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AHMIC LAKE THE MAGNETAWAN CONNECTION

by Grant Hopkins
This original article appeared in the February issue of Ontario Out of Doors

Anglers willing to take time to unwrap the mystery of catching big walleye should look closely at Ahmic Lake and the Magnetawan area of Parry Sound. The 'eyes can hit double digits, but they can be as elusive as they are big.

"The problem is trying to catch a walleye under 4 pounds (1.8 kg)," says fishing guide Louie Miceli. "I've caught them to 11 pounds (5 kg) in the lake. In spring and fall, they move up the Magnetawan River, where there is a trophy fishery. It's a bit of work, but worth it." Ahmic Lake, near the village of Magnetawan, has had its down times, but a decade of fisheries restoration seems to have paid off. Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) netting has proven there is lots of walleye. With more than 45 miles (72 km) of shoreline, 19 islands, rock shoals that plunge almost vertically to 90 feet (27 m), and an average depth of 27 feet (8.2 m), walleye have a lot of room to roam. Boating a lunker can be a challenge.

Ken Turner, at Woodland Echoes Resort, has worked diligently with volunteer groups and the MNR to bring back the walleye. He calls Ahmic Lake and surrounding waters one of "Ontario's best kept secrets," despite being only two and a half hours from Toronto. He says anglers rush up Hwy. 11 to Lake Nipissing or up Hwy. 69 to the French River, and often overlook Ahmic -- one of the largest lakes in Parry Sound District.

One appealing aspect of Ahmic is that much of the shoreline is in its natural state. It's not a cottage slum. Wealthy U.S. landowners get much of the credit for today's unspoiled grandeur. American sportsmen tagged along with early settlers that travelled by train to Burks Falls, then by steamboat down the Magnetawan River, across Lake Cecebe to the then thriving community of Magnetawan. The village predates Parry Sound and North Bay by 25 years. Here they passed through a lock and down another short stretch of the Magnetawan River to the far end of Ahmic Lake. According to Turner, Americans have been coming to the area since the Civil War, and over the years they bought up as much land as possible to stop development. Settlers considered waterfront a nuisance because it could not be farmed. Canadians did not show much interest in Ahmic Lake waterfront until the 1950s -- a typical situation across central Ontario. The U.S. properties have stayed in families for generations, and each cottage has its own history. For instance, several cabins at Indian Point, built by a Dr. Kelly of Baltimore, still stand after 100 years. Although ownership of cottage land might be a touchy subject with some people, the benefit has been that much of Ahmic Lake, which lacks any significant Crown land, has changed little and is still prime fish habitat.

"Ahmic has always produced big walleye," claims George Hurford. "The largest I've seen was 14 pounds (6.35 kg)." In the early 1950s, Hurford, now 80, built the first rental cottages at Woodland Echoes Resort along 1,500 feet (457 m) of Magnetawan River shoreline within sight of the village. Ken Turner married Hurford's daughter, Carol, and the couple has run the resort since 1980. It's been a focal point for fishing Ahmic Lake since the beginning. Although size of walleye was impressive, numbers were still down, and concern over the fishery goes back to the 1970s. In 1973, the small bay between the Magnetawan bridge and the village locks was declared a sanctuary and closed to angling in May to protect adult fish. In 1980, walleye spawning beds in the pool below the locks were restored to help reproduction. Better water-level control produced a good October river walleye run that did not exist before the 1980s. But there was still something wrong.

A 1983 MNR creel survey of Ahmic, Beaver, and Crawford Lakes showed that, on average, it took less than two hours for an angler to catch a smallmouth bass, 18 hours to catch a pike, and 75 hours to catch a walleye. Of 7,054 fish estimated caught that summer, 3,575 were smallmouth and only 162 were walleye.

Walleye fishing in Ahmic was described as "extremely poor." Yet walleye caught in MNR trap-nets were the largest biomass of fish captured. They were old, though, averaging 7.2 years. Young walleye were caught in adjoining Lake Cecebe using the same gear, so weather and water conditions appeared not to be factors. To increase numbers of younger walleye, beginning in 1985 a local fisheries' improvement association worked with the MNR to take eggs from fish spawning in the Magnetawan River, to pond-rear the fry at Pointe Au Baril, and to plant them in Ahmic Lake. Early records show walleye eggs and fry had been stocked in the lake from 1921 to 1954. Smallmouth bass were also stocked between 1921 and 1960, and interestingly, lake trout were planted from 1921 to 1930 and rainbow trout from 1959 to 1964. The attempt was to give Ahmic a self-sustaining trout population.

