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FISHING

Fishing as a sport has often been described as an activity that consists of long periods of boredom followed by short and intense periods of excitement. While this statement is not entirely untrue, it misses the point of the exercise entirely and fails to recognize the paramount importance of the events that happen outside those moments of intense activity, which is for many is a big part of why they enjoy fishing. The down time between catching fish allows us those neccesary moments of respite from the world and to reconnect with ourselves. It is a time for solitary reflection and introspection, observation and thought about nature and existence, or a time to talk to a close friend. The truth is if we only fished to catch fish that the whole endeavor could be viewed as an exceedingly productive way to waste ones time. The scientific method can back me up on this. Should one be so inclined to analyze the mathematical calculations of catch rates vs. effort or hours fished they would quickly arrive at the conclusion that ninety percent of their time was spent staring at inert lines and not much else. In the real world where their is an expectation of a return on an investment, people would get fired for such a lack of productivity. But this is where logic and mathematics fall to the wayside and where statistics hold no currency.The algorithms and calculations are deficient in the recognition of the existential moments that occur during these long periods of inactivity, the sonnet within the silence, the crack of light that emerges through the shadows, bringing with it both hope and meaning. They don’t account for the satisfaction of casting a perfect loop of line that unfurls like poetry over a page of unwritten water, still brimming with hope and promise. Or the mysterious way a sunset moves us all to silence and wonder about the magic that is our world. Nor do they recognize the memories that are built and the friendships that are forged during these long periods of inactivity. They cannot explain the prose that is all flowing water, or the breath-taking sight of an eagle soaring high above in the sky. Nor do they explain a myriad of other individual reasons that keep all of us drawn back to waters of a sorts. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter if we don’t catch fish.

Fishing is one of those enigmatic activities in that most thoughtful people who have been at it for long enough will admit you that catching fish is not always paramount to the activity of fishing. A recent study in Alberta confirms this by noting inadvertently during a study on catch rates that anglers were not necessarily attracted to high catch rate fisheries, thus suggesting that angler behavior is very complex and not motivated by catch rates alone. This perspicacious finding was a by-catch of a creel analysis study on catch rates and as such the reasons behind this complex angler behavior were not included in the study parameters, only briefly commented upon by the research team. As their research on the subject deepens, they will no doubt discover that there are far more subtle factors at work determining what makes up a good day of fishing that can’t be accounted for by statistics nor catch rates. www.thefishinglife.com

LA RESERVE BEAUCHENE

It started off like any other day fishing for ­­smallmouth bass. The sun was just beginning to rise above the majestic stands of oak and jack pine on the mountain and the morning fog was lifting a few feet above the lakes calm mirrored surface. The only sound to be heard was that of the waves lapping against the bow of the boat and a solitary loon that noisily guarded the entrance of the bay. We were drifting slowly with the wind, casting our poppers against the shoreline, and taking in the beauty of our pristine surroundings when it happened. Ploop, Ploop, Ploop, Kershplooosh!!!! In one brief and violent instant, the water under my partners lure erupted, leaving a bathtub-sized depression where his lure had once been. He reared back on his rod, which was arched down to the corks under the weight of a good fish. The fish rose to the surface once, in a perfunctory attempt to break gravity and heave it’s massive body out of the water to shake the hook, and then fought a deep tug-of-war until brought to the boat. When it was finally landed and we took a good look at it we were both stunned for a few moments. It was a huge smallmouth bass. Twenty-four inches according to the tape measure, two feet long and as fat and round as a rugby ball. By far the biggest smallmouth we had ever seen. Welcome to La Reserve Beauchêne, the land that time forgot, and the land of giants. Jurassic park for smallmouth.

HISTORY

Located in the wild boreal taiga forests of Temiskaming in Northern Quebec, La Reserve Beauchêne is rich in character and history. The very name of Beauchene itself evokes several different meanings. In French, the name translates into “beautiful oak”, a fact not to be denied if one takes a good look at the surrounding mountains. Others maintain that the origin of the name lie in the Algonquin Indian language, where Bau-Ching, as it was pronounced, means “two waters”, suggesting the form of the Beauchêne lake as it is two lakes separated by a narrows section.

