an­glers on a Train

Grab the fam­ily or a few bud­dies and climb aboard the north­woods ex­press for a unique way to en­joy world-class fish­ing in the Cana­dian wilder­ness

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by dave kar­czyn­ski

All aboard the wilder­ness fish­ing ex­press. Ride the rails to the best pike, wall­eye, and trout fish­ing of your life.

“I think the guy at the gas sta­tion said ‘CHAP-LOW,’” Tom says. “Like Chap­stick.”

“Pretty sure it’s ‘Shap-lee-oh,’” Brian coun­ters, go­ing full French on it with a third syl­la­ble. How­ever you want to say it, it had taken the four of us an en­tire day to get to the North­ern On­tario town of Chap­leau, on a drive that saw more moose than bears and more bears than gas sta­tions—ex­actly the ra­tio you’re shoot­ing for on a trip like this. The plan, as hashed out over a long win­ter’s se­cret Face­book group, is to go lodge-hop­ping across the re­gion by train and fish hard at each stop: pike and wall­eye at Lake Es­nagi; pike, wall­eye, and brook trout at Wa­ba­tongushi Lake. I’ve driven solo from Ann Ar­bor, Michi­gan, while Tom, Dan, and Brian have driven up to­gether from Min­neapo­lis. I’ve fished with Tom a thou­sand times, but the other two guys are new to me. In cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, I’d have some trep­i­da­tion about such an untested crew, but Dan is Tom’s brother, and I’ve come to be­lieve that any­one with the last name Hazel­ton is pis­ca­to­ri­ally le­git. As for Brian Berge­son, he’s one of those an­glers whose name pre­cedes him. A well-known fly de­signer and tier, his cre­ations are re­spon­si­ble for catch­ing hun­dreds of huge fish, in­clud­ing sev­eral world records. As we stand around wait­ing for Cana­dian Pa­cific to show up, Brian opens his rod case to show off a cus­tom rod that one of his globe-trot­ting clients sent him as thanks for as­sist­ing with the largest Rus­sian taimen ever taken on a fly rod. He winks as he re-sheaths the stick. “My flies don’t mess around.”

I crack open a non­de­script Cana­dian pil­sner and look out over the train plat­form, past clumps of men with their gear piled high into moun­tains, past a group of pad­dlers with two ca­noes bound for the freight car, past a large con­tin­gent from Detroit with match­ing ball caps and bug nets—even though it’s late May and we are still pre-black­fly. There, beyond the curve of track, is our shared des­ti­na­tion: the un­paved, off-the-grid coun­try of the Cana­dian Shield. This is the first time I’ve ap­proached the hin­ter­land this way. I’ve been dumped off on fish­ing trips from pretty much ev­ery other con­ceiv­able form of trans­port—by float­plane, car, truck, and ca­noe, or on foot. I even once did 30 miles of log­ging road on a moun­tain bike be­hind a wolf pack I took great pains not to gain on. But never have I taken a train.

This train­less­ness is a shame given the im­por­tance of rail lines in shap­ing the mod­ern sport­ing imag­i­na­tion. The first Cana­dian rail lines fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the fur trade, con­nect­ing rivers like the St. Lawrence and Riche­lieu and es­sen­tially func­tion­ing as an elab­o­rate portage. They then ex­panded west with the tim­ber in­dus­try, push­ing into the fron­tier far­ther year by year. And when the great har­vest in­dus­tries pe­tered out, th­ese same trains freighted sports­men

“Is it ‘SHA-PLOO’?” Dan asks, mak­ing a sound like a heavy stone plopped in a pond.

north, in an era that co­in­cided with the first out­door mag­a­zines and the dreams they stoked: of re­mote­ness, soli­tude, a qual­ity of hunt­ing and fish­ing un­avail­able in the back­yards of civ­i­liza­tion.

No other form of trans­port smacks as clearly of destiny as the train. Bush planes can change course and des­ti­na­tion at leisure. Trucks and jeeps can do as they please. But trains have a sense of fat­ed­ness about them, and none more so than this par­tic­u­lar line, which trav­els in only one di­rec­tion per day. To­day, it’s west through out­posts like Larch­wood, Ram­sey, Mis­san­a­bie, and Woman River; to­mor­row, it’s east to­ward Esher, Azilda, Ne­me­gos, and, fi­nally, Sud­bury. In a mod­ern life that pulls you in so many di­rec­tions that you fear quar­ter­ing reg­u­larly, there’s a deep com­fort in the idea of a one-di­rec­tion ride.

The train pulls up, and there’s a bum’s rush to throw gear into the freight car. Even af­ter the ca­noes and cases of beer, it’s still only marginally filled. I ask the con­duc­tor how far off Lake Es­nagi is.

“Lit­tle un­der three hours, as the train flies.”


