Ice Fishing Ottawa River Walleye is About Time and Place

Twice in January I ventured out on to the frozen Ottawa River and had two terrific days of Walleye fishing. Same river, different times of the day and different strategies each time.

Timing: During daylight hours the Walleye stay deep just off the main current. At dusk, they move shallow to take advantage of low light conditions to prey upon baitfish. When it starts to grow dark above ice, the light below is near gone and feeding activity drops off.

The day bite: I fish deeper – about 7-8 meters not far from the main river channel and what is commonly open water until far into February. Even though there might be open water 20 meters away, we make sure we are walking on about 25 cm of ice. The goal is to position ourselves close to where the bottom just starts to slope up at the head of the bay. It takes some walking and plenty of test holes to check ice thickness and depth, but patience and tenacity will pay off in the end.

The Dusk Bite: This time the goal is to find the top of the slope. Again, a good walk towards the main channel, but this time you’re looking for bottom that starts to slope down. In our case, the bay we were walking on had an average depth of about two meters, but our goal was to find three. The Walleye cruise the shallow flats and points to feed at dusk, but you need to position yourself to intercept them as they leave the deeper river bed.

Catching Walleye is never the issue, it’s finding them, and that’s all about understanding time and place. Now you know what we were looking for, here’s how we caught them.

Technique:  Walleye aren’t hard to catch, but you do need to know a few basic techniques that almost always work. The technique I used for both the daytime and dusk bites involved jigging spoons with minnow heads.

Bait: I use a 3/8 Ounce rattle spoon about 7-cm in length. Both times it had a Perch glow finish as snow cover on top of the ice meant minimal light penetration below. This time of year – still relatively early in the ice fishing season – I don’t use a whole minnow. Walleye aren’t that hungry yet. I’ll start using whole minnows later in the ice fishing season with a dropshot rig. I’ll position the minnow about 10 cm off the bottom using my favorite Trokar 150 hook size #4 tied on 6lb ice floral connected to my main PowerPro Ice Braid main line with a tiny #14 swivel. If I were to use a whole minnow now the Walleye would grasp the tail and tug it free from the hook. By using just the head, you still get the benefit of live sent and taste to draw in Walleye. Attach the minnow head on two of the spoon’s treble hook points, being careful to make sure the actual hook points are exposed.

Presentation: Since it’s difficult to move to the fish, you need to tempt the fish to come to you. Lure the fish in by tempting all their senses. Start with their ears and lateral lines using the rattle of the spoon and the odd bump on the bottom. When they swim over to investigate they will see the glow and movement of the bait. Their smell and then taste come into play as they draw closer and ultimately make contact.

Jigging: Try a slow jigging action just off the bottom being careful to follow the bait back down while applying a few subtle twitches to rattle the bead affixed to the spoon. Walleye always seem to commit to taking the bait just as the spoon stops its upward rise and begins its fall. By following the bait back down you can often detect the feel of the take, or at the very least, the absence of downward momentum. A sweeping hook-set is plenty to achieve positive contact.

Capture: I caught Walleye as small as 27 cm and as long as 55 cm. You know your fish is big when you can feel its head shake from side-to-side as it attempts to pop the hook free. A medium-action ice rod with a fast tip and decent backbone like a 28-inch Shimano Convergence will allow you to detect the smaller marauders, while still having enough power to get the big ones to the hole without causing the lure to pop free. Six lb fishing line and a 1,000 size reel with smooth drag like the Shimano Sahara or Sedona 1,000 reels are excellent choices. Use the same reels for summer fun fishing panfish on ultralight rods, or let younger kids use the entire set-up for fishing from docks or boathouses.

Conservation: Remember, Walleye larger than 50 cm in length should always be released. These are the breeders that will ensure the future of the fish population. If you’re going to harvest a few for the table, stick to the fish under 40 cm, but always check your harvesting regulations and consumption advisories first.

Competing Blind in the America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament

(First published in Bob Izumi’s Reel Fishing Magazine)

Few who know me would disagree that I enjoy fishing more than most.  Having been registered blind at age eight and then living through a gradual and now complete loss of sight has done little to dampen my enthusiasm.  In fact, some might say my enhanced sense of touch and ability to focus has even given me a slight advantage.  But, am I capable of fly fishing?  The question arose when my good friend Lance Glaser called with an invitation to compete in the America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament.

Now some may think that asking a blind guy to fly fish is just plain cruel, and to then have him fish in front of 70 of the world’s top fly fishers is bordering on sadistic.  In fact, these were just two of many insults hurled at Lance last summer by several of our fishing buddies when he strapped me into a stand-up harness and then stood back while the 15 lb Bonita I had on for bait was engulfed by an extremely large Bullhead shark.  All this to say, my friendship with Lance goes back far enough for him to know I’m not one to turn down an offer to go fishing.

The America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament is staged out of Frisco Colorado located at an altitude of 9,000 feet.  Rivers Fished include sections of the Arkansas, Colorado and Blue.  Competitors come from around the world, with the exception of my team, a hand-picked group of fishing enthusiasts with disabilities — of one sort or another.  It was Lance’s hope that his “Rods and Wheels” team would demonstrate that people with disabilities could compete as equals in the world of fly fishing.

