Monday, April 12, 2010

Gar Pike....You've Been Asking....

As previously published in the Canadian Fly Fisher magazine.  Photos by Marcel Saring.
I don't know what I was thinking that early July morning during our attempted departure from British Columbia to Ontario.
Somehow, amidst all the distractions of parking, luggage and a way too hot black coffee, I managed to accidentally swap my carry-on with my tackle bag, not for a moment contemplating the repercussions.
I knew I was in trouble as airport security closed in around us as knives, hooks and fishing line (a convenient method of strangulation, I was later informed) were pulled from my bag. Oops.
Needless to say, we missed our flight and the airport didn't feel an ounce of pity for my self-inflicted stupidity. It was not a great start.
So there we were, me and dear friend, Matt, benched like two naughty school children, awaiting the next plane's arrival.
We acted like most any couple who spend a lot of time traveling and working together, I pouted while he scolded, and I prayed that the fishing in Ontario would be well worth the grief we had already endured.
The plane touched down late that evening in downtown Toronto, Ontario where Nick Pujic and Paul Langford from The Canadian Flyfisher met us with welcoming hugs and smiles.
We loaded our luggage and began our two hour commute to a small town called Belleville, where we would be staying and doing the majority of our fishing.
They briefed us with a verbal itinerary and explained that we would be spending the next five days fishing for species completely alien to Matt and myself. Bass, gar-pike, walleye, musky...... Dear God, what were we getting ourselves into?
With the exception of musky, these were fish that I had turned my nose up at for years. A dedicated steel-head advocate, I was curious to see if these Eastern boys could truly surprise me.
The next day, we arose well rested and eager to enjoy the sunny day that awaited us. The plan was to make a short boat ride to the Bay of Quinte, a tropical looking piece of water situated on the north shore of Lake Ontario, where we would target an exotic looking fish known as gar-pike.
Pujic with a nice gar.
 Within no time we had reached the uninhabited bay and I stared in awe at the glistening water, lush native trees and flowing fields of grass. This was Ontario!? It was not at all what I had expected.
Wading the flats in Ontario?  Who would've thought?
I could see them in groups of two and three sun-bathing in the weed beds, golden tails of leopard spots flowing gracefully back and forth, their long noses pointed in one concentrated direction.
I adjusted my polarized glasses and cast my fly into one of the small schools. A large gar followed my fly as I stripped it back towards myself, then abruptly darted in the opposite direction when it saw my looming shadow.
I tried again, this time with a different school. I watched a mid-size gar turn towards my fly and suddenly dart at it, grabbing it between it's gnarly chops, raking it's jagged teeth into the soft bunny. I set the hook, only to feel my line go slack, "damn!"
The guys laughed as my voice carried on the breeze, interrupting the peaceful flat.
Nick reminded me that their mouths were comprised of bone and teeth and to set the hook I had to apply some serious power. Now I meant business. I waded to a nearby rock, and stood atop it to increase my field of vision. There they were, unsuspecting and peaceful.  I couldn't wait to cause a commotion.
I picked up my water-logged fly and cast it determinedly just ahead of a fair size fish.
Strip, strip, strip. It turned, followed and then lunged! I set the hook! Fish on!
A flash of silver and glowing metallic scales danced atop the water, churning the surface as it tail-walked and rolled trying desperately to spit my fly.
I played the feisty gar until it succumbed and I was able to pull it close to me, preparing for a release. It didn't take long for me to change my mind about putting my fingers anywhere near it's mouth.
First gar!
"Careful, they're like razor blades. They'll slice you open and you won't even realize it", the guys warned, referring to its unbelievably long snout of never ending rows of misaligned and serrated teeth.
This thing had one serious overbite! "Just hang on to it while I pull your fly out", coached one the guys as he pulled out his pliers. Easy enough for a local to say, I thought. With scales thick and rough, this beautiful fish wore a shell of armor, an exact opposite of the delicate steelhead and trout I was so used to handling.
The gar had an astonishing amount of strength and the instant it squirmed, it freed itself from my grip. I squealed as it's skewer was unleashed and slashed dangerously close to my thighs.
Matt called me a wimp from the other side of the flat and laughed as I pulled the classic stereo-type of a squeamish woman out of her element.
Nicole with a healthy gar.
To this, all I have to say, is that I defy any man not to squirm uncomfortably as twelve inches of snapping scissors thrashes uncontrollably at their groin.
The day continued, and we caught gar-pike until our arms were sore. I was amazed that I hadn't seen anyone else fishing on such a beautifully sunny day.
I later was told that the majority of the locals looked upon these gar as a 'garbage' fish, unworthy as they offered no appealing meat. "You can catch them on the fly?" was the popular phrase amongst local tackle shop customers. "Hmm, now that might be interesting....." If only they knew.
The next day, we headed back to the same spot for some more adrenaline-packed fun.
The gar were there waiting, and it wasn't long before we were at it again, only today, I was trying something a little different. I tied on a bass popper (a large and colorful floating fly designed to push water and create an obnoxious disturbance on the water's surface) and cast it into the shallows.
Like aquatic garden shears breaking through the surface, my popper was a favorite amongst both gar-pike and angler.
Hmmh, looks like someone doesn't know how to hold a bass.
A dozen gar-pike and two intercepted large-mouth bass later, a familiar sound screamed through the air (no, it wasn't me).
Matt's reel was wailing that glorious tune, as a huge gar ran frantically back towards the depths. His rod buckled and serious concentration consumed his face. The battle continued for what seemed like eternity, but Matt's wicked hook set ensured that this trophy wasn't going anywhere except into his clutches.
