As the heavy monofilament fishing line ripped off my open face reel I waited in anticipation. Open bail reel fishing for lake trout requires great patience. Close the bail and try to set the hook too soon and your line will go limp in a second; meaning you may have missed your catch. I watched nervously as the fishing line dwindled on the spool of my reel. The fish was determined to empty it before I would be able to set the hook. With only a few wraps left, and nearly 300 yards of line pulled off the bail, the line went limp. This is where the angler really gets to test his patience. The trick is to wait until the lunker returns and picks up the bait for a second time. It is then that you close the bail on the reel and set the hook with a good sharp snap of the rod tip……..
Earlier on that mid-June morning, Smitty who is one of my fishing buddies, had piloted our 14 foot fiberglass boat across a slippery smooth lake. As we crossed the lake to a spot we had fished the previous year I watched the horizon to the east. The sun was already up and hugging the tree line. The silhouette of the lake side conifers glistened as the new day sun hung over the tree tops. Hardly a cloud in the sky, a glass smooth lake, and no discernable wind all pointed to a good morning of fishing. If the lake trout weren’t biting then we certainly could enjoy our wilderness surroundings. Lac McLennan is a lake that is within the territory of our outfitter Wapus Pavillion. This particular outfitter, one of the finest in Quebec, is a family run operation. We had rented an outpost cabin on Lac McLennan and about half of our vacation had already slipped away. The three of us, Jeff, Smitty, and myself try to get away every year for a fishing excursion. We are life long friends and these trips are very special times for us. I am a fan of wilderness, and as such usually look for fishing locations that are pristine. Lac McLennan certainly meets this qualification. An ancient lake carved by glaciers this lake is the home of moose, beaver, bald eagles, black bear, loon, walleye, lake trout, and northern pike. The lake is dotted with islands and at roughly 5 miles by two miles it is big enough and deep enough to hold both good fishing and wild secrets. The lake rests in the center of hundreds of miles of boreal forest in central Quebec. On this day Smitty and I were trying our luck in an attempt to catch lake trout while Jeff stayed back at our camp and caught up on some much needed sleep. We pretty much fish nonstop on these week long trips. Fishing walleye until midnight and starting all over again at the break of dawn can wear most men down.
Smitty, also know as the Marine, is enjoying the sights as we cruise across the lake. When Smitty takes his eyes off of the water in front of the boat while piloting the craft it makes me nervous. I have witnessed this unlucky sailor find submerged rocks in 40 feet of water. Jeff and I call him Captain RunupaRock, and obvious nickname for a sailor who has collided on rocks in almost impossible circumstances. He once caught a sunken boulder in northern Quebec catapulting Jeff into a lake that was only frozen a few weeks before the mishap. That being said, I keep my eyes out for any potential obstacles. If I see any I will likely stand straight up and dive overboard. There’s no point in pretending the Marine is going to miss the obstruction.
Blue skies, quiet water, and the call of a loon are all common occurrences on an early morning boat ride on McLennan and today is no exception. As we pass through the islands I see an eagle on a large stick nest perched high above the channel. It watches is suspiciously as we glide by. The quiet outboard motor will not disturb her majesty. I’m sure she will be happy see us disappear off into the distance.
Content that no more rocks could possibly find their way to the surface I focus my attention to tying some bait rigs. We won’t be trolling for lake trout today. We have decided to use large dead minnows tied into a bait rig and fish on the bottom. The trick is to fish at the right place on the bottom. Yesterday with our fish finder we marked an area that had a sudden drop off to 86 feet. We intended to sit right over this drop off where hopefully the lakers had set up shop in pursuit of baitfish.
I opened my tackle box and pulled out a five inch baiting needle, some 20 pound clear monofilament, and a large double ought hook. I pulled off about 30 inches of line from the spool of monofilament, cut it with my pocket knife, and tied the line to the hook using a monofilament fisherman’s knot. I then made a loop on the other end of the monofilament and attached it to the hook end of the long, thin baiting needle. Holding the frozen six inch bait fish with my left hand I passed the needle through the minnow’s mouth, through the stomach of the minnow, and out the anus. I pulled all of the fishing line through the minnow until the line was taught. Next I made a double loop around the back of the fish above the tail. I pulled the double loop taught until I could feel it was tight against the minnow’s backbone and cinched two overhand knots on the top side of the fish. I then ran the line across the back bone of the fish, past the dorsal fin to the area near the gills. Again I made a double loop around the fish in the vicinity of the gills, pulled the loop tight and cinched it again with two over hand knots. At this point I ran the excess line back towards the tail of the fish to the area of the cinched knot. I passed the end of the monofilament through under the cinched knot, tied another overhand knot and with about a foot of extra monofilament left I tied a large leader loop at the end to which I can attach my swivel from the end of the pole. On the way to our fishing spot I manage to tie two of these contraptions. These are time tested minnow bait rigs that will perform well without coming apart.
