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Will Elliott: Esnagi a fun fly-in fishing lake

Fly-in fishing trips come in all sizes, shapes and scenarios. A recent trip to Esnagi Lake proved again that no two fly-in ventures unfold the same on outings.

Ken Johnston, manager/owner at Mar Mac Lodge, set up a two-angler trip for partner Ken Maciejewski of Hamburg and me for the early-June run of post-spawn walleye, pike and the occasional whitefish at Esnagi Lake in the White River area of western Ontario.

For an arrival Johnston suggested either the drive, mainly along the Trans Canada (Route 17) roadway or the 8-hour train trip from Sudbury. A run from Buffalo to Sudbury takes about 7 to 8 hours, so we decided to save some time and get to the fishing faster.

Travelers with more relaxation time might consider this train trip. Schedules sometimes include delays, but the scenic splendor enjoyed on a hands-free ride can be pure fun. The train stops right at Lodge Eighty Eight at the south end of Esnagi Lake.

For Mach and me it was a road trip that included most of the state of Michigan and then views of the north shore of Lake Superior. The lake gets it name for its size, but this water body also affords superior views of the north shoreline along the way.

Ontario Province has set aside most of the north shore as a Provincial Park. Each hill crest presents another view of sheer cliffs, bays, pond impoundments, islands, rock reefs and emerging spring floral, brush and tree growth.

The area offers views similar to the seacoast shoreline we enjoyed on a moose-hunt trip to and from Newfoundland last fall. Curiously, we saw more moose on the way to White River than the fall moose trip — two live cows on the run and, sadly, a calf and a young bull struck by vehicles.

Once to the plane landing we added two more sightings — one smaller cow swimming across Esnagi Lake and another seen on a pond edge during the flight out. Fauna sightings did not include a black bear, the species that made the White River area famous in children’s literature.

White River is the jumping-off point for many fishing and hunting forays, but this small town is most famous for a black bear cub that a trapper sold to a Canadian soldier for $20 at the train station during a stop from Winnipeg to his tour of duty in Europe in 1914.

As the story goes, the soldier gave it the name “Winnie” for his hometown of Winnipeg and took the bear cub as a pet through the war. Winnie became imprinted to soldiers and civilians along the way, and when the war ended in 1919, the soldier gave the bear to the London Zoo. There, the son of British author A.A. Milne began playing with the bear, dad started writing books about the friendship and the rest is children-story history.

This area lies well into rolling-mountain country, containing lakes of varying depths and sizes. Even smaller lakes offer great depths that support healthy populations of lake trout, brook trout (Canadians call them speckled trout or “specks”), and whitefish. But our target was the post-spawn run of walleye, which some Canadians still call “pickerel,” and pike.

“The season got off to a slow start,” Johnston explained. On May 15, Esnagi still had a coating of ice, just three days before the walleye and pike season opener. “We had to move clients back a week to ensure that we could get gear to the Mar Mac Lodge and the fishermen could get out fishing.”

They did. The start of the season offered the same usual outcomes and surprises that make each fly-in fishing trip a trip.

Mar Mac Lodge, centered between Eighty Eight at the south end and White River Lodge to its north, offers anglers a good mix of rocky points, stream mouths, large and small islands, sunken islands and either rock or sand shoals.

Fishing here includes uses of all modern gear (20-hp motors, sonar, tackle, etc.), but the boats are an enjoyable past and present experience. All lodges use wooden boats made at Giesler Boat Builders, a company at Powassan, Ont., that designs and produces many models of fishing and recreational boats. The 18-foot boat in which we traveled offered nice stability while stopped to fish and ran smoothly over waves when at full throttle.

Even before getting to the fishing, it was a kick to see new and slightly-used wooden crafts plying waters after decades of aluminum and fiberglass boats have flooded fishable waterways. For Mach and me, veterans of outpost fishing trips, the American Plan of food and dockside service was a hoot; it allowed us more time for fishing and relaxing.

We went on a catch-and-release reconnaissance run the first day, trying the suggested live minnows on a jig that Johnston and his guides have been successfully using on early-season outings. We caught and released pike and walleye that morning and afternoon, but it was an after-dinner run with Johnston that produced both eater- and releaser-sized walleyes.

As at many a fly-in fishing site, we prefer to release walleye that measure more than 24 or 25 inches, the bigger breeders that are usually female fish. We did just that a few times with Johnston, releasing big mamas and keeping three walleye and one nasty pike.

The trick? Drop the minnow-and-jig rig vertically, set it on the bottom and give it a few shakes/jigs to simulate an injured minnow and watch for a bite that often comes as a hang on the line, usually resulting in a thick-bodied walleye. We could have easily come in with a limit that first night, but there were days to come.

The next day Johnston hooked us up with guide Bob Birdsall, who has fished area waters since childhood and has guided on Esnagi for 14 years. Birdsall, set us up with fishing gear and supplies for a shore lunch, piloted us to the north end of 27-mile-long Esnagi and began working drifts shallow and deeper to locate and entice whatever would bite. Only walleye cooperated on this run and we got into some nice fish before our lunch break.

As seen the night before, the big breeders often bit better than the eater-sized guys. With enough walleyes on the stringer for lunch, Birdsall pulled into one of the many shore-lunch sites around the lake, filleted the fish, started a fire, fried potatoes and fillets and had us enjoy a relaxing lunch in less than an hour.

Sea gulls finished off the fish frames seconds after they hit the water. Solid bait school movement and heavy mayfly hatching had walleye on a picky bite; pike had enough large minnows for forage.

Most northerns we caught were casually moving through walleye schools. We even pulled one whitefish, a species usually smoked in our area but a table delicacy in much of Ontario and out west.

Johnston notes that black flies disappear by mid June, the fly hatch subsides and baitfish schooling is reduced by early summer, affording anglers a good walleye and pike bite throughout the summer at Esnagi.

For trip information, check with Johnston at (705) 884-2505 or (800) 556-3741 or go to and check out the Mar Mac Lodge offerings.