During the peak of summer when shallow water fishing opportunities are limited I often take time to reflect on past fishing trips, look through photo albums, and contact old friends and family to relive some of our most memorable adventures on the water. Many include flashbacks of great fishing, trophies or unique experiences; however, many are of times when unexpected things happened. One reality of fishing trips is that sometimes things don’t go as planned and worse yet, sometimes the fish win. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a sense of humor so even though some of my adventures weren’t funny at the time, I can appreciate the humor in them now.
My first father-and-son trip to Canada with my son Eric comes to mind; our destination, Lake Nipigon in Ontario to the waters where the world record brook trout was caught. A five-pound brook trout for each of us was the goal and we were prepared to sort through three-and four-pounders to catch one. After months of planning and preparation, we met one of my deer-hunting friends who had fished Nipigon for many, many years and made the long drive to his favorite fish camp on the southeast corner of the lake to start our adventure. Whether it was fate, poor planning, or another reason we arrived much too early because the ice had just receded off the lake the previous week and water temperatures were slightly above freezing. After several days of fishing some incredibly scenic wilderness among eagles, bears, moose and icebergs the size of cars, we confirmed the brook trout hadn’t yet moved shallow and probably wouldn’t for the next several weeks. To say we were disappointed, as well as surprised, is an understatement. Fortunately we were catching a few nice northern pike, double-fortunately because we were counting on pike fillets to offset our low stock of food. Late in the week, our “guide” talked us into making a twenty-plus-mile run toward the middle of Lake Nipigon to an island that held a small lake where we might catch some large pike. After much prodding and assurances we wouldn’t die and never be found, we reluctantly agreed to make the trip. The next morning we loaded enough provisions in our sixteen-foot aluminum boat to keep us alive for several days and pushed away from the dock. I felt well prepared and confident until our friend reminded us it didn’t matter how well-prepared we were because if the boat sank we’d be dead in minutes and our bodies eaten by scavengers. After hearing that, I left indentations in the boat’s gunwale from holding on so tightly.
Lake Nipigon, often called the sixth great lake, is a huge oval-shaped body of water with many islands, reefs and bays. It’s the largest inland lake in Ontario, spanning about sixty-miles wide by more than eighty-miles long with a maximum depth of 540 feet and close to 180,000 surface acres. The only access roads on the southern portion of Nipigon are along the southeast corner and at an Indian Reservation on the southwest shore, a place we were warned would not welcome us because of some recent issues. We felt very alone that morning as we pulled from camp because seeing another boat after we left, or human being for that matter, was highly unlikely. It was a crisp, cold morning with thin ice scattered along the lake’s surface. The sound of breaking ice was deafening against the aluminum hull, though we were wrapped from head to toe in many layers of clothing and couldn’t hear well enough to converse anyway. Hand signals were our only means of communication and I was tempted to use one several times before we lost sight of camp. When we finally broke through the ice into open water I felt relieved, until the snow squall hit. It wasn’t heavy snow but was blinding, steady and stuck to everything in the frigid air until we looked like three snowmen sitting in a boat-shaped sled. Later as we approached a large island and idled down, we stood and layers of ice and snow fell from our bodies, snapping and tinkling as they piled at our feet. We approached a rock reef where a small stream emptied from the island into the lake, pulled up the outboard and used a paddle to slowly push the boat through openings in the rocks until we found deeper water. When depth increased we dropped the motor and slowly idled up the narrow, winding flow. We saw some nice pike dart by the boat as we maneuvered upstream and soon forgot the long hazardous ride. A half-mile later, the stream opened into a fifty- to sixty-acre lake and we scrambled to grab rods and start fishing. The pike fishing we experienced the next several hours was nothing short of incredible. Armed with spinning tackle, light line and minnow lures, we caught pike until we tired of catching them. We weighed the first dozen fish of various sizes until we could accurately judge their weight and started a running total of combined weight. In the next few hours, I’m sure we landed more than three-hundred pounds of northerns. We didn’t catch any giants but all caught fish in the teens including my largest; a beautiful forty-inch specimen weighing more than seventeen pounds. By the time we stopped fishing, we were covered with pike slime from handling so many fish. If you’ve never been coated with pike slime, in the middle of vast wilderness, with a guide of questionable sanity, in a small boat, with no hope of help if a problem develops, you simply haven’t lived. The long ride back to camp was no less hair-raising because while we massacred pike on that tiny sheltered lake a light northwest breeze on the main lake transformed into a stiff wind. We were fortunate because the swells hadn’t yet peaked in the ten-foot range, though frequent four-to five-footers made for a very uncomfortable and punishing ride. Fortunately, I already had a solid handhold formed in the boat’s gunwale so I could hold on. If Eric didn’t already have one, I’m sure he made one before we arrived back at camp. In forever, we arrived at camp without further incident. I never dreamed a lumpy mattress and the smell of half-burnt kerosene could feel so cozy and safe.
So Eric and I didn’t catch a single brook trout on our first trip together to Canada. Inquiries around camp confirmed the other anglers brave enough to try didn’t catch one either. However, that one day of pike fishing produced some special memories. The fact both of us had to see chiropractors for several months to have our spines realigned helped reinforce some of those memories. On a more positive note, we both lost a little excess weight during our trip and developed a greater appreciation for life, our families and the comforts of home. We stopped at a neighboring fish camp before heading home and learned there are some nice lake-side accommodations available if we ever return to Nipigon. We toured their facilities, limped through a couple cabins and agreed we would enjoy staying there our next trip because everything was well kept and the smell of kerosene noticeably absent. Lake Nipigon is a premier drive-to Canadian fishing destination with breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife, and tremendous fishing. If you decide to go, choose a reputable place to stay and plan to hire an experienced guide with references to get you started. Pack a camera, a good map, and emergency provisions and you too can make special wilderness memories.