Thursday, September 16, 2021

Nipigon
This region kicked out the world record brook trout years ago, and there are still some bruisers to be had on this massive Ontario system.
By Gord Ellis

Releasing a nice Nipigon brook trout. G Ellis

Brook trout are a fish of wild places. These beautiful trout don’t thrive anywhere near pollution, industry or too many people. Brookies require cold, clear, clean water to thrive and require upwelling springs to spawn. Most brook trout, no matter where in the world they are found, rarely reach a foot in length and live in small creeks and ponds. Places that grow giant brook trout—fish that are measured in pounds, not inches—are few indeed. The intrepid fly angler often looks to far northern Ontario, Quebec, or Labrador to catch a personal best brook trout. These fly in trips are definitely adventures and produce big fish, but they can strain the pocketbook. Fortunately, some of the best trophy brook trout fishing in North America can be easily accessed from southern Ontario by commercial flight or vehicle. And the Nipigon River is the place to be.

Located on the northernmost coast of Lake Superior, the Nipigon River is the largest tributary to Lake Superior. Situated just west of Thunder Bay, the Nipigon is huge and swift, with three hydroelectric dams controlling its flow. That great river drains Lake Nipigon, a massive, cold-water lake that easily could have been classified as another Great Lake. Lake Nipigon remains a wild place, with little human impact and limited access. The lake is undeveloped, and largely protected by government, and this has kept its fishery world-class. The Nipigon empties into Nipigon Bay one of the largest bays on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. All three of these areas provide incredible trophy brook trout fishing, with the possibility of a fish that could threaten the world record. That should not be too surprising, as the world record brook trout was caught in the Nipigon River on July 21, 1915. That fish weighed 14 and a half pounds and measured 31.5 inches. It’s one of the oldest records on the books. That great brookies genetics live on in Nipigon country today.

An average sized Nipigon River brookie. G Ellis

I have fished on the Nipigon system for nearly four decades. In that time, I’ve seen the brook trout fishery improve and the average size of the fish increase. That’s due to careful and strict fisheries management. Last year, the average brook trout in my boat measured 20 inches long and would weigh close to four pounds. Many fish were 23 inches or better with the largest fish topping 25 inches. That’s a brook trout approaching eight pounds. In 2021, nearly all fly anglers can expect to get their fish of a lifetime in these waters. But this is extreme brook trout fishing in formidable water. In addition, this is not the wild fly-in experience—you will see other anglers on most days. However, there is a lot of water to spread out on and boats can take you a long way from anyone.

Canadian fly angler Alyssa Lloyd and 24-inch Lake Nipigon brookie. G Ellis

Nipigon River
As mentioned, the Nipigon River is large, with many sections of swift, deep water. There are a few sections of rapids, but most of the historic white-water that drew anglers to the river 100 years ago have been drown under reservoirs. Yet brook trout continue to thrive in the river and use any current break, boulder or neck down to set up and feed. Due to the size and speed of the water, you need to use an 8 or 9-weight rod, with a sink-tip or full-sink line. Many Nipigon fly anglers choose to use a switch rod. This gear may sound extreme, but as soon as a six-pound brookie grabs your streamer and starts tearing downriver it will all make sense. More than once, I’ve had to convince an angler I’m guiding that they’ve actually hooked a brook trout and not a chinook salmon, rainbow or laker. These fish are very big and feisty.

Catch-and-release played a huge role in the comeback of Nipigon brook trout. G Ellis

Fishing on the Nipigon is mostly done from a boat. The angler works the bank or riffles, swinging large streamers, as the driver holds position. This is “chuck-and-duck” fishing, a million miles away from the delicate presentations most brook trout anglers are used to. Nipigon brook trout are primarily meat-eaters, with smelt, sculpin and stickleback high on the menu. For this reason large streamers, like Jim’s Smelt, the Marabou Smelt and the Pearl Slipper, tied on #2-#6 hooks are top producers. The smelt imitations are especially good in the spring and early summer when those silver baitfish are coming through the turbines. I’ve seen brookies come up and chow a four-inch smelt in one gulp. Swinging these smelt patterns in the fast water below dams can bring arm-wrenching strikes. Some of these smelt-fed brook trout are nearly saucer shaped, due to the gorging.

Gord Ellis guiding on the lower Nipigon River. Peter Brewster

Darkish patterns, like the Blacknose Dace, Little Brown Trout, Sex Dungeon and Marabou Muddler, pick up later in the summer when sculpin make up a large part of a brook trout’s diet. These patterns are best fished slowly and on the swing. There are hatches on the river, including a lot of caddis, stonefly and Hexagenia, in July and early August. Nymphing also pays dividends, especially if you see fish boiling on emergers. During a big hatch it never hurts to have a rod strung up with a floating line, ready if fish are showing on the surface. A large Stimulator or Chernobyl Ant in #4-#6 often draws attention from fish that are looking up. I’ve found Nipigon brookies are not super selective when they are eating off the top.

One of my most memorable Nipigon brook trout was taken on a dry fly. The fish was rolling along the far edge of the river and was taking caddis. I tied on a #6 Stimulator and did my best to get to the fish. It was a long cast, but I finally found the sweet spot and laid the fly down about 10 feet above where the brookie was showing. As the fly drifted downstream the water bulged and a huge, colored up brookie came completely out of the water. It was a thrilling sight, and that fish fought like gangbusters before finally coming to the net. It was an even 25 inches and likely weighted about seven pounds. I twisted the fly free and watched it swim off thinking, Not a bad brookie on a dry.