I was just a kid when the outdoor columnist for our home town’s weekly paper and local fishing “God,” Mr. George Hore, took me under his wing.   My apprenticeship included being spellbound as George relayed details of how he caught or shot the various mounted fish, fowl and game that adorned his living room.  It also involved many-an- hour in his basement tackle shop as he demonstrated the art of tying flies.  My flies may have been crude and my casts less than precise, but I did become fairly adept at tying and fishing nymphs.

As my sight continued to decrease, I eventually turned to ultra-light spinning gear, a development I hid from my mentor George for fear of being labelled a heretic.  Over time, I did find that I was picking up my fly rod less-and-less, and to be frank, when I got the call from Lance I wasn’t even sure where in the basement my fly rod now languished.  In hind-sight, I may have stretched the truth somewhat when I said to Lance, “no problem, I love fly fishing”.

Lawrence holding an 18-inch Brown Trout

Lance suggested I come to Colorado several days prior to the Tournament to take in a few day’s of fishing together as he had a weekend commitment that was going to prevent him from competing himself.  Upon reflection, I think maybe he harboured certain doubts about my fly fishing abilities, and didn’t want to be embarrassed for nominating me to the team.

The morning after arriving, Lance, me and my guide dog were driving through the now famous town of South Park located in Park County Colorado.  We were heading for the Hartsel Ranch and 4-Mile Creek.  Turned out Lance’s notion of a refresher course involved using dry flies on a creek so small the pools were the size of hot-tubs.  Further complicating matters were strong winds descending from the surrounding mountains peeks, and trout that would disappear the instant a flicker of light touched the surface of a pool.

We decided to enter the river and fish pools well up-stream.  Lance advised taking no more than one false cast to avoid spooking the Trout, a hard-wired reaction to flickering light Colorado’s Trout have developed to counter the numerous predatory birds.  So here I was, about to fish a creek reminiscent of my childhood, only this time without being able to see a thing.  I know my casting technique was sound having practiced with Bill Spicer from the New Fly Fisher at the Toronto Sportsman Show, but could I catch fish?

I shook out some line and made my first false cast straight into the wind.  Lance suggested a little more line and a bit to the right.  I discovered quickly enough that his directions were based on inches and not feet after settling my dry fly first on the right bank and then the left.  By the time I managed to execute a few successful drifts, the Trout had long since cleared out.  Between lance’s critiquing of my technique, the winds that were holding my slack line almost horizontal, and constantly having to remind my guide dog not to venture forward and spook the fish, a doubt began to creep into my subconscious that maybe I should admit to being an Isaac Walton impostor and simply withdraw from the competition.

Just for a lark I swapped my 5-weight rod for Lance’s 4-weight, and before long I was making 30+-foot precision casts.  I also began getting hits, which brought up the next challenge, how was I to know when a Trout took my dry-fly?  After catapulting several smaller Trout clear out of the river, we worked out an arrangement that when Lance said “Check”, I lifted my rod straight up in one fluid motion without changing the angle of the tip.

Lawrence fishing 4-Mile Creek

The next day’s practice session Lance stepped it up a bit with a wade up the Middle Fork River.  A slightly larger river than what we had fished the day prior, but absolutely breathtaking in terms of offering up a true mountain fishing experience.  With mountain peeks surrounding us on all sides, my senses were overwhelmed with Red Tailed Hawks screeching overhead, the sent of sweet Sage mixed with wild-flowers, temperatures that started the morning in the low 30’s and climbed 50 degrees to the mid 80’s by noon, cold fast running rivers, and large Brown, Rainbow, Brook and Cutthroat Trout that would leave one quaking in ones waders.

Lance and I took turns fishing the pools, but I still had a dry-fly tied on which, all things considered, isn’t my favourite.  I didn’t know it yet, but a man I was going to meet that very evening would address my fly-selection concerns in ways that would later blow my mind.

Lawrence holding a Cutthroat Trout

Later that day I met my volunteer guide, Gene Gamber, CEO of the Breckenridge Adaptive Ski Program, and the rest of my team, Sarah Will (captain), Tred Barta, Carlos Thompson and Randy Ford.  Each of us had a disability of one sort or another, but it fell on me to represent “fishing blind”.

Over dinner later that evening with Gene I was introduced to Billy Burger who was just coming off 25 straight days of guiding and was now kicking back for a bit of R-and-R. Now maybe Billy was just tired, or it may have been the “relaxing”  Billy had par-took in already that evening, but he insisted I accept his offer to loan me several boxes of his home-made flies; the beauty of which rendered Gene speechless. I readily agreed.

Lawrence fighting a fish

Day one was tough on the Blue River without doubt.  I started the day by breaking off on what had to be a 5lb Rainbow within moments of hooking up.  I had been using a Hopper pattern as an indicator with a Wet fly and small Billy Burger nymph on the bottom.  The Rainbow had taken the Nymph, a “Purple Poison” on a #18 hook, but for some reason my 4X leader parted the instant the Rainbow surfaced.

The water on the Blue River was moving unusually fast for the time of year with a flow rate of 800 CFS (cubic feet per second).  The gates on the Green Mountain Reservoir up stream had been opened to meet demands for water in the Denver area 100 miles down stream and mountain due to a series of devastating fires that eventually destroyed over 100 Denver homes.  The roiling water meant the Trout either hunkered down in deep pools or sought refuge by tucking far in under banks.  It also didn’t help that tournament rules restricted us from fishing the far bank.

