I’m not into numbers as a way to describe the quality of a fishing trip. If I were, half my life has been wasted on Pacific Northwest steelhead, where a tally of one a day, especially during the cold and rainy winter season, is about as good as anyone can hope for.
I did, however, keep track of the number of cutthroat trout I caught on Montana’s South Fork Flathead River one day. It was August, and my birthday. I was curious, then surprised, when the tally hit a hundred, all taken on attractor dry flies. It’s a neat way to recall a special day, but numbers aren’t my lasting memory from that trip; it’s of a friend blaming me for burning his hiking boots in a big bonfire one night, something that to this day I vehemently deny. This is the kind of guy, I’m afraid, who might say he caught 112 cutthroat the day you caught only 100, causing you to somehow think that the fishing wasn’t quite as good as it could have been.
In addition, numbers don’t serve well when trying to demonstrate your prowess as a fisherman, especially when speaking to non-anglers; they already understand that fishermen are chronic liars and that there’s no way to check our stories for accuracy. When a fisherman says he caught 100 trout in a day, non-anglers probably discard half that catch as hearsay while wondering why we’re always trying so hard to validate ourselves. It doesn’t help if you’re telling this story at a cocktail party where you’re the only guy sporting humongous chest pockets, pit vents and Velcro closures.
This is all to say I was a little leery when Ted Putnam, owner of Hawk Lake Lodge, in northern Ontario, approached me at the Orvis Guide Rendezvous in Missoula, Montana and said I had to visit and fish with him, adding, “Northern Ontario is one of the most beautiful places on earth, you’ll catch more fish than you’ve caught anywhere else in the world, and you’ll probably set line-class records for walleye, pike and smallmouth bass.”
I took his card, told him it sounded like fun—even though I’m not a smallmouth bass and walleye guy—and filed the offer away. Putnam e-mailed all summer, describing the catches his clients made on 19 undeveloped lakes he holds exclusive access to. These lakes range in size from medium to large, and are dished out to clients on a rotating basis so that guests typically don’t fish a single lake twice—other than the massive 2,600-acre, walleye-infested Hawk Lake—and rarely do two parties fish the same lake on the same day. Basically, when fishing from Hawk Lake Lodge, which is located east of Kenora, just south of the Trans-Canada Highway, and smack dab in the middle of the Canadian Shield, you get fly-out quality with drive-to ease.
You get a sense of this before planting boots in Ontario—on his Web site Putnam details average length and peak catch rates (per hour!) on all of his lakes, and he notes the top-end size of the fish you can expect to catch. I read descriptions of all the lakes and singled out a couple—Wolf and Mud—accessed by a run across Hawk Lake and relatively short hikes through the northern forest. There, anglers find skiffs and outboard motors (some with trolling motors, too) tied off to the trees. One of these lakes, according to Putnam, harbors 50-inch northern pike; the other produces scads of walleye up to 23 inches long and it might kick out 15 to 20 smallmouth bass, averaging better than 15 inches, an hour. I played the standard rule, cut Putnam’s catch rate in half and knocked an inch off the average size. And it still equaled great fishing. I read these accounts, called a friend and said, “You should get on this site and let me know if you want in.” He was dead set on a saltwater trip, but after checking out the site he said, “They have a lot of fish. I’m in.”
In mid-June, after flying from Missoula to Winnipeg, followed by a three-hour drive east to Hawk Lake, we were shaking hands with Putnam and getting a tour of the Orvis-endorsed lodge, a classic north-woods log structure built by railroad people back in the 1930s. Ten guest cabins are sprinkled around the lodge, all on a point that juts into the lake, all next to the shore, all with great views. Putnam has fished Hawk Lake most of his life and since he purchased the lodge he’s implemented strict catch-and-release regs on all species; when it’s time for a traditional walleye shore lunch, guests eat fish that are caught on other lakes or purchased in town.
Walleye are the main draw at Hawk Lake Lodge and the big-name conventional guys, like Al Lindner, visit each year trying to catch line-class world records. Putnam thinks the world-record fish lives in Hawk Lake, and says anglers have lost 40-plus-inch walleye at the boat.
As you probably know, walleye aren’t a big draw to fly fishers, but figuring out how to catch these fish on a fly piqued my interest. I knew, however, that I might be setting myself up for disappointment—walleye are half-blind, oversize perch that can’t see a fly unless it’s an inch from their face. Those eyes are sensitive to light, so they live in deep water and only swim shallow when the light is low or completely gone. Basically, I planned to fish deep and in the dark.
