The author’s trophy Gods River brook trout

Sweat equity: Persistence pays off on two very different backcountry fishing adventures


Wes Nelson dressed for the buggy hike into McNally Lake

Drenched with sweat, clad head to toe in anti-bug clothing and grimy from scrambling up a steep slope on all fours, Wes Nelson fixed me with a wry look, and asked the question I’d been dreading. “I probably should have brought this up sooner,” he said, “but just how sure are you about this new lake?”

I was equally sweaty, and lavishly perfumed in two kinds of insect repellent. I was also noticeably dirtier, thanks to a tumble along one of the boggier sections of the rough trail we’d been following for close to an hour. We’d just emerged from the dense northern Ontario forest, and were standing on top of a hill, looking down a short, but alarmingly steep path to a squishy, overgrown launch point on McNally Lake. Stalling for time, I lifted the edge of my bug mask to take a sip of water while I contemplated my answer—as well as the ethics of lying to a close friend of more than 30 years.


It was early in June, and we were on the fifth day of a week-long outpost fishing trip at Northwind Lake, operated by Kanipahow Wilderness Resort and Outposts, near Chapleau, Ontario. Wes and I are veterans of fly-in outpost trips, where an outfitter supplies the boats, motors and a remote cabin, as well as transport in and out, and you cook, clean and guide for yourselves. This year, though, we’d opted for a boat-in trip instead. Outposts are already great value, but boating in is even less expensive than flying. And since we didn’t have to stick to the strict weight limits of a floatplane, planning and packing was also a lot less stressful.

Chapleau, Ontario, is about 10 hours from Toronto, 11 hours from Ottawa and four hours from the U.S. border at Sault Ste. Marie

With the help of Jamie Thibault, Kanipahow’s cheerful and well-organized owner, we’d loaded our gear onto boats stashed at a rough launch at the end of a series of ever-narrowing industrial roads, about 60 minutes outside of Chapleau. We then motored to the end of that lake, where we used an ATV and trailer to cross a short, bumpy portage to Northwind Lake. Then we loaded everything into another set of boats, and travelled two more clicks to our cozy cabin, which was the only one on the lake.

The summer of 2023 started out unseasonably hot in northern Ontario, and we arrived at the tail end of more than a week of temperatures well above 30°C, with high humidity. In fact, it was so hot the previous group at our cabin returned a day earlier than planned to the cool, comforting climes of their home—in Florida. The heat wave seemed to have slowed down the fishing, and also the anglers, and it took us a few days to figure out Northwind. Even so, we’d been doing all right, landing respectable walleye and pike, plus a few smallmouth. But we hadn’t packed and travelled and portaged all this way for “all right.”


With only two full days remaining in our annual trip, we were still looking for some of those standout moments you always hope for in the backcountry. That’s why we’d decided to trek north of our cabin to McNally Lake, following a faint trail that traversed several steep hills, and skirted an impressively bug-infested bog, culminating in Wes’ ominous question.

“Well, the lake looks interesting,” I finally replied. And it did. At home, I’d scouted McNally using Google Earth. It was a small, oddly shaped waterbody, only two kilometres long with two basins, both just a couple of hundred metres wide, connected by a long, narrow channel. “Plus, Jamie told me several times that they consider it a trophy pike lake, and he seems like a straight shooter.”


“Good enough for me,” Wes replied.

What I didn’t mention, as we readied the 16-foot aluminum canoe and three-horse outboard stashed at the lake, is that while I’ve landed my share of big pike over the years, I’d never caught one on such a tiny lake. That said, I’ve also fished long enough to know that if you put in the effort, surprising things can happen, even in unlikely places. As the little motor coughed to life, and we finally putted away from shore, I had a thought: Apparently, going deep into the backcountry doesn’t mean the fishing will be easy. It was a lesson that would be driven home again, just a month later.