No, I did not go out on the ice.

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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.

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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.

https://rodcroskery.wordpress.com/2008/04/20/how-to-catch-a-splake/

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Saturday, April 30th, the morning dawned calm and warm and I had discovered a forgotten downrigger rod with lead-core line, so I hopped into the boat and ran over to Indian Lake to see if I could find a splake. I had never really considered using the Moto-Guide to troll for splake before, but the Mercury, while it runs strongly at speed, idles like a barrel of empty cans rolling down a flight of stairs. Every rivet and fitting on the boat vibrates. The fish might not mind, but I hate the sound.

So I tried the lead line while trolling silently on the electric motor at a gentle speed. Lead core line is hard to unwind and reel in again. I hate the expensive, but awkward Diawa line-counter reel on which I have it spooled. It has no balance at all, so everything is a chore with it.

I dragged a silver spoon around the usual haunts and got a few of the usual splake bumps, but no solid strikes. Splake are prone to swimming up quickly behind a lure, then grabbing the round part of the hook with the tips of their mouths and suddenly turning left, shaking the lure enough to notice, but missing the hooks.

How do I know this? One afternoon I encountered a school of 12″ splake which must have just been stocked. They were clustered under a raft of timbers next to the shore, attempting to hide from a pair of loons which made regular sorties in for a snack.

Curious, I grabbed my light rod, put on a small crappie jig, and teased the naive fish to bite. To my surprise they struck willingly on a chartreuse tube jig, but I couldn’t hook them: they just kept tearing the tentacles off the tube jig. So I watched. Splake seem genetically programmed to accelerate suddenly behind prey, then to bite off the tail in a tearing motion to one side. This turn makes the striking fish very hard to hook.

With practice I discovered that if I hesitated a bit, the splake held on more often. Gradually I developed the knack of hooking them. After catching and releasing a couple of hundred dumb hatchery fish I grew bored, but I had had ample opportunity to observe up close how splake strike.

This day, without a stinger hook on my lure or any inclination to thread a mud minnow onto one and increase my odds, I contentedly floated around the calm lake and enjoyed the day. Then my rod started to jump a bit. Playing a fish on a downrigger rod is a rather numb sensation at the best of times. The same thing with two hundred feet of lead-core line is like trying to type with mitts on. Nonetheless I brought up the yearling splake and cheerfully dropped it into the well.

The big difference between a splake and a lake trout: a laker brought up from 80 feet is just about dead. A splake’s all ready to fight. With the cold water in the well, my prize remained frisky for several hours.

No more fish struck this day, but I had earned bragging rights for the season’s first splake. It grilled up very nicely for Sunday lunch.

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.

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:

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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!

Vanya

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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.

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 thirty-five years since I haven’t been able to figure out what.