Gene and I worked around several islands in the centre of the river, leaving a good-sized pool close in to the bank for our team-mates who were restricted to bank fishing from their wheelchairs.  The water was only just safe enough to wade, but would have swept away my guide dog, who instead stayed tethered to a shade tree in full view of the river.

Only one of our five-member team managed to land a fish on this section of the Blue River on day one.  Over half the competitors fishing this stretch also blanked.  Thankfully, the day two draw for beats had us far lower on the Blue where there were considerably larger and deeper pools.

Lawrence with a 23” inch Cutbow

Day two started with Gene and me crawling on hand and knee up to our first pool.  My guide dog understood the drill and kept well back.  It wasn’t long before we had our first fish of the tournament – a nice 21” Rainbow caught on a hopper pattern that I had dropped in under some over-hanging branches.  This beauty was followed up in short order with a 23-inch Cut-Bow Trout, a naturally occurring hi-bred.

Most variations of the native Colorado Cut Throat Trout were almost eradicated due to the stocking practices of the government in the early 1900’s.  Cut Throat Trout are not a particularly aggressive fish, and it was the government’s hope that the Rainbow would offer a more plentiful food source for local inhabitants, most of whom were minors.  The fact that the faster more aggressive Rainbows would inter-breed with the native smaller Cut Throat was a development no one foresaw.  Cut Throat are now being re-introduced and their habitat protected.

Mining practices begun in the mid 1850’s and which continue to this day also reeked havoc on native fish populations.  Rivers were dredged for gold and other metals required to supply the military during various wars.  Gravel river beds were excavated from depths of two feet down to as much as 100 feet.   Mind tailings contaminated many local lakes, and the construction of roads and later reservoirs transformed the environment irreversibly.

With the emergence of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge in the 1960’s as popular ski destinations, pressure from the tourism sector on local governments meant restrictions on mining operations for the first time.  Tourism facility operators understood all to well that their customers wanted to ski in pristine wilderness settings, and not in industrial waste-lands.  More recently, the volatile prices for beef cattle has led operators of large 25,000+ acre ranches to offer ecotourism experiences along with guided fishing and hunting adventures.  Fields of grazing pasture are now being transitioned back to natural meadows and wet-lands, with millions of public and private dollars being spent on rehabilitating river banks.

Lawrence with a big Rainbow caught on day 2

Without doubt we had found ourselves on water heads-and-tails better than what we had fished on day one.  Calmer, broader and deeper pools meant fish were able to feed more actively without fighting heavy current.  These were river fish nevertheless, and their strength was truly extraordinary.  It was nothing for a 2-foot Rainbow to peel out 90 feet of fly line and another 50 of backing.

More than once I experienced hooked Trout tearing past me and then just as suddenly turn and run in the complete opposite direction.  The net result was a considerable loop of line being left far back in the Trout’s wake.  The thrumming in my rod produced by the combined speed of the Trout and my effort to recover line is a sensation I’ll never forget.

Lawrence in the river reviving a large trout about to be released

Naturally, I lost my largest Trout after a short but intense fight.  Within a split second of being hooked, Gene watched in awe as a 10lb-pluss Brown Trout darted directly towards us and then turn 180 degrees and cover 30 feet in a split second before breaking off.  I knew I had a fish on and was scrambling to take in slack, and then suddenly the line went tight as a bow string and parted.  Gene’s description of the Brown’s incredible speed left me profoundly shaken.

Lawrence with his guide dog and fish guide all carefully approaching the bank

Our netting technique involved Gene crouching next to the river while I brought the fish in the last ten feet by reversing up the bank.  Gene would then slip into the water and net the fish.  I’d place the rod on the grass and slide in next to Gene to hold the net keeping the fish in the water as Gene extracted the fly.  I’d then lift the Trout as Gene plucked my camera from my shirt pocket and snapped a quick photo, after which I would revive and release the fish.  The Trout were out of water for no more than 30 seconds.

The Billy Burger nymphs and wet flies I was catching most of the Trout on were in the #18 to #22 size range.  The 4-weight rod I used most of the time reduced my ability to force the fish, making for some intense stand-offs.  The smallest of the 12 fish I caught throughout the tournament was an 18.5” Brown and the largest was a 25” Rainbow.

Lawrence holding a 7lb Rainbow Trout

Day three was only a half-day of fishing, and we once again scored a decent section of the Blue River.  My luck held and I managed to catch another five Trout.  I worked a streamer on occasion to no avail, and took all my fish using the floating indicator fly with a wet fly and nymph suspended below.  My 12-fish total was not enough to place me among the top anglers, but definitely positioned me in the top 50 percentile.

Many of the competitors coming from Europe used a technique called check nymphing.  Instead of waders they used wet suits to almost fully submerge themselves leaving just their head and shoulders above water.  Whether Check Nymphing actually constitutes fly fishing or is more akin to jig fishing is a debate I’ll leave for others to resolve.  In fact, some might argue the method I was using involving floating indicators is little different than float fishing, thus, far be it from me to “throw the first stone”.

The Check Nymphing technique involves a long 11 to 13 foot rod with an extra-fast action.  Instead of fly line, reels are loaded with 20lb mono tipped with 10’ fluoro leaders.  There’s no actual fly casting involved as the flies are simply lobbed out.   Fishers utilize wet suits to maintain a low profile in the water as they move about.  Flies used are a combination of three weighted nymphs tied to the line 20” apart.  The fisher selects weights that allow the current to tumble the offering along the bottom of the river bed.  Heavy enough to provide bottom contact, but not too heavy as to hold fast.

