Remembering Rice Lake

Back in the 1980’s I worked for Air Canada, which while providing me with zero by way of stimulation, job satisfaction and sense of fulfillment, did bung 10 free airline tickets my way every year. As a further sweetener, all AC staff (my how we teased the male flight attendants about being ‘DC’ as well as ‘AC’ - such wit) also received huge discounts on car hire and accommodation. Thus, before fallopian roulette shot us all in the wallet and children appeared like so much unshakable excess baggage, instead of doing our weekly grocery shopping at Brent Cross or the nearest Arnedale - we’d knob-off to Toronto, Montreal or the West Edmonton Mall, which is like a shopping continent under glass. Anyway, the abundance of freeby tickets and discounted travel made week-long Canadian fishing trips easier to do than your average three-day bivvy-up on your very average club water.

A mate of mine did the initial sorting out of the fishing trips and came up with the Rice Lake resort, going mainly on a novel method of research which entailed phoning the Rice Lake complex, asking to be put through to ‘cabin number 12’, or whatever, then interrogating the occupants as to what the place was like. It worked for us, Rice Lake turned out to be Nirvana, Valhalla and Shangri-La all rolled into one - with no trace of Milton Keynes or Benidorm what so ever.

Despite its near 35 miles of shoreline, Rice Lake hardly rates a mention on the map of Canada. This country is so vast that it never fails to stagger my English country boy’s sense of proportion. One way to get a bit of a handle on it, is to realise that after leaving Heathrow and flying for seven hours in a 400 mph 747, as you cross the tip of Canada over Newfoundland - you’re still closer to Heathrow than you are to the other side of Canada. Anyway, geography lesson over, me and the lads - there were six of us on that first trip - arrived at the lakeside all full of gleeful anticipation, plus around a gallon of Molsen Export each and the shared contents of my litre of duty free Southern Comfort. ‘Twas a fine start to any fishing campaign.

What made it finer, was the ‘little log cabin’ we’d rented. Oh my. Oh my, oh my - and plenty more where they came from. For ‘little cabin built of wood’ read ‘bloody great chalet knicked from Hollywood’. We are talking split-level floor plan, fully fitted kitchen, stone fireplace the size of the N.E.C., comfy chairs all over the gaff, airy duveted bedrooms (5 of) and the interior totally tricked-out in knotty pine and brass fittings. Oh yes, and a double-headed axe like you see in the movies, for laying into the log pile with, when the N.E.C. sized fireplace needed feeding again.

Add three boats, our own private dock, a monster bar-b-que, Rice Lake a‘thrash with gamefish - and ...I’m afraid you’ve still only scratched the surface of the place. By the way chaps, don’t go thinking that I approved of such opulence. Oh no. I wanted to tough it out under a rude shelter of birch twigs and moss and heat my strips of beef jerky over a caribou-dung fire - that’s what I wanted. Tragically, my girly mates just wouldn’t fish properly. reluctantly gave in after a commendable 27-second protest.

Next morning, I hit the lake at first light, accompanied by Mike who was the only one of our lot to have fished Canada before. We’d geared-up with a pair Mike’s US made 6-foot spinning rods, he had a mini-baitcaster and 6lb. line, while I went for 8lb. line and a neat little fixed-spool I’d had for ages but can’t remember the brand name of. During the drive down from Toronto airport, we’d stopped at a fishing store and loaded up on lures, including dozens of rubber worms, rubber frogs, rubber fish and just for a laugh, a rubber cricket with a smiley face. We also bought some spoons for jigging, a mega-box of longshank hooks - with barbs on the shanks to secure the rubber worms - and a mix’n match selection of general tackle and bits.

Rigs were dead simple, just 18" of 15lb. trace, with a snap-fit terminal swivel to make lure-changing easier, a tapered worm-weight and the longshank hook, upon which was threaded a spangly worm with a wiggly flat tail. Hope I’m not being too technical for you guys. To keep the worm as weedless as possible, only the very point of the hook was showing and we relied on the ferocity of the takes to expose the hookpoint proper. We were rarely let down by the bass in Rice Lake.

Mike was gunning the outboard (see how I’m dropping into outdoor writer-guy-speak, now?) toward a distant acreage of lilies he’d spotted and we’d been going for around 20 minutes when I told him to stop the boat and nose it into a small bay to our left. Mike thought there was something wrong and asked me why I wanted to stop. I told him that I thought there would be bass in the tiny bay and his face was a picture. I knew exactly what he was thinking. ‘How the **** would you know where bass might be hanging out, when you’ve never even seen a ***kin’ bass in your ***kin’ life.’ But he was little and I was determinedly enormous, so we drifted into ‘my’ bay for a cast or two.

Three lobs in, I connected with a fiesty little bass of 3 pounds or so, which smashed into my worm as I twitched it past a clump of submerged tree roots. My first smallmouth bass tailwalked like a marlin, threw its head back to howl at the moon - and threw the hook while I watched its gymnastics open mouthed. The bass was open mouthed, too - that’s how it threw the hook. Lesson learned. Half an hour and seven bass later, Mike and I resumed our journey to the lilypads.

He asked me how I’d known that there would be bass in the bay. I told him that I’d spent half my life hunting fish, animals and birds, and that like all dedicated hunters, I’d developed a sense of where animals ‘should’ be. The fact that I was hunting on the other side of the world made no difference at all. The bay looked right and several places within it seemed right to be holding fish. In the old days, I’d be hunting them with a bow, spear or snare, but before I could catch them, I had to locate them - so that’s all I was doing now. I’d given up hunting long before that fishing trip, but the lessons and instincts remained, as they do to this day.

