The rugged shield ridges, cloaked in ancient pine, appear almost black and white in contrast with the fresh shroud of snow upon them. The still frigid nights play tug of war with sunny mild days in hopes of creating a safe dance floor for the winter festivities to take place upon. Hard water anglers and snowmobile enthusiasts watch weather forecasts and forums with a burning intensity, anxious to make the most of the season that so many loath. It’s winter time in northern Ontario!
With a fixation on fly-fishing occupying the majority of my year, the dead of winter always presented itself as a bit of a road block. A mandatory time out from fly tying, mending waders, and probing streams and rivers week after week. Instead of succumbing to the weight of the winter, I’ve always tried to embrace it. Some people ski, snowboard, or throw on the skates. I like to be on a frozen lake amidst the deafening silence and awe-inspiring beauty that the harsh winters create in this part of Ontario.
For years I’d trick unsuspecting friends into joining me north, at the most forbidding time of the year. We prospected everywhere from Algoma to east of Toronto. One of the most popular ice fishing destinations has always been the North Bay area, but less than 100 km north of Lake Nippissing, you’ll find the Temagami district, with a staggering number of beautiful, clean lakes and a fraction of the fishing pressure. Temagami is famous for its ancient stands of giant pine and rich native culture. Primeval lore practically beckons you while travelling its countless lakes and rivers. It’s for this reason that I decided to convert a childhood penchant for canoe trips here into a winter excursion a few years back.
The central lake access road on Lake Temagami always deceives me at the best of times. What I picture a ten minute jaunt off of Highway 11 is really twenty, which feels like a solid half hour when compounded by the sheer excitement of being back in these parts. I was concerned as to how I would contain myself the first time I would travel this road in the winter on my way to meet Bruce, and our snowmobile shuttle to Tamar Vacations for a week of ice fishing. To my surprise, the hub of the lake receives enough traffic in the winter that the access road is meticulously maintained, and travel is not to be feared.
As we slid across the frozen lake in tow behind a snowmobile, I couldn’t help to conjuring childhood memories of this spectacular place, that hung in the air about me like friendly spirits. Development restrictions and a general pride for what exists here has kept Temagami virtually unchanged for many decades, a trait that would be scrutinized if it were almost anywhere else. In the time it took me to relish in this thought, the 12 kilometres were covered, and we’d arrived at our winter home for the week on Tamar island.
The thermometer was pushing down close to minus thirty the evening we arrived, yet the cold was dry and crisp, and merely heightened your appreciation for being properly dressed. Dark was upon us almost immediately after getting our wood stove and pellet stove to a full roar, and wanting to allow the cabin to reach comfortable dinner temperatures, we decided to take to fishing right away. Within 20 minutes in one of the huts Bruce had placed for us, we were catching Ling. This was a nice way to ease into things, and afforded some time together to discuss the game plan for the coming days. When we returned to our cozy cabin a short time later, our friend Bill had supper ready and the fire stoked. After indulging in some fine food and glass of scotch we settled into a deep slumber in preparation for the dawn.
I woke just before first light the following morning to find the temperature had become quite mild. As I stepped outside to enjoy the silence, drips of melting water from the chimney pipe pulsed to the ground in metronome fashion, counting the time before full dawn, and my deadline to catch the whitefish bite. I hurried to deep water and set my lines. I spent the next few hours searching for whitefish, only catching one while being quite successful with the lake trout. I was fishing alone but felt far from it. From the metallic early morning croak of the raven to the animal tracks in the fresh snow, I’m constantly reminded that there’s a completely different hustle going on here, the participants of which being more aware of your presence than anyone you might push past on a city street.
I returned to the cabin in the late morning to find the home fires burning and a gluttonous breakfast spread of sausage, bacon, eggs and beans. I took the time to share the mornings stories and plan the evening attack on this expansive lake. As we perused the lakes shoal map, the idea of a steadfast plan started to seem daunting. The lake has copious amounts of points, shoals and sunken islands to explore, as well as numerous side bays that resemble small lakes themselves, and hold wintering pike and walleye. Adjacent to Tamar island are many separate lakes that are also well worth exploring for those with snow machines and the wherewithal to get there. We had our work cut out for us.
We decided that the best way to educate ourselves on the area would be to split up and compare notes later. A friend and I decided to fish a nearby bay that is fed by a narrows that can make ice conditions precarious. Bruce was diligent enough to travel ahead of us to demonstrate the safest route of travel. Once in this back bay, we were met with over a foot of undisturbed powder snow blanketing the ice, indicative of the fact that we were the first ones here this season. The knowledge of that fact alone made the exploration worthwhile, as we set up our portable hut and heater, and drilled our first holes through this fresh canvas. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse, limiting our ability to move around. Instead we took comfort in the warm, windless hut, and enjoyed hilarious scotch induced banter, punctuated by the occasional northern pike and school of walleye. We packed up just after dark, strategically leaving the hut up until the bitter end, as I tried to mask my legitimate concern from my friend Mike, regarding the very realistic odds that my archaic snowmobile would not start in these conditions. Thankfully it did start, and there was no need for a late night rescue, not to mention the ridicule and snickering that would have followed for years to come with the rest of the crew.
Ten minutes later we came around the point to see the warm glow of the ice huts, like lanterns on the snow. The guys were after the ling again! We pulled up outside and opened the door to find the jolliest three fishermen we’d ever seen, focused on their holes amidst a frenzy of bent rods and varied exclamations as to how big the current fish being fought was likely to be. There was little room left, so I decided to use the next hut over, as it was unoccupied. This separation created a humorous dynamic, reminiscent of falling asleep on opposite sides of a dark room with a sibling or friend as a child. Being close enough to communicate, smart commentary and competitive remarks were shot back and forth in the Temagami silence. As I sat quiet for a spell, the commotion in the busier hut reminded me of a baseball game broadcast on the radio, with play by plays of each fish to come up the hole. I just sat by myself and smiled, attempting to best them in silence.
The remaining two days were much the same. Using my old faithful Ski-doo to split into groups and cover as much of the water as we could, while constantly returning to the comfort of the cabin for some hot food and a quick thaw. Lake trout were the primary fish to meet the hole that week, with a few whitefish, walleye and pike thrown in for good measure. Of course there was the consistent ling action at night, but that was more in facilitation of the social hour.
When the week came to an end, we all dreaded the lift back to the car, and the disheartening drive south back to reality. Bruce had been an extraordinary host, and so had Lake Temagami. The accommodations had been perfect, and the fishing consistent. The weather was just so as to give you respect for this harsh land at times, but also rewarded us with beautifully still mornings and sunny afternoons. We couldn’t have asked for more.
The ride back across the lake left me with my standard reflections and contemplations when I leave a place like this, and kicked off the countdown to when I may return to Tamar Island.