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Even Foul Weather Couldn’t Dampen the Fishing Spirit of These Backcountry Beginners

Sam Gardner (left) and Wes Nelson celebrate a catch. Credit: Scott Gardner.

Weathering the Wilds

For these backcountry beginners, even high winds and driving rain couldn’t dampen their fishing spirit

We were putting up a narrow, slow-moving wilderness river in our 16-foot aluminum boat, basking in the mid-August sun when we heard a sharp crack, followed by an extended crunch.

“What was that?” asked my teenaged kid, Sam.

I knew the answer, but ignored the question. Then, not five minutes later, it happened again.

“Seriously, Dad, what’s that sound?” said Sam, a little spooked.

“A big tree just blew over,” I said.

“Is that normal up here?” said my good friend Wes Nelson, the third member of our little fishing party.

“Oh sure,” I lied to my crew of northwoods tenderfeet. “Nothing to worry about.”

But worried I was. It was the first afternoon of a five-day fishing adventure on northern Ontario’s Lake Obakamiga, and we’d headed up the tributary to escape fierce gusts making the main lake almost unfishable. Now the wind was only getting stronger, and I was pretty sure rough weather was on the way—though if you’d told me just how rough it was going to get, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Credit: Marco Cibola
Credit: Marco Cibola

More commonly known by its nickname Buck Lake, Obakamiga (above) is a structure-rich 30-square-kilometre Shield lake, home to vast numbers of walleye, northern pike and jumbo perch. The only way in is a 20-minute float plane flight from the village of Hornepayne, which is a 13-hour drive from my home in Toronto. It’s the kind of trip only serious anglers tend to undertake, so I certainly didn’t expect to end up there with Wes and Sam.

A close friend for 25 years, Wes is one of the most interesting people I know. Officially, he’s a software engineer and executive, but his unofficial vocation is more like roguishly charming Renaissance man. Smart and personable, Wes can converse about everything from the merits of different drywall compounds to 17th-century Huguenot politics. You’d be tempted to hate him, except that he’s so darn likable.

Despite his wide-ranging enthusiasms, Wes had long shown only polite interest in my fishing adventures. He’d recently taken up shooting sports, however, and was showing a growing interest in the outdoors. So when I ran the idea of a remote fishing trip by him, he was game.

Sam’s presence was even less predictable. Despite ongoing efforts to infect my only child with the fishing bug, it had never really taken hold. Sam’s passion is for comics, movies and video games, particularly anything with characters who wear capes and wield swords (even better if they’re magic swords). Sam will go fishing with me two or three times a season, provided I “guarantee fish,” and “promise to leave early if it’s boring.” The kid is decidedly not the second coming of Grizzly Adams, so when Sam began begging to go on the trip, I was surprised and dubious.

“You understand there will be no TV or internet, right?” I asked—repeatedly. But Sam was determined to have an adventure, and persisted. Despite my reservations, I eventually agreed.

Sam Gardner (left) and Wes Nelson celebrate a catch. Credit: Scott Gardner.
Sam Gardner (left) and Wes Nelson celebrate a catch. Credit: Scott Gardner.

So, on a gloriously clear morning in the third week of August, the three of us stepped onto the float plane dock at Buck Lake Wilderness Lodges and Outposts, the lake’s sole outfitter.As we settled our 285 pounds of tackle, clothing, food and bourbon into our spacious cabin, owner John Moffat arrived with a laminated contour map of the lake. Cheery and garrulous, Moffat spent nearly an hour with us, marking hot spots with a Sharpie, sharing his best fishing tips (jig with minnows) and making sure we were comfortable with our boat, 25-horsepower outboard and Lowrance sonar.

Then it was up to us. My confidence soon began to erode, however, largely because we were stuck with a fishing guide who was enthusiastic, but of questionable competence: me. I felt that I understood this kind of lake, but deciding where to go and what tactics to use was daunting, especially since my “clients” were so inexperienced. Heck, they could barely tie on their baits.

