The sun felt a little warm this afternoon for a few minutes, so I decided today would be a good time to visit the pool below the Old Mill in Delta and see if the shiners were up yet. For those of you not raised along the Rideau, “shiner” is a local name for the black crappie, a delicious panfish which runs in mid-spring below dams and locks.

In my experience the crappie run after the perch have spawned at Delta. No perch were in evidence yet, just bluegills, an occasional rock bass, and a few large smallmouth getting dibs on early spawning beds.

As I worked my way down the broad creek into Beverley Lake Park, my attention wandered to the new plantings along the shore. They’ve really been working on the trees this year. I guess you’d call it a shelter belt along the sod bank: they have little spruces, white cedars, and several different deciduous trees and shrubs in a ten-foot band along much of the creek.

On my return along a new road cut through a trimmed-down soccer field I discovered a very ambitious project: they have moved in about four dozen ten-to-twelve-foot trees with a tractor-mounted planting spade. The builders used these young trees to define a number of new lots for camping on the property and a boulevard which will soon shade the road access. They even mixed in a few spruce with the maple and ash in the planting.

At the end of the playing field I admired the rows of nannyberry and high-bush cranberry. (Those were the two shrubs I could identify.) My cranberries went into soggy soil and aren’t doing as well as these planted on the end of a soccer field. Whoever planned this area obviously knew what he or she was doing.

Over by the Bradford Pavillion I noticed 18 new floating docks, recently constructed. From the new gaps in the cattails along the bank, it looks as though they will be used to create slips for more campers along the creek. That’s the advantage of Beverley Creek as a place to keep a small boat – it’s very well sheltered from wind and waves.

With an abundance of docking on both sides of the creek and ready access to Lower Beverley Lake, Delta must be a great place to keep a small boat. Pontoon boats with upscale outboards seem to be the vessel of choice for waterfront property owners.

As I picked my way down the bank of the creek, I couldn’t help but notice the care and effort both campers and management lavish on this park. The people who live and work here obviously love the place.

The land is dominated by massive trees. Where else can you fish or stroll along a stream with 100’ pines towering above? Go a little further and you are into the crown of the deciduous forest, with oaks at least ninety feet tall meeting overhead. I looked for some time at a young black cherry which has managed to reach the top of the canopy for its share of the sunlight – an area about 4’ by 6’ – but that’s apparently enough for this magnificent young tree.

Almost no one was around at the time of my evening walk, but the place has the look of a well-regulated facility. What struck me most were the signs, or rather their scarcity. One sign seemed to be enough for each rule: “No bikes after dark.” “Scoop after your dog.” Sensible, practical rules to enable a group to live together in reasonable comfort.

The swimming area looks just fine, though of course it had little appeal to me as a fisherman on the prowl. The cottages on the site look highly desirable, and so do many of the trailers, well established on landscaped lots.

As I approached the office I noticed a series of modified farm wagons equipped with wooden railings and school bus seats, ten per vehicle. A sign on one advertised “Wagon Rides, Saturday night.” I wonder where they go and what they use to pull them?

At the time of my visit their leaves were formed but the trilliums hadn’t blossomed yet. By weekend they should be out. On a visit last year we observed that the hills within the park literally turn white when the Ontario’s official flower begins to bloom.

The shiners aren’t running yet at Delta, but it was still a lovely evening along the water. Every time I take this walk I leave for home thinking that the Lower Beverley Lake Park in Delta is the best-kept secret in Eastern Ontario tourism.

The Newboro Ice-Fishing Derby

February 14, 2010

UPDATE, 10 February, 2011:

According to The Review Mirror, the derby is on this weekend, but cars and trucks will not be allowed on the lake due to the dangerous ice conditions.  Organizer Doug Burtch encourages entrants to walk or use their ATV or snowmobile to get to their favourite spots, though.



Lots of ice out there for the Newboro Ice-fishing Derby today. The turnout was very good, and the parking lot around the weigh-in station off McCaskill’s Island would put a local supermarket’s to shame. No sign of movement from the ice, though.

The fish actually bit this morning, with the winning northern pike weighed in at about five and a half pounds, if memory serves. A few good black crappie and perch came in, as well. To save space on the leader board, Doug Burtch, the organizer, will only write an entry up if it exceeds the weight of the current entry in that category. Thus my fishing buddy Tony’s 2 lb 13 ounce pike, like many others, failed to get onto the board.

