50 years canadian bush steve lalonde

50 Years of the Canadian Bush, Part 1

In my ongoing effort to help people find the best Ontario fishing destination, I sought the counsel of one particular Pasha Lake Cabin guest. While all our guests are special, this guy stands out because of his 50 year tenure in visiting Ontario. Folks, that’s not a typo! Really, 50 years! In that time frame, he’s figured out how to experience each year as if it were his first. Truly, he embodies what all of us need to strive for in fishing the remote locations of Northwest Ontario. 

His story brings us to a time long since passed and allows us to reminisce on how things “used to be.” Please read on as this two part series chronicles the history and, just as important, the lessons learned through Mr. Steve Lalonde’s 50 years of experience in fishing paradise surrounding the Lake Nipigon watershed.

Steve Lalonde is from Midland Michigan. He was a mere child when he first set foot on Canadian soil. The time was 1960-something and he vividly remembers the summers spent at his grandfather’s cottage on the southern shores of Lake Nipigon. Back then, fishing was second to a hard, long day’s work. Of course it was always looked forward to, but it certainly wasn’t the purpose of his being there. At that time, subsistence and survival mandated grueling hours of work, mostly toward the preparation of brutal winters that were characteristic of the time.

As I sit here and type this, I can only imagine what things would have been like back then. Absent of today’s technology and tools, life on the south shores of the big lake were likely as difficult as it gets. In fact, Steve spoke to that fact during his interview. He explained that every day was spent getting up early in the morning and prioritizing the day’s work. Life was spent cutting fire wood, gathering food for the long winters, and repairing and maintaining the primitive equipment, among many other things. Steve said the work was hard and the days were long. When he layed down at night, I’m sure his body was sore, I’m sure that the blisters on his hands made him dread the next day’s work, and I’m sure that fatigue, as we know it, was an understatement. Yet, despite the vey necessary and demanding work, his grandfather (the obviously intelligent man he was) knew how to keep the work force motivated.

How, you might ask? At exactly 4:00pm every day, the work abruptly ended and the family went into fishing preparation mode. Steve’s job was to pack the boats, while grandfather likely got all the poles, line, and lures ready. Once the preparations were done, the family would shove off and head for the brook trout honey holes his grandfather knew all too well. In my private conversations with Steve and during our interview, he spoke frequently of 5 pound brook trout as if they were 14 inch walleyes. It was nothing to catch limit after limit of–what is considered by today standards–remarkable trophy speckle trout. And while I’m sure it was as fun as it gets, back then it was also an essential way to survive.

What’s neat about fishing then is how they continually found success while lacking the tools of the trade we know today.  Fishing was mainly done out of 16–18 foot sea skiffs that rode low in the water. (Heck, back then I’m sure wood boats were still popular.) Comfort consisted of a wood bench surrounded by gear and praying waves wouldn’t toss you from the boat.  Rain gear, if they had it, was the “Grandfather Special.” That is, a trash bag custom-made with 3 holes–one hole for the head and the other two for arms. Electronics consisted of memories and visual reference points on the landscape. The outboard motors of that era were two-stroke. And if you’d been fortunate enough to cut through the smoke to see the power head, it surely would have been 15hp or less. With that kind of gear, it’s safe to say venturing out on the unforgiving waters of Nipigon involved some risk. Yet, with those primitive limitations, they found tremendous success in locating and catching fish. Remember too, that this wasn’t just for fun, it was out of necessity. 

And on the days Nipigon was too rough for even the hardy Lalonde French-landers, they’d turn their sights inward, exploring the endless trail networks and watersheds of the area. That’s where Steve’s grandfather stumbled upon a river that was teaming with pre-spawn whitefish. They were so thick, it was possible to dip-net a few hundred pounds and not even dent the population. Add to that upland bird populations of historic proportions and spending a day off the big lake wasn’t all that bad.

But as years passed, so too did the winds of change. Soon Steve’s grandfather passed, and while they continued to use the same cabin for his annual adventures, things just weren’t the same. It wasn’t long before a decision to find different accommodations was made. He tried an area just south of Lake Nipigon, and having no luck there, moved to the east side.  As luck would have it, one day while bird hunting, Steve discovered a then-little-known lodge called Pasha Lake Cabins.  And no one has been the same since!

