For many years now, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the early catch and release bass fishing season that New York State

Wil Wegman

For many years now, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the early catch and release bass fishing season that New York State has to offer. Trips to lakes like Chautauqua or Oneida at the end of May or early June were a great way to get a head start on the late opener we have throughout southern and central Ontario where I live and usually fish. When an opportunity however arose to experience and promote some of this province’s home grown, fully legit, year round open bass season – in an area of the province I where I haven’t spent a great deal of time … I jumped at it. From June 8 - June 12, 2019 my brother Marcel (aka Red) and I pulled my bass boat up to Northern Ontario’s Algoma Country (located  here)  in Fisheries Management Zone (FMZ) 10; a six hour drive from the bottom of our beloved Lake Simcoe. On our way up, I spoke about our trip with Outdoor Journal Radio and Fishing Canada TV host Angelo Viola.  A re-broadcast of that Sportsnet 590 the Fan radio show can be listened to here at:

Driving on Hwy 17 west of Sudbury, I had forgotten how the topography changes from hilly and rugged Canadian Shield - primarily moose country, to flatter, tamer agricultural lands preferred by whitetail deer.  As we approached the Town of Blind River, we knew we were only about half an hour from our first destination. For the first night of our journey, we would stay with local fishing guide and personality Adam Valee of .   Adam connected us with a largemouth lake which also had decent walleye … both of which were not available at the lake we were staying at for the remainder of our trip. Fishing there Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday allowed us to catch plenty of pike, a few walleye, a Simcoe-size jumbo perch, an obscenely obese brown bullhead and of course some largemouth bass.  That, and watching an eagle soar overhead was the prelude to what Algoma Country had to offer before we settled in to catching smallmouth bass and some pike at our main destination - Birchland Cottages on Clear Lake.  

The launch at their first ‘largemouth-walleye’ stop would have been ok if someone before them had 4 WD. When visiting and launching at these secluded wilderness lakes, that ‘option’ becomes ‘not-so-much-optional’.  Additional docks were not installed yet because, like water levels throughout most of the province that spring, they were still high. The No Charge launch fee was ‘as-it-should be’ though just like the vast majority of public launches throughout Northern Ontario.

Fishing Without an Electric Motor … A Physical and Psychological Hurdle to Overcome:

The newly installed hydraulic steering on my 175 Merc worked beautifully as I pulled away from the launch after our six hour drive and into our first spot. It looked like it would hold some nice largemouth… I was so pumped!  I lower the bow mount electric troll motor and put my foot on the pedal. Nothing! I flick switches … nothing! I check my breakers, inline fuses, all my connections, my batteries … everything I could think of – still dead in the water!  I call my buddy Gerry who runs Heels Electronics to see if there’s anything else I could check … but there really isn’t! (A visit to a shop in Blind River later confirmed that the bushings went and it was time for a new one which I bought after our trip.)

Even before I bought my first bass boat in 1986 (an aluminum with a bow mount electric) I have relied on an electric ‘positioning motor’ to move along in the various boats I’ve had while quietly and efficiently casting away. Unlike the term ‘trolling motor’ … for bass anglers anyway, it’s very seldom used to actually troll, but is considered perhaps the most important ‘accessory’ on our boats.  Notwithstanding that this monkey wrench is admittedly a ‘First World Problem’ as far as hindrances go, there is not a greater handicap to start a fishing trip six hours from home, than trying to fish effectively from a big heavy bass boat without a nice quite electric motor to move you along ... But that’s exactly what we were facing and had to do. There was no alternative though than to get over it – and quickly because we had some serious fishing ahead of us! 

One trick that I always take advantage of is using the wind to my advantage with or without a working electric. Oddly enough I’ve noticed many other boat anglers don’t think of putting their big motor down all the way and turning the steering wheel/motor in the appropriate direction to help you drift straight. Basically, it acts as a very effective rudder and on this trip especially, it minimized the grief factor tremendously. In addition to the big rudder, we made the best of our situation by utilizing the wind to our advantage on most occasions … slowly drifting along while using the big motor sparingly to maintain course and even pulling out the seldom used paddle to help make that happen.  Best of all, this trick would work just as well with smaller outboards on aluminum boats like the rentals available from Birchland.

Although much tastier to eat than they are pretty to look at, this bulging brown bullhead was our first fish and still loaded with eggs and live-released after a bit of clowning around.

The new Storm 360 GT Swimmer Searchbait proved to be one of the most effective lures of the entire trip and caught our first largemouth. Unlike its predecessor (Storm’s 360 GT Searchbait) this swim bait has a short diving lip which gives this soft plastic on a jig inherent crankbait qualities. Red and Wil caught plenty of pike on it but nice largemouth like the one above, walleye and smallmouth liked it too.

