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Harshbarger: Memories from Pike fishing in Canada

I’m sure I’m not alone in the winter struggle after deer season has ended and spring temperatures for comfortable fishing seem like a painful distance away. Cabin fever is in full swing come the latter weeks of winter, even if we outdoorsmen are kept busy with kids, kids’ sports, work, and our other year-round responsibilities. It’s never long after deer season has shown its final sunset that I start to crave warmer weather and the plethora of outdoor activities that accompany it. However, as winter begins to close its door and an occasional 40-50 degree afternoon peeks through, my desire for warmer fishing weather grows into daily obsession. In my downtime, during long days at work, or simply during any routine second of the day, my mind wanders to images of rainbow trout flashing against the rippling water as it puts up a fight, largemouth bass breaking the surface with a spinnerbait in its bucket-sized jaws, and memorable spring and summer moments in the great outdoors.

I find that outdoor journaling can bring to life a memory for readers to enjoy. Personally, when I read a detailed account from another writer, it triggers similar memories of my own or will lend ideas for future outdoor adventures.

In 2010, a group of buddies and I spent a week in the Northern Ontario wilderness fishing for Northern Pike. None of us had much experience with Pike fishing, though. I caught a few smaller Northerns out of Walker Lake, in Snyder County, as a teenager, but only by chance.

We discovered “Ronda Camp” during a trip to the Outdoor Show in Harrisburg in February, 2010. Costs were extremely enticing; very reasonable prices for six guys who were still getting dug into careers and by no means rolling in cash. A little budgeting, a few months of saving, and we booked our cabin for the first full week in July. The trip would serve as our first big post-college/post-military vacation- somewhat of a reward for us all.

Lewistown to Shining Tree, Ontario, was a 16-hour drive. We lost any remnants of cell phone reception about three hours before reaching our destination. The last couple hours of the trip were through the northern Ontario wilderness. Broken roads, sparse traffic, and beautiful scenery comprised of lakes, streams, and various wildlife posing along the highway guided us for the last leg of the drive. We were truly headed into a paradise far off the grid. In two trucks — each towing a 16.5 foot bass boat with 60/40 jets, loaded down with gear, and without any lengthy rest stops, we arrived sluggish and stiff around midday. Ronda Camp was a 3-mile boat ride from the launch–a very slow ride, bogged down with all of our gear for the week. After a slow creep into our dock, we unloaded and were eager to get our licenses and meet with the guide. Barry was everything that you would expect from a backwoods Canuck who lives the majority of the year deep in the wilderness. He and his wife were incredible hosts. They live an interesting lifestyle up there to say the least, and I’ll admit, I’m still very jealous. Barry provided us with basic tips on gear, tactics, and hot spots on the lake. He only joined us on the water once, but he pointed us in the right direction throughout the week, and welcomed us at his cabin day or night if we needed anything. There were four cabins on the lake, all very similar, including Barry’s and ours. One other had guests that week. The cabins were furnished with four beds, two of them in a loft, a couch, recliner, kitchen table, and basic appliances. Our water supply flowed via pump straight from the lake. There was no running water inside, other than the pump in the kitchen sink. We would end up bathing in the lake and doing our “business” in the outhouse located 50 yards from the rear door of the cabin. It was exactly the kind of “roughing it” that we were hoping for. Simple, but everything we wanted. A breath of fresh air from the complexities of our young adult lives to this point.

Armed with my 6 foot Abu Garcia rod and reel and a couple spoons — just the basics — we fired up the boat and hit the water before dark. It didn’t take long to realize that when Barry said a fast retrieval was the way to go, he was spot on. On the first cast of the trip, I heaved my Daredevil spoon across the lake and retrieved it at a swift pace, only a foot beneath the surface. Through 25 feet of crystal clear water the fish shot up from the bottom like a rocket, striking the lure and quickly turning his body straight down toward the bottom. An ambush like I’ve never seen. The fish was no more than 15 inches, but the strike was so aggressive and caught me so off guard that I nearly lost grip on my rod. I was thankful that the first fish was smaller because later in the week, as we got into some bigger fish, a tight grip would prove to be very necessary. The aggression of these Northern predators was wild. The first evening we caught numerous smaller Northerns, or “hammer handles” as the locals call them. We were able to land a few legal fish so that we could fry them up for dinner.

