Smitty (AKA the Marine), Jeff, and I have been going on annual retreats to the wilds of Quebec for a number of years. We go for good company, a retreat from our civilized lives, and for the good fishing. We also are known to have an occasional alcoholic beverage or two during these week plus long excursions.
When we first began these trips, Jeff was not an experienced fisherman. Like all skill related activities, fishing “luck” improves with experience and years and years of trial and error. That is not to say that either Smitty or I are the consummate fishermen. We both have different skills in the “angling” world and these skills complement each other well. Smitty is much better at deep water fishing than I am. He has extensive knowledge of downriggers, planer boards, and the use of heavy lines. I am experienced at shoreline fishing; working a stickbait for bass, or perhaps a Carolina Rig for a fish that prefers a shallow bay. Smitty is an expert netter, and I can massage a fish back to life in almost any aquatic setting. Despite these skills, learned over 50 years of fishing, we both have much to learn. During our earliest trips we did not have the skills that were well suited for great angling instruction. You could ask Jeff about that.
On one of our earlier trips we were fishing in a pretty good size lake in the wilderness of western Quebec. This lake was named Ogascanon and it had many bays along its rocky shoreline. The lake has beautiful gray-blue water and the shore line is bordered by wetlands and hills covered in primarily in green conifers, with lesser numbers of birch, maple, and poplar. We were fishing for three different species of fish on this lake; northern pike, walleye, and lake trout. We used different techniques for catching each fish species as the native fish typically enjoyed different environments and utilize different predator techniques. We often used jigs and crank baits for the walleye, crankbait and dead shiners for pike, and we trolled for lake trout with an assortment of lures and flashers, but occasionally would fish for these mammoth trout at depths of 100 feet while sitting in an open boat with open reels and large dead shiners attached to a rigged hook.
In his first years of angling all of this had to be confusing for Jeff. During one part of the day we were using one technique, and only a few hours later we were using entirely different tackle, reels, and poles for another type of fish. At the beginning it seemed like in Jeff’s mind, fishing was fishing, and it was difficult to understand the science behind the success. With time, as our “luck” improved, Jeff understood that different techniques were necessary for success.
On one hot afternoon we decided to seek a remote shallow bay where the giant northern pike might be located. At the tip of this bay was a meandering channel that fed the lake. The area was covered with lily pads and water shield; good cover for pike. Northern pike are known to grow to 48 inches and 30 pounds. When engaged they can fight ferociously for extended lengths of time, challenging the very best of fishermen. We had not had much luck with crank baits and other lures so we decided to rig some large dead shiners in a hook harness and let them rest near the bottom of the shallow bay with a large bobber attached at the surface of the water. This type of fishing is not active, and can be very slow; but it is well worth the wait on days when the northern pike are striking.
On the previous day we had used a somewhat similar technique in fishing for lake trout in deep water. When fishing for lake trout we leave the bale on the reel open. When the trout finds the bait he will run for two or three hundred yards and drop the fish. When the lake trout drops the fish the fisherman closes the bale and waits for him to grab the bait a second time. When the lake trout picks up the bait again the hook is set and the fun begins.
With northern pike fishing we use dead shiners, a long leader, and a large bobber. The bail on your spinning reel is closed. When the bobber disappears, you set the hook, let the pike rip out line on a moderately set drag, and fight the fish while you are reeling in until it is tired and succumbs.
On this day all three of us cast off different sides of the boat into a shallow channel in the back of the bay that looked like decent pike habitat. Smitty and I casted, closed our bales, and began the wait. Jeff casted his bobber, left his bail open (mixing the technique up with the previous day’s lake trout fishing) and began the wait. The marine usually keeps a close eye on Jeff’s fishing technique, dispensing advice gently, but with an air of authority. On this day, however, Smitty and I were both asleep at the wheel and did not notice Jeff’s error.
About an hour or so had passed. We sipped on a few beverages and told stories of days long gone. Jeff was engaged in telling a story from long ago about some long lost lover. As Jeff told the story I looked up at his gestures and I noticed that his line was coming off his reel at warp speed.
“Jeff”, I yelled with great excitement, “set your hook!
Jeff stopped in mid-sentence, looked at this reel, and jerked his pole tip up in and effort to set the hook. The bale was open, so all he did was give that pike the “giddyup” to which the fish responded by rapidly circling the boat. I have no idea how much line that large fish had taken off the reel, but each time the fish circled the boat, Smitty and I would duck down so as to not get our heads chopped off. The line was wrapping around Jeff like a snake coiling around your ankle. Before we knew it Jeff was in the middle of a giant line tangle and he was literally the center of attention. I began to envision Jeff completely wrapped up like a mummy in an Egyptian tomb. There was no doubt that the great northern was in command of this situation. He would run around the boat and then run away from the boat for twenty to thirty yards, do an about face, and run right back for us. Jeff had no tension on the line and had absolutely no control over the situation. After about 30 seconds of this crazy activity the pike made one last run at the boat and jumped out of the water so we could see all of its magnificent 40 inch plus body. When the northern jumped out of the water it was within Smitty’s reach and appeared as if it were looking directly into Jeff’s eyes. At that point it proceeded to spit out the dead bait almost landing the mangled shiner in the boat.
We watched the wake of the giant fish swim west out of the bay. There sat Jeff, completely ensnared in a cocoon of tangled tackle, with the limp line dangling off the tip of his rod. Smitty and I were stunned at such a display of perfection. The pike had not only outwitted the three of us, but it had spit out our bait as the final insult. Jeff stood there looking like he had been hog tied up by a gang of boy scouts.
The Marine stared at Jeff with a grin on his face.
“You just missed that one, Jeff, by this much”. Smitty stretched out his arms to each side as far as they would reach and we all laughed.
To be fair, after years and years of these fishing adventures, Jeff can now hold his own in any wilderness water when fishing for walleye, lake trout, and northern pike. In fact on our last trip, on the last night, Jeff caught nearly all of the walleye that found their way into our boat.
But make no mistake, when it comes to catching northern pike, we always take time to remind Jeff of how he was captured by a pike in the cold waters of Quebec. And we all have a good laugh.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in May 2009