The only saving grace was that their standards were also low, which was why, after boating a couple of hammer-handle pike in the river on the first afternoon, they were content. Nonetheless, I was feeling the pressure, which added to my growing unease.

The Deluge Begins

On the morning of our second day at camp, I awoke to the steady drumming of rain on the cabin roof. And a glance at the thermometer explained why my toes were numb. It was 10°C outside and, since the woodstove had gone out overnight, not much warmer inside. With no sign the rain would end any time soon, Wes and I donned our full raingear and set out into the storm. Sam, worryingly, elected to keep his iPad company in the cabin.

As we fruitlessly attempted to jig some fish on a few of John’s hot spots, I got a preview of problems to come. Experienced anglers think of a jig and minnow as the most basic set-up possible, so it’s easy to forget that working it requires skill. For Wes, it was a steep and frustrating learning curve. As a result, my morning went like this: drop jig, get bit while nudging tiller, miss hookset, correct course, reel up, run back upwind to unsnag Wes, then repeat. It was all further complicated by the rain, wind and chilly temperatures, and the fact I was rusty on the outboard.

The author with a rainy-day pike. Credit: Sam Gardner.
The author with a rainy-day pike. Credit: Sam Gardner.

The rain eased after lunch, and we got Sam out, but more frustration followed. “To hell with this,” I finally said after a couple of hours of fruitless jigging. “Everyone gets a lure, and we’re going to just troll.” And darned if we didn’t break our curse almost immediately, with Sam boating a 26-inch pike. Far from a trophy, it still gave the kid hope. Then the sun weakly emerged, and we each shed a layer or two of outerwear.

Soon, we were all hooking up while working John’s suggested spots and other fishy-looking drop-offs and weed edges. There were no big fish landed, but it was good practice for Wes and Sam, with me coaching them on how to set the hook and keep the line tight. Not that these lessons ever took—the only time I needed pliers to unhook a fish was when I landed it. With Wes and Sam, the lure almost always fell out of the pike’s mouth as soon as the fish was in the boat.

Most of Buck Lake’s other guests were from the U.S. Midwest, and their thing was to drop the anchor and jig up dozens and dozens of walleye, which does have its appeal. But after that afternoon, my crew decided they were pike men. That was fine by me, since I have a long-standing soft spot for northerns.

Pike aside, a memorable moment for Wes came when he boated an 11-inch jumbo perch on a six-inch spoon, which tickled him immensely.

“Is something mentally wrong with this fish?” he said. “Why would it try to eat something so big?”

“Because it’s a perch,” I said.

Eventually, the skies clouded over and it began to rain again. As we headed back to the lodge, we at least felt we’d turned a corner in terms of the fishing. Little did we know.

Wes’ greedy perch; the author with a walleye. Credit: Scott Gardner.
Wes’ greedy perch; the author with a walleye. Credit: Scott Gardner.

Not an Umbrella Situation

I felt well prepared for this trip. But I was not prepared—at least psychologically—to open my eyes the following morning to see my breath. In August. Indoors. And, of course, it was still raining.

But Wes and Sam were resolute about fishing, so we layered up and ventured to the north end of one of Buck Lake’s three arms. There, sheltered from the wind and waves, we fished a mud and weed flat—aptly named Mud Flat—and hooked mid-size northerns almost at will. It was good fun, at least until enough water had leaked in around our hoods and cuffs for a real chill to set in. Then it was time to head back for steaks, and lots and lots of carbs.

As we idled toward the dock, Wes—cheery as always—marvelled at the satisfying new experience of wearing quality, head-to-toe rainwear. “At home, all I ever use is an umbrella,” he said.

Huddled in the bow of the boat, Sam was looking ruddy and a little dazed after the punishing half-hour ride down the lake. He turned around, fixed two big blue eyes on Wes and said, with utmost seriousness, “This is not an umbrella situation.” Wes bellowed with laughter, and Sam’s words became the theme of our trip.

