For most, Ontario’s Asheweig River is an enigma. Little known and fished even less it’s truly one of the provinces hidden gems. A massive tributary of the legendary Winisk the Asheweig flows in a northeasterly direction through countless kilometres of unbroken forest before finally spilling into the big river. The landscape is dominated by large glacially carved lakes, an area that’s almost more water than land. The upper half of the river being a cartographers nightmare with chaotic jumbles of violent current separated by a myriad of vast windswept bodies of water. It’s a cold water river and its rushing tannin stained waters teem with overgrown wild brook trout. In the slacker water areas walleye and pike live to a ripe old age without ever seeing a lure. From an anglers perspective it’s paradise. In stark contrast to other brook trout rivers like the Sutton, the Asheweig flows through classic shield country. It’s a wild river with a steep gradient and churning waters and its river bred trout have adapted perfectly. Thick and muscular with dark backs and flaming orange bellies they are the symbol of this rugged landscape. It’s primitive country, untouched by man, untamed and beautiful.
The remote native community of Kasabonika Lake lies in the heart of this colossal watershed on a widening of the Asheweig. Back in 2002 the Oji-Cree natives built a sport fishing camp on a small widening of the river called Straight Lake, located roughly 70 kilometres east of the village. They put a handful of groups through the camp then it fell to the wayside and hadn’t been used since 2006 – until this year. With thoughts of reopening the camp to the public in 2015 Bill Marzana and myself were invited up to explore the river and sample its bounty. We recently spent a week in what I consider to be brook trout paradise, here’s what happened…
Under normal circumstances anglers visiting the Asheweig will enjoy a much more seamless journey. In the case of Bill and myself it was more fly by the seat of your pants and hope for the best. We flew to Thunder Bay the day before our scheduled departure with our first priority upon arrival being shopping for food and provisions. We were slated to fly into Kasabonika on a regularly scheduled flight with Wasaya Airlines the next morning. I was previously told to simply bring our stuff to the cargo hangar where it would be tagged and expedited, no problem. Life has a way of throwing curves though and the young man at the cargo terminal had no idea who we were and wasn’t expecting us at all. After a series of phone calls and several hours of waiting we finally received the go ahead to have our cargo shipped. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things and we hustled back to the Valhalla Inn to relax over beers and dinner.
Saturday morning dawned clear and bright and with no weather delays the flight to Kas was on time. There weren’t a lot of other passengers heading up there and in no time at all the cargo was loaded and we were boarding the plane.
It wasn’t a direct flight as we had to fly to Sioux Lookout first, but with only a 15 minute stop we were back in the air in no time enroute to Kas. After a 1 hour flight over some of this provinces most awe inspiring terrain we landed on a dusty airstrip at the community of Kasabonika Lake.
We were greeted by Mitch Diabo who’s acting as general manager of the community development corporation in Kasabonika and Leon Beardy who would be guiding us for the week. It was a warm welcome and any doubts I may have had about the entire enterprise were immediately erased.
The plan we’d discussed in advance was to have Leon shuttle us by boat across the vast expanse of Shibogama Lake to the Asheweig River’s outlet and ultimately the outpost camp at Straight Lake. This intrigued me as I’m always up for an adventure especially when giant pike lurking in back bays is part of the equation. Unexpectedly we were told we’d be flown into camp with a Beaver floatplane. The band had chartered a plane from Wilderness Air in Armstrong the previous week and since they had it they decided we’d utilize it.
Quickly rolling with the punches the advantage was clear – we’d be at the outpost camp and fishing much sooner than we’d thought. Mitch loaded all of our gear into a pick up truck and shuttled us over to the plane dock where we unloaded. Bill and I would go first with our gear and food, and Leon would come on the next flight joining us later with gas for the boat and other supplies.
It was super windy as we taxied for our takeoff – probably 40km winds at least. Noting the giant rollers and whitecaps on the lake gave us another reason to be glad we were flying. I’m pretty sure it would have been a bone jarring ride!
The current site of the community is a gigantic island on Kasabonika Lake. Once we were airborne the pilot pointed out the original site, a forlorn looking point with a handful of derelict buildings. There’s lots of history here…
I shot this short video of the flight which I believe captures the majesty of the countryside.