The main lodge, known as the White House, was built in 1924, the same year as the mill in Temiskaming. It was built for Mr. Lawrence Jones of Kentucky, owner of Frankfort Distillers, maker of a few well-known brands including Four Roses Bourbon. Jones was a keen outdoorsmen and the White House was intended to be the Jones summer home. It was Roland Zeitz who had built the structure, according to Jones architectural drawings, and the southern roots of the owner are quite apparent in the Southern plantation style of the building, complete with Romanesque columns that face out onto the lake. Zeitz had made Jones’ acquaintance as a guide on Lake Nippissing and the two men became very close. Incredibly, it was built single-handedly by Zeitz in a period of less than three months and at an under budget cost of five thousand dollars. The structure is made entirely out of knot-free British Columbia fir that Jones had bought and shipped down to Beauchêne by boxcar.

It was Zeitz who had originally discovered Beauchêne for Jones. While the fishery in the early days was poor due to poaching and commercial fishing during WWI, because of its virtually unspoiled shorelines, pristine water and proximity to a number of other smaller lakes nearby, Jones decided it was the perfect place for a private fishing camp. He had an uncannily prescient vision that they could develope the fishery into something incredible and in 1923 he leased the territory from the Quebec government and began to develope the area. At that time there were no roads into Temiskaming, except one, and the area was populated only by small farms and logging settlements.

When Roland Zeitz first came to Beauchêne, there were neither bass nor brook trout in any of the lakes. The only indigenous species were whitefish and lake trout, which had suffered heavy casualties as a result of poaching and commercial harvest as a result of wartime rationing. Jones had brought in smallmouth bass by truck in 1925 from Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships, what must have been a remarkable journey in those days of limited road systems. Initial stockings of rainbow trout from Port Allegheny, New York, in both Foley and Taggart lakes proved to be without long-term results.

Today, the territory remains as unspoiled as when Zeitz first laid eyes on it and it covers a massive 205 square kilometers that contain over three dozen lakes that offer some of the very best fishing opportunities for outdoorsmen. While most of the lakes contain bass and speckled trout, there are others with lake trout, pike, and even splake, a hybrid of a lake trout and speckled trout. La Reserve Beauchêne is truly as close to an angler’s Valhalla as possible. Because of the variety of the fish, this is a year round fishery, as there is always something active on the menu.

BROOK TROUT

The Brook Trout of La Reserve Beauchêne are a unique species of char, Assinica strain, native to the North Eastern portion of this continent. While the lakes of the territory are mostly stocked, some of them, such as Taggart and David, trophy lakes that see several fish above five pounds landed every year, are thought to have indigenous populations. These are fast growing fish that by age 2-3 are anywhere from sixteen to twenty inches, fat and healthy, sporting the most beautiful colors, especially in the fall when they are spawning.

After ice-out in late May or early April depending on the season, when water temperatures are still cold, the brook trout can be targeted near the surface, with both flies and artificial baits producing decent fish. If opting to fly fish, a floating line with a minnow or leech pattern will yield good results. Mickey Finns, Memphremagog smelt, and brown-nosed dace patterns are sure to produce. Later in the season, the fish are found deeper, and can be targeted anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five feet down, usually just below the thermocline.

Artificial baits that mimic the prevalent forage base of the lake, such as sinking Shad Raps, Countdowns, and Yo-Zuri minnow type baits are absolutely deadly. Small spoons, spinners, and even jigs have also taken their fair share of trophy fish. The camp record, a seven and a quarter pound fish, was captured in Lake David on a pumkinseed colored crappie jig. Because of the lodges management policy, treble hooks must be barbless, a fact that positively impacts the results of live-release. In order to maintain the trophy quality of the territory, some of these lakes have a no-kill policy.

Other lakes that have speckled trout fishing and are accessible by four by four vehicle include Joanna, Helen, Baps, Jeffrey, Foley, Tank, as well as a host of others. There is really no shortage of lakes to chose from and the fisheries are all extremely well managed and catch & release is the camp policy, ensuring both the quality and longevity of the fishery.

