Walleyes Gone Wild: A Field & Stream Adventure

There are lots of ways to catch walleyes that don't involve nasty rapids and remote country. But they're not nearly as much fun. WITH BONUS PHOTO GALLERY FROM DUSAN SMETANA

Field & Stream Online Editors

I catch the first fish at Deadwood Portage. It's a nice 3-pounder that takes a curly-tailed jig bounced through a short, rocky rapid. The walleye flashes its signature gold-green flanks. Dinner fish, I think and thread it on a blue nylon stringer: metal tip through the bottom of the lip, then through the O-ring to snug it down. For just a moment I wonder about the satisfying act of putting a fish on a stringer. How many times have I done this without a single second of reflection about how fortunate I am to be able to catch, clean, cook, and eat my own fish? I slip the stringer into the water and the introspection goes down with it.

From here we have 4 more miles of river to paddle, another portage, and a stiff Class II rapid to run with fully loaded canoes. Already we've come far: Last night a train dropped us off in the middle of black-dark nowhere for a rough bivvy by the Canadian National Railway tracks. We slept off a 20-hour travel day until midmorning, then pushed the boats through Peterbell Marsh to the Missinaibi River, a languid, amber-colored waterway hemmed in with spiky grasses. Bleary-eyed and saddle sore before our first canoe stroke, we paddled north. Now we have more paddling ahead of us, wood to gather, a fire to build, fish to fry, and tents to pitch, and the sun is dropping fast. So far, I'm getting exactly what I'd hoped for.

River Runners
When most people think of walleye fishing, they think of big lakes, big outboards, downriggers, lead-core trolling lines, and crankbaits running so deep the fish need eyeballs the size of gumdrops.

But we had a different idea. My friend Peter DeJong and I knew that not all walleyes hang out in white-capped lakes. We figured there were wilderness fish far up in the northlands, walleyes that rarely saw a hook, never heard a motor, and shared waters with pike, moose, and sandhill cranes. DeJong is a big, burly, bearded Canadian, the kind of guy who wears wool plaid when it's 90 degrees and still uses a tumpline. Together, we hatched a big, burly, river trip in the voyageur style. We'd run whitewater rapids, cross empty lakes, hump our gear through bogs and woods, and fish our way through boreal Ontario. And we'd do it along one of the most historic fur-trading routes in the land of the maple leaf: the Missinaibi-Moose River corridor.

The shortest route between Lake Superior and James Bay, the Missinaibi pours through a 265-mile-long corridor of boreal forest and Canadian Shield rock. In deep time, nomadic bands of Algonquin-speaking natives paddled the river, marking passage with pictographs on exposed cliff faces. (Missinaibi translates to "pictured waters," after the reflections of these paintings.) Later, Ojibway and Cree plied the river. And from 1740 to 1880, it was a key trading route for trappers from the Hudson's Bay Co. and North West Co., both of which built trading posts along its banks.

It's empty country. The stretch of the river from Peterbell to Moose River is classified as "advanced, with difficult portages and remoteness." David Morin, whose company is one of a handful to outfit trips on the Missinaibi, says few of those who run the river also fish.

"They'll make a couple of casts one night and think that's all there is to it. It seems that hardcore paddlers just don't care about fishing. And hardcore fishermen aren't too interested in dealing with rapids."

But we were. DeJong and I wanted it all, every totem and clich¿¿ of boreal Canada, all rolled into one week in the woods, with paddles and rods in hand. We added to our party photographer Dusan Smetana and Ontario native Lee Bremer, currently doing hard time in e Manhattan financial district. Soon enough, we stood by the CNR tracks in the dark and watched the train's lights slowly disappear in the distance.

The Tuke
For a day and a half we paddle, float, and fish through gorgeous stretches of river-long, languid pools where mergansers and river otters swim away at our approach. Because the Missinaibi is one of 39 waterways in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, its banks are protected from logging and development. The result: hundreds of miles of shoreline where ancient trees tumble in water clean enough to drink. Once Smetana reels in a 4-pound walleye near the riverbank. Its flanks shimmer with color. He holds the fish up. "At home in Montana," he says, "the walleyes are silvery. A little dull. Nothing like this. Such a gorgeous fish."

