A road to Red Lake’s natural riches

by Bruce Ranta | May 1, 2012

Red Lk Hwy-28

In 1926, a discovery in northwestern Ontario led to a gold rush that newspapers at the time stated was reminiscent of the Klondike days. The deposits of gold ore at Red Lake have proven to be the richest in the world and among the largest. With the price of the yellow metal climbing to record highs, Red Lake is a boom town once again.

Red Lake lies 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay and a little less than 100 kms from the Manitoba border. Until the 1940s, the only ways to get to it were paddle and portage, walking, skiing, or by bush plane. In 1936, Red Lake’s Howey Bay airport was the busiest in the world.

A road connecting Red Lake to the outside world was envisioned, but there wasn’t any money in government coffers, due to the Great Depression. Then along came World War II. In 1942, mines were removed from Canada’s list of protected wartime industries and many miners went to war. Mining activity ground down and there wasn’t much talk of a road.

However, when the miners returned after the war, gold was again produced in enormous quantities and the need for a road was greater than ever. Postwar stimulus dollars flowed freely and construction of a gravel road to connect Red Lake to Vermilion Bay began in 1945. It took only two years for the Deptartment of Highways to get the job done. On August 27, 1947, the road, designated King’s Highway 105, was officially opened to public travel. In 1963, the road was paved.

These days, the two-lane highway is reasonably well-maintained and many treacherous sections have been straightened and improved. The Red Lake Highway is still the only drive in or out of Red Lake. It’s one of the most northerly highways in Ontario and is a 174 kms slice through a huge chunk of what is still mostly a wilderness of forests, lakes, and rivers. As it’s always been for miners, the road leads to riches for thousands of anglers and hunters.

I’ve driven this highway many times, for work and pleasure. It’s a long drive, with not many places to stop for supplies. During the summer tourist season, there’s a gas bar, a couple of stores, and an LCBO outlet in Perrault Falls, a tiny hamlet near the outflow of its namesake lake at the north end, about a third of the way between Red Lake and the Hwy. 17 junction at Vermilion Bay. Ear Falls, a town of less than 2,000, is the only year-round community on the highway, and from there it’s still another 70 kms to Red Lake.

I hadn’t wet a line in any of the myriad waterbodies the road leads to, with the exception of Red Lake itself, where the brother of my spouse, Lil, has a cabin. I’d wanted to, as the lakes always looked inviting, and there were always stories being told about big pike, muskie, and lake trout. So, last summer I made a point of spending a couple of days on the highway to sample some of the accessible waters and become familiar with others for future reference. I’m glad I did.

Narrowing the choices
I was most interested in the area near Perrault Falls. There are four big lakes (ranging in size from just under 6,000 to more than 15,000 acres) accessible here: Perrault Lake itself, Wabaskang, Cedar, and Cliff. They’re the backbone of the Cedar River Watershed, a geographic area that serves as a framework for fisheries management. All four lakes have walleye, pike, smallmouth bass, muskie, and perch. Two lakes also have lake trout. There are also other species, including whitefish and black crappie. In addition, there are numerous other lakes nearby.

I opted to spend a day cruising the highway, talking to people and casing things out – and maybe trying a little fishing downstream of the Ear Falls dam. I was told it was good right from shore and, besides, I didn’t want to spend a whole day talking to people about fishing without wetting a line.

Hitting the road
In late August, I took a drive up Hwy. 105. I left home early, hoping to see wildlife, but saw only one deer in the fields north of Vermilion Bay. Once past farm country, the highway slices through deep woods, with a number of logging-road offshoots. I recalled having spent part of a day up the Camp Robinson Rd., a popular moose hunting destination. The large clear-cuts were attractive to moose and sharp-tailed grouse. Some of the best sharpie hunting in Ontario can be found along this section of 105.

I took note of the numerous signs advertising fishing camps. The ones touting Cedar Lake and showing leaping muskie piqued my interest, so when I saw a sign indicating a public boat launch, I had to check it out.

