Cats Whiskers & Skinny Dippers
My sons and I went camping and fly fishing on the Burnt River in Ontario. There were lots of smallmouth bass about, and a few skinny dippers as well. Find out what flies worked well for us!
Mosquitoes! No, not mosquito fly immitations, but the real things attacking us with a fury. As I sit writing this, the itchy bites still remind me of the fact that even though we poured Muskol all over our exposed skin, my sons and I found it had no effect on the mosquitoes of Central Ontario.
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We spent 5 days camping on the Burnt River, spending a great deal of time catching some of the most active and scrappy smallmouth bass I have ever encountered. Although the mosquitoes were certainly a major irritant, for me at least, it was worth the experience of catching and releasing dozens of these fish from the strong currents, rapids, and waterfalls of the section of the Burnt that we were camping on.
When a business associate of mine, Les Saunders of Britannia Printing discovered that my three sons, Alex, James, and Colin were visiting with me, he graciously made available his property near Kinmount, Ontario for our camping use. It was the closest to wilderness camping that my sons had ever experienced, although it was only about a mile from the town. Access to the property is best made with a 4X4, and we loaded up the old Blazer with our gear last week. Using the map provided, we found our way to one of the most beautiful sites one could camp on. The view from the place we would make our home for the next 5 days was tremendous! We set up our tents on a high piece of ground that overlooked a calm stretch of water. To the north of us, we could see a series of falls where water tumbled over rocks into pools below. To the south of the site, a much larger waterfall poured down and provided both a relaxing sleep inducing sound at night and a place during the day to awe at the power of the river.
Although the Burnt is a popular canoe route, there is still a sense of wilderness and solitude. One day, while walking up the river with my 10-year-old, James, I happened to look across and see the naked form of a male getting out of the water and toweling off. After observing us, he then threw his female companion a towel and both wandered off down a path. My apologies for interrupting you both! My son was too interested in the fishing to even notice.
Before arriving at the river, I had no idea what the fishing would be like or even what type of fish resided in the river. I didn't have much chance to do any research but was pleased to discover that it held so many smallmouth, a fish that can fight just as hard, pound for pound as any trout, in my opinion. Although the fish we caught were not big, they were plentiful. It was a great opportunity to try out different flies and probably the most productive was the Cat's Whisker, although others also worked quite well, including a Midnight Blue which a couple of fish seemed to viciously attack and of course the Muddler Minnow, a fly for all occasions.
The mosquitoes were really bad! Perhaps because of the damp summer that Southern Ontario has experienced this year, it has been one of the worst summers for being out in the bush and finding some relief from the nasty pests. One evening, we were literally wiping away dozens of skeeters from exposed skin at any given time. If we talked, we might find three or four of the insects had flown into our mouths! Nevertheless, we still had a great time and the smallies were most cooperative with us.
The Burnt River
A popular canoe route, the Burnt River offers scenic views through the southern region of Ontario known as Haliburton and the north-western edge of the Kawartha Lakes. Although only located about 2 hours from the mega city of Toronto, this area offers small town charm and a seemingly remote wilderness experience.
The Burnt flows from Canning Lake, north of the town of Gelert, through Kinmount down towards Cameron Lake in the Kawarthas. There are a number of camping opportunities, cottage rentals, and other accommodations such as bed and breakfasts in the area. For canoers, the river is well known for both one day and longer trips with fairly easy portages, the maximum being about 450 metres.
There is a trail for hikers, bicyclists, and in the winter, snowmobilers along the old railway line that runs between Kinmount and Lindsay. The trail covers about 36 km and in some areas, it runs right along the river. Although some of the locals claim that the river holds musky and pike, I didn't see any evidence of these fish in the section we were fishing. Rather, just an abundance of fiesty smallmouth and rock bass that are found in the swift moving currents and rapids as well as the calm holes.
Typical of the area's lakes and rivers, the water is also clean and swimmers can find lots of places to jump in and enjoy a refreshing dip. Beware that even though there is a feeling of remoteness about the place, and there is that temptation to skinny dip, there could be others around!
Be sure to visit the Icelandic Disaster Memorial in Kinmount, which was officially dedicated on July 31, 2000, to the memory of a group of Icelanders that immigrated to Canada and settled in the Kinmount area after the promise of work on the railway lines. The promise of work ended up a broken dream and the settlers suffered hardship.
For those planning a visit to Southern Ontario, Canada, a trip to the Burnt River should definitely be considered!
Getting There: From Toronto, take Hwy. 401 East to Hwy. 115/35. Go north, staying on Hwy. 35 after Hwy. 115 splits to the east. Remain on Hwy. 35 and go north of the town of Lindsay. Take Hwy 121 into Fenelon Falls and drive on about half an hour to Kinmount. Fenelon Falls is also a great place to visit, and is on the Trent Severn Waterway. Visit the Locks or fish the river. There are also a number of special events, festivals, and other activities to watch, see and participate in. For more information, visit the Tourist Information centers which are very accessible and helpful.
