They are the leprechaun’s gold of Ontario fishing.
Located in legend somewhere beyond cottage country and this side of a fly-in float plane trip, lies the dream of undiscovered, inaccessible or forgotten lakes. Somewhere out there in the land of fishing lore, pristine waters teem with jumbo perch, thick, meaty bass and predatory hordes of voracious pike.
But they do exist.
And if you can find them – and get there – the angling equivalent of a pot of gold will be a very real battle on the end your line, rather than an elusive mirage at the end of a rainbow.
“Flag up,” yelled Glenn Pugh, his normally manly bass voice rising an octave or two, dangerously toward the girlish soprano.
Wonky back momentarily forgotten, Pugh sprinted through a six-inch-deep minefield of slush, retrieving his rod while leaving the bail on his reel open to allow the fish to run. Five pairs of eyes focussed as Pugh braced himself, closed the bail, and set the hook with a sharp, vertical motion.
Expectations established by the hefty bend in his ice-fishing rod and Pugh’s rising excitement were confirmed even before he barked “Pike on!”
Unofficial landing assistant Cole Palmer poised himself by the hole, his quick deft motion the final act in an explosive 30-second battle. Silence descended as the digital scale settled down to a stable number.
“Four-point-five pounds,” Pugh exulted as he threw a triumphant glance in James Rettie’s direction – words any Lord Of The Rings fan could easily have translated as “Precious, my precious.’
The adventure had begun shortly after dawn in the cozy confines of the Mining Mountain Camp’s cabin. It, and the 50-acre parcel of Renfrew County it sits on, provide home base for a four-season variety of outdoor pursuits including deer, duck and partridge hunting; fishing for species including lake trout, bass, perch and pike; and what our host member Greg Palmer refers to as ‘adventure four-wheeling.’
“She’s all an adventure,” he laughed.
Palmer and company happened across the lake in question during their adventures, at the end of a path whose description as a trail would be generous. Littered with boulders and bisected by a creek ford, it cuts all but the most determined out of the hunt.
“You couldn’t drive a truck in there,” explained Palmer’s 16-year-old son Cole. “It’s a rough road for four-wheelers.
“Rough road and hard to find.”
The lake does has an official name, and for that matter GPS coordinates, neither of which Palmer is overly willing to publicize, other than to mention, with a smile, it’s located north and west of the cabin.
“Hey, find your own lake,” he said, indicating a topographical overview of the area. “Look at the ‘topo’ map, it’s just littered with them.”
Discussion continues on how to get a boat to the lake, but northern Ontario winter makes access to any point on its frozen surface a simpler matter.
‘Coffeed’ up and fuelled by tales of last year’s haul, our six-member party head down the trail shortly after dawn, towing fishing gear in sleds behind a trio of CanAm four-wheelers. ‘Winterized’ with the addition of Apache 360 All Season tracks, they are a package Greg prefers to running a four-wheeler in the summer and snowmobile in the winter.
“That way you only have to maintain one vehicle,” he explained.
Tracked four-wheelers handle off-trail deep snow well, added his son, a particularly attractive quality for those seeking, for example, uncharted fishing waters, frozen or otherwise.
A chainsaw was required equipment, along with an spud and auger for testing spring ice thickness along a shoreline entry point, adjacent to the lake’s effluent creek.
“This is where we caught them last year,” said Greg, as our little party eased to a halt 75 metres off a point, roughly at the midway mark of a long, comparatively narrow body of water. A lonely pair of snowmobile tracks snaked across its two-kilometre length, but beyond that, ours appeared the only other vehicles to mar its smooth, snow-covered surface.
“Twenty-two inches (of ice),” reported Palmer after Pugh’s venerable power auger drilled a combination test/fishing hole, the first in a circular pattern fanning out around the vehicles. Jumbo perch began showing up even as auger echoes were fading along the shoreline.
But the slashing attack of pike was what we had come for, and as minutes of minnow-pilfering perch stretched into a half hour, anticipation morphed into mild anxiety among the Palmer and Pugh clans.
