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Nipigon River Brook Trout  at Cabela's

Nipigon River Brook Trout

Author: Todd Whitesel

On crisp June mornings under the Ontario sky, the hills surrounding the Nipigon River appear almost mountainous. Rising up from the forest, large hulks of rock strain toward the sun. Below the hills and beneath the water, Salvilenus fontinalis swims in the rush.

Author Todd Whitesel with a fat brookie on the Nipigon.
Its olive-red body, deep in spots, is pocked with haloes of blue. A brook trout is almost too colorful for its aquatic lair. Do the northern pike that share these waters admire their decorated bodies? Or are they afraid of them? Here in 1916, a 14-pound 8-ounce brook trout was pulled from the river. The monster square-tail was over 31 inches long and no doubt had enjoyed many fish dinners during its lifetime. Maybe even a wayward pike? Peering down into the water, I wonder if one of its descendants could be swimming below.

The Nipigon is one of hundreds of tributaries flowing into Lake Superior, and like so many of its feeder waters, it is home to brook trout. Most of these fish are in the 8- to 12-inch range with a two-pounder being cause for celebration. Unlike many of the trickle streams and arm-wide creeks, the Nipigon holds big brook trout. Brookies, in sizes that most anglers relegate to a long since past era, still live here. Not a 500-mile trip into the bush, but a reasonable foray into the woods, can still produce fishing equal to a century ago.

Once called the "finest trout stream in America" by the Department of Fisheries, the Nipigon has been substantially transformed by three hydroelectric dams. The river is now divided into four sections. The most popular is the stretch between Alexander Falls to Lake Superior. Most recently, I fished this 15-mile pocket of water, hoping it would yield the big brookies of legend.
A fat brook trout fresh from the Nipigon
There are two schools of thought for fishing the Nipigon. The first argues that its deep, fast-running water makes fly-fishing a chore and advocates casting or spinning equipment to counter conditions. The second refutes this premise, pairing stout steelhead type tackle with heavy sink-tip lines and large gaudy flies. Either way, it's the fishing that matters, and if the idea of a five, six, or even a seven pound brook trout is appealing, after doing battle with one of these big river bruisers you'll soon forget all about tackle. I'll never forget my first look at a big brookie. It was almost too big for its skin, like an Arctic Char that had wandered too far south. Yet here was the fish I knew so well, the deep, vibrant colors displayed on an oversized palette.

I will confess; however, my last trip to the Nipigon found me in the corner of the conventional casters. While my fishing partner swung Wooly Buggers and Strip Leeches through the current, I tossed spoons, sinking minnows, and heavy spinners. I'm not anti-fly. I was merely conducting my own bit of research, deciding what methods were most effective. My experiment was short-lived when my accomplice struck the first fish. Unlike the gentle tug that ten-inch stream trout provide, this fish had the rod in a deep bow and was giving no quarter. I watched as my partner held tight, working to recover his line. Turn by turn the fish was led out of the current into a still stretch where we could land the fish easily. A solid five pounds of gleaming brook trout, that filled the net to near capacity, was the start of three days of fishing. The highlight was one brute that fell just shy of eight pounds.

The fishing was excellent but not always easy. Because of the Nipigon's size, it makes sense to fish from a boat. A 14- to 16-foot craft will suffice nicely. Plan on alternating motor duty, to keep the craft under control in the currents. Since many fish orient toward the bank, a boat allows covering both edges of the river thoroughly.
A small boat is best for fishing the Nipigon.
The key to fishing flies is providing plenty of stripping motion and never stopping the retrieve. A baitfish won't stop in its tracks to elude a giant brookie and you should never allow your offering to go slack. Casting a large fly and sink-tip require little more than a pick-up, a quick false cast or two and then you're back on the water. We targeted fish from the bank outward, letting lures swing with the current into midstream. Any downed trees, eddies adjacent to fast water, current seams, or boulders were instant targets as well. Fish likely structure, but don't forget to concentrate on the banks - they are where the bread is buttered on the Nipigon. In three days of fishing, I'd estimate 70% of our fish came next to or just off the banks.

Though much of the action here is below the surface, late evenings can put a smile on the dourest dry-fly fisherman. Catch an evening hatch here, and you won't soon forget it. Clouds of caddis rise in a dense haze like a winged bubble. If you're lucky enough to be here in late June to early July, then be sure to bring a few dry flies. Caddis, Stimulators, and Mayfly patterns are representative of the Nipigon hatches. Watching a giant brook trout rise to a fly on an Ontario summer eve is a memory that will help pass many winter days to come.

As we made camp for the final night, putting the rods aside, a breeze rose from the east bringing low clouds in dense billows. Three days of clear, high skies were giving way. Heaviness fell around, and rain by morning was imminent. I watched as wind drew a crease across the river like a run of falling dominoes. The sky was turning leaden and I shied away. My mind was rejecting the monochrome vista and reeling with visions of reds, and olives, and blue haloes; of 1916 when this world was still untouched and the waters and fish ran free.





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