As I’ve said the camp hasn’t been used in years however we weren’t the first arrivals. There was a group of youths from town waiting at camp when we arrived. They’d spent the previous week there on a bit of a retreat with Leon and several other guides fishing and having fun. That was the primary reason the float plane was in town much to our good fortune.
We quickly unloaded, made our acquaintance with the departing youths and surveyed the scene.
There are 4 cabins on site. Three of them are smaller and predate the larger guest cabin. They’re primary use is for the native guides who will be on site to assist visiting anglers. As you will see later in the report it’s a potentially dangerous river to navigate and having a guide, especially one who’s grown up on these waters, is essential!
Because the camp hadn’t been used in years there were some minor deficiencies (water system not hooked up, window screens torn, a lack of pots and pans…) however for our needs it was perfect. There’s no doubt in my mind that things will be rectified before any potential guests fly in next year.
After unpacking and settling in we had some time before Leon showed up and Bill couldn’t take it any longer. Quickly donning his waders he grabbed a spinning rod, tied on a spoon and waded out in the current right in front of camp.
Almost instantly I heard a wild whoop as he connected with a large trout that had him stumbling over the slick boulders in pursuit. What a great start!
We each caught several more, then packed it in when Leon flew in to help him unload.
The afternoon was getting late, but we still wanted to fish and asked Leon “What about pike?” We mutually agreed to head for a large bay on Straight Lake with a creek filtering in. We had ascertained the presence of brook trout, now we were curious to see if there were any large gators.
It didn’t take long to find out!
To get to this spot we had to navigate another set of mild rapids at another neck down on Straight Lake. On the way back we stopped to cast for brook trout in the current and landed half a dozen thick backed beauties!
I think it was 9pm by the time we packed it in and we were bagged after such a long and eventful day. We made a beeline back to the cabin where we fired up the bbq and enjoyed a late dinner and some conversation with Leon before finally hitting the sack.
I guess we both needed sleep as we finally awoke around 8am bleary eyed and groggy. You can clearly hear the murmur of the river from within the cabin and it tends to have a soothing quality when you’re trying to sleep. Apparently it worked its magic. I got up and made coffee then stepped outside on the porch to survey the scene. There was a light breeze from the north and a bit of a nip in the air. Low dark clouds scudded across the sky threatening rain, you could almost smell it on the air.
Just as I was thinking about lighting a fire in the stove a large trout swirled and rose in the seam right in front of me, making a sound like a toilet bowl flushing. Startled I scanned the river and another one rolled and splashed further out in the run. These fish were on the prod.
Putting down my coffee I rushed inside to grab my waders. “Let’s go Billy, the fish are going crazy in front of the camp!” Bill mumbled something incoherent, downed his coffee in one gulp and made for the hook rack where our boots were hanging.
Fly fishing is an elegant sport, often just as much artistry and grace as angling technique. Not here on the Asheweig though, it’s back room bare knuckle brawling. We were primarily throwing meaty oversized streamers on heavy fast sink tips. Not much to it, simply heave it out there and strip as fast as you can. The fish themselves required zero finesse and belted our flies with malice in their hearts. Nothing tentative about these trout, they were bent on inflicting serious harm.
Easing into the water we were both into thick bodied brookies almost immediately.
As good as the fishing was the seams on the far side were beckoning us. Grabbing our stuff we checked in with Leon and told him we were going to grab the boat to ferry ourselves over to the other side of the run and fish for a while. No problem, as I think we may have wore him out a bit the day before and some extra rest was welcomed. It was an easy enough procedure navigating through the run to the other side where we beached the boat and hopped out. There was a gorgeous flat shelf easily wadable that ran almost the entire length of the neck down and we spent a good couple of hours working it thoroughly from top to bottom. We caught an indecent number of trout including several doubles. Some were on the fly but many of the seams were still unreachable so we used the spinning rods. I’m far from a purist when it comes to fly fishing anyway, I mostly just like catching fish.
