Downtown Fly Fisher, Ottawa-Hull
By Mark Anderson
Photos by Mark Krupa
There is a classic image we fly fishers hold next to our hearts, whether we admit
to it or not: that of the lone angler standing mid-stream under an expansive sky,
sending loops of line like smoke rings through the cold mountain air, until a
perfectly-tied fly falls with perfect grace to a rising trout.
It's a lovely image, truly, and one most anglers should take pains to get over
because–it's not reality. Not for the majority of us poor city-dwellers, with our
eight-to-six jobs, packets of kids and back lawns that need mowing, again. And
if we keep those images of fly fishing perfection close to our hearts and gaze
upon them whenever the angling bug bites, we'd never wet a line. The disconnect
between the rural Alberta of our minds and the downtown Toronto of our lives
would be unspannable with a 20-foot spey rod and a stiff tailwind.
And that's a shame, because there's good fly fishing to be had within an easy hour's
drive of most Canadian cities, often within the city limits themselves. The scenery
might be more Buick than bucolic, and trout might occasionally have to give way
to bass, but the quality of the sport can be surprisingly good. I call it urban angling,
and Ottawa's got it better than most.
The Ottawa River
Any discussion of Ottawa and fishing has to start with the Ottawa River, a
1,271-kilometer ribbon of blue that forms the northern border of the city and
separates the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Samuel de Champlain navigated
the river in 1613, and it immediately became the centre of a new economy, first as
the major artery of the Montreal fur trade, then as a means of transporting and milling
logs for a booming timber industry. It's no exaggeration to say that without the river,
there would be no Ottawa. And not nearly as much fishing.
I grew up within a five-minute walk of the river in a west-end suburb called Crystal
Beach, and would often do just that—walk five minutes to the shore and spin-fish for
pike. The river was full of them, and still is, along with plentiful largemouth and
smallmouth bass, walleye, muskie, gar-pike, catfish, carp, crappie, sturgeon and
even brown trout.
The fly fisher, concentrating his efforts on the most accessible and desirable
species—bass, trout, pike and muskie—still has an almost unlimited number
of options to consider when setting out to fish the Ottawa River. Shirley's Bay,
at the west end of the city, has extensive sunken weed beds that make for some
superb pike fishing, yielding 36-inch northerns with regularity.
The Des Chenes Rapids, cursed by the French-Canadian voyageurs
because they had to be portaged, are now stocked with brown trout from the
Quebec side of the river. From spring to fall, anglers equipped with five- or
six-weight rods can be spotted wading the shallows here, casting mayfly and
caddis patterns downstream and letting them wash through the pools.
The mile-long stretch of river from the base of the Parliament Buildings east to
the Prime Minster's residence boasts some of the finest bass fishing on the river.
It's possible to catch them from shore, but there's not a lot of room to back-cast,
making a canoe or small boat the better option.
The Rideau River
For 30 years now I've been fishing the Ottawa, and am not close to exhausting the
river's possibilities in terms of where and how to fish. Which is why, if you don't
have a lifetime and want to tackle a less intimidating piece of water, Ottawa's other
river, the Rideau, is the perfect alternative.
In fact the Rideau River—which runs roughly north-south to the Ottawa River's
east-west—is home to some of the best and most intriguing fishing to be had
nywhere. Don't believe it? Park your car in the back lot of Carleton University
and take a hike through the brush until you come to the river's edge, then follow
the footpath toward the Bronson Bridge.
Under the bridge, the water flows sluggish and deep around past massive concrete
struts supporting eight lanes of traffic. With the muffled sound of cars whizzing
overhead and the concrete facing covered in gang-banger graffiti, this is one place
you're not likely to confuse with the shores of the Crowsnest.
And yet the Bronson Bridge is a Mecca for local anglers in the know, thanks to
its resident population of 30-pound-plus muskellunge. I've personally seen the
brutes sunning themselves by the dozen, occasionally thrashing the surface with
their tails as they dart after cruising bait fish. If you decide to try your hand at
muskie on the fly, don't show up with less than an eight-weight rod, and bring
along plenty of steel-tipped leader—these fish bite.
Once you're done muskie hunting at the bridge, switch to a bass rig, head
downstream a mile or two, and put into the river with a float tube. The current
will take you through some of Ottawa's oldest and most venerable inner-city
neighbourhoods, past the University of Ottawa and Ottawa City Hall, then
empty into the Ottawa River just west of 21 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister's
residence. You can catch 14 to 18 inch bass the entire way.
~ Mark Anderson
Concluded next time.