As we approach the area where we intend to fish the Marine slows the throttle on the motor and attaches the portable fish finder to the gunwale of the boat. This old unit had no GPS feature so now we had to cruise back and forth until we found the exact spot. Smitty had gotten us an approximate location the day before by visually triangulating off of two land marks. A large dead spruce hanging into the water on the southern shore, and an abnormally tall white pine at the water’s edge. As he slowed the water craft I could see the marine peering at the shore line. He had a funny look on his face.
“Funny, I didn’t notice yesterday that there were so many dead trees leaning over the water”, said Smitty, “do you have a notion of which one I was using?”
“Was it the one all the way to the left?” I replied.
“Nope that one leans over too much” said the Marine.
“How about that one next to that huge chunk of granite?” I suggested.
“That might be it!” said Smitty.
At that point he pointed the bow of the boat to the east and started cruising along very slowly. He kept one eye on the screen of the fish finder, hoping to see the sudden drop off.
“Thirty feet, thirty two feet, forty feet”, he counted off out loud, “there it is 80 feet!”
I had to admit I was surprised. Sometimes finding the exact spot took a lot of time.
“Looky here”, said the Marine as he viewed the fish finder, “A nice school of fish right at the edge of the drop off, and they look big too!”
I held my emotions in check, I knew this would take time. Still fishing with dead minnows and an open bail took time and patience. I’d been there and done that before; many times before.
Next I dropped the anchor over the side. We had 100 feet of line and let it all go. We hoped not to drift too far off our mark. Sometimes the wind picks up and blows you off the anchor. That can make it look like you have a fish on line. Checking the shore to see it is passing you by, indicating that the boat is moving, is the best way to check this.
Smitty had the minnow rig attached and in the water before I had even finished setting the anchor. He watched patiently as the minnow sank to the bottom. In eight feet of water this can take several minutes. I dropped my rig into the water a minute or two later and watched the shiny minnow disappear into the dark depths below. In about three or four minutes line stopped coming off of the spool. I set the pole butt on the seat and rested the rod on the gunwale. The reel bail remained open.
Smitty was already reeling up.
“You think you have one already?” I said half jokingly.
“Nope, didn’t like the way it sank. It wasn’t in the right spot” said the Marine. Smitty is a very finicky fisherman.
“How’s about opening that thermos of coffee and pouring me a cup, captain?” I said pointing to the large thermos at his feet.
“Good idea, matey” said the Marine as he gave me a wink.
For the next hour we drank hot coffee, chatted about old times, and stared at our idle poles hanging over the edge of the boat with limp line. Time went by very slow, but when you’re enjoying the company and the backdrop is the Canadian bush time can go as slow as it wants to. I knew I wouldn’t get back to the wilds of Quebec for another year so I was more than content to let time drift by at a snail’s pace. Smitty was discussing the advantages of being older (a complete and utter lie) when I saw his eyes widen. I could see he was staring at the reel on my pole. I glanced over, and sure enough fishing line was lazily unwinding at a very slow rate. I looked at the shoreline to make sure we weren’t pivoting in the wind on our anchor but all those beautiful trees, shrubs, and granite boulders were just sitting there standing still. This could only mean one thing. A laker had taken the bait.
I picked up the pole so the line would leave the open bail reel without interference. As I lifted the pole the line started ripping off the reel at a nearly unbelievable pace. I checked the shore line again to be sure we hadn’t broken off our anchor. The shoreline stood motionless like a still life painting. The line continued to run off.
Smitty finally spoke, “Be patient Bill, don’t touch that bail.”
Smitty cannot help himself when it comes to giving advice to his fishing mates. Curt Gowdy and Ted Williams could both be in the boat and advice would be forthcoming from the Marine.
The line was flying off the spool. I looked at the reel and realized that there wasn’t much line left. I knew there was over 300 yards on the reel when I started but the layers of line were getting thin; the last thing that you want to happen when your open reel fishing is to get spooled. “Getting spooled” means that the fish comes to the end of the line on your reel and the fish gets pulled out of his mouth without hooking him, as is often the case when you run out of line. When this happens the trout seldom, if ever, returns, and your opportunity has been lost. I really did not want this to happen. A three hundred yard run would be very unusual, but not unknown. As I waited patiently I wondered if this would be my lucky day or my unlucky day. I would know in only a few moments.
