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Sporting life recaptured
Jim Harrison
October 14, 1974
The scene in Ontario was reminiscent of the way it used to be in Michigan, an enormous flow of wilderness, full of rivers, lakes, forests and fish
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October 14, 1974

Sporting Life Recaptured

The scene in Ontario was reminiscent of the way it used to be in Michigan, an enormous flow of wilderness, full of rivers, lakes, forests and fish

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Among the strangest customs of fishermen in northern Michigan are frequent trips to Canada. I say strange because the fishing has been so good right here for the past few years, especially in Lake Michigan, which is only a mile or so from my farm. One cold evening in May, casting from shore, I caught an eight-pound brown trout and a 12-pound lake trout. I fished for a total of 20 minutes. Not that this happens every evening, but limits occur with regularity. And Lake Leelanau is only a mile in the other direction. It yields good catches of brown, rainbow and smallmouth bass. If you like to troll in the big lake, chinook and coho salmon are available in late summer, and fall brings some sturdy steelhead runs. I can also name three reasonably good brown-trout streams within an hour's drive.

So why go to Canada? It's not just to escape the Indiana farmers and arc welders from Detroit who clutter up northern Michigan to fish in the summer. Some of my friends even go to Canada in the dead of winter to ice-fish, if that can be imagined.

I think, rather, that in going to Canada you recapture a sense of what the sporting life was in northern Michigan (or Wisconsin, New York, Minnesota) from the late '40s to the mid-'50s: a sweet peacefulness with fairly abundant fish and game; threadbare cabins and kerosene lamps, war-surplus sleeping bags and musty tents. And even more pleasant, you bring back a time when woods, lakesides and riverbanks weren't littered with Day-Glo "No Trespassing" signs, when campsites weren't on the verge of computerization, when the big tract owners and farmers didn't care if you pitched a tent, under the entirely reasonable assumption you wouldn't muck up the land.

So in Canada there is this sense of something we have largely lost. Like tourists in England, you are shocked by the politeness and affability of the people. And in all the roadhouse stops that seem to accompany sporting trips, you don't feel that cold, ozone-tinged sense of violence so common now in American bars. This may sound like propaganda but it isn't. It's simply a reaction to a fine surprise.

Driving north in late May, as I did with three friends last spring, you see spring gradually disappear into the tentative beginnings of a few weeks past. The darker greens around your farm fade into paler greens until at the end of 400 miles you see only buds a few days old, and in the total landscape earth colors predominate. The last leg of the trip, from Thessalon, Ontario up toward Chapleau, is a sort of Appalachian feast, only without people—sheer rock faces, hills on the verge of becoming small mountains, fast-moving creeks—until you round another corner and see the great Mississagi River. Your trance is disturbed by the knowledge that the Mississagi is dammed at Aubrey Falls, which has diminished the fine fishing. But the Aubinadong River just up the road isn't dammed and you mean to have a go at the large brook trout it's rumored to hold.

When we reach a sign announcing Alvin Armstrong's Mashagama Lodge, we learn that we have to walk the last two miles—the rough trail won't accommodate our low-slung car. A Jeep is sent to pick up our gear, and the four of us (four fatties) are a little embarrassed as Alvin stares at the vast load of food and drink we've brought along for our week's stay, including cases of wine and ale. Though we have assured each other that we will eat fish all of the time, we have brought along chickens, a whole filet, an eight-pound chuck for chili, pastrami, lots of asparagus—just for starters. Too many of my camping trips have been marred by lack of protein, by fish that stay in the water unwilling to be eaten.

At first in the gathering dark Mashagama Lake looked small, but quick reference to a map showed that it is irregularly shaped, with only part of it visible from any single point. That first evening I was surprised to see a family of common loons swim by the dock less than a hundred feet out. Male, female and six little ones in gliding tow. I had not seen loons so close since my childhood. Later we heard their long tremulous wails far out in the lake, surely the strangest of all bird songs. I decided before sleep that if there was a bird living on the moon, that is the sound it would make.

The next morning we were all grumpy. We had announced to each other that we would begin fishing at dawn and we had barely finished breakfast by noon. No one had gotten up to stoke the fire and it had been cold.

But this was only an initial awkwardness, as was the slow fishing. It took two days to change our methods. For instance, there was no point in dry-fly fishing when there wasn't an active insect within a hundred miles because of the cold. The other three switched to trolling with light tackle using small Mepps spinners and a variety of spoons. I switched from my fancy dry-fly patterns to streamers but without much luck. The others caught enough lake trout between two and five pounds to keep us in wonderful breakfasts. Mashagama Lake trout were much better tasting than those we were accustomed to from Lake Michigan. They were fine-fleshed, virtually fatless, and their flavor resembled that of the Rocky Mountain cutthroat. Lake Michigan trout feed heavily on smelt and alewives, and though they're beginning to reach a grand size they lack that pure trout flavor.

After a few days of concern bordering on depression I began to catch both lake and brook trout on a large Spuddler Streamer. No matter how often one insists that fly-fishing is not properly a competitive sport it rankles to be outdone by spin fishermen. Despite the obvious grace of the sport, how can you proselytize for fly-fishing when you are a failure? Thus I was close to ecstasy when I went out alone and returned with a three-pound brook trout, flopped it on the table beneath cynical eyes and walked out the back door to get yet another ale from the cases we stored in the burbling spring behind the cabin. My pleasure was leavened a bit when I found out the others had brought back half a dozen brook trout from their trolling expedition. I wanted to be critical of the B�arnaise sauce that accompanied the roasted filet that evening but it was perfect. I sniffed the cork and was studious about the wine but that, too, was flawless. We were humble cabin dwellers in the vast north. Alvin had mentioned that he often heard the howling of wolves in the winter while tending his trap line.

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