To be continued…

Chad

bug bites on kid

Bug! Part 1

Take a quick look at my daughter while she was taking a bath one night this past summer. If you didn’t know better, you’d say she was an abused child. While that’s hardly the case, her condition exemplifies why all of us hate those little flying tyrants we call BUGS! They’re annoying, most bite, and if left too long, they’ll leave a welt the size of Mount Everest on the unsuspecting victim. Kids are one of the worst victims, as shown here in this photo.

So what can be done to avoid these nasty little devils? Read on as this two-part article will give you some proven strategies that have helped me deal with this fact of Canadian bush life.

PART 1

Generally speaking, we have two options to deal with these flying bullies. One, we accept them for what they are and employ protective defenses to thwart off their relentless attacks. Second, we avoid them all together by planning a trip when the bugs are at their least bugginess.

We’ll cover avoidance strategies in part 2 of the blog post. While it may seem pretty much self-explanatory, there are some things you’ll want to pay attention to. For now, let’s talk about seasonal patterns and preferred time frames in our avoidance strategy.

May

On an average year, the ice out in Northern Ontario is roughly May 10thish, especially on smaller inland lakes.  On the bigger lakes like Onaman and Lake Nipigon, open water starts showing up almost a week later. (Please note the word “average”, as the 2013 and 2014 seasons had unusually late use; ice out occurred almost two and a half weeks later in 2014.)  Timing a trip right after break-up offers anglers one of the best times of year to avoid bugs. Not only that, fishing rivers and other small tributaries can be downright FANTASTIC. Trophy pike stage themselves in shallow bays to recover from the spawn, while hungry walleyes follow suit. Trout stalk the smelt runs, making them hugely susceptible to enticing lures, and the bugs continue to lay in wait for warmer weather. Timing an ice-out trip can be hugely rewarding and at the same time offer an annoyance-free time when bugs are virtually nonexistent  If there are any downfalls to this time of year, it’s weather. It can be wildly unpredictable and might keep fair-weather anglers in the cottage for a day or two playing cards. That said, good fishing in a bug-free atmosphere is the name of the May fishing game.

June

IT SUCKS – for avoiding bugs that is. Fishing is top shelf stuff!

July

I don’t know why, but few people realize how good July can be, especially when it comes to the bug forecast. I’m going to throw that word “average” out there again, so please don’t tar and feather me if you experience (or have experienced) something different. On an average year, mid July affords anglers a time like no other. The favorable warmer weather has dried the Canadian Bush out, causing a huge decline in bug populations. Daylight hours which, a month ago, were filled with enough bugs to black out the sun, have given away to much more pleasant conditions. You can hold a conversation outside and when it comes to walleye fishing, it is MY FAVORITE time of the year! Now I am sure there are biological reasons to why the bugs decline, but I lack the biological understanding to give you a solid explanation. But I don’t need to be an entomologist to say July bugs are tolerable and fishing is phenomenal. Despite those positives, one small drawback does exist in July. Biting horseflies rear their ugly little heads, and when they do, they’ll cross vast expansions of open water to get to you–meaning, while in the boat you likely won’t be bothered by black flies or mosquitoes, the horseflies will have you in their sights.

August

August is just a small variation of July, but with even less bugs. Given the vast fresh waters of the Great Canadian Shield, fishing remains very good while bug populations have dwindled to almost nothing. We have several groups that make August their month of choice for this reason alone. Not only is the fishing good and the bugs gone, but August weather is as predictable as it is pleasant. Stable warm weather is usually the name of the game. It’s not uncommon to get a string of warm days, minimal wind, and very pleasant conditions. This is also a time of year that it’s just simply fun to be in the Canadian bush. Kids can swim, there are endless trails and lakes to explore, and most people have returned home. That means the likelihood of seeing other anglers during a day of fishing is pretty much nonexistent. If I can say anything about August, it’s that you shouldn’t follow the crowds. This is a time that gets less recognition, but the fishing and all the trimmings are as good as it gets. It remains a favorite time of year for those with the inside scoop.

September

Oh boy, September. I get the chills just thinking about it! I love, love, love September fishing. Not only are there no bugs, but once water temps start to drop, it ignites a feeding storm in the underworld of all things fishing. There are so many things going on in September alone that I can write a whole other article on it. But our focus here is bugs–I hate ’em and September doesn’t have ‘em. I like that!

October

When the chilly winds of October arrive, bugs have all ready found safe haven in the dense underbrush of the magnificent boreal forest of Northwestern Ontario. Doing what bugs do, they’ll remain there through the winter. Once a string of warm weather thaws the bush, the cycle starts again and we anglers are forced to employ our bug tactics: avoid or defend.