“Getting’ short on line captain, see if you can move this boat forward”, I yelled to Smitty at the controls in the stern.
Smitty immediately tried to start the motor, the anchor was down so we weren’t going to far in any case, but even a few yards might help. Naturally the outboard decided to take a little break, and a quick start wasn’t in the cards.
Just as the last few wraps of line were pealing off the reel stopped spinning. It was like the eye of a hurricane. You think its over but you know there is more to come.
Smitty looked at the reel and said, “OK, wait until he comes back, and hook him good!” I chuckled to myself. The marine really can’t help himself.
Ten seconds went by. Twenty seconds went by. Thirty seconds……Forty seconds. I was beginning to become convinced the trout had abandoned the bait when suddenly the spool started spinning again. I pulled the rod tip back hard and felt a strong pull as I reeled the tight line against the weight at the other end of the line. I knew I was in for a long haul. Dragging in over 300 yards of line with a fish on the end was going to take a while. I pulled the rod tip up high and reeled in as I lowered the tip, over and over again in a pumping action.
“Keep that rod tip high, mister, don’t let him shake off”, shouted the marine.
“Aye, aye, captain,” I replied, “I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.”
Smitty laughed, he knew what I was talking about.
I had wound in about 50 yards of line when I could hear the drag on my line buzzing like a hive of angry bees. The laker was now stripping off line while I was reeling him in. I let him strip off about twenty five yards of line and he tired. Pumping the pole once again, I reeled in on each down stroke and seemed to be making some head way.
The line was now taught, but it felt like a dead weight; as if someone had tied a fifty pound sack of sand onto the tackle. There was no head shake and no movement as I reeled in, just a slow heavy pull on the other end of the line.
“I think he’s still there,” I said thinking out loud, “it feels like I’m attached to a sunken log”
“That would be a sunken log with a very large dorsal fin”, said Smitty, “the old fella is playin’ with you and gettin’ ready to make another run!”
I reeled and reeled and reeled. I never knew three hundred yards was so much line. When the reel was two thirds full, sure enough, he took off again. My reel smoked as he pulled out line against the drag. I wanted to tire him, but I loosed the drag just a little so as to not damage the line or reel. He ripped off about another 50 yards, which, of course meant I had an extra fifty yards of line to retieve-again.
I looked a Smitty. About ten minutes had passed. I was getting tired, and hoped the trout was getting even more tired. Smitty had a large net in his hand which was a good sign. That meant he thought the old fish was getting close to the surface. I pulled up the tip of the rod and as I did I thought I saw a flash. The flash was really large, so I thought it was my imagination.
“Holy mother of god,” said the marine (or he might have used a somewhat less spiritual phrase), “Did you see that? That must be the grand daddy of all lake trout!”
I kept reeling. The trout was tired. Soon enough we had a clear vision of him. Without a doubt it was the largest trout I had ever hooked, by far. As I reeled him close to the boat Smitty put the net up against the side of the boat so he wouldn’t be spooked. Just as I pulled him along side the marine swept the net over his body from the rear and hoisted him into the boat.
“Man, that’s an amazing fish”, said the marine, “Congratulations on a job well done!”
As I gazed at him in the bottom of the boat I realized that I had just caught a once in a lifetime lake trout. I didn’t know how much he weighed, but he looked like a monster.
We took the hook out of his mouth and put him in the water along side the boat. Our attempts to revive him for twenty minutes were unsuccessful. He was just too spent to come back to a condition where he could be let go. Not wanting to waste this wonderful creature we took him back to camp where he could be dressed and filleted for future eating.
We pulled anchor and headed back to camp. The sun was now high overhead and I could feel its heat on my face. The wind was picking up from the northwest and small white caps graced the lake. It seemed like the perfect day and I was glad to have shared it with the Marine.
“Thanks for the help, Smitty, I couldn’t have done it without you.” I said with sincere gratitude.
“You’re welcome Bill, glad I was there to witness it. If you had of told me about this fish I never would’ve believed you without pictures!” said the Marine.
After we landed at camp we had time to measure and weigh the fish. And what a fish it was measuring over 34 inches and weighing 20 pounds and 5 ounces. When we filleted the giant trout we inspected the stomach. It contained two ten inch walleyes and two six inch minnows. The fish was evidently on an eating splurge.
Smitty stared at the fish while I had it lifted on the scale.
“This one doesn’t even need a fishing story”, said the marine with a grin, “although in ten years I’m sure you’ll have it at 40 inches and thirty pounds!”
We both had a good laugh.
Smitty said “Let’s wake up Jeff, there are some fish out there just waiting to be caught!”
And then he added, “By me!”
Written for www.wildramblings.com in March of 2010