After a dinner consisting of mostly boney fillets washed down with Canadian brews- we decided we’d better learn a better way to filet. Pike have many small, fine, bones throughout their body and filleting differs from your typical fresh water fish. Barry provided us with a little filleting tutorial on Day 2 that resulted in a better meal on the second night, to include some nice Cajun seasoned fillets from a few Pike in the 30-inch range. As the week moved along, we explored a neighboring lake, loaded with both largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as very healthy walleyes. We landed a number of Pike in the 35” class during the week, and lost fights with a few that I’d estimate beyond 40″. The larger Northerns put up a fight that I have yet to forget, and hope to someday experience again. We added a number of very nice bass and a couple walleye more than 25 inches to our nightly suppers as the week went on.

I recall with clarity one 15-minute segment on the water when we encountered a lunker Pike on a feeding frenzy. As my buddy reached down to net a fish that I was landing, a larger Pike took a big swipe at its tail fin. We quickly got the smaller fish back in the water and began casting in circles, hoping the large, hungry Pike would attack one of the lures. Eventually I did hook it, and after nearly 15 minutes of fight, he got within feet of the boat, appearing fatigued, and made one last hard dive straight toward the bottom- snapping off my spoon at the steel liter. This was one of many exciting moments during the week, but seems to stick in my mind most due to the predatory and dominant nature of that particular fish.

Beyond the successful fishing and the gorgeous weather, our nights were spent breathing in every ounce of God’s country and embracing the camaraderie. We spent our nights posted up on the porch of our cabin having a few cold beverages, shooting the bull, and taking in the incredible sounds of peace and solitude. An occasional wolf’s howl, the rustling of leaves in the woods surrounding us, or a bark from Pooh Bear (Barry’s small dog) would serve as the only disruptions to an otherwise silent night. A couple of the nights were spent sitting around Barry’s fire-pit listening to stories of the past and learning more about the culture. Barry told tales of monster Pike taken from the lake, Black Bear, and Moose hunts out of Ronda Camp, supported by photo evidence in an old, dusty album. Pooh Bear certainly loved the company and spent no less than 10 minutes on each of our laps.

Although the trip was an incredible combination of excitement and relaxation, I cannot leave out the one “hiccup” that interrupted a midweek afternoon. Without going into mechanical detail, in layman’s terms, we ended up with a busted boat motor. We towed the boat across the lake, loaded up, and drove three hours toward a more populated town near a larger recreational lake. To this day, I cannot think of the name of either the town or the lake — so I’ll apologize for that. I would love to give them some recognition. Anyway, Barry, of course, pointed us in the right direction but could give no guarantees. We didn’t have the ability to google search marine mechanics and call ahead. We found a mechanic who was willing to check out the motor and fix it, more less right away, given that we were on vacation and trying to milk the most out of what was left. I wouldn’t consider the hiccup a bad one, necessarily. The people were incredible to work with; a combination of crude, vulgar, but extremely polite and willing to help a brother in need. We had some lunch and chatted with some locals, made a call home on a pay phone, and within two hours, the motor was up and running. He could have really gouged the price since we had no other options, but he didn’t. The kindness of the natives and their willingness to help others was a part of the trip that I will never forget.

To conclude, the Pike trip that summer became somewhat of a stepping stone in our lives. Within the next couple years, we would all become fathers, husbands, and our days of being able to hide away in the Canadian wilderness would become a memory. I hope that I can take my own kids, and maybe some of the same fellas and their children, back to Shining Tree and relive the experience someday. For now, that trip will remain a memory that flashes back to mind from time-to-time, and to be honest, I may forever be envious of the culture and the lifestyle. Take a look into Ronda Camp if you are interested in some deep, deep, wilderness fishing or hunting. You won’t regret it. I haven’t spoken to Barry in 9 years, but I might just have to shoot him a copy of this.

Best wishes, brothers and sisters. Stay safe out there as we continue to work through this very trying time. Utilize the great outdoors as a coping mechanism. The solitude within nature will meet the safe “social distancing” recommendations, and may bring peace and mental relief to the minds of those whose lives have been brought to a halt and turned upside down in recent weeks. Follow the recommendations made by our government and please –wash your hands!

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