No, I did not go out on the ice.


That’s a 24″ male splake, taken by casting from shore into open water.  Splake are in the shallows at this time of year, easily reached with light tackle and a floating Rapalla.  This one fought rather well on six-pound test line.  I could feel every rock he rubbed the line over as I brought him in, each time expecting it to part.  But my luck was better than his on this day.

Do not try this on the Big Rideau or the other Rideaus.  Splake are considered Lake Trout on those lakes for season and limit purposes.  On the bodies of water toward Kingston, on the other hand, splake and lake trout are all lumped in as splake, and they have no season, with a catch limit of five.

A lake trout is generally not as pretty as a splake, and it has a distinctive forked tail.


My catch produced two 1 1/2-pound fillets.  Bet baked one for supper.  As splake go, this one was pretty edible.  Elsewhere in this blog you’ll find a couple of humorous articles: How to Catch a Splake, and How to Cook a Splake.  If you click Fish Stories or Splake below, the server will cue up a number of splake-related articles.


The plug in my 16′ boat lost its centre tonight while I was fishing. When I got to the dock I called my slip-mate Tony and he told me he had a spare on the rear deck of his boat, but it was too small, so in the dark while the water gushed in I had to take his plug apart and fit it with the rubber from mine. Then it went in and the pump began to suck air.

It’s been a long time since I have had to fight to keep a boat from sinking. I’d forgotten how much fun it is.

The failed plug’s mechanism had corroded off some months ago and I had substituted a piece of steel for the brass, and then tonight the metal parts disappeared, leaving a drinking-straw-sized hole.

Just for the record, the plastic envelope artificial worms come in makes a lousy emergency bilge plug. A plastic bag is somewhat better until it washes upstream beneath the floorboards.

From now on I’ll keep two fresh plugs of the correct size on the rear deck by the engine.

DSCN0677Sockeye fishing is well worth doing, though the learning curve is steep.

The sport is conducted on sandbars and from anchored boats when the fish run up the river in enormous numbers. Sockeye are fine fighting fish, prone to using the fast current for leverage, and bursting into unpredictable leaps when they see shore approaching.

Of course the water is too murky to see anything, so one must cast on the assumption that the river is full of the things. Sometimes it is; most times it isn’t, so fishermen tend to herd into areas where others are catching fish.

After a placid morning with a single sockeye, my beginner’s luck fish, we got wind of a hotspot and crowded onto a sandbar eroded by what seemed a powerful current. Chad worked hard to beach the 20′ jet boat and keep it from dragging the 60 pound anchor and chain right back into the river.

But the fish were there, and fishermen on all sides of us were hauling them in. Jim and Molly fished from the boat while Jamie and I preferred the coarse gravel of the bar. We started getting hits, and some came to the boat, to be netted, bled, and put on a stringer to keep them fresh in the cold water.

All afternoon we made long casts across fast, shallow water with a 4 oz sinker to anchor the hook, followed by a little, floating plastic egg.

Chad taught us to bounce the sinker down the current, with 12′ of mono leader behind it before the hook, feeling for anything that isn’t rock. Strike instantly.

The fish get hooked around the mouth, and so they call it flossing, or bottom bouncing. Fights are impressive.

The strenuous part of the fishing, though, is cranking in the heavy sinker back against the strong current. It’s like landing a fish each time you retrieve.

I grilled two fillets for supper. Words fail to describe the eating quality of this fish.

UPDATE: 26 August, 2014

Day two of sockeye fishing began quickly with a series of hits which had Curtis, our guide of the day, sprinting up and down the sandbar with a large net to land fish. We kept him busy.

I asked him to rig my favourite bait-casting reel, an old Shimano Calcutta, in lieu of the spinning reel he provided. Things improved dramatically after that, though an occasional backlash would send the 4 ounce sinker and accompanying tackle halfway up the nearest mountain.

But I averaged two good fish per backlash, and I didn’t complain when he missed a particularly fine sockeye at the net. It just became another of my many remote releases.

