These were just a few of the thoughts that went through my head as I sat down at my computer and was looking at a map of 1.1 million acres of public lands that comprise the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in Northern Minnesota. It was a daunting task, to say the least, as to how to breakdown these maps and find a few areas to focus on for our upcoming adventure.
Myself and three other buddies were planning a week long venture into the BWCA in mid-October to hunt white-tailed deer. None of us had ever stepped foot into this specific wilderness and we were not exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into. We all have had various experiences in the backcountry and have been on several trips together in the past. This, however, was an entirely new experience. We were loading up canoes with a weeks’ worth of gear and paddling off the grid to hunt whitetails in an interconnected system of lakes, rivers, streams and dense forest.
I am going to take you on through the steps we took to plan this trip.
Research State Regulations and Tag Structure
This section could be an article entirely of its own. Whenever you are deciding to plan an out-of-state hunt, you need to do your research. Not just on the game you are pursing but the regulations and tag structures of the state you would like to visit. Regulations, licenses needed, and how you acquire them change from state to state.
In many states, non-residents may be required to apply for limited quotas of licenses that are allocated for non-residents. Luckily, archery tags in Minnesota are over the counter for this area. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we stopped at a Wal-Mart off the interstate and purchased our tags. It was easy as walking up to the sporting goods counter, presenting the needed documentation, and purchasing our tags (along with a bunch of other stuff we probably didn’t need). I should also mention we picked up fishing licenses and one person in our group also bought a small game license. Piece of cake! We were also given a pamphlet with the game and fish regulations to read through.
I had spent several hours reading through the regulations online before our trip so I was well aware of them. We did, however, take some time as a group during our drive to go through them once more to make sure we were all on the same page. You never want to put yourself into a situation where you are unknowingly breaking the law and leave yourself open to punishment. I know, I know, reading every page of the regulation book is BORING! But trust me on this one, make sure you do it. You won’t regret making sure you are well aware of the game laws. As an example, during the time we would be bowhunting, there was also a youth firearms season happening. The regulations stated that we needed to be wearing blaze orange during these specific dates in our trip. Just one small example, but doing the right thing and following the law is our responsibility as sports men and women. It’s also important to understand what animals your tag is good for. In this region, we could use our archery tag on any deer (antlered buck or antlerless).
On this trip, we also needed to make sure we were following the rules and regulations of the wilderness area. Areas that are designated as Wilderness typically have special regulations you need to follow. For the BWCA, you need to have permits to enter the specific entry point you will be launching from. Based on the time of year we were going, permits were all first come first serve, but during different times of the year, you are required to apply for permits for which entry point into the wilderness you are planning on using.
It’s as simple as this, make sure you buy the right license and make sure you know and follow the rules. Ok, before I lose anyone with all this talk about regulations, let’s move on.
Collect Local Intel
1.1 million acres. That’s a HUGE area! When looking at the satellite imagery on maps, much of it looks the same. Dense forest, marsh, streams, rivers, and lakes. Deer could live anywhere or nowhere. Before I started getting too far invested in certain areas, I wanted to focus on what looked promising from the maps. I needed to collect some local intel. When looking to hunt any new state, collecting as much information as possible can be the difference between an enjoyable experience or never wanting to step foot in that state again. There are many different sportsmen’s groups, professionals, state agency biologists, etc. that can be a wealth of information. Just make sure you do a little research before contacting these people. It can go a long way in gaining valuable information.
The BWCA has been a hot topic of discussion lately. In particular, there is a proposed copper-nickel mining operation that is being discussed just outside of the boarders of BWCA, but at the headwaters of the watershed. This could potentially lead to catastrophic damage to the BWCA. You can read more about that HERE. The good news is, there is a sportsmen’s group advocating for the BWCA, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters (SFBW). I have heard a few of their leaders on various podcasts and have seen articles they have written. I thought a couple of these individuals could be a great resource to get us pointed in the right direction. I did a little digging and was able to get connected with Lukas Leaf and Spencer Shaver, the Executive Director and Conservation Director respectively, for the SFBW. Both have spent a considerable amount of time in the wilderness and are very well connected with the local community. These guys were ultimately able to get me the info for a few people in the area I needed to get a hold of about deer hunting the BWCA.
One of these individuals that I spoke with was a local biologist for the Minnesota DNR. He provided information that was invaluable! Initially we were looking to spend the majority of our time in one portion of the wilderness. After speaking with this individual, it was evident that we needed to go in a different direction. Through aerial surveys the state agency does in the area for moose, the part of the wilderness we were looking to hunt in had close to zero deer per square mile! He offered up some other areas where deer populations were better. And when I say better, better for the wilderness of Northern Minnesota. The rough estimates he gave me were 2-4 deer per square mile! Much different than what most of our group was used to in southern Michigan where we do the majority of our deer hunting. But we were at least on the right track now.
