Deep Cabonga Wilderness and Lakers!

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I remember watching a fishing show on Cabonga Reservoir as a kid and immediately feeling intrigued about the area. It’s one of those big bodies of water that carries with it a certain lore and spirit I’m immediately drawn to. Big bodies of water trigger in me an irresistible feeling of adventure and discovery. They command respect yet begged to be explored. They can be calm and soothing or dangerously threatening. Life around their shores is different than life on the main land or near smaller lakes. People organize their way of life around these types of lakes and define their unique personalities and lifestyles via their interactions with them. Each year I try and visit one of these magical places and this summer I decided to scratch Cabonga Reservoir off the bucket list.

Cabonga is an immense man-made body of water that sits on the Eastern side of Réserve Faunique de la Vérendrye in central Quebec. The reservoir is huge, with a total surface area of 677 square kilometers and net area of 484 square kilometers. It is littered with hundreds of islands and offers some 4500 kilometers of shoreline. One could spend a lifetime exploring it and unraveling its many secrets.

We spent 10 days up there staying in tents on the beautiful wild shores of the immense reservoir near the Cabonga Dam. The SEPAQ has different categories of sites you can rent, and this one is what they call “rustic” camping. Although there are no amenities like water or showers, there is a maintained port-a-potty and bear proof garbage cans. Otherwise that is about it, so you need to plan ahead and make sure you bring enough food and water. The campsite we chose is up a 48km winding and hilly dirt road (should be called a driveway really) off the 117. If you’re looking for absolute quiet, you might want to find another spot because you can hear a constant low rumbling of the hundreds of thousands of gallons going through the dam here, thought it is a very soothing sound.

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We boiled water, used fire to cook and kept a clean campsite. Despite some rain, overall the weather was nice and our makeshift shelter came in very handy at times. Here’s a bit of a guided tour 🙂

    Now let’s get to fishing!

After doing a bit of homework and speaking with local guide Jimmy Lachapelle I decided to target the largest part of the reservoir near Barrage Cabonga with the hopes of finding early season walleye near the dam. Jimmy told me that part of the reservoir had better Lake Trout fishing than Walleye fishing but I figured I’d still be able to find some eyes on some of the shallower structure. We did find a few small walleye on typical structure like sunken islands and reefs, but it was very slow.

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Many hours into looking for walleyes with only a few fish to show for it, I accidentally hooked a small lake trout on a spinner, and that’s when things changed for the better. Something clicked, and I decided to give up on the walleyes and start targeting lake trout. After all, when in Rome…

I guess my reticence towards going for lakers is that, well, I have never fished for lake trout at all. In fact, before this trip I had never caught a lake trout. So the question was, where to begin? There were 2 or 3 other groups there who were fishing lake trout and they did provide a few good pointers, however all of them were trolling deep water and I don’t have downriggers. With 3 guys in the boat we had to come up with a plan to present lures deep without too much hassle so I did what I often do, I started jigging. It didn’t take long for us to realize we should have started doing this from the onset of the trip. Remembering a tip from one of the other group members, I located an area between two deep humps that looked much like a funnel on the map and dropped down a jigging spoon. I used the light wind to my advantage by positioning the boat in a way that would allow me to cover most of the structure, and was able to control the boat very precisely with the help of the bow-mount coupled with a drift sock behind the transom. This allowed me to keep the 3 lines vertical and separated keeping the boat inching along slowly. After only about 50 feet, bang! Fish on! It hit like a truck and hugged bottom, after a few minutes of pure power I had my first ever lake trout on a jig in the boat. I’m not about to forget that feeling.

