A Look Back at Our Shared Fishing History

From the equipment we use to the accommodations we stay in, fishing in Ontario's Sunset Country is much different today than it was 90 years ago - or is it?

Recreational Fishing in Ontario’s Sunset Country – Then and Now

"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."  ~Henry David Thoreau~

The Objectives Have Always Been the Same!

Any discussion about the history of fishing in our area of Ontario should begin with a discussion of objectives. Regardless of the dramatic advances and variety of equipment and lures, we use to catch the fish now, the objective of today’s angler is exactly the same as the angler fishing back in the 1950s and 1960s. That objective is to catch a lot of fish and hopefully, land that fish of a lifetime that every angler seeks. Another, oft-overlooked reason people come here to fish is to get away from it all, to Henry David Thoreau’s quote above, “without knowing it is not the fish they are after”.

A lot of our history has to do with the “aura” Canada has as the “ultimate” freshwater fishing destination in North America. The Province of Ontario – with 250,000 lakes, rivers, and streams – has long been the go-to place for anglers from the United States and especially, from the US Midwest states. In the minds of many anglers, Sunset Country is a paradise in the literal sense of the word for anyone seeking that fishing trip of a lifetime.

Easy Access and Endless Lakes A Perfect Match

Located in the western part of Ontario and stretching from the Manitoba border to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, and north-south from the US border to Hudson Bay, Ontario’s Sunset Country seems tailor-made as a fishing destination. When you throw in the fact we have a land area of 100,000 square km (62,000 square miles) and the fact there are 70,000 fishable lakes in the region, it’s not surprising that so many Americans visit each year on a fishing trip. Some anglers come more than once a year and many have come every year for generations as a family.

Location Map of Ontario's Sunset Country

First Lodges opened in the 1920s

For the people who lived here in the 1920s, it was very apparent that we had a strong potential as a recreational fishing destination. The first lodges targeting American anglers were built in the 1920s, most on Lake of the Woods and other lakes that were in close proximity to the US/Canada border. Access was a big barrier back in those days as few roads existed and those that did were gravel and only went so far north. Many of the guests arrived on trains and then were boated into the lodge location. In the 1920s and 1930s, fishing was nothing short of incredible. Huge populations of every species swam in the lakes and it wasn’t hard to catch them. When you look back at old photos, the concept of “catch and release” was non-existent so basically, every fish that was caught was harvested to eat.

The 1920s-30s Photo Collage Courtesy of Hanson’s King Island Lodge

Tackle and Equipment in the Old Days

With the great variety of fishing tackle and equipment that we have available to us today, it’s hard to imagine the limited selection of rods, reels, and lures available to anglers in the first half of the 20th century.  But let's just say the selection was significantly more limited then than it is now.

P & K Incorporated Fishing Lure Ad – Circa 1950

As you can see above, the lure manufacturers promoted their products with the “they’ll catch lots of fish” strategy back in those days too – in this case, the ad above is from the late 1940s. Back in those days, it wasn’t really possible to go bankrupt buying too many new musky baits as you can today; the rod and reels used to cast or troll the lures had a more basic design and, from the prices in the ad, cost significantly less than today!

Heddon Rod and Reel Advertisement – Circa 1950

With a rod, reel, and tackle in hand, the tourist was ready to embark on their trip north. One of the expectations on the drive-up was the kind of boat and motor would they be given to fish out of. In the early 1920s, canoes were used for the most part but as you got into the 1950s and 1960s, wooden boats with small outboard motors were the standard fare. Mercury motors have been around a long time and as the circa 1950s ad below shows, have made steady improvements in their motor design when you compare today’s 4-stroke Optimax with the 1950s “Super 10 HP Hurricane”!

Old Mercury Motor Ad Showing the Motor Mounted on a Cedar Strip Boat - Circa 1955

What Did a Cabin Rental Look Like Back Then?

In the old days, cabins were more functional than fancy, and “rustic” would be a good way to describe them. Often made of logs there seldom was indoor plumbing and there was the outhouse behind the cabin. But people were used to that in those days and they were at the lodge to fish, not to enjoy fancy accommodations. Thanks to Hanson’s King Island Lodge for the photo below showing one of the original cabins at their lodge on Lake of the Woods (Circa 1928).

