Adventure-scarred canoes lashed to its pontoons, a fully-loaded DCH-2 Beaver circled one of northwest Ontario’s thousands of jagged lakes to point its propeller parallel along its length. As it began its descent, the unbroken amalgam of boreal forest and shimmering water was transformed from a glorious abstract painting to a very real and intoxicating—almost threatening—wilderness. Like a seafood-zeroed raptor, the collective eyes of the four anglers aboard dilated.
The night before, in a pine-panelled cabin owned by Wilderness North, a Thunder Bay-based outfitter, Mark Melnyk, the operation’s Chief Fishing Officer (CFO), weaved a suspiciously lofty description of the fishery we were set on.
A spiderweb’s wispy vein of a massive watershed, the river is accessible only by bush plane and canoe.
“You’ll need a five or six weight,” said Melnyk, stolidly. “Start with 3X tippet…Big foam hoppers…There are brook trout over five pounds.”
Mark Taylor, Chris Hunt, Paul Smith, and I chuckled nervously, pointing the hoppy contents of tall Northern Loggers down our gullets, attempting to marry dumfounded excitement with realistic caution.
When the Beaver found its feet on the water, we lost the reigns on our expectations.
Joe Boyce and Keith Missewace, Canadian natives of the Objibwe Nation—our river guides—freed the canoes from their lashings. We piled out of the aircraft, tossing gear into the boats, and splashing into the cool water of the rocky lake.
We rigged rods. Five- and six-weights for the brook trout. Finishing with staunch tippets and large, brightly colored grasshopper patterns, we formally entered the fantasy Melnyk sold us the night before.
Chris and Mark piled into one canoe with Joe. Paul and I filled out another, with Keith in the stern. Joe ripped the chord on a four-stroke bolted to his square-stern. Paul and I reached out and grabbed Joe’s aluminum walls, and the gas-propelled craft carried us down lake towards the outlet.
Water began to flow and our canoe complex disassociated as the head of the river came into view. A scraggly, moss-covered white cedar arched over a shallow riffle. Joe, the elder of the two guides by about two decades, in the lead, stepped out of the canoe and strung the craft with a rope through the riffle to a gravel bar. Keith, 21, followed suit.
Canoes grounded, we stepped out picked our positions.
Chris got into position first, at the head of a long, sweeping run that trotted slowly down the outside bend of the river. Presenting downstream, he hooked up quickly, but lost the fish as suddenly.
Mark waded the inside bank to position himself halfway down a swifter, shorter run with a soft pillow behind a rock in the center. Paul cozied up to Chris, casting downstream. I, looking for room, found it behind the rock that Mark wasn’t fishing.
I slapped the foam on the water as hard as I could to alert the fish of its sudden faux turmoil, and, with the rod tip high, began skittering the hopper in short, four-inch jaunts in between pauses.
On the second cast, I watched as a royally large and crimson belly rose to the surface, propelled like a rocket ship by ivory-tipped fins. An aggressive, splashy surge sucked down my fly.
I set the hook without hesitation, fully prepared, as I should have been fishing such a spot—a textbook trout feeding lie, though one that I have fished time and time again to no avail on less-fertile rivers. My six-weight flexed. The trout ripped line from my hand.
Joe sided up to me slowly, standing to my left. Relatively unenthused, the net held slackly by his side, he nudged me.
“You just made me $10,” he said, with a devious grin.
“I bet Keith you’d catch the first fish. You had the right spot.”
A resident of Fort Hope, Joe has fished this river his whole life. It’s a four-hour boat ride and some sustenance pike fishing that separates him from his home, but he makes the trip a few times a year to fish for ‘brookies,’ anyway.
$10 didn’t sound like much—not compared to the thrill of catching a foot-and-a-half-long brookie on a skated fly, but size alone didn’t speak to the true value of what Joe netted a few minutes later.
The brook trout we had traveled by land and air and water to discover swam through the heart of a virgin ecosystem, unadulterated, unaltered by human industry. A wild place intact. Joe’s, and Keith’s, backyard. Their birthright and spiritual endowment.
A few moments after releasing my first fish, running about 18 inches and three pounds, Chris hooked into and landed a fish approaching 24 inches and six pounds.
It was then evident that the two Objibwe fishermen were trading nominal sums of a far more bountiful fortune.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian