IT WAS SOMEWHERE AROUND LAKE HURON that we decided to drive south towards hogtown and spend our last day fishing with Greg Amiel’s Fishing4Tails charter service for steelhead and king salmon before heading back down the final leg of the highway towards home. After one month of fishing everyday, we needed a little fishing to break the trip up and it was the perfect opportunity to finally fish with Greg. We had initially become acquainted through a variety of internet fishing social networks but this marked our first occasion to meet in person and fish together. Despite the sketchy last-minute arrangements, mostly exchanged through text messages as we worked our way across Northern Ontario, he was incredibly generous with his time and created a hole for us in his busy schedule.
The rendezvous was at his place at 4:30 a.m. and as we pulled up in front of his house, a familiar figure was already in his driveway inspecting his boat and changing a rear light bulb on his trailer that had burnt out the night before. Within a few minutes the repairs were made, the gear loaded into the boat, trailer ties re-checked and we were headed down the DVP towards downtown Toronto where we would put the boat in somewhere near the harbour front area. The ramp was deserted save for a few empty cars and a police cruiser idle in the parking lot. A flock of seagulls had laid siege to a pile of garbage bags whose contents were scattered all over the ground. An older gentleman was fishing for carp off the dock with his grandson and sheepishly admitted to not being a very good fisherman as they had not yet caught a fish.
The city of Toronto is one of the oldest cities in the country with a long history. People have lived here since shortly after the Ice Age when First Nations tribes like the Seneca, Mohawk, and Cayugas lived peacefully along the shores of beautiful Lake Ontario. The modern urban city dates back to 1793 when it was established as a military post as part of Upper Canada to improve the defences against an American invasion, which it later did, playing a pivotal role in the War of 1812 successfully repelling American offences. At that point in its early modern history less than five hundred souls inhabited the area called Fort York but because of its continued importance as a colonial capital it attracted institutions, such as banks and schools, which brought people with them and in the era of industrialization just after Confederation, the city grew at a rapid pace. It was incorporated as Toronto in 1834 and became the main destination for most immigrants to the country. The city known as Hogtown (because of its meat processing plants) eventually supplanted Montreal as the country’s financial and cultural capital, and in 1976, the year the separatist Parti Quebecois party was elected in Québec, a massive internal migration of anglophones (and their institutions) saw Toronto overtake Montreal as the largest city in Canada and the economic driving force behind the country.
It is also the city that most other Canadians, particularly Montrealers, for a variety of reasons, love to hate.
We motored across calm waters just as the sun began to rise over the city and light up the skyline of downtown Toronto. The familiar postcard landmarks of the city – the CN Tower, Rogers center, and the tall mirrored skyscrapers along Bay street, the financial epicenter of the country – soon came into view, resplendently bathed in the soft morning light. While mostly deserted at this hour of the day, the downtown streets would soon be bustling with noisy traffic and businessman in sharp suits and silk ties seeking their fortune and glory as they struggled their way to the top of the corporate ladder. Having never really bought in to the conventional thinking that wealth and all its trappings led to happiness, and both us of being somewhat free-spirited fish bums, we had other plans for the day and the only riches we sought had silver scales and slime and could only be mined somewhere in the depths of the turquoise lake that lay ahead of us. ( Somewhat ironically perhaps, Greg is a silversmith and jeweller by profession but prefers fishing for silvers)
In about four hundred feet of water, the first set of lines were dropped down, four long rods in total, running flasher boards and flies on downriggers and dipsy-divers at varying depths from twenty to a hundred and twenty feet under the placid surface. Massive schools of alewives or ciscos showed up on the sonar like dark clouds and just below them some larger markings, which were the salmon. It would soon be go time. All eyes were focused intently on the screen and on the rods, waiting to strike silver. Greg kept an eagle eye on the screen and each time we marked a good fish he quickly adjusted the line depths to the readings to get our passing flies across their faces, but the fish were decidedly uncooperative. A few minor adjustments were made with the terminal tackle, flasher boards switched from chartreuse to silver holograph, flies and spoons also changed, but after a few passes through the same lock-jawed group of fish we reeled up our lines and moved to prospect another area across the harbour. The markings here indicated a deep trough where upwelling currents mixed, holding heavy concentrations of bait fish. Some of the flashers and flies were switched again for different colors and the lines went out again on their mission prospecting for silver. One of the rods was set up with a cut plug herring and while it didn’t always produce numbers like the flies, it tended to attract the bigger fish – he called it the meat stick.
The first fish hit the starboard side downrigger, the one with the steel line and fly, peeling out a good three hundred feet of line on its first brutal run. It was a real screamer wand ith the sensitive steel line you were so connected to the fish that you could literally feel each shake of the head. Unlike monofilament, there is zero stretch in this line and all energy is transferred directly to the rod. According to the line counter on the reel, it surfaced a two hundred and thirty-five feet behind the boat in a silver boil and tailwalked across the clear blue water before sounding back to the safety of the deep. There could be no doubt that it was a King salmon. Nothing else that pulls like this out here. The long downrigger rod was bent into a deep arc and each foot of line re-gained back on the reel was a brutal tug-of-war. These fish are really strong and they will hurt you and make your arms ache. They are indeed brutes and need to be worn down on their own schedule, and within fifteen minutes the fish lay on the deck of the boat, glistening like a giant bar of silver. A small lamprey mark, while healed, had left a slight scar on its belly. The hook was quickly removed and after a quick snapshot it was released back in the water.
It was another hour or so before the next fish hit and it gave me an opportunity to discuss strategy with Greg and get an introduction to the various patterns and techniques involved in Great Lakes downrigger fishing, the equipment and methods of which I was entirely ignorant of, if not in theory at least, certainly in terms of practice. It didn’t take long to realize that Greg really knows what he is doing and is one of the most passionate anglers I have ever had the privilege to meet. He is a master of his sport, self-taught, winner of several prestigious salmon tournaments, holder of I.G.F.A line class records, and multi species angler to boot. He is also very patient and humble about his numerous fishing accomplishments and serves as a great role model and mentor to others seeking to unlock the mysterious alchemy of Lake O silver.
The next fish hooked was an airborne steelhead that hit the short line and almost jumped itself into cardiac arrest before we could pull the rod from the holder. We counted close to ten jumps before we even touched the cork. It was a good fish with beautiful scarlet markings but nowhere near as combative as the mighty King; that was like hooking into a passing semi truck on the 401. The steelhead had completely exhausted itself from its acrobatics. As we released it back into the water I looked around and noticed that other than a sailboat in the distance there were no other boats on water. We were two miles from shore in the largest metropolitan city in Canada in a lake full of salmon and we were virtually all alone. The thought crossed my mind that if it wasn’t Toronto this place could actually be heaven….