Northern Wilds Magazine
The south side of St. Ignance Island is magical. | GORD ELLIS
Northern Trails

A Day to Remember at St. Ignace Island

Three decades ago, a few friends and I used to make an annual trip to St. Ignace Island, in Nipigon Bay. The island is massive and features a variety of coves, bays, and straits that are great for camping and fishing. We would usually head out to the island at ice out and tent for a week—though one time we stayed in a cabin. The trips were always memorable, and the south side of the island was one of the most magical places I’d ever seen. However, as lives changed and my family grew, that trip fell by the wayside. St. Ignace became the distant island I could see from the deck of Quebec Lodge, as I had coffee each morning and looked out over Nipigon Bay.

Then, last month, something unexpected happened. A guiding guest didn’t show up. Efforts were made to contact the person, but they were MIA. So, suddenly I had a free day. The wind was flat and the big lake was calm. The Windy app said very light winds all day, which meant easy travel. St. Ignace was shining in the distance and the decision was made. I’d be revisiting some of my old haunts on the island.

I put in at the beautiful marina in Red Rock, Ont. and pointed my 18-foot Lund Pro Guide south to the Nipigon Straits. It can be a long run to the straits, but flat seas and a boat clipping along at 35 mph shortened it. Entering the straits brought back the first flood of memories. One time, on an early May trip, we encountered floating ice here and had to play icebreaker to get to the south side of the island. Probably not the wisest thing we could have done in retrospect, but we were young and keen. There was no ice on this sunny, warm day and the boat quickly made its way to Blind Channel. It had been a long time since I’d negotiated this tricky spot, but some floating jugs marked the deeper right-hand channel, which allows safe passage. More than once in the old days we got a little too shallow in the channel and put the prop into sand.

Author Gord Ellis in his boat. | GORD ELLIS

Once through the channel, the expanse of Lake Superior appeared. It’s difficult to describe the awesomeness of Lake Superior, but when you look out and see only water on the horizon, it is breathtaking. The south side of St. Ignace is dotted with islands, reefs, and points. The water is also crystal clear, verging on aqua marine. It’s beautiful and rugged, and still primarily untouched, save for a small fishing lodge and a few cabins.

As I made my way along the island, old fishing spots revealed themselves. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was regularly visiting this area, steelhead (rainbow) trout were the primary target. We would cast to the shoals and river mouths and catch lovely fish. Some of them were very large indeed. Yet, in the past decade or so, the fishery has changed. The native coaster brook trout have rebounded after being fished down to very low levels in the 1980s. I don’t remember catching more than one coaster back in the old days, and we fished hard. Lakers were an occasional catch then, but not numerous. I was excited to experience the fishery in 2023.

At a large reef off a small island, I killed the outboard and dropped the trolling motor. There were boulders and rocks that extended out about 100 yards before breaking off into deep water. If there were brookies around, this would be a good bet. A brown and bronze jig fly was picked to start, and I pitched it to the edge of the break. On the second cast, I felt a touch on the line and then a hard hit. A fish! It flashed silver, but didn’t jump like a steelhead often would. The fight was hard, but the fish stayed deep. As I prepped the net, I could see it was a coaster brook trout. The fish came to the surface and with one arm I scooped it up and deposited it on the floor of the boat. The trout was a stout 19-inch specimen, its blue halos barely visible underneath the silver sheen a coaster will often wear. I took a couple pictures of the fish, then released it back to the lake.

Moving on, the moments of deja vu and nostalgia came in waves. At Bowman Island, I instantly thought of my dearly departed friend Bill Friday, who originally talked me into doing the St. Ignace adventures of old and was endlessly enthusiastic about it. On our first trip to the island in about 1987, we had borrowed a 14-foot boat and 20 HP motor, and went from Rossport to the Moffat Straits fully loaded. Travelling to the island in that small boat was not a well thought out idea, but we had so much fun. I could feel Bill’s spirit with me as the day wore on.

A lake trout rises from the depths of Superior. | GORD ELLIS

A few other boats were fishing in the area, and most of them were trolling. Judging by the regular appearance of nets, the fishing for lake trout was good. Trolling got me one laker, but my preference is to cast. I began working the fronts of the islands with a lead jig and 4-inch Berkley Power Minnow. It turned out the lakers were patrolling the deep breaks off the islands, and I nailed several chunky fish casting jigs. The lake trout on the south side of St. Ignace were dark, lean, and beautiful. They also fought like crazy.

As the evening approached, I knew it was time to leave. This is a remote area, and if you get into trouble, you don’t want to be the last boat out. I took one last cast along a rocky shoreline and was greeted by a hard strike. The 21-inch coaster brook trout had a bit more colour than the first, and was a perfect specimen. It was a great way to end what had been a beautiful and emotional day, revisiting a very special place.

A piece of my heart remains at St. Ignace Island.

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