Harrogate Lake

By Gord Ellis

"Harrogate was one of Dan Gapen (Sr.'s) favourite lakes," said Malcom Leuenberger. "He went there as often as he could, and always had great fishing." Unfurling a hand-drawn fishing map, drawn by Gapen and laminated for use on water, he shoved it into my hand. "I know you're a good angler, but some people find Harrogate tough, so this may help," he said.

If Leuenberger was trying to get me jazzed about flying into Harrogate, he was succeeding. Gapen was a childhood idol of mine, and his stories of flying into northern-Ontario waters to catch speckled trout, walleye, and pike kept me up late reading on many school nights. Since Gapen had flown into just about every piece of water north of Nakina, I knew Harrogate must have something special to offer.

It was a gorgeous late-August afternoon when friend Todd Morsette and I climbed into one of Leuenberger's DeHavilland Beavers. I was practically vibrating with anticipation as the big bird got off the dark water of Cordingley Lake and headed north. Soon, the sight of the Ogoki River snaking through the bush got my adrenaline pumping even faster. As we dropped into Harrogate, I could see that it was really only a wide spot in river, but rapids at either end of the lake held the promise of walleye, pike, and speckled trout.

We spent our first evening on the lower lake where the river split around a huge, sandy island labelled "the goose flats" on Gapen's map. As I throttled the 9.9 down the wide, weedy section of river, it was soon obvious were the name came from. A flock of Greater Canadas erupted out of the wild rice and honked in protest at our intrusion. In the first rapids at the lake's outlet, Morsette and I popped walleye to about three pounds (1.4 kg) on jigs and yellow twisters _ a classic northern-Ontario walleye combo. As usual in late summer on northern rivers, walleye were in slacker water adjacent to current. We soon had enough for supper, so we headed back to camp.

The cabin on Harrogate was spacious, with eight bunk beds, big main dining area, and propane stove, fridge, and lanterns. The nearby shoreline was sandy and good for swimming. That night, cool drinks in hand, Morsette and I sat around a roaring campfire and watched the stars fall. Life was good.

Over the next three days, we had good fishing throughout the river, which is navigable for miles downstream from camp. We didn't catch any brook trout, but I expect some of the trouty-looking rapids we found held the crimson-flanked beauties in spring and early summer. Walleye and pike were just about everywhere, though.

Our best fishing took place during the last full afternoon and evening, just minutes from camp. As muggy air tried to spit rain, we headed to the base of rapids coming into the lake, which was one of Gapen's hotspots. There was a nice plunge there, but just downstream a huge wall of boulders had redirected current and dug out a deep slot. Walleye were stacked along it. We pulled out several dozen, including some in the 5-pound/ 2.3-kg range, by drifting jigs.

Then I decided to try a live-bait rig. I dug out a walking sinker, tied a yellow floating jig-head to a 5-foot leader and baited up with a big dew worm. On the first pass with the rig, I felt a sharp rap and then serious weight. The boat drifted well out into the lake before I got the fish anywhere near the surface.

"What is it Gord?"asked Morsette, looking around for a net that wasn't there. "I'm not sure," I replied. After a half-dozen power runs from the fish, I started to gain line. The flash of white tail dot the size of a twoonie in the slightly stained water sent my blood pressure rocketing. "Walleye," I moaned. "Huge walleye."

As the fish neared the boat, I leaned down and carefully slipped my hand under a gut that would have done a pot-bellied pig proud. In one lift, I squeezed 30 inches (76 cm) of walleye to my chest and slopped back on the seat. Yes! After a few hero shots, I released the gorgeous walleye back to the depths.

A half-hour later, Morsette caught a 27-inch (68.6 cm) beauty that crunched a floating Rapala. Another fish also took the entire back end off his jointed lure. It was the best fly-in trophy walleye fishing I've ever seen.

Harrogate Lake is just one of Leuenberger's many outpost camps near Nakina. Most offer walleye, pike, brook trout, lake trout, and sturgeon. I loved Harrogate Lake, though, and like Gapen, I'll be back.

For more info, contact Leuenberger Wilderness Air and Outposts, P.O. Box 60, Nakina, Ont. P0T 2H0. Phone (May to Oct.) 807-329-5940 or (Nov. to May) 705-946-0984. Toll free 1-888-246-6533.