QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO – A big-shouldered lake trout hooked by Carson Spohn pulled so hard, at such an angle, that the bow of his canoe swung swiftly toward the deep end of the lake.
Reeled back toward the boat, the fish appeared to be finished. An instant later, it splashed and plunged straight down, looping part of his pursuer’s fishing rod into the water.
“Best fishing I’ve ever had in my life,’’ said Aaron Youngblom, 26, who experienced many similar battles on the same trip.
It was late April in the Canadian wilderness, barely north of the Minnesota border, and the shallows of a just-thawed lake were brimming with a class of fish that ordinarily dwells in the coldest, deepest parts of the coldest, deepest lakes.
During the short period when these “lakers’’ chase bait fish near the surface, our group of four experienced anglers — two in their mid-20s and two in their mid-50s — wanted to get at them despite the dangers of paddling heavily loaded canoes upstream on a rising river, in icy water.
The potential unpleasantries of strong winds, muddy portages, freezing overnight temps, snow or rain would be canceled out, we hoped, by peerless fishing, afternoon warmth, bug-free camping, rare wildlife sightings and the conquest of being the first paddlers to enter Quetico Provincial Park this year from the northwest side of Lac La Croix, a popular gateway.
“You’re definitely first,’’ said Campbell Handberg, a Lac La Croix resort owner who towed us with a motorboat to the edge of the back country. But his parting advice to us was to camp nearby and not mess with the swollen Maligne River, the path to many of the park’s most beautiful lakes.
Not taking Maligne lightly
The Maligne spills angrily over Twin Falls at Quetico’s entrance and the falls were roaring from early spring water volumes. Just above the falls is where the paddling begins and we had talked and worried incessantly about paddling upriver so early in the spring with the falls directly at our backs.
Aaron and Carson, 27, both of Duluth, were in one canoe while Carson’s father, Bill, also of Duluth, skippered the second canoe. All gear was stashed in five big packs and Bill’s slightly longer canoe carried three of them.
We all studied the river’s contours while standing on shore, waiting to launch. This wasn’t a control room at NASA, but a canoe careening over the falls sideways or backward would be our equivalent of a rocket explosion.
The key was building enough speed against a stiff wind and menacing current to overcome a riffle located 250 yards upstream of the falls. The riffle was on the right side of an island in the middle of the river. Rapids on the island’s left side were impassible.
“Paddle harder!’’ Bill yelled from the back of our canoe as we approached the riffle. But we couldn’t outmuscle the flow. The front of our canoe faded to the right and was swept sideways by the full force of the stream.
The river kept pushing and we collided loudly and unexpectedly with the second canoe. As the water swirled around us, Bill scrambled to regain control from the stern. When we were pointing straight at the falls, he hollered: “We’re OK, we’re OK. Paddle backward.’’
Meanwhile, Aaron and Carson shrugged off the collision and powered over the riffle to safer water. Bill and I regrouped in an eddy behind the island and succeeded in our second attempt.
Not much was said for the next quarter of a mile as both canoes paddled hard to extend our distance from the falls. None of us had panicked, which was our saving grace.
Over the next six hours, the wind was our adversary and the fast-moving Maligne proved to be more formidable than we expected. At one point, three of us used a 50-foot rope to pull the heaviest canoe along the river’s edge to beat a difficult gradient. On our route’s two portages, we cleared a downed tree and removed brush.
Those chores and the close call at the falls were quickly forgotten when we arrived. We set up camp on a sun-dappled island carpeted with pine needles. A few patches of snow still clung to the matted forest floor around the lake, and it was easy to imagine that a pair of nearby loons were also new arrivals on the lake.
Our earliness was unmistakable. Tree branches were bare of buds, songbirds were scarce and there were zero herring gulls to scavenge our first fish remains. Most remarkably, in five days we never saw or heard another camper. Not one.
Back on the water
“Let’s give it a go,’’ said Carson, eager to get back in the canoes after our first breakfast in camp.
We had previous lake trout experience in these parts, enough to suggest the fish would snap at anything. If the fishing was ridiculously good, we would try casting actual door hinges given to Bill by an elder neighbor who long ago fished for trout on Lake Superior.
Armed with stick baits and various spoons, we first trolled a shoreline that was fruitful years ago. Carson landed a laker on his first pass, as did Bill, who also caught a nice smallmouth bass.
The first two trout were smallish compared to previous outings, less than 4 pounds. But when we paddled into the next bay, also near the shore, our lines were hit each time by bigger fish. That’s all we did on our first day of fishing and the action was so intense for Carson and Aaron that they stopped landing them. Instead, they would shake the trout off their barbless hooks at the side of the canoe.
All day long we followed an L-shaped shoreline located a half-mile from our camp. In Bill’s words, it was a Disney World ride that was too good to leave. There were no snags and 90 percent of the fish we caught were torque-crazy lake trout, most between 4 and 7 pounds.
Our boat was outfished by the younger anglers on the first day. Carson and Aaron are avid fly anglers who target steelhead on the North Shore. They have fishing kayaks and also chase brown trout during winter on Lake Superior when the ice isn’t shifting too badly.
The two of them had fashioned their own leaders out of clear, heavy-duty, flourocarbon fishing line, about 24 inches in length. The 6-inch leader on my line was black and made of steel. I copied them and the results were positive.
The next day, Aaron caught the biggest fish of the trip — a monster that he guessed (too conservatively) was more than 30 inches long. But Bill and I kept pace. We were trolling shiny spoons in 10 feet of water and the fishing was so good that Carson and Aaron broke out their fly rods for the fun of it.
Some of the specimens we caught had fins with striking blaze orange trim. All were healthy and the smaller lakers we kept for table fare were delicious — wrapped in foil with lemon and cajun seasonings and cooked over an open fire.
Our catch rate slowed on our third and last day of fishing, either from the brilliant sun or the familiarity of our lures. When Bill and I added small tin weights to our leaders, taking them deeper, the trout responded.
Except for cold mornings and moderate winds, it was a fishing-friendly trip. Sightings of eagles, mallards, common mergansers, goldeneyes and buffleheads brightened our days and walleyes, strangely enough, were our main entertainment at night.
Not one of us unintentionally hooked a walleye (the Ontario season on these fish was yet to open), but when the sun went down, they would congregate along the rocky shoreline of our camp — their eyes and slow movements visible in beams of light from our head lamps.
When it was time to head home we remembered the door hinges. Next time.