A weeklong fishfest in Ontario’s Temagami wilderness leaves two anglers needing one thing—more of the same.
[Story and Photos by Ryan Sparks]
AFTER LISTENING TO WATER LAP AGAINST THE SIDES OF A CONOE FOR SEVEN DAYS, it begins to sound like a heartbeat. Temagami, a region of northeast Ontario unknown to most outside its immediate vicinity, is a landscape of sound: the cry of loons, wind gusting through pines, the smooth rush of fly line shooting between rod guides, and smallmouth bass catapulting out of the water.
Temagami is Ojibwe for “deep water by the shore” and refers to a patchwork of provincial parks, forest reserves, and conservation areas, and vast tracts of public lands linked together by a network of over 2,500 miles of canoe routes. The area harbors the largest stand of old-growth red and white pine on earth. It’s also the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people, who thrived here for thousands of years. Hiking through Temagami’s dense forests feels like stepping back in time, and in many ways, you are; most of the canoe routes and portages have been used since time immemorial. After a week of moving through this ancient terrain, time slows and you can’t help but live in the moment—oar stroke to oar stroke, cast to cast.
Temagami is a DIY angler’s paradise for several reasons. Most important, it provides a wilderness adventure that you can reach without breaking the bank. Yes, there are outfitters that fly deep into the backcountry for the right price. But with a little effort and research, anglers can access remote lakes with just a canoe and their own feet. Almost every lake in this region has a healthy population of northern pike, smallmouth bass, lake trout, walleye, and perch. A few lakes and streams hold aurora trout, a unique subspecies of brook trout native to Temagami. The best fishing is undoubtedly in Temagami’s interior, away from roads, boat access, and fishing pressure. The more paddling and portaging you do, the bigger reward for your effort.
Besides physical exertion, another crucial aspect to success is research. My friend Jerrod Foster and I started planning our route almost a year before we visited Temagami. Looking at the scale on our map gave us perspective on how large Temagami actually is. If you plan your own trip, there are two main approaches—canoeing from one access point to another, or devising a large loop. We opted for a loop to avoid a shuttle back to the put-in. If you choose a through route, outfitters can shuttle you and your gear back to the starting point . . . for a fee, of course.
Temagami offers more than 200 very fishy lakes. On our trip, we hoped to fish 20 of them. Using a variety of resources, including satellite maps, blogs, and an online map showing established canoe routes and campsites, we planned our loop along Temagami’s western edge. From our research, we knew the fishing varied greatly from one lake to another, so hitting as many lakes as possible would give us the best chance of finding fish. However, there is a fine line between exploring tons of lakes and not having time to enjoy a productive lake when you find one. So, we built a few nontravel days into our trip to enjoy prime fishing when we found it.
Blueberries, Mice, and Muskegs
After a long drive from my home in Kingston, Ontario, I met Jerrod in Sudbury, where we bought last-minute provisions before continuing north on a desolate two-lane highway. When we hit the Canadian Shield, the prevalence of barren rock, scraped clean and made smooth by glaciers, was stunning. The hills around Temagami are remnants of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. These mountains were formed during the Precambrian era, and as time and glaciers wore them away, they set Temagami’s rocky backbone. After hours driving on pavement, we hit a gravel road, and the canoe strapped to the roof began to hum from the vibration of tires on gravel, its bow pointing north like the needle of a compass. Eventually, the gravel faded to dirt, and miles later the road narrowed to a rutted ATV trail carved into the forest. We put the truck in four-wheel drive and folded mirrors in so they wouldn’t snap off on trees. Finally, the road ended in a small clearing with a game trail leading to a large lake, marking our entry point to Temagami.
We loaded backpacks into large, waterproof roll-top bags, lugged them into the canoe, and set off on a northward course. The first lake was home to a sporting lodge, and our plan was to push past the lodge’s fishing grounds during the first day. Six miles of paddling and two portages later, we were searching the shoreline for a flat place to camp. As we came around a narrow rock point extending into the lake, two small islands came into view. The first island had a perfect place for our tent, and as a bonus, the surrounding brush was loaded with wild blueberries. After setting up camp, we gathered berries for the rest of the trip. Fresh fruit is a luxury in the backcountry.
The next two days took us through a series of large lakes connected by fast-flowing creeks, steep portages, and boulderstrewn waterfalls. We took turns fishing from the bow, while the other maneuvered the canoe from behind. Standing in a canoe may seem precarious, but moving slowly and keeping your weight centered makes a canoe a surprisingly stable platform. We caught smallmouth on rabbit-strip flies where creeks fed into the main lake. The unusually warm weather concentrated these fish where cold streams dumped into the warmer lakes. As our third day waned, we strategized around a fire.
The next morning we were in a routine—we made breakfast, boiled water for tea, loaded equipmentinto backpacks, stuffed them into roll-tops, and threw everything in the canoe. After a few days, you start to work as a team, and this entire process happened without a word. Slowly working down the shore, we picked up an occasional smallmouth and pike hiding among fallen and partially submerged pines. They readily took our blue-and-white Deceivers and perch-colored EP flies. In marshy areas, we swam mouse patterns through lily pads, tempting pike to explode from cover and snatch the mouse from the surface. By midday, my mouse had seen so many pike, it was missing an eye and tail.