Close to the launch was a nice flat grassy campsite with a couple of rigs with Ontario licence plates. In a lot of northwestern Ontario, camping on road-accessible crown land is off limits to non-residents of Canada. I asked one of the couples, who were from Thunder Bay, how the fishing was. They told me they weren’t having any trouble catching “nice eater” walleye. It certainly wasn’t a busy place, with only a couple of boats visible on the water.

I drove a little farther north to another public launch on Cliff Lake, on the west shoulder of the highway. There’s no room there for setting up a camp or parking a rig – just enough to leave a couple of trucks with boat trailers – but that morning the spot was empty. Like the launch at Cedar, it was nothing fancy – no pad, just a gentle and rather narrow approach, with a couple of boulders that would require a bit of attention.

After another few kilometres, I saw a sign for Lost Bay Resort on Cliff Lake and decided to drop in. Inside the main cabin, I found manager Gary Hoppe to be friendly and a wealth of information.

According to him, the camp had originally been built to house workers during highway construction. He said the lodge and an outpost camp farther down the lake had been purchased by a businessman from Wisconsin. The owner had fallen in love with the lake and had decided to be the sole proprietor, with the aim of passing his assets to his grandchildren. In the interim, he figured the lodge needed to be a viable business, and that’s why Hoppe was there.

While he hadn’t much time to fish himself, it had been good on the deep, clear lake, he said. He showed me photographs of fish that guests had caught, as proof. I was more than a little impressed by the big lake trout (some looked to be in the 20-pound range), 10-pound walleye, and muskie nudging 50 inches. There were also photos of decent-sized smallmouths and big pike.

If anglers want to fish elsewhere, Hoppe said the resort had boat caches on several smaller lakes nearby. Ord is especially good for walleye and Three-Corne is hot for muskie. For big-game hunters, the lodge maintains two Bear Management Areas and in most years has two moose tags to offer.

Hoppe had me thinking that Cliff Lake was where I was going to fish on my return. I liked the idea of spending the day chasing muskie and trout, and there’d be no need to trailer my boat on gravel washboard, a real bonus in my mind. I also recalled that co-worker Scott McAughey had told me the biggest walleye he’d ever hooked was in Cliff (he lost it).

With time running on, I thanked Hoppe for his help and information and left. With clear skies, the sun beating down, and the thermometer rising, I figured the sooner the better, insofar as getting in a few casts below the hydro dam at Ear Falls.

First, I decided to make one more quick stop. I turned east off the highway and drove to Jerry and Ellies Cedar Lake Camp. I was struck by how well maintained the yard and cabins were. Jerry Dargel was at the office and, after brief introductions, I asked the necessary questions about fishing.

I was impressed when he said one group of American guests had boated 12 muskie the previous week. The info he provided on muskie, walleye, pike, crappie, and perch was great. It was going to be harder than I thought to decide which lake I was going to fish when I came back with a boat.

Sign to Red Lake

There’s walleye in these waters.

Time to wet a line
Just before noon, I rolled into Ear Falls. I’d been warned the road to reach fish below the dam was a bit rough. It’s a good thing I have 4wd – I needed it! There were deep pools and ruts on the clay-based road. Fresh tire tracks guided me to a parking spot near the road’s end. A well-used, but steep, walking trail took me to the water.

It was low, not surprising, given it was late summer and hadn’t rained much in weeks. There was no discernible current, so I wasn’t optimistic. A small pike did little to build my confidence. Then, a nice bass followed my jig, but refused to bite.

I tossed a variety of hard and plastic baits. Still no luck. I went back to a jig and was rewarded with a good thump and reeled in a plump walleye. A couple of casts later, another walleye hit and, after that, a really solid thumper took hold. This walleye, a good 4-pounder, bested me, shaking free before I had a chance to haul it up the smooth rock face I was casting from.

Another half-hour of fishing resulted in one more small pike, and the big smallmouth followed my bait in again. Time to move on.

Back at the truck, the temperature readout told me it was 27˚C. The fishing wasn’t bad, I thought, given the heat, time of day, and low water. The drive north of Ear Falls wasn’t what I expected. Instead of a quiet ride, I found myself in a beehive of activity.

