Our Man In Canada
February 11th, 2002

Nipigon's Giant Brook Trout

By Scott E. Smith
From Ontario, Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide, Published by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission.

The Upper River

The brook trout of the Nipigon are large, unusually thick-shouldered fish, on account of the richly productive waters of the system. A system that at one time was an untethered river is now a tailwater fishery created by three dams that were constructed during the first half of the twentieth century. This harnessing of the river has obviously changed and tamed the river. If you were old enough to fish the river before and after the damming, you would hardly recognize it, save for the clear, clean flows that are the hallmark of the Nipigon.

Although this harnessing of the river has changed its nature dramatically, there are inherent benefits with any tail-water fishery. What was lost in brisk flows and thundering rapids is gained in the intrinsic aquatic life brought about by the productivity of dammed water. In addition, the reaches of river above the dams are left untainted by the introduction of exotic species to Lake Superior. There are no steelhead and salmon anywhere above Alexander's Dam to compete with natural population of brook trout, lake trout and whitefish.

Scenic Nipigon River

The most effective way to fish the three upper stretches of the Nipigon River are from a small boat or square stern canoe. One would naturally assume that since the fish in the river are bank-dwellers . . .that walk-and-wade tactics would suffice. The problem is, there are very few places to wade and the high canyon walls of the Nipigon make it almost impossible to walk along the bank in places, never mind execute a back cast. Subsequently, the technique that provides the most mobility and ease of angling is to fish from a small boat either anchored or held by the motor in the current. Fly fishing from a boat held stationary in the current by a sputtering outboard may seem sacrilegious to some but anchoring a boat successfully and safely in twenty feet of swiftly flowing river is a guides nightmare. I'll put up with the motor and save on the perils of fooling with anchors and ropes in death-defying waters.

One of the best ways to fish the shoreline on the Nipigon is a technique developed by River's Edge Fly Shop owner Bill Boote. Bill holds the boat in the current with the motor, so that the boat holds stationary or gradually drifts downstream. Casts are made from a bow casting-platform toward the bank; almost right to the bank in fact. Generally this brand of fishing is of the streamer variety with a sink-tip or shooting head. The fly is allowed to sink by employing a reach cast and large mends immediately after the completion of the cast. Once the fly reaches the appropriate depth, action is imparted to the streamer as it completes the swing through a prime lie, such as a current seam or behind a rock. When fishing this system, takes are signified by the unmistakable jolt of the fly rod that starts at the fly and rolls up the fly line like the whip of a garden hose. Brook trout are rarely subtle when taking a streamer. Newcomers to this type of fishing often have trouble managing sink-tip lines, but after a little practice, casts from fifty to seventy-five feet become routine. After years of boat fishing Bill and I are quite adept at flinging the entire fly line. Indeed the ability to cast great distances are of primary importance anywhere on the Nipigon River.

A typical day of fishing on the big river involves fishing from the boat with streamers on sink-tip lines throughout the day, followed by an evening walk-and-wade sojourn on a gravel flat during the often prolific hatch that precedes nightfall. Fishing from the boat during a hatch seems to put the fish down, perhaps because of the disturbances the boat makes near the surface.

Ken High with and 8 lb. lake trout

The upper reaches of the Nipigon River are defined by the three concrete dams on the river: Alexander's, Cameron Falls and Pine Portage.

As you travel north on Highway 585 from the town of Nipigon on the Trans-Canada Highway, the first dam you encounter will be Alexander's. Below the dam is the best stretch of walk-and-wade water on the entire river (previously covered here.) Immediately above Alexander's is a lake-like widening of the river; this is where the Frazer empties into the Nipigon. Good fishing, both streamer and dry, is available in this lake area along the rocky shore. Above this lake portion and immediately below Cameron Falls Dam is a swift section of the river. This is generally fished from shore, by hopping from one rock to another and fishing downstream from your position.

Above Cameron Falls Dam is another lake-like widening of the river known as Jessie Lake. Jessie is renowned for both lake trout and brook trout fishing. The latter of which are concentrated around the islands and sunken reefs in the middle of the lake. Incidentally, it is here on Jessie Lake that while loading my boat onto the trailer one July evening after a full day of fishing on the river, that I encountered an incredible spinner fall of huge Hexegenia limbata.

My fishing companion Bruce Miller and I, quickly stowed all our heavy gauge streamer equipment and waded into the lake at dusk with a floating six-weight and some large dries. We were soon surrounded by large swirls made by voraciously feeding brookies and whitefish. We fail to capitalize on this feast due in part to the incredible hatch of mosquitoes that were in turn feeding voraciously on us. In addition, we were attempting to fish our normal twelve-foot dry-fly leaders that sure enough, spent most of the fishing time wrapped around one thing or another. I have since learned that in order to fish the hex spinner fall successfully at night you must fish a short leader with a stout tippet in order to fish blind in these dark environs.

Jessie Lake is also productive walleye water, although at the time of this writing walleye are still protected as a result of a population crash in the 1970s.

Above Jessie Lake, which accounts for approximately 10 kilometers of the Nipigon, is an 8-kilometer stretch of the river that flows through a scenic canyon, at times three- to four-hundred feet high. Within this stretch are several hot spots for brook trout in the sixteen - to twenty-four inch range (two to eight pounds), most of which are near portions of faster current and underwater structure. In addition, catches of lake trout and whitefish are common in this area. Both species attaining respectable size: lakers up to ten pounds, and whitefish up to seven or eight. This stretch of canyon water ends at Pine Portage, the top dam on the Nipigon.

Upstream of Pine Portage Dam is where many of the largest brook trout are still taken on the Nipigon system. Indeed the earliest account of big fish - including the record fish- come from places known as Virgin Falls and Rabbit Rapids, which are situated at the top of the river almost 20 kilometers north of Pine Portage. These famous spots are still there, although the original river bed is many feet below the present water level. Consistent with the other dams on the river, the portion of river above Pine Portage Dam is a lake-like portion of the river. This very large lake is known as Forgan Lake. It runs to the northwest as the river proper runs northeast. This situation makes the boat ride to the Virgin Falls area a treacherous ride in windy weather. Subsequently, it is best to travel in a larger craft from Pine Portage north. As one would expect, the rewards available in the Virgin Falls areas, just below Lake Nipigon, can be awesome, both in catch and scenery.

Not unlike hot apple pie and ice-cream after a long day's fishing, I've saved the best part . . .for the end: the brook trout itself.

The brook trout of the upper Nipigon are a sight to behold. They are beautifully detailed like no other fish I have ever seen. Brilliant orange spots with striking blue halos are the signature markings of these fish. They appear silver in the water, especially on a sunny day, but once you examine them closely, as you gently pull the hook from their mouth and prepare to release them, you will notice their matchless, breathing beauty.

As I mentioned previously, they are very thick in the body, especially the denizens of the upper river. So much that regular formulas for calculating a trout's weight do not apply to these brook trout . . .They are not, however, chunky to the extent of being portly or sluggish. In fact, they remain streamlined for their size and fight with a vengeance; eager to run far into your backing in the big river.

This large girth-to-length proportion is naturally due to the amount and type of feed in the river. It would be interesting to compare the proportions of these modern fish to those that existed prior to the damming of the river. ~ Scott E. Smith

Next time: Hatches and Flies!

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