Low and Highs

By the fourth day in camp,our morning ritual had been set: Force yourself out of bed, wrap the sheets around the T-shirt, hoodie and fleece you’re already wearing, get a fire going, then look at the thermometer. On the fourth morning, it read 5°C. I live and breathe fishing, so for me, there was no question about braving the drizzle and cold. And once again, the guys were right there with me.

Sam shows off some nice catches. Credit: Scott Gardner.
Sam shows off some nice catches. Credit: Scott Gardner.

Our new hot spot for the day was a jagged point called Witch’s Nose. Over and over, we drifted across a windblown, lightly weeded bay where the fish hammered plugs, swimbaits and spoons. By then, Wes had grown to love the aggression and wild abandon of pike, including the way they sometimes attacked right at the boat. “They really keep you on your toes, don’t they?” he observed more than once.

Then Sam earned bragging rights by landing, after a chaotic fight, the biggest fish of our trip: a thick, feisty 32-inch pike. Pleased with the fishing, but wind-burned and half-frozen, we decided to knock off early and head back in. But late in the afternoon, when the sun emerged for the first time in days, we literally ran out of our cabin and danced on the dock. That evening brought an actual sunset, followed by the biggest spread of stars Wes and Sam had ever seen.

Wes hoists his biggest ever northern pike. Credit: Scott Gardner.
Wes hoists his biggest ever northern pike. Credit: Scott Gardner.

Triumph

Our fifth and final day brought a new kind of morning: sunny. On the lake, each of us took the spotlight, at least in our own way. Filled with confidence, the boys attempted walleye jigging again, and actually landed a few eaters. In the same spot, I tried bouncing a one-ounce Fergie spoon off the bottom.

With its solid metal body and three-inch wire clacker, the bait is about five inches long, so I foolishly used a shorter than usual leader. The first time the Fergie hit bottom, the line went taut, then…nothing. It was a surgically clean bite-off by a fish with a maw big enough to engulf 11 inches of bait and leader. But at least I got another one-that-got-away story out of the deal.

Camp owner John Moffat (right); the group enjoying a rare sunny moment. Credit: Scott Gardner.
Camp owner John Moffat (right); the group enjoying a rare sunny moment. Credit: Scott Gardner.

Following a festive group shorelunch, we fished yet another part of the lake. Behind Red Deer Island, Wes landed his personal best-pike—the third time he’d done so during the trip. And I snapped a dramatic photo of him holding it triumphantly under the brilliant blue sky. A few minutes later, Sam closed the books by landing our threesome’s biggest walleye.

Running back to the cabin that afternoon, we were, for the first time, red in the face from the sun instead of the wind. And we felt good. Sam truly felt like one of the guys for the first time, Wes had embraced the unplugged lifestyle and together we had held fast in the face of truly terrible weather. Perhaps best of all, we’d figured out how to fish the lake in a way that was fun for us, reeling in better and better catches with each passing day. For Wes and Sam, it was, without a shred of doubt, their greatest-ever outdoor adventure. And that made it one of mine as well.

On Buck Lake

Buck Lake Wilderness Lodges
Buck Lake Wilderness Lodges

A family operation run by John and Shannon Moffat, Buck Lake Wilderness Lodges and Outposts features 11 housekeeping cabins, suitable for groups of four to eight anglers, all with 24-hour electricity and hot running water. There are also four outpost camps on nearby lakes for anglers seeking an even more remote experience. The fishing season runs from the third Saturday in May through September. Starting in mid-August, guided archery bear hunts are on offer, followed by moose hunts in October.

Contact: 1-888-366-0712; www.fishbucklake.com

Scott Gardner

Scott Gardner

Outdoor Canada associate editor and fly-fishing columnist Scott Gardner is happiest when he's on the water fishing (especially from his kayak) or just surrounded by trees, preferably out of cell phone range. Since joining Outdoor Canada in 2010, Scott has won nine National Communication Awards from the Outdoor Writers of Canada for his adventure travel and fly fishing articles, and been nominated for five National Magazine Awards.