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Adventures With B: Ontario Musky (Pike) Fishing on Eagle Lake

In search of big Canadian fish and getting "musky fever"

Photo by: Kyle Emslie

Musky fishing is the alpine climbing of the rod and reel world. It requires patience, almost never pays off, and you’re almost always cold and wet, in the autumn anyway. I’ve caught nearly every freshwater Canadian fish, like pike, walleye, Arctic grayling, king salmon, bull trout and everything in between, but I’ve never caught a musky.

Musky are only found in a small geographical area, basically around the Great Lakes in Ontario and Quebec and some U.S. states. Musky are called the fish of “10,000 casts” and legends of 100 pounders being, not caught – but seen, have been the stories of lore at lakeside pubs for a century.

Nowadays, records are measured by the length of a fish, because weight is easy to cheat, and a 50-inch musky is every musky fisher’s goal. I recently spent a few days on Eagle Lake in Northwestern Ontario with my old friend Kyle Emslie in hopes of catching my first musky. You see, it’s musky season and Emslie is a pro musky man with over a dozen almost-50-inchers to his name.

He’s never boated a 50-incher, but he’s seen one. He had it on his line last year, but the fish got off. You can check out his Instagram below for some trophy fish. Having a musky on your line that’s 50 inches and losing it, well that’s the worst thing that can happen to you as a fisher. It will haunt your dreams and result in a life of focused fishing until you find it again.

Emslie works as a top environmental consultant at an iron mine on Baffin Island. The 800-person camp ships out huge amounts of iron every week, mostly to Europe. He works one month on, and then he has one month off. During that month off, he goes fishing.

There are two ways to catch musky: casting and trolling. Casting often results in a musky following your lure to the boat, and that’s why after every cast a musky fisher keeps their line in the water and drags the tackle boat-side. Emslie told me that 50 per cent of musky are caught boat-side and bite during your boat-side tackle-in-the-water drag.

Trolling, the preferred approach in fall, requires the fisher to have a burly boat, a durable rod, a heavy-pound test line and some big tackle. How big? The 13-inch Grandma and 10-inch Musky Mania Jake are the most commonly used.

The topic of musky fishing has been covered in countless books, magazine articles and T.V. shows, so I won’t be going into great depth about the topic, instead I’ll stick to our few days out on the water.

Emslie a few years ago with a big musky, but not 50 inches

Musky are similar in shape and size to pike, but pike eat more often and are found around North America and Europe. They’re easier to catch, but pike bigger than 30 inches are rare.

I’ve been catching pike since I was a little thing spending my summers at my family cottage on Lake Manitowabing near Parry Sound, Ontario.

My dad, who worked in the grocery business, scored us a fishing trip with the stars of Canadian Sportfishing, a show that I watched every Sunday morning.

At La Reserve Beauchene, I got to fish with my heroes and boat trophy-size-for-me pike and lake trout. Italo Labignan is the Barry Blanchard of Canadian fishing.

With Italo Labignan in 1991 in Quebec Photo Curtis Pullan

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake is located between Kenora and Dryden near Vermilion Bay. At 68,000 acres and over 110 kilometres long, it’s one of the larger and most diverse lakes in the area. There’s walleye, northern pike, muskie, lake trout and smallmouth bass, and trophies of each are caught every year. The lake is broken into bays, channels and inlets, each with their world-class fishing holes.

Ask a guide or local fisher where the best place to go fishing is; it’s like asking a climber to tell you about an epic unclimbed mountain face. It won’t happen.

Emperor’s Pike

A pike caught in Mannheim, Germany, in 1497 was said to be 19 feet long and weigh 350 pounds. It became a thing of legends. Conrad Gessner wrote about it in his Historia Animalium in 1558 and said the pike had a copper ring around its gills bearing an inscription that indicated it had been put on by the late Emperor Frederick II in 1230, 267 years earlier.

The Emperor’s Pike vertebrae was preserved in the Mannheim Cathedral and investigated in the 1970s. The result showed that the legendary fish was a fake and the vertebrae was a composite of other fish bones. I included this because you’d never heard of the Emperor’s Pike and because, like climbing, sometimes Rum Doodle stories can inspire generations.