The Fish Of The Burnt River
For many fly anglers, trout is the ultimate fish of choice. There are many reasons why some anglers prefer the powerful rainbows, the wily browns and pretty brookies, but for some reason, bass often seem to be overlooked. When flyfishers lobby for special protection for rivers and other waters, you will usually discover that the water contains some type of trout or perhaps salmon. Most flyfishing publications concentrate on techniques and flies aimed specifically at trout. Feature articles on great flyfishing rivers discuss more about trout and salmon than anything else.
I have been fishing bass, both large and smallmouth, for as long as I can remember. Not only do smallmouth bass make great eating, pound for pound, bass are as fiesty as any trout. They are scrappy fish that can bend rods and offer the angler some very exciting fishing! Smallmouth bass can provide everything - deep diving runs, tail dancing jumps and the strenght to bend rods over while trying to throw the hook at the end of a line.
The smallmouth of Burnt River are no exception. Although they were not huge, the average fish being about 12 to 13 inches, they willingly took many of the flies offered to them, and once hooked, provided a great deal of fun. They took flies with a vengeance, hitting hard and fighting ferociously until they were landed. Many of them managed to shake the hook and escape being brought to shore.
Smallmouth bass can be found in almost every region of North America. Most are in the half to two pound range, and a fish over 5 pounds is considered a trophy! The record smallmouth weighed in at 12 pounds. Although it still has a fairly large mouth, it's mouth is smaller than its cousin's, the largemouth bass. It usually also has a greener colour to it and larger spots on the sides.
A smallmouth will eat insects, crayfish, and minnows, and sometimes their appetite can be quite voracious. I once caught a smallmouth that had two minnows in its mouth as well as my fly!
While exploring along the edge of the Burnt River, we found a small pool that contained a huge bass, about 20 inches long. We grabbed a fly rod, drifted a Cat's Whisker towards it and watched as it chomped down on the fly and immediately began to fight. The pool was not that big, and the fish had the advantage of being able to swim underneath a couple of different rock ledges in the pool while my rod was bent right over. We didn't have a net handy, which added to the difficulty of landing the fish and I was concerned about breaking the light leader, especially with this fish looking for cover underneath the rock ledges. Finally, the fish was landed but he managed to make a final jump, breaking the leader and flopping back into the river.
Although smallmouth bass are plentiful in some areas, in smaller waters they are prone to being overfished. Perhaps they do not garner the same interest among fly anglers as the trout, they are no less deserving of respect and conservation as any other game fish. There is a lake in Central-western Ontario near where I used to live that had a healthy population of bass. After a popular fishing magazine published an article about some of the large fish that could be found in this lake, there were literally crowds of people flocking up from the city hoping to catch 'the big one'. The end result was that the fishery was almost destroyed and it will take many years for it to recover.
Smallies also make great table fare! While they do have a scaly skin, fillets of smallmouth bass, fried in butter or cooked with some other recipe, are delicious. Many a time I have enjoyed a shore lunch of fresh caught smallmouth bass, although on this trip, we released all of the fish we caught.
The Flies That Worked
For some reason, many people think that in order to successfully fish for bass, large flies are necessary. This is not always true. Although bass are voracious eaters and often will attack other fish that are not much smaller than themselves, they also eat aquatic insects as well. It is true however that flies that have some color or flash in them can be more successful than other flies.
Several years ago, Ian James, one of Canada's premiere fly tyers and anglers, introduced me to the Cat's Whisker. This fly has been a tremendous bass catcher for me. I have had a great deal of success fishing it in both rivers and lakes. It can be fished by allowing it to simply drift with the current, or, by casting it out and then stripping in line rapidly. Often, it is the swift movement that you impart to the fly that will entice a bass to hit it. On one occassion, I had been drifting a cat's whiskers on the river near a set of rapids. Because of the current creating whirlpool effects, the fly was actually drifting around in circles, close to the shore. When the fly was only about 3 feet from the river edge, I lifted my rod in order to make another cast, and at that point, a smallmouth bass hit the fly with a fury! I wasn't not expecting this and ended up pulling the fly out of the fish's mouth while the fish was in mid-air!
Here is the pattern and image of the Cat's Whiskers.
Another fly that I had a great deal of success with was the all-round producing Muddler Minnow. Again, this fly seemed to work best while doing some fast and hard line stripping. A few fish in the pound and a half range were fooled by this fly and put up a great fight.
You may find the pattern and image of the Muddler Minnow here.
Perhaps because of the blue bead and Krystal Flash used, another great fly was Monte Smith's Midnight Blue. Monte submitted this fly in our first Fly Swap, and noted that he has had success with it throughout the Northwest U.S. on both stillwater trout and smallmouth. I found this fly excelled in the swifter waters below a large set of falls I was fishing. I had several smallmouth succumb to the temptation of the Midnight Blue. Take a look at the Midnight Blue pattern and image and try it for yourself!