Travel

On fish and Facebook

A northern Ontario lake sets the stage for a father-and-son fishing trip
Writer Ray Ford and his son Cam catch and release pickerel and pike in Wabatongushi Lake Expand Image
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The Algoma Central Railway line stretches from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to Hearst. Wabatongushi Lake is about two-thirds of the way up the railway line. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic).

The thing about fishing — and I hope I’m not revealing a closely guarded secret here — is that it’s not all about the fish. I repeat this mantra (“it’s not about the fish, it’s not about the fish”) whenever my catch is meagre, as it often is. In angling, as in so many other aspects of life, it’s wise to keep expectations low.

But today, as my 15-year-old son Cam and I drift across a sheltered bay in a cedar-strip boat, our expectations are different. Higher, even. This is Wabatongushi Lake in Northern Ontario, about two-thirds of the way up the Algoma Central Railway line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst. We’ve spent most of a day on the train to get here, and we’re eager to test the theory that the more distant the lake, the more rewarding the fishing.

Not that getting here is a hardship, exactly. About 30,000 people ride the Algoma Central every year, most of them touring the Agawa Canyon, a 1.2 billion-year-old fault in the Canadian Shield. Gouged out by successive ice ages, the 175-metre-deep chasm is a destination for picnics, hikes and anyone who admires cascading waterfalls. Energetic visitors can climb 300- plus steps to a lookout halfway up the canyon wall. From this height, the locomotive idling down below looks like the centrepiece in an elaborately-landscaped model train set.

When the canyon-goers return to Sault Ste. Marie, Cam and I transfer onto the no-frills passenger run to Hearst. By late afternoon the diesel rumbles to a stop alongside Lake Wabatongushi, and through the windows we see a ruddyfaced man with a trim white beard loitering alongside a pontoon boat. It’s our host, Al Errington. Along with his wife, Doris, son Devin and daughter Morgan, Al runs Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort. He’s been a fixture on this lake since his parents bought the place, accessible only for guests arriving by rail or air, in 1975.

Back then, “it was kind of a rundown place, with fishing shacks made from plywood,” he says. “People fished hard, even on wet days, because there wasn’t much difference between staying in the shacks and being outside.” Now the shacks have been replaced with a log main lodge, trim housekeeping cottages and cabins and comfy suites with electricity. In the lodge, guests eat tasty (and plentiful) fare ranging from prime rib to Cornish hen, topped off with homemade pies and cakes.

The lodge’s common room boasts a Wi-fi connection, but errington draws the line at television reception (although there is a TV for watching videos). “it’s a distraction from enjoying nature,” he says. “a lot of what appeals to our guests is the distance from civilization and the stress in their day-to-day lives.”

I don’t mention my own stress, one common to father-son getaways. To establish alpha-dad credibility, i need to land a fish, preferably a big one, before Cam does.

So that’s my goal as we drift along, Cam and i in one boat and our guide, brad fantham, in another. fantham plays junior hockey in the winter, but his summers have involved angling as far back as he can remember. fishing on an evening after work last summer, he set what is probably a lake record, catching and releasing 54 pickerel (or walleye, as they’re also known) in about two hours.

His go-to lure is the Rapala Husky Jerk, a lethally life-like thing about the size of some of the fi sh i normally catch. The idea is to twitch the rod as you retrieve the lure, a motion that says “bite me” to big fish. “it drives them crazy,” Fantham says.

Instead, it’s driving me crazy. fantham’s line dances like gossamer in a breeze. in short order he’s catching and releasing pickerel. but after a few casts my line is balled up.

When I try untangling it, the lure’s hooks impale my sleeve. Then my life jacket. Then my finger. Cursing, I toss the Husky Jerk to the bottom of the boat. It snags the landing net.

Rummaging through my tackle box, I grab a yellow Mepps spoon. I’ve been lofting this company’s lures in the water since I was a kid, spending long days fishing at a friend’s cottage. When we were 12 or so, my friend Dave and I would pack tuna sandwiches and cans of pop and drift around Clear Lake in a rowboat, pondering the enigmatic habits of fish, the more mysterious wiles of girls and the unsettling approach of adulthood.

I fling the Mepps out into Wabatongushi and seconds later I’ve got a strike — the adrenaline-fuelled feel of a life pulsing through eight-pound monofilament. The rod bends, the water roils. Cam grabs a landing net and scoops a 40-centimetre pickerel from the lake.

I savour my newly-found cred. Sure, it could have been dumb luck. But when you’re a dad, a fishing dad, it’s nice to pretend you know what you’re doing.

Things don’t go as well for Cam. A northern pike mugs his Husky Jerk and then escapes by slicing his line. (Admittedly, I might have been a little tardy with the landing net.)

Cam is still sullen at noon, when we sit beneath whispering hemlocks and down a shore lunch of fried pickerel, fried potatoes, fried bannock, fried onions and baked (not fried) beans. Our dining companions include another father and son duo, Murray and Michael Post of Sarasota, Florida.

“How’s the fishing?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s not like you’re just throwing in your line and pulling out a fish,” Murray says. I nod, but to judge from the Posts’ contribution to lunch, they’re pulling out way more fish than we are.

That night, still aggrieved at the pike, Cam updates his Facebook status: Fish, 1. Cam, 0.