When things began to slow down a bit we motored back to camp where Leon took the helm. His plan was to head downstream and fish another set of fast water between Straight Lake and Round Lake, the next widening of the river just north of us. Sounded good to us and off we went.
Here’s a short clip of the rapids and some of the action:
We caught a bunch of nice trout down there and lost just as many in the heavy current. I had one giant that hammered a spoon far out in the raging water, rolled at the surface then streaked down through the rapids breaking my 8lb braid. I hate to make guesses, but it was over 5 anyway, perhaps even bigger. Bill lost a behemoth as well. Standing on a large rock below me drifting his streamer into a small churning pool he hooked a large male that took him for a ride downstream around the bend and out of sight. By the time I caught up with the camera the battle was lost. It’s all part of the game though, and in my experience it’s the ones you lose that you remember the most.
After fishing that water for several hours we headed back upstream to camp and once again stopped to fish the water right in front this time by boat. Every time we fished it it produced!
We each caught several before finally packing it in for a pit stop at camp. I brewed up some of my wildly popular 454 horsepower coffee and Leon joined us for a cup while we stretched our weary muscles.
After a short nap and dinner we hopped in the boat with Leon and headed down to Round Lake to cast for pike. It’s a small widening of the river, mostly shallow and weedy, but with a well defined channel snaking its way through the center of the lake. The delta area where the river flowed in was literally crawling with walleyes and if that’s your game I believe you could catch them non stop all day long. Leon told us that there’s some big fish as well, some in the 8-10lb class.
As much as I love walleye fishing when there’s brook trout and potentially large pike I don’t bother with them too much…
Working the well defined weedy edges of the channel running through the lake we caught oodles of small to medium sized pike. No big ones, but it was a nice relaxing way to spend the evening and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
With darkness beginning to set in we headed back to camp and called it a day. I think I was asleep before my head even touched the pillow.
The sound of rain pelting down on the cabin roof woke me up around 6am. Took a quick peek outside and inwardly shuddered. Heavy south winds, whitecaps on the water, low ceiling, fog and darned cold! We definitely wouldn’t be heading out early on this morning. With the cabin damp and chilly I lit a fire in the stove and made coffee. Eventually Bill finally roused from his stupor and Leon wandered over to join us and we chatted over coffee.
As I’d mentioned earlier there were a few things missing from the camp and the day before Leon called a friend in Kasabonika on his radio phone. The plan was that his bud Rodney would travel to camp today by boat bringing the gear we needed. He’d also be there to take us out if we tired out Leon too much. Upstream from camp right at Shibogama Lake there’s a portage around a waterfall. Our plan was to head up to the portage and fish there while waiting for Rodney as he’d require some help hauling his boat and gear around the portage.
Around 9:30 things started to clear. It was still windy but the rain stopped, the ceiling lifted and even a few patches of blue sky poked through – it was time to go.
We hopped in the boat and made a straight run upstream to the falls, as you get closer the nature of the river grew even more spectacular with numerous granite outcroppings and some pretty enticing rapids. We fished it very briefly catching one or two content knowing we’d work it hard on the way back.
The falls were spectacular! Off to the side was a ramp built from logs that the natives had constructed to drag their boats around the obstruction. Still a lot of work, especially going uphill to Shibogama Lake, but far easier than the alternative!
We hopped out and fished on foot, catching fish after fish. The slower waters were jammed with walleye and smallish pike, while the trout were sitting in the heaviest of whitewater.
I shot this short video of some of the action.
We walked around the falls to fish the fast water just above it and found numerous large trout holding in the fast current right at the brink. Even Leon got in on the action catching several beauties!
We waited until 3pm and when Rodney still hadn’t shown up we hopped in the boat and took off back downriver. We all figured that perhaps Shibogama was too fought to cross. Regardless we weren’t able to reach anyone on the radio phone and we couldn’t wait there all day.
Working our way back downstream we stopped to fish a bunch of wicked looking pockets. Not surprisingly they were loaded with fish.
With the trout literally on fire we were itching to get out and fish on foot. There was a massive granite outcropping with moving water on both sides that looked absolutely perfect so we beached the boat and went at it.
