A Canadian Fly In Fishing Trip to Ontario - First Time in a Bush Plane
Canadian Fishing: Southwest Jones Lake – A Fly in Experience
Canada: the place of dreams for many anglers. In January of 1973, my father made plans for the summer to take me on a fly in fishing trip to a secluded Canadian lake. From that moment on my dreams consisted of catching monstrous Northern Pike; of having these long, sinewy fish known as The Water Wolf slash broadside at my lures; of vicious strikes and toothy maws. I knew there would be other species there, such as Smallmouth Bass and Walleye, but I had already caught them in local lakes and streams. And there could be Lake Trout and Brook Trout, but I had yet to truly appreciate these types of fish, so paid them little thought. My first trip to our friends north of the border was the summer of my 14th year. My father, a family friend named Hubert Bonnie Stevens, who we called Steve and I drove approximately 1,000 miles to cross the border at International Falls, Minnesota. As we waited to cross the border, we were situated on a bridge crossing near the paper mill on Rainy Lake into Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada. Let me tell you, that paper mill smelled! Fortunately, we were only on the bridge a short time before being allowed across the border into Canada. Canada! I was in another country!
We were scheduled to fly out on a float plane, also known as a pontoon plane that morning. We drove the few miles to the camp, and turned onto the dirt road. We arrived at the office, and introduced ourselves to the proprietor on Northern Wilderness Outfitters. He let us know that the plane we would be flying in to our lake on was inbound with a group of fisherman on their way home, and would be there within the hour. We went back and unloaded our tackle and clothes, and waited.
Finally, we saw a small plane coming in for a landing. Watching it, it seemed so smooth as the pontoons made contact with the water’s surface, and then coasting across the waves to arrive safely at the dock. As they began to unload their gear, an Ontario Game and Fish officer strode across the dock and began to count the fish they were bringing home. You were allowed to take home one day’s limit of each species of fish per person. We watched as the officer counted one fillet after another, separating them by species. At that time, you were required to leave a one inch square piece of skin, including the scales, on each filet for identification purposes. As the count climbed, then was completed, we were stunned to watch the officer give a ticket to the party! It turned out that they had one fillet too many of Northern Pike; one half of a fish too much. The officer confiscated every single fillet they had; they had a fine that turned out to be close to $100.00, and they went home with nothing to show for their time and effort. Needless to say, we made sure we were going to keep very good records of what we wanted to bring home that week!
Finally, it was our time. We loaded up the small, four seat Cessna, and climbed in. My first plane ride was about to begin! We cast off, and the pilot started the engine. Looking at him, I suddenly got scared. I was 14 years old, and he didn’t look much older than me! In reality, he was about 20 or so, but he still looked too young to fly a plane! All of the stories I had read about young bush pilots, and some of the old timers too, came back into my head. Like the one about the pilot that had to tie a rope to the tail of the plane and then to a tree, get in and bring it to full power, then have the guy on the ground cut the rope and pray there was enough lake to get up to speed and clear the trees a few hundred yards away. Gulp! As he put the power to the propeller, my attention changed. What looked smooth from without wasn’t; as the plane accelerated, the chop of the waves was felt throughout the plane. It bucked and bounced across those waves, traveling faster and faster, until we were skating across the tops of the waves. I watched out the window, fascinated by the experience. Glancing back at the pilot’s instruments, I could see we were traveling at around 75 mph. A quick lift on the controls, and we were airborne! We climbed up to a few thousand feet, reached our cruising speed of about 125 mph, and beyond the drone of the engine, it was as peaceful a feeling as I could ever remember.
The only issue I could see was that the plane didn’t fly level. The nose was higher than the rear, making it feel as though we were going up a hill. To look ahead, one had to lean to the side and peer out the window. But after a bit, I realized we didn’t need to see straight ahead, there was nothing there to see! We were flying above everything, so it was not a problem. We flew on for about an hour, until the pilot reached behind him and took a map out, and then unfolded it in front of him. He placed his knees on the control stick, flying the plane with no hands. The map was open, again panicking me as I thought he couldn’t see ahead of him! Calm down, he’s not looking there, he’s looking down. Then, it happened. We hit an air pocket and the plane dropped about a hundred feet in a couple of seconds. I panicked, and watched in disbelief as our pilot never even put his hands on the controls! He just continued to fly with his knees, looking at the map then out the window at the ground below. He eventually brought the plane back up to the level we had been at and just kept flying and looking. After a few more minutes of this, he pointed down at a body of water and declared “That’s your lake right there. Southwest Jones Lake.” I looked and tried to pick out which one he was talking about. There were small lakes and rivers and bigger lakes everywhere! There was more water than there was land down there! Suddenly it hit me: we were going to be over a hundred miles from civilization, with no way to get anywhere, no radio, nothing. Living in a tent, where bears roamed free. AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
In later years, this type of moment became known to me as a “Come to Jesus” moment.