To catch walleye I knew I’d have to get nasty, so I secured a full-sinking line with a sink rate of eight inches per second. I also stocked up on various streamers and Clouser Minnows in a variety of colors, even though I’d read that all I’d need is black and white, the point being that walleye aren’t picky and, in fact, they are pretty aggressive . . . as long as you can get a fly to them.
That first evening Putnam ran us to Cliff Lake where my friend, Dan, landed and released a 15-inch walleye just at dark. This buoyed our spirits as we declared that walleye could be caught in shallow water, on the fly, and that we would probably bang up some trophies, maybe even a world record, on the big lake the following day. And why wouldn’t we? I sort of expected it. Part of Putnam’s online description of the place included this plug: “The Hawk Lake Lodge fishery has, bar none, the largest collection of trophy walleye anywhere in the world. In 2013 our fishermen recorded, easily, more than 65 walleye 30 inches or larger (including a 35-inch fish and a 37-inch fish lost at the boat). That is likely less than what was really caught as there were so many fish that hit our nets . . . . In just one afternoon (two anglers) caught nine fish over eight pounds, eight over 30 inches, a 31.5 and a 34+ inch monster. All in a matter of hours. All during a time (bright sun) when most fisheries shut down.”
I went to sleep that night trying to decide which camera lens and angle would best capture the size of the record walleye I would surely catch.
The next morning Dan and I made a 10-minute run to Picnic Bay, where we worked a long shoreline with poppers for smallmouth. An hour later, without having landed a single fish, I tossed out the anchor, opened an Alexander Keith and said, “Dan, what’s the catch rate on this lake?” He glanced at an imaginary list on the palm of his hand, cocked his head sideways, frowned, and said, “At its peak, five thousand and three an hour.”
I was recalling the merit of a friend’s business motto, which is to undersell and over-deliver, when I spotted a white patch on the bottom. Looking closer I saw several more white patches and realized that these were spawning beds, strewn along the entire shoreline in three to eight feet of water, and that each one was closely guarded by a pair of smallmouth bass.
We quickly tied on weighted flies, and while one of us ran the trolling motor and managed the boat the other dropped a fly onto a bed. Each time, a bass would deliberately cruise over to the bed and pick up the fly. These smallmouth were three or four pounds each and they fought like I heard they would—hard. (I’d always read that, pound-for-pound, smallmouth are the best fighting fish in the world, and there’s nothing to take away from these fish and the bend they put in a fast action 5- or 6-weight rod. However I still have to believe that a tarpon, a bright steelhead or a tuna is the fish to beat.)
Ripping bass off their beds was not something I expected to do at Hawk Lake, nor was I quite comfortable doing so. I recalled the looks I’ve given people and the things I’ve said when they’ve plucked rainbow and brown trout off their spawning beds in Montana.
Call me a hypocrite. We sank into a routine of fishing one of the outer lakes each day, followed by a bed-raping spree on Hawk in the late afternoon. In one corner of Hawk Lake we found hundreds of beds. These bass were easygoing, meaning we could drift right over their heads and they wouldn’t spook. This also meant we could drop our flies right into their nests and wait for a sure take. This wasn’t the most rewarding angling I’ve ever done, but I enjoyed watching the reactions of these bass and, having not caught many smallmouth, let alone the four- and five-pounders we were catching here, it was somewhat addicting. By the second afternoon of doing this, however, we recognized many of these bass and some of them developed personalities. One, a big female that I’d caught the day prior, swam up to the boat, tilted her head and glared at me with a big, round eye as if to say, “Are you kidding me? Again?”
The next morning Dan and I were supposed to fish Portage Lake, but I mistakingly beached the boat at a trailhead to Bass Lake. I don’t know how Portage fished that day, but I don’t think we could have done better, anywhere else in the world, than we did at Bass. All along the shore of a back bay we picked off smallmouth on dry lines and poppers. These fish were past the spawn and acted totally different from the bass in Hawk Lake. They rose naturally for big, black caterpillars that fell out of the trees and floated across the lake. Any time we spotted a swirl we covered it with a popper and each time but once during our five-hour stay on the lake, we hooked up on a fish. These bass ranged between 13 and 19 inches, the larger fish weighing five or six pounds, I would guess. After catching a particularly heavy 19-incher, which brought our combined total north of 35 fish, I started to believe in Putnam’s declarations and felt like I had a sense of how good the fishery could be in prime conditions.