Around 7pm we packed it in and headed back to camp completing another incredible day on the Asheweig. Noteworthy was the winds were still insanely strong and we were battling them head on. Leon had that motor pinned when we hit the open expanse of Straight Lake. Easily 3’ rollers with whitecaps! Was a fun ride back, although a bit wet and bumpy.
Upon arrival back at camp we finally received a message from Rodney, once again Murphy’s Law prevailed. He would be arriving at the portage in 15 minutes. Leon headed out by himself in an empty boat…as he said “I’ll make better time without your fat butts weighing me down!” That was fine with both of us as we were whipped.
While Leon was gone Bill and I whipped up a huge dinner for everyone. Fresh pasta with a wonderful sauce loaded with sausage and ground beef. Leon and Rodney were back at camp less than an hour later and after we made our introductions we sat down together and shared a meal.
We talked at Length that evening, and I can tell you listening to these guys tell their stories of life in the bush, large fish, hunting tales and navigating wild rapids is worth the price of admission alone!
Woke early this morning and was greeted to a perfect day: clear and slightly cool with a very light north wind. A far cry from the previous days gale force winds. After coffee and breakfast it was still early so Bill threw on his waders, grabbed his fly rod and proceeded to catch two beautiful speck’s while I watched from the porch.
We’d really did a number on the brookies yesterday so today we had plans to mix things up a bit with some pike fishing to start.
At 8am Leon ambled over and joined us for coffee while we laid out our game plan. Whatever we wanted to do was fine with Leon (he’s a good man) and in short order we were in the boat heading upstream to the pike bay we’d fished on the first day.
We fished it hard and had a blast catching countless hammer to axe handle sized pike – but no big ones. It was all good though as I find it’s a relaxing change of pace from the river fishing. Moving onwards further up the lake there was a reed point that jutted out into the lake that was directly adjacent to some deeper water. I was SURE we were going to nail a big one there. If you looked up “textbook spot for large summer pike” they’d show a picture of this spot. Alas they just weren’t biting this morning and once again we caught piles of smaller pike but no big girls.
At this point we were fairly close to the rapids we’d fished the day before and the brookies were calling. Putting away our pike rods we slowly cruised upstream and worked some of the water from the boat. It didn’t take long to connect!
We worked our way back up towards the falls this time slowly fishing some of the deeper swirling current areas for walleye and pike. I said it once already, but if you so desired you could catch walleyes all day long. We didn’t get any giants, but it was fish after fish and a ton of fun!
We worked our way back up to the falls, this time hopping out on the opposite shore. The river there is so big that each side is almost like fishing brand new water.
The slower back eddies were once again teeming with walleyes and we managed a couple of gorgeous brookies drifting a jig right though the boiling current just upstream a bit.
On the way back to camp we stopped and fished some of the same water we’d fished previously on foot from shore, and once again we got a bunch of beauties including several swinging streamers.
Back at camp we rested for a bit then headed out with Rodney in the evening to fish the heavy rapids in between Straight and Round Lakes. There was some smoother water down there and our hope was in the evening there’d be some trout rising. We had plans to skate some mice patterns across that water much like I did on the Sutton.
While we were down there we were engulfed in a HUGE hatch of mayflies and we figured it was go time. Surprisingly though we didn’t see a single trout rising! Working our way back upriver Bill cast to the same little pocket where he’d lost a big one on the fly a couple days earlier and instantly hooked a giant. Not sure if it was the same fish or not but the outcome was the same. After battling it for a few minutes in heavy water it got unbuttoned right next to the boat. I had a good look and it was easily 4lb’s plus…
That said you know you’re having a great trip when you don’t give a damn over losing a 4lb brookie.
We fished a bit more on Round Lake for pike, but by that time it was getting late and we were pretty much done.
This was the day we’d been waiting for! Far downstream from camp is a spot marked as Howling Falls on the map, really just a kilometre long set of churning rapids that’s not navigable by boat. According to Leon the fishing both above and below the rapids was amazing.
It was another glorious morning, clear and cool with light winds when we loaded the boat and set off downstream with spirits running high.
Just downstream from Round Lake we travelled through a large section of rapids that looked incredible, but Leon was on a mission and in my experience it’s always a good idea to listen to your guide.
