Where you won’t catch the largest smallmouth of your life.
By Jim Low
“There is no Sunday Bay,” intoned Tim Mead as he loaded the last huge pack into a Kevlar rental canoe. “If there is a Sunday Bay, it has no fish. If it does have fish, they won’t bite, and if they do bite, they are all small.”
He turned and looked expectantly at the rest of his party. The three of us nodded in solemn agreement and off we went.
Having been here every summer for the past 30 years, Tim took the stern seat in the lead canoe, a compass and a detailed map of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park perched on the gear in front of him.
For the first hour and half of paddling, we occasionally heard and saw a motor boat near the American shore to our south. Then we rounded a spruce-clad point, and the motorized world disappeared.
For the next two days, the only human voices, or other sounds of civilization, we would hear were our own voices and the hiss of a Jetboil stove.
We would be serenaded by loons and challenged by eagles.
We would receive multiple visits from a large and determined snapping turtle bent on laying eggs and we would catch more 3- to 5-pound bass than I ever imagined possible.
We would sleep on the ground, sip tea laced with plum brandy and fall so deeply under the spell of the Canadian boundary waters that going home would hurt.
Technically, our journey began with an 8-mile lift via johnboat to Prairie Portage, on the U.S.-Canadian border. The real adventure commenced after we checked in at the Canadian customs office and launched our two canoes into sprawling Basswood Lake.
Having read Tim’s book, Quetico Adventures, I had a good idea what to expect during our five-day trip. I was prepared for coolish weather (nighttime lows in the 40s), rain, mosquito swarms and living on dehydrated food. I thought I was prepared to encounter amazing fishing, but when the first 20-inch bronzeback darted from the depths to make a pass at my surface plug, all my mental fuses blew.
Before I knew what I was doing, I jerked the plug out of the water and shouted. Well, I shouted something I hoped my paddling partner, Mike Quinn, wouldn’t hold against me. I assume he heard worse during his years in the Navy, but what my swearing lacked in creativity, it made up for with awestruck intensity.
In 50-plus years of chasing smallmouths in Missouri, I had never seen one close to that big. In the next half hour, Mike and I landed or hooked and got good looks at the five biggest smallmouths I had ever seen in person. And we were only an hour into the first day of fishing!
Over the following four days, we caught bass until our arms ached. Tim caught one largemouth bass whose mouth could comfortably accommodated a softball. He estimated its weight around 8 pounds, not a monster by Southern standards, but not bad for a fish species living outside its original native range and competing with fish their ancestors never had to contend with.
These included northern pike between two and three feet long and smallmouth bass that would have sent their Show-Me State kin dashing for cover. Boundary Waters smallies aren’t just long; they are built like defensive tackles, and they fight like demons, alternately burrowing toward the bottom and executing head-shaking jumps that would do a tarpon proud.
The smallmouth bass here bit with equal verve on everything from plastic grubs to Zara Spooks.
They bit at high noon, and at dusk, and at dawn.
In the past, I sometimes wondered if I might one day grow tired of catching smallmouths. That worry has been laid to rest. Apparently, my limitless capacity for enjoying smallmouths is actually limitless.
The real test came on the last day, when we reached a place that definitely is not Sunday Bay. Mike and I both were stiff from several hours in the canoe, so we hauled out on a rocky point to stretch. On the leeward side of the point was a large bay with a level bottom of basketball-sized rocks in 7 to 10 feet of clear water. As we stood savoring the view and the rest, fish began to feed at the surface. There were no violent strikes, just small pops followed by large swirls.
Just moments earlier, I had told Mike that I’d caught enough bass for one day. Seeing dozens of swirls changed my mind. I tied on a big, black buzzbait and threw it a little beyond the last swirl. It had barely begun to churn the surface when it disappeared like a surprised swimmer snatched by a great white shark.
When I reared back on my rod, it was difficult to believe I wasn’t stuck fast on a 100-pound log. But then the drag on my reel sang and the fun commenced. Tim and his partner, Phil Bloom, soon joined us, and we all had about 20 minutes of nonstop action before the bite abruptly ended.
As we stowed our fishing gear and began paddling for Prairie Portage and our ride back to United States soil, Tim called out, “There is no Sunday Bay.”
“If there is a Sunday Bay,” we answered in unison, “there are no fish.”