BY JOHN SADUSKY
“Did you remember the thermos?”
My son Grant, performing one final check, can’t find the coffee in our pickup truck. Giving up the search, he gently slams the muddy door.
“You know it”, I answered back, cinching down a chest strap.
“It’s in my pack”
We are about to begin a rugged one mile hike into the southern Ontario wilderness on the way to a small, roadless lake to fly cast streamers at, potentially, very large splake. Hours north of Minnesota, this part of the Canada is remote, unpopulated, gorgeous and shrouded in mystery. And we can’t be more excited to be here.
What is a splake? They are a hybrid of two fish species resulting in the crossing of a male brook trout and a female lake trout and there are an abundance of them, some possessing exceptional size, in this lake. In most other places an 18 inch splake is celebrated—get one over 20 and they plan a parade route. But here they are commonplace, with some getting even much larger. We know of this first hand, having caught several at this location measuring over 20 inches while fishing through the ice—including one true giant of 28 inches. And with our winter success, we just had to return and pursue them with a fly.
Everything is perfect on this spring morning: the weather is dry, cool and crisp; the trees are budding with the hope of green leaves; the sky is clear and the sun is now rising, positioned just below the tops of the fragrant evergreen pines. Best of all, my teenage son, who suddenly possesses a busy social calendar, is making the hike with me today.
Arriving at the lake, tired but giddy with excitement we drop our gear, start to ready our rods and then I see it.
“Son of a bitch—“ “He forgot.”
Whispering under my breath, I just noticed the outboard motor, needed to propel us around the lake, was sadly missing from the sixteen foot aluminum boat we had rented as promised. I cursed again—this time out loud, suddenly feeling the exhaustion of the seven hour drive from Minneapolis, the two hour drive from Atikokan and the pack in with heavy gear. Grant noticed my face becoming visibly red with frustration.
“Now what?”, he asked.
I looked down at my phone, having lost service several hours earlier, its only function now being a camera.
“I guess we go find Barry”.
Barry Brown, owner of the lodge we had rented from, hastily, apologetically, had a motor on our aluminum boat within 90 minutes. But only after we hiked out, drove 20 miles to his resort, interrupted his breakfast, watched him load a four wheeler and our missing motor onto his truck and deliver it back to our waiting boat at the lake.
With the loss of valuable fishing time, we gratefully pull started the four stroke Honda and finally set off on the water. Order and perfection had now been restored.
Splake can be found virtually anywhere in the water column, as consistent with their combined lineage, and our search started on a shallow rock flat where in winter we had experienced consistent success. Without a trolling motor, we begin our drift and let the wind, now increased to ten miles per hour, push us along. On the first drift Grant lands a smallish splake while aggressively stripping a white streamer. Our second drift produces nothing. As we neared the end of our third, I am jolted hard, my eight weight rod straining to the brink. Grant is ready with the landing net and my mind is wild with excitement.
“I think this is the one we came here for!” I blurted out.
But our celebration was abruptly replaced with surprise and disappointment as a huge pike emerged from under the boat, eventually finding its way into our net. It is obese, no doubt happily residing in a lake filled with trout, and I swear it flashed a devilish grin at us before disappearing back into the crystal clear water.
Fun but not what we came for, we move on to a rock wall on the opposite side of the lake, but with difficulty negotiating the wind, we decide to drift into an adjacent shallow bay. Good decision! Grant hooks up immediately with a solid fish that has no interest in our net, battling hard to stay away. Tiring as it nears the boat, it allows us a look at its gorgeous colorings while holding over boulders in ten feet of water. Just under 20 inches, this was a good splake! Grant’s white Zonker streamer keeps paying off with each drift giving up nice fish. Unexpectedly, on one cast, a “gang” of 10 inch perch pursue the large streamer, appearing like a group of hoodlums chasing a kid from their neighborhood.
With the sun now high in the sky, we agree to head to the east end of the lake to a shallow, sandy bay we had previously earmarked to have lunch. The spot is forested with poplar and pine for shade and there is a perfect picnic bench in the shape of a large, downed pine log to enjoy our food. We ate in near silence, amazed at the beautiful scenery surrounding us. These days I am facing a harsh reality: I can no longer take for granted fishing trips with my son. But on this one, I am enjoying every second.
Lunch now over, we eagerly return to work. I have brought along a portable sonar unit, with a suction cup transducer mounting, and as we are crossing in open water—traveling to our next spot—I notice on the screen a large amount of baitfish. We quickly ready our rods, employing heavy sink tips, and start casting. My third cast, a large silhouette follows closely behind the silver Zonker streamer but spooks as it nears the boat. We are on some really big fish! Casting furiously, with confidence after seeing the large fish, we continue the effort until my rod doubles over, stopping me in my tracks with something massive! The fish does not at all have any desire to come vertical but eventually does, and finally we see it deep in the gin clear water. Judging by its size, it appears to have inherited more from its lake trout mother than its brook trout father. Grant is quick with the net and we stood amazed at the captured splake, a true trophy, that would soon measure at 26 inches. Releasing the fish, it slowly disappears back to the depths to resume its hunt for digestible food.
Despite continued casting, we surprisingly did not encounter another fish in open water and after a short while decided to move on to another rock wall—this one littered with boulders. Grant catches one nice splake in the 20 foot water but with wind giving us difficulty staying put, asks me to drop him off on the huge boulders next to shore. Obliging, I leave him off and for the next 30 minutes he puts on a show, catching four big splake, all of them simply gorgeous with dark green bodies—spotted randomly white from their lake trout roots—along with brilliant orange fins, obviously inherited from their brook trout kin.
That is how we ended the day on the small lake. We returned the boat to where we found it and with the sun now low, again just below the tops of the pines, we hiked back to our waiting pickup truck—keeping an eye out for recently awakened black bears—and looking forward to a evening of sitting by the fire near our tent. (We had actually seen five bears that same morning!)
Finding your own Canadian “off the grid” splake (or other species) lake has been made easy by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) who oversees the Fish ON-Line tool for anglers (see below link). Check it out and challenge yourself! And while there are obviously easier ways to catch large splake, for myself, I would argue that a little extra effort makes the reward more satisfying.
Updated note from the author:
Since the writing of this article, Barry Brown has sadly passed away. He will be sorely missed by the many, including my family, who patronized his lodge during his 30 plus years of ownership.