The trusty Rapala X Rap jerkbait is always tied on to at least one of Wil’s rods. Usually it’s spinning, but for this trip he also had one on his Rapala Concept baitcasting outfit. This super smooth reel and sensitive rod with diminutive guides was coupled with a new line called Suffix Advance Hyper Copolymer … a superior abrasion resistant monofilament with half the stretch of standard mono. Combined with incredibly supple and low-memory qualities it allowed for surprisingly long casts … something he’s a big fan of and so were the walleye like the one shown here.

Compared to smallmouth waters, there are not too many largemouth lakes in Algoma Country, but when Wil heard there was one, he knew a visit was in order. To learn more about Algoma lakes, their regulations and what species they hold, check out MNRF’s Fish On Line Site here

On To Birchland and Clear Lake:
Clear Lake has very limited public access and unless you stay at Birchland or have a one of the few cottages there, the chances of getting in to fish for the trophy sized smallmouth are few and far between.  In order to retain this exceptional fishery, the owner of Birchland, Mark Graves wisely instills a catch and release code for his visitors, knowing full well that harvesting the extra-large bass there at any time would deplete the quality-experience for his guests in short order. With plenty of decent, good-eating sized northern pike, visitors wishing a meal or two of these delicious fish are more than welcome to bring some back to a well-laid out fish cleaning station at Birchland.

At Birchland, the brothers had a cottage right on the water and beside the boat launch.  The boat docks for each cottage were solid, extra wide deals where they were able to safely leave the bass boat for the duration of their stay.   The luxury of not having to pull your boat out each day and leaving all your rods and tackle in the boat, is always one they appreciate.  The seldom seen, but frequently heard green tree frog to the left graced the brothers with its presence on their deck for the duration of their stay.

Two of the yet-to-be released lures field tested during the trip, were the Rapala Rippin’ Rap with those outstanding new metallic underlay colors  (left) and the new jerkbait shown with Wil’s smallie (read below to learn the name and more details). Both were extremely productive for all species Wil and Red caught.

This smallmouth and many others were done with the spawn and already in deeper water.

Unlike many of the waterbodies on the south side of Hwy 17 that are connected to nearby northern Lake Huron via tributaries, Clear Lake on the north side is more landlocked. It’s aptly named too, even without the artificial influence of filter feeding zebra mussels.  So for visitors coming from nearby Lake Huron or anywhere to the south with zebes … be sure you follow the “CLEAN, DRAIN, DRY’ edict before launching your boat at any lake in Algoma Country.

For first time visitors with a boat, knowing that these unchartered waters are hazard free … i.e. no hidden shoals or dangerous rocks to run into, is good peace of mind. With the deepest spot only in the 30 foot range, much of the lake becomes very fishable waters as well – especially after the early spring season.

One day Wil’s brother Red went on a hot streak where he could do no wrong … catching multiple smallmouth like this in short order.

The Rapala X Pop was productive early mornings and later in the day on both lakes we fished – for largemouth or smallmouth bass.

As with the largemouth day one and two, on Clear Lake, we found different stages of the smallmouth spawn. A few were still in shallow water and on nests and others had already finished and were deeper.  Of course the whole notion of fishing spawning bass on nests is a hot potato north of the US border. On the one hand most US States, especially in the south allow year round fishing and appear to have no issues with anglers fishing spawning bass as in many cases those fisheries are thriving. In the north, states like New York have immediate catch and release only spring seasons until the spawn is over, around mid-June and those fisheries do not appear adversely affected either.

Catch and release immediately after the occasional quick photo was par for the course with all smallmouth and largemouth bass during this early spring bass fishing trip.

Credible science from both Canadian and US sources however suggest that removing a male bass guarding eggs or fry can be extremely detrimental to those offspring when high numbers of predators like panfish, crayfish (especially the invasive rusty) or invasive round gobies are around to quickly move in and devour all they can when the male is gone.  In the case of FMZ 10’s northern Ontario lakes, bass fishing pressure is relatively light (walleye are still king here) and without round gobies a case perhaps could be made for targeting some nesting smallmouth if immediate catch and release was implemented. Across Hwy 17 however in Lake Huron’s FMZ 14, way more predators are present- including thousands of destructive round gobies so combined with cooler water temps (delaying the spawn) the season there doesn’t start until the 4th Saturday in June.  In any case, within the one small shallow area where we did see a few nesting bass on Clear Lake, Marcel and I did partake in some immediate catch and release.  Most of the time though, it was fishing deeper water out from shore and catching those cruising or feeding bass.

