Backcountry Canadian Pike
Part 1 - Making plans.
It was March of 2016 and I was working on plans for a fishing trip to Canada with my dad and youngest son. This year it would be different. We were on our own.
Let me explain...
The previous year my son and I got invited on a late-spring fishing trip to Ontario Canada with one of his football buddies and father. The trip took us to a spot that they had fished regularly with a lot of success. They knew the area and they knew the backcountry roads and the mazes of hidden lakes and rivers that held big fish. Pike specifically. That year had been incredible, bringing hundreds of fish to the boat, some smaller but a few well over the 40 inch mark. We were eager to go back. We made our plans, but a variety of unfortunate circumstances converged that prevented our friends from going.
I was left with a dilemma in the form of a 13-year old fishing savant who was about to have his birthday dreams crushed. And I won’t lie, I wanted to go too. Trouble was that I was lacking an appropriate boat and honestly lacking the confidence that I could find, and then safely navigate, the waters that were virgin ground to me just last year.
I made a quick call to my dad, who was recently retired, always up for adventure and just so happened to have an appropriate boat. The conversation lasted all of two minutes – he took far less convincing than I had secretly hoped for. We were committed. I was excited and more than a little nervous.
Our drive would take us up through the heart of lower Michigan, across the Mackinaw Bridge and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where we would cross into Canada via the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie. From there we had another 3 hours, following the scenic Trans-Canada Highway (ON-17) over rivers and along Lake Superior up to a simple cabin we had rented between the towns of Wawa and White River.
When we fished last year we used this same cabin as base camp. We’d eat an early breakfast and then head out on the miles of backcountry roads, boat and motor in the bed of our firend's truck, and carry the boat in when we got to our spot. We’d fish all morning, enjoy a shore lunch – typically freshly caught Pike – fish til nearly dark and then head back to camp for dinner. It worked really well.
But this year I wanted to add a wrinkle. I wanted to camp overnight at least once on an island I had spotted on one of the more difficult-to-get-to and highly-productive lakes from last year’s lineup. This would allow more time fishing, ensure we only had to run the water maze, which included shooting rapids and wrong-turn waterfalls, once and be another adventure for the journal. This is fairly wild country, loaded with moose, bear and wolves. Before I went too far, I needed to make sure my dad and son were both cool with the new plan. Once again, both agreed more quickly than I had, perhaps, hoped for.
Part 2 - Trapper Cabin
We met up and left home in the wee hours of the morning and arrived at camp around 1 PM. Despite the lack of sleep, we were fully charged with anticipation and headed out to explore as quickly as possible, knowing that we had a shortened day.
I wanted to return to a smaller lake we fished the year before known simply to us as “Trapper Cabin” for the old, appropriately time-and-element-weathered cabin that sat high on the southwest shoreline. This lake is tucked way back into the wilderness, accessible only through a dizzying spider web of two-tracks, which lead to smaller two-tracks, which lead to what can be best described as fold-in-the-mirrors trails and then a long haul from where you can park down to the lake. I elected to leave the boat behind. First, I wasn’t even sure I could find the damn place. Second I WAS sure I didn’t want to try while dragging a boat trailer behind me. Third, I certainly didn’t want to try to carry the boat down to the lake with my aging body supported by my 13-year-old son and recently-retired father.
We were able to locate the lake. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. My son, who is not able to remember to put on deodorant on a daily basis without being reminded, was somehow able to navigate us through backcountry roads, two-tracks and switchbacks directly to this tiny hidden lake that he had been to exactly one time before, miles from anything vaguely resembling civilization, by memory. I was dumbfounded. Happy, but truly and utterly dumbfounded. It was a fishing miracle. One of many we would encounter on this trip.
We grabbed our gear and began to explore on foot. And that was when I began to realize that I had grossly underestimated the true ruggedness of the Canadian landscape. We trudged through wetlands and tangles of densely-packed cedars, over hills, and through thickets of face-scratching, clothes-tearing prickers, all the while dodging the droppings of both moose and bear until we FINALLY reached a point on the lake that provided some small access to an area we could cast from shore. We were hot, sweaty, scratched, tired, bug bitten and grinning from ear to ear.
