Fishing Boreal Lakes

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Introduction – our day on the water

Trolling loud, brightly coloured baits in late July was responsible for catching many large pike and walleye in a small, seemingly unimpressive, double-portage lake. My brother Alexei and I were enjoying a day (off the clock) from guiding at Canada North Lodge in north-western Ontario’s Sunset County. In the lake we planned to fish that day we traditionally jig shallow cabbage beds for walleye, but today the fish were scattered and likely suspended deeper somewhere. We needed to cover water in order to find them.

Conditions were hot and sunny with little wind – but it was one of few days we had on the water together, fishing for ourselves. We made the most of it and switched tactics in an attempt to locate and hook into some of the magnum pike and walleye we knew inhabited this little lake. We began trolling and targeted a windblown sandbar that extended some distance from shore before finally dropping off into deep water. And there we found them!


The technique – flat line trolling

Flat line trolling is a simple and effective technique, and at times an overlooked way to put some fish in the boat. All that this type of trolling entails is to simply drag a bait, directly connected to your line, behind the boat. In other words, without the use of bottom bouncers, three-way swivels, out riggers or downriggers. It’s literally just holding the rod in your hands as you drive the boat slowly around the lake. On bigger water or for certain species like salmon or muskie, trolling can essentially be the norm. This seems to be less the case on the endless smaller boreal waters, by fishermen seeking big pike or walleye. Trolling this way calls for slightly heavier tackle, which in turn allows you to deliver larger baits. While less fish might be caught in comparison to jigging or casting, bigger fish are a frequent outcome.

Flat line trolling can be especially effective under certain scenarios, like when on new water, or when fish seem scattered or off-the-feed likely related to changing weather patterns. The technique is also helpful when it’s crucial to run your bait further back from the boat, when dealing with spooky or finicky fish. This is often the case on sunny, windless days, or in extremely clear waters, particularly with heavily pressured fish. Overall, the use of trolling is certainly a useful technique to fall back on as a fishing guide, when facing pressure to produce successful excursions for your clients.

When guiding, I often begin by trolling when fishing a new lake. It helps me become familiar with the foreign area by slowly probing what, at first glace, appears to be the most productive locations. With the help of electronics, I begin examining structure, bottom type and other features while still effectively fishing sizable chunks of water in a reasonable amount of time. I typically begin by targeting any lake’s obvious highlights – creek or river mouths, weedy edges and drop offs, or around islands and reefs, which are all great places to start sniffing out some big old fish with a relaxing, but potentially action-packed, troll.

Eventually you find fish (at times where you least expected them) and soon enough you can begin to identify some trends or patterns. In fact, many of my most productive fishing spots were discovered while trolling, either accidently or systematically happening upon them. Conditions are always changing in terms of season, weather patterns, target species and their movement, and trolling to find fish becomes handy once again. Even your best spots, on your favourite lakes, can at times fail to produce. The challenge is that fish need to be located again. This was similar to what my brother and I were facing on our secret little lake that July day back in north-western Ontario.


Our day on the water – continued

After a hearty breakfast, we departed from the lodge early that morning and began cruising up the interconnected Woman River Chain of Lakes system. A picturesque mosaic of river channels opening to lakes, each slightly different than the last, gradually becoming larger and deeper, promising ever changing fishing opportunities. An exciting combination of northern pike, smallmouth bass, lake trout and Northern Ontario’s renowned walleye can all be targeted, each species having its hotspots somewhere along the system. Alexei and I motored across Little Bear, Loon, Middle, Big Bear, Little Woman and half way across Big Woman Lake. We tied off our primary boat at a landing in the west channel and began down a trail to nearby Quartz Lake. Another lodge boat was waiting for us at the end of the trail, and we piled in our gear and made off.

Quartz Lake is known for high numbers of smaller pike, while the lake we were heading for that day has long produced many large pike, as well as walleye. Once across Quartz we began down the last trail and finally arrived to our little double-portage lake. We prepped one of the two lodge boats waiting for us there and pushed off eager to get fishing! “Wow, just getting here was an adventure in itself,” I thought.

