A Couple of Personal Bests and Gifts from the Zhashagi River.

It had been a while since I went off on a bit of an adventure outside of the Lancaster area. With gas prices being as high as they are you have to pick your battles a little more selectively when opting to pull the boat around to remote areas. I took me between a quarter and half-tank of gas to get from Brockville to Lancaster while pulling the boat. Mind you, in this case it was worth every penny.

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I was invited to my new friend Sylvie’s cottage by a long-time friend of mine JP and decided to bring the boat along after hearing about good walleye fishing in the area. JP had never really fished before so I thought this would be a good opportunity for him to get a taste of what it’s all about and perhaps a better understanding of why I’m so…well…obsessed with it. I usually like to name the areas I fish but in this case I will keep it secret because this river is absolutely pristine and virtually untouched by fishermen. I speculate that the reason for its preserved “natural” state is that it was spared from logging because of its shallow waters and low-lying wetland basin not suitable for building on. For the sake of this article I will name this absolute gem of a river the Zhashagi, which in native Ojibwe tongue means “Great Blue Heron” (according to a brief google search anyway). I took the boat upstream a few kilometres with Ken, a long-time visitor of the area from Marathon NY. As soon as we disappeared out of view from the few rustic cottages where we were staying in, I knew I was in a unique place. As we watched fish snatch mayflies around every bend, the loons, hawks, turtles, bull-frogs and many many Blue Herons we encountered seemed to great us with a smile. As we drifted slowly Ken shared 20+ years of hunting and fishing experience he’s had on the river and I immediately felt a spiritual attachment to the area. It is truly wild, extremely fertile, virtually untouched and loaded with fish, birds, insects, amphibians and mammals of all kinds.

When it comes to fishing, the Zhashagi is home to mammoth sized walleye and also large numbers of 2 to 3 pounders. Largemouth bass reaching ridiculous weights (8lbs) and numbers of chunky smallmouth lurk in its dark stained shallow waters as well. Some of the locals were also telling me that pike in the mid-teens and even lower twenties are caught each year in the area. A local of the area Bob, who happens to be one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever come across, insisted that I return in late June for the opening of bass season. Apparently I’m in for a real treat with fish averaging in the 4 pound range. This time around however, I was after walleye.

We arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and took the opportunity to unwind and settle in. I talked to some of the locals to get a read on the river seeing as there were no hydrographical charts readily available. As soon as I heard stories of walleyes being caught the very same day just up river in the 3 to 5 pound range and of true monsters boated every year I was genuinely excited. JP and I threw a few casts from shore and it didn’t take long to realize this place was full of fish as both a smallmouth and largemouth were quickly fooled by a floating rap. That night, we had a fantastic venison steak dinner followed by a relaxing evening by the bonfire with the other few cottagers in the area. Sylvie and JP were tremendous hosts and really planned out their meals and made sure I was feeling right at home from the get-go. I was immediately swept away by the genuine nature of the people in the area and felt more relaxed than I had in months from the onset of the weekend.

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I immediately noticed that the Zhashagi River is similar in size and water colour to two of the local feeder rivers that produce walleyes in Lake St-Francis so I took off solo Sunday morning to see if I could locate fish using methods that have worked for me in more familiar waters. I decided to troll crankbaits to cover water and I opted for an original floating Rapala in the Firetiger pattern. Let’s just say it didn’t take very long for it to yield results. As I neared the first bend in the river just before a shallow shoal my rod bent in half and my drag started to scream. I knew I had a nice fish when I got that “snagged” feeling but with those typical walleye headshakes. At this point I put the boat in reverse for a second, then neutral, and then shut off the engine to try and enjoy the moment a little and also to better evaluate the situation. I seem to think better when the engine is shut off and there really wasn’t anywhere for the fish to go so I just went with the flow and slowing fought the fish. I was working a gravel bottom in about ten feet of water. The only thing working against me was a fairly strong current but seeing as the boat was also at the mercy of the current I steadily fought the fish, keeping constant pressure on it; which is vital with Fireline because it doesn’t have that mono stretch characteristic that acts like a mini-drag. Within about five minutes I got the fish near the boat and that’s when I saw the white spot on the tail and the giant swirl it left on the surface with its massive tail as it desperately tried to head to the bottom. I knew I was tied into my potential best walleye lifetime but I stayed calm knowing that she had at least two of the trebles safely embedded in her jaws. After 4 or 5 valiant efforts to regain deep water and a few headshakes at boat side she rolled over to her side and I gently slipped the net underneath her. While on the subject, I like to keep big fish in the water and use the net as a cradle rather than try and lift them into the boat. It prevents the fish from hurting itself and it also helps avoid huge tangles in your net from a struggling fish with a mouth full of trebles. It’s a safer approach for both you and the fish. Next, I popped the hooks out in about five seconds and she was mine. What a beauty. The picture isn’t the greatest because I had to head back to shore and a young guy there took the pic in a scramble just after waking up but you get the idea. It’s my personal best.