By the time Mike and I were halfway through that first expedition, our roles were clearly defined. He was the technical expert, in charge of rigs, methods and tactics, while my job was to put us on fish. We stuck together for the first two days, fishing dawn to dark and recording a success rate that Mike said was way above anything he was used to. With so much shoreline to cover in search of bass and pike, plus the depths of the midwater to plumb for walleye, our week was never going to be long enough for us to do everything and try everything we wanted. Mike loved to go after the walleye and dreamed of hooking into a m
usky, while I just loved to hunt bass by sight, firing lures at their lairs and hotspots until infuriating them into launching an attack.

With Mike intending to devote the third day to his pursuit of big pike and walleye, I threw my lurebox into the boat and took off for an untried area, some three miles away on the far side of the lake. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. I caught 18 bass, to five pounds plus a 12-pound pike that gave itself up by leaping into the boat with me, throwing the and all but leaping out again. After the last bass was landed, I realised I was tired and lay back on my life jacket for a doze in the afternoon sunshine.

I awoke from my wave-rocked slumbers, to the sound of an osprey diving onto a bass, not 20 yards from where I lay in the boat. The big bird missed with his first dive but must have damaged his prey because as soon as he’d made sufficient height to mount another raid, he angled his wings and boomed into the same spot - this time hauling a very nice bass into the air before the spray had settled. Utterly magnificent and a privilege to witness. During that one week, I saw a family of raccoons visit the water’s edge, walking Indian-file behind their parent, I caught a bullfrog the size of my head (beeg mutha of a frawg) by jiggling a rubber worm over the lily it was lying on, and watched a five-pound bass leap two feet from the water to take a swinging lure that I’d wrapped around an overhanging branch. Superb stuff - and I’m definitely going back there to do it all again one day.

Before I close this one, I’ve got to tell you about one of the fishing party, and how I nearly frightened him to death. Be aware, gentlemen, that not a word of exaggeration is used in this tale.

Glen, a blonde, skinny and unfairly spotty 22 year-old, was, so he told us, a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, type, who loved nothing more than to be in the great outdoors. Wrong. Glen was a mummy’s boy and terrified of anything that squeaked, rustled or crapped in the woods, not to mention being phobic about fish. Yes, fish. He managed to catch a tiny bass one day, which threw the hook as it came over the boat, dropping into the rainwater that had collected in the gunwales. Well, the wee bass splished its way toward Glenn and all but had him climbing into the lake in terror. Oh dear, Glen. Oh very, very, dear, Glen. For now, you are fair game.

After being almost raped by the crazed bass, Glen gave up lure fishing altogether and concentrated instead on catching what the locals call ‘panfish’, mainly bluegills and perch as far as I remember. This involved nothing more than dangling a handline over the side of the boat, with a barbless hook, using a freelined piece of corn as bait. Glen, it turned out, was also afraid of worms, so corn was his hookbait of choice, while anything he caught would be jiggled about on the handline until it unhooked itself and fell off. No amount of cajoling would force Glen to touch any fish without it first being deep fried in a batter coating, so we eventually left him to it. Until the day I damn near killed him.

On that day, Glen and I were fishing quite close together and he’d already had palpitations when he disturbed a beaver, which plunged into the lake with a most impressive smack of its tail before diving beneath Glen’s boat. Clutching his heart and staggering around in the boat, Glen gasped over to me, ‘Fort it was a f***kin’ bear or somefin’, mush! Fort I’d ‘ad then, mush, straight up. F*** me I was frightened, mush!’

If I’d had one of those curly moustaches so beloved of silent film villains, I would have been twiddling it at that point, my eyes a’gleam with evil intent. Glen had to have some. It was my duty as a true friend - and heartless bastard.

Now, in an effort to be more ‘at-one’ with the glory of Rice Lake, and to facilitate un-tethering of fish, I always had a snorkel, flippers and mask with me in my boat. With Glen settled to his pan-fishing once more and staring intently into the depths at his piece of corn, I donned my sub-aqua gear and slipped silently over the side of my boat. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

I reached Glen’s boat in seconds and, taking the deepest breath I could, sank beneath the water. I was an experienced swimmer in those days and fit enough to hold my breath for quite a while, so it was no bother to dive to the bottom, pull up some fronds of elodea and head toward the hull of Glen’s boat. I deliberately slammed into the hull and rocked it as hard as I could for quite a while, before exploding onto the surface while holding the weed in front of me and screaming through my snorkel. Gentlemen - the effect was remarkable.

Glen was shrieking in terror from the second he felt the boat struck from below. He’d looked over at my boat for help, only to find that whatever was attacking him had already got me and was moving in for the kill. Glen told me later that, when I erupted from the water, festooned with pondweed and trumpeting like a maniac, he thought I was ‘That f***in’ Jason-geezer from Friday the f***kin’ Firteenf, mush.’ I am extremely proud to report, that Glen pissed himself when I broke the surface of Rice Lake, and to his entire credit, had the courage to admit as much when we got back to our chalet. One or two of us nearly did the same each time Glen related the tale to the lads as they came off the lake.

Canadian fishing? You gotta do it. Ask Glen!

Terry Doe