Game of kings: Ontario-bound for river-run Lake Superior salmon
Stole away for a couple of days late last week and traveled up Minnesota’s north shore to rendezvous with Shawn Perich in Grand Marias. Perich co-owns a publishing operation there, and the two of us promptly made tracks for the Pigeon River border crossing into Canada.
Shawn and I must have looked a little shifty with our fishing rods because we spent an eventful 50 minutes with Canadian Customs personnel explaining our intentions to enter their country. They eventually let us proceed without a strip search, so we cruised northeast, past dozens of moose crossing signs and through Thunder Bay.
We’d spend most of the next 24 hours fishing the Nipigon River below the Anderson Falls Dam near the town of Nipigon, Ontario.
Lake Superior’s largest tributary, the Nipigon River contains several species of salmon in late September. We arrived with a couple hours of daylight to spare and an exciting scene unfolded with chinook and smaller pink salmon jumping all around us.
“Looks good, but these fish can drive you nuts if they’re not striking,” Perich cautioned, and I soon understood his meaning. We tried several options, including yarn flies and crankbaits, but neither produced strikes from the massive chinooks (also called kings) breaching like whales just yards away. Shawn eventually caught two pinks – the males displaying their distinctive spawning humps – but the kings were strictly interested in spawning, not our lures.
But the evening, the location, and the action around us was spectacular. And some fellow shore anglers, local folks, weren’t having any more luck than we were.
Shawn and I drove back south a bit to Quebec Lodge overlooking Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay. There we joined lodge owner Ray Rivard and his staffer Jodi for an evening of dinner, drinks and conversation. Ray eventually offered to take us fishing in his boat the next morning, and Shawn and I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
After a hot breakfast, the three of us launched into the river as first light and steam drifted over its waters. Crankbaits were in order, and Ray tried several spots where we saw trout and salmon swimming in the shallows.
Again, the fish weren’t interested in striking our fancy Rapalas and other lures. Shawn lamented that perhaps the warm weather had advanced the spawn ahead of schedule. So focused on spawning, the fish just weren’t interested in eating.
A few moments later, he set the hook on a nice strike.
“Feels like humpie,” Shawn said, given its relative lack of fight compared to the big kings leaping around our boat. His mood brightened immediately when the oranges, reds, and yellows of a large brook trout’s belly surfaced a few feet away. A native of northeastern Minnesota, Perich grew up fishing brook trout, and he loves the colorful char, especially big ones.
This specimen had a few extra shakes in him after I netted it. As I grabbed my camera for some shots, Shawn worked to remove the Rapala shad rap from the fish. A couple head shakes later, the lure’s trebles had caught Shawn’s thumb, and deeply.
All three of us had experienced fishing hooks embedded in our flesh before, so there was no crying or whining about bad luck. Shawn simply asked for directions to the local ER, and once back at the landing, cheerfully marched up to his pickup while Ray and I pushed back out for more trolling.
We switched lures frequently but no new colors or sizes drew strikes, and as the sun rose in the sky, the fish became less active at the surface. Ray and I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the morning, warming temperatures, and good conversation.
Returning upstream to see if Shawn had returned, Ray dialed back the throttle and pointed out a small stream entering the river.
“Toss a spoon in there, and see what happens,” he said.
I hurriedly tied on an old school Eppinger Five of Diamonds, and three casts later, my line sizzled off the spool. A hefty, dark king cleared the water, and 10 minutes later, I hoisted the male fish for pictures.
It was my first salmon and the icing on an already memorable trip.
Another half mile upstream we found Shawn with a bandaged thumb and eager to drag a lure around some more before we drove back south. Juggling his rod, net, and a plump pink salmon a bit later, Shawn elicited an offer from
Ray: “Need a hand with that?”
“Need a thumb with that?” I quipped, always eager for an opportunity to jerk Shawn’s chain.
“Careful buddy, it’s a long walk back to the States.”
King salmon die after they spawn, so I had no qualms about bringing my fish home to feed my family. They enjoyed it Saturday night.
In two trips through Customs with Shawn this year, we’ve been brought inside twice, so we both held our breath as we pulled up to the U.S. border late afternoon last Friday. A big dude who looked like he’s cracked a few skulls in his life examined our passports, then cheerfully said, “Welcome back to the States.”
We thoroughly enjoyed the resources and people of Ontario during our brief trip, but a smooth experience through Customs?
That’s icing on top of the icing.