The sun had not yet risen on a cold, late November morning as we headed down the dark highway towards the boat launch near Sorel on the St-Lawrence river just East of Montreal. It is the fourth oldest city in Quebec, once a major industrial sector with oil refineries and steel mills and processing plants and other heavy industries that were built on the shores of the river. There had once been giant shipyards that built frigates for the Canadian Navy and most of the industries that remained were involved in metallurgy, heavy equipment manufacturing, ethanol and grain processing plants, most with needs requiring their own dockage along the river to both ship and receive materials. These factories were surrounded by small,tough, working-class francophone communities where most of their inhabitants, like the generations before them, toiled in the industries along the river. It only seemed fitting that we would be fishing for the toughest fish in these waters.
The excitement in the air was tangible as we were with one of the best musky guides in North America, Marc Thorpe. As past National president of Muskies Canada and with his continued involvement in research projects with biologists and conservationist groups across the continent, Marc brings with him a wealth of scientific knowledge about the species, coupled with an uncanny ability to locate the big fish. He has been fishing these waters for over three decades and knows them like the back of his hand. His catch rates are excellent but no matter how many fish you catch during an outing you will also benefit from the added bonus of walking away with a greater knowledge and respect for of these fish. Part of our day’s agenda, discussed between copious sips of steaming coffee, was that any fish we caught would be subjected to DNA analysis and sampling for a research project he was currently involved in with fisheries biologists from the Ministry.
The public ramp was deserted and within minutes the boat was in the water and was headed out towards the channel. The sky was grey and ugly and threatened to break as we throttled down to drop our lures into the clear water behind the boat. In late Fall the most effective method of covering water and capturing these fish is by trolling big lures in deep water near schools of suspended bait fish, perhaps mooneyes, suckers, or even walleyes. At this time of the year the fish are feeding heavily and the cold has slowed down their metabolisms. The baits are generally worked at slower speeds as the fish aren’t inclined to chase them down as they would during the summer months. Some baits, particularly those with an exaggerated action at slower speeds – such as Kwikfish, Grandmas, or Believers – tend to be very effective when the water temperatures drop below fifty fahrenheit. The best colors in the gin clear waters of the St-Lawrence tend to be the natural colors, in variations of perch, walleye, and sucker patterns.
On the other side of the island a freighter blasted its horn as warning of its impending approach in the channel. It was a giant rusted hulk of a ship with white stars and a Russian marking on its hull. A lone sailor waved at us from high up on one of the aft decks, no doubt thrilled at the prospect of being back in port after a long ocean crossing. Historically, the woman in Montreal have always been the highlight of many a merchant marine’s shore leave in this city and several have wound up finding their soul mates and establishing roots, never to leave the country again. Since the beginnings of colonialism and the New World, the economic lifeline of this city and its history has always been connected to the river and its harbour, where most of our ancestors, immigrating from all parts of the world, fleeing wars or famines, first set foot in this country. To this very day the port of Montreal is the largest inland port in the world handling 26 million tonnes of cargo annually and remains Canada’s most important ports as it is a vital transhipment port for sugar, grain, oil, and certain other manufactured goods
The area which is today known as Montreal was first inhabited for more than 8000 years by the Iroquois, Algonquin, and Huron people. In 1535 Jacques Cartier became the first European to reach the area now known as Montreal, where he met with the local Hochelaga people. His passage had been blocked by the formidable Lachine rapids, so named as it had been thought that somewhere above them lay the route to China. The same year he renamed the river, which had previously been known as the Hochelaga and Canada River, in honour of the Deacon Lawrence.
As Montreal is an island surrounded by both the St-Lawrence River and Riviere des Prairies, water has always played an important economic role in the lives of Montrealers. It was here that the fur trade was first established in the New World by explorer Samuel de Champlain along what is today the Lachine canal. The St-Lawrence seaway – a complex system of locks, canals, and channels allowing the travel of large cargo ships from the great lakes to the Atlantic ocean – was officially inaugurated in 1959 at a cost of 479 million dollars and Queen Elizabeth II and president Dwight Eisenhower formally opened the seaway with a short cruise aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia after addressing the crowds at the new locks in St-Lambert. Since then the seaway has become a major economic driver of the city and a playground for people who enjoy all types of water recreation, including what could arguably be some of the best trophy musky fishing in all of North America.