BASS

The bass fishing is probably the biggest drawing card that brings people from every continent back each year. This fishery is nothing short of phenomenal. Legendary. Known and frequented by some of the best bass anglers in the world. If you come here be prepared to catch some of the largest bass of your lifetime. These are some of the longest and fattest smallmouth anywhere on the planet! While the average fish is around two and a half pounds, there are enough four and five pound fish to keep things interesting. The lake record is a whopping seven and one quarter pounds!

On our first day, under the advice of Katia, the camp guide, we had fished traditional baits such as jigs, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits against the shoreline and off the drop-offs but nothing seemed to be producing the larger fish we were targeting. Lake Beauchene, the main lake, is a big lake and there was a lot of water to cover. The biggest bass are also found in the main lake. The smaller lakes, such as McConnell and McDonald, had been producing unheard of quantities but nothing preposterously large. A man we met from Alabama, visiting with his wife and son, had caught seventy-five fish in McConnell the previous day, and was complaining about a sore wrist.

We decided to forsake quantity for quality and had made a decision to only fish the main lake for the monsters, a few of which we had seen so faithfully replicated on the walls of the White House. At night, while toasting the memory of Zeitz and Jones with a delightful Forest Glen Merlot or a sifter of complimentary Cointreau from the bar, these taxidermied fish were the stuff of much discussion, fantasy and hopefulness for the following day.

As the barometer continued to rise on the second day we began fishing topwater baits and were rewarded with several large fish. Rebel Pop-Rs, buzzbaits, Moss Bosses, and Jitterbugs fished aggressively seemed to trigger these bigger fish from the depths. These fish were by no means easy to catch and the truly large ones are spread out all over the lake and in all types of areas. There is so much shoreline structure that is just the perfect fish habitat. Nothing is to be neglected. Deadfalls, submerged rocks and logs, rocky saddles and shoals, back bays, islands – no human being could ever design a better habitat for these fish.

One our last night we stayed out late on the water and were casting jitterbugs under a full moon in the narrows section at midnight. The bass had corralled some baitfish against the shoreline and every so often the water erupted and the moonlight glimmered off a million tiny silvery fish that were trying to escape an almost pre-determined fate.

Off in the distance a lonely timber wolf howled in the darkness. Above us, high in the northern sky, the aurora borealis flickered like a cosmic fire that was burning down to its embers. A few minutes would pass and then the water exploded on our baits, shaking us back to reality. It was a magic evening in a magnificent place still unspoiled by the hand of man. We stayed out until midnight, unwilling for the day to end as we were scheduled to leave in the morning. It was clear to us that we would be taking a little bit of the Beauchene spirit with us, held tight in out hearts and souls, and that it would also be impossible not to come back to this place again and again. www.thefishinglife.com

LOST FISH

IMAGINE IF YOU WILL how intolerably boring the enterprise of sportfishing would be if we were always assured of success in landing each and every fish hooked. It would certainly, in the long run, truly be unbearable and in fact, by theoretical definition, the endeavor could no longer be called a “sport” as the element of chance, an inherent criteria for any game, will have been removed.

While it is a generally accepted axiom in fishing that luck decreases as a factor determining success or failure as the skill level of the angler increases, in this brave new world of fisherman egalitarianism advanced skills become unneccesary and luck, either good or bad, no longer plays a role in the outcome. No longer will ten percent of the fisherman catch ninety percent of the fish as both neophyte and expert would equally be assured of unmitigated success. The infinite challenges that angling offers and the knowledge of a lifetime of experience would no longer be of any importance.

There is a famous story told of an angler who dies and goes on to the great river beyond which he is thrilled to discover is full of rising trout. Each and every one of his casts yields a three pound rainbow. They are all takers. The fish fight hard on both dry flies and nymphs and regardless of the presentation they are always willing and able to hook themselves. The first pleasant days turn into monotonous weeks and with each successive landing of an identical trout to the one preceding it, the angler soon realizes that the certainty of each cast in his utopia has all the ironies of a veritable trout purgatory.