The pilot swooped the plane into a dive, standing it on a wingtip like you see in those war movies where they are dogfighting and then headed for the lake. Faster and faster the water came at us, before he leveled off just a few feet above the waves. Cutting power, he set that plane down so softly, and then allowed the plane to settle into the water before coasting to the shore. There were several men waiting on us as we arrived. They helped us unload our gear, and then we helped them load theirs. The entire transaction took only a few minutes and they were taxiing back out onto the lake to take off. My father and Steve began hauling the gear up the slight hill to the tent, but I was too excited to help. I got one of my rods out, strung the line through the guides and picked out a Rebel Jointed Minnow about 5 ½ inches long and in a Black and Silver pattern. Before the plane had accelerated and gone by us, I had latched in to a small Northern Pike on my second cast! I fought it as they flew by, heading back to civilization. Once I landed it and then released it, I put my rod down and helped to take the gear to the camp. Canada! I was here!
We stored the gear, loaded our fishing tackle in the small 16 foot aluminum boat and started out. We drove around the lake, and finally settled on a likely looking spot. It was a shallow bay with lily pads around the edges. We cut the motor off and drifted, casting as we went. We caught several pike that afternoon, enough to fix for dinner that night. We headed back to camp and cleaned our catch. Steve was our designated Camp Cook, so my father and I set up our beds, unloaded our packs and generally got the camp ready while Steve cooked.
Funny thing about my father: he won’t eat fish. Can’t stand it. He’ll spend any amount of money to go somewhere to fish, but he never eats a bite. So while Steve and I gorged ourselves on fresh caught pike, he ate a ham sandwich. There’s just no accounting for taste, I guess. After dinner, we cleaned up the campsite to do our best to not invite any bears there. A campfire was started, and we settled in on some logs to enjoy the long Canadian evening. That far North, the sun set later, around 10:00 PM or later. The campfire kept most of the mosquitos away from where we sat, so sitting there was really pleasant. I had made a cup of hot chocolate out of the lake water, and was feeling content. All was well in the world. Then it was time for bed, so we went into the tent and unrolled out sleeping bags on the cots, and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast and hit the lake. We went a different direction today, and ended up in another lake. We caught pike everywhere that week. Shallow water around trees; shallow water around weeds and lily pads; on reefs in the middle of the lake; in coves; on points; on banks that had nothing on them. Even in the middle of the lake in deep water: they were everywhere! Nothing big, most fell into the 20” to 36” length weighing up to maybe seven to ten pounds or so. We caught them on spinner baits; crank baits; top waters; deep diving lures; soft plastic minnows; even on plastic frogs! Everything we tried, we caught fish on. But we only caught pike, nothing else. The brochure had said there were Lake Trout, Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, and Brook Trout in the streams running into the lake. We tried everywhere but we never caught any of these species. What where we doing wrong?
Then on Wednesday, after we had been there for four days of fishing, a plane came flying overhead. We knew we still had until the next Saturday, so it wasn’t our plane. But we still were curious so we followed it to where it landed. It turned out the passengers were Government employees in the Forestry Department, researching some kind of beetle infestation in the forests surrounding the lake. We introduced ourselves, and asked them if they knew anything about this lake. Turns out they did; and they shared the information with us that the lake and its attached lakes and waterways were home to Northern Pike and not much else. We were upset, and let them know what we had been told. They in turn gave us a phone number to call when we got back to civilization, to report the camp owner for falsely informing us as to the type of fish present. Seems they were aware of this type of thing occurring fairly often, and the Ontario Government was not happy.
We fished the rest of the week continuing to catch and release pike hand over fist. In one cove I had made a cast downwind with a Little George spinner and was reeling it back very fast when a huge pike literally flew out of the water and tried to strike my lure as I lifted it from the water. Me being who I was, I yelled in fear at this mouth full of huge teeth coming out of the water in my direction and yanked my lure away from it! The pike hit our boat head-on and shook the entire boat. Steve thought we had hit a stump, and when he turned to see what had happened, the pike flipped its tail, drowning Steve in the splash, and turned and sped off to deeper water.
I have to speak here just a bit about a couple of things I found out about “roughing it”. First, there was no bathroom. I mean, one could go pee anywhere, but what about a number two? Well, let me tell you what this location had: a one holer. And not just any one holer, but a shack one holer which consisted of a piece of plywood flown in and cut into three pieces: a back and two sides affixed to four trees cut and set into the ground. A board was cut and placed between the logs with a hole cut out to sit upon. The roof consisted of tree branches. No door, for who else would dare walk the hundred yards away from the camp into the deep dark forest to wait on you to finish. Once while I was enjoying the scenery but not the smell, I heard animal footsteps walk up to the rear of the shack and stand right behind me. I was petrified! I just knew it was a bear! But it eventually turned and walked off into the woods. I finished up my business real quick after that!
Second was the drinking water situation. For most of the week, my father and Steve brought the water to the camp in a bucket and mixed Tang with it to drink. But once they had me go down to get it. I stood there on the rock and surveyed the water before me. Everywhere I looked there were mosquito larvae, minnows, and leeches. I went back to ask where they had been getting their water, to which they replied “Right there. Those things haven’t bothered you all week; why start know?” Oh, my stomach!!!
We flew back out on Saturday, and when we arrived back at the base, my father had a few choice things to say to the owner regarding his statement on what species we would find there. Confronted with the truth, he admitted that he knew there were no Smallmouth or Walleye, or the other species he promised; but he had hoped that when we found out how good the fishing was for pike that we would forget the others and have fun with just pike. He offered, and we accepted, a free fly in trip the next summer to a lake chock full of what we were wanting. The lake was called Stonedam, and it fulfilled our expectations and then some, including a close encounter with a big Black Bear at night! But that is a story for another day.