It’s rare, in the bo­real North, for spring to show the type of clemency for which it’s else­where re­puted. Here, it’s less a sea­son than a strug­gle, with most days striv­ing hard in the di­rec­tion of ei­ther win­ter or sum­mer, and gen­er­ally achiev­ing the goal by noon. Our ar­rival at Lodge 88 co­in­cides with an ex­tended stretch of cold weather that has the wall­eye and brook trout fish­ing a lit­tle be­hind sched­ule. The pike, on other hand, are in full flush. We ask Brent, the head guide, which bay is best. “Pick one,” is his re­ply.

Un­der low clouds, we ex­plore the long, nar­row bays fin­ger­ing out from the main lake and the count­less trib­u­taries that seep into them. Pike with fresh spawn­ing scars are re­cu­per­at­ing in the vicin­ity of th­ese out­flows, and we fish them all in a slow cir­cuit, catch­ing smaller fish first and then, as pike fish­ing goes, feel­ing our way out to the larger spec­i­mens. The big­gest fe­males are hang­ing back on the edge of the deeper drop-offs, hav­ing fin­ished their pro­cre­ative busi­ness and want­ing noth­ing more to do with the bump­tious males.

To my knowl­edge, no one has yet as­sem­bled a com­plete com­pen­dium of pike bites, but by the end of the first day, we have cat­a­loged sev­eral dozen, from slow stalks to sud­den ra­zor­ings to the toothy arches of air­borne Esox. A vi­o­lent day of pike fish­ing re­cal­i­brates the an­gler’s ner­vous sys­tem to a gen­er­al­ized ex­pec­ta­tion of am­bush. Dark clos­ets, blind cor­ners, and even lid­ded toi­lets are af­ter­ward ap­proached with ex­treme cau­tion.

The next day, we go wall­eye jig­ging with Brent, who totes along a deep ca­st­iron pan, a sack of pota­toes and onions,

and a few cans of pork and beans. To this we’ll add enough fish for a shore lunch, a great rit­ual of the North and the high tea of the an­gling class. Ev­ery­one par­tic­i­pates. Even diehard catc­hand-re­lease an­glers un­der­stand that they are far enough from civ­i­liza­tion that the typ­i­cal rules of en­gage­ment do not ap­ply. And it’s a good thing too, since in all the world you could not find a land­scape bet­ter suited to shore lunch than north­ern On­tario. Labrador is too thick with sphag­num and spruce, Alaska of­ten too marshy and al­lu­vial. But the On­tario Shield is per­fect and pro­vides ev­ery­thing you need: an end­less sup­ply of dry wood, plenty of glacial rub­ble for ar­chi­tect­ing what­ever fash­ion of stove you re­quire, and per­fectly sized is­lands—big enough to stretch your legs and walk around, but small enough that you’re never out of earshot of the fire pop­ping or the waves lap­ping on the rocks. But first, we need fish.

I had been nurs­ing a sur­face-fish­ing habit and hadn’t jigged for walleyes in years. I’d for­got­ten the sweet an­tic­i­pa­tion that builds with each lift and fall of the jig as you thump it down a con­tour— any se­cond, any se­cond, any se­cond. And then there’s the elec­tric tap-tap of the eat. Much has been made of the steel­head’s take to a swung fly, the toi­let-bowl whoosh by which a bass Hou­di­nis a hair bug, but the take of a wall­eye di­rectly be­neath the boat has a pri­mal po­etry all its own, with your rod serv­ing not only as a hook-set­ting tool but as a prim­i­tive scale. How heavy is this one? A good eater? Or even too big for a shore lunch?

At high noon we go ashore with a few eater walleyes and one smaller pike for va­ri­ety’s sake, and Chef Brent goes to work—or tries to. We prowl around the fire like the fish we’ve been hunt­ing, snatch­ing up morsels when­ever we can. Pa­tience is not one of the virtues of the an­gler who has fished hard all day in the open spray of a Shield lake and is then con­fronted by golden morsels of fresh fish. You pick them up much too hot for your hands and dance them around on your tongue, and sim­ply ac­cept that this week your mouth will re­main chron­i­cally scorched. Brent’s pota­toes, for their part, are oth­er­worldly, com­ing off the man­do­line so thin that you can see through them, then fried crispy burnt at the edges while still re­tain­ing a soft gooey­ness in the mid­dle. And then, of course, there are the om­nipresent pork and beans. If

you’re new to the art of the shore lunch, the trick is to re­gard th­ese not as a side dish but as a condi­ment, one that im­proves the taste of ev­ery­thing it comes in con­tact with. Along with hun­gry walleyes and ra­pa­cious pike, Brent’s fives­tar lunches be­come a part of our daily ca­dence, and by the end of our stay, we have eaten and napped on four of the lake’s dozen or so is­lands. But then it’s time to go.