One could quite easily argue along the line of reasoning that it is precisely because we do lose fish that we continue to make the journey back to the water, presumably to re-test our skills and attempt to catch that big one that always seem to get away. Ray Bergman, author of TROUT and other short stories that influenced the thoughts of an entire generation of fishermen, once wrote that it was the fish that get away that thrill and inspire us the most and that it is a neccesary good to lose fish once in awhile. Although Ray may be sounding like he (as all fisherman do at some point) may be trying to come to grips with the loss of a few good fish himself, there is certainly some greater truth to be gleaned beyond the simplicity of this statement.

All fisherman are haunted by the memory of a lost fish. It was none other than Theodore Gordon, the puritanical father of American dry fly fishing, who in his memoirs, bemoaned that every day of his life he saw the head of the largest trout he ever hooked but did not land. For some, long after they may have forgotten what peculiar yet appealing idiosyncrasies allowed them to fall in love with their spouses, or what the name of their first hunting dog was, they will remember that one particular fish that got away. There will be many sleepless nights during which they will pore over the minutiae of events that led to the ultimate demise. WHAT WENT WRONG? For many, although impossible to quantify for obvious reasons, it will most certainly be amongst the last thoughs that flash through their minds before they die.

Sometimes nothing goes wrong yet our efforts are still met with failure. On those rare occasions where we are guilty of no wrongdoings, and through no fault of equipment nor obstacle, we still manage to lose fish. It is an immutable law of nature that big fish get away – that’s how they became big, as goes the old adage. Such are the vagaries of fishing.

It was widely reported, several years ago, that some charter boat angler fishing the famous King salmon run on the Kenai river in Alaska, had hooked a world record sized fish that he fought for nearly thirty-six hours. The news had spread quickly via radio to other charter boats and then to national media affiliates who soon had boats alongside filming the event live where a nation could watch the drama unfold from the comfort of their living rooms. The fish jumped twice for the cameras and all those involved were certain it was an all-tackle record. After a day and a half of give and take, both man and fish at the point of complete exhaustion, the fish surfaced one final time and rolled on its side. The captain of the boat lunged to net it but somehow missed, the hook slipped out of the corner of the fish’s mouth, and the giant fish sank back into the murky depths of the river in front of a national audience. Hero to zero in a nanosecond, depsite the fact it was still a superlative angling effort. No one knows for sure what became of that hapless angler but what we do know is that what may have been a legendary feat in the annals of sportfishing got relegated to a minor footnote in the dustbin of piscatorial ignominy. Now there is not much fairness there.

Some fish afford such tremendous sport that the memory of an encounter can last a lifetime. The late Lee Wulff, a man whom we all owe a great deal, was said to have vividly remembered until the time of his death more than fifty years later, his first Atlantic salmon and how it changed the course of his entire life. This was the fish that prompted Wulff to embark on a pioneering journey of fishery conservation and it was he that coined the phrase that “a gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once“. His fish was a fresh-run twelve pound hen and it left a lasting impression on him until the day he died. Of course, this was a fish that he actually landed.

And while it is almost certain that a trophy fish well captured makes for a great memory, what about a great fish not captured? Well, that certainly makes for an entirely different memory. The former, the sweet memory of victory, the latter, the bitter residual taste of the vanquished. But as with most things in this world, memory is relative and all is in perception and how we view the proverbial half-glass of water. Success or failure are often the opposite sides of the same coin.

Many anglers, who would probably throttle Bergman if he uttered such heresy to them after they had just lost the fish of a lifetime, will with the many years thereafter distill the experience like fine wine or single malt scotch until the bitterness dissappears with the passage of time. No, it isn’t good to lose fish but it is a small price to pay if it keeps the sport honest and pure. Lost fish provide us with exhiliarating memories, sepia snapshots etched into our minds, that can both haunt and comfort us.