Musky (Pike) Fishing

I was fresh off climbing new rock routes in Sudbury and Thunder Bay and was ready to switch from vertical to horizontal for a few days. Emslie lives on Eagle Lake, near Eagle Lake Fishing Lodge, and has a new-ish Alumacraft musky fishing boat with a 90-horsepower motor that can handle the big waves of Eagle Lake.

Living with Emslie for the winter is a guide from the local fishing lodge, Adam; I didn’t catch his last name. Adam told me that the fishing lodge’s business was way down because most of their clients come from the U.S.A. With the border closed due to Covid-19, it was their slowest year in over a decade.

Emslie and Adam had been out musky fishing the day before I arrived, Adam had caught a 38-incher using a Jointed Believer. It hit 30 seconds after they started trolling, which is almost unheard of. Emslie and I left from the lodge boat ramp and zipped across the calm water to some of his fishing spots. We trolled for a few hours with little action. Bald eagles soared above every few minutes.

Kyle and Koda in transit

We stopped to cast Bucktail Spinners to an area that was too full of cabbage weeds to fish in summer. I caught a pike; it was small but felt good to get us on the board. We started to troll again, Emslie at the helm with his rod in the holder and me standing near the bow holding my rod.

I was using a 10-inch Musky Mania Black Perch; and Emslie was using a new $100 secret weapon that I won’t divulge here. As we passed a rocky point, a fish hit hard. The tip of my rod bent, and the line screamed out. I set the three treble hooks and reeled like mad.

Emslie brought in his lure, which was only 35 feet behind us, and grabbed the net. Netting a big fish is an art, and he’s one of the best. “It’s a musky,” said Emslie. “Wait, maybe a pike… wait, maybe a musky.”

He hucked the net under the chunky fish and we saw that it was a big pike. I was ecstatic. He de-hooked it and I reached under its meaty gill for the lift. After a few photos and a measure, we let it go. It was 37 inches, my biggest pike by a long shot. Even Emslie was impressed.

Eagle Lake pike on Oct. 10 Photo Kyle Emslie

Emslie and I practice catch and release, which means all the fish we catch go back in the water. It ensures a healthy population, and let’s be honest – skin mounts are so 1980 and the smaller species make for better eating.

After the big pike, we continued to troll, but with no hits. We went back through big waves to the launch, took the boat out of the water and went home to drink beer and make a plan for the next day.

The following morning took us to the Back Channel and remote shorelines. I had a few hits in the first hour, so I reeled in my line. A big musky followed. I saw my first musky. We dropped the trolling rods and started to cast Bucktail Spinners, but we never saw the musky again.

“That’s 80 per cent of catching a musky,” said Emslie. Some musky fishers are happy with a few follows a day. With 17 hours logged on the water in two days, I packed it up and continued my drive to the Canadian Rockies for some early season ice climbing.

I’d heard of “musky fever” before, but now I have it. I can’t wait until next fall back on Eagle Lake with Emslie and friends. He said to time my visit with a certain moon phase, because musky like to hit around that time. But that’s all top secret.

Musky hunting is the alpine climbing of the fishing world and if you like fishing, you gotta try the musky kind. A big thanks to my dear friend Emslie and his pup Koda for showing me how much fun musky fishing in Ontario can be.

End of the day trolling on Eagle Lake

Other Adventures

Hiking Mount Harvey North of Vancouver
Animikii-wajiw “Mount McKay” in Thunder Bay
Hike, SUP and Fishing on Boom Lake
Hermit Meadows in Rogers Pass
Northwestern Ontario Paddle and Fish
Paddleboarding Historic Toronto-area River

About Adventures with B: My late friend Anna Smith, who lost her life Himalayan climbing, once said to me after an epic we had in Chamonix, where we got away unscathed: “Adventures with B are messy and unplanned but always fun.” This column will focus on skiing, hiking, SUPing, paddling, fishing and other adventures. A new alpine climb in 2020 was named in Anna’s honour, read about it here.

Lead photo: Kyle Emslie