Measuring in at 50 inches (a mere inch off the record mark), it shone with radiance, demanding respect. It was an epic day.
Go Matt!  It's your birthday.....
We were only two days into our trip and already I had long surpassed any doubts I had once reserved in regards to my ability to be surprised with Ontario and it's fishery.
Gar on a popper.
For our third day of fishing, we had arranged to meet up with Chris Marshall, editor and experienced angler to TheCanadian Flyfisher magazine.
He was going to show us around the upper Moira river, a small flowing system that passes directly through the town of Belleville. The water was low and clear, a result of an ongoing Ontario drought caused by lack of precipitation and high temperatures.
Ape and Nicole fishing the Moira.
Nevertheless, we were determined to hook into some small mouth bass and take our chances at finding a lone musky lurking in the shadows.
A classic Englishman, Chris guided us through the Moira, pointing out distinct drop offs and ideal aquatic habitat. Accustomed to large boulders and slippery rock, the vast stretches of over-hanging ledge-rock shelves were a treat to wade on.
I tied on a small nymph and stripped it through a crystal-clear pool, past several nonchalant gar pike and towards a crevice in the rock. I was shocked as small walleye, bass and other various species darted out into the open, momentarily abandoning their cover, curious about the intruding insect.
Like a spectacular fresh-water aquarium teeming with an array of co-existing species, we were awestruck by the intermingling that was taking place right before our very eyes.
As we waded the serene river, structure and shadows marked opportune locations for territorial musky laying in wait. Sure enough, sitting still beside a weed bed, lay a musky, quiet and motionless.
Matt beat me to the box of clousers and cast to the monster. He stripped vigorously, with no success. Again he cast and stripped aggressively. There was a splash and a brief tightening of the line, and then it was gone, hidden from us, tight-lipped and uninterested.
We headed down river in search of the notorious small-mouth bass. After casting into several runs, we hooked and landed a number of small mouths. Everything that we had heard about these scrappers proved true, as they pulled pound for pound and made us work.
Immediately I felt foolish for ever trash-talking the small-mouth bass and it's pursuers.
Day four we took it easy. We fished the lower Moira, in hopes of finding another Musky, but cut the day short as we needed to pack and hit the the road to partake in the experience of a lifetime, a 14km drift on the Saugeen River with renowned guide Ken Chandler.
It was well after midnight by the time we arrived at our quaint B&B in South-West Ontario and it hadn't stopped raining since mid-afternoon the previous day. Just our luck to go from low water conditions to a muddy, blown out river over night. We went to bed and figured we'd deal with the consequences in the morning.
Day five marked our final day of fishing and we couldn't have asked for a nicer day. The sun shone through the blinds and the realization that I may finally live out my long-time dream of catching a musky on the fly, hit me the moment I opened my eyes. Within the hour we were at a boat launch near the small city of Paisley, excited to meet Ken and experience the Saugeen River in his incredible hand-crafted drift boat.
Ken was laid-back as he rowed us through the quiet, steady river.
As anticipated, the water had gained some color, but that didn't phase Ken in the least. He handed me a beefy fly rod with a huge flashy deceiver pattern that looked much like a piece of road-kill tied onto a hook. "Cast over there, close to the shore", he instructed. "Be aggressive and hit the water hard with your fly."
I listened, and did as he said. When I had finished stripping the line in, he told me to cast again. The fly hit the water intrusively with a splash and as I began to strip, a large dark shadow darted out from the bank towards it. As quick as it had appeared, it vanished. I had just experienced my first encounter with a Musky!
We continued to row through the rapids searching for small-mouth, precisely casting our crawdad patterns into prime bass habitat. Sure enough, where Ken said a fish would be, the line would tighten and the rod would buckle. He knew every inch of this river and it showed.
He dropped anchor as we approached a shadowed bog with overhanging trees and long blades of grass. "There's a musky in there", he said calmly.
My heart raced and the "Jaws" theme song echoed through my head as I cast the huge fly fiercely into the water. Minnows jumped clear out of the water, startled by my intimidating fly, trying to escape it. Nothing. I cast again, this time slapping the water harder with my lure. The minnows jumped even higher.
Then there he was, monstrous and determined, just a black streak in the muddy water, the musky lunged at my fly voraciously. I set the hook and was overcome with a sick feeling when I felt no tension. I had missed my musky.
It didn't take long for me to recover, reminding myself that I was fortunate to have at least seen and tempted the predator that had intrigued me for so many years. A self-applied motto; catching is simply a bonus when spending a day on the water.
We rowed in to shore to stretch our legs and feast on an unbelievable shore-side lunch. With a full belly and the best company a girl could ask for, I closed my eyes to fully take in the experience. The warmth of the sun caressed my eyelids, and a perfect breeze flirted with my hair. The river flowed therapeutically and the aromas of summer tickled my senses. I couldn't believe this was Ontario!
Perhaps my erroneous expectations of Ontario and its fishery were a result of ignorance. Perhaps they were a result of inexperience. Perhaps, really, at the end of the day, the two are one and the same. All that really matters is that upon realizing these faults, one grows and adapts, accepting that they reserve the right to an opinion, but an opinion that's fair and just.
I would like to think that during my stay in Ontario, I accomplished just that.
And you can be damn sure about one thing. I will be back to catch that musky!
As the water began to shallow, Nick shut off the boat's motor, and we slowly drifted towards the shore.
The water was calm and clear with a soft bottom and no shortage of weeds. It looked 'fishy' and my heart pounded as I stepped into the two foot depth, grabbing my eight weight and rigging up my braided leader with trembling fingers.