“I’m not obsessed with fishing like you are, Dad,” my 14-year-old son, Finn, often tells me. And he is right. Unlike his father, Finn chooses not to rise at 4 o’clock in the morning to chase a tide. And he definitely does not linger on a trout river well past dark wiping no-see-ums from his arms by the dozen while waiting for mayflies to hit the water.
My own father, born and raised in New York City, hard by the banks of the East River, is a fully citified non-angler. Perhaps fish-obsession, as they say with musical talent, skips a generation. But for one glorious week each summer, Finn joins me in a 14-foot skiff on Newboro Lake in southern Ontario, where my wife’s family has owned a cottage since the 1980s. For seven delicious days without Wi-Fi, Finn’s Xbox controller is exchanged for a light spinning outfit, and Fortnite Battle Royale means chasing the evening smallmouth bite with his dad.
Fishing on this lake is refreshingly low tech — at least how I approach it. No fishfinders or other electronics clutter the boat. Our trolling motor is a creaky set of ancient wooden oars, the tips of which are slowly turning to compost. We triangulate using a faded paper chart, glancing at landmarks while casting to rocky points or the edges of deep weed beds. The only luxury is a new 20-hp, 4-stroke Mercury with a push-button starter. My father-in-law bought it when the original outboard died after more than three decades of honorable service.
Newboro is part of a chain of lakes that links the St. Lawrence River to Ottawa through a series of canals constructed after the War of 1812. Forward-thinking Canadians believed they needed a navigable waterway to fight off a future invasion by the United States. Today, birds and fish, not men-of-war, lord over Newboro’s quiet waters. Osprey and Caspian terns patrol overhead, great blue herons stalk the shallows, and loons steam through its bays. Beneath the lake’s 4,500 acres, bass, pike and various panfish are found off lightly peopled shorelines and scattered islands, many of which remain uninhabited.
I take care with my son not to be an obsessive Ahab about fishing here. True, the evening last-light session is sacrosanct, but daytime is often spent swimming, motoring to a local “jumping rock” or otherwise loafing. Sometimes I’ll take a few casts off the dock with a 2-weight fly rod, and raise bluegills and pumpkinseeds to a tiny cork popper. And if we do fish for bass during the day, it often includes a side trip to the local marina, where we tie up and get ice cream. It’s summer, after all; success doesn’t have to be measured purely in hard poundage of fish landed.
After dinner, with bathing suits and wet towels hanging from the porch railing, things start to get more serious. Each night, I sit in the boat and ritualistically prepare tackle before we head out. I rig half a dozen rods with an eclectic mix of lures — some old, some fresh out of the package. During the seven-hour ride north, we make a traditional stop at a well-stocked tackle shop just before we cross the Canadian border. I always imagine the owners high-fiving each other when they see me drive up.
With credit card in hand, I inevitably fall for the latest bass-fishing trend. One year it was tube jigs — strange squid-like lures with dangling tentacles. I bought them by the handful. Then came salted plastic worms fished “wacky style,” where the hook is hung dead center, allowing each end to slowly undulate — a surprisingly lethal technique. This year I fell hard for a new type of minnow plug purportedly developed by fanatical Japanese bass anglers. It came with small “finely tuned” spinners fore and aft and, according to the box, “catches neutral, suspended fish.” They had me at “catches.”
But I fish timeless standbys, too. I won’t leave the dock without a Zara Spook, a classic surface lure that debuted in 1939. Two years ago, I landed a pair of 4-pound smallmouth — 21-inch tanks — on a frog-colored Spook. Since then, I carpet-bomb entire bays and coves with this lure hoping to recapture past glory. And at least one rod is always rigged with the same type of curly-tailed jig I began fishing with when I was Finn’s age. Sometimes, if it’s a windless night, my 8-weight fly rod is in the mix, strung with a deer-hair bass bug or Clouser deep minnow.
With rods readied, I start the outboard. Finn knows the routine. He follows the narrow path leading to the dock, undoes the cleat hitch he had been practicing for the past few days, and steps into the boat. We motor along while I run the highlight reel of the past several days through my head. There was the pike Finn hooked on a rubber worm that surged for the bottom repeatedly before finally yielding. It measured 2 feet — certainly not large by pike standards, but nearly as big as Finn’s smile when he landed it. Two nights earlier, he boated a black crappie as big around as a hubcap. The night before that, the smallies briefly turned on, and Finn hung a solid 2-pounder that took line in spurts, then unleashed an end-over-end leap like a landlocked salmon before coming to the net.
There were giant pumpkinseeds lit up like billfish that covered an outstretched hand, and hit-and-quit rock bass that would crash the lure mightily, then do little more than wiggle before giving up. Then there was the unseen fish Finn fought for a while before it eventually powered into a weed bed and broke off. Was it a 5-pound largemouth? An 8-pound pike?
For me, this would be the year of “the gift.” Finn had found a lure one morning stuck on a rope hanging off one of the floating docks and presented it to me. Perhaps a bass fisherman working the shoreline broke it off. It was a beat-up black rubber worm threaded onto a plain jig head. But it looked fishy as hell, so I rigged it to a 4-foot ultralight spinning rod spooled with 4-pound test, thinking it might work for panfish.
That night, smallmouth repeatedly crushed it, bending the little rod at impossible angles and making the toy-sized reel chatter away. I lost it when I was releasing another bass and left the lure dangling off the side of the boat. A crazed smallie came up, grabbed it and jumped, ripping the worm off the hook. Whomever, or whatever, left that black-tailed talisman on the dock has my sincerest gratitude.
I ease the boat and shut off the motor. Finn and I both start casting. Loons yodel across the lake. Caspian terns gracefully search for baitfish pushed to the surface. Somewhere in the swamps behind us, we hear a colony of herons emitting crazy shrieks that make us laugh. We speculate what they might be saying and agree that it must have something to do with fish. The western sky begins its evening light show, the sun dropping behind low clouds haloed in orange and purple.
We drift past a rock pile. I miss a hard strike on a jig, then briefly hook something that tears off line before shaking free. Finn hooks what he first thinks is a weed, but it turns out to be a big smallmouth that rockets out of the water just feet off the boat before throwing the lure. He looks at me, mouth agape and smiling, and makes another cast. I quickly switch to my trusty Spook and miss a solid blow-up. On the next cast, a big bass takes hard and leaps, shaking its head and rattling the lure. Finn grabs the net and scoops it up. Three pounds easy.
We make another drift. Finn has switched to a Spook. Two large bass crash the surface near his lure but don’t connect. One of the fish looks enormous, and we marvel at the crater it leaves on the lake’s surface. And just like that, the fish turn off, just as the first mosquitos begin buzzing us. We stumble into a last-light smallmouth flurry that ends as quickly as it began.
The few clouds on the horizon have darkened. The sky fades from cobalt to charcoal. Saturn shines down, along with a few early stars. We turn on the running lights and head back to the cottage.
I know Finn is happy with the evening’s action — he hooked a good smallmouth, helped me land a fat bass and saw a few other big fish come up. He won’t pine over lost fish or missed opportunities like his obsessive father might. I tell him on the boat ride back to remember this evening when it’s the middle of winter and he has algebra homework or a test the next day. Because however unending summertime fishing may seem, it inevitably comes to an end.