The gold boom had finally made the extension of a natural-gas pipeline from Ear Falls to Red Lake feasible, and people were hard at work laying pipe.

I zipped into Pakwash Provincial Park to snap a few photos. The campground was busy, but not overflowing. Pakwash Lake is known for excellent walleye fishing and, in fall, is a favourite destination for trophy pike anglers. A couple of boats bobbed on the water, but most people seemed to be lazing about enjoying the heat.

I had time to go a bit farther north, although wasn’t planning to drive all the way to Red Lake. Just north of the park, I spied a small whitetail doe, which surprised me, even though my brother-in law said he often saw deer in his backyard in Red Lake, way north of their normal range.

A couple of years earlier, he’d seen woodland caribou tracks on Red Lake near his cabin, only minutes from the centre of town. Caribou are also spotted occasionally crossing the highway near the park I’d just left. I pondered whether deer, their diseases and parasites, and the predators they attracted would spell the end for area caribou or would they simply disappear like before.

In the 1940s and 1950s, deer were common as far north as Red Lake, but cold, snowy winters wiped them out. Since then, until recently, the only place with a concentration of deer had been Ear Falls, where a small herd wintered.

At Trout River, I pulled into Trout River Lodge, visible from the highway bridge, and found Bill Deschamps, the owner, manning the office. As we talked about the fishing, Deschamps pulled out a photo of a 52-inch pike he caught and released in 2009. It looked to be over 40 pounds, which meant it could have been a new Ontario record, had he kept it. My interest was aroused even more when he told me about the jumbo perch (my favourite eating fish) commonly caught on, of all places, Bruce Lake.

I left Trout River and decided to head homewards, rather than continue north for the next 40 kms to Red Lake.

The drive back to Perrault Falls took a good 40 minutes. I was thirsty and looking forward to a cool can of soda, so I popped into the Rainbow Point Store and Lodge. While quenching my thirst, I chatted with a young lady minding the store. She offered me a brochure and suggested I walk across the highway and have a look at the picturesque falls the hamlet was named after.

Kids and teenagers were frolicking in pools of the rapids. I imagined it would be even more impressive during the spring melt. It also looked like great walleye spawning habitat near the outlet on Wabaskang Lake. I followed a single lane that ran parallel to the rapids that brought me to a launch on the lakeshore. It had a large cement pad, but the turnaround was a bit tight and would be a challenge in wet weather.

Near the highway, there was a large old clearing with another cement pad holding up a monument and plaque. It commemorated the opening of the Red Lake Rd. in August of 1947. I don’t know how many highways have such tributes, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been looking.

After taking more photos, I continued back down the highway, passing the public launch on Perrault Lake – noting it was directly across from Dutchie’s General Store and LCBO outlet. Very convenient, I thought.

I had plenty of time to make good on my plan to meet with Dave Frankovich at his Pickerel Creek Camp around 5 pm. I’d heard from the local conservation officers that he was amiable and knowledgeable.

“I love what I do and I love hunting and fishing,” he told me. I figured we’d get along well.

Unlike the majority of area outfitters, Frankovich’s camp wasn’t on a large lake. His business was centred on fishing a number of waters. He has 10 lakes with commercial boat caches – and hunting to offer. As it was late August, Frankovich was busy with bear hunters. He also had a few moose tags and specialized in the early season archery hunt.

On a business trip to Red Lake in September two years ago, I spotted the head and cape of a nice bull moose laying on a table in his yard. He’s also passionate about deer hunting and had some impressive mounts he’s taken locally on the wall.

Frankovich filled me in on the area’s fishing. Judging from what he said, and he had a photo album as proof, it seemed to me there were endless opportunities for whatever an angler might desire.

Lake trout? For numbers go to Aerobus Lake, Cliff Lake for bigger ones. Muskie? Cedar or Cliff Lake are good. Both have fish topping 50 inches. Walleye and pike? There are dozens of lakes to choose from. Other lakes have good populations of big perch and smallmouths are abundant in some waters. Most surprising, Cedar Lake has recently become a hot spot for slab crappie.