We dredge the water for its kin. To get to the bottom of things, I'm tossing an Arctic Fox deep-running spinner and, alternatively, a standard-issue chartreuse leadhead jig. DeJong fires off a Shad Rap, and Smetana swears by his "magic lure," a Storm Hot 'N Tot in silver and blue that he picked up at the last minute at a Timmons, Ontario, Wal-Mart. Each time he ties into a fish he sings out in his Slovakian accent, sounding like an Old World peddler, "Lure for sale! Magic lure for sale!" He's onto something, and he knows it.

I, however, am not. Maybe it's my Southern nature, my inexperience with any bottom-dwelling fish other than a channel cat. But I'm having trouble with walleyes. Smetana takes a look at my retrieve and sidles over for some quick advice.

"Are you feeling the tuke?" he asks.

"The took?"

"No, no. The tuke." He sounds out the word; it rhymes with puke. "You must retrieve so slowly that you feel a little tuke. Not a took. It is as if a rock has eaten your lure. Except it is a walleye."

I give it a whirl. Casting across a current seam, I let the spinner fall to the bottom. I start the retrieve, slowly bump-bumping the lure across the boulders. I feel it drag across a ledge and then the line goes slack as uplifted currents boil off the river bottom, lifting the lure like a leaf in a whirlwind. It drops again, the line slightly taut as the spinner falls, and then tuke! I set the hook and the rod comes to life.

I know just enough about walleye fishing to know that there are a lot of ways to catch them that don't involve canoes and white-knuckled rapids runs and long days in wild country. But I'm pretty sure there are none better.

Incident at Greenhill
Our first significant challenge-other than finding fish-comes during our second day on the river. Greenhill Rapids is a ¿¿-mile-long cauldron across the backbone of an esker, one of those weird rock formations created by the dragging fingers of a receding glacier. There's a dogleg turn in the middle and canoe-swamping pillow rocks all the way down. At low water it's too low, at high water it's crazy, and when the water is just right it is not to be taken lightly. We play it safe, portaging every bag, pack, and rod for a mile across hill and bog. Then Bremer and Smetana slip into the river. DeJong and I give them a half hour to make it through the rapids, then we push off. When I lick my lips, my tongue is dry as toast.

We run the big upper drops cleanly, bashing through high rollers, then eddy out behind a midstream boulder. From here on out there are drops, rocks, and souse holes aplenty, but a straightforward line through the melee beckons. "A walk in the park," DeJong figures, nervously, as we guzzle a quart of water and congratulate ourselves on a textbook start. That's when the wheels come off. I give the boat a strong forward stroke to reenter a hard current line but misjudge my downstream lean. The canoe responds by jerking violently to starboard. As I'm going over I get a glance at DeJong, high-bracing from the bow, but he knows the goose is cooked. In half a second we're both in the water, the boat between us, out of control.

For a couple of minutes it seems like no big deal. We roller-coaster for 300 yards, but then bigger boulders and nasty ledge drops appear. Our canoe lurches to a stop, pinned against a truck-size rock. The current washes me past the canoe as I make a desperate grab for a gunwale. Upstream, DeJong slips over a ledge and bobs to the surface. My OK sign lets him know I'm unhurt, and he returns it with a grin.

Just then he slams into a subsurface boulder. He hits it hard, the kind of hard in which bones end up on the outside of skin and rescue operations commence. His grin morphs instantly into an O of pain. He slides over a hump of foaming water and comes to an instant stop, his body downstream, right leg pointing upcurrent. The look on DeJong's face is as alarming as his posture, one foot trapped between rocks on the river bottom as the Missinaibi pours over his shoulders.

Twenty yards downstream, I can do nothing but watch as he struggles to right himself and keep his head above water. If he loses purchase and his free leg slips, the current will sweep him downstream and break his leg, if it isn't broken already. DeJong strains against the river current, at times completely submerged as he tries to twist out of the snare.

