Kawarthas – Fantastic Fishing on the Trent-Severn Waterway
The Kawarthas lake system, just north of Toronto, is legendary for the quantity and variety of fish species that can be caught this close to a major metropolitan area or at least that’s what the tourist jargon would have you believe. I must say I was skeptical about these claims, but having just returned from a two and a half day fishing trip in the Kawarthas I’m now a believer. The trip was one of a number of pre-trips being offered before this year’s Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) conference in Peterborough. As an avid, if not very proficient fisherman, the chance to be taken out by expert guides was too good to pass up.
The trip was organized by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which is headquartered in Peterborough and our guide was the ever helpful Meribeth Burley, an employee of the Federation. I was accompanied on the trip by fellow TMAC members Alex and Judy Eberspaecher. Alex is an expert fisherman who wrote the first specialized book on fishing in Ontario over 45 years ago – he brought a copy of it along to donate to the Federation.
The Kawarthas Hunting and Fishing Heritage Centre
Our trip started with a visit to the Hunting and Fishing Heritage Centre, right next door to the Federation’s offices. The first thing you see on entering is this magnificent wall that holds fibreglass replicas of Ontario record fish.
I couldn’t help but notice the huge muskies, 65 pounds for the bottom one. The Kawarthas are famous for muskie and of course I immediately assumed I would be catching one in the next few days, probably a record at that.
The centre also has a great display of fishing lures, flies and decoys.
Before heading out on our first fishing expedition we were given a lesson in fly tying by Jessica Ferguson. We were attempting to replicate a very common fly, the Wooly Bugger. Alex and Judy seemed pretty adept and attentive, but I was a bit of a spazz.
This is what my mine looked like halfway through.
And the finished product. Can you tell the pro from the amateur version?
The Kawarthas are a series of lakes that are interconnected by the Trent-Severn Waterway one of Canada’s most historic water systems and one wildly popular with boaters. At another time I hope to return here and ply the waters on a rented houseboat, but this trip is all about fishing so let’s hit the water.
Meribeth drives us to Buckhorn Lake which is H on the map above – pretty well right in the middle of the Kawarthas. Waiting for us at the Beachwood Resort is three time Kawarthas angler of the year Mike Williams and his cousin Eddie with these two mean looking bass boats. Mike is an Ojibway native and the owner of Williams Outfitters.
Alex and Judy head out with Mike and I set out with Eddie. I’ve done a lot of fishing in my time, but I’ve never actually been in a bass boat before and get rocked back in the seat as Eddie takes her up to 60mph as we whip along to our first fishing stop. From the picture you can see that it is overcast and before long we get an off and on rain, but it’s no big deal for us, we have our rain gear. Apparently it is a big deal to the fish because they go on strike, which for them means they refuse to strike. Eddie catches a couple, but I get sfa, as does Alex. However Judy, who I noticed is just sitting down taking things easy, catches four. Who said life was fair. Anyway, we all know the famous saying about the worst day of fishing contrasted with the best day at the office, so I am happy just to be on the Kawarthas and not there.
Afterwards, Meribeth meets us at Frederick’s, the Beachwood restaurant that has a great view if Buckhorn Lake and we swap fishing stories with Mike and Eddie. Hey, there’s always tomorrow!
And tomorrow it is as Meribeth takes us to Ashburnham Lock 20 on the Trent-Severn system where we are to meet Will Muschett of Peterborough Carping Guides. This is not a service that teaches you how to properly bitch about things, but to catch that very much under appreciated fish, the carp. The setting couldn’t be better for people who really don’t like to get their feet wet or dress up in fancy fishing clothes. The concrete sides of the lock where it enters Little Lake provide the perfect spot to set up a lawn chair and fish.
I can see that Will is already set up and rarin’ to go as we approach from the stairs down the lock side.
Will is a student at Trent University where he is completing his studies to become a high school teacher of geography and history. I can only say that if Will displays half as much enthusiasm and passion for learning as he does about carp fishing, he will be one of the best young teachers in Ontario.
Here Will explains to us the three rod system he has set up which involves electronic warnings that tell us if a fish is serious about taking the bait. All we have to do is sit and relax, and if it rains, which it does off and on, we can just adjourn to the tent.
Apparently carp have just about the most exotic tastes of any fish around. While most fish just want to eat other fish, carp like such exotic things as pineapple, peppermint, oat meal and nuts – reminds me of my daughter’s vegan diet. Will surrounds the actual bait, which is a small ball about the size of an old-fashioned jawbreaker, with a larger ball of oatmeal, corn and juice that will disintegrate in the water as it lands, showering the carp with food. As if that’s not enough he then uses a slingshot to fire a volley of corn niblets over the water. I can see people who are just out walking their dogs staring at us as if we are at some type of cult gathering in the Kawarthas..
But, guess what – it works. Within fifteen minutes there’s a strike and Will hands the rod to me and the fight is on, and a damn good fight it is. Whatever is on the other end definitely wants to stay where it is, but eventually Will gets a net under it and a beautiful looking big fish is landed. He places the fish gently on a large cushion, removes the hook, gets a weighing net underneath this large female and lifts her up – just a fraction under 20 pounds, which I’m rounding up to 20.
Tell me this is not a wonderful fish.
Will then takes the fish back and gently lowers her into the water where she quickly returns to the depths.