Suffice it to say, certain times of the year afford us the luxury of great fishing minus the annoyance of those dang little oppressors we call bugs. For when they do rear their ugly heads, they bite, they irritate, they seem to be everywhere, and they can make something as special as fishing in the outdoors a burdensome experience. But if you have the capacity to schedule a trip around peak bug season, you can have what most all of us dream of–an outdoor experience full of excitement, immersed in Mother Nature’s beauty, enjoying all there is to offer while at the same time creating memories of a lifetime.

While the above covers the avoidance of bugs, the next post will talk about taking the fight to them on their home turf. Stay tuned…

Chad

walleye fishing

Dirty Little Secret of the Walleye World

“20% of the water has 80% of the fish.” 

Anyone who’s been in this game long enough knows all too well the truth behind this fable. Some might even argue it’s 90/10 or even 95/5. But how many of us understand the origins of this principle? If you don’t, worry not. I’ll give you the quick down and dirty. 

Vilfredo Pareto was an economist that understood the distribution of cause and effect. He argued 80% of everything is rooted in 20% of origins. In other words, the majority of anything significant is caused by a small minority. The Pareto Principle, as it later became known, became a popular concept among economists and general academia. Examples of his theory include land ownership, where 80% of a population lives on 20% of the land or wealth, where 80% of the affluence is enjoyed by 20% of the people. It even works in academics, where 80% of top honors are achieved by 20% or less of the students. And believe it or not, this translates well to our angling world. Do you know any wise old timers who live and breathe Pareto’s principle? I know plenty of them!

It’s an interesting concept, and if you pay close attention, you can see it at work all around you. Try it some time. Throw a handful of jigs into the air and see where they land. I’ll bet your results will be consistent with Pareto’s theory. In any case, and assuming the theory has stood the test of time, we have to ask how to apply this so called “distribution law” to the angling world? I have a helpful suggestion!

I started fishing when I was 4. Our family had a place in a small resort community called Shore Acres.  The resort has been sold off, however the lake it sat on (Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota) remains one of the premiere walleye fishing destinations in the upper Midwest. Since that faithful day, a long, long time ago, when I wet my first line, I have landed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of walleyes  I tell you this not to brag but to illustrate that a mind-boggling number of those fish have been hooked using one simple, time-tested technique–a plain jig and minnow.  If I’d recorded the lure I used for each catch, I will guarantee you Pareto’s principle would shine through like an orange jig in dark stained water! 

And if given a choice, a jig would be my presentation of choice almost 100% of the time!  For anyone who has their sights set on fishing the prolific waters of Canada, that’s truly all you’ll need.

Now hold on a second. Many will ask if they just read the above correctly? And, yep, if you look back you’ll see I said it–a jig and minnow is the go-to, premiere walleye presentation. It is the simplest yet most effective lure to produce action and boat you tons of fish! Tackle companies will hate me, trolling pros will loath me and nay sayers will load their proverbial shotguns.  People will call me one dimensional and the spinner guys will kick and scream and say really bad words.  But when all the protesting and name calling subsides, people will be forced to admit that a jig and minnow is a walleye slaying machine.  In fact, forget 80/20, when it comes to jigging for walleyes, it’s more like 95/5.

Now, is this to say that a jig is the most effective presentation in all bodies of water all the time? Nope, I’ll concede that. But, remember the rule. 80% of results will be achieved by 20% of the means. Sure, I can catch walleyes trolling. Yep, I can even catch them pulling a Carolina rig or crawler harness. And, from time to time I’ll catch walleyes casting, using crank baits and spinners. But the vast majority of walleyes WILL be caught jigging bottom-relating walleyes. 

Fact is fact–most often walleyes relate to structure; usually that means bottom structure. In Canada, there is this interesting little rock called the Great Canadian Shield. It’s a premiere habitat for everything a walleye needs. It attracts bait fish (food) and it provides shelter (hiding spots from predators) as well as ambush points. Introduce a tantalizing minnow bouncing like a pepperoni pizza and crisp cold Canadian Molson right in front of their face, and those bottom hugging fish become highly susceptible to your lure.    

