Way out there, searching for Duck Island’s giant smallmouths.
[story and photos by Ryan Sparks]
AFTER WEEKS OF PLANNING, fording a flooded road, and a midnight encounter with smugglers, we set out under a gathering storm. Bearing southeast, the outboard climbed to 3,000 rpm as we watched the bank of land behind us slowly fade. Now surrounded by endless water, we kept an eye on a thick band of storm clouds, hoping they would hold off long enough for us to make the crossing to Duck Island.
Duck straddles the United States-Canada border, and stands alone in the vast inland sea that is Lake Ontario. It’s one of the most remote islands in the Great Lakes and sees few visitors; it’s protected by ice during winter, and strong winds hammer the water the rest of the year. To reach Duck from Kingston, it’s a 20-mile run across that open water. There are just a few narrow weather windows per year when Duck is accessible. We hoped this was one of them.
I learned about Duck Island from a fisheries biologist while researching Lake Ontario’s smallmouth bass. He said the average-size smallmouth in the Duck Island area is astounding, and that the island holds the most abundant smallmouth population he has surveyed . . . anywhere. He also warned that the island seemed like a magnet for storms. When I asked about fishing pressure, he laughed: “First you have to get there.”
Soon after that conversation, I called my friend Reed, who was finishing his doctoral exams and in desperate need of a fishing trip. With some research, we learned that the island is part of Canada’s Thousand Islands National Park. Because of its seclusion, Parks Canada lists Duck Island as a nature preserve and doesn’t require a permit to camp there. However, complicating our trip was Lake Ontario’s extreme high water and our meager boat. With heavy snowfall over the winter and biblical spring rains, the lake level rose to a 118-year high. Homes flooded, docks floated away, and normally visible shoals were now treacherously disguised under inches of water. We had an 18-foot-long flat-bottomed johnboat, and while these boats excel in shallow water, it would be tested by Lake Ontario.
ON THE FIRST DAY OF OUR TRIP, the radar showed a looming storm. Still, we followed a rutted dirt road along a lonely, narrow peninsula that extended into Lake Ontario. As we approached an obscure boat ramp, the road dropped away into rolling waves. A handwritten road closed sign was the only indication we weren’t the first people to discover the submerged road. With Reed wading in front and testing our path, I slowly drove the truck forward. Waves crashed against the side of the truck and rocked its frame. As the water rose to the door, I felt the boat lift off the trailer and float behind the truck, still tethered to the winch strap. I nervously held my breath until the water receded and the boat sank back down on the trailer bunks.
The gravel ramp was in good condition, although we spent sometime clearing a blockage of debris. Curiously, there was a fish tug docked at the ramp, its windows barred and darkly tinted. Inspecting the boat, we found it currently abandoned, although muddy boot prints on deck gave evidence of recent use. Between our long drive, fording the road, and clearing the ramp, daylight was fading. We decided to sleep there for the night, let the storm pass, and get an early start in the morning. Bourbon and the steady patter of rain on the windshield made it easy to fall asleep.
At 3 a.m., we woke to the roar of engines. A sharp glow of headlights came into view just before three souped-up Jeeps flew around the corner, not even slowing down before plowing across the flooded road. Suddenly, the mysterious boat anchored so close to the border seemed more devious. We were silent as the vehicles skidded to a stop. The occupants rolled down their windows and conversed loudly over the storm. Before long they noticed our truck, and a high-powered flashlight focused on us. We waved like idiots, the light snapped off, and they left as quickly as they’d arrived.
Morning dawned without incident, but the encounter put us on edge . . .and we hadn’t slept. Thankfully, that lull in the storm gave us an opportunity to attempt the crossing. Just outside the sheltered harbor, whitecaps rolled across the surface, and the boat pitched upward with every one of these, then slammed down, taking on water. Over the continuous drone of the bilge pump, we talked about numerous ships that foundered on Duck Island’s treacherous shoals. Over the years, the island has developed a reputation as the “graveyard of Lake Ontario,” and it’s estimated that two-thirds of Lake Ontario’s shipwrecks lay close to the island. With water sloshing at our feet and storm clouds in the distance, we hoped we wouldn’t add another chapter to the island’s storied nautical history.
When Duck Island’s lighthouse came into view, it shone like a beacon. In the time it took to reach the island, the storm that had hung so menacingly in the distance faded away, and now the skies cleared to a brilliant blue. We cruised along limestone cliffs and made our way past the exposed skeletons of sunken ships and into a sheltered bay where one of the last buildings left on the island, a battered cement icehouse, greeted us with a hand-painted Canadian flag. In its center, instead of the usual maple leaf, was a duck.
We set up camp and quickly pieced together our rods. We motored out of the bay, made a wide turn around the island, and within minutes spotted two smallmouth bass cruising along the bottom. Invasive zebra mussels have doubled Lake Ontario’s water clarity in recent years, and in certain areas you can see bottom in 80 feet of water. This means fly fishing for bass is primarily a sight-fishing game. As I cut the engine, we watched the bass make their way toward scattered rocks ahead of us. When they settled in, we realized the rocks were actually an enormous school of bass—around 50 giants resting on the bottom, not doing much of anything.