Naturally it was the one who cared least, who would break the seal. Rettie’s angling assembly included a lively plastic rod received 45 years previously for Christmas, his main interest building a modest campfire on an environmentally-friendly steel assembly of his own device. But when his second rod dipped, at Pugh’s insistence, Rettie picked it up, revealing a bend wrought of pike, rather than perch.
“If you’re going to sit around and wait, you might as well catch a fish,” he shrugged as a substantial fish thrashed on the ice surface near his feet.
Not that fishermen are competitive, or anyone was counting. But since a digital scale was along for the ride, it seemed only fitting to give it a test drive.
“Not bad,” Pugh grudgingly admitted as 3.6 pounds appeared.
And from there, it was game on as well as fish on.
There was fortunately, lots of game to go around.
Everyone would catch at least one keeper ‘gator’, but Paul Pearson, a true novice working the hole furthest from shore, quickly established himself as the king of jumbo perch.
“I’ve only ever caught things that would be food for the fish I caught today,” he smiled.
“Certainly had the right hole for perch,” Pearson continued, noting pretty much any bait and any technique was working. “I didn’t actually throw down a line with a bare hook on it, but if I had, they probably would have grabbed it.”
In between landing duty, Cole Palmer ran the gamut of the lake’s species.
“It’s been really good,” he said. “We’ve been nailing these pike and perch like it’s our job.”
His dad, after a slowish start on pike, surged forward to tie for the lead with three. Greg’s rod was sacrificed en route, snapping at the base as he turned his third pike toward the hole.
“Well, this is what happens out here in the north, sometimes you get some big fish, and they break your rods and everything, and you end up with nothing,” he summed up philosophically. “But we’ve got the fish here, anyway.”
“I don’t know how that happened,” laughed his son. “But it happened.”
Closer to shore, an anonymous fisherman who had already experienced the loss of a lunker pickerel earlier in the season managed to land his second pike with an unorthodox northern Ontario version of hillbilly hand fishing. Line snapping as the fish emerged from the hole, he protected his camera while diving to the ice, and after one slippery miss, clamped onto a solid 3.1 pounder as it slid headfirst toward freedom, a path aborted via a watery, elbow-deep toss. The maneuver retrieved not only a silver Williams spoon, but a bronze Swedish pimple snapped off Pearson’s line a 100 feet and a half-hour away.
But the day’s real drama was Pugh’s committed efforts to reel Rettie in from the top of the leader board.
His first fish started and kept him there through the majority of the morning, before being displaced by Pugh’s chunky 4.5-pounder, a fish that looked to have the legs to stand up for the duration. But no one ever said the fishing gods didn’t have a sense of humour.
An early-afternoon wood run was delayed momentarily by the fact Pearson had forgotten his gloves. Rather than sit on an idling bike, the Rettie strolled toward his road at approximately the same time it took a sharp, downward dip.
“Five-one,” announced an excited Cole Palmer shortly after. “That would be the biggest fish we’ve caught all day.”
“Glenn, I’m going to be giving a little seminar about two,” Rettie mentioned helpfully, eliciting a response less than printable in a family publication.
Pugh’s efforts to regain the lead would meld into the dusky approach of darkness, where discretion overcame valour in the form of a shared decision to make the tricky transition from thinning ice to shoreline in the last vestiges of daylight.
“The most important thing to remember is it’s not catching the fish that matters, it’s catching a bigger fish than someone who cares,” smiled Rettie, ‘gracious’ in victory.
Pugh proved equal to the ‘chirp’, bidding a final farewell by pulling his final two of a team-high seven pike through the ice.
By that point, the cleaning crew had seen more than its share of Y bones, and declared a moratorium on jumbo perch at 57. In a full day stretching onward from 8 a.m. our six-member party landed maybe 100 fish, including 21 pike. Seven of the latter were returned to the lake, a half-dozen of the keepers measured in the 28-inch range, ranging downward weightwise from Rettie’s 5.1 pounder.
The day’s productivity surpassed even the legendary results of 2012, upgrading the trip’s status into the land of tradition. And beyond photos and a video clip or two, memories of the day will be enhanced well into the future by 15 pounds of shared mixed fillets.
“It’s a ten in my books,” Cole Palmer summed up in conclusion. “Never fished that well before.”