Lucky are the an­glers, al­ready slaked from sev­eral days of good fish­ing, who find them­selves wait­ing in the woods for a train that will de­liver them to many more. Our next stop is Loch Is­land Lodge on Wa­ba­tongushi Lake, which lies on the thresh­old of that coun­try the early fur traders called Le Petit Nord, a con­ti­nen­tal di­vide of sorts that steers the rivers not south to Lake Su­pe­rior but north to­ward the Hud­son Bay. Over a lunch of pork chops and cherry pie, a group of de­part­ing an­glers tells us about the largest pike they’d ever seen in one of the bays, a fish that had closely in­spected ev­ery­one’s spoons and spin­ners but com­mit­ted to none. Ryan, the head guide, con­firms the story and lays a map of the lake on the ta­ble. Hold­ing a pen like an ice pick in a heav­ily ban­daged hand—dock-re­pair in­juries are an On­tario rite of spring—he makes a few scratches on a small bay in the north­west cor­ner of the lake. At first glance it looks like the jagged scrawl of a lie-de­tec­tor test, but when I ro­tate the map, I see he’s writ­ten the sim­ple, hon­est word “Big.”

All fish­ing trips have their own unique re­flec­tive in­ter­ludes. Some­times it’s a long pad­dle or portage, other times an end­less hike through the thick bram­bles of a moun­tain val­ley, or, in those parts of the world where the heat is se­vere enough to gum up the hands of your watch, a lemon­ade siesta in the shade. But on the big lakes of On­tario, your dreamy rever­ies come in the form of 10-mile boat rides be­tween is­lands of jack pine and great loom­ing promon­to­ries of Pre­cam­brian rock. Cruis­ing on the big open wa­ter of Wa­ba­tongushi on our way to see Big, we glimpse our first sun­light in days, pud­dles of golden light that glide along­side the boat like manta rays be­fore dis­solv­ing again into win­ter gloom. But it’s a false alarm: By the time we ar­rive at Big’s bay, it’s as cold as it’s been all week. In the early dusk, a few snowflakes swirl about like midges.

There’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in ap­proach be­tween cast­ing at ran­dom and tar­get­ing a known fish. Ev­ery ac­tion be­comes more de­lib­er­ate, start­ing with choos­ing the of­fer­ing. I open my pike box and pick over the mess of feath­ers and flash. Se­lect­ing the cor­rect size is easy—for a fish named Big, only the big­gest will do—but there is color and pro­file to con­sider. I de­cide to heed the wis­dom of the late Gary La­fontaine, a bril­liant and ec­cen­tric fly-tier who ar­gued for match­ing not the hatch, but the col­ors of the pre­vail­ing light, which in this case means a steely blue and ma­genta. I fi­nally set­tle on a Mur­dich Min­now I had tied years ago to im­i­tate my brother’s Pur­pledes­cent Ra­pala—a lake trout slayer if there ever was one. I give it a few twitches boat­side to check out its col­ors. If an ici­cle and a bait­fish had a love child, this would be it.

Tom and Dan start at one side of the bay, while Brian and I take the other. The idea is to work the shore­line in­ward and meet in the mid­dle. Twenty min­utes pass un­event­fully, which is good be­cause it

sug­gests that smaller fish don’t see the area as safe. Then, with­out warn­ing, it hap­pens.

There’s a mo­ment unique to pike and muskie fish­ing—the sud­den heave of wa­ter when a fish of mam­moth pro­por­tions pushes through the shal­lows. You know some­thing is com­ing, and you know that this some­thing is big. What’s un­clear, at least to a cer­tain ves­ti­gial rep­til­ian part of the brain, is whether the beast is com­ing af­ter your fly or you. In this case, it hap­pens on my se­cond cast to a grassy penin­sula where the shal­low wa­ter quickly drops to deep. “Big!” I yell as I set the hook again and again, hold­ing on and not giv­ing an inch as the fish digs and rolls. It tapes out at 41 inches, my big­gest pike ever. Re­turn­ing to the lodge, I’m met with all the fan­fare of a dragon slayer, be­gin­ning with beer and cul­mi­nat­ing in a trip to the bait house, where with a nub of chalk I add my name and the date to the Loch Is­land Lodge pike fish­ing hall of fame.

Thus do we pass sev­eral bliss­ful days of wall­eye af­ter­noons, pike evenings, and cold wood-stove nights. We had all largely ac­cepted by this point that our gam­ble to fish the first warm-weather pat­tern of the year had failed, and that the trip would end with­out our par­tak­ing of any warmweathe­r fish­ing. Then, on our last full day, we wake to some­thing dif­fer­ent: enough heat that our first thought of the morn­ing doesn’t in­volve fire. A quick step out­side onto the deck con­firms that the cold spell has bro­ken at last. To­day will be high sun and black­flies—and, we hope and pray, brook trout. At break­fast, Ryan maps out a small lake deep in the woods that is full of noth­ing but char, on the hike to which we find the year’s first morels, which we cram into all avail­able pock­ets. We find the old john­boat hi­ber­nat­ing in the grass, then flip it over and push off into the blue, shim­mer­ing bay. For the first halfhour, we twitch dry flies on likely look­ing wa­ter, but to no avail.

