Photos and Story: Incredible Smallmouth Fishing Just Over the Border

Written by: Phil Monahan
Photos by: Sandy Hays

The beefiest bronzeback from Wolf Lake measured 19 inches and put up a powerful fight.

We’d worked our way almost completely around the shoreline of the small lake, with just a couple hammer-handles to show for it, and I was starting to wonder if there were big pike beneath the dark water after all. I’d thrown all the patterns I could think of—including my beloved Pat Cohen Mallard Duckling—so our guide, Jeff Blum, had handed me a fur-and-feathers monstrosity that was like casting a wet sock. After about a dozen casts, I had no faith that this fly would perform any better than the rest, so I stripped it back to the boat and turned to ask Jeff if he had any better ideas. His eyes were like saucers, staring past me into the water, and as I looked back at my fly undulating right next to the boat, a massive pair of toothy jaws closed around it. I set the hook, and after a brief but powerful fight, we had the thirty-four-inch northern pike in the net. Mission accomplished.

Gateway to the Wild

Most Americans—firm in their sense of superiority over their nice-but-maybe-a-bit-boring neighbors to the north—probably have little concept of just how massive the Canadian wilderness is. Thirty-five million square miles larger than the U.S. in area, Canada has just one-ninth the population. That leaves a lot of open country for anglers, hunters, hikers, and the like to play in. And not all that wilderness is polar-bear and Inuit territory. In fact, some of that amazing, untrammeled country is right over the border. And that’s why a mere four kilometers down a dirt road from the Trans-Canada Highway, we discovered true solitude, wild country, and some incredible warmwater fly fishing.

This gorgeous pike ate my fly right next to the boat.

My friend Ted Putnam had been trying to get me to visit his lodge in western Ontario for several years, promising incredible fishing for smallmouth bass, pike, and—if conditions were right—maybe even walleye. My schedule never quite worked out, and to be honest, I wasn’t all that sure that Hawk Lake Lodge was my cup of tea. Having spent three summers guiding in Alaska in the mid 1990s, I may have developed a somewhat snobby view of what constitutes “wilderness,” and I figured if I were going to go to Canada, I might as well go to the far north. But Ted is nothing if not persistent, and after Hawk Lake won the 2019 Orvis-Endorsed International Lodge of the Year award, I was convinced. So last June I headed north with my fishing buddy and photographer, Sandy Hays. What we discovered opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities that exist much closer to home than I’d imagined.

We landed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at two in the afternoon, tossed our gear into a rental car, and made the three-and-half-hour drive east, into Ontario—past the massive Lake of the Woods—to an unobtrusive turnoff about 70 kilometers east of Kenora, which led us to the end of a wooded peninsula jutting south into Hawk Lake. We arrived in time for pre-dinner Happy Hour, and I took the chance to have a look at the big map hanging on the wall. From the lodge, a huge complex of lakes stretches to the south and east, with no civilization or roads for more than 60 miles.  The U.S. border is just 86 miles to the south, as well. Ted explained that the lodge has access to some 19 different lakes; all are public, but Hawk Lake Lodge has exclusive rights to keep boats on them.

Jonesing for Bass

The next morning, we hopped into a boat with our wonderfully named guide, Jones Lebeau, for a fifteen-minute cruise to the far end of Hawk Lake. We tied up, put all the gear on our backs, and hiked for twenty minutes through the woods to Wolf Lake, where another boat was waiting. A six-mile-long, thin body of water, Wolf Lake features rocky shores and bays, some sandy flats, and lots of downed timber along the edges. We had the entire lake to ourselves.

Within five minutes, a green blur smashed my hard-body popper above a rocky flat, and we got our first look at an Ontario smallmouth—a gorgeous fish of about sixteen inches, with beautiful markings and a deep body. Although catching a fish so quickly seemed a harbinger of fast action to come, it was soon clear that a topwater pattern wasn’t the ticket. As I tied on a small Clouser Minnow with a white belly and a flashy green wing, Jones said, “There’s a nice fish,” and pointed 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 the fly life with an erratic stripping motion.

Jones prepares the net as another Wolf Lake smallie comes to the boat.

As soon as the fly moved, the bass shot forward and began following the fly. After I gave two sharp strips and then let the Clouser stall, the fish flared its gills and inhaled the fly. The whole experience was visually exciting—like tropical bonefishing—and the smallmouth turned out to be about 18 inches long and quite strong.

That same Clouser pattern, worked with an erratic retrieve, produced fish all day long. We soon discovered that any fallen timber along the shore held fish, and a cast alongside a downed tree usually produced a hook-up after just a couple strips. There were also smallies holding in rock gardens and off submerged points. We lost a couple flies to tree limbs and one to a pike that cut the leader cleanly.

Of course, there’s more than just fishing when you spend the day on a wilderness lake.

All told, we boated between twenty-five and thirty bass, averaging about 16 inches, with four or five 17s and 18s. There were very few dinks, and the trophy of the day was a dark, chunky 19-incher caught from a deep pocket in the back of a small bay, 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 a remote wilderness lake that was all our own.

The Mouse that Roared

The next day, we teamed up with guide Jeff Blum for a trip to Paddy Lake, which is just ten minutes to the east by boat and foot from the dock. One of the cool things we discovered about the lakes fished by Hawk Lake Lodge is that each has its own, unique character. Whereas Wolf Lake features a lot of shallow bays, reefs, and submerged points, Paddy Lake is rockier, with some very steep drop-offs close to shore.

My trusty deer-hair diver scores again.

The day went very much like the one before. I caught a bronzeback on my very first cast with a trusty diver pattern that I’ve had for years. The bug had barely landed on the water when a fish smashed it. But, again, the surface patterns worked early and then became less effective as the sun got higher. We switched to subsurface stuff, with Sandy hooking fish on a variety of baitfish patterns, while I did well with a crayfish-colored Wiggle Bug that dove and shimmied with every strip.

After a shore lunch of walleye and potatoes fried over an open fire, we decided to try Cliff Lake, which is connected to Hawk Lake via a short channel that goes under the road. It was at this point that Sandy chose to tie on a mouse pattern, something he does everywhere we travel together. Jeff was a bit skeptical until the first bass smashed the deer-hair mouse as it came through some weeds. Sandy took several more on the mouse, finishing up with the largest smallmouth of the day, just before we had to head back to the lodge.

Sandy’s go-to mouse was a big hit with Cliff Lake bass.

After our exciting big-pike experience on Shannon Lake on the morning of our third day, we decided to return to Cliff Lake to see if the bass were still willing to eat mouse flies. The answer was a resounding YES! Sandy and I threw various mouse patterns for about three hours and caught perhaps a dozen fat smallmouths—and we missed about the same number. Most fish would hammer the mouse pattern with a ferocious splash, but the really large bronzebacks would simply inhale the big deer-hair flies, making barely a ripple. The fly would simply disappear, and the rod would be bent double in a flash.

One of the great things about fly-fishing travel is that new destinations have the power to surprise and delight, even when you don’t expect them to. It had been a very long time since I’d fished for smallmouth bass, and my love for this great game fish was rekindled on this series of lakes that made me feel completely removed from civilization. The knowledge that such a wild and fertile fishery is just a few hours’ drive from the U.S. border has led me to spend more time looking at maps of southern Canada, to see what other gems I may have flown over in the past.

Phil Monahan is the editor of the Orvis Fly Fishing blog. He was at the helm of American Angler magazine from 1998 to 2008. For more information on Hawk Lake Lodge, click here. This story first appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal.

Since Sandy took so many great photos on our trip, I couldn’t resist sharing a few more fish shots:

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