Fun Daily Routine

During our trip we would find ourselves in a very relaxing routine worthy of a true fishing vacation, capitalizing on best fishing times based on weather and other factors.  We’d wake up fairly early – whip down a quick breakfast gulp down a couple mugs of black coffee and then head out and fish until 11 am or so. 
We’d return to camp, have a big hearty breakfast, chill and work on tackle until 2 pm or so and then leave to fish until supper hour.  After dinner we’d head out yet again for an evening bite. The beauty about being this far north early in the season, even here in Ontario, is that it stays light longer … so even at 10pm, it was still light enough to see what you were doing. 

Satellite TV’s are in every cottage and one night when Adam came over we watched the Raptors play-off game while on the road to winning their first NBA Championships. It was great to get to know this young full-time, multi species fishing guide, who sacrificed a steady career as a fire fighter to pursue his dream to make fishing a full time career. He’s already made a name for himself  on the bass tournament circuit in northern Michigan – which provides Ontario anglers from the region a great (and closer) opportunity to fish high stakes bass tournaments. Anyone fishing at Birchland or Algoma Country could do a lot worse than to hire Adam for a day!

Red and I would also chill out on the patio or even jump off our dock to get a head start on the lake swimming season as the water warmed up to 64C during our stay.  Although I had my goggles and could see well enough below the surface, my next trip will see me bringing my full snorkel gear to capitalize on the visibility of these clear waters to watch smallmouth up close and personal. Despite heavy blackfly (start of our trip) and mosquito (end of our trip) activity on the other side of Hwy 17, we were pleasantly surprised the blackflies and mosquitoes were held at bay for most of our stay at Birchland.  The owner of the lodge said it was an unexpected yet very welcome bonus when he bought the camp that for some unknown reason his area is not overly attractive to these pesky bugs.

Red’s last smallmouth of the trip before we headed home, but not before a quick stopover to fish Algoma largemouth one last time.

Last Day:

With a six plus hour drive back home, we planned to fish the morning of our last day in Algoma Country at the largemouth and walleye lake where we started our adventure. Naturally we were sad to leave the great the smallmouth action at Clear Lake and the wonderful hospitality and comfy cottage at Birchland but we packed up and headed off. Back at our first lake, we were welcomed by a pair of eagles soaring at a spot we hadn’t tried earlier.  It was too windy there so we revisited a beautiful lush green, broadleaf cabbage bed that was already a metre high and screamed of more fish.  We stumbled across it on our first visit here so I saved a waypoint on my Lowrance unit. Just like our before we caught several small pike around the shallow part of it near shore but I figured it could easily hold walleye or bass too if we really got to learn its many ins and outs a bit deeper.

That move paid off as with a decent 3 ½ pound eating size walleye that I would actually take home to treat the family with that evening.  Fortunately, I had a fillet knife stashed in the boat so I grabbed the paddle to use as a cutting board, sliced off two nice fillets (skin left on to comply with travel regulations) and threw them on ice in a cooler.

This perfect eater sized walleye couldn’t resist the beautiful new Rapala RipStop Deep 12 jerkbait.

We then nabbed some pike again before exploring the far outer deeper edges of those cabbage plants.  I was field testing the new Rapala RipStop Deep 12 … a deeper running jerkbait whose name I wasn’t even permitted to release to the public until after the mega trade show, ICast in Vegas was over on July 12, 2019. I loved the action it provided and how it dug deep quickly yet would stop on a dime and rise seductively in uber slow-mo when you let it.  About five minutes into a cadence of jerk, jerk, pause I felt a solid thunk that stopped the lure dead in its tracks before it took off line and I set hook. Its jump was only a half-hearted attempt to imitate a smallmouth but that was fine by me because when I finally landed that gorgeous creature at close to 6 lbs, it ended up being the biggest largemouth I’ve ever caught this far north. When another bald eagle flew close by not long afterwards we took it as a sign to pack er up and head home. And just like the first eagle we saw to start our trip in grand style this one ended it in similar fashion. We had a fabulous fishing adventure to Algoma Country … and plans have already been made for not just one, but two return fishing trips there this year!

Wil Wegman is an award winning outdoor writer, seminar host and tournament angler from Bradford Ontario. His fishing articles have appeared in most Canadian and several US Outdoor magazines. As former Conservation Director for the Ontario BASS Nation (1995-2010) and spearheading conservation and research projects Wil was recognized in 2017 for his dedication to the sport, by being inducted into the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame. It was the same year he won the prestigious National Recreational Fishing Award, an Action in Motion award and the Rick Morgan Professional Conservation Award. Wil can be reached through his website below:
Wil Wegman
"Focus On Fishing"