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Over the Rainbow in Northern Ontario

Eleven-year old Liam Whetter was hooting and hollering the whole time he fought this pretty Sunset Country rainbow trout. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Over the Rainbow in Northern Ontario

Find out why the author likes to do some 'Huck Finn Fishing' for Ontario Trout

You start getting an appreciation for just how huge Ontario is when you realize that the same day you're ice fishing on a picture postcard, a snow-covered lake in Northern Ontario for rainbow trout, your buddy is wading a river flowing into the Great Lakes in central Ontario, float fishing for the very same species.

But, that is the happy reality when you have 400,000 lakes and more than 2/5th of all the fresh water on Earth at your doorstep.

ontario rainbow troutWith so many of the rivers and streams that feed the Great Lakes hosting huge fall, steelhead runs, like this one Derek Strub just caught, it is a shame to miss out on the action. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

As a matter of fact, as I was preparing my fishing gear for our first foray of the season onto the ice for rainbow trout last week, buddy Derek Strub sent me a note, along with some images, detailing how he was smoking the steelhead.  Derek has been plying his favourite Lake Huron and Georgian Bay rivers, all the way from the Saugeen and Nottawasaga in the south to the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie.

There are very few places anywhere where anglers can enjoy this kind of seasonal diversity, and while it happens throughout the year in Ontario, it is the most pronounced in the "shoulder seasons" of late fall / early winter and then again, in the late winter / early spring.

Derek, by the way, is a master when it comes to wielding a long float rod -- 13- and 14-footers are not uncommon -- equipped with a centrepin reel. While most steelheaders do well fishing with traditional spinning and baitcasting gear, centre-pins give you much better control over the speed of your float and bait -- typically a spawn sac or a single salmon or trout egg -- as it drifts drag-free down the river.

The reason centre pin reels are so valuable is because the spool rotates effortlessly around a central post or spindle, surrounded by a slick bearing system that is usually as smooth as silk. As a result, lacking any drag or resistance, your line spins off the revolving spool at the same speed as the current in the river.

To be sure, it takes a little time learning how to cast, or rather flick underhanded your float and bait into the river, but once you master the centre pin technique, as Derek surely has, there is no looking back. It's a deadly way to catch rainbow trout and, oh, so, exciting.

In fact, hooking and fighting a big trout on a centrepin reel may be the ultimate rush, because, like the smaller fly reels they resemble, they're generally direct drive, close to 1:1 ratio reels, that lack the sophisticated drag, or braking systems featured on most spinning and baitcasting outfits.

As a result, you place the palm of your hand under the whirling spool to apply resistance and to control the trout.

Think of it as hand-to-hand combat with the fish.

A world away, at the other foot of the rainbow, in Northwestern Ontario, hand-to-hand combat is also what 11-year old grandson, Liam and I were doing. Only unlike Derek, who was fighting his fish while wading a river, we were dropping our lines down a hole in the ice.

I call it "Huck Finn fishing" and it has become a time-honoured method -- a first ice tradition of sorts -- with which we open the hard water fishing season in Northern Ontario.

Why Huck Finn? Because we leave all the modern trappings at home and pull a couple of small sleighs behind us as we walk down the shore of one of our favourite small stocked trout lakes.

ice fishingThis is the best way possible to say, "Huck Finn fishing is fun!" (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

That is right -- we bring along no sonar, no rods and no reels -- just hooks, line and bait. How simple is that? We even leave the power auger at home, preferring to bore our holes through the ice -- there were about 6 inches on Sunday -- the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Once drilled, I take a spool of 8- to 10-pound test line and tie a half silver/half gold-coloured Williams Wabler spoon, with the treble hook removed, to the end. Then, I tie a 12- to 14-inch, 6-pound test, fluorocarbon leader to the other end of the spoon. Finally, I finish off the rig, by knotting on a #4 Gamakatsu baitholder hook.

Now, guess what we use for bait?

The final reason I call it Huck Finn fishing is because we rely on good old garden hackle -- that is right, nightcrawlers -- for bait. As a matter of fact, I simply slide the little hook through the nose of the crawler so it exists out the side and then lower the rig so it dangles enticingly 8 inches or so off the bottom.

When the trap is set, I cut the line from the spool and knot it around the base of a finger-thick, 4- to 5-foot-long willow stick that Liam has cut from a bush or tree along the shore. Then, I plunk the base of the stick in a mound of slush, so the tip is hanging directly over top of the hole, fashion a simple loop knot in the line, being careful to run a few inches of colourful, fluorescent flagging tape through the loop before pulling it tight and slip it over the end to signal bites.

campfire fish fryCatching wildly thrashing Northern Ontario rainbow trout through a hole in the ice is only half the fun. The other half is making and then enjoying the campfire. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Once we have our lines all set -- you're allowed two per person while ice fishing in Ontario in the winter -- we retreat to shore, collect enough bone-dry driftwood to start a roaring warm fire and proceed to roast hotdogs while running back and forth to land trout and re-bait our hooks.

Like I said -- I call it Huck Finn fishing -- and right now is a perfect time, right across the magnificent expanse of Northern Ontario, to be a kid once again!

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