I positioned Reed for a cast, and he laid out a perfect presentation just beyond the school. After several strips, the fly hovered inches in front of the fish. They didn’t flinch, blankly looking ahead with a thousand-yard stare. Over the next several hours, we tried everything to entice these fish. Big streamers, little nymphs, gurgling topwater flies—they wanted none of it. Eventually we moved on, and only found several more groups in that comatose state. With the sun sinking, we cut our losses and headed toward camp to fish for northern pike.
Back in the sheltered bay, we pulled bunny streamers along the edges of flooded cattails. Within 50 yards of camp, a green streak launched at my fly. It turned out to be a pugnacious pike that made several short runs before thrashing alongside the boat where Reed performed a heroic last-second net job just as the fish threw the hook. It was our only fish that day, but its 41 inches imparted our campfire beers with a spirit of celebration.
We woke to birdsong and the gentle lap of water, and quickly strung our rods. Overnight the water had settled into a tranquil sheet. There was no cell service, no people, just the hum of the trolling motor and the rush of line through rod guides. We felt revitalized and headed to the flats where we’d found bass the day prior. It might have been the shift in weather, a change of water temperature, or the piscine gods smiling down, but we found the smallmouths every bit as aggressive as they had been tight-lipped the day before. We caught fish after enormous fish. Black bunny leeches, blue and white Deceivers, pearlescent flash flies—it didn’t matter. They vaulted from the water and flared their gills in protest. Once in hand, black bars appeared on their flanks like Apache warpaint. We paused only to retie knots and sharpen hooks. When I finally checked the time, it was 4:30 p.m. We’d been in a smallmouth stupor for almost 10 hours.
Back at camp, Reed breathed life into the fire as I wandered off to collect more wood. Snapping dead limbs off a fallen tree, I noticed that my fingers stung, which was evidence of a great day—thousands of tiny tooth imprints stamped into my thumb pads. Later, windburned and exhausted, we crawled into the tent with hopes of sunrise smallmouths. But that night, thunder jolted us awake. By morning, 10-foot high waves and pounding rain let us know we wouldn’t be going out that day. To escape the rain, we cooked breakfast in a decrepit, swallow-infested barn. Then we headed out to explore the island on foot.
Steady rain continued as we meandered through a jungle of vines along the island’s leeward side. Passing a flooded inlet, I noticed a pod of tailing carp and scrambled my rod together. I eventually hooked one of these fish, but it ripped my line to the backing and charged through a patch of flooded bushes, snapping my leader in the process. The rest of the carp spooked, so we slogged our way out of the marsh. Back at the shoreline, we found hundreds of thousands of dead zebra mussels that cracked like glass under our feet. In spots where waves had pushed them farther ashore, they created dunes five feet high.
Following this bizarre shore, we came upon the island’s most impressive structure, the former two-story vacation home of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles used the island as an escape from politics until his death in 1959, after which the island sat unused until the Canadian government purchased it in 1977. Now Dulles’s house is eerily vacant, with dead bats and mice littering the floor. Constant battering from storms makes me wonder how long it will stand.
When we returned to camp, the Ontario Explorer, a fisheries research vessel, was anchored in the bay. We approached, knocked on its metal hatch, and I was happy to see the biologist who’d told me about the island. He said they were doing smallmouth research in the area, but were forced off the lake by the storm. With extreme winds in the forecast, he suggested we use the predicted lull to head back to the mainland the next morning.
We headed his warning, rose early, loaded our gear in the boat, and pointed the bow north. As we came out of the bay, Reed tapped me on the shoulder, pointed back to the island, and said, “Just an hour?” Lake Ontario, arguably, has the best smallmouth fishing in the world. By a stroke of luck, we’d found the proverbial needle in a haystack and enjoyed a day of fishing that still makes my heart race. And now neither of us wanted to leave. I turned the boat and sped around the island, beaching it on a bed of zebra mussels. We waded an expansive flat, trying to spot fish, then stood on boulders and blind-cast to a deep cut. When I saw two smallmouths swimming between us, I yelled to Reed. He led the pair by six feet, and they raced each other to the fly, the larger of the two winning. After several jumps, the bass resigned and slid into the net. This was a perfect punctuation to our trip. Later that day we were safely across Lake Ontario, with the boat back on the trailer, headed for home.
If its history tells us anything about Duck Island, it’s a place where humans are merely visitors who don’t stay long. Its shipwreck graveyard keeps most people away, while its spectacular smallmouth fishing draws only a few intrepid anglers. If you’re willing to fish Duck Island, you’ll find all the hefty smallmouth bass and solitude you need. And you’ll also get plenty of shots at carp, pike, and early season lake trout. Even better, on most days, the only sounds you’ll hear are the rustle of wind and the swish of a fly line.
Ryan Sparks writes, fishes, hunts, cooks, and talks nonsense to his English pointer, Tippet. You can follow his writing, photography, and adventures at www.flywatermedley.com.