The fisher simply lobs the offering up stream and then follows the presentation with the rod tip as it drifts and tumbles past.  At the end of the drift the rig is extracted with a sharp jerk and flung back up stream for another pass.  The extra light tip section of the rod allows the fisher to lift and check for bites without spooking the fish, and the heavier middle and lower section of the rod facilitates lightening hook sets.  Check Nymphing is a highly effective method of catching neutral or highly pressured fish.

A lot of competitors caught some amazing fish throughout the 2.5 days, and the tournament went off without a hitch.  I really enjoyed myself – I mean who wouldn’t have if they were in my shoes.  I had a topnotch guide, an unlimited supply of amazing flies, access to the best gear and world class Trout Rivers.  Did I make an impression on my fellow competitors – I think my team did very well on that front as well.  It truly was a fishing adventure where all the “stars” were aligned to make for one amazing adventure, and many of these “stars” for me were the people I met along the way.  One things for certain, I’m going to give the check nymphing technique a try as it seems to depend more on ones sense of touch than casting ability, and as exciting as dry-fly fishing might be to watch, unless the fish hooks itself, that’s one bite I almost never feel.

A big thanks to Lance Glaser for the invite, accommodations and two-days of pre-fishing instruction, to Gene Gamber of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center for the two days of excellent guiding and use of his very expensive rods, To Billy Burger for his killer flies, to our team manager Sherry Topping and her tireless work in organizing our participation, to the co-founders of the America Cup Dave Pehle and John Knight and their warm reception, and to my fellow team mates and the rest of the competitors for the great spirit everyone brought to the event.

Tred Barta fishing trout from his wheelchair

Before heading back to Canada, I managed to spend a bit of time getting to know Tred Barta from the NBC TV show “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta”. He had brought along his infamous 150lb pull long bow, which I insisted on trying. I’m not bad with a bow – not that I’m precise in my shots, but more that I can cluster my shots quite tightly. Tred was impressed, and so was I with his tenacity to overcome his recently acquired cancer of the blood that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Strapped into a wheelchair, Tred was able to hook and quickly land 5lb Rainbows on a 1-weight fly rod.

Blind Fishing Sailfish Using Bait-and-Switch

I first crossed paths with Tred Barta in Colorado where we teamed up to compete in the American International Fly Fishing Cup. I had the chance to witness Tred catch five-pound plus rainbows on a one-weight fly rod. Tred told me later he knew I was good for a challenge when I insisted on trying his infamous 150lb long bow. Personally, I think Tred just wanted to get back at me after my guide dog stole his sandwich.

I next heard from Tred when he contacted me with an invitation to film an episode of his TV show. The challenge was to catch Sailfish on light line using the bait-and-switch technique, something most people would think would be impossible to do by an angler without sight. I would be Tred’s hands and arms, and Tred would be my eyes.

Never being one to turn down a challenge, I accepted. Tred was curious whether my claim to be able to catch any fish using my sense of touch alone would hold true. Being blind since age eight and a professional fisher, it never crossed my mind that I may have bitten off more than I could chew.

Casa Vieja Lodge at night

Six months later my guide dog and I caught up with Tred in Miami, where we set off for Guatemala. On arriving at the Casa Vieja Lodge I was informed, of course, just how hot the sailfish bite had been two weeks prior.

Lawrence with Captain Chris Sheeter

The next morning after stepping aboard a beautifully preserved 40’ Gamefisherman called “Rum Line”, just one of a number of classic sport fishing boats owned by the Lodge at the time, I was assured by our Captain, Chris Sheeder, that such news was relative. Turns out a slow day fishing for billfish in Guatemala means only raising a half dozen or so. However, day one really turned out to be a bust for me with the Sailfish only partially to blame.

In spite of Tred’s well-meaning instructions, I wasn’t able to connect with a single billfish. I had brown sailfish come up and inspect my ballyhoo, I had lit-up sails leap out of the water with my ballyhoo held cross-wise in their mouths, I managed to pull my ballyhoo right out of another sail’s throat that insisted on continuing to follow our boat after taking my bait, and even experienced the heart-break of my line bill-wrapping a sail. However, no matter what Tred said, I just couldn’t get a sailfish to hook up. The only thing I had to show for our combined effort was a nasty friction burn on my thumb.

Lawrence ready to pitch in his bait

Here we were, two cameras rolling, burning 150 gallons of diesel a day, a Captain and two mates watching on helplessly, and Tred shouting ever more frantic directions. No wonder that by end of day one, talk was that of abandoning teasers, trolling actual baits on outriggers, mates setting hooks, etc.

Further rubbing salt into my wounded pride was Tred’s incredible capture of a sail using four pound test monofilament line. I since learned Tred actually managed to capture a Sailfish using 2lb mono. He made it look so easy.

