I used to work at a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters. This is where my love for walleye fishing began. I love the outdoors and the four years I lived in northern Minnesota further cemented this passion for nature and especially fishing. While I was there, I learned a lot about the area and experienced what the Boundary Waters has to offer. I also learned quite a bit about the canoe outfitting business and what makes a good one.

Best Freshwater Fishing in the United States

The walleye fishing is world class, as is the smallmouth bass, northern pike and lake trout fishing. Because your time is precious, you will want to spend as much time fishing as you possibly can. And the best way to do that is to choose a canoe outfitter that can take care of all of the details to allow you to focus on the fishing.

A canoe outfitter can be a very valuable resource of services, knowledge and information, and the good ones will be able to give you fishing advice. Not only can they suggest lakes to target for specific species of fish, but also specific fishing spots on those lakes to focus your fishing efforts. You would be wise to connect with one of the many canoe outfitters that provide the canoe outfitting services to both the Boundary Waters and Quetico parks.

But how do you choose which canoe outfitter to outfit with?

The obvious questions you’ll think of first when determining which canoe outfitting business to utilize are the following three:

  1. Where are they located?
  2. Do they offer the services that you need?
  3. How much will it cost?

These questions will help narrow your search to some degree…but you should consider some not so obvious questions to further narrow down your search for the perfect BWCA canoe outfitter to meet your needs.

10 Questions to ask before reserving with a Boundary Waters canoe outfitter

How good is the canoe outfitter’s customer service?

Canoe outfitting in the Boundary Waters and Quetico is a service oriented business. In most cases, you aren’t paying for a physical product that you get to keep. Sure, you will most likely rent some equipment, but you have to return that at the end of the trip. The majority of what you’re paying for is the service the canoe outfitter provides to you to help you have a successful BWCA/Quetico canoe trip.

Pay attention to how you are treated and how thorough the canoe outfitter is in your preliminary talks. Customer service is one of the last true differentiators in business today, and it’s even more of a factor in a service business like canoe outfitting.

How well does the canoe outfitter pay attention to detail?

This piggy backs on the first question about customer service. The little details are generally what sets some canoe outfitters apart from the rest of the pack. You can generally get a good gauge as to how well their canoe outfitting business is run by how thorough and organized their website is and how quickly they respond to information requests. These are really the first two interactions you’ll have with a canoe outfitter unless you meet them at a sport show or are referred by a friend.

How organized is the canoe outfitter’s website?

In today’s age, this will make or break a canoe outfitter in their quest for the opportunity to provide you with their canoe outfitting services. Most people now have access to the Internet and are searching online for information about Boundary Waters vacations and outfitting services offered. If you can find what you’re looking for on a canoe outfitter’s website, chances are that organization and attention to detail will carry on into how thorough and organized they are in the operation of the canoe outfitting business.

Is their rental equipment of high quality?

This is a question you should ask when searching for an outfitter. The last place you want to be with equipment that isn’t up to par is out in the wilderness where you’re entirely dependent upon your equipment. Keep in mind, if you skimp on price, you’re most positively skimping on equipment quality as well…there is usually a solid correlation between the two in any operation, and that’s no different in canoe outfitting services. Weigh these options carefully before making a decision on canoe outfitters.

How flexible is the canoe outfitter?

What I mean by this is…how flexible will the canoe outfitter be when you have to add or reduce the number of people going on your trip? Or when you have to change dates for some unforeseen circumstance? What about if you have a tow boat pickup, and you need to get picked up sooner/later than expected? It would be good to find out in advance the options you have with a particular outfitter in the event of needing to change plans.

Ask them how they have dealt with some of these situations in the past in the event that things don’t go exactly as initially planned. If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that nothing is for certain, and this especially true on a Boundary Waters or Quetico canoe trip where there are many variables.

What is the canoe outfitter’s cancellation policy?

This goes along with the previous question. Canoe outfitter have a finite supply of rental equipment, and when you place a reservation, they have to set aside the necessary equipment for you. This prevents them from offering this equipment to other potential paddlers.

During particularly busy times of the year, more than likely the canoe outfitter has turned away business that was interested in renting the equipment that you have reserved. If you have to cancel a reservation for some reason, this puts a canoe outfitter in a difficult position. So rather than assuming you will get your money back, you should know in advance how your canoe outfitter that you choose to outfit your trip will handle refunds in the event you need to cancel a trip.