I also spoke to several other people who have done a fair amount of hunting for whitetails in the BWCA and have had quite a bit of success. The intel I received from them had several areas that overlapped with what the state biologist had offered up. These individuals were a big help in providing general information that we could use. It was very refreshing to talk deer hunting a new area with people who were more than happy and excited to talk about deer hunting in the BWCA. Many times, it can be like trying to crack the DaVinci code getting information from other hunters. With these areas marked on my maps, I began to dive in deeper to these 5 key areas.
My biggest take-a-way from these discussions was to make sure our group was setting the proper expectations. It was evident that this was going to be a very difficult hunt in terms of finding deer and ultimately killing a deer with archery equipment. We knew going in that it was going to be tough hunting, but we were going to have a good time regardless.
Have Plan A, B, C, and D
Any time you are hunting public land, it is common knowledge to have a backup plan if your top spot ends up not working out. Based on my prior discussions, I now had 5 or so spots that would be our general focus as we continued to plan for the trip.
When you think of your only mode of transportation being a canoe, access is top of mind when looking at these different areas. We were able to cross off one of these spots from our plan just based on the amount of time we had and how long it could potentially take us to canoe to these areas. There are several resources available online to help you determine entry points and how long it may take you to paddle and portage (carry all your gear and canoes over land to the next spot to launch your canoe) to different areas. The website I used the most for this type of info was BWCA.com. They have a ton of great info and tips for planning your canoe trip.
I was able to rank our remaining areas based on ease of access, hunting potential, fishing potential, and the number of campsites in that general area. You are only allowed to camp at designated campsites in the BWCA so it is something to consider. Luckily, in mid-October, we were not expecting to see too many people. I had potential camp spots picked out at each of these areas based on which side of the lake they were on, how we thought that area would hunt with the prevailing winds, ability to get to these different hunting spots from our campsites, etc. We were ready to go!
We showed up at the Canoe Outfitter to pick up our gear (more on this in the next sections). We were running behind, as usual with this crew, from our 12+ hour drive. It proved to be a blessing though that we were late. As we were talking with the outfitter about where we planned on going, another group showed up. They overheard what our plans were and they shared with us they were planning to head to the same entry point and were going to be mountain biking around some of the trails in that general area. It was on to plan B for us. We talked to the outfitter about our other idea and he actually recommended we don’t go in quite as far given how much stuff we were heading in with. So, plan B was modified. We had a short canoe trip from our entry point and then had really good access to get to several other areas via canoe.
Even in a wilderness area as big as the BWCA, there is still a chance you will run into other people and need to alter your plans. Again, hunting public land nearly always requires having a back-up plan, and most likely several different plans.
Choosing a Canoe Outfitter (if needed)
There are hundreds of outfitters to choose from when looking to embark on a trip into the BWCA. I’m sure many of them are great and very reputable. A simple Google search for “BWCA Canoe Outfitters” turned up 111,000 results. So, there are plenty of resources out there to help you narrow down your search. Just make sure you pick an outfitter that services the entry points you plan on using. As I found through my research, not all of the outfitters cover the entire wilderness. What is great about the majority of these canoe outfitters, they make a trip into the wilderness possible for nearly anyone. You can typically rent pretty much anything you need from these places. Some even offer fully guided trips where they send you off with everything you need for your trip, including food! Or, like in our case, you can rent what you need a-la-carte.
I will give you my unsolicited recommendation: Piragis Northwoods Company! Piragis Northwoods Company is located in the small town of Ely, MN. These guys and gals were absolutely top notch to work with! We were able to get everything that we needed from them to make our trip as comfortable as possible. Kevlar canoes, paddles, life jackets, a wall tent and a wood stove (mid-late October in Northern MN can get cold), portage bags, paper maps and more. They also have a store where you can stock up on any last-minute items you forgot like back country meals, fishing supplies, GPS units, survival kits, souvenirs after your trip, etc. You name it, they probably have it. I’d talked with them several times leading up to our trip and they were a big help in letting us know what gear would be useful and what we could leave behind. They were also a big help in finalizing our route and giving us some solid fishing recommendations for the lakes we would be near. Most importantly, the gave a couple of outstanding recommendations for our final meal before heading into the wilderness and the always important and anticipated exit meal from a trip! If you plan to head to the BWCA for any type of trip, you need to look these folks up.
Regardless of who you choose for your trip, just make sure you do research and pick the outfitter that will work best for your needs.
I will give you a quick rundown of what we brought along with us as a group outside of your typical hunting gear. I had a hard time finding any resources for gear that would be helpful for this type of hunt. It was pretty easy to find a plethora of info on what to bring for camping and fishing, but not so much for archery hunting. I would highly recommend planning as a group where not everyone is bringing the same thing. For many items, we were fine with just 1 or 2 and did not need to bring 4. This can really help cut down on weight and clutter when you only have a canoe to pack in. I will also let you know what NOT to bring, at least from our experience. Keep in mind, this was for an archery whitetail deer hunt towards the end of October. There were 4 of us on the trip and 3 of us were hunting.