Tred, Chris and I were more than a bit perplexed why I just couldn’t get that circle hook planted firmly into the mouths of the sailfish. Sure, I had experienced just about every sort of rotten bite a sailfish can dish out, but missing fish doesn’t make for good TV. In the end, we decided on a compromise. Two ballyhoo on the outside outriggers, two teasers on the inside riggers, a third teaser straight off the stern, and a pitching rod in my hands at the ready. It would mean my spending the day under the sun in the fighting chair, but having just spent the past four months ice fishing, I needed some sun anyway. The other thing we decided was that Chris would direct me from the flying bridge where to place my bait and announce when the sail was closing in, but the rest would be 100% up to me.

Spinner Dolphins leaping next to the boat

Fast forward to day two, 45 miles out from shore, turtles everywhere, hundreds of leaping Spinner dolphins, thousands of sea birds, and my left outrigger rod goes off. Just an eight pound skip jack, but the situation quickly escalated when a blue marlin took a run at it just off the stern. Within seconds of my getting the skip jack into the boat, the two mates had it impaled on a giant circle hook and back in the water behind the boat. We circled for several minutes, but the Marlin was nowhere to be seen.

I caught more skip jacks on the outriggers before Chris maneuvered the Rum Line away from the roiling mass of sea life. Not long after, the first sailfish of the day made an appearance behind the left teaser.

I quickly pitched in my ballyhoo and dropped it back. Back and back it went. I was beginning to think that Maybe Chris and Tred had got their wires crossed, until I heard Chris say, “hold”. The next few minutes seem to stretch on for hours, and then finally, Chris calmly announced, here it comes”.

Now, back when I was a teenager and still had some peripheral vision, I hunted black bear. It always seemed as if the forest would grow uncommonly quiet just before a bear would make an appearance. All my senses would narrow down to focusing on a large fuzzy black shape about 30 feet away. Being aboard the Rum Line at that moment was somewhat the same, only now I had absolutely no vision left. I focused all my concentration on detecting the bite of the Sailfish using my sense of touch alone. My focus was narrowed to feeling the bait skipping along the surface 40-feet behind the boat, and then there was a tap. Not a monster weight or vicious headshake, but just a delicate tug.

You could have heard a pin drop aboard the Rum Line. I’m sure everyone was holding their breath as they watched this brightly lit up sailfish, mouth wide open, lunging for my bait. I was oblivious to everyone and everything on the boat, and focused exclusively on releasing the pressure of my thumb on the spool of my reel loaded with 8lb mono. My goal was to allow the spool to freely unwind the instant the bait entered the mouth of the Sailfish.

Before anyone could utter a word, my rod was doubled over. Absolute pandemonium ensued as everyone aboard broke out in cheers.

Sailfish at the stern

It finally happened. Our strategy paid off. And not just once, but over and over. I hooked and released eight sails in a row on 16-pound mono using the “bait and switch” method. I even had the honour of hooking up a sail for Annie.

Lawrence with Tred Barta holding a Sailfish

In hind-sight bait and switch fishing is quite simple. Yes, sailfish can attack a bait in several ways, but what they want in the end is to disable their pray, take it in their mouth, and use the pressure of the water to push their meal down their throats. My strategy was to simply let them have it. This meant that even if the sail slashed at my ballyhoo with its bill, I switched to free spool. They were quick to snap up my bait as it passed by their face.

Knowing when a sailfish has turned away from the boat with my bait during free spool was simple. When the sailfish turned away from the boat, the speed of my free spool increased. It was then that I dropped the rod tip, re-engaged the reel’s draft, and began slowly reeling in line to bring the non-off-set circle hook back up the throat of the Sailfish and lodge it firmly in the corner of the fish’s jaw.

Detecting when a sailfish jumped by using my sense of touch was also easy, as underwater, a sailfish will use its sail to make it almost impossible to move. Thus, the difference between solid resistance and my rod tip bouncing was dramatic to say the least.

The sound of the fish breaking free of the water and then re-entering was spectacular. But, nothing compares to the sensation of a sailfish rocketing over the ocean’s surface.

Lawrence tagging a sailfish

My largest sailfish of the trip tried to leap aboard. It was a beautiful specimen weighing roughly 130 pounds. This sail just wouldn’t stop jumping. It was also one half of a double header, so at one point Chris suggested I slack my drag and we chase down the second fish. It wasn’t long before I was re-engaged in the battle, and it still had plenty of kick. I eventually managed to bring it up to the stern, but too soon as it turned out as the Mate, Ricardo, heroically placed himself between myself and the sail as it attempted to leap aboard. Ricardo clamped the bill of the Sail under his arm, and then grasped the bill in his gloved hand and redirected the fish back over the gunwale.

By the end of the week I had mastered the, “Look away”. This is when you carry on a conversation with your buddy in the boat all the time maintaining eye contact, and only looking away just as your rod bends over with a fish. O.K., maybe I never perfected the “eye contact” part, but for the rest of it, it’s now one of my signature moves.

Sailfish Bay harbour in Guatemala

The Guatemalan sport fishing community has contributed significantly to the sustainability of this spectacular fishery. Circle hooks have been fully adopted and a $5,000 fine is levied against any Captain bringing in a dead bill fish. Barring any ecological disaster or on-set of rampant commercial fishing, this fishery shows long-term promise.

The whole crew

Stepping back to the days of Earnest Hemmingway and taking on these amazing fish was a trip through time I’ll never forget. An all-round incredible voyage in so many ways. I owe it all to Tred, his wonderful wife at the time Annie, the skill of Captain Chris Sheeder and his mates, and to the Turners, owners of Casa Vieja Lodge and their wonderful staff. So long Tred, good fishing my friend.