Junior’s second cast with his Johnson Silver Minnow had him hooked up with a decent Northern that he managed to wrangle to the shore and quickly release amidst violent head-shakes. It was on. This is what we had come for. One thing I can say about my family is this: we are competitive. After about the 5th or 6th fish for the boy, with no answer in sight from either myself or his grandfather, the trash talk began in earnest and I started to wonder if the success I had experienced last year was truly a case of beginner’s luck. I could foresee the rest of my trip consisting of being routinely out-navigated, out-fished and in no uncertain terms told about it by this grinning 13-year-old boy whose neck I desperately wanted to wring.
Eventually we all got into some good fish delaying, for the moment, any need for violence.
After we had caught enough to placate ourselves we wound our way back through the tangled shoreline and to the truck. We made tracks back to camp so we could eat dinner, pack for the next two days of adventure and where I could hopefully regain a small piece of my pride over a heated game of Yahtzee. We went to bed early because tomorrow would bring the real test.
Part 3 - Island Campsites and Big Pike
In the dim pre-dawn hours, we loaded the boat with the fishing gear, the Yeti, the tent, a pack full of clothes and sleeping bags, a water filter and a small backpacking camp stove. We were heading out to find my island and our small boat was loaded to the gills.
I knew this was going to be a little tricky and this was the part of the trip that had me the most anxious. We had to put in on a large desolate lake and then navigate our way through the minefield of underwater rocks that rise up unexpectedly from the deep water and proved to be the demise of at least one outboard motor on the last trip – and that driver was someone that knew the lake. From there we needed to wind our way through the maze of outlets and connecting rivers, up and over an eight-to-ten foot rapid, through a shallow channel and into another lake deep inside the Canadian backcountry. Once in the upper lake we had to make our way to the other end where we would find our island and do most of our fishing, again dodging dangerous rocks lying in wait just below the surface.
Armed with my GPS, a poor map and what I could remember from last year we slowly made our way through the maze in our overloaded and underpowered boat. And then we got to a spot that neither my son nor I recognized. The lake looked like it just ended but then offered a hard left that would take us further. It didn’t feel right. We stopped while I tried to get my bearings. My instincts told me we needed to stay right, but I couldn’t see how or where. The 13 year old who, to his credit, had successfully navigated us to “Trapper Cabin” thought we needed to go left. My dad, who had never been there before, offered no opinion. All eyes were on me to make the call and I felt the weight of the decision heavier than before. The safety of my dad and son and the success or failure of this trip rested on my choice and wrong turns on this stretch of water lead to waterfalls you don’t want to go over. I just knew we had to stay right. We eased further into the bay and then suddenly a previously hidden route revealed itself. Yep, this was it.
We entered the river portion of the journey and began to navigate upstream against the current, dodging rocks, beaver dams and gravel bars that seemed more common than the previous year. And then we came to the hard turn and the whirlpool that lay just below the large rapids we needed to shoot up. Last year we were able to gun it and hang on. This year it was obvious that water levels were much lower, exposing a lot of rock and ensuring that our boat with three guys and gear and powered with a small 15-horse motor was not going to make it. We were stuck.
Completely discouraged and with no real plan B, we motored over to a peninsula that looked to have an old portage route, likely designed for those traveling by canoe. We tied up and got out to take a look. The trail was relatively short but uphill and littered with large rocks and tree limbs. I was not sure we could wrangle our aluminum vessel up the treacherous path. But I was determined to try. This was the highlight of our trip; the only way to my island and the tremendous fishing that lay beyond. Displaying an optimism I didn’t truly feel I persuaded my dad and son to help me unload the boat so we could make the trek.
We unloaded all the gear but soon realized that the outboard motor was padlocked to the boat and the keys lay many miles away, back in the truck. We would have to carry the boat with the motor attached, another obstacle that made success look even less likely. But then, by some act of providence, a boat full of three what-appeared-to-be locals motored up slowly behind us. Clearly bemused at our situation, they got out and we began to talk. A “U of M” hat on one of the crew was my first indication that these guys were ok. Turned out that they were from Michigan and were staying in a cabin not far away – an annual tradition. Better yet they had a roller system packed with them specifically for this occasion. In a way that is common among folks in the mitten state, these guys rolled up their sleeves, laid the track and helped us push, pull, shove, swear, lift, carry and drag our boat up to the lake and then we, of course, returned the favor. That was the last we saw of them. Another fishing miracle.