We did the walleye project for six years," Ken Turner says, "and when the MNR did some trap netting in 1990, they caught so many they couldn't lift the nets. The ministry said we didn't need to do any more."

Eric McIntyre, MNR fisheries' biologist who did some of the Ahmic Lake studies, said the walleye population looked wonderful in 1992, the last time the ministry looked. "There was a good age-class spread,and 10-pound (4.5 kg) fish were routine."

All the right things seemed to have been done and walleye numbers bounced back, but angler catches failed to match increased fish populations. The recruitment problem seemed to be solved, but now the culprit appeared to be smelt. The silver-sided baitfish, introduced through unknown means, appeared in Ahmic Lake in the 1980s. These prolific deep-water rovers provided a new food source for walleye, and anglers could not tempt them with standard tactics.

To reduce the smelt population, Turner said volunteers netted an estimated 3.5 million in spring 1987 and 350,000 in 1988 from the Magnetawan River. The spring smelt run was famous, drawing people from as far as North Bay and Toronto. "I don't know if it did any good," Turner says. "How do you bail out an ocean?"

McIntyre says smelt numbers are presently down in Ahmic, as they are across all of Parry Sound District, for reasons unknown. "Although smelt can eat young walleye, walleye in Ahmic are large enough to suppress smelt. The problem now is that walleye are eating smelt and ignoring anglers (lures). Ahmic has always been a mystifying lake."

Turner claims that Ahmic and the short stretch of the Magnetawan in front of his resort now has the largest walleye run in Parry Sound District. "It beats the famous run of walleye into the Moon River from Georgian Bay."

The walleye cycle begins in late April and May, when fish from Ahmic Lake spawn near Magnetawan locks and dam, which is as far as they can go upstream. After spawning they drift back down the river, holding in deeper holes, and eventually migrate back to the lake. The angling season in the river and lake opens on the third Saturday in May, but waters at the village are dosed until June 1.

For river fishing, Turner suggests backtrolling against the current along the west side in 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 m) of water, bouncing Lindy rigs or worm harnesses just off bottom. Last June, at the resort he weighed in walleye 5.5 to 9.5 pounds (3.5 to 4.3 kg), and pike to 12 pounds (5.5 kg). A few walleye seem to stay in the river all summer and are caught by casting Rapalas or minnows from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans dock beside the Magnetawan bridge. Smallmouth bass, though, are more common.

Catching walleye once they move into upstream into Ahmic Lake in summer is the challenge. The fish favour the deep eastern basin, where there are rocky points, rock rubble, drop offs to deep water, fallen trees, humps, and islands -- it's all there if you want to try structure fishing. Walleye seem to suspend during the day and come to the surface at night. Their habits are similar to walleye in Georgian Bay rivers in the French River district, which force diehard anglers to fish all night and sleep all day.

According to Turner, during the day, anglers trolling deep with diving planers, such as Pink Ladies, have had some success. Long, slim plugs that resemble smelt are the most effective artificial lures. One proven summer technique calls for slowly drifting a leech, worm, or minnow suspended about 15 feet (4.6 m) under a slip float near Rhodes Island off Pickerel Point in late evening, after the mosquitoes have faded away.

Walleye return to the river in October, when some of the largest fish of the year are caught and relatively few anglers are out. Bouncing a minnow on a jig along the bottom is one proven tactic. Louie Miceli, a Mississauga resident who makes a living fixing teeth so he can fish, has 18 years of experience on Ahmic Lake. He guides out of Woodland Echoes. He uses artificials baits when alone, but switches to leeches and worms in summer and minnows in fall to get his clients into fish more quickly.

Miceli says there are also walleye with a distinctive blue tinge in the lake. The debate is on whether these are a true "blue pickerel" (a rare, if not extinct, species) or just a colour variation of common walleye. Regardless, they're described as beautiful fish, and Miceli sees several each year. A few sauger are also in Ahmic Lake, but larger numbers of this walleye cousin are in Lake Cecebe, where they spawn on shoals by Gordon Island.

Rob Rainey, at Magnetawan Bait and Tackle near the village on Hwy. 124, agreed with the impressions of Ahmic. "The lake offers good fishing and is well populated with walleye, but they feed heavily on smelt, keeping them in deeper parts of the lake. Some people go out at two or three in the morning." He adds that some anglers have tried down riggers for the suspended walleye, but with little success. His theory is that the fish hold in 45- to 48 F (about 9 C) water, but they don't like to feed at that temperature. The universal walleye technique of jigging doesn't work in the lake either, because the fish aren't oriented to the bottom."When anglers are here just to have fun, we recommend they catch bass. I've seen smallmouth over four pounds (1.8 kg) from Ahmic," he says.

