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How to screw up a canoe fishing trip

As the cold rain pelts my soaked jacket, I fumble with frozen fingers to tie a Palomar knot, muttering under my breath, What the hell am I doing out here? It’s 11 a.m. on a mid-September morning, and it’s been raining non-stop for 10 hours. At one point during the night, I woke up in my tent to the sound of my own teeth chattering. The temperature had dropped to 4ºC.

Now I’m fishing from the bow of a canoe, with my friend Ryan in the stern. He’s doing his best to keep us angled so the blasting wind doesn’t hit us broadside. Neither of us has had a bite all morning. We’re at the mouth of Ontario’s French River, where it exits into Georgian Bay, and I’ll be honest, I’m having mixed emotions.

While I’m happy to be fishing and away from my home in Toronto, I’m also wondering why we ever left the comfort of the Bear’s Den Lodge, where we stayed upriver two nights earlier. We could be waiting out the weather by the massive fireplace, listening to owner Art Barefoot tell us where to catch record muskie. Instead, I’m freezing, wet and demoralized.

When a DIY fishing trip is going well, there’s nothing better. But when it’s not, well, if you want to find out what that’s like, follow our missteps.

Don’t do research: Okay, I read a bit about the area beforehand and picked up a canoe map to help navigate our route and identify productive fishing spots. But to tell the truth, I was overconfident. We’ll be covering a good swath of water, I told myself. Of course we’re going to catch fish! It’s the famous French River! Instead, I should have done far more homework and scoured hydrographic maps, the Internet and other resources to pinpoint the best locations for that time of year.

Do too much: Having now gone on several canoe fishing trips, I’m beginning to fear it has to be one or the other—you can canoe, or you can fish. In our case, we had three days to complete the classic 50-kilometre figure-eight that starts in the French’s Hartley Bay and runs to the mouth of the main channel at Georgian Bay. Our plan was to paddle to Bluff Point and stay there for two nights so we’d have a full day of no travelling in order to fish the area’s many small bays and inlets.

Unfortunately, the weather turned the night we arrived and, with the cold front, it seemed there was nothing we could toss to get the fish to bite. Not tubes for bass, not jigs for walleye, not spoons for pike. Nothing. If I ever go back to the French for another shot, I’ll pick a route that doesn’t require as much paddling, and I’ll allow more time in case of bad weather. Or possibly I won’t canoe at all, and instead stay at a lodge and hire a guide. Take that, French River.

Skimp on gear: I have a rainjacket. It was completely waterproof when I bought it—in 2002. Now? Not so much. When it comes to raingear, get the best you can afford. And remember, time is no friend to Gore-Tex. If your gear is worn out, replace it. Staying dry can make or break a trip. Witness our failure on the French.

Don’t take pictures: While I can’t prove it photographically, I did catch fish on the French. Three of them. I got two smallmouth bass on the first day but deemed them too small to get out the camera. The third fish hit two days later—on the way home. Ryan and I had been paddling for about six hours in the rain, stopping here and there to cast, but the cold front was still working its black magic.

About 10 minutes from our endpoint, I tossed a Mepps Syclops toward a weedbed and got a bite. I reeled in a hammer-handle pike that normally would have been more of an annoyance than a prize. By that point, however, it felt like a miracle. As I scrambled for the camera, the pike slipped off the hook and fell back into the water. My new rule? I’m now going to take a picture of my first fish. No matter what size it is.

Bob Sexton

Bob Sexton

Growing up in Gander, Newfoundland, and Peterborough, Ontario, Outdoor Canada's managing editor Bob Sexton jumped at every chance to wet a line and head afield. After spending half of the 1990s working as a tour guide in Latin America, he completed a Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University in 2001 and was hired on as Outdoor Canada's assistant editor. Since joining the magazine, he has won two Outdoor Writers of Canada awards, in 2008 and 2011, and contributed to numerous National Magazine Award winning or nominated stories. Sexton is the past president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors.

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