Why not wear a smile after catching a nice Nipigon brookie. G Ellis

On the Nipigon’s lower section, below Alexander Dam, “coaster” brook trout from Lake Superior start showing up in late July and August as they stage for the fall spawn. These fish are generally larger than the resident brookies and are quite aggressive, especially the hook-nosed males. The fishing for lake-run brookies is generally good right until the season closes on Labor Day.

You can wadefish the area in some places, particularly below the Alexander Dam. The water depth cans change due to fluctuations from the dam, so be aware of that when if you wade in. When water levels are low on the river, it opens up a lot more of the bank to the shore anglers. However, the majority of the river requires a boat to fish.

Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay is home to giant coaster brook trout. G Ellis

Nipigon Bay
As mentioned, Lake Superior’s brook trout are locally called “coasters” due to the roaming nature of these fish. Coasters are similar to a sea-run trout as they are very silver and lean, compared to Nipigon River resident fish. These brook trout are active as soon as the ice goes out in May and are usually found hugging the shore. Most people fish these cruisers from a canoe, kayak or boat, and work smelt patterns tight to the bank with sink-tip line. Most coasters are caught in less than 10 feet of water. An 8 or 9-weight 10-foot rod helps anglers punch out casts in sometimes heavy wind.

Peter Brewster and a Nipigon brookie that took a dry fly in August. G Ellis

Lake Superior brook trout gravitate to rock-strewn shorelines and points, especially if the wind is blowing up on it a bit. Another great option is to fish around river or creek-mouths, where warmer water flows into chilly Lake Superior. The river water draws smelt, suckers, minnows and insects, so coasters are never far away. Wading anglers have access to coaster brook trout at many river-mouths and up the rivers. Lake Superior brook trout follow spawning suckers into the rivers in May and gorge on spawn. This is when an egg pattern, or a colored bead works wonders. Deep pools and runs near the river-mouth will be your best bet.

The most remote fishing for coaster brook trout is found on the large islands in Nipigon Bay, in particular St. Ignace, Simpson, Wilson and Bowman Islands. The water around these islands is strewn with boulders and reefs, with a few small creeks running in. These are boat-only destinations, although there are a couple of outfitters that can get an angler out there for a few days. This water is crystal clear, and it is an amazing experience to see big brook trout appear behind a fly and inhale it as you are stripping in your line. Some truly huge brook trout swim these remote waters, with fish of up to 27 inches being recently recorded.

Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay is home to giant coaster brook trout. G Ellis

Lake Nipigon
Although the fishing techniques and basic fish locations are quite similar to Lake Superior, there are also some notable differences when fishing Lake Nipigon, basically a huge inland sea. For starters, thanks to the massive draw of the Nipigon River, Lake Nipigon has a fair bit of current. This is especially noticeable on the south end of the lake where the river exits. Because of this draw, you are often fishing current rips and breaks that look a lot like a river fishing scenario. These breaks draw both brook trout and other fish, like lake trout and pike. It is not uncommon to have massive pike eat a streamer in five feet of water on Lake Nipigon.

Lake Nipigon brook trout tend to have more color than Lake Superior fish and have a bit more girth in general. Yet they are keyed in on the same stuff, that being smelt, sculpin and stickleback. Lake Nipigon is one of the coldest lakes in Ontario and only has about 60 frost-free days a year. Even in July, you can find surface water temperatures that are in the low 40-degrees Fahrenheit range. This keeps the brookies quite active throughout summer and nosing around rock reefs, points and the many island that dot this great lake.

This 25.5-inch Nipigon brook trout is beginning to show spawning colors. G Ellis photo

Access to Lake Nipigon is not great, with the most complete marina facilities found on its east side at High Hill Harbor. There are also a couple of outfitters on Lake Nipigon that provide access and accommodation as well. Due to the sheer scale of the lake, a guide can be a great help to a first-timers on Lake Nipigon (or anywhere on the Nipigon system, really). The lake is also uncharted, which means reefs and other hazards are not marked. Boaters always need to be cautious on this water.

It should be noted that the whole of the Nipigon system is managed to preserve a strong population of brook trout. There was a time, less than 20 years ago, when catching a trophy brook trout was a rarity. The fish had not been well managed and high bag limits mixed with poor water management left the brook trout on the ropes. Today, the bag limit for brook trout is one fish, and it has to be over 22 inches. That ensures the trout being harvested has spawned three times. Most anglers practice catch-and-release with these gorgeous and rare fish, and that has also improved the fishery. Lake Nipigon has a single barbless hook regulation and a slightly longer brook trout season than the river and Lake Superior, closing on September 15.

The access point to Lake Nipigon’s South Bay and all that rests beyond. This is the land of giant brook trout. Larger boats allow anglers to reach these fish even when the weather comes up . . . and get out of danger quickly when conditions deteriorate. This is big water with all the associated risks. Be prepared for anything. G Ellis photo

The Nipigon system is not for everyone. It can be a challenge to fly fish and it is not a numbers game. Yet, if you are looking for that fish of a lifetime, a brook trout you can think back on with pleasure, this is your place. And you can do it without mortgaging the house.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.