Our Man In Canada
November 21st, 2005

Lake St. Joseph's Trophy Pike
By Nick Pujic

Tucked away deep in Ontario's boreal forest 300km north of Thunder Day lies Lake St. Joseph - a large man-made reservoir created in the 1930s by damming the legendary Albany River system. The old riverbed still exists, easily highlighted as the deepest part of the lake on a topographic map. Besides creating the main lake, the impoundment linked it with smaller nearby lakes, creating one very large body of extremely diverse water - water which is being hail today as the top pike and walleye fishery in Ontario.

Lake St. Joe is so large that one could spend weeks fishing its 154,000 acres (approx.) and never see the same spot or the same fish twice. The lake, which is 90 miles long and nearly 20 miles wide in places, is a vast and complex maze of islands, bays, coves and rock piles. These provide a tremendous diversity of underwater habitat, ranging from beautiful sandy beaches and shallow weedy bays to deep water drop-offs and dramatic rock cliffs. Water depth varies from under 6 feet in the shallower, more fertile bays to around 20 feet in most of the rest of the lake, with a few deeper channels of 120 feet in the old riverbed. The collage of underwater structure this creates and the abundant whitefish, perch and cisco populations combine to produce a pike and walleye fishery which is hard to match anywhere in Ontario, and perhaps anywhere in Canada.

I visited Lake St. Joseph for the first time in June 2005 with my friend Mike Verhoef from Goderich, operator of Fly Fitters guiding service and fly fishing school. Our main intent was to hook into 40-inch plus pike on the fly. While the Old Post Lodge where we stayed had not previously catered to fly fishers, the owner, John Grace, was eager to have us see what we could do.

Equipment and Flies

Because there was no fly fishing tradition on Lake St. Joseph, we were facing the unknown and prepared ourselves for every possible contingency. However, in the end we found that the gear we needed was really quite basic.

A pair of 8wt 9 foot rods, coupled with durable disc drag reels loaded with a floating rocket taper and an intermediate sink tip line were all that was required. To cope with our toothy prey, we used 6 to 8 inch fine wire leaders and, in some cases, 501b braided tippet, which proved to be quite effective. Leader length varied between 9 feet on the floating line and 6 to 7 feet on the sink tips.

Our fly boxes were filled with various bunny strip type flies, Enzol's minnows, large Clousers and Lefty's Deceivers. The latter proved to be by far the most effective pattern. All flies were tied on a very large scale, with hook sizes ranging from 4/0 to 7/0. Casting these large puffs of fur and feathers into the wind was a definite concern. However, after spending a few minutes practicing and adjusting the cast we were consistently able to punch out 40 to 50 foot casts without much trouble. The main forage for pike in Lake St. Joe is cisco and whitefish, and a big white and blue Lefty's Deceiver provided the perfect imitation of these.

Tactics

The fishing in Lake St. Joseph is almost always dictated by the weather. It's home to a prevailing westerly wind which creates water currents throughout the lake, which are much more significant than those created by tributaries. The colour of the water is reminiscent of tea, with a maximum visibility of about 6 feet—a characteristic typical of most Northern Ontario lakes.

If it had not been for Bill Briscoe, Old Post manager and head guide, the vastness and complexity of the lake would have baffled us. Besides taking us to where the fish were, Bill shared his 13 years of experience of the lake with us. What follows is a summary of what he gave us.

Spring

Fishing usually begins shortly after ice out, which generally occurs sometime in May. The shallow, mud-bottomed bays warm up first The dark, muddy bottom of these bays soaks up the sun, especially along the northern shore of the lake where sun exposure is maximized, creating a significant variance in temperature between the main lake and the shallow bays. This difference can be as much as 10 degrees Celsius, with the main lake around 7 degrees and the shallower bays around 17 degrees. The higher the variance in temperature, the easier it is to locate trophy pike. Spawning activities usually get under way shortly after ice out. However, Old Post guides have reported seeing spawning activities even as the last few inches of ice still decorated the surface of the lake.

During this time, large pike should be targeted in these bays. Because of the murky water, flies should provide lots of action and be big (5 inches to 6 inches) and bright. Bulky, oversize bunny strip type flies in fluorescent chartreuse, hot pink and red all worked well for us. Adding flash materials to these didn't seem to make much difference. Despite the stained water, it's possible to sight fish in shallow bays (between 2 and 6 feet) during this time. However, it does take a keen eye, and a quality set of polarized glasses is necessary. The most productive areas are shallow, dark-bottomed bays which have a small tributary or creek feeding into them, as these seem to have the highest concentrations of baitfish for the pike to feed on.

Summer

As the Northern tea colored waters of Lake St. Joseph warm up in the summer months, large pike become tougher to target than in the spring. The end of the hex hatch usually marks the end of the spring fishing season and indicates a change in pike behavior throughout the lake. Most pike migrate to moderately deeper waters as the shallows warm up. It's harder to target them on flies in (he deeper water, as they're dispered over a much wider area and it's impossible to sight-fish for them. However, they're still consistently catchable if your approach is modified accordingly.