Keep in mind though, there is more to jigging than throwing a minnow over the side of the boat until it hits bottom. Case in point! I was guiding a bear hunter and his wife a few days after he harvested his bear. The wind was primarily out of the southeast, it was a little on the cool side, and gray encompassed the entire sky. I knew it would be a doable bite, but slow-moving finesse would be the name of the game, at least early on. As so often happens, the female half of this duo asked pointed questions and listened intently to the answers. She picked up on the technique instantly, while the male half didn’t have the patience to let his jig sink to the bottom. She proceeded to land fish after fish, eventually boating the biggest of the day, a superbly gorgeous 28 inch female. He, on the other hand, took most of the day to figure things out. Same tackle, same baits, same location. She had the time of her life (and let him know it, I might add) while he struggled to catch a limit. The difference? She was able to present her jig on the bottom, where the fish were. He couldn’t get the feel for it, even after we tied on a bigger jig for him. 

But walleyes aren’t the only fish that will succumb to your jig. Just asked legendary angler Babe Winkelman. In a recent episode of Good Fishing, “Off to Ontario,” Babe explains in his opening monologue, “I love jigs; my favorite way to catch ANY fish that there is.” He goes on to say that when he starts fishing, a jig is the first thing he reaches for.

In fact, I got to observe Babe’s jig fishing repertoire firsthand when I took him on out Lake Nipigon a couple years back. At that time, I targeted trophy brook trout by donning either a casting spoon (cleo) or a spinner (rooster tail). During the initial meeting, and true to his form, Babe baited me with a few questions about how I prefer to catch the big coasters. He allowed me to hang myself on my preferred lures, and then set the hook by asking, “Have you ever caught one on a jig?” Somewhat embarrassed yet skeptical, I stuttered and said no. Long story short, Babe out fished me 20 to 0. I stuck with my spoons and spinners while he boated brookie after brookie with his white Fuzzy Grub jigs. Lesson learned!

I’ve also landed some of the biggest pike of my life on jigs. Sometimes I was targeting them, but more often than not, I was unsuspectingly fishing for walleyes. Countless times during action-filled walleye bites, I’ve gotten a rod-bender that just doesn’t feel the same. Sure enough, after nursing the fish along, I’ll catch a glimpse of an enormous pike that has engulfed my lure. It takes some finagling, but I manage to land most of them. And pike are famous for being holed up in weeds where casting or trolling is next to impossible. Jigs present the only option! Using them strategically just outside weed edges where they won’t get hung up is usually enough to entice them out of their thick hideouts. I’ve even used 1 oz jigs tipped with huge sucker minnows, casting them great distances to avoid spooking shallow patrolling fish. I’ve had tremendous luck with that technique, and it’s one you won’t see people use often. I remember one time my dad was chuckling at my modus operandi until I landed a 41 incher. He quickly changed his tune!

A quick side note – many moons ago, I learned how important it is to use fluorocarbon leaders. Before then, if I stumbled into a pike while jigging, I’d likely been bit off. Nowadays, no problem. With the fluoro leader my odds of landing accidentally-hooked pike increase tenfold. Don’t go to big with your line size, though, and remember you still have to finesse them in–you won’t be able to horse ‘em.

Don’t forget lake trout either! Sometimes a jig is the ONLY way to catch lakers, especially on small lakes where trolling runs are impractical. Anyone who has spent time chasing lake trout on Canadian inland waters knows exactly what I am talking about. When faced with that situation, big tube jigs are incredibly effective. They’ll get you deep in a hurry. You can mount precision attacks and once they are hooked, the fight is out of this world!

Heck, I’ve even targeted fall white fish with jigs. Taking a page out of Babe’s book, I’ve out-fished spinner guys on several occasions while river bank fishing pre-spawn, fall whities. It’s a blast!

Given the above, it’s easy to see that ol’ Parteo was on to something with his theory. Not only does a small percentage of water hold the largest percentage of fish, one angling technique (jigging, of course) produces the largest percentage of action. And consider this next time you’re around your tackle box. Open in it up, and take a quick inventory of your arsenal. Then think about what percentage of tackle you REALLY use, compared to the total tackle you have. My guess is ol’ Parteo is at work in there too!

And for those of you who are curious, I did get my paybacks with Babe the following year. Out on Lake Nipigon once again, I refined my jigging skills to include the brook trout I had learned such a tough lesson on. Not only did I eke out a few more specks then him, I landed the biggest of the day; a gorgeous 25 incher! I guess the student learned a valuable lesson from the teacher! Pareto would be proud!

Until next time…

Chad