Wild River Walleyes
By Daniel Kiazyk
Anyone coming north will recognize the title as it applies to some of the most prolific walleye waters in Northwest Ontario. The Wabigoon / English / Winnipeg rivers are without a doubt some of the pre-eminent walleye haunts you'll find anywhere in North America. These waters are for the most part pristine in nature although Manitoba and Ontario Hydro/Hydro One (or Whatever they call it in Ontario these days!) have through a series of water retention structures changed the landscape of this region forever. Changed as they have been, walleye haven't really suffered as is the case with other species in other parts of the world where habitat has been changed by man. On the contrary these impoundments (which have been around for nearly 75 years and were set up to create a consistent flow of water for Manitoba hydro downstream of these rivers) have created a walleye paradise. The number of lodges that these rivers sustain per kilometer of river/impoundment mile attest to the fact that these rivers are walleye factories par excellence. Another interesting tid-bit about these impoundments is that they are not too southerly and not too northerly for walleye. On the contrary these are environments that provide optimum conditions for walleye reproduction and growth. Walleye aren't only here in numbers but they have size, size that'll draw the attention of the most ardent walleye hawg hunter.
I guess where I'd like to go with this reflection is to ask the simple question: What is it like to fish these river impoundments on your own and can an average outdoorsmen/angler get out there to appreciate their wonders? What are some of the initial primary considerations that you should make prior to hooking up the boat and trailer and driving out to these bodies of water?
To begin, it should be said that the "numerous" lodges on these systems have longstanding reputations for providing excellent fishing and service. Granted the lodges just referred to are a bit more expensive than going it alone, but they do give a person a good "safe" look at what can be intimidating walleye water. Remember we're talking about "millions" of miles of shoreline and near countless structural and habitat considerations. As for the adage that 90% of the water will not hold many fish but 10% will hold the majority of the fish, it only follows on these river reservoirs that where you go does make a difference. And to push it a little further where do you go with so much water/shoreline/structure, so may rocks and hazards? Well, having guide run you through their milk run is a valuable tool – worth the price of admission you might say. Going the lodge route in an area that can be accessed via road isn't really a bad idea to start in this area.
The first three considerations I have when angling in this region are threefold.
First you have to be prepared to travel better than average distances on land and water. On one of my first occasions on the upper reaches of the English river, we traveled no less than 140 km. in a single day. Now a couple of questions come to mind when thinking about these distances in this country. What about fuel? Well you've got to have enough with you as there are NO fuel sources other than the places where you'll launch and the odd lodge --- if they'll spare you a couple of gallons!
Secondly what happens if you have problems? Self-reliance/dependence is a virtue in this country. Having another source of propulsion is a necessity and not having a spare prop is folly. Because everything is so far away you've really got to have back ups. Moreover it is a wise practice to set out a trip plan and then let people know where you plan to go and to not go off and do something else.
Thirdly everyone asks, "Is it worth all the potential hazard?". Well that one you'll have to answer yourself. How much experience do you have on shield waters and what kind of time do you have are my stock answers. Just as an example of my first foray into the area, I bypassed a number of the prior concerns by going out with a local guide and former student. On that day, my guide gave to me a lesson on the locales he had learned of since his stay/apprenticeship as a guide at a local lodge. I can confirm that looking at a body of water in this manner was an education in itself. Moving quickly from "spot" to "spot" suggested a series of patterns for the system I had until that point not considered.
Where you'll stay could be a significant consideration if you are an American citizen as the law in this region is set up to accommodate the lodges and their operations. Regulation in these areas states that if you are an American citizen you cannot camp within 2 km of any navigable body of water. A Canadian, however, does not have the same restrictions placed upon him/her. It follows that this impediment can be circumvented if an American citizen was to be accompanied by a Canadian citizen. Apart from the lodges in the area you are pretty much on your own with regards to lodging in the area. Of course this is untouched shield country where anyone with a camping background can have a great time. Once again food and fuel will be at a distance…. Make sure you've got clothing for weather that can last as long as five days at a time. I'm not talking about sunshine but rain, cold and maybe even snow! ………and last but not least don't forget this is bear country!
An important ongoing consideration is to be aware that in such an impoundment many underwater hazards exist. Now, I'm not going to say that these waters are overly dangerous for their reefs, rocks, changing water levels but I would say of all the bodies of water that I fish, these waters present more of a challenge than others. Firstly being flooded, channel areas are not as intuitive as they would be on let's say a natural rivers system. Secondly when traveling in this area, you have to think about whether water has been drawn down by Hydro at this or that particular time. Water levels can fluctuate not by inches but can fluctuate by feet in the period of few days. I was particularly surprised when I saw over the period of a particular summer that water levels had dropped by more than 20 feet. Go carefully to say the least. Personal safety is a very significant issue. Make sure you've got your maps, extra batteries for the GPS and a complete safety/first aid kit. It goes without saying that you are isolated here and anything you need you'll have to bring with you….
What about the fish eh? This element is going to provide its own set of challenges. In this country finding them isn't really rocket science: Use your map and graph. Classic structures and a basic knowledge of walleye behaviour go a long way when fishing these rivers. Ok distances are monstrous between hot spots but they are certainly not insurmountable given a little map study. I've seen walleye up shallow near what seemed like suitable spawning areas in the spring and then as the season progresses I've found they move progressively deeper. Morning and evening see the typical feeding frenzy with fish moving into shallower areas predating on their favourite forage. Another key location in this area is to look for current, constrictions and last but not least any rapids or incoming streams will act as magnets for walleye at any time of year time of year. Don't forget when out there, walleye on these systems "will" move down deeper throughout the season. These latter spots are relatively simple to find if you're using your graph.
Well, that leaves only one last little detail for anyone wishing to angle in this area. What do you use for these wild walleyes? Once again it depends on the structure being fished, but for me the order of preference will be a jig and then spinner rig in the spring and vice versa as the season progresses. Cranks also have a place, but instead of using them throughout the day as we'll do in the spring, we'll use them more in the morning/evening throughout the summer and then back to "whenever" in the fall. Any well stocked walleye box will produce a large variety of different species. The nice thing about these rivers is that you really never know what could be lurking below. Remember that young fellow that took me on that whirlwind tour f the upper reaches, well I saw a photo of him holding a 140 pound lake sturgeon……50 inch musky, yup…… 45 inch Pike, yup ……. five pound smallmouth bass, yup……. 10 pound walleye …….. That's the idea!
Finally bait is a significant consideration and if I was to use just one bait, live minnows seem to be the best with leeches, a close second. I'll often give leeches the nod because they are a bit hardier than minnows on those hot days of summer. If you're going to be staying for any length of time you should go with frozen minnows (unless you're a wizard at keeping minnows alive for any period of time!)
Well, there it is, an introduction to some considerations to make when fishing some of the river impoundments of Northwest Ontario. I'll have to put a caveat on what I've written here… these rivers can be isolated and challenging if you should run into difficulties. However, by their nature they provide for, undoubtedly, some of the best habitat in the world for wilderness walleye. And by their mere size there will always be an untouched corner of their walleye world that you can call your own.