Walleye Opener and the Law

Getting out on the Upper St. Lawrence River for the opening of Northern Pike and Walleye season has become a sort of ritual. It entails arriving at the launch around 1 a.m. after the crush of boats are launched, and there truly are a lot. This year it was my buddy John joining me for the opener.

I know that part of the river pretty good, so even with a partner who was unfamiliar with the hazards taking the helm of my Ranger 620 Fisherman, I wasn’t worried. But, I hadn’t expected the welcoming committee that was waiting for us.

We had just moved out from the launch when a second boat downstream fired up its main motor and came directly for us at a good speed. Our running and anchor lights were on, so I knew they should be able to see us even in the mist and pitch-black. A first for me — the Ontario Provincial Police and a Conservation Officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry had joined forces for the night. Things got interesting quick.

The CO asked me for my fishing license, and I explained that being blind, I was exempt. He then asked for proof in the form of a CNIB card. I explained that I never bothered getting a CNIB ID card for the blind as I always carry my guide dog identification card that includes a photo of us both. Unfortunately, I was without this ID as well due to my currently being between dogs. I then found myself in the unusual predicament of having to prove that I’m blind, as it was the CO’s opinion that anyone without a fishing license could make such a claim. Fair enough, I began digging through my wallet for anything with braille, and finally came up with my Ontario Government ID – a sort of non-driver’s license that I had applied braille to with my OHIP and SIN numbers. I pointed out the braille on the back of this ID card,  being careful to explain that the ID was not an actual driver’s license – there were subtle differences.

While I was dealing with the CO, turns out John was searching for his Pleasure Craft Operator Card to show the OPP officer. Unfortunately, he forgot the Card at home. No problem I thought, and having convinced the CO that I was truly blind, I then set out to convince the OPP officer that I, in fact, was legally entitled to operate my own boat being in possession of a Pleasure Craft Operator Card myself. My bad, I did such a good job convincing the CO I was blind, I now had an even tougher job arguing that I was legally allowed to drive my own boat.

Well, as you can imagine, neither the OPP officer or the CO thought it was in any way remotely a good idea for me to take over the helm of my Ranger powered with a 250 HO ETEC. I assured them both that I was in full agreement, and that my insurance company and sponsors were also of the same mind. I simply wanted to avoid John being ticketed, and our first day on the water fishing Walleye and Pike being terminated before we even got a line in the water. So, if that meant I would need to take over control of the electric trolling motor, then so be it.

There we were, four grown men in two boats at an impasse. John mentioned to me afterwards that neither of the officials seemed too happy with my being in legal possession of a Pleasure Craft Operator Card, even if I had made it clear I would never take the helm and fire up the ETEC. Thankfully, the OPP officer suggested we bring to a close our encounter, and issued warnings for John not to forget his Operator Card, and for me to get myself a CNIB ID card. I thanked each for the important work they were doing to safeguard our fisheries and maintain order on the water. I think we were all somewhat relieved with the outcome.

We departed on good terms, but not before my fielding a few questions about the top speed of my boat, and what my Ranger – ETEC package would cost. Turns out that if john and I had made a run for it, we had a 6 mph speed advantage over the OPP’s watercraft (LOL).

I have to hand it to these two officers, they were pulling the midnight shift to check boaters as they were leaving the launch, which in hindsight, was pretty smart. Better catch the ones that may have been up drinking or were improperly equipped for a night of fishing on a river with plenty of obstacles and other boats, on water that was 42 degrees F, about 5 degrees C. In essence, protecting people from their own stupidity. If it was just about issuing tickets, then John and I would have both received one. Our thanks go out to these two dedicated officers and all the rest for all they do to ensure the future of our fish and the sport of fishing.

Oh yes, the fishing sucked. The dam just below us was closed due to flooding in Montreal resulting from high water levels on the Ottawa River which flows into the St. Lawrence just up-stream from the city. The decision to hold back the flow of the St. Lawrence as much as possible meant the river was up about 1.5 meters and the current was quite slack making it possible for the fish to roam freely throughout the river. Just the one Pike to show for our efforts.

The high water also meant the docks were unusable. Not only did this mean my having to get leg waders so I could manage the boat coming off the trailer, but I also had to crank the boat back on to the trailer at the end of our adventure, which included – my favorite part – pulling my truck ahead about 20 feet so John could get out of the boat without having to enter the water. I can only imagine the looks when I walk up to the driver’s door of my Ford with my white cane, get into the truck and pull ahead with John calling out instructions from the bow of the boat now secured on the trailer. It’s never more than a dozen feet, but still…

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Walleye Dropshot fishing Tips and gear

(This article was first published in Northern Ontario Tourism in March 2018)

As North America’s only totally blind professional angler, I’ve competed in well-over 75 Walleye tournaments and most often finish near the top. When I’m not competing, I over-see Blue Fish Canada, a charity dedicated to the future of fish and fishing. All this to say, the tips and gear suggestions in this article will mean more Walleye in your net, and the ones released will go back healthy.

First-and-foremost, let’s talk fishing depth. No matter what you may have read or heard, the probability of fish mortality is greater than half if you start targeting Walleye at depths greater than 10 meters. Of course, none of this matters if you’re out to catch dinner, but if you plan to practice catch-and-release, think twice.