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The part of the Reservoir we were on was its deepest and most open section, and by that I mean the area where there were fewest islands. I started looking for arches on the sonar on the edges of the really deep areas. The main lake basin is 300 feet deep in some areas, and is basically a big deep bowl with a few shallower reefs and edges. I started noticing that there were a lot of higher points that reached up to 40-50 feet at the top and bottomed out to flats in about 80 feet of water. The flats acted as highways for fish between the really deep basin and shallower water. The magic number seemed to be about 80 feet, once I found that depth near really deep water and near shallower structure I began to zero in on the fish. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This is the type of area we found fish on. If you notice, fish here will have access to anything they want. There is a very shallow point up top and bottom, deep water off to the right and left and a “highway” right down the middle.

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As far as presentation goes, we used everything from large twister tails on a 1oz jig, to jigging spoons and glow jigs and they all seemed to work. There was however one important common denominator. They had to be white or close to white. Before I left for the trip, my friend Simon handed me three colours of this one lure that outfished all others we tried. He handed me 3 colours; white, silver and chartreuse. We caught most of our fish and our 2 biggest ones on the white one, a few on the silver and not a single fish on the chartreuse. Same with the other jigs we used, flashy colours and darker colours simply did not produce. White was the ticket. Which is odd, because these trout were spitting up crawfish.

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Another interesting thing is that lake trout up there definitely suspend. I was letting my jig down over 90 feet of water at one point and realized it just stopped sinking about half way to the bottom. I tightened up, felt weight and set the hook. Whatever took my jig was a big fish and it bolted to the bottom peeling drag. Unfortunately, the hook didn’t stick and I was left with a few scales as a souvenir. Hey, every fishing story includes the big one that got away right? Luckily, this one, which ended up being our biggest, didn’t.

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Overall we had a great time up there and I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s very secluded and isolated, so if that’s what you’re looking for you’ll be happy here. Just keep in mind that if something goes wrong with your engine there are chances you could be stranded for days as there is no cell phone reception in most areas and it’s such a huge place that finding you would take a while. So it’s very important to keep safety in mind up there at all times. Having said that, the beauty and raw nature up there definitely draws you in and immediately allows you to forget the daily grind. There is nothing like heading in for shore lunch on a beautiful day with fish in the livewell.

Later that day, the lake offered us a gift. We were treated to one of the most beautiful evenings I remember experiencing. As I look at this picture and recall the moment, I remember the distant call of the loon and the feeling that at that precise time nothing mattered. There were no jobs to wake up for, bills or petty problems to worry about. The only things on my mind were the distant call of a loon, the sound of a cozy fire being started in the background and a waiting sleeping bag in a tent. And to me, that’s what a trip like this is all about.

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Until next time, Stay Outside!

2 Replies to “Deep Cabonga Wilderness and Lakers!”

  1. Hey Jigger,

    Really enjoyed your writing, hard to find anything in English on cabonga. I go up there 2-3 times a year; every chance I get! Walleye fishing on the west side of the reservoir is amazing! Went for a day trip out to the big part of the reservoir last spring when the walleye fishing was slow. the trout fishing was so good we are looking at camping at the site you were at. Few questions for you, can you fish below the dam, and did you? I read a French chat the said there where a lot of problems with yahoos, did you have any problems? When you said you went up north on the res did you mean rock lake? Super nice up there, saw a couple golden eagles last time there. Anyway if you go back let me know I’ll point you to a few spots.

    Tight lines,

    Rod D

  2. Hey Rod, sorry about the late reply. I usually get an email when someone leaves a comment but I either didn’t get one or missed it.

    Thanks for the read and the compliments! This was my first trip up there. I’m considering a second this year in the summer.

    To answer your questions, we did not fish below the dam. I spoke with some people who were camping right next to the dam in the rapids right below it and they said the fishing wasn’t very good below the dam. Now, keep in mind, this is the only information I have about that so might be wise to look into it further if you can. About issues with people up there we had very few contact with others and no problems at all with anyone. Everyone we met was really nice and were there to fish and have a good time. When we went up North we stayed on Cabonga as far as I know. We went up the Cabonga River a little ways, had some shorelunch and headed back south.

    Take care, I’ll let you know if I head back this summer. If you’re around maybe we can meet up and chat.


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