Then we start to get our eyes. Past the oars, just beyond the vis­i­ble, the shad­ows of brook trout dart about in the sun­lit depths, crush­ing min­nows. We go to sink­ing lines and weighted Mud­dlers, and start catch­ing them in rapid suc­ces­sion. They’re all beau­ti­ful fish, and all more or less the same size and shape— plump bor­der­ing on cor­pu­lent. One of them coughs up a heap of scuds, which ex­plains their fat­ness and prom­ises a par­tic­u­larly suc­cu­lent lunch: Few fish are as sweet as those fin­ished on crus­taceans. We fish for a few hours, and af­ter catch­ing dozens of fish, we re­tire to a shady is­land to build our lunch fire.

There’s a deep com­fort in the siz­zle of four whole char bak­ing over a wood fire, es­pe­cially when those chars’ bel­lies have been plumped with black morels and spruce tips. The eat­ing is a rev­e­la­tion in the lit­eral sense of the word: All re­spec­tive sets of bones are picked clean, first with jack-pine chop­sticks, then with greedy fin­gers. Af­ter­ward I go down to the wa­ter with the car­casses and look out over the lake. The sun is soft and warm, and there’s a feel­ing that, this time, the warmth is here to stay. The black­flies agree. They aren’t quite eat­ing me alive yet, but they are get­ting in some mighty good bites.

I toss the brook trout spines into the wa­ter, and im­me­di­ately they’re be­sieged by min­nows, a swarm so sud­den and thick, you’d think they had some pi­ranha DNA. It strikes me how quickly th­ese bits of brook trout will find their way back into brook trout—quite pos­si­bly this evening when the big fish come shal­low to hunt. The Cana­dian Shield in spring­time is hun­gry coun­try, where bits and pieces of one thing quickly find their way into the next. And in the end, this is per­haps the great­est charm and util­ity of the back­coun­try, to clar­ify the con­nec­tions be­tween the crea­tures of the world, all los­ing and gain­ing them­selves at turns. Some­times the food, and some­times the fed. Some­times—i swat at a black­fly and dab at a drib­ble of blood—both at once.

“There’s a deep com­fort in the siz­zle of whole char bak­ing over a wood fire.”


Fi­nally, we come to the end. On our last morn­ing, we get up ex­tra early and load all the gear onto the pon­toon that will ferry us to the de­pot. I’m down one camo Croc and a pint of blood, though I’ve made up for my loss with the kind of ex­tra poundage that comes from eat­ing dessert ev­ery night for a week straight. The train is late, but the black­flies are not. Each man at­tempts a dif­fer­ent de­fense against the blood­thirsty ma­raud­ers. Dan dons all of his lay­ers, los­ing triple in sweat what he oth­er­wise would in blood. Tom takes out his cam­era and at­tempts to cap­ture vis­ually pleas­ing con­stel­la­tions of the crit­ters. Brian opts for a more ag­gres­sive tac­tic, load­ing his e-cig­a­rette to the hilt and do­ing his best dragon imi­ta­tion. Fi­nally the train shows up. I lean my head against the win­dow and try to count moose in the swamps blur­ring by, an arith­metic far more so­porific than that in­volv­ing sheep. Just as on loud, windy nights when you’re camped in the mid­dle of nowhere, phan­tom sounds start to emerge from the white noise of the tracks: the scream of a fish putting a hurt on the drag, the clunk of the cedar boat hit­ting dock, the wet thun­der of a big pike the first time it breaches. But as I slip into true sleep, there’s a new sound too, not quite a mur­mur and not quite a hush—the sound of all the un­fished wa­ter call­ing out to me, call­ing af­ter me, as the train hauls east to­ward home.

1 A north­ern is turned into meat. 2 Another gray day, another wet and cold ride. 3 Not all pike are as big as Big. 4 You can never have too many flies—brian and Tom search for the next hot pat­tern.

1 Once the train stops, ev­ery­one jumps into ac­tion. 2 The bays might all look the same, but each holds dif­fer­ent fish species. 3 A lake map de­tails the digs of a pike named Big. 4 An eater-size north­ern.

1 Brian Berge­son with the gator of the day. 2 Time to climb back aboard and es­cape the black­flies. 3 Two roads, one track, and all the pike, walleyes, and brook trout you can han­dle. 4 Swing­ing flies at a river mouth for walleyes and pike. 5 Prep­ping...

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