There's not much cover in the early summer, as weeds have only just started to grow, and pike concentrate in budding weedbeds and troughs in 8 to 15 feet of water. The most productive weed beds are those found on or in close proximity to rocky points, underwater shoals or steep drop-offs.

We found that casting large Lefty's Deceivers and heavier Clousers was very effective in these places. With the boat 50-60 feet away from the weedbed or structure and pointed towards it, we'd cast 5 to 10 feet beyond it. Once the fly hit the water, we gave it two or three 10 inch strips, then waited for about five seconds to let it sink back towards the bottom before starting another series of strips. [For one of the more succcessflies used, see Saint Joe's Deceiver]

This method was extremely productive during our visit—not only for pike, but also for walleye, which would intercept the fly as it dropped between the retrieves. Never before have I caught so many walleye as consistently or as easily on a fly as I did on Lake St. Joseph. These fish, which averaged 22 inches, with the biggest measuring out at 26 inches, were a perfect, hard fighting alternative when trophy pike were elusive. Their aggressive attitude (after all, they were taking 7/0 streamers without any trouble) and sheer abundance were an unexpected highlight to our trip.

Catching 40-inch plus pike during the Summer is very much a percentages game, as they are located in the same waters as hammer handle pike and countless walleye. However, the more casts you make, the more fish you'll catch and the better your chances of ultimately hooking into a monster.

Fall

From the late summer and into the fall, pike enter a new behavioral stage—a feeding frenzy to build up calories for the winter months. During this time, they tend to locate by underwater sand piles. Mostly caused by the currents, these are a common phenomenon in Lake St. Joseph and can be very productive when found behind natural rock piles. The occurrence of these two types of underwater structure in combination with large "cabbage" type weeds creates natural hotspots for pike. The Old Post guides agree that this is one of the best times to target huge, 40-inch plus pike, which are locally dubbed "gators" or "snakes" due to their stunning ferocity.

Current issue

If you're an enthusiastic streamer-tosser like myself, this is the perfect time of year to visit Lake St. Joe. Covering plenty of water in and around these cabbage weedbeds with an array of extremely large, flashy streamers such as Enzol's Minnows, Clousers and Deceivers is sure to provoke heart-stopping strikes and drag-melting battles. Focus on stripping your flies along weed edges, or overtop of weedbeds, about 4 to 7 feet below the surface in intermittent 12 to 18 inch bursts.

Winds permitting, topwater action can be at its finest early in the mornings throughout out the latter part of August and even into September. Popular bass bugs and STP frogs are top choices for your fly box. However, don't forget your box of subsurface patterns, as the winds can pick up quite quickly, rendering poppers and gurglers ineffective.

Conservation

An essential key to the success of the fishery on Lake St. Joseph is its strict conservation policies—policies which were largely spearheaded and implemented by John Grace's initiatives in cooperation with the MNR and local native groups. While most fishing lodges face an uneasy pressure to allow anglers to keep trophy fish, the Old Post was one of the first to institute a no-kill policy on all pike caught, regardless of size, and a keep limit of just two walleye over 18 inches per angler. The lodge has also banned the use of landing nets, since research indicates that landing nets are the primary killer of released pike—stripping their bodies of natural protective mucus and leaving them very susceptible to bacterial infections, which can frequently lead to death. Similarly, barbed (pinching down the barbs is OK) hooks and trailer hooks are also banned at the lodge. However, from experience I can attest that we didn't need either of these.

An innovative Lake St. Joseph tag system has also been developed to control the annual angling pressure on the lake, setting strict limits in which both the tourism and fishing industries can both be sustained while improving the fishery. Progress is monitored by lodges and the MNR annually to ensure the policies which were set in place are, in fact, productive.

The conservation-minded thinking and hard work of John Grace and others like him are definitely getting results, and no one can attest to that more than those who visit Lake St. Joseph and indulge in its pristine wilderness, its beauty and, of course, its unparalleled fishing.

Getting There

Reaching Lake St. Joseph doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Daily flights into Thunder Bay are available from most major airlines. Pickup from the Thunder Bay airport can be arranged with the Old Post lodge. Visitors can also fly into the Northern Ontario community of Pickle Lake, only 25 minutes North of Lake St. Joe. Another convenient option exists for visitors originating from Southern Ontario with chartered flights from Goderich directly to Pickle Lake via Old Post charters. If arriving by land, simply follow Hwy 599 North from Thunder Bay. International chartered bus trips are also available, depending on your point of origin.

Old Post & Village Contact Information

SUMMER:
P.O. Box 380, Pickle Lake
Ontario, Canada POV 3AO
Phone: 807.928.2802 or 807.928.2770

WINTER:
P.O. Box 336, Goderich
Ontario, Canada N7A 4C6
Phone: 519.524.1173
Toll-Free: 800.461.1388 ~ Nick

Credits: We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher and Nick Pujic for re-print permission!

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