The barge’s wake finally rolled in like a tsunami and sent the twenty-foot Princecraft bobbing up and down in the water like a float, although it was nothing the boat couldn’t safely handle. Other than getting hit by one of these iron mastodons of the seaway, the biggest nuisance associated with their passage was the weeds their massive propellers churned up to the surface that got snagged into your line and worked their way down to the lure. To prevent this from happening Marc had tied a neat rig above the eight foot leader, a rigid piece of plastic tubing that had been spliced and folded outwards, its splayed arms picking up the weeds before they travelled down the line and reached the lure. It was an ingenious device and although simple, worked quite well, as evidenced by the cabbage weed they kept picking up in the water.
The first strike - brutal and sudden and unanticipated, as is always the case - came on the short rod which was positioned on the inside ledge of the channel in about thirty feet of water. The fish surfaced almost immediately and began thrashing about like an alligator, shaking its head and rolling in the line to escape from its invisible enemy. But the fish was well hooked and was eventually coaxed into the large net that Marc stretched out into the water. The fish was remarkably obliging as we quickly worked to cut out the hooks and begin the revival process in the net. She had a tremendous girth and while we guesstimated the length to be around 40 inches the tape indicated that she was 43 inches. A solid 25 pound monster.
As she revived in the net, hanging from a cleat over the boat in the frigid water, Marc prepared both the equipment and paperwork required for the DNA study. A special tool to take a small flesh sample was used with surgical precision, then dropped into a vial of solution for maximum preservation, and marked with a small white label. The small incision was then covered in an antibiotic gel to prevent risk of infection. All of this took less than a minute, including the paperwork that needed to be filled out with the specifications of each catch, including length, girth, sex, and location of capture. Using a needle gun we also tagged the dorsal fin of the fish with a numbered code to identify it, and should it be recaptured and reported by another angler, there is a data trail on this fish to follow. This was all done while the fish was still recovering in the water. A quick photo and the fish was released over the side of the boat. It was an incredible experience to partake in the scientific aspect of this marvelous fishery, the results of which would ultimately play a critical role in future regulations concerning the fishery and ensuring the conservation of this remarkable species.
Then we realized we had a problem. The released fish had suddenly re-surfaced on its side about fifty meters behind the boat. This was not a good sign. We brought the boat around, both of us deeply concerned with her welfare, as we motored back in silence and simply grabbed her by the tail and held her upright in the water. She seemed strong but slightly disoriented, unable to maintain herself upright in the water, as though she had lost her sense of balance. Marc had seen this before in muskies caught from deep water, a condition arising from an air bladder problem from having ascended to quickly to the surface. It was like the musky bends. A second release attempt ten minutes later proved equally futile as the moment she dove down rolled over on her side and floated back up to the surface. She seemed really confused and unaware of what was going on as she repeatedly attempted to sound, but floated back up. It became an issue of grave concern and we brought her into shallow water, where a deep swim would not be an available option. The strategy seemed to work and we kept a vigilant eye on her for a half hour as she swam around the shallow water and then rested in some weeds and regained her balance before she finally slipping back off into the deep water. Total time on this release was over an hour and a half and admittedly, for both of us, far more of an accomplishment than its capture.
The rain finally came but only in the form of a slight drizzle instead of the rain showers that the weatherman had predicted. Our flame orange floater suits were more than enough to keep us warm and dry under the misty blanket of the river. In this country there is a saying that the weather is a given and if you don’t like it, wait another five minutes and it will change. Besides, as a general rule with these fish, the worse the weather got the better the fishing would be. Musky fisherman are not unaccustomed to foul weather in their pursuit of these legendary fish. Not long after the rain began one of the rods angrily sounded off with a good fish. It was a smaller fish but gave a great account of itself until we battled it into the bottom of the net. It was a fully mature male, close to twenty pounds, with green tiger stripes running along its cream coloured belly. It was a superb fish and was released without encountering any of the same difficulties as with our first fish.
The sun quickly dipped below the horizon in a fiery splash and darkness began to gather its grip around everything . It was time to go home. The flashing lights of the markers, as well as the honed instincts of somebody who has done this more than once, guided us through the darkness towards the parking lot. It was not even 5. p.m.when we trailered the boat up the ramp and drove back out onto the highway. It was rush hour and there was more traffic on the roads as long lines of cars pulled out of the steel mills and refineries after a hard days work and headed home to their families. Big trucks with heavy loads grumbled by, their drivers looking down at the boat with all the heavy-duty fishing gear, several honking and waving at our good fortune for playing on water while they had been toiling on land all day. It had certainly been a great day on the river.