Finally we came to a pretty heavy set of rapids that Leon scouted as best as he could by standing up on the bench in the boat. “Is this Howling Falls Leon?” I asked because it sure looked gnarly to me. He just smiled, shook his head and told us to hang on.
We caught a TON of trout fishing that one large pool, about 50/50 fly vs hardware. Again some of the seams were difficult to reach and we’d have been hamstrung without the spinning rods.
Working our way downstream from there towards Howling Falls every single current break and pocket was jammed full of brookies!
Finally we made it to the brink of the rapids and beached the boat at the portage. Grabbing our cameras and gear we headed off along the trail. I was expecting a horrible tangle of brush but it was a great trail, pretty much its entire length looked like this:
I have very few photos of the action we experienced down there, but I did shoot a pretty cool video that captures things pretty well I think. Suffice it to say we caught fish after fish after fish. I’m honestly not sure the exact number but I do know at one point I caught trout on 12 consecutive casts.
Have a look!
That was easily one of the most memorable days of fishing I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing! By late afternoon we were done and made the trek back to the boat, our parched throats spurring us on to reach the cooler loaded with ice and drinks that we’d left behind.
When we reached the boat we took off our waders to cool down and relaxed for a bit with a beer and sandwich before working our way back upriver.
Enroute back we caught a bunch more beautiful trout fishing many of the same pockets we did on the way down.
We still had those heavy rapids to navigate, this time heading upstream. It was no problem at all and as you can hear in this clip Bill had fun doing it!
Back at camp we hung our waders by the door, fired up the barbecue and luxuriated on the porch overlooking the river with not a single bug in sight. For me at least it doesn’t get any better than this. As far as I was concerned our trip could end right now and I’d have been happy.
It was actually warm and balmy with a light south wind when we awoke this morning with quite a bit of humidity. Drinking our coffee outside wasn’t an option as the bugs seemed to be revelling in the conditions with about 20 million having a big get together on the porch.
Again today we switched gears and decided to fish Round Lake for pike and walleye – really give it a good working over. After breakfast and a good dose of deet we loaded the boat and headed downstream to Round Lake. I mentioned earlier there’s a well defined channel bordered by weeds slicing its way through the lake and we worked it over hard.
Walleye fishing was ridiculous with just stupid numbers of fish. Again no giants, but it was a great change of pace over the intensity of the river fishing.
Don’t have a ton of pic’s, but really it doesn’t matter anyway they all look the same. Just mentally multiply this handful of shots by about 50 and you’ll get the picture.
The wind this day was perfect allowing us to perfectly follow the edges of the channel with a few tweaks of the motor by Leon every now and then. Some of our drifts were over half an hour long!
It didn’t take too long and we were pretty dialed in on the pike. There were weeds but they were sparse and deep so large non weedless spoons worked great fluttering them across the tops of the weeds. My confidence spoon is an orange and copper Doctor spoon and I didn’t have to change all day.
Bill lost a giant way over 40 casting in 2’ of shallow rocky water that we’d drifted into near the lakes outlet. Crazy spot and one I’d never have imagined would hold a big pike! He had it boat side when it suddenly dove straight under the boat and before he could react his line broke.
For the first time on our trip we didn’t fish trout, but we were okay with that. We fished Round Lake hard ‘till about 6pm then headed back to camp satisfied. It had blossomed into a golden evening with not a trace of humidity and once again no bugs as we approached camp at the end of our day.
We chilled for a bit with some cold beer then threw some pretty amazing marinated steaks on the barbecue to cap things off.
We were slated to leave for Kasabonika the next morning by boat, so we spent a bit of time packing and tidying things up before we hit the sack.
It was another boiling hot morning when we awoke, and most disturbingly super windy! Disturbing because we had a 70km boat ride back to town across Shibogama Lake. In any case after coffee and a quick breakfast we loaded both boats with all of our gear (there was a lot!) and headed upstream to the portage.
The night before Leon had contacted Rodney’s brother James to have him meet us at the portage. An extra body to help with the lifting and more importantly another boat to distribute our gear for the ride back.