As Al says, Wilderness Island Resort is not all about the fish. After the new cabins were built, “we started diversifying, promoting more of a wilderness vacation, instead of a fishing vacation.”

Lying astride the boundary of the 3,000-square-kilometre Chapleau Crown Game Preserve — the world’s largest Crown game preserve — the region boasts one of the highest densities of black bears in Ontario and acts as a key wintering area for moose. On days when we give the fish a break and explore the lake by canoe or kayak, we surprise otters near the shore and hear warning slaps from the tails of perturbed beavers. Kingfishers dip and swoop among shoreline boughs. Bald eagles soar overhead. Loons serenade us with their calls.

The lake was once part of an aboriginal and voyageur trading route, and Al has found spear heads and scraping tools among the shoreline sands. On Black Rock Island, well south of the lodge, layers of pink and grey lichen ripple down a 12-metre rock face like a waterfall. Growing as slowly as mere millimetres a year, these ancient organisms have probably been clinging here for centuries, maybe millennia, slowly building a thin raft of soil atop the steeply angled rock.

On sunny afternoons we leap off the swimming raft in front of the lodge. Even in late August the water is already deliciously brisk, making our teeth and bones ache. There’s a distant tang of autumn in air, as if a subtle chill is seeping from the depths of the lake.

Some evenings Cam runs with the other teens: the Errington kids, their friends who work at the lodge and a few guests. They play cards, or hide and seek in the dark, or dive cannonball-style from a favourite “jumping rock.” I can hear the occasional shrieks and giddy laughter as I sit on the deck outside my room. Overhead, a southwest wind is pushing fragments of cloud across a vast, starry canopy. People tend to think of the north as cold and austere, Al says, “but really, this place is full of life.”

We return to Wabatongushi on the misty morning of our last full day, working our lures through the weed beds east of the lodge. A great blue heron settles halfway up a white spruce and stares down into the water — a good omen.

Soon Cam’s rod is twitching and straining.

“Let the rod do the work,” Fantham shouts. Cam flexes the rod and cranks the line until the water roils beneath the rod’s downturned tip. Soon a pickerel, its scales glittering like jewels in the sunlight, squirms in the landing net. “It’s 16 inches — no 16 and a half,” Cam reports before releasing the fish. Al credits catch-and-release fishing with maintaining healthy stocks in the lake. The lodge holds a draw offering discounted holidays to anglers who release their catch or forego the temptation to keep trophy fish.

We don’t land any trophies, although Fantham gets close. A big pike thrashes the water and submerges, taking his Husky Jerk with it. “I tell you,” he says, “it was about 40 inches. Definitely the toughest one I’ve had on this year.” Fantham scans the water, hoping the fish will shake the lure loose and that it will bob up to the surface. “What can you do? There’s a lot of luck involved in fishing.”

Luck is with Cam, though. He catches and releases a succession of pickerel, is thwarted when a big pike that thrashes its way out of the net and finally lands another. “Hey, get a photo of this, just to prove I caught a pike,” he says. That night, Facebook reflects his triumph: Cam, 7. Fish, 2.

Spending time on Wabatongushi “is about touching nature, about nature enveloping you,” Al says. “To me, fishing is part of that. Fishing is kind of a very basic way of living off the land. Through that, you can learn more about the land and the environment, and you can get enfolded in it.”

It’s not an easy thing to make the transition from being enfolded by nature to surrounded by concrete. One balm, for guests at the resort, is the return trip by rail. We spend the day threading our way between lakes and forested round-shouldered hills — admiring a landscape that once inspired members of the Group of Seven.

The next morning, after a night at Sault Ste. Marie’s Water Tower Inn, we hit the road for home, stopping to buy smoked whitefish from a commercial fishery along Lake Huron’s north shore. You never want to return from a fishing trip emptyhanded, even if, as you know, it’s not all about the fish.

For more info on tourism in Ontario’s Algoma region, go to www.algomacountry.com.

It’s not all about the fish

Getting there

For information on travel aboard the Algoma Central Railway, please go to www.agawacanyontourtrain.com. Note that there’s no food service on the passenger train, although there is water and microwaves. Plan to bring along a snack, even something you can warm up. You can also choose to fly in to Wabatongushi Lake; last summer’s price was $280 for two people from Hawk Junction.

Staying there

You’ll need to overnight in Sault Ste. Marie in order to catch the Agawa Canyon Tour Train in the morning. The city has many accommodation options, including the very comfortable Water Tower Inn (www. watertowerinn.com). Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort offers a range of choices, including inclusive holidays with meals, lodging, boat and motor, plus housekeeping packages, or a combination of housekeeping cottage with meals at the lodge. Please see www.wildernessisland.com for details.

Playing there

It’s not all about the fishing, but even infrequent anglers will want to get a fishing licence. Book a shore lunch the morning before you go fishing and then take your catch to Camp Site Island to be cleaned and cooked by resort staff at their daily outdoor lunch. Al Errington has an encyclopedic knowledge of the lake and its wildlife. He’s happy to recommend good spots for birders and folks interested in the region’s flora and fauna. Guests can also explore the lake by canoe or kayak, swim off the rocky point at the resort, toss horseshoes and stargaze at night.

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