Most all species of freshwater fish have a swim bladder that they use to maintain neutral buoyancy. It’s a SCUBA term that means neither sinking nor rising. Bring a Walleye to the surface from depths greater than 10-meters, and the likelihood that the fish will experience barotrauma is high. Signs include redness around the fins, bulging esophagi’s or eyes, and the inability to return to depth. Doesn’t matter how slowly you reel fish in, or how quickly you release them, there’s a strong possibility that the fish won’t survive through to the next day. They will either fall prey to birds, or expire later from all manner of physical ailments. Fizzing is an option, if performed properly, but it’s a tricky procedure that can result in organ damage. The lesson here is to avoid targeting Walleye deeper than 10 meters.

When you do locate Walleye holding on structure and you want to efficiently and responsibly catch a bunch, nothing works as effectively as a drop-shot rig. Sure, jigs are proven Walleye catchers, but next to a dropshot presentation, they out-fish jigs 3-to-one. Further, a properly tied and presented dropshot rig will almost never result in a fish being deep hooked. Straight through the top lip every time. Let’s talk gear first, and then technique.

For obvious reasons I depend on the feel of the bite. All my gear choices are made with maximum tactile feedback in mind. I prefer ¼ oz. tungsten dropshot weights – less if the water is clear and still, and more if there’s wind or current and maintaining a vertical presentation is proving challenging. Ultra Tungsten makes both round and pencil weights. Pencil weights are less likely to get hung up in rocks, but round weights give more feedback because they don’t fall over when contacting the bottom. Either way, Tungsten is far harder than led, safer for the environment, and way better at conveying tactile information.

You can’t go wrong with Trocar TK150 dropshot hooks size #2. Size #1 for larger minnows, and #4 for leaches. Tie these on using the Palomar knot with an additional step at the end. Drop the tag line back through the hook eye so the hook shaft stands out at 90 degrees with the hook point on top. The length of tag line is important as it’s the end where you attach the tungsten weight. Around six inches between the weight at the bottom and the hook above is perfect in most situations, unless fishing around weeds, timber or large rocks, then more distance may be needed to suspend your bait above structure.

For line I prefer 1-meter of 6lb fluorocarbon leader material. Fluoro is invisible underwater as long as it remains un-scuffed. It is also fairly abrasion resistant. I like going a bit lighter on the leader material as it allows the bait to move more naturally, and offers less resistance to the Walleye when it’s checking out your offering.

Walleye will often touch your bait with the side of their face to taste, then with their mouth to feel, and only then if the bait passes these tests, will it decide to eat. Of course, hunger and competition can lead to far more aggressive feeding behavior, but for anyone who spends time fishing Walleye, a tentative bite is more often the case.

I always attach the leader to my main line using a small steelhead swivel. These tiny swivels easily pass through the guides on your rod, and can take anything a Walleye can dish up. For main line my preference is PowerPro Super slick braid, 10lb, in colours brown or green, depending on the lake – green for weedy bodies of water, and brown for the more northern lakes where tannins colour the water and wood and rock are the prevailing structure. Braid has zero stretch and delivers every tap and bump. No-stretch also means easier hook-sets as there’s no stretch to contend with.

For rods, the Shimano 2-piece Compre 6’6” medium action is perfect. A slightly softer tip to ensure Walleye stay buttoned-up, and superior blank and handle materials to transmit feeling from the line to the hand. The new Shimano Sedona 2500 spinning reel has all the latest performance features you could want in a reel at its price.

Presentation is simple. Whether real or artificial, the trick is not to move the rod’s tip. Less is more. Contact bottom and wait with a slightly slack line. Lift softly on occasion or if something seems different, and when resistance is felt, apply a solid but not aggressive hook set. Seldom will be the case that an actual bite is felt. As always with Walleye, reel steadily and avoid pumping the rod.

Lawrence releasing a 17-inch Walleye

Remember, limit your catch, and don’t always feel that you need to harvest your limit. For more tips on fishing sustainably, visit Blue Fish Canada on the web, or catch our weekly Blue Fish Radio podcast featuring people who care about the future of fish and fishing. Always interested in learning from others as well – nothing beats hard-won local knowledge.

Following Bottom Contours with Sound

The Talking Tackle Depth Whisperer is a handy little automation that provides intuitive audible feedback on important depth changes. I’ve been assisting its inventor for the past several years to get the technology just right, including a plug-and-play version that takes advantage of the NMEA output produced by most modern fish finder sonar devices such as the Lowrance HDS 7 Gen III touch screen sounders that come as standard equipment on the Ranger Fisherman series of multi-species boats.

I get shallow water alerts, notifications of abrupt depth changes, battery level alerts, and regular depth announcements — all spoken with a pleasing female voice. The Depth Whisperer speaks automatically only as needed, and is ready to go straight out of the box. Combined with the subtle audible fish alerts that My Lowrance Gen III omits to let me know when baitballs and small and large fish are below the boat, and I’m fully informed on what’s taking place out-of-sight below the boat without ever having to see a screen.

Check this short YouTube video out on how I use the Talking Tackle Depth Whisperer aboard my Ranger Fisherman FS 620 to consistently catch Walleye and win tournaments.

The Tree that Just Kept Giving

Photo of two Largemouth bass that were two of 5 3lb plus Bass the author and his fishing partner caught off a single tree on their favorite lake.