Over the next three hours we each catch two fish, with a total weight of over 100 pounds. That’s what I call a successful morning of fishing.
Meribeth brings a picnic lunch which we share with Will on the picnic tables beside the lock on the Kawarthas. Will tells us he charges the ridiculously low sum of $15.00 an hour for his services which he should definitely double if not triple. Fishermen will be more than glad to pay for this type of experience.
We say goodbye to Will and it’s off to our next destination, Chemong Lake, which is J on the Kawarthas map above.
If wearing snazzy clothes and having the most up to date boat and fishing equipment were a necessity for catching fish then Rick Daniels would be s.o.l. Rick operates Kawartha Fishing out of Chemong Lake and is also the fishing columnist for the Peterborough Examiner. We meet him at Star Marine just past the causeway that splits the lake in two. The weather is looking ominous and apparently there has been a tornado warning, so Rick is going to be cautious and stay close to shore.
Long story short, the weather improves, the fishing for panfish is great and we catch perch, bluegill, smallmouth, rock bass and largemouth. I think the bluegill is one of the prettiest little fish you can catch, and they are also great eating, but I let these guy go to fight another day.
During the three hours we are out Rick and I commiserate each other with Leaf stories and give mutual guarantees that this will be their year – it’s always fun to fantasize. Thanks Rick for a great afternoon.
While the fishing for the day might be over, the talk about fishing is not. We have dinner with Andrew Schufelt, yet another expert Kawarthas fisherman, at Berc’s Steakhouse. He shares his fishing tips and afterwards Alex drives him home where he shows Alex his vast collection of the most up to date fishing electronics. Not bad for a stay at home dad.
Our last fishing outing is to Rice Lake, R on the Kawarthas map, which is certainly the prettiest of the lakes we’ve visited on this trip. It is surrounded by high hardwood hills and has some very attractive densely forested islands that rise up from the lake at a number of places. We meet our next fishing guides Terry Curtis and Steve Scowcroft at Harris Boat Works at just before 7:00 AM.
Alex and Judy go with Terry and I’m with Steve. The plan is to try different spots and keep in touch by walkie talkie so that if one boat gets good fishing and the other doesn’t, both boats can end up at the good spot. Steve has a Pittsburgh Steelers hat on and just as Rick and I jawed about hockey yesterday, Steve and I discuss the relative fortunes of the Steelers and the Vikings; that is after we get to our first fishing spot, because at the speed these boats go there is no way to talk while they are on full throttle.
This last day of fishing was my favourite for a number of reasons. First the weather was great, second we spent a lot of time in the lee of the wind in some wonderful little coves that were alive with wildlife and birdsong and third, we caught a shitload of fish. Our first stop was to try and catch some walleye, but instead we kept on getting largemouth including this guy.
Before anyone panics, we were aware that largemouth were not in season and definitely were not targeting them, but they were targeting us. All were released safe and sound.
The bass finally stopped biting and Steve and I each landed a keeper size walleye. Here’s the proof.
Steve tried to get in touch with Terry via the walkie talkie to tell him we were catching walleyes, but couldn’t seem to get it to work. He figured that Terry would find his own hotspots and we headed off to the north end of the lake to try for crappies. The jigs were replaced by tiny panfish lures attached to a bobber so that they drifted in shallow water about a foot below the surface. It was almost dead calm and I could hear bullfrogs and red-wing blackbirds in the bullrushes as we slowly passed by the shore.
Although we didn’t get a crappie we got almost everything else – lots of perch, rock bass and bluegills and two very decent largemouths, one of which was about twice the size of the one in the picture. It was a hell of a fight on that ultra light tackle. All told we caught and released over thirty fish in this small area and in what seemed like no time we had used up the four hours fishing time that was allotted before we had to get back. Alex, Judy and Terry were already there when we got back to the dock and I asked Alex how they did. He replied “Nothing”. Considering our success, I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.
Apparently Terry had been trying to radio Steve for the last three hours to find out if we were catching any. When Steve picked up the walkie talkie this time it immediately crackled to life. Strange.
Steve took the two walleye which would feed he and his wife that night. I thanked him profusely for the great day of fishing while Alex just shook his head.
This was not the end of an absolutely fabulous fishing trip to the Kawarthas, as we stopped for lunch at Muddy’s BBQ Pit in the little village of Keene. The place is located in an old garage and is the definition of simplicity.
Out back are two smokers and inside you have just four choices of meat and four sides. Everything is sold by the pound. The obvious choice is the Muddy’s sampler and at just over $11.00 this is a steal. That’s smoked brisket in front, smoked sausage next, two crunchy ribs and pulled pork in the back. Doesn’t that look like just about the best messy meal you could ask for? I washed down with a local Smithhavens Brewery Kellerbier as a thunderstorm raged just outside.
Our bellies full and with great fishing stories to tell, Meribeth drove us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes with a promise to return to fish the Kawarthas another day.
For another great post on fishing in Ontario have a look at this story from the Mississagi River Valley, outside of Sault Ste. Marie.
UPDATE: Sadly Alex Eberspaecher passed away a few years after I wrote this post. We had some great times together. R.I.P. Alex.
Also, Will Muschett finished his degree at Trent University and I do not believe he is still running Peterborough Carping Guides, but that shouldn’t stop you from carp fishing in the Kawarthas.