The social part of the event centred around Mrs. Helen Burtch dishing out a pickup-truck-load of door prizes from local contributors. From a large barbecue a guy named Andre served a variety of hot dogs, chili, beef stew and such. Spectators and diners alike gathered downwind to enjoy the aromas. A charming young border collie named Molly had pulled her master’s sled to the festivities, then held court while the weigh-in ceremony revolved around her.

Not a bad morning, all around. Here’s hoping we get enough snow this week to allow the dogsled races to run next weekend.

The Bass Boat

September 8, 2009

When the first bass boats appeared on the Rideau we guys in the cedar strips and Wykes boats didn’t know what to think. They travelled around at ghastly speeds, but didn’t seem to create a hazard for other fishermen except for those who didn’t have their running lights installed. The big surprise was the way they threw very little wake at planning speeds, unlike the cruisers and large runabouts which were the bane of our existence.

The engines seemed excessive and the fuel cost for a day’s fishing didn’t make a lot of sense on small lakes like those around Chaffey’s Locks, but everybody admired the way the electric motors on the front allowed the boats to move around obstacles quietly and with great control.

For control is the whole game when fishing bass in shallow water. Pinpoint accuracy in casting comes only if the boat is in proper position and stays there until the cast is complete. A shadow will ruin an otherwise promising cast. Noise in the water causes the bass to stop biting for several minutes.

Oars are pretty good for moving a boat through weeds and around stumps and over- hanging trees, but the guys with the trolling motors were doing well, too.

Then a fellow from the States hired me to guide him on his 17’ bass boat for a few days in August. Ahah! Now I’d get a chance to see what these things could really do! I leaped at the chance and left my cedar strip tied to the dock. Perhaps I leaped a little too slowly, for on my first attempt to board my client’s boat the bow of the thing swung out from under me and I landed ass-first in the drink. Not a good way to start a day of fishing on a cool August morning.

We left Dorothy’s dock and locked down through onto Opinicon. All was well, though the lock guys ribbed me a bit about my early swim. Word travels fast in Chaffey’s. But then Ken cleared the channel and hit the throttle. 175 horsepower moves a small fiberglass boat fast enough to fold your eyelids back. I discovered that almost immediately. A few seconds later I was frozen. Man, can it get cold in August when you’re wet! Fortunately another few seconds and we had arrived at our destination, Deadlock Bay. The Deadlock is one of the trickiest places to control a boat I knew at the time, and I was determined to give the trolling motor a workout.

My favourite type of fishing at the time was to drag a dead frog over the large clumps of yellow weed which congeal on the surface in the Deadlock. Bass like to lurk underneath them and blast up through at baits dragged over the surface. These strikes are violent, exciting, and persistent: a good fish would keep a client amused for several minutes because the bass seldom connects on its first strike, and when it does get hold of the bait it often spits it out or rips it off the hook. In the dark under the weeds, the bass has no fear, and will strike again and again if the bait is presented properly.

This far-fetched approach to fishing makes for very entertaining sport for guests, and by the end of the day if I told them that a bass would bite at the foot of the oak tree six feet up on shore, most would take a cast or two just to be sure. The downside of fishing the slop, of course, is that the boat can easily become mired in the weeds. My guide boat weighed a few hundred pounds, and at times I couldn’t free it with the oars. I would have to blast out of the goop with the engine, the occasion of not a few bent propellers in the early years.

Fearlessly I glided my client’s bass boat into the weeds. Never having run a trolling motor before, I discovered this one had both 12V and 24V settings. Even on 12V it was pretty strong, and it had a lot of boat to move. If the plate on the side meant anything, the hull and engine weighed 2800 pounds. That’s a lot of boat.

Ken was an amateur tournament angler, so he didn’t need any instruction on casting. The first bass to strike up through the weeds rattled him a bit, though, and he missed the hook-set. “Put it right back in the same spot.”


“Yep. We often catch them on the fifth strike, third frog.”

Ken dropped another dead frog in exactly the same spot, no small achievement from thirty feet away. The bass inhaled it, and this time Ken was ready. “Get him up on top! Otherwise you can’t bring him in!” Ken valiantly yanked the bass up on top of the floating weeds, and then knew enough to skid it across the surface, not giving the fish a chance to nose back into the weeds. He brought a respectable two-pound bass to the boat.

For the rest of the morning we moved around the Deadlock casting at the patches of the yellow goo. Before long I had switched to 24 volts, but the motor resolutely chewed through the weeds.