We should always endeavor to cultivate our memories as they encapsulate the long journey of our lives, highlighting the important events and destinations, like waypoints on a roadmap, giving definition and meaning to the things we cherish and hold close to our hearts. We are what we do and our sport and the way we individually approach it is an inner expression of ourselves. In the end, whether the fish was lost or landed is really of no importance at all. Fishing is a combination of many things and for myself it has always been more about the fishing than the fish. Don’t get me wrong, the fish are a blast too! But with some age and wisdom, I’m beginning to suspect that in the end, after all the fish of a lifetime have been culled and counted and measured and weighed, it is more about the journey than the destination and how we have acquiesced to the blessed uncertainty of the entire process. www.thefishinglife.com

BOREALIS CHAR

It was my first trip to the Ungava peninsula and we were determined to accomplish what nobody with any fishing sense thought possible – catch an Artic char on a dry fly! As guests of a local hunting outfitter who had invited us to evaluate the fly-fishing potential of his territory, we flew in from Montreal on Air Inuit and landed in Kujuuak, formerly known as Fort Chimo. And while it was a mere two hour flight that separated our daily existences, it was like landing in another world altogether.

As the plane came in for its final descent, the arctic landscape came into view where the boreal forest sharply ended and the tundra began, a rich tapestry of greens and blues, thousands of rivers and lakes as far as the eye could see. It was hard to tell if there was more land or water. As we circled the airstrip, the dirt roads and shacks of the settlement could be seen clearly from the air and there seemed to be no movement on the ground. The mighty Koksoak river, influenced by the tidal waters of Ungava Bay, was at low tide and had left several fishing boats stranded on its sandy banks. A few lay broken and bare on the shoreline, like giant whales that had beached themselves, dead corpses in an advanced state of decomposition, their broken backs and ribs exposed like skeletons in an open grave. Like all of nature in this desolate place, the river imposes its rythm on the inhabitants and their way of life and forces them to adapt their activities to it’s incessant ebb and flow.

We were met at the airport by one of the men working for the outfitter who, upon our request, dropped us off in town to pick up some last minute supplies at the Hudson’s bay Store, instructing us to meet him at the smaller air field at the outskirts of town once we were done. His sentence barely complete, half in English and French, the wheels of the Ford pick-up began spinning and we were left in a cloud of dust on the side of the road. The weather was unusually warm, with the mercury rising above a hundred fahrenheit and nothing stirred save for a mangy brown dog that crossed the dusty road and dissappeared behind a corrugated structure that looked like a warehouse. The village was like a deserted ghost town. The general supply store was one of the oldest fur trading posts in the country, and as we walked through aisles overstocked with canned goods, ammunition, fishing tackle, and clothing, the wood flooring creaked beneath our footsteps and an age-old musty smell of trading history emanated from the floors and brought us back a hundred years to the era of fur-trading. We commented to each other, that strangely, we had not seen another person other than our driver since our arrival. The Inuit were not active in this weather confirmed the non-native cashier at the general store when asked about the whereabouts of the villagers. They were waiting for the weather to turn, she said, as she handed over my receipt and change.

We would be fishing for landlocked char in some inland lakes located northwest of Kujuuak, far above the treeline on the tundra, a vast and lonely landscape bejeweled with millions of lakes and rivers created by the receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. Our base camp, one of eight satellite bases set up along some of the known caribou migration routes of the George River herd, was on Lake Rougemont, a large oligotrophic lake that was home to Artic char, lake, and brook trout.

It was late August and the char were preparing to spawn, staging at the mouth’s of rivers and creeks that flowed into the main lake. These were not sea-run fish and we had assumed that they would display characteristics similar to all trout everywhere and would inherently feel the age old genetic imperative to rise to an insect on the surface. If they weren’t like trout, we reasoned, then maybe they were somewhat like the often enigmatic Atlantic salmon. After all, if the king of finicky fish would, nevertheless, and with uncertain irregularity, smack the bejesus out of a floating fly, the same hopefulness could perhaps exist for the char. After all, we were convinced enough to spend a few thousand dollars on the flight just to test the theory and possibly shed some light on the mystery. This had been the subject that animated many late night fishing discussions for two years until Johnny May, the most famous of all bush pilots in Arctic Quebec, gently alit the pontoons of the Beaver float plane upon the crystalline surface of the lake.

