The Legendary Brook Trout of the Albany
It was just past 11:00 pm when my colleague and camera tech, Jeremy Kennedy came back to our cabin and told me it was happening and it was going to be good. I was down for the night, for the most part, sipping whisky and reading but I knew what he was referring to, so I slipped my boots on and followed. This was my first opportunity to see the Northern Lights for real. I’d been just high enough in Northern Ontario a few times to see what could only be considered a sample but nothing close to impressive, so I was still somewhat skeptical. The app on his phone though, (yes, there’s an app for the Northern Lights.) suggested that tonight, they would be a peak, for lack of better terms, and that we would be in for one of the most intense shows of early autumn.
As we walked along the sandy peninsula leading towards the dock, I kept my gaze towards the south but the lights behind me gave off enough ambient light to suggest that something special was going on in the north. We reached Jeremy's camera, which had been set up on a tripod for some time-lapse shooting and I found myself almost holding my breath in anticipation, but still expecting a letdown. I turned around slowly, looking off to the west and panned my gaze slowly east. That breath that I had been holding was almost taken away.
Jeremy and I had landed at Miminiska Lodge three nights earlier to shoot a four-day show on the Albany watershed. Our target species was the legendary brook trout of the Albany but the weather turned out to be uncooperative for the most part. Uncooperative is an understatement… it was more like unforgiven. As a result, we were relegated to the main lake and could only find relief from the perpetual 60 km winds in island lees and sheltered bays. Relegated may not be the best term to use here, as that suggests we were taking a less desirable course of action and if I was, to be honest, I was jumping at the opportunity to get out on the big lake and explore on my own.
While I had been on a cloud anticipating this trip for the weeks leading up to it and the prospect of hunting four-pound brook trout, I wasn’t disappointed in the least by our current situation. There isn’t much that anyone can do about the weather. Miminiska, or “Mim”, as many locals call it, is a big lake with dozens and dozens of islands and bays, so no matter which way the wind blew, I knew that I’d be fishing. The weather forecast had indicated that the wind wouldn’t go down until our last day so my plan at this point was to fish the lake and explore some of the river mouths and creeks coming into or flowing out of Mim. So with a well-charted map, Jeremy and I went exploring.
Mim is almost two lakes, with the East and West Arms being separated by the Mininiska Peninsula with only the Southern narrows connecting them. Our first-morning plan was to head across the lake from the lodge and strike the inflow to the Albany River, then head up the river as far as we could go. Our plans however were thwarted. As we came out of the narrows and onto the West Arm, I could see across far enough to recognize that the waves on the Arm were at least 30” and I didn’t want any part of that in an 18’ tinnie, so I made the prudent call to turn around and find some shelter to cast for pike or maybe a walleye.
The narrows provided the necessary shelter so I tucked into the western shore and started working my way along, letting the wind move me and cast my fly to likely-looking targets. It didn’t take long to connect to a pike and for the rest of the day, I filled my time taking fish up to 25 or 26”. Not large pike, by any means but it kept me busy and once I figured them out, I was switching back and forth from baitfish patterns to mice on the surface, as the depth and conditions dictated.
It wasn’t without its challenges as trying to maintain a specific distance from shore, and navigate into and out of small bays and fish at the same time was keeping me on my toes but the action was consistent and gave me a nice, “getting acquainted” period to set up my next couple of days of fishing as I knew at this point, based on the forecast, that we would not be doing any flying in these winds.
Like so much of Northern Ontario, Miminiska Lake is a sportsperson's dream. There was one other angling party at the lodge, a three-generation trio from Boston that was cleaning up. Fishing with conventional tackle and some fly gear, they were taking their share in a mixed bag of walleye and pike. This wasn’t their first trip to Mim, at least not for Grandpa and Dad, so they knew the lake reasonably well and were able to take advantage of that knowledge to stay out of the wind and still find fish. For the next couple of days, while I was casting flies, they got it done with other means. No matter what we fish for, being adept with both fly and conventional gear will always pay dividends and I don’t mind saying that there was more than the odd occasion that I wished I had a spinning rod or a bait caster with me. If for nothing else, to help me establish a pattern as to what the walleye, which had alluded, were into.
Miminiska Lodge is one of several full-service lodges, along with seven outpost camps managed by Wilderness North Outfitters. Mim is a modern, full-service lodge that offers DIY trips or guided excursions into more remote locations for brook trout, walleye, pike and lake trout. This facility combines rustic, but more than well-appointed cabins and more contemporary lodging that would suit any lifestyle. The meal packages are outstanding! Home-cooked dinners with choices of sides every night make long days on the water worth coming back for and the staff is second to none. They offer other activities to non-fishers, such as paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking and wilderness hiking to keep everyone in your party going all day long.
For the next couple of days, we explored the lake and a couple of the tributaries and had a ball doing so. Navigating a large, unfamiliar lake with just a map is rewarding, particularly when you find fish, but it was clear that if we were to find big brook trout, we would need a little guidance. This came in the form of one of the owners, Alan Cheesman, and one of their pilots flying us into one of the more remote lakes to access a river. Now, I should add that Alan and Matt are not guided per se but obviously know the area and I’d say that we collectively made for a pretty strong and intrepid team. We pushed down the river, making a couple of portages, challenged the low water and eventually came upon a long, uniform meadow that had ‘Brook trout’ written all over it.
We parked the big canoe and worked our way just upstream to a point above a small creek that fed the main stem and I began working a weighted streamer through the meadow run. It had some flow but not much so to figure out the depth, I worked my streamer through with short but quick strips. The outside bend was deeply undercut so my obvious target was putting that fly directly against it, giving it a second to sink and then working back. I don’t think that I had made three casts when I was tight to a good fish. We had taken a couple of small pike on the trip down but it only took a second for a violent, brookie-like, dogged run to know this was no pike. Ten seconds later, after getting the line to my reel, I saw the unmistakable coloured flanks of large, pre-spawn brook trout. This was what I came to northern Ontario for and to say I was excited, would be understating the whole affair.
I’ve been fly fishing for a long time and can say this, I’m no less enthusiastic today as I was when I was ten when I hook a good fish and I knew that this was better than average. The trout made a good account of itself but I managed to beat it and get my net under him. Then all I could do was kneel over him, in awe. It was 20 ” long and in brilliant fall colours, colours that only char can produce and with this one fish, my trip to Mim and the Albany watershed were complete. There are few things left on this planet as wild and fragile as native brook trout and when you land one like this, you can’t help but think there’s hope.
The fishing was far from over as I managed several more ‘next level’ trout, including my next to personal best at 21 ½”, missing my PB by only a half an inch. Not that I’m a ‘PB’ kind of guy, but it’s always just a bit more satisfying knowing a milestone was close. The Sandra River, as Mark Melnyk had reiterated to me afterward during a conversation, was special and after sampling it, my only regret was not having another day or even a few more hours to explore it further.
It was that night, after the memorable trip down the Sandra and after catching more large trout than I deserved, that I saw my first true show of the Northern Lights. We fishing and hunting types are a little bit superstitious and have a strange way of coming to terms with each trip that we take, no matter if it’s unforgettable or the opposite. To me, Mother Nature just threw a bone on the last day, as if she was making up for the previous three. Or maybe, she was just letting me know that everything is hunky dory and that I probably should come here. She’s done that more than once. As I stood there on the sandy wedge, looking at the symphony that was the Northern Lights, a Northern vole gave me a start as it ran between my legs and stopped on the beach long enough to get some pictures. Another first in Northern Ontario and one of so many with Wilderness North Outfitters.