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That turned out to be the only big fish of the day but JP and I did manage a few more pike and walleye later that night just in time for dinner. We brought them to the camp and had ourselves an absolute feast of walleye fillets, venison and steak alongside cucumber salad and potatoes cooked in foil wraps on the BBQ and a cold bottle of white wine. It was truly a feast fit for royalty especially when enjoyed in the great outdoors. I really think JP enjoyed the experience. He certainly liked the catching fish part, but I also believe he dicovered the deeper, meditative quality of fishing, its simplicity and its uncanny ability to keep you focussed on something, to help you forget about your daily petty worries and to allow you to deviate from your typical thought pattern. At least that’s what I hope. Maybe he was bored stiff I have no idea. 🙂

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The Return Home.…and what a return it was.

I got back into Lancaster last night at about 5pm, dead tired and ready for bed, but it was one of those nights you just have to take advantage of….muggy, calm, warm and inviting, so I asked Pat and Mike if they were up for looking for walleyes in the Raisin. They agreed and we were off.

I hadn’t been in there yet this year so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. We worked our way upstream but found a lot of floating algae and coontails that were starting to grow close to the surface making fishing pretty tough. After a few fruitless passes up and down the river and plenty of removing weeds from crankbaits we headed out to another spot. We found a transitional area between the summer basin and the spawning area. It is a spot where the water temp, colour, depth and bottom structure change dramatically. There were literally enough catfish on the surface to scoop up with a net. We found the walleye concentrated on a small flat holding on a ledge between a deep 25-30 foot hole and a shallow weed edge and man, were they on the feed. I have never seen walleye hit that hard. The interesting thing was that they were almost in a summer pattern hitting very fast moving crankbaits. We were trolling a lot faster than I’m used to and it seemed to trigger very aggressive and numerous strikes. In four passes over the area we caught two fish, one being a monster and the other a 2-pounder that fought like at 6-pound smallmouth. We also missed one because I got lazy and didn’t sharpen my hooks after a few fish and scrapes on bottom. Here’s a little video of the action.

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Yes I know that was a lot of talk for such a small fish. I swear it hit like a 10-pounder! 🙂 It must have had me stuck in a rock because I was unable to move it for a minute. Either that or it was one of those mutant super-human steroid fish.
The larger fish was a true beauty and by the time we caught her it was virtually pitch dark out. It was Mike’s first walleye in his new boat and also his personal best by far. It hit like a tons of bricks about half an hour after sunset. Mike’s rod just stopped dead in the water to the point where he thought he’s jammed the #11 Rapala in between some large rocks, until the rod started to transfer the huge head shakes that is. After a worthy fight, the beast was in the net. We quickly took a few pics and released her. This one earned Mike some well-deserved congrats from Pat and I. It gave him (and us) the rush of a lifetime, and the best thing is that he decided to let her go so she’s still out there.

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Fishing for walleyes on the feed as the sun is setting is extremely exciting, especially once it starts getting dark. Knowing that a monster eye could strike at any time while you can barely see anything beyond the boat leaves you with quite the impression. The one thing is that I recommend if you try this however is that you make sure your boat is tidied up and that you know where everything is (especially plyers, hook removers, other rods, the net etc). Things change at night, and a misplaced crankbait with three sets of trebles can quickly ruin your outing in more ways than one. Although If you take a few minutes to prepare for darkness before it sets in the results can be trophy sized walleye and, in this case, a personal record fish and the thrill of a lifetime.
This weekend was supposed to be about unwinding and recharging the battery. Not only did it exceed my expectations in that regard, It also turned out to be the foundation of memories that will remain with me forever. Until next time, tight lines and good luck, Jigger.

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7 Responses to A Couple of Personal Bests and Gifts from the Zhashagi River.

  1. J-P says:

    Yo Jigger! I know I didn’t catch a 5+ pound walleye, but I think I’ll start calling you Jigger none the less.

    Well, in the 10 or so years that we’ve known each other, I’ve never seen you more in your element. Thanks for helping me discover the overwhelming peace and liberation that is skewering fish on hooks and reeling them in, and you know you’re always welcome to the Zhashagi River (I think we should make a sign!) for more adventures. I honestly don’t think I would’ve had as good a time fishing with anyone else as my guide and instructor. At least now I know how to troll.

    Too bad your buddy’s walleye dwarfs yours, eh? 😉

    Cheers, and till next time.
    JP

  2. J-P says:

    Oh yeah, and nice picture at the bottom. Taken at the Speedhair show in Montreal Nov. 17, 2007!

  3. Phil says:

    I see the Raisin’s working well for you too. I caught a 6 lb last Thursday, headed back tomorrow, hope to hit the big water for some pike too. I think the Raisin will unfortunately be fully choked with weeds over the next couple weeks, the spring run was truly amazing for walleye, better than I imagined.

  4. Carmenza says:

    The only other bridge is down by Kelliher, over an hour south of here. That’s why they are not clonsig this bridge. You can still traval it like any other year.

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