Weak spring sunshine warmed our backs as Aaron Shirley and I drifted into a back bay in Ontario’s far northern Attawapiskat River. Running unimpeded for 748 kilometres from its headwaters at the native community of Lansdowne House all the way to James Bay, this river is wild, big, and untamed. The drawing cards for us in these reputed trophy waters were burly pike and oversized walleye.
It was late May and we had flown with Hearst Air to its brand new outpost called Canada Camp, in the heart of this fabled waterway. The cozy new 3-bedroom camp is high on a bluff overlooking the river, with 20-foot freighter canoes on hand. These wide and stable craft are ideal for northern waters, allowing access to many kilometres of prime water upstream and down.
“Where do you think the pike are?” asked Shirley. We had struggled all day to find a consistent pattern, landing only a handful of small fish. We’d had a late spring and the river was in full flood, running high and turbid with all manner of debris. In places, 10-foot high blocks of ice lined the riverbanks, a testament to the power of the river and just how early in the season it was.
Finesse or fluke?
We focused on textbook spring pike areas: the backside of islands, prominent points that deflect current, and quiet inside river bends. The problem was the fish weren’t following the text. Easing our way into yet another prime-looking spot behind a large island, we’d already made the decision that this would be our last stop before returning to camp.
Shirley flipped a suspending crankbait tight to a line of reeds. He let it settle then swept back and paused, allowing the bait to hang motionless in the water. It had been a long day and the immediate hit startled both of us. Water erupted behind his lure as a large pike torpedoed from behind, pushing water as it charged. “Feels like a good one!” Shirley exclaimed as he drove the hooks home. After a brief but violent tussle we had it boatside, in the cradle. Forty-two inches — this was what we’d come for.
Was this catch merely a fluke or was there more to the situation? On the mainland behind us a tiny creek filtered into the river. “I think that’s important,” I said, pointing to the creek. With the river flowing cold and high, it stood to reason that a warmer feeder creek would draw fish.
Back at camp we pored over the topographic map and formulated a new game plan.
Cracking the code
Dawn breaks early in late May on the Attawapiskat. It had been a cool night and tendrils of mist shrouded the backwaters as we sped downstream in the canoe, warm coffees in hand. The sun had just peeked over the treeline as we cut the motor and drifted into our first spot of the day. A cluster of islands broke the force of the current, creating myriad braided channels and slack-water areas behind them. Best of all, a large warming feeder creek flowed in upstream.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” I said as we eased into casting range. Firing a long cast parallel to the bank with an inline bucktail, I slowly began working it back to the boat. Almost immediately a hefty pike smashed my bait. Seconds later, while reeling in quickly to help me, Shirley hooked one of his own. It was pandemonium for a few moments as my pike zigged right and Shirley’s zagged left. Jumping over each other in the boat we soon had both fish in the cradle, mine a solid 43 inches, Shirley’s 42. The code had been cracked.
A windfall of walleye
The balance of our trip provided pike fishing that most can only dream of, with walleye largely lost in the shuffle. However, anytime we required walleye for the pan, it was simply a matter of heading for the nearest current break and dropping a jig and twister tail into the swirling depths. Instantly we’d feel that familiar tick, then the satisfying weight of yet another chunky fish. We caught most of our walleye incidentally while casting oversized bucktails and spoons for pike.
What shocked me, especially being so far north, was the size of the walleye — lots in the 27 to 30-inch range with the largest easily pushing 10 pounds. Large, abundant, and incredibly aggressive, these walleye easily rivalled the pike.
Safeguarding the resource
In 1989, the Ontario government granted special status to much of the Attawapiskat River creating the Otoskwin/Attawapiskat Provincial Waterway Park, essentially protecting it from further development. Woodland caribou and moose roam the forest, bald eagles soar overhead, and the fishery remains much as it was 100 years ago.
First published in the 2014 Ontario OUT OF DOORS Fishing Annual. Subscribe.