Miles of steep undeveloped shoreline complete with an endless supply of blow-downs make one of my favorite lakes ideal habitat for sheltering large Bass. The fun started this day when I began flipping Jackle Cover-Cras rigged weightless on a hd 5/0 Trokar Magnum hook into the trees blind. It took tackle and 50lb PowerPro braded line to withstand the toughest conditions. My 7’5” Shimano Zodious heavy power rod and Curado 200 were up to the task.

My partner and I couldn’t stop laughing. Him with his precise flips, and me tossing right into the heart of the tree. We were unstoppable. These two Largies counted for two of the five 3-pound Largemouths that came off just one tree.  we created a waypoint on my Lowrance Gen 3 HDS 7 and called it the “Christmas Tree”.

Of course, venturing on to large remote lakes such as this, loaded with islands and bays that stretch on for ever, would not be safe without quality maps from Navionics. Without their detailed depth information, we would have been way more concerned about the seagulls we witnessed standing on the water in the middle of different bays. True Canadian Shield Lakes indeed!

Canada’s Parliamentary Sport Fish at Your service

By Lawrence Gunther

(First Published in Fish Hunt Ride Magazine – Spring 2017)

It may be the case that Canada’s capital Ottawa has one of the least developed and inaccessible shorelines anywhere in the world, but that doesn’t deter people from fishing. In spite of the limited shoreline access, anglers still manage to partake in their sport in sight of Canada’s federal legislators and public service mandarins.

Long before they built the five bridges connecting Ottawa to Gatineau, First Nations peoples gathered on the Ottawa River to exchange news and harvest fish. As much as 80% of their fish diet consisted of American Eel that once swarmed the river, but whose numbers have since been reduced to less than 1% of their former glory. These amazing creatures live the majority of their lives in the Ottawa and connected rivers, before the females migrate down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers to spawn in the Sargasso Sea  located somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The fact the Ottawa River is one of Canada’s most regulated rivers with over 50 major dams and hydro-electric generating stations, may have something to do with the Eel’s near imminent demise. It’s not all bad news though.

In June 2015 Blue Fish Canada, a charity dedicated to the future of fish and fishing, organized in partnership with the Ottawa River Keeper a 24-hour fish-a-thon. The goal was to catch as many of the 85 different species of fish that make the stretch of River inside both Ottawa and Gatineau’s city limits home. With support from Orleans Boat World and Oziles Marina, and a number of expert anglers who took turns joining my guide dog Moby and me aboard my Ranger fishing boat, we managed to hook and release 12 different fish species ranging from Walleye to Long Nose Gar.

 

The Ottawa is an impressive fishery. But, if you won’t believe this fish tale, just ask guides like John Anderson, owner of the Ottawa River Musky Factory or Yannick Loranger of Ottawa River Fishing – two fishing guides making a living just downstream from the capital.

If a guided fishing adventure isn’t in the cards, why not cast a line into Dow’s Lake located in the middle of Ottawa and part of the Rideau Canal. Each spring my Bass fishing club, the Ottawa Valley South Bassmasters, hosts upwards of 50 12th Ottawa Girl guides ranging in age from 5-16 for an evening of shore fishing alongside the Dow’s Lake Pavilion. Within two hours each girl is guaranteed to catch and release at least one and as many as five scrappy little panfish.

Girl Guides Fishing at Dows Lake in the centre of Ottawa

Or, go big and cast giant lures into the Rideau Canal. Try your hand at capturing one of the estimated over-60 meter-long apex predator musky fish Steven Cook’s Carleton University’s Fish Lab discovered living between Dow’s Lake and the Chateau Laurier. These are Ottawa’s fresh-water version of sharks capable of gobbling down baby ducks or other critters that mistakenly find themselves bathing in the Canal.

Lawrence holding a Muskie caught in the Ottawa River

Lawrence with his guide dog holding a catfish caught behind the Parliament buildings

If friendship is more your thing, come join us anglers each spring on the shore of Victoria Island for a bit of Catfish fishing. These cats can reach upwards of five kilos. Bring a lawn chair, some heavy 2-3 oz. weights, size 1/0 non-offset circle hooks, a stout rod and some worms. The fishing is best around sundown, but the comradery is always good no matter if the fish are biting or not.

There’s plenty of great shoreline fishing to be had in Ottawa, but I’m not going to give away all my spots. There are the community holes that everyone knows, and then there are those over-looked, right under your nose, places that are just too good to reveal. For up-to-date news on local fishing conditions and what’s hot, the internet is always a great place to connect with fellow local anglers and to keep up to speed with the latest fishing news.

You can spend a lot and fly in to some remote wilderness resort, or you can just pull out your grandparent’s old fishing rod from the back of the closet. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. We Ottawa-Gatineau folks really are fortunate. Just remember, with over a million of us, it wouldn’t take

Long to eat them all, so limit your catch, don’t catch your limit.

 

Lawrence with his two youngest children holding a fish caught in the Ottawa River

Lunker Walleyes from Fast Flowing Rivers

Fishing for Walleye in lakes is equivalent to downhill skiing on blue diamond slopes; doable, but not nearly as challenging and potentially rewarding as pursuing huge Walleye in fast flowing double-diamond rivers.

Fishing with the 12th Ottawa Girl Guides

Every year volunteers from Blue Fish Canada work hard to take young people fishing.