The problem with the spinning reel was that everything was out of whack. My body just wasn’t designed to crank that thing. Tony told me it was because I was turning the handle with my right hand and making my left do all of the strength work. He may be right, but my skeleton had nothing good to say about the series of spinning reels which passed through my hands Monday.

I had managed the odd backlash with the spinning reel, too.

This morning the more experienced fishermen made good use of the wave of fish passing the bar and we filled our limits quickly. Then we lazed in the sun while the inexperienced member of our party struggled to find a sockeye, any sockeye, so that we could finish up and go chinook fishing.

Chinooks were scarce today, so we came in early to sort out the fish packaging for one group in our party. Before we could find our beds, Tony, Sean, Sharon and I cleaned, packaged and froze twenty-three pristine sockeye salmon which ranged from five to nine pounds. They are beautiful fish.

Three years ago a day of sturgeon fishing on the Fraser River with guide Dean Werk was doomed to failure because I was in the boat. Two large fish nearly jumped aboard, but none would take a hook. The variable in the unaccustomed rout of a lucky guide was my presence on the boat and I quickly earned the title “Jinx.”

Today for a trip up into big sturgeon country in the Fraser River Canyon I presented my ultimate gift to the Izatt Family: I boarded a different boat. So of course Dean’s boat had a great day with all crew catching fish and one tagging an eight foot, three inch monster. I filmed from afar.

Chad’s boat produced one fine fish and a smaller sturgeon, and then my turn at the stern came up. The rods grew still. Time passed. A nibble. The fish failed to return. Another nibble came to nothing. Our guide Chad hooked a fish and handed me the rod, but the fish released itself in mid-transfer. I tried to hook a nibbler myself but it dropped the bait. And so on.

The Jinx had found me, so I resolved to experiment with its effects. Because the fish were active this did not take long. I waited well back from the rods until Chad had set the next hook and said, “Rod!” The line went slack the instant the guide incanted my name. Twice more a sturgeon dropped Chad’s bait as I stood back, testing the power of the jinx.

Meanwhile Dean’s crew was waiting around for the eight foot, 420 pound sturgeon on Ivan’s line to give up. Jim and I decided that the jinx had more than done its work today, so we pulled up our lines to enjoy the scenic return trip without interruption.

We even noticed a group panning for gold along one sandy stretch. It’s a magnificent river.

Tony and Sean Izatt and I arrived at Sharon’s farm in Yarrow in the middle of the night. We devoted the morning and early afternoon to settling in, shopping for lunch materials for the upcoming four days of guided fishing on the Fraser River, and an unsuccessful search on the black market for an early-season sockeye.

By afternoon when members of the group dropped off for naps, I found a flat pan and wandered across the road to the neighbour’s to inquire about the “Organic Blueberries – You pick” sign on the driveway of a trim mixed-farming operation on 10 acres. From the looks of things they raise a few cattle, sheep, grapes, blueberries, and a principal crop of squab, my hostess told me. Honest, there’s a ready market for large quantities of baby pigeons, year-round.

The owner Jacob directed me to a corner of a 2 1/4-acre field of blueberries and set me to work, muttering that he didn’t think I would pick many.

This was my first encounter with a domesticated blueberry bush, though as a little kid I had earned my first cash by selling wild blueberries to passing cottagers.

The berries hung in plump bunches on the shrubs and I dug in with a will. Catching the clumps of berries proved trickier than I expected. First of all, two hands would be much better than one. The flat pan soon found itself nestled in the grass below the bush, and I gently dropped berries into it. Many were overripe and squished when I touched them. These, of course, were eaten. What could I do? Delicious flavour. Oh yeah, the dish. Seems it was easier to squish them and then eat them by the handful than bend to drop them into the pan below.

I blamed my bifocals and considered removing them, but the berries were actually accumulating quite well in the pan by the third bush and I had well exceeded what I could eat over the next week. Besides, I only had four dollars in my pocket and the stated price for pick-your-own was $1 per pound.

