school of hard knocks fishing that is a dozen fish

School of Hard Knocks–Fishing, That Is!

Fall fishing in Canada can be brutal in more ways than one!

Last weekend was the first in a long time, and let me tell you, it’s a wholly painful ordeal! 

Having your butt handed to you while guiding on your favorite lake of all time is, to say the least, not pleasant. Of course, I am referring to Onaman Lake, the GRAND PUPA of all walleye lakes in Ontario. My typical milk run of hot spots usually ends with stringers full of walleyes and several claims of “that’s the best walleye fishing I’ve ever experienced.”  Yes, if you’ve ever wanted big walleyes, in crazy numbers, caught jigging (not trolling… yawn!), then Onaman is the place to be!  Last weekend, however, that was not the case.

Unbeknownst to me, a significant change happened in the 48 hours since I’d been there. I was utterly unprepared, and even if I had been, it would’ve made little difference. What I am referring to is “fall turnover.” Turnover happens when the surface temps have cooled to the point that the water beneath the thermo cline becomes warmer and therefore begins to rise. At the same time, the upper water sinks and you have this mass discombobulation of everything–water, bait fish, current, temperature variance and so on. This Issac Newton concept causes fish to go bonkers. They relate to nothing, are spread out over mass areas, and as far as I know, don’t feed for days. At least it feels that way!

Now those of you familiar with Onaman Lake know it’s probably THE premier walleye fishery in all of Ontario. Not only in quantity of fish caught, but also in sheer size. So when someone goes there and doesn’t experience the best the lake has to offer, I take it to heart. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I know what it’s capable of. Often I reflect on the staggering number of guests who’ve returned to say just how unbelievable it is. So when I go there and struggle, one can only imagine my wholehearted disappointment.

But, I am a glass half full kind of guy. I loathe “problem identifiers” and try to align myself with the more uplifting “problem solvers” crowd. So in this case, I made it a point to unearth the valuable lessons the day offered. 

First, I don’t care how good you think you are or how well you think you know a body of water, fishing’s equivalent to Murphy’s Law will find you. When that happens, the inevitable “slow day of fishing” will happen. It is what it is! Not only do I have to remind my guests of that, I have to remind myself–often! 

Second, when turnover comes knocking, you need to have an arsenal of weapons to thwart its effects. By that I mean, pull out your crank baits or spinners, fire up your electronics (learn how Chad get’s his competition grade electronics in to remote, back country lakes) and prepare to cover water. My plan last weekend was the same one that I had success with for the entire month of September and most of October. Fish shallow structure where the walleyes were concentrated. Pitch jigs and minnows and hold on tight. It worked up to that point (see pictures from earlier trips here) and I should’ve known the pattern wouldn’t continue, especially with the frigid temperatures we were experiencing.  

Now, keep this in mind. Cooling fall temps cause fish to migrate shallow on Onaman. This in turn renders electronics pretty much useless; the fish are just too shallow. For the last several trips, I opted to leave my Lowrance HDS5 at home. If I’d brought it, I’d been allowed to cover a ton of water, and at the same time, I could‘ve been trolling (insert yawn). Who knows, maybe I would have run into a concentration of fish and things would have turned out different?!

The final lesson is simply being under-prepared. Anybody that knows me realizes I methodically prepare for my outdoor adventures. I put packing lists together, plan contingencies, and usually bring so much gear that the people from Cabela’s themselves would be wowed. But late season fatigue and laziness got the best of me. Because of that, I got caught with my pants down and wasn’t able to serve my guests to meet my own standards. Granted we did catch fish, but it certainly wasn’t the best the Onaman has to offer. (For those of you who are wondering, I waived the guide fee for the day!)  I know I am not perfect, but I am sure as heck a lot better than I was that day!

In reflecting on the days’ events, I am reminded of my interview with the legendary Al Linder. During our conversation, I asked him “how to respond to someone saying they were skunked while fishing in Canada.” He laughed and I’ll never forget his response.  He said let them know it’s not the lake and it’s not the fish, because they are plentiful in your region. Nope, you need to gently tell them to look in the mirror and staring right back will be the reason for their mishap. Well, after this day of fishing, I took a good, long, hard look and can only come up with one reason for the lack-luster performance. Al, sir, you obviously have wisdom beyond your years!

Fall fishing, it’s a ton of fun. It’s a time I look forward to and it usually yields some of the best fishing of the year. I’ve guided trips where we’ve landed 4 northern over 40 inches in less than an hour. We’ve even filmed some awesome TV shows in the fall. But fall turnover can bring a brutal halt to the last season, barn-burning fishing. So when that time approaches, remember to keep your head in the game. Load up your tackle arsenal and be prepared to throw the kitchen sink. More importantly, realize it’s an opportunity to take your fishing game to the next level–a time when you’ll learn lessons that will carry you through the next time fishing creeps to a stall.

Until next time… 


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