On our first day, under the advisement of Clifford, the camp manager and chief hunting guide, we headed out onto the main lake and began to fish near every trickle of water that discharged into the lake, no matter how small. As we discovered even the smallest flows – literally drops of water falling from three hundred foot rock precipices – would hold fish. Near the first creek we located, we saw huge schools of ghostlike char that mysteriously appeared as shadows and then vanished into the turbulent water, leaving no clue as to their whereabouts. At first we though they were hallucinations. We were so excited that our hands trembled as we tied our flies to the ends of our tippets. This was the moment we had dreamed of for many years, travelling thousands of miles to the top of the world, above the fifty- eighth parrallel in the land of the midnight sun, Eskimos, polar bears, igloos – and now we were about to realize our finest hour.

This was clearly our intention but nobody had told the char.

We drifted every fly in our boxes over their noses without a rise and then every so often, as if to get a rise out of us, a fish would surface near our flies, giving us the hopeful impression that they were rising to something, despite the absence of any visible hatch. As the day drew on without a fish, and the golden sun dropped over the flat horizon, we were both silent as we motored back to base camp. Maybe the naysayers were right and it was an impossible feat.

Unable to sleep that night, frustrated with the first day’s activities, I wandered out my tent to relieve myself in the middle of the night and was met with the most incredible sight of my life – the aurora borealis. The sky was lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors – reds, violets, purples, and pinks – that kept moving and shifting across the horizon, like a colorful curtain, hanging across the sky. For an hour or so, I watched this spectacular light show in complete awe and wondered about how the first Inuit to witness this interpreted this mysterious natural phenomena in their oral mythology.

The next two days were spent flagellating the water with similar results, our psyches becoming increasingly unhinged in the process as at night, under the influence of strong libation, we engaged in wild conjectures about char conspiraces within the Theodore Gordon Society, the mating habits of Arctic muskox, and whether or not Lee Wulff or Roderick Haigh-Brown was the greatest fly fisherman that ever lived.

At the end of each day, as we returned empty-handed, Clifford would would come running to meet us on the beach and upon hearing of our results would proclaim that he had the solution to our problems in his shirt pocket. His sharp blue eyes, hardened by years of living on the tundra, glittered with childlike amusement as he would then proceed to pull out several white curly tail jigs heads, waving them teasingly in front of our faces.

In order to maintain our faith in the feather and maintain what little sanity remained, in between our unsuccessful outings for char we took our frustrations out on the many brook trout in the creeks adjoining the various smaller lakes on the territory. At least these trout were willing to hit a dry fly. One particular fly, a black gnat, was very effective and had caught hundreds of fish before we ran out of the pattern. In complete contrast to the char, the trout fishing was so easy it was almost shameful.

On our last day, when failure was almost a certainty, we decided to hike across the tundra and fish another lake a few miles away. The Artic landscape spread before us like another planet and merely walking on the and greenish-grey colored lichen of the tundra was a strange experience, like walking on an uneven sponge and there is always the expectation of falling through its soft carpeting. It is an unforgiving land, and there are signs of it all around us. A sun-bleached, ivory white rack of caribou antlers stands alone on the ground and points skyward in supplication. The remaining bones of the animal are scattered around on the ground, like runes, telling a story about a injured leg or a final struggle with a wolf or bear. One can sense the loneliness of the land, the delicate balance between survival and death, the daily struggle to survive in this hostile environment.

Within minutes after arriving at the lake, my companion managed to get a small char on a streamer and as he fought it, confessed to me how he had stayed up late the night before and switched to a fast-sinking line, hoping I did not mind the breach of mission protocol. It was a beautiful fish, the first Arctic char that either of us had ever seen, other than from photos in fishing magazines. He caught several more fish like this while I continued to drift dries, again using every pattern in the fly box.

At one point, after switching over to a small brown Bomber pattern that had caught some smallmouth bass a few weeks earlier on my home waters and casting out in the current, I placed the rod on a rock and turned around to relieve myself on the tundra. No sooner than my pants were down below my knees there was a terrific splash and my companion began yelling at me. I turned slowly, thinking that he had another fish on but then saw my fly rod bouncing across the rocks towards the water. Leaping forward, I managed to grab the rod before is disappeared into the lake and when I reeled in the slack line I felt the weight of a good fish. The first run took me into my backing and I fought in for a good ten minutes before it finally lay exhausted at my feet.

