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Strike gold under ice

At the ice fishing derbies of Ontario's Algoma Country, it's not just a 10-pounder on the line; it could be a cash prize and a new snowmobile!

Author James Smedley hoists a big northern pike

In Northern Ontario, ice fishing is a way of life. People have been coming to these lakes for thousands of years. This is where you discover how good you are—or how lucky. My dad and I are about to find out.

Some years back, Dad and I iced a lake trout just under 10 pounds and won the Wawa Ice Fishing Derby, snagging a new Polaris Transport 550 snowmobile, on this very spot. We've been trying to repeat the performance ever since. And today, we might just have a chance.

Early morning ice shacks on the surface of Wawa Lake.

I'm full of optimism under all my winter apparel. I'm focused on my goal, and it's just below a thick layer of ice and snow. Experience has proven that the spot I've picked is full of promise. I draw energy from the surrounding hills and forests and put my plan into action.

I carefully manipulate from above, like a puppet master playing out a storyline. But the story is not scripted. It depends on the chance alignment of predator and prey, followed by a precise presentation that will ignite the attack instinct.

My optimism is well-founded and as soon as I feel the weight, I set hard. It’s a heavy creature and I’m struck with the concentration that you need when you've got a contender.

The fish peels line from my reel as it fights against my efforts to bring it to the surface. I call out to my dad for assistance as I slowly make progress, drawing the fish towards the hole. It isn’t until the fat lake trout is safely above the ice that I allow myself visions of boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, ice augers, and ice shelters.

Dad and I are two of over 1,000 anglers who’ve descended on three large lakes around Wawa as part of the two-day Wawa Ice Fishing Derby. A quick look around reveals snowmobiles and portable shelters dotting the vast surface of the lake, where well-equipped anglers summon all their fishing knowledge to entice what swims beneath. Participants can fish wherever they want within derby boundaries and use whatever gear is legal under the Ontario Sport Fishing Regulations; although luck is always a factor, it’s interesting that the most skillful and prepared anglers consistently finish in the prizes.

The Wawa Derby is one of several ice fishing events that attract serious anglers to Algoma, where friendly communities, beautiful surroundings, fresh air, and the joy of ice fishing are combined with the chance of winning cash and prizes.

Author James Smedley hoists a nice lake trout during an ice fishing tournament in Algoma Country.

Big Money Events

The Wawa Ice Fishing Derby, the first weekend in March every year, is one of the big ones. Since 1991, up to 1,400 anglers have converged on Wawa, Hawk, and Manitouwik lakes to angle for whitefish and lake trout. Historically, the winning whitefish has been between 4 - 5 pounds, and lake trout from 9 up to 14 pounds. Last year the rules evolved so that the largest fish of any species caught on each of the derby lakes was eligible for a total of 18 prizes, ranging from ATVs and snowmobiles to ice augers and chainsaws. Last year’s winning fish included a pike close to 16 pounds, a walleye over 11 pounds, and a lake trout over 10 pounds. The $145 entry fee also enters anglers into a registration draw for $30,000.

The Dubreuilville Magpie Winter Pike Derby, held in March every year, is a relative newcomer held on the 30-km-long Magpie Reservoir, between Dubreuilville and Wawa. Cash prizes are awarded for the top five largest northern pike, starting at $7,000 for First Place down to $500 for Fifth. The $100 entry fee qualifies anglers for a $5,000 registration prize, with the prize structure based on a minimum of 200 entries.

Pike is the target species for the annual Chapleau Pike Ice Fishing Derby, held in February every year. The pike fishing action is legendary on the Chapleau River, and the angler catching the largest fish wins $10,000 plus cash for the heaviest eight pike. Only 850 tickets are sold, and the $155 entry fee also enters participants into a draw for a big prize (usually a truck).

Francine Dubreuil with a big lake trout caught during the Wawa Ice Fishing Derby.

bragging rights Events

In the above events, anglers can fish where ever they want within tournament boundaries, but at the Elliot Lake Ice Fishing Derby held in February every year, things are done a little differently. Anglers pay $100 per pre-drilled hole on tiny Horne Lake, within sight of downtown Elliot Lake, for the chance to win half the total purse. The event regularly attracts around 500 anglers competing for a $25,000 top prize, plus guaranteed prizes for the top 10 finishers. This family-friendly derby starts at noon and runs until 3 pm.

Family Events

The chance of winning valuable prizes is the main draw of many ice fishing derbies in Algoma but others, like the Algoma Fish and Game Club’s Children’s Perch Derby, are more about encouraging families to get outdoors and enjoy time together on the ice. When my daughters were younger, I remember parking on Neebish Road and pulling a sled load of fishing gear to join hundreds of other parents and children on the ice of the St Marys River southeast of Sault Ste. Marie. For those who had no fishing experience or gear, club volunteers were always available to set up young anglers and teach them how to catch perch. The $5 entry fee includes a hotdog and hot chocolate as well as a prize at the end of the day.

Add free admission and a similar scenario unfolds at the St. Joseph Island Hunters and Anglers Association’s Ernie Eddy Memorial Children’s Ice Fishing Derby, held in March every year. Food, fresh air, trophies and prizes define this event, along with the chance of pulling a few pike, perch, or splake out of the waters of Twin Lakes in Hilton Township.

The excellent fishing along the Highway 11 corridor is well known to the Hearst Anglers and Hunters Club which host two annual ice fishing derbies. The first is a youth tournament, on Johnson Lake, in February for anglers 18 years old and under. The second event is just north of town on Pivabiska Lake, in March, and everyone is welcome.

The Hawk Junction Family Derby, held in March, has trophies for the top three children and the top three adults. The one-day event runs the weekend after the big Wawa Ice Fishing Derby and with an entrance fee of $5 for children and $10 for adults, is geared toward families. It regularly attracts about 150 anglers who all have a chance to catch the walleye, pike, whitefish, and lake trout of Hawk Lake, on the doorstep of the community of Hawk Junction.

I try to participate in at least one of the ice fishing derbies in Algoma Country every season. This year it’s the Wawa Ice Fishing Derby, and Dad and I are so excited about landing this long and fat lake trout that we haven’t yet speculated on how we might place. It turns out that the 10-pound fish would win a major prize, but right now, surrounded by the granite cliffs of Manitowik Lake, in the company of hundreds of other anglers, we already feel like winners.

Fishing in a derby is a great opportunity to get out in the fresh air and beautiful surroundings of Algoma Country.


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