Kibitzing with Frankovich was what finally sold me on Cliff Lake. He’d recently caught a 54-inch muskie on Cedar, but Cliff had been good to him over the years and, like me, he prefers to fish where you generally aren’t competing with other anglers. Cedar, although much more productive, has considerably more development and can be busy. And, I really like to take a break from casting big muskie baits to wire line for lakers.

The day had been long, but interesting. I had high hopes of spotting wildlife on the drive home to Kenora, and was mildly disappointed when I didn’t see any big game. However, the August day had been hot, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. One thing for sure, I was eagerly anticipating my return trip and a full day of fishing.

Red Lk Hwy-67

Drew Myers decided to leave this big fish to OOD readers visiting the area.

Cliff Lake fish-off
I’d asked fellow OODer Drew Myers earlier about a fishing trip, and he wasn’t disappointed when I decided on Cliff Lake. Although it has multiple species, we would be targeting muskie and lakers.

Frankovich suggested some spots to try, and with the contour chart I had, we decided our first pass would be off a point not far from the landing. Within minutes of launching, we were pounding the water with big muskie plugs and spinnerbaits.

The point looked ideal for muskie. It continued as a shallow, rocky underwater reef with huge boulders scattered about in 10 to 15 feet of water. There was also a couple of weed patches and the water dropped off to 30 feet and more. But, after thrashing the spot for 15 minutes, we hadn’t even had a follow, so on to the next spot.

This time we pounded a big flat with a few deadheads with the same results. On the backside of a tiny rock island, where patches of pondweed were on the edge of a deeper hole, we saw our first muskie. They were small – no more than four or five pounds – and weren’t interested in biting. I nailed a pike of about the same size, but that was it.

The rest of the morning wasn’t much more productive. Drew latched onto a couple of smallmouths that smacked his medium-sized stickbaits, feisty fish for sure, but surprisingly small, considering the size of the bait they’d gone after. Then, we got into a few medium-sized pike.

Near noon, it was time for trout. There was a long run along a steep shoreline where my contour map showed more than 100 feet of water. I tried to keep the boat over 60 to 80 feet.

Steel line can be tricky, but Drew was a fast read and was able to get it and the Lucky Strike Canoe spoon out without a backlash, a malaise common to steel. Initially, no fish marked, but after crossing a deep trough and getting back into the magic 60-foot depth, a few blips showed on the sonar.

Just when I thought our lures should be close to the marked fish, I had a sharp tap and was into one. “I think it’s a small one,” I said, and it was. Plump and healthy, it seemed none the worse for wear upon release. Then Drew caught and released one of about the same size.

I was making a long, slow sweep when Drew had another hit. “This is a good one!” he said, but after a short tussle, it fell off.

We were disappointed, but thought we now had things figured out. No such luck. Another hour of trolling produced nary a nibble. It was now late afternoon, time to take another shot at muskie.

We decided to try a big fairly shallow bay with extensive aquatic vegetation. Our hopes were high, and soon we were getting follows. Drew was working a topwater when he stopped reeling to take care of something that had fallen in the boat.

“Wow! Look at that!” he exclaimed. I didn’t see anything, but Drew said a good muskie had been right up to his lure, staring at it, after he had paused the retrieve.

Shortly after that, I made a bad cast and had to work on a backlash, letting my bucktail spinner fall to bottom. It took a minute or so to undo the tangle. When I reeled in the slack, I felt weight. Fish on!

The muskie didn’t give up easily, but eventually I got the better of it. Drew scooped the respectable 36-incher.

Now we were pumped. We continued to get follows – a couple of fish seemed pretty decent – then all of a sudden the wind died completely. After that, nothing. We tried casting a variety of bucktails, plugs, and soft plastic baits in several places on the way back to the landing, but the bite was over. With the sun just below the horizon, we called it a day.

Fishing hadn’t been spectacular, but not bad. As I loaded up the boat, I thought of all the spots we had tried, and how much of the lake still needed to be explored. And, we hadn’t even tried for any of the monster walleye the lake was known for.

I will be back. There are enough lakes along Hwy. 105 to keep an angler prospecting for years.

First published in the May 2012 issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS. 


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