Original Log Cabins at King Island Lodge on Lake of the Woods – Circa 1928

The cabin above would have been representative of other cabins at other lodges as well. Usually made of locally-sourced logs (often from right on site), these cabins were all you needed to stay warm and dry after a day of fishing on the lake. Back in the day, the cost to stay at a lodge in Sunset Country was significantly less than it is today. Inflation has certainly impacted the price of a Canadian fishing vacation, but the good news is, a fishing trip to Canada is still affordable for just about everyone. The old promotional brochure from Viking Island Lodge in Red Lake shows that the times have definitely changed price-wise; the fishing, though, is as good now as it was back then, maybe even better!

Circa 1950s? Lodge Brochure – Viking Island Lodge, Red Lake, Ontario

Were Fly-in Fishing Trips Around Back Then?

There were a few, but not as many as there is today. The logistics of bringing anglers into remote, fly-in-only lakes was so difficult, that the industry didn’t really take off (no pun intended) until the 1950s, and really started to grow in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, fly-in fishing lodges and outposts still offer you that opportunity to see the land and lakes as they have been for centuries, where only 20 fishing parties per year fish the lake you’re on, and the cabins and equipment are modern and reliable. Catching over 100 walleye a day on the fly-in lakes and rivers in Ontario’s Sunset Country is not uncommon.

Fly-in Fishing Circa 1930s – Photo Courtesy of Hanson’s King Island Lodge

Fast-Forward to the Present

If we go from then to now, it’s hard to recognize some aspects of a Canadian fishing trip in the 1930s or 1950s compared to those offered today! The sheer variety of options that anglers have these days is amazing. Access types vary from drive-in lodges to Ontario boat-in lodges along with the aforementioned Canadian fly-in fishing trips 

In addition to enjoying the lodges, you can enjoy fishing and relaxation on our lakes today by taking an Ontario houseboat vacation, or for the more adventurous, a wilderness canoe trip. Today, you can get 5-Star accommodations in the middle of the wilderness, fully-guided fishing in a beautiful guide boat, or stay in a modern outpost cabin where you own the lake for the week. Many of these outposts have flush toilets, showers, running water, and all the cooking appliances you’ll need – many have a fish cooker on a wood deck overlooking the lake!

Today’s Lodges Offer Easy Living in a Wilderness Location – Photo: Kevin Palmer

Dramatic Changes and Advances in Equipment

The most noticeable changes of all have to be in tackle and equipment. Today’s tackle, boats, and motors, along with modern electronics, have made fishing very different in many ways – yet the objective remains exactly the same: to catch fish. Remember that 1955 Mercury Motor Ad? Well, below is one put out by Evinrude promoting its E-TEC 250. It's a little more motivating, and it will also get you around a lot faster to all the best fishing spots!

The Evinrude E-TEC 250 – No Words Required!

Today, Buying Fishing Tackle Can Make You Poor!

The author is speaking from personal experience here since I like muskie fishing and if you’re a muskie angler, you know that you can never have too many lures, especially bucktails! It’s not just muskie fishermen, either; bass anglers also spend tons of money on tackle. Just look at the screen cap below from Rollie and Helen’s Musky Shop catalog showing a small sample of just the bulldawg baits they offer!

Things have definitely changed!

Screen Cap from a Muskie Bait Catalogue – Selections for Just One Type of Lure!

Rods and reels have also changed dramatically, and it’s now easy to blow over $500 on a new rod and another $500 on a reel – or more! Boats are no different, with a selection today that ranges from $100,000 bass boats to more affordable (sort of) metal and aluminum fishing boats, which are definitely the best choice for our Canadian Shield lakes in Ontario’s Sunset Country.

The point in all this: serious anglers take their tackle and equipment much more seriously today than in the 1930s and 1950s. Today, big loans for big toys are the norm, and upgrading your equipment every few years is a necessity for many, even if the kids have to eat mac and cheese a few times during the week!

Have Things Really Changed That Much?

As I was writing this article, the thought came to me that while there have been dramatic changes to how we fish today, be it the boats we drive, the rods and reels we use, or the electronics which lets us see what’s happening underwater, etc., etc., the reason we fish is exactly the same!  Yes, it is still about the dream of landing the big one, of fishing on a beautiful summer day on a Canadian lake with absolutely no one else around, gazing at the incredible lakeshores and the wildlife and birds that can be seen everywhere. There is the anticipation of catching walleye in the morning, then going to an island and having a shore lunch of fish caught just minutes before they are cooked.

That, my fellow anglers, will never change!

About Gerry Cariou

Gerry is Executive Director of Ontario's Sunset Country Travel Association and is an avid fisherman and nature photographer. Gerry has been writing about Sunset Country's varied travel experiences for over 20 years and lives these experiences year-round in Kenora, Ontario.

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