After nine hours in the car, kilometers upon kilometers twisting and turning along a magnificent rocky river, a speeding ticket and walleye tips from the friendly Canadian police, there we were in Chapleau, Ontario. We parked our two vehicles and unloaded an army’s-worth of provisions and gear, then immediately re-loaded it all into boats. Not long after arriving in the small, sleepy village of Chapleau we were leaving it, headed bleary-eyed and road-weary to some cabins on an island.
The adventure had already begun; Suddenly I was at the helm of a 14 foot aluminum fishing boat, holding onto the steering end of an eight-horsepower four-stroke Honda outboard motor. I’d never used a trolling motor let alone an outboard, nor had I ever tried to navigate the closed quarters of docks with the power of eight horses in a loud, fume-spewing, metal container. Claire did her best to guide me. I have no problem learning musical instruments, but any other type of new physical skill takes an inordinate amount of brainpower for me to grasp.
It was rough. I hit the docks with enough force to make me paranoid, but not enough to cause any real damage.
Once we were on the open water things were easier due to a lack of obstacles, but more difficult because I had to steer. “Turn left to go right? That makes no sense!” And so it went. The twenty minute boat ride to the cabins took longer than that but eventually we made it to our new temporary home.
I didn’t notice much of anything until we unpacked everything and filled our cabin with food, beer, and fishing gear. Out of the boats and into the trailer; The tractor towed the trailer up the hill the the cabin, then everything came out of the trailer and headed into the cabin. I have no idea how long it took. Everything we brought had made its way either into the kitchen, the beds, or the boats.
I don’t remember much about that first evening out there on the chain of lakes; What I do remember is eating something, drinking a beer or two, and making an early trip to bed in heavy anticipation of the fishing to come.
We awoke in the dark, brewed coffee, I think we ate something or other. It was not important. What was important was getting on the water as soon as possible; At least that’s how it went in my head.
Outside it was cold, foggy, possibly rainy. Not long after downing my required single cup of coffee and a few handfuls of granola, I was suddenly back in one of those boats in charge of one of those motors. Left to my own devices– and with plenty of open water to practice– I began to feel more comfortable maneuvering the boat. It was not like a kayak; It was big, loud, metal, and full of fishing gear.
I don’t remember the first fish I caught, or if I even caught a fish that first morning. I remember it was very slow fishing, which contrasted greatly everything I thought I knew about northern Ontario fishing. “Tons of walleye,” “A fish on every cast,” “You won’t go hungry,” This was not the case, at least at first.
Although I was in a far away place in a weird boat fishing remote water, I could have just as easily been fishing somewhere close to home… Except for everything else.
The locale was amazing. Pine trees, rocks, sand, gravel, loons, bald eagles; These are the things that filled our views as we fished. The sounds of loons and eagles, distant outboard motors and the even more distant sound of a train mingled with the lapping of the waves. I wasn’t catching much, but in such a place there is no morning of “bad fishing.” Looking back on the week, I seem to remember smelling pine and pike slime for the entire time we were there– in the cabin, in the boat, on the shore– all the time.
Not a terrible combination. Makes me want to cook some pike with spruce tips or juniper berries. Or poach pike in gin. More on that later, probably.
I caught my first few pike on a lure I’d carved and painted with nail polish. Although northerns are sometimes considered a nuisance (“If I hook one I just cut my line, I don’t want to mess with them. They’re too slimy,” said one of the cops who pulled us over) it turns out pike are great fun to catch.
Another revelation: Pike aren’t that difficult to clean– certainly no more difficult than a small bluegill– and they are extremely tasty. Pike don’t taste like trout or perch or walleye, nor should they.
They are pike. They taste like pike. Pike tastes good.
They do, however, have extra bones (the infamous “Y” bones) but as long as you fillet them the right way you’ll avoid most of them. As I was the unofficial “fish cleaning person” for our group the first few days, I had plenty of time to hone my skills. I cleaned everybody’s fish. Never have I cleaned so many fish. Practice makes perfect is what I said to myself while I began cleaning the 20th fish of the trip.
I never thought I’d take any pleasure in the dismembering of any recently-living thing, but I must admit there is something strangely satisfying about cleaning fish. Converting an animal to pieces, to ingredients, is at once brutal and necessary. You can’t easily eat a whole pike but, as we learned during our week in Ontario, it’s extremely easy (almost effortless) to eat beer-battered pike fillets.
The first few days were fairly uneventful. The weather was cold but not uncomfortable. The other anglers at the fish cleaning shack were having similar luck; They suggested the slow fishing was due to a cold front moving in on our first day. Between the six of us we caught some fish– mostly pike. I don’t remember when the first walleye was caught or even who caught it, but I remember being jealous and wanting some walleye of my own.
That’s when I started trolling like a madman and finally caught my own walleye.