We loaded back up and made our way slowly across the upper lake, more conscious than ever of the below-average lake levels and not desiring to tempt fate any further. Soon the island came into sight. We pulled up and tied off to a tree as we hopped out to inspect what I hoped would be our home for the night. A clear flat area with tremendous views and an old fire ring evidenced that this spot would be perfect and had been clearly used before. Fresh moose scat indicated that we were not the only creatures to inhabit this small island – even if only for a short time. We unloaded all the camping gear, set up the tent and motored off to get after some fish. This spot had been very productive last year and I was eager to prove to my dad that coming along had been a good decision.
We began to work the water that had delivered fish after fish the previous year but we weren’t getting a lot of action. I was feeling discouraged and I could see the look on my son’s face and feel the burden of what I could only imagine my dad was thinking. I knew there were fish here, and big ones at that. We just needed to find them.
Conditions were different than the year before with more underwater growth breaking the surface. We slowly began to unravel the mystery of the water with a few small fish hitting and then more and some bigger ones mixed in. It ended up being a pretty good day. An amazing day really by any measure other than the success we had the previous year. We made our way back to camp, started a fire and got the stove going as I boiled water for our dinner courtesy of Mountain House. The appetizer would be Beef Stroganoff follow by the main course of Chicken Teriyaki with Rice. Bodies sore, but bellies full and feeling warmed by the fire we watched the sun dip slowly over the horizon as the sky turned from yellow to a blazing orange and then a deep red before it winked out and we were left with only bright stars and the mournful call and answer of the Loons that called this place home. We slept well that night dreaming of the fish tomorrow would bring, the challenges from earlier a long-forgotten memory. Yet again another fishing miracle.
After a quick camp breakfast we headed out and began to work the water that had served us well the day before. Again we were having success but not nearly like last year. We decided to move into the shallows and our success rate increased, getting into more and bigger fish.
We fished hard in the shifting winds until well after lunch; eating snacks in the boat and not wanting to stop. We continued to work the shoreline and shallow flats when I finally decided we should try a small cove that the wind seemed to be pushing into. I made a cast and had a quick strike. Nothing big. As I began to reel I realized that this fish might be larger than I anticipated. I worked him hard and managed to move him to the side of the boat. When I finally caught a glimpse of it I could see that it was a monster - going somewhere in the 40-50 inch range. My son reached for the net and then suddenly, in a concussive splash, the fish was gone. But wait, maybe not. I still had something fighting on the end of my line. I reeled in only to find a smaller – maybe 18 inch – pike bleeding from giant teeth marks and deep wounds down his side. Damn. We speculated that I must have had him on originally and then he was attacked by the larger fish. As I worked the bigger fish to the boat, he spooked and released his meal. We had found the big boys.
My next cast resulted in a strong hit almost immediately after hitting the water and I was able to land a solid 30-inch Northern. My dad struggled to navigate us into the cove and keep us in casting position while fighting the wind. My son made a cast and hooked up with another large fish, as he was making his retrieve it raced full force directly under the boat breaking him off. In the meantime, I was casting again and as my lure neared the boat we could all see a giant mouth open from below and envelope my Johnson Silver Minnow. I won’t lie, I screamed. Loud. And then I began giggling. Like a girl. This was a good fish and he was running. I fought to bring him alongside the boat while my son scrambled for the net. He was able to scoop the fish and fought to lift it into the boat. It was a beautiful Northern that went 40+. We were ecstatic. Next cast another hook up. And then junior. Another break off. Another nearly 40 incher to the boat. And so it went for about the next half hour. Giant fish after giant fish. We were in our glory. But the sun was moving down the horizon, the wind was picking up and we still needed to get back to the island, pack up, fight the wind across the lake, portage the boat and gear, run the maze, navigate the rocks and take the boat out – and we didn’t want to do it in the dark.
One last cast turned into a couple until we reluctantly left the best fishing any of us had ever experienced. Smiles on our faces, adrenalin still coursing our veins and wind in our hair we made our way back as waves broke over the side of our boat and the sun slipped below the horizon.