Welcome to Fish Camp: Canoe Camping 101

The best way to stay near the fish and away from the crowds.

If you want to spend your days and nights within casting distance of fish, canoe camping is the answer. During the day, you shift between the paddle and the rod. You sack out within mere steps of the pool where last night’s whitefly hatch and smallmouth bass roiled the water. In the morning, you can lay out a cast while the coffee perks. And canoe camping gives you a relatively quick ticket away from the hordes chained to the hardtop. Add a few intermediate-level skills, the ability to run moderate whitewater in a loaded boat or portage efficiently, and you’ll leave the average schmo in your wake.

Packing Up

Keeping gear dry is critical for canoe campers, and that means packing it all down to headlamps and hurricane lighters in dry bags. There are two schools of thought. If you pack gear in multiple smaller bags, it makes it easy to trim the boat for efficient traveling and you’ll be able to find small items without dumping out an 8,000-cubic-inch duffel. Or, if you load up gargantuan portage packs (the kind with brawny backpack straps), then gear-schlepping around obstacles and from the water to the campsite is as easy as hoisting the load. There’s also the middle ground: Pack big bags with smaller dry bags.

To keep it simple, divvy up the gear not by owner but by function: All the food and cooking tools go into one pack. Another holds all the domestic goods: tent, tarp, sleeping pads and bags, and similar items. Add a personal gear bag for each paddler, and that makes for an easily portaged load of four packs per boat. (If you use bags with shoulder straps, you can carry two large packs at a time: Put one on your back, then bear-hug the other with the harness facing your chest, and slip your arms through the straps.) Once at the campsite, one paddler sets up house, while the other arranges the kitchen and fire.

The Perfect Site

Look for a sandbar, a sandy river-bend beach, or the upstream or downstream ends of an island. Each likely offers flat spots for tents, superb views, and plenty of room to spread out. Driftwood provides a renewable source of fire fuel. Sparse vegetation holds down biting insects, too. In many states, all land below the normal high-water mark is public, so you won’t have to have landowner permission in hand. Just be vigilant to minimize your impact on such obvious, and popular, sites. If no fire ring is evident, use a fire pan or build the fire below the high-water mark.

For anglers camped on a sandbar or island, the fishing doesn’t get much better than right outside the tent door. River bends and islands create eddy lines and strong current seams, perfect habitat for trout, salmon, striped bass, and shad. Strong downstream eddies also carve deep holes patrolled by big catfish and pike. You’ll need to monitor river levels, though, and have an escape plan in mind in case the water starts to rise.

Essential Gear

Souris River Quetico 16 Canoe You don’t have to paddle or pick up a 75-pound boat. This Canadian canoe maker uses a proprietary epoxy-based resin and flexible floor ribs to produce a superlight (42 pounds in Kevlar) boat that is worlds beyond what you paddled in summer camp. It’s seaworthy enough to haul camping gear for two, brawny enough to not crack up on the first rock, and nimble enough to paddle solo.

Watershed Dry Bags Instead of the familiar roll-top closure, these tough-as-nails dry bags use an industrial-strength zipper lock: Think of a freezer sack amped to Navy Seals proportions. There are tons of shapes and sizes, and they all come in camouflage.

Spro Stowaway Net This telescoping net has a collapsible frame for a small profile, an automatically locking hinge for easy one-handed use, and a carbon-graphite handle that extends from 16 to 42 inches. The nonrigid Y-shaped mouth is easier to slip under spooky fish than a wraparound style.

Where to Go

Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania A recently established canoe trail along 24 miles of the famous smallmouth bass stream identifies islands for public camping. The late summer whitefly hatch puts bronzebacks in a frenzy.

Wabakimi Provincial Park****, Ontario One of North America’s largest canoeing parks, Wabakimi’s 2.5 million acres of boreal wilderness are latticed with rivers and streams and uncountable lakes. Pike and walleyes abound.

Adirondack Park, New York The park’s St. Regis Canoe Area sets aside 18,000 acres and more than 50 ponds just for paddlers. There is superb brook trout fishing.

Suwanee River, Florida Sandy beaches, Spanish moss, cypress swamps, catfish, bass, and alligators big enough to swallow your boat: It’s as classic a Southern float as you’ll find.

Jefferson River, Montana Lesser known than its two source streams, the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers, the Jefferson, with its lack of rapids, is a great choice for canoe casters. The action is mostly for brown trout, and trophy fish are not uncommon.

Roanoke River, North Carolina The spring spawning runs of hickory shad and striped bass in the Roanoke are phenomenal—it’s no big thing to put 75 fish in the boat between sunrise and sunset. A series of canoe camping platforms opens up miles of wilderness backwaters.

Photograph courtesy of Ravi Pinisetti