It’s common for outfitters to refund your reservation down payment entirely minus a $20 administrative fee or something similar to that. This is usually done during the slower times of the year, when they weren’t put out anything by loss of rental business. I’ve also seen outfitters refund part of the reservation down payment and then apply the other part of that down payment toward a trip later that year or the next year. It will generally depend on how busy the season is that you are cancelling a reservation for, and definitely how much lead time you give the canoe outfitter. If you give them two or three months to “re-rent” the equipment you cancelled, it is likely you may be refunded your entire down payment amount.

It all depends, but it is a good idea to understand the canoe outfitter’s cancellation policy prior to placing your down payment.

What type of trip planning resources does the canoe outfitter offer?

It will be smart of you to do some pre-trip planning to help prepare you for what you will encounter on your canoe trip. Some outfitters offer more in the way of these planning resources than others. Look for an Frequently Asked Questions page on their website. You may be interested in some potential canoe routes that will best suit your party.

Ask for a canoe trip packing list. What type of fish can you expect to catch? What about maps to help plan your trip and where you will go and which campsites to target. Ask the outfitter if they can suggest the best options that they would recommend. How freely the canoe outfitter is forthcoming with this type of information will either leave you feeling comfortable that they have your best interest at heart, or are just going through the motions.

Remember, you’re looking for the full service canoe outfitter that will take care of you before, during and after your canoe trip.

How willing is the canoe outfitter to share the local fishing “secrets”?

Try to see how much local information will be available to you once you reserve your canoe trip with a particular outfitter. The local knowledge of secret fishing lakes, hidden gorges or waterfalls, blueberry patches, etc. is information that not everyone is privy to. Canoe outfitters spend years acquiring this information from their own exploration and from customer conversations.

This info isn’t shared readily and freely, but as a paying customer, you should be able to get access to these secrets…kind of like your own backstage pass into the canoe outfitter knowledge database. A good canoe outfitter that cares about their customers’ experience and the success of their canoe trip will happily share this information. Does your canoe outfitter?

What do past customers have to say about the canoe outfitter?

Ask for a few references from a canoe outfitter that you can contact and speak to candidly about how well you can expect to be treated. Any quality canoe outfitter will gladly provide you with three or five past customers that would be willing to speak to you and give an account of their previous trips and experiences with a specific canoe outfitter. This information will go a long way to reassuring you that you have made the right choice and that your canoe outfitter will do everything they can to ensure you receive the best equipment, service and attention that you deserve.

Make sure you know what you’re paying for.

This really isn’t a question, but you should ask to know what you’re paying for and that there is no fine print that you’re missing. Beware of the nickel and dime operations. The package price may sound good, but you should make sure there is no catch. Most all canoe outfitters are good stand up operations, and you shouldn’t have any issues. But you won’t want to leave with a bad taste in your mouth because of a lack of communication or understanding.

When you request a quote during your search for a canoe outfitter, make sure to get the TOTAL price, and understand exactly what that includes. A good canoe outfitter will itemize the quote so that you can understand and make sure that everything is accounted for and that there are no surprises that you hadn’t anticipated or budgeted for. Fishing licenses, camping fees, rental equipment fees, food, lodging, parking, showers, etc. Make sure you understand what services are included. Beware of the nickel and dime. Five dollars a day for parking, Ten dollars for a shower, Two dollars for a paddle, etc. Depending on the pricing strategy of the canoe outfitter, some of these services may not be included. So make for sure you know what you’re paying for in advance to eliminate any false assumptions.

In other words, when you’re receiving canoe outfitting quotes during your search for a canoe outfitter, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. As long as the price is documented and you understand what you’re paying for, there will be no surprises. And don’t be shy, if you see a quote from an outfitter that is somewhat of an outlier (either high or low) compared to the other quotes you’ve received, ask them why their services are so much cheaper or more expensive. In general, the cheaper quotes will have a degree of “nickel and dime” costs added on to the end and the more expensive quotes will generally have all the little extras thrown in as part of the package deal. But it’s your job to find that out in advance.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park provide stunning scenery, fantastic fishing opportunities and a Northwoods experience unlike any other of its kind. Regardless of which park you decide to visit, and which area within that park you decide to travel, do your initial research and take into account the questions above to ensure you choose the best canoe outfitter available for you. Partner with that canoe outfitter (and tell them Johnse sent you) to make your next Boundary Waters or Quetico canoe trip a rousing success.

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