There it finally was, salvelinus alpinus, glistening in the sun like marvelous piece of museum artwork, sporting the colorations of the aurora borealis along its flanks, the object of a lengthy and noble quest, yet something didn’t feel quite right. Cold wind was blowing through my legs and I had an eerie sensation of being surrounded and watched by an unseen presence. I looked down and realized my pants were still around my ankles. As I stooped down to pull up my pants I suddenly wheeled around to face the tundra and was stunned by the sight that met my eyes. A thousand or so caribou had momentarily slowed down their migration, some at a standtill while others slowly trotted, apparently to stare at the odd human on the tundra, all the while snorting their indifference in the cold Arctic wind. – www.thefishinglife.com

the last day

It was the middle of December, and although the possibility of the lake being frozen over was on both our minds, it was not discussed openly during the long drive to the lake. The days were getting shorter and the shadows longer and we both silently knew that it would be one of the last days of the year to catch a musky, and that we would have to wait another six months before the new season opened next summer. As we approached our usual put-in spot we realized that we were already too late, and that a thin layer of ice had already formed on the lake’s surface, stretching out for miles in all directions. Our hearts sank in unison and we both muttered a few imprecatory words before resigning ourselves to the vagaries of winter fishing. It was always risky at this time of year and we were never certain of the success or failure of these winter musky expeditions. This is always hard fishing, the weather is cold and unforgivable, equipment seizes up and becomes prone to failure, the body stiffens and becomes brittle, refusing to move, and the mind plays games on itself. It is not for the faint of heart, only for those whose desire to catch a fish is is matched only by their willingness and ability to suffer. These are not days for your normal fisherman.

We slowly drove down the lakeshore road, searching for any open water that we could find, but to no avail. At one point, probably because the temperature had climbed a degree or two since the early morning, we found a small bay that still had open water, not much, but enough to put the Zodiac in and satisfy our desire to fish. We had caught fish here before, in summer, but it had now been reduced to but a few square acres of open water extending out near a deep weedline. Slowly, we donned our floater suits, hats, gloves, boots, and pumped up the boat. My companion studied his camera and realized that the shutter was unresponsive in the cold, nor would the flash keep a charge. A photo session would not be part of the equation today. Another setback before the day even began.

We loaded all our gear in the inflatable and slid it like a toboggan down the snow covered hill to the water’s edge. Ice had already formed against the rocks on the shoreline and glittered like diamonds in the morning sun. The water was flat and calm, gunmetal blue, the color of cold steel. It looked promising and we pushed off confident that we would see some, albeit limited, action.

Within seconds we rigged up our quick-strike rigs with the largest minnows in the bucket and let the lines trail off behind us on both sides of the boat. We ran one line about fifteen feet back, drifting the minnow in the propwash while another ran sixty or so feet off the port side, right about where the weed line ends and the drop-off begins. Once settled in, we poured hot coffee into ourselves to stay warm and ate peanut butter sandwiches, checking our free-spools every so often to assure that they had not frozen up, as well.

An hour or so after we put in, we had covered all the open water available and were making a last weedline pass when my friend’s clicker suddenly began to sound like a race car engine. Fish on! The hook was set and the fish began moving off under the ice. The fight was sluggish and although the rod was bent to the handle, the fish was a thumper and not a runner, strong but easily manageable. The water was way too cold for running and jumping. The battle would be fought at close quarters, under and around the boat, for several minutes. When we first caught a glimpse of the fish it was a large female, mint colored, and fat with weeks of heavy Fall feeding on protein-rich mooneyes. It came to the boat twice before we were able to hand land it without any struggle on her behalf. For a few seconds, we admired her awesome beauty and marvelled at its hybrid markings. It was a tiger musky, with beautifully patterned stripes of green and ivory that so perfectly mimicked the undulating weedbeds where they live and ambush prey. As we slipped the circle hook out of her mouth and held her in the water, we looked around us and noticed that the ice had starting forming in the bay and that our access to shoreline was now blocked by a translucent sheet of bluish ice. We watched as the fish slowly swam away into the dark and frigid depths. Without a word we both knew it was now the time to leave this place and as the inflatable cut a path through the thin veneer of ice towards the shoreline, we both silently acknowledged that this was our last musky of the year. – ARI VINEBERG