Our plan was to head off to a series of cabbage beds armed with jigs and minnows. Only being a few hundred yards away, Alexei suggested we troll our way there, tossing a golden William’s Wabler spoon behind the boat. Before I could even cast out my own lure, his was answered by a mighty strike that I first confused for a snag. It was a big pike, and once in the boat and measured the tape was stretched to a hefty 43 inches! A good way to start the day!

We spent the next hour or so doing our best to coax big walleye out of the cabbage beds, but with little luck. Fish were few and far between in the shallow water, and then very suspended and scattered when we tried deeper. It didn’t help that it soon became hot and sunny, and before long we abandoned our jigs and took up our heavier trolling/casting rods. We decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the lake by trolling some of the deeper water, while studying the electronics.

The western half of the lake is shallow and weedier, with as many as four creek mouths feeding several small bays, each with its own mighty beaver lodge. Trolling past some of these features in the summer can produce a hefty pike or two, but it’s usually best earlier in the season. The eastern half of the lake is deeper, with rockier structure. There are two prominent points that are connected by a sandbar, which extends some distance from shore with irregular drop off points once in deep water. It was in this location that we began marking the most and biggest fish, both on the sonar and on the ends of our lines.

Being mid-summer and in the darker tannin-stained waters of this boreal lake, we chose large, flashy, almost offensive spoons and jointed trolling minnow lures, such as a hefty orange and gold Mepps Cyclops or a Jointed 5 inch Rapala Firetiger. We were also encouraged upon noticing schools of brightly coloured northern red-belly dace, a staple forage item in this lake’s little ecosystem. The bait fish were naturally densest in the most windblown portion of the lake, which in the end led us to the sandbar’s deep water edge. These dace were several inches long, striped and brightly coloured, which strategically complemented our choice of lures. Attempts made casting or jigging once more was out-produced by a well orchestrated troll though the strike-zone. We suspected the sunny conditions required our baits to be far enough back from the boat to entice the larger, finicky fish, as well as give our lures the proper presentation at the correct depth. By staying just on the outside edge of the sandy drop offs, nearly every troll resulted in an aggressively striking walleye, consistently in the 25 to 28-inch range. What an amazing day of fishing it turned out to be.


The pattern holds true

Over the remainder of the guiding season, I brought several other guest anglers to the deep water edge of this sandbar and success was again ours. The following year when I returned, trolling with this technique under the right conditions continued to put quality fish in the boat, especially on those tougher days. I felt like Alexei and I had unlocked a secret the lake had been unwilling to give up while trolling that fateful day in July. Further trolling in different parts of this lake or in others similar continues to teach us more and always provides insight.

Recently I had the opportunity to fish Rainy Lake in north-western Ontario and Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, both for the first time. Each offers lifetimes worth of water to explore and fish. At first a bit intimidated, I approached each initially by trolling. Before long I had found some good structure, caught some fish and began excluding larger pieces of less productive water. Any location that I worked more intensely with jerkbaits and jigs was a result of having first trolled through the area with some degree of success. I began looking at the bigger picture, began covering more water by trolling and put the odds in my favour with knowledge before ever dropping a jig to the bottom. The results were noticeably more and bigger fish over the course of each season. I recognized that trolling had played a role in nearly all the most memorable fish, new locations or days on the water.


Make it work for you

The next time you find yourself on a new lake, in unfavourable weather or experiencing scattered fish, consider giving flat line trolling a fair effort if you don’t already incorporate it in your fishing repertoire. This technique allows you to cover larger areas of water in less time, while dissecting new locations with sonar. There are almost always a few active fish in a large enough area of water if you are willing to explore and look for them. Trolling between some of your nearby casting or jigging hotspots is another simple way to keep a line in the water and continue fishing the entire time, maximizing potential. Trolling is also useful when fishing in very clear or shallow waters, especially on sunny days when little to no surface chop scatters light rays. Getting your bait far enough back from the boat can at times make all the difference, instantly increasing strike ratios. Working off this notion I will often troll for at least a short while each day, investigating a new area or piece of structure, often during the hottest, sunniest or slowest parts of the day. As a guide I like seeing fish in the boat, and I’m happy conforming to whatever technique is going to work.

When they strike on a troll, it’s out of nowhere and with enthusiasm! The anticipation of such a strike is what keeps us coming back for more. Give it a try next time and be sure to always have a good grip on your rod!

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