But then our hostess Sharon Izatt showed up to add $2. to the kitty and even pick a few berries. Before long a cat came along to supervise and Sharon was lost in that wordless communication that some people have with felines. Damned thing was trying to roll in my berry dish, but Sharon was in heaven.

At length my human supervisor called a halt to the harvest and we walked up to the owner’s deck to pay. Mrs. Jake looked at the pan, smiled, and said “$2.00.”

Sharon whispered, “$4.00.”

I handed over four loonies and grinned at Jake. He quipped: “From the looks of his face and tongue, he’s eaten about a pound, so they’re not far off.” I gaped. He continued: “How you tell that blueberries are really organic is that they turn your tongue and teeth blue. If your tongue doesn’t turn blue when you eat blueberries, they’ve been sprayed. They’re not organic.”

Then I wandered off into a conversation with Jake’s guest from Illinois about bass fishing in BC until Sharon had finished her neighbourly chat. Away we went with our haul of fruit for a picnic up in the Fraser River Canyon tomorrow.

After supper I tried to catch the sunset and discovered Rider, Sharon’s rough collie, is as skilled a photo-bomber as I have met.

Rider inspects the day's crop of blueberries.

Rider inspects the day’s crop of blueberries.

My mentor, Don Warren

March 31, 2014

Chaffey’s Locks this week mourns the passing of one of its foremost citizens, Don Warren. The educator who single-handedly routed a major Hydro line away from his beloved community also found time over a decade to teach me how to teach and find my way through the educational bureaucracy. He also, and this he took most seriously, taught me how to fish.

During the 1972-73 academic year while I was enrolled in teacher training at McArthur College in Kingston, Don offered to allow me to “do his work for him” in the English Department at Rideau District High School every Friday that I wasn’t out on another placement. At the time I didn’t quite understand what was involved in this clinical and field studies project, but I wanted a teaching job in the area and this looked like a good break.

So I showed up and taught his Friday classes and marked the assignments. For each class Don wrote in elegant longhand two sheets of foolscap, one consisting of “goods” that he had observed and the other of “not so goods.” Over the course of the school year this stack of “goods” and “not so goods” from Don were by a wide margin the best feedback I received during my teacher training.

At the time at Queen’s our instructors encouraged us to experiment and find our own way to a teaching methodology which worked. Don didn’t have much use for Teaching as a Subversive Activity and insisted that in his classroom I teach his way. He laid down the basic strategies, and I learned to follow them. They worked because they were simple and well-thought-out.

On my part I tried hard to lessen the number of comments on the “not so goods” page, but the only time I came in for a serious reprimand was the day I let it out that I had never traveled through the entire Rideau Waterway. I think I made some snarky anti-Elgin comment such as, “I was born in Westport. I haven’t gone past Newboro on the Rideau.” After class at considerable volume Don made it clear to me that if I wanted to teach in this community I had to understand and participate in its culture, and that culture derived from the Rideau Waterway, and I had jolly well better learn it and learn to love it.

That summer I rented a canoe from Don just about every evening while I explored Opinicon Lake and learned the mysteries of the largemouth bass. Don was always waiting when I came in to offer advice and congratulations as I became a better fisherman.

He even guided me to a bass derby win the one day in 1975 that I brought in a good one. Apparently fish lose a lot of moisture when caught, so it’s standard procedure to stick a garden hose down the gullet of a trophy fish and fill its stomach. Any frogs or minnows lying around dead in the canoe were also welcome to join the party in the bass’s belly. But no stones. “The judges will catch lead weights and stones every time,” Don assured me.

To get back to Don as my mentor, I should mention that when a job had come up in a new senior elementary school in Smiths Falls the spring of my graduation, Don encouraged me to grab it because with declining enrollment he thought things would be tough for a few years for new teachers. Turns out I was fifteenth hired out of 500 that year. Don had advised me well.

Many student teachers “did my work for me” over a thirty-year period once I had gotten my feet under me in the classroom. I took pleasure in passing Don’s legacy down to yet another generation of educators.