Suddenly he wrenches himself loose. Grimacing, he works across the river, and I gather a rescue rope in case he stumbles again. He makes it to the overturned canoe wild-eyed and panting, soaked and starting to chill. "I'm all right," he says. For a full minute neither of us speaks. "Strange way to catch a walleye, eh?" he says. We laugh the nervous laugh of a couple of guys who know they've dodged a bullet.

After we flip and bail the boat we grind down Greenhill's boulder garden with no technique whatsoever. Later that night, we camp below St. Peter Rapids. And after dinner we sit back from the campfire, bellies stuffed with fried fish eaten with our fingers-no side dishes and none desired.

"We came awfully close to ending our trip with a very expensive helicopter tour of Ontario," I say. "Not to mention a week of hospital food."

"It's scary how quickly things can turn bad," DeJong says. "Just when you think you've got it figured out..." His voice trails off, drowned out in the roar of the Missinaibi. Cedar smoke curls up toward a red sky, and we turn silent again, until the mosquitoes drive us into the tents.

The Tao of Walleyes
After Greenhill, we fall into a soothing rhythm. We sleep until 7 a.m., when the mosquitoes retreat back to the dark woods. Coffee and breakfast, a half hour of fishing the nearest rapids, then we pack the gear and boats and push off. And the days are long ones. Making camp by six gives us just enough time to fish out the two-hour sunsets. Then it's a race to get td. In half a second we're both in the water, the boat between us, out of control.

For a couple of minutes it seems like no big deal. We roller-coaster for 300 yards, but then bigger boulders and nasty ledge drops appear. Our canoe lurches to a stop, pinned against a truck-size rock. The current washes me past the canoe as I make a desperate grab for a gunwale. Upstream, DeJong slips over a ledge and bobs to the surface. My OK sign lets him know I'm unhurt, and he returns it with a grin.

Just then he slams into a subsurface boulder. He hits it hard, the kind of hard in which bones end up on the outside of skin and rescue operations commence. His grin morphs instantly into an O of pain. He slides over a hump of foaming water and comes to an instant stop, his body downstream, right leg pointing upcurrent. The look on DeJong's face is as alarming as his posture, one foot trapped between rocks on the river bottom as the Missinaibi pours over his shoulders.

Twenty yards downstream, I can do nothing but watch as he struggles to right himself and keep his head above water. If he loses purchase and his free leg slips, the current will sweep him downstream and break his leg, if it isn't broken already. DeJong strains against the river current, at times completely submerged as he tries to twist out of the snare.

Suddenly he wrenches himself loose. Grimacing, he works across the river, and I gather a rescue rope in case he stumbles again. He makes it to the overturned canoe wild-eyed and panting, soaked and starting to chill. "I'm all right," he says. For a full minute neither of us speaks. "Strange way to catch a walleye, eh?" he says. We laugh the nervous laugh of a couple of guys who know they've dodged a bullet.

After we flip and bail the boat we grind down Greenhill's boulder garden with no technique whatsoever. Later that night, we camp below St. Peter Rapids. And after dinner we sit back from the campfire, bellies stuffed with fried fish eaten with our fingers-no side dishes and none desired.

"We came awfully close to ending our trip with a very expensive helicopter tour of Ontario," I say. "Not to mention a week of hospital food."

"It's scary how quickly things can turn bad," DeJong says. "Just when you think you've got it figured out..." His voice trails off, drowned out in the roar of the Missinaibi. Cedar smoke curls up toward a red sky, and we turn silent again, until the mosquitoes drive us into the tents.

The Tao of Walleyes
After Greenhill, we fall into a soothing rhythm. We sleep until 7 a.m., when the mosquitoes retreat back to the dark woods. Coffee and breakfast, a half hour of fishing the nearest rapids, then we pack the gear and boats and push off. And the days are long ones. Making camp by six gives us just enough time to fish out the two-hour sunsets. Then it's a race to get t