How to Catch a Splake
April 20, 2008
For a few years I enjoyed the reputation of a successful fisherman. As one of my students commented one day, “Everyone should be good at something, and for you, Mr. C., I guess it’s fishing.”
Personally, I didn’t feel all that competent when it came to splake. Each catch seemed to be the culmination of a series of accidents, and it seemed as though I kept running into fish having an unlucky day.
The whole thing began when Joe Booth, a retired Pennsylvanian at Indian Lake Marina, showed me his new depth finder. Joe’s a legendary northern pike fisherman. He took me out onto Indian Lake and pointed out the huge schools of minnows in the middle. They looked like islands on his screen. “You see those red spots, Rod?” he yelled. “Those are big fish, lying just underneath the schools of minnows! They’re probably splake, but nobody’s ever caught one’a them yet!”
After an abortive attempt to fish bass out of an inner tube the previous Labour Day, that winter I had built a small dinghy in our basement. The launch created a neighbourhood sensation when on a cold March day I had broken a hole in the ice of our pool, popped in the unfinished dinghy and conscripted our neighbour, Ted, to join Charlie and Bet on empty paint cans in the bottom so that I could figure out the proper placement of the seats. As various onlookers watched and joked, I handed the architect a pencil and he drew lines around the cans, thereby giving me the proper seat locations. The rest of the work had gone well and the completed pram was ready to go. (I’m proud to say that a picture of my creation actually appeared in Woodenboat Magazine.)
Bet and I liked to spend hot summer afternoons with a book under the oak tree at Chaffey’s Lock. This entailed frequent trips the length of Indian Lake and across Joe’s schools of fish. I started to pay attention to what passed under Wyb’s keel in this area. Our sonar on the cruiser was one of the old ones with a 60′ dial and a flasher which moved around continuously to indicate a reading. It seemed as though there was a lot going on at 23′, so I resolved to find a way to get a lure down there.
At Bennett’s Bait’n Tackle in Smiths Falls I bought a little plastic toy of a downrigger, added the smallest cannonball Wayne sold, and installed the rig on the transom of the 8½ foot dinghy. I borrowed my son’s flexible crappie rod and attached a silver spoon. When he took out for the Yukon a friend had left us a tiny, air-cooled outboard motor. I bolted it in place as well. When it ran the Eska uttered a devilish roar, but it moved the dinghy at a brisk five miles per hour.
The first time I lowered the ball on the downrigger a splake took my lure and I suddenly found myself in the fight of my life. The cable dangled like an anchor adrift, the motor kept trolling in circles, this frantic monster was tearing line off my reel, and I very much wanted to land it.
Turns out a splake will run without going anywhere. I saw him do it. The fish stopped, lay sulking in the water, and then just rolled, wrapping the line around itself at an incredible rate. Then it reversed the process and tried to get away using the slack. Somehow it didn’t work, and with the help of some cottagers — by this time the dinghy and I had drifted ashore — the second half of the battle played out on Seymour’s lawn. The unlucky fish weighed four pounds, twelve ounces, not bad for my first try. Giddy with success, I hauled my trophy back to the Marina where a festive barbecue ensued. Someone told me I had been gone less than fifteen minutes.
If only I had known… but I was young and stupid at the time. In fact I was so young and stupid that I caught another 34 of the things that summer fishing at 23′, though with no more panicked forays ashore.
That fall Wayne sold me a portable depth finder for the dinghy and I discovered that my magic 23-foot depth was in fact the bottom of the lake at 83′, glimpsed intermittently on a 60′ dial. The spiral of increasing knowledge and decreasing success began with that discovery and continued until in later years the twin curses of wisdom and improved equipment had completely ruined my luck.
In my declining years, though, I can still think back to that first summer as a splake fisherman: through the confident use of wrong information I enjoyed the best fishing of my life. There must be a lesson there somewhere, but in the twenty-five years since I haven’t been able to figure out what.