Unfortunately prime conditions, as you probably know, are fleeting. That evening the wind, lightning and rain kept all boats tied to the dock. The next morning we hiked into Mud Lake, climbed into a skiff and made our way to a walleye spot that Putnam had marked on a map, a place on the leeward side of an island where we could get out of a substantial and sustained wind.
We probably covered that drift 15 times before Dan set up on a fish. I was managing the boat and when I looked up I saw a deep, deep bend in his rod.
“It’s not a bass,” he said. “It’s a big walleye for sure.” Dan understood how desperately I wanted images of him or me with a huge walleye, so when the hook came free he let out a scream that might have been heard miles away at camp.
We both sulked for a while, the bitterness compounded because we never even saw what might have been a monster of a fish. Eventually, I set the boat up and anchored on an exposed, rocky point with drop-offs on either side. We only bobbed in the waves for a few minutes before I hooked up and landed a 15- or 16-inch walleye. I figured we’d catch more, but we never touched another at Mud. The consolation? We landed several four-pound smallmouth before calling it quits.
On the last evening of our trip we joined Putnam on his hot-rod bass boat and fished in an area called The Narrows. This is a place where all the guests seem to fish, a known walleye haunt that kicks out some giants. While Putnam ran the trolling motor and bounced minnows and leeches off the bottom, Dan and I kept at it with our flies. The bottom was flat, all mud, and I felt like my sinking line and weighted fly might be skidding along bottom instead of riding just inches above it. Would I have even known if a walleye hit? I was getting desperate and wondering if a strike indicator, a long leader and a weighted jig-fly might be the ticket when Putnam ripped back on his rod and said, “There’s one.” A few minutes later he netted an eight-pounder. And just a few minutes after that a couple lodge guests, who’d fished an adjacent bay, cruised by. Putnam asked, “How’d you do tonight?”
One of them said, “Landed 21 walleye, none deeper than 14 feet.” These were guys who’d visited the lodge for something like 19 years straight. They knew the lake well, understood the habits of walleye, fished bait as any sane person should, and to them, Hawk Lake is the best fishery in the world.
Another guest, who’s visited nearly 30 years in a row, held a similar opinion and told me that using a Sanko worm is the key to catching walleye and if I would just relent and spear a bare hook through the middle of a Sanko, and then troll that behind the boat off my fly rod, I’d kill the walleye.
At that point, after two guys had spent more than 50 combined hours skidding Clousers off the bottom to catch three dinky walleye, I was willing to try anything. But we were out of time.
When I reeled in that last evening, knowing that I’d come to Ontario to catch a giant walleye and had failed, I asked Dan the big question: Was the fishing as good as we thought it would be?
He pondered for a moment and said, “We caught scads of big bass, I caught the two biggest pike of my life, and I almost caught a giant walleye. It was great! And I’d come back here to fish again. But after reading about the peak catch rates here I can’t stop thinking we did half as well as we should have.”
Then he turned to me and said, “You have a story about walleye to write. What are you going to say?”
“I’ll probably say I caught five,” I said, “because that’s not so many that people won’t believe me and it’s just enough that they won’t have to ask if I know how to fish.” 01_BWO%20Bug%20Small.tif
Yes, Hawk Lake Lodge boasts northern pike, too. In case you have no luck with the walleyed variety.
Location: Hawk Lake Lodge is located in northern Ontario.
Season: The season starts in mid-May and peaks in June and July. Walleye move to deep water in August. The lodge closes in mid-September.
Species: Walleye to 30-plus inches; northern pike to 50 inches; smallmouth bass to nine pounds; lake trout and crappie, too.
The Lakes: Hawk Lake Lodge holds exclusive rights to 19 lakes that are accessed by boat or a short hike through the woods. All but a couple lakes provide a wilderness experience and do not harbor a single residence or structure on their banks.
Boats: Anglers cruise the main lake in 16- or 18-foot skiffs equipped with swivel seats, flat floors, trolling motors and electric-start 40HP or 50HP outboard motors. There’s no limit on use of gasoline.
Contact: Hawk Lake Lodge; winter 617-820-4056; summer 800-548-2930; www.hawk-lake.com; e-mail [email protected]