A couple of years ago I was privileged to review Don’s memoir, The House on the Hill: Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son. (Trafford, 2008).

The Good Ice Tour, 2013

January 27, 2013


The full moon made it inevitable: no fish bit for an hour this morning, the air was clear, cold and still, and the thin crust of white on Newboro Lake over 13″ of ice made for perfect driving conditions for Tony’s Polaris Ranger.

We resolved to find the winter route to Chaffey’s Locks. Open water or at least weak ice at the Elbow and the Isthmus meant a trip across Scott Island if we wanted to look for splake on Indian Lake.

Yesterday we’d noticed a pack of wolf hunters coming out of the upper reaches of Stout’s Lower Bay, so we followed their tracks to a rugged trail off the ice. Tony had never faced driving conditions like these. On the other hand the Ranger 500 gave evidence that it has had lots of practice over rugged terrain, idling over breathtaking moguls, ducking its windshield under overhanging pines, and ploughing fearlessly through frozen muskeg until we reached a better trail.

We were pretty lost until Tony noticed that this looked like our friend Tom’s cottage road, so we oriented ourselves from there. I must emphasize that it is very easy — in any season — to become lost on Scott Island.

The township road is little more than a snowmobile track at this time of year, but the Ranger had no trouble on the hard, rutted, snow. Just short of the ferry dock we turned off onto a short trail and drove out onto Indian Lake.

Clusters of vehicles indicated the splake fishermen at work. We drove up to veteran Chaffey’s Locks fishing guide Lennie Pyne, comfortably ensconced in a mobile shelter above a shoal in the middle of the lake. Lennie told us that he had lost a good fish this morning, but that otherwise fishing was slow with the full moon.

Lennie showed us where he had driven on with his pickup truck, so we followed a minivan off the lake and out to the township road which runs around the south end of the lake, took our bearings, and headed back across to Scott Island. Tony decided it was time for a change of drivers.

The 2003 Ranger 500 4X4 has just over 1700 hours on it, but the engine is fresh and the rest of the UTV works well. I noticed immediately that the 500 is more softly sprung than my 2004 Ranger TM. On the open ice at 30 mph the steering feels light, yet stable. It didn’t offer to break the back end loose, though I was careful, mindful of the rig’s high centre of gravity. On the island trails the suspension worked its way over bumps and obstructions so that the passengers and equipment enjoyed a comfortable ride at a reasonably brisk speed. The optional cab and windshield enabled riders to retain at least some body heat on the cold day, and an improvised rear windshield kept snow and exhaust back there where they belonged.

According to the owner’s manual the AWD only engages a front drive wheel if one of the rear wheels slips, but I found the system distributes power very effectively without input from the driver. To cover the same terrain with my 2WD TM I’d be shifting the differential lock in and out at every obstruction. We didn’t use the diff lock on the 500 at all during today’s fairly demanding outing on the Island.

A wrong turn led us down a narrow and steep cottage road. Tony dismounted to move an oak branch out of the way and nearly slid down the hill when he picked up the limb. He climbed happily back into the Ranger and we sure-footedly made our way on to the point that further progress was unlikely. Then we made a 3-point turn on the narrow trail and regained our proper route.

The drive from Indian Lake to Newboro by Scott Island is quite scenic, but too long for a convenient fisherman’s commute. Tony timed our island transit at 30 minutes, though that included the time lost on the dead end. Add fifteen more minutes for lake travel and it would make more sense to drive a 4X4 out on the lake at the Chaffey’s end, if the ice permits.

On the way back we stopped to photograph a remarkable beaver project: an enterprising rodent has half cut down a 30″ pin oak overlooking the bay.

So it was a great day to explore. The ice was hard and strong and the crusted snow felt like concrete beneath the tires of the Ranger. Conditions don’t get better than this for cross-country winter travel.

We grow our rodents big in Leeds County.

We grow our rodents big in Leeds County.