After driving hundreds of miles across Missouri, Iowa and the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the time had come to launch the boats for our first day of fishing in Canada.
For the record, Minnesota has 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more. Ontario — our destination for catching northern pike and smallmouth bass — has some 250,000 lakes and 62,000 miles of rivers. Canada has the highest number of lakes on the planet, covered with about 9 percent freshwater.
Our group consisted of my wife (Cheryl), her parents (Bill and Virginia Crusa), Cheryl’s only sibling (Mark Crusa) and me.
With sunshine and temperatures in the 60s on our first day of fishing, we launched our boats at Caliper Lake Provincial Park. Home to northern pike, walleye, crappie and smallmouth bass, Caliper Lake, although small, consistently offers quality fishing. This is where I’ve landed two smallies weighing more than 4 pounds in years past.
During the first 45 minutes, Cheryl and I couldn’t buy a bite. Out of curiosity, Cheryl retrieved her phone to see if she had service.
“I’ve got four bars of LTE!” she said with a chuckle, fully expecting to not receive a signal. My phone, a duplicate of hers with the same company and plan, only had one bar.
“Maybe I should borrow your phone to Google how to catch a pike!” I replied.
Shortly thereafter, we were reminded that catching fish is only a small part of any angling experience. We observed a bald eagle perched at the top of a pine tree skirting the shoreline, a sandhill crane camouflaged in the reeds and a half dozen common loons feeding on the water.
We were also battling pesky 25 mph winds, not out of the norm for spring fishing adventures, particularly on Canadian waters.
After reaching a cove to escape the wind, Cheryl offered a glimmer of hope.
“I think I’ve got one on, Keith!” she said with her rod bent. And then disappointment reared its ugly head.
“Nope,” Cheryl said, “I’ve caught a stick.”
After more than an hour of angling I switched to a plastic white shad swimming bait with a paddle tail. The key to fishing this lure is to not only vary the retrieve but to stop every so often to let it fall a foot or two before hitting the bottom. The abrupt descent resembles a wounded bait fish that provides a quick and easy meal.
On my second cast, I struck paydirt. My rod doubled, and the drag on the spinning reel squealed. After several runs and some 30 seconds later, I removed the hook from the pike’s mouth. It measured 20 inches. Into the livewell it went.
Our group, fishing with conservation licenses that allow the possession of two northerns a day shorter than 291/2 inches, agreed to keep pike between 18 and 24 inches for the fish fryer — give or take an inch or two either way. They would be the best eating.
After landing the fish, I was relieved to discover that my new St. Croix rod, one of two purchased a few days prior to the trip, was still intact. I told the family at breakfast that keeping the expensive rods in one piece, regardless of the number of fish caught, was my main goal for the day. That would make for a good start.
As a rule, the tip of a St. Croix rod, like many expensive graphite rods, is extremely sensitive. If an angler holds a rod too high while fighting a fish, regardless of weight, there’s a chance high sticking will occur, and when that happens, a rod breaks in two because the weight wasn’t equally distributed throughout the entire length of the rod.
After a slow start, fishing picked up, and by 12:30 p.m., we had our limit of northern pike in the livewell. Later, I felt a tap and set the hook while casting toward a rocky point. I knew it was a hefty fish.
“Do you want me to get the net?” Cheryl asked.
My nod was affirmative.
I’m not fond on handling northerns until they are in the boat; to be candid, I deplore touching the slimy, mean, toothy critters.
When bringing the fish to the surface, I asked Cheryl to hand me the net. That was a mistake.
“You caught the fish,” Cheryl said. “The least I can do is net it.”
And that task she did very well, a cooperative effort, indeed. The pike measured 271/4 inches and weighed close to 5 pounds.
At this point in the afternoon, my better half was a bit discouraged because she hadn’t caught many fish. I urged her to be patient and keep casting. Good things would eventually happen.
A few casts later, her rod bowed and quivered.
“I’ve got a good one on!” Cheryl exclaimed.
“Keep tension on the line!” I yelled so she could hear me over the wind. “Don’t let it go slack!”
After three or four runs of stripping line from the spinning reel, I netted her catch, an impressive 241/2-inch pike. When I attempted to take her picture with the fish, the pike flopped out of the net.
“Get that fish before it slimes everything!” she commanded.
“That’s a nice fish, Babe!” I said while dropping it into the livewell and culling a smaller pike.
“Thanks!” Cheryl replied with a sigh of relief. “I’m happy with that one!”
And she should’ve been. I’d been happy if I caught it, but I was happier that she did.
“Let’s go back where you caught your fish,” I suggested after working the shoreline for several minutes. “I have a hunch we’ll catch more fish there.”
On my second cast, I set the hook, and a small pike waged a valiant battle, reminding me that even small fish can put up a mighty fight.
The action was hot on my next five casts. The three pike measured 231/2, 20 and 22 inches, respectively.
Some five minutes later, the lure from Cheryl’s errant cast smacked me on the back of the head.
“Come on, Cheryl!” I snapped kiddingly. “Don’t be mad because I’m catching more fish than you!”
She issued a brief apology, followed by a cute giggle. Did the giggle negate the apology? You make the call.
Before calling it quits at 3:15 p.m., I caught three more catch-and-release pike off the same point. My hunch paid off.
After returning to camp, it was time to clean the fish for the evening meal. All five conservation pike limits were filled — enough fillets for three meals.
Keith Costley lives in Baxter Springs, Kan., and is an avid fisherman and hunter.