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Angling with Old Friends on the Kapuskasing River

A healthy sturgeon in Northeastern Ontario • Credit: James Smedley

Catching that first fish is the initial giant step toward cracking the walleye code of any new water. Partner Lloyd Melbourne and I are trying to do just that on the murky and mysterious waters of the giant Kapuskasing River. While I pull a leech behind a bottom bouncer Lloyd pops a jig with a piece of worm.  “Here’s something,” says Lloyd as he hoists a fat 15-inch pale yellow walleye out of 10 feet of water. I mark the spot on my GPS and we move across to a windblown shoreline at a bend in the river where we extract several 17-inch walleye from along a sharp break tight to shore. Not only are we making good progress dredging fish from the Kapuskasing River but two old fishing buddies are well on the road to getting re-acquainted. 

The Kapuskasing Walleye Tournament

Lloyd Melbourne was one of the first guys I fished with when I moved to Wawa 20 years ago. We pursued fish together with a fierce intensity until work took Melbourne west. With the six foot plus Melbourne back in Northern Ontario, I suggest we fish the Kapuskasing River Walleye Tournament and with boat and truck brimming with fishing and camping gear we roll into the town of Kapuskasing, along Highway 11, the Wednesday before the weekend event.

We turn up a gravel road and proceed about 20 km to where a 100-metre bridge supported by two immense I-beams stretches across the Kapuskasing River. There’s a good launch ramp on the east side of the river, and we find a sandy clearing to set up camp on the west. We don’t get out on the water until the next morning but after our initial half-dozen walleye we continue to work our way down stream.

With no perceptible current the Kapuskasing is more like a long and narrow lake than a river. The amount of navigable water on this remote system is about as mind boggling as the fact that we only see two private waterfront camps our entire time here. The boundary for the Tournament stretches from the bridge downstream 40 km to the Kapuskasing’s junction with the larger Mattagami River. From there we could continue on the Mattagami north 25 km to Ontario Power Generation’s Little Long Dam or south 18km to Cypress Falls. The Mattagami is also joined by the Groundhog which, under high water conditions, presents another 30 km to Whist Falls.

We’re more than happy to limit ourselves to the 40km stretch of the Kapuskasing River. The broad course of the river cuts through the boreal landscape alternating between thick black spruce forest, smatterings of birch and aspen and sections where thick cedars grip the mud and sand banks to arc over dark waters.

No matter the shoreline there are few clues as to where the fish lie. Structure is subtle mid river and each stretch of undeveloped shoreline looks as good as the next so it simply means stopping and trying spots along the way, not a quick way to cover water. In fact, its late afternoon and we’re nowhere near the junction with the Mattagami. But we have found fish. Walleye are spread haphazardly throughout the length of the river we've covered. The turbid water means we don’t know what we've hooked till its in the net and the 14 to 17-inch walleye are joined by a few small pike, some big perch and even a handful of catfish. One fish easily identified when hooked is the powerful Kapuskasing River sturgeon that test the drags of river anglers from time to time. We don’t hook any but I do get a few photographs when fellow anglers pull up alongside our boat to pull a “small” 56-inch grey beast from their live well.

The Kapuskasing Walleye Tournament

With the day winding down and about 30km of river under our belts we turn south, back to the campsite. By the time we slide into warm sleeping bags the temperature has nose–dived and wind and rain beat against the tent through the night. Extracting ourselves from the relative warmth of the tent is difficult but we eventually step out into the blustery, grey morning. As we make our way north we’re assaulted by bouts of driving rain interspersed with merciful periods of sun. The virtually flat terrain has that big sky feel to it and we see patches of blue sky mingling with great burly black clouds that obscure sections of the broad landscape with driving rain. We angle through the alternating weather, flipping our hoods up for the rain and down for the sun, confident that neither condition will last long.

The weather is not the only thing that’s changeable. Today the big walleye are on the feed with Lloyd piercing a 3/8oz. jig into the maw of a well proportioned 25-incher. Waves lap against a shallow weed line and winds drive intermittent rain as Lloyd continues to connect with fish averaging about 20 inches. While my wiry companion fools about four fish for every one I catch, I continue to experiment with live bait rigging, soft plastic, jerk baits and floating cranks. By the end of the day we've both caught a lot of walleye over 20 inches and our confidence going into the tournament next morning is high. Indeed our performance day one is quite good but declines sharply into a downward spiral day two.

To have the gates to the big walleye of the Kapuskasing open one day and closed the next only increases the intrigue of this giant northern river. I was hoping my old friend Lloyd would hook a really large walleye during the tournament but our big fish come when we really don’t need them. But then again, it’s always a good time to feel the satisfying pull of a large walleye and over four days of angling we catch our share. Add pike, perch, catfish and sturgeon lurking a vast and undeveloped waterway and it’s not difficult to draw a deep angling satisfaction from the dark waters of the Kapuskasing.

For more information on Northern Ontario fishing adventures visit: northeasternontario.com

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