The season between snow and bugs

March 15, 2010

A few years ago my neighbour Howard Chant and I were talking about the coming of spring.  To his surprise, I admitted I couldn’t recall the date the ice went out last year.  He flipped through his notebook and had the date in about three seconds.  Then he went back to his discourse on soil temperature and planting corn.

Why would a grain and dairy farmer know about when the ice goes out when I, a confirmed boater and early-season fisherman, didn’t have a clue?  Years of observation and note-taking, I guess.

Last Friday was the first day in a long time I have gone to Chaffey’s to watch the water flow.  It’s an annual urge to track the thaw and look for the first fish of the season.

We have a wonderful year of fishing in North Leeds, but no trip sticks in the mind like the first of the season.  The beauty of the MNR’s splake-stocking program over the last twenty years is that it has provided early-season anglers with a good reason to get out on the water well in advance of even the most optimistic cottager.  With no closed season on this end of the Rideau, splake provide a fishing season between snow and bugs.

In fact, the very best splake fishing of the year on Indian Lake is the day the ice goes out.  The fish are up at the surface then, and can be attracted with small Mepps, spoons or Rapallas on light line.  Of course they are very shy of boats at that time of year, so long casts are the norm.

Indian Lake Marina owner Wayne Wilson has watched the early-season optimists for years now.  He once told me they start as soon as the ice moves out from shore enough that they can get a boat through, and they catch splake along the edge of the ice all around the lake.  The odd time somebody will get stranded on the wrong side of Indian by a wind shift, but for the most part they get back to the dock successfully, and with some good fish.

Personally, I have had mixed results on ice-out day.  One foggy morning I was planing across Indian in a hurry to get to Benson Creek when I noticed a couple of sea gulls walking on the water ahead of me.  Strange, sea gulls normally float….  ICE!!  I jammed into reverse and stopped the boat inches from a large pack of ice hanging just below the surface.  Good thing the gulls were there.

I’ve spent a couple of other days casting close to shore in sunny, quiet bays.  An occasional splake would rocket out of nowhere and end up in my net.  One memorable 2 ½ pounder took my Mepps on the south shore of Scott Island one day.  It fought like a speckled trout, leaping repeatedly and showing great strength and endurance for its size.  When I cleaned it, the fish’s stomach was chock-full of tiny insects.  I assumed they were black fly larvae.  Many return trips to that shoreline have yet to produce another fish to match that one.

Two other days were more typical.  On one I caught two large splake before my hands froze to where I could no longer cast or retrieve my line.  Frequent trips ashore to run up and down the road and warm up were all that kept me alive out there that day.  Another still, sunny day in Benson Creek produced no activity of any sort, save that of passing mallards and an occasional goose.  I stopped for lunch, allowing my little wooden boat to drift in close to a shoal.  As I dug out a sandwich I failed to notice I had left my silver Williams Wobbler dangling about a foot into the water off the port side of the boat.  Suddenly a large splake ghosted out from under the dinghy, delicately gripped the spoon with the tip of its mouth, and took off with it.  By the time I had recovered the rod, the fish had dropped the spoon and disappeared.  That was the only one I saw all day.  Splake can be maddening that way.

Once I came upon a huge, twirling knot of splake fingerlings under a set of floating timbers.  They had obviously just been stocked and hadn’t dispersed yet.  Curious, I put on a tiny, chartreuse jig and tried to catch one.  The naïve fish readily swam after the 1/16 oz. jig, but they were very hard to hook:  their natural strike seems to involve swimming up quickly from behind, then a ninety-degree turn and a tearing action right at the point of impact with the stern-most part of the bait.

I found myself replacing jig tails repeatedly and not catching any fingerlings for the first few minutes.  Warming to the challenge, I eventually figured out how to pause a bit before hook set to allow them to get to the barb.  Then I was able to catch them regularly.  The fingerlings were a good size, about four to the pound, ranging from 12 to 13” in length.  It was a highly entertaining afternoon, observing how a splake strikes.  After that I used a stinger hook on my trolling lures and improved deep-water results considerably.

Maybe I’d better call Wayne and see if the ice has moved away from the shore at all.

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