We fished the week out. Ken caught more fish than he had in a lifetime of tournaments in Louisiana, and I developed a real respect for the bass boat. When it came time to build one, though, I used an old 16’ aluminum hull and a much smaller engine. The important part is the electric motor.

The utility trailer has emerged as the best transportation value in our modern world.  Its overhead is negligible:  $35. will license it for life.  Insurance is unnecessary.  It will do all a pickup truck will do, but you don’t have to worry about scratching it, and you can unhook it and leave a partly-completed task behind.

A bit of skill is the main requirement to benefit from this transportation boon.  The driver has to be able to back it up, and thus we come to one of the defining tasks of manhood for my generation:  backing up a trailer.

Learning the skill was a long and difficult journey for me in my sixteenth year, committed to a summer of mornings hauling firewood into Alan Earl’s basement with a tractor and trailer.  The firewood followed a serpentine route down a driveway, between a shed and a brick house, then around a 180 degree turn under a clothes line and up a slight incline to the basement door.  I had to back a loaded trailer through this maze, several times per day.

I soon knew every inch of that route, and still rue the day I left a series of bolt-shaped swirls in the gray boards of the shed wall when I edged the tractor too close in an effort to make the turn.  No doubt those scratches are still there today.

Later on I learned that it’s much easier to handle a trailer with a vehicle which has a rear-view mirror.  All you need do is take a sighting of the corner of the trailer in the mirror, and then if you hold that image still as you back up, the trailer will go straight.

Longer wheelbases are easier, as well, but if you want to observe the true test of a marriage, just watch a couple launching a boat at a ramp without a dock.  Logic indicates that if one partner is in the boat at the time of the launch, nobody need get wet.  The trick is to have one trained to start and free the boat from the trailer and the other equipped to back the vehicle and its load down the ramp into the water.  The problem is that usually the same partner feels uniquely qualified to do both jobs.

The first time Bet tried backing in at Forrester’s Landing, my shouted instructions didn’t seem to help, and she actually ended up sideways on the ramp before leaping from the vehicle in disgust.  From that point on my wife has put trailers out of her mind.  When I asked for her opinion for this article she paused, thought, and said, “They’re for hauling garbage and moving university students.”

A friend from Ottawa was more forthcoming:  “I have a history of poor choices with men, and not one of them could back up a trailer.  Maybe it’s that men who eat quiche can’t back up trailers.”

Of course the trailer challenge is specific to my age group.  Our son’s generation never had to learn.  From hours of play with remote control cars, reverse-steering is hard-wired into their brains.  You see, with an RC car the controls steer one way going out and the opposite way on the return trip. The crossover to trailers is a breeze.  Charlie was about twelve when he learned how to drive his Grandpa’s Jeep around the farm, and the next day I looked over to see him with a trailer attached, backing the rig straight across an eight-acre field.

One of the most insidious things about trailers is how easily an owner can be persuaded to add another to his fleet.

Last fall when I bought a utility vehicle I gradually realized that I couldn’t take it anywhere because it was too big to fit any trailer I owned.  Soon a Kijiji ad put me on to a pair of axles, so I drove to Kingston and picked them up.  My neighbour Peter Myers straightened one axle and lengthened both to give the 6′ bed width the UV required, then guided me through the design process to produce quite a wonderful flat-bed trailer. He accepted that I wanted a trailer which was neither too big nor too small, and all it took was a week of work and a lot of steel. I quickly added low wooden sideboards and stakes to go with the magnificent “headache bar” he rigged across the front to provide a positive stop for the front wheels of my UV.  Before I got at it with a paint roller, Peter’s creation was a thing of beauty.

Painting steel in late November is strangely difficult, but Tremclad will dry at below-freezing temperatures.  It just won’t spray, so the roller was a must.  Wiring trailer lights is never fun, but it’s worse when your fingers stick to the pliers, the trailer, and even the bolts.

Notwithstanding the crude paint job, the new trailer has fitted in well with the other eight in the barn.  Bet suggests this fondness for trailers must be compensation for my utter inability to back up a farm wagon.  There, I’ve admitted it.

