Last winter, I got a call from my friend Ted Putnam, owner of Hawk Lake Lodge, who invited me to come up and explore his system of lakes known for their trophy smallmouth bass, northern pike, and walleyes. At the time, neither of us knew that, months later, the western-Ontario lodge would be named the 2019 Orvis International Fishing Destination of the Year at the Orvis Guide Rendezvous. So it seemed that the stars had aligned for this trip.
As usual, I am accompanied by my high-school pal and photographer Sandy Hays, and we made the trip from Boston to Winnipeg Wednesday morning. At the airport, we hopped into a rental car and made the three-hour drive on the Trans Canada Highway to Hawk Lake, which is about 70 kilometers east of Kenora, Ontario. The lodge is set on a peninsula that juts out into the lake, offering gorgeous vistas is all directions.
On Thursday morning, we met our guide, Jones Lebeau, who told us we’d be chasing smallmouth bass on Wolf Lake. After a fifteen-minute cruise down Hawk Lake, we hopped out of the boat and made a twenty-minute hike through the woods to Wolf Lake, where the lodge has sole rights to keep boats. We loaded up and headed out to a rocky bay, where I started casting a hard-body popper. It took just five minutes before a fish hammered the popper, and we got a good look at our fist Ontario smallie. It was a gorgeous fish of about sixteen inches, with beautiful markings and a fat belly.
It was soon apparent that the popper was not going to be the most productive pattern, so I switched over to a small Clouser Minnow with a white belly and a flashy green wing. “There’s a nice fish,” Jones said, pointing to a dark shape cruising over a sandy bottom in about three feet of water. I cast my streamer ten feet ahead and three feet beyond the cruiser and started giving it life with an erratic stripping motion.
As soon as the fly moved, the bass shot forward and began following the fly. As I gave two sharp strips and then let the Clouser stall, the bass flared its gills and inhaled the fly. The whole experience was visually exciting, and the smallmouth turned out to be about 18 inches and really healthy.
That same Clouser pattern produced fish all day long, worked with an erratic retrieve. Before lunch, we discovered that the fish were holding near any fallen timber along the shore. We’d come upon a downed tree, cast alongside the trunk, and hook up after just a couple strips. We also caught fish from rock gardens and submerged points. We lost a couple flies to tree limbs and one to a pike that cut the leader cleanly.
By mid-afternoon, the punishing sun and 80-degree heat had pushed the fish into deeper water, so we knocked off early, feeling that it had been a fine few hours of action. One of the problems with a place like Wolf Lake is that there’s simply too much great water to fish, and as we cruised back to the trail head, we pointed out the spots we’d hit if we ever return. It was crazy to think that we’d had the whole lake to ourselves for the day.
All told, we boated between 25 and 30 bass, averaging about 16 inches, with four or five 17s and 18s. There were very few dinks, and the fish of the day was a dark, husky 19-incher caught from a deep pocket, where two fallen trunks came together to form a V. For a couple guys from New England, it was a warmwater day unlike any we’d experienced before.
On the hike back to Hawk Lake, however, I was accosted by an irate ruffed grouse, who must have had some chicks nearby. She was the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered game bird you ever set eyes on, and we had to keep her at bay with our fly rods as we passed. In the end, we and the chicks emerged unscathed, and we made it to Happy Hour at the lodge on time.