What we Brought:
- Camo/Clothes - We opted for more of a “western” type approach to our camo for this trip. Good base layers and a layering approach to our camo systems were a good option for this trip. We figured much of our hunting would be “still hunting” and not sitting in a tree stand/saddle for hours on end. A good packable puffy jacket was also a valuable layer to have for those frosty mornings by the lake.
- Rain Gear – This is a must! The BWCA is a WET area by nature. Having quality rain gear can be a life saver.
- Rubber Boots & Hiking Boots – Rubber boots were really a must on this trip. When you are getting in and out of your canoe non-stop, the water is oven shin deep and would go over a pair of hiking boots every time. There was also a lot of mud and mucky areas where we were hunting that the rubber boots performed well in. We also all used hiking boots as we did quite a bit of hiking around in search of deer sign. One of the guys had hip waders which were a nice option, but the knee-high rubber boots were more than sufficient.
- Backpack – We used larger packs like we would on a western hunt and were able to pack a weeks’ worth of gear and food into. We were also able use them as day packs. You will be making portages with your canoes, some of them long, so you want to have to make as few trips as possible. Having a backpack that could handle a bunch of gear was a great option.
- Small .410 Shotgun – My buddy, Andy, brought along a small .410 that was able to be broken down into 2 pieces. He purchased his small game license and was able to provide several grouse to our menu! If I could go back and do this again, I would in a second. There were ample opportunities at grouse on this trip and it would have been great to have some more meat in camp.
- Dry Bags – Anytime you are on the water these are great to keep valuables, licenses, maps, phones, etc. dry in the event your pack gets wet, or worse yet, tip your canoe.
- Packable Fishing Rod – we all had a small fishing rod that could be broken down into 3 or 4 pieces and was able to be stored on the side of our backpack. We fished A LOT and often just had a line in the water when we were paddling from one spot to the next. We couldn’t go into the BWCA and not fish!
Items we DIDN’T Need:
- Tree Saddle & Climbing Sticks – If we could go back and do this again, we would have left these in the truck. We didn’t use them once. There were plenty of trees to use them in, but that style of hunting just didn’t work for us on this trip. We were going to have to go find some deer and not wait for them to come to us. We took 2 saddles and 2 sets of climbing sticks between all of us. All they did was take up space and weigh our canoes down.
- Insulated Camo Bibs – I brought a pair of these along and did not use them once. They just took up space in pack and were added weight.
- Wall Tent/Stove – I hate to list this here because it was one of the highlights of the trip. It was awesome to have a big tent that we were able to heat and stay warm. We had plenty of room for our gear and were able to dry out wet clothes and boots. However, we could have done this trip with just our small backpacking tents. The wall tent and stove were also heavy and took up quite bit of room in our canoes. We may have been more willing to venture further into the wilderness to camp if we didn’t have these items to lug around. This was a splurge item for us, but we could have survived without it.
I’m an over packer by nature as I always like to be prepared as possible. So, I’m sure there are a few more items we brought that we could have done without. You live and you learn. Your canoe outfitter, as well as anyone you have spoken to with experience in the BWCA will also be able to help you refine your gear list. Again, the great thing about using one of the canoe outfitters, you can most likely rent any items you don’t want to buy.
Go Hunt the BWCA!
I hope this serves as a useful tool for you if you ever decide to plan a whitetail hunt in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area! Believe it or not, we actually did run into a couple of other bowhunters on our trip. So, I know there may be a few others out there who would want to make this epic hunt a reality.
I also hope you read up and become familiar with some of the challenges this area faces that could significantly impact the landscape of the BWCA. It is a remarkable place and I hope to make it back someday and find it just as I left it in the fall of 2019.
Ultimately, we did not harvest a deer on this trip and truthfully only 2 of us even saw a deer on the trip (not me). Even the fishing was a bit slow. But that didn’t matter. This was one of the most memorable out-of-state hunts I have ever been on. It was an experience like no other trip I have gone on and I would do it all over again.
Take a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, whether it be for a hunting trip or just for fun. I promise you that you will not regret it!
Josh lives in Brighton, MI with his wife, Kelly and young son, Wade. He grew up in West Michigan fishing and camping and started hunting in his early 20’s. Josh is now an avid whitetail hunter and has dedicated his career to conservation as the Regional Director for the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). He has hunted whitetails on small public and private parcels in the metro Detroit area, cedar swamps of northern Michigan, in the Boundary Waters Canoe area, the badlands of North Dakota, and elk in Idaho. In the spring, he enjoys shed hunting with his dog, a chocolate lab, and turkey hunting. He hits the Manistee River any chance he gets to do a little fly fishing and loves to fish the inland lakes of northern Michigan where his family has a cabin. When he is not hunting or fishing, he enjoys hiking and camping with his family.
Since Josh began hunting later in life, it fuels his passion to get others involved in the outdoors. He loves to mentor new hunters and introduce them to all hunting has to offer. He makes it a point to get someone new out each year and he hopes you do as well. It’s the only way our hunting heritage will continue on for the next generation of hunters and conservationists.
The pictures in this article were taken by Charlie Williams. You can find more of his work on his Instagram page @_charliewilliams.