How to cook a splake

November 9, 2008

Martin and Vanya are grad students in the Queen’s Biology Department.  They have taken quite an interest in finding alternative sources of food in an urban environment, but since Dr. Bill Barrett suggested that I warn them to check all pigeon’s lung sacs for T.B. spots, they have confined their foraging to squirrels and porcupines they find in our woodlot.  The most recent porky was quite a success, according to Martin.  From his description it sounds as if it tasted a lot like beaver, a delicacy that I tried with colleagues and 450 Canadian studies students at my school one fall day in 1973. For the record, the large beaver (provided by my grandfather) tasted like finely-grained beef with a hint of liver.  This may be more of a tribute to the skills of the ladies in the Chimo cafeteria than to the innate flavour of the critter, but it wasn’t bad, actually.

Martin and Vanya have taken to following Charlie along to the farm on weekends in hope of an invitation to hunt in the woods, or failing that, the offer of a meal of wild game from the family grill.

The first time they showed up I cooked a pile of largemouth bass fillets and dumped them on a cooling tray while they prepared corn in a propane boiler.  In my experience if there’s a crowd around the fillets will disappear from the tray at a good rate, and the first sign that the crew is filling up is when a fillet actually makes it to a plate before it is eaten.  It took until the third cast iron pan full for this to happen, and it might have been that Martin and Vanya wanted to leave some for the other six people; nevertheless, it does a cook’s heart good to see how a bunch of hungry twenty-somethings can eat.

Their most recent visit came about for the same reason that I had gone fishing the night before:  it was simply too nice a fall day to remain inside.  I had coaxed a very active splake onto the shore and its fillets were cooling in the fridge as they arrived.

I lit the grill and they required no coaxing.  I pontificated away on the tricks of making an inedible fish into a delicacy, but their ears seemed to be blocked by hunger.  All they wanted was the food, which they dispatched with haste and relish, did the dishes, looked briefly around the woods for squirrels, then raced to my secret fishing hole, though they claimed they were overdue for work on campus.

The following day brought my largest splake ever, and so I had to circulate a photo or two.  Vanya responded with a few photos of his own and the following note:


Hi Rod,

Nice fish. Here are pictures of the one I caught.

After eating the splake at your house, I thought it was impossible that these fish could taste bad. So that evening, I grilled the splake that I caught the night before, and my god it was terrible. Tasted fishy and strong, and smelled equally bad. They’re a pleasure to catch but a chore to eat!



Ah ha!  He had made the classic rookie mistake:  you must never mistake a splake for something good to eat!  A splake looks somewhat like a salmon (though it’s a lot prettier), but while an Atlantic’s oil is sweet, a splake’s is almost as rank as that of a lingcod.  I still remember the smell in the house that January day when I first tried to fry a ling fillet in an open pan.  We had every window of the house wide open, just to get the smoke out.  It turned out that the ling’s oil has a very low fuming point, and it smells awful when burning.

Memory of the ling debacle is why I only cook splake outdoors and downwind of the dwelling, if possible.  But I’d heard someone — it might have been Lennie Pyne — talking about how ling is quite good if you deep fry it and get rid of the oil.   Actually, I think Lennie gave me that ling, but he denies it, so maybe it was someone else in the group ice fishing off Trout Island that day.

Later on after I discovered downrigger fishing I was catching significant numbers of splake during my run of beginner’s luck, and I was unwilling to admit that they were almost inedible.  I wondered if Lennie’s principle of broiling the grease out might apply equally as well to splake as ling.

I decided to slice the fish into skinless fillets and try to burn the oil out of them with an open flame.  This worked surprisingly well.  The whitish oil would rise out of the fillet when heated, and would then burn off when I turned it.  You just didn’t want to be downwind.

Butter hides a lot of evil flavours simply by coating the tastebuds on the tongue.  It works for August bass, so why shouldn’t it help a splake?  I decided to baste the fillets in melted, unsalted butter each time I turned them throughout the cooking process.  I singed a few hairs off my hands, but the process worked better than I deserved:  it turned out that butter is denser than the splake oil, so as the segments of the fillet open up from cooking, the heavier oil displaces the lighter to the surface, only to be lost to the fire when the fillet is turned.

A splake fillet will sustain a great deal of flame without charring.  It is like a salmon that way.  Basically you can treat it like steak on a barbecue.  Cook it until it breaks in half, then serve it with lots of salt.  The fillet will have a great texture and appearance, and will taste like butter and salt – not bad, under the circumstances.

Just don’t be lulled into thinking that these magnificent fillets actually taste good.