Angling experience has shown most of the fish prefer Ahmic's eastern basin, but Verna Hibbert, 22 years at Ahmic Resort near the dam, says fishing can be good in the western end, as well. '"May is too early to fish at our end of the lake, but in mid July the walleye arrive and the fishing lasts through September. When biting, the walleye are nice, but one must persevere." East of Magnetawan is 8-mile (13-km) long and narrow Cecebe Lake, with its high bluffs. Shallower than Ahmic, it has an average depth of 16 feet (4.9 m) and has a mud bottom. Everyone I spoke with agreed that Cecebe's walleye are easier to catch, but are smaller, averaging two to three pounds (.9 to 1.3 kg). In spring, they head up the Magnetawan River and spawn at Burks Falls and North Creek. John Fonk, at Maijac Cottages, has been fishing Cecebe since 1980. He likes trolling with a slip sinker and a worm in 12 to 20 feet (3.6 to 6 m) of water. "'The walleye fishing has been good here."

Anglers who can break away from a fixation on walleye, can find great bass and pike action in Ahmic Lake and adjoining waters. Although pike are the most-common sports fish in Parry Sound district, they're not native to Ahmic. They worked down from Armour Lake after being introduced there. George Hurford recalls that there were no pike in the lake until the mid-1980s. "We used to catch a few big ones, but we sent people interested in northerns to Cecebe. We catch plenty of them here now."

In the western end of Ahmic,Verna Hibbert says pike action, using bait or artificials, begins the May long weekend and peaks in mid June. Summer bass fishing is excellent, and jumbo perch are also available for the pan. Ciscos are caught in winter. "Ahmic is a dynamite fishery for smallmouth bass, with a lot of 4- pounders (1.8 kg). I've seen them up to 5 1/2 (2.5 kg)," Miceli claims.

Two smaller lakes are accessible from the west end of Ahmic. Beaver Lake, also known as Neighick, has some walleye, but is better known for bass and pike. Miceli suggests bass anglers should concentrate on docks and use spinner-baits and plastic worms there. Crawford Lake, 1.5 miles long (2.5 km), is reached from the south end of Beaver by a 6-foot (1.8-m) deep channel. Most anglers ignore this shallow lake and miss out on some of the best pike and largemouth bass in the Magnetawan chain. Pike average three to five pounds (1.36 to 2.27 kg), but occasionally weigh up to 15 pounds (6.8 kg).

The Parry Sound District is near the northerly range limit for largemouth bass, but six pairs were stocked in Crawford by the MNR in 1986 as an experiment. Largemouth are now widespread throughout weedbeds of the Ahmic Lake system, and fish weighing more than six pounds (2.7 kg) have been caught.

Whitefish from two to six pounds (.9 to 2.7 kg) are also in Ahmic, although lightly fished. Anglers use small hooks with worms to catch them in 60- to 70-foot (18- to 21-m) depths of the eastern basin's south end. There's a whitefish spawning run to the locks in Magnetawan in October or November, depending on the moon phase. One of three people in the village who have a whitefish dip-net licence said the run lasts about five days. During that time, they can also be angled using small minnows as bait.

Since leeches were the top bait for both walleye and smallmouth around Ahmic Lake, I asked Rob Rainey for more info about them. He said leeches should be hooked in the big end, so they wiggle. "Keep them cool in a fridge so they come to life and squirm when dropped into the warmer lake,"he advised. He buys his leeches from Minnesota, claiming the blood suckers in local lakes don't make good bait. The shop sells 4,000 to 5,000 on a long weekend, along with hordes of minnows and crayfish.

Ken Turner offers a few more tips for anglers on Ahmic waters for the first time. He suggests one angler in a boat troll for walleye, while another casts to shore for bass. Windy or shaded shorelines are best. For smallies, work broken rubble, small bays, and fallen trees. Ahmic and surrounding lakes offer lots of water to explore, with a variety of structure and fish to match just about every angling technique from casting spinners to float fishing. Anglers can test their skills and theories on Ahmic Lake walleye, with big rewards of bragging-sized fish for those who can crack the puzzle. It would, however, be a mistake to ignore bass and pike that run big and bold throughout the seasons.

Ken Turner quips that there's a nine-hole golf course with its own dock on the Magnetawan River. If fishing is lousy, you can play golf. If fishing doesn't improve, play another nine holes.

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