Arriving at the portage James was already there waiting and we began the chore of hauling all of our gear to other side. It was hot work but we managed…
Then we turned our attention to the boats.The first part was kind of tough but once we got to the top of the hill it was cake.
I was super impressed with the ingenuity of these people, that log ramp they built was an engineering marvel as far as I’m concerned!
Arriving at the top with all the boats I cooled off in the lake before loading and in no time at all we were off.
We were with Leon and our plan was to stop at a few prime spots on the way back to cast for pike. Shibogama is a massive sprawling body of water that simply doesn’t see any real pressure, especially for pike.
Our plan worked to perfection at first, as the initial part of the lake we navigated up was somewhat sheltered from the wind. Fishing a small bay adjacent to a cluster of islands very close to an inflowing creek I caught this girthy specimen!
Unfortunately for us as soon as we left the shelter of the islands the winds hit us full force. We tried fishing a couple more spots but it was very tough and Leon was getting worried about making it back to Kas at a decent time. Regretfully we packed away our rods and readied ourselves for the journey. As great as the Asheweig was for brook trout I believe that Shibogama is almost certainly just as much an untapped resource for giant pike. Perhaps one day I’ll return and find out…
The boat ride was in a word – hellish. 4 hours of giant rollers and whitecaps and being pounded in the boat. At first it was kind of funny, but that didn’t last too long. Honestly when we finally did make it back to town I don’t think I had a spleen left. It ruptured and disintegrated by about the second hour.
All kidding aside though it had to be done and as I’ve said before Leon is easily the best boat handler I’ve ever experienced. There’s no one I’d rather have had on the tiller other than him.
Unloading at the town dock we were met again by Mitch Diabo who hauled our gear over to the local hotel for an overnight stay. It’s not the Hyatt Regency, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how decent it was!
We were scheduled to fly out of Kasabonika early the next morning and for all intents and purposes our trip was over.
This will EASILY go down as one of my most memorable trips ever and there’s absolutely no doubt I’ll be back!
Big thanks go out to our guide Leon Beardy, Mitch Diabo for all of his help in planning this venture and of course my friend and boat mate Bill Marzana. ‘Till next time fella’s, it was a blast!
For anyone who might possibly be considering a trip to the Asheweig I shot this short video tour of the camp. Bear in mind that they weren’t really prepared for us and without a doubt starting next year any deficiencies will be fixed!
What Does The Future Hold?
Before departing I had a long meeting with Mitch Diabo who’s acting as general manager of community development in Kasabonika Lake.
In the past when this outpost did operate it wasn’t marketed as solely a destination for trophy brook trout. This was a mistake in my opinion as the Asheweig ranks right up there with any of the great brook trout rivers in the world. We had some of our best fishing downstream from Howling Falls and were severely restricted without a boat.
In speaking with Mitch they’ll have a freighter canoe, motor and gas cached on the other side of this portage in the future. This is exciting as it would open up miles and miles of prime trout water!
Even more exciting, roughly 20 kilometres downstream from Howling falls there’s another very small widening of the river located just above Sourdough Rapids. According to Leon there’s another cabin down there that’s been used sporadically by native hunters over the years. I suggested to Mitch that perhaps they fix that camp up and offer it to guests as a side trip in the heart of the very best trout water. He was agreeable to the idea and I do believe this might come to fruition. If it does I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like! The river in that area is much more intimate with one set of rapids after another and no large lake widenings anywhere near it.
Finally travel logistics. Obviously regular guests won’t be flying into Kasabonika on a regularly scheduled flight. Mitch suggested using Wilderness Air in Armstrong starting next year. This a perfect solution as guests would simply have to get themselves to the jump off point where they’d fly direct into camp on a floatplane.
The future is bright for their operation as they already have something pretty incredible: A world class fishery!
For anyone who’s interested in a trip to the Asheweig your best bet would be to contact Mitch Diabo directly. His direct phone number is 807-630-5431 office number is 807-535-2547 ext 262
email address is mkdiabo@gmailcom
There currently is a website for the camp which you can see at www.asheweigriver.com
However it hasn’t been updated in several years including the contact info. I was told that it will be soon.
Hope you enjoyed the story!