My friend Tony has suddenly hit a hot streak on splake. Yesterday on Indian Lake he landed three nice ones and one laker in an hour of fishing. Today he sent me a quick note from his Blackberry that he had one more laker in the boat. Then came the following message.

Almost had a heart attack. A 3 foot water snake just slithered past my feet
from the front to the back of the boat and went back behind the tanks. He
must have been in the forward locker.

Now he has to decide: does he get rid of the snake and end his lucky streak, or learn to live with his new mascot and reap the rewards?

I hadn’t expected the fishing bug to hit as late as Labour Day, but Bet and I were anchored in Horseshoe Bay on the Big Rideau when it happened. She said something like, “Think there’d be a bass under that tree over there?” I was hooked.

Problem was that I didn’t have a fishing boat with me, just several unwieldy tons of old wooden cruiser swinging at anchor. My best casts from the bow produced nothing. The fish were under the trees, and I’d just have to go after them.

I set out along the tree-lined shore in an inner tube, towing a second tube for my stringer, with a woolen sock full of frogs attached. My prized heavy-duty bait-casting rod waved aloft and flippers supplied the power. The water seemed a little cool. With growing respect for the rig’s mobility, I worked a dead frog under the overhanging trees. The fish weren’t biting, though. I made my way down the shoreline all the way to the mouth of the bay and up the other side without a strike.

Finally I got to the two massive overhanging hemlocks that had prompted Bet’s comment in the first place. They looked good. The first tree yielded a strike. I set the hook, and in no time a two-pound bass was splashing alongside the tube.

This posed a problem: tree-dwelling bass don’t like sunlight. When hooked, most make a beeline for the largest bit of floating cover in reach. In this case, that object was my inner tube, with me at its centre. While a bass is not regarded as a fierce biter, it does have considerable sticking prowess because of its spiked dorsal fins. With no desire to turn my Speedo into a pin cushion, I had to fend the bass off with flippers until it learned to accept the lesser comfort of the trailing inner tube (which it perforated as soon as the nervous fish floated up into the shade).

Bubbling merrily, my little flotilla continued up the shoreline to the next tree. I was cold, but feeling pretty positive about tubing for bass.

Let me tell you a little about tree fishing: the best trees have water from one to four feet in depth under about a hundred square feet of shaded area. Often the branches come right down to the water, so the sidearm “frogging” cast involves skipping a bait across the surface of the water, through weeds and twigs, and hopefully into the waiting mouth of a large fish under the canopy. This is why such heavy tackle is used: you often have to muscle the bass out of whatever crud he can dig up under the tree.

On this trip I was winning, so I knew I’d find a fish under this tree. The cast was perfect. The dead frog made one skip and landed cleanly in an open spot in the weeds. Nothing. Wait him out. Still nothing. Go home? No. Wait. Still? Just wait.

WHAM! Some strike! Give him a few seconds. SET THE HOOK! HIT HIM TWICE MORE! Still on? Get him out of there!

I put my twin rubber stern drives on full ahead and tried to tow the heavy fish out of his lair. He must have taken a half-hitch around a stump, because he was holding his own pretty well and I was just churning up mud and weeds. I slackened for a second to see if he would ease up too, and then hit him with all of the backbone in the rod. Out he came, foaming the water and gobbling up the distance between us much more quickly than I’d have liked.

It was a large northern pike, an open-mouthed monster who seemed not at all pleased to make my acquaintance. Twice I had to parry the so-and-so’s rushes at my tube by sticking my flipper into his mouth and deflecting him. Then he circled. This startled the bass on the stringer, who forgot his training and again made a sortie toward my Speedo.

I couldn’t break the heavy line, the fish was solidly hooked, and I couldn’t even race from the scene because of the rocks and stumps around the tree. Most of my effort had to go into kicks with flippers to protect my vessel’s hull from the mutinous crew, but eventually we cleared the obstructions and I put the tube up on plane for the quarter-mile run to the mother ship.

As I neared the boat I roared to Bet, who, her mischief of the morning done, had retired to the salon to read a novel. She just shook her head when I handed her up the rod and sculled around to the stern. I swarmed up the swim ladder and back to the bow to take over fighting the fish from the more serene perspective of a captain aboard his ship with no fear of personal hull punctures.

Shortly I landed the respectable five-pound pike, photographed him and let him go. He’d earned it. The bass? Breakfast. The number two tube never recovered. That pike looked a lot bigger from an inner tube.

So that’s why we built the dinghy.