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Fishing from a Canadian Canoe

Try fishing from a craft that owes its traditions to early Canadian explorers, writes Joe Brennan.

In my mid-teens, my dad ran the kangaroo meatworks in Port Augusta, SA. Come school holidays, I’d hitch a lift with a truck driver and make my way across the Flinders Ranges to make pocket money on the knives and wet a line in the Spencer Gulf. Between catching King George whiting from the old bridge and trying for mulloway and snook off the wharf in the early hours, I took my first tentative strokes in a dodgy 11ft fibreglass canoe that dad had bought. Looking back at it I shake my head at the situations I put myself in, in those great white-infested waters; but I can also see the first turn in the direction I’ve found myself paddling. A couple of nice snapper and big Australian salmon, caught in terrible conditions and with a scary struggle against big winds and currents, added to my early collection of yarns – and I’ve never looked back.

I stole that canoe from dad when I got my P-plates, and the Macquarie River downstream of Dubbo was a welcome friend when I should’ve been studying. The craft stuck with me through uni years and my formative bass-crazed lifestyle, which decided for me that fishing was more than a passing phase. Then I booked a flight to Canada, to return to the boreal lakes I’d passed through in 2009, so I could catch a northern pike. I caught plenty in the end but scoring a job with a canoe outfitting business opened my eyes to just how great these ancient craft really are.

Along with saying sorry a lot, Canada has given canoes to the world. When it comes to self-powered adventure, they lead by example. For the contemporary voyageur, just as it was for those French explorers and fur traders, water is the highway and when you run out of it, you take a leaf from the mud turtle’s book and throw your home on your back – and keep going. Once you’ve entered that mindset, there’s nowhere that’s beyond the paddler’s reach. 

The Australian Perspective

When I got back from Canada, I decided it was time to retire my old fibreglass job. With a bit of hunting, I found myself an Old Town Guide 147 (the number designating the length, 14ft 7in or roughly 4.5m). I then put another plan to work, having spotted the upper Macquarie River while flying from Sydney to Dubbo, and christened the new craft with a week-long paddle down the river and into Burrendong. I was inspired by the scenery, challenged by a savage storm and the resulting wild-water conditions, and found some nice cod.

From there it was to Google Earth and topographic maps, looking for wild rivers that contained fish in their distant reaches. I’ve ticked off a few iconic bass rivers, caught Murray cod and the much rarer trout cod, yellowbelly, brown and rainbow trout. Then, in the salt, there are a multitude of interesting creeks and estuaries that suit the canoe well, and big trips can be made as the canoe can carry hefty drinking water supplies. For one of the driest places on earth we’ve got some special waterways to paddle, fish and explore. My to-do list keeps getting longer.

I like to dig up old – 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – fishing magazine issues, to see what the flavours of the time were. Interestingly, Canadian canoes featured highly back then. These would’ve been nifty on the water; but fibreglass construction is heavy and relatively fragile – and perhaps a reason that they drifted out of fashion for the rough and tumble of Aussie east coast streams. Plastic moulded kayaks took their place and remain the most popular and available paddlecraft for Aussie anglers.  

Modern canoe construction takes many forms, with multi-layer polyurethane – such as Old Town models – nigh-on indestructible. Rarer, hulls of Royalex are very good in terms of the weight/durability compromise. The ultimate lightweight crafts are built from Kevlar composites. Wenonah Canoes are one of the pinnacles here if the price isn’t too scary.

They aren’t easy to come by in Australia, but touring canoes have a lot to offer the adventurous angler. Broadly speaking, a touring canoe is about 4.5-5.2 metres long, built for stability when carrying loads, and has two bench seats and a yoke in the middle. The yoke is a sturdy crossmember in the middle of the canoe, made to sit on the shoulders with the canoe flipped over, and the craft carried with (relative) ease.

Canoes open up all of that water that’s otherwise too hard to get to. For the boat-based angler, it’s too shallow, or there are too many hazards to navigate along the way. For the kayak fisher, it’s tough to carry fishing and camping gear as well as enough food for more than a day or two – and it’s worse for the bank basher who must deal with bankside scrub on top of it all.

Apart from the fact that you can carry so much more gear, the main things I like about canoes are how easy they are to carry (and get on and off vehicles) and that I can stand up and walk around in them. That gives the edge for the angler, as every bit of height counts when it comes to spotting fish and likely ambush points – and it can make casting easier.

From landing nets to extra rods, bait and lures, everything can be easily loaded and reached when it’s needed. Particularly for cod, when I carry a large net and need to be able to handle big fish and return them to the water with minimal fuss, the canoe stands alone. My SLR camera and tripod can even be deployed in the craft without much fear of things falling overboard.

Bass fishing almost always gets better the further travelled from access points. Holes are often interspersed with long jumbles of boulder-strewn riffles and tangles of bottlebrush. The idea of dragging a kayak through these ankle-breaking minefields doesn’t appeal to me, so with the canoe I’ll take the higher ground and carry everything to the next stretch of navigable water.

Conversely, I’ll sometimes choose the ’yak instead – particularly if I’m off to Burrendong Dam to find yellowbelly and redfin. Here, where wind is inevitable and I’ve got to travel long distances to and from productive spots, the ’yak has its place. Paddling solo, it’s a lot easier to deal with wind in the low-slung craft. With a competent paddler in the bow seat, though, it’ll be back to the comfort of the canoe.

Getting the Most from a Canoe

As already mentioned, a yoke is a necessity in my opinion. That rules out lots of consumer grade comfort canoes, some of which are built heavy and flimsy in exchange for things like stubby holders, in-built eskies, rod holders and other awkward weight. These craft will work fine where they only ever come off the vehicle to paddle one piece of water, but they aren’t made for adventure fishing.

Paddles are important investments. To go any distance, and to be nimble on the water, a quality paddle is a must. A simple, flat blade is most versatile, and the top of the handle needs a T-grip or flattened grip to give the paddle the dexterity needed for complex strokes and manoeuvring.  The paddle should also fit the user – with the handle tucking into the armpit when standing with the blade resting on the ground. Slightly shorter paddles are better when running rapids, so consider where they’ll be used most often.

Get used to standing and moving around in the canoe. The feel of where and how to move doesn’t take long to pick up, and it makes a huge difference when it counts. Whether that be lip-gripping a fish, retrieving a snagged lure or acting quickly in an emergency, being able to move confidently makes the fishing that much easier. Practise in an empty canoe, though!

If paddling with a mate, communication is important as the person in front can’t see behind them and sometimes words get muffled with running water. A mate and I were travelling back to the ute after an overnight bass trip on the Manning, and I wasn’t clear in my instruction for him to grab the bank upstream of a small waterfall. Somehow, he thought I wanted to take on the fall; and doubtful but exceedingly confident in my capabilities, gave us a helpful push away from shore at the last second. Over we went, the bow dug in and bottomed out, and our wedged canoe neatly filled with water. Another note – always keep valuables in dry bags!

Go where the fish are

It takes a change in mindset to get the most out of the canoe. That first hurdle – believing that it can be fun to lug gear into the unknown – is the biggest barrier. It does look like more people are becoming believers though, and I’ve seen pack rafts and inflatable craft turn up in fishing tales to tackle remote waters. Social distancing and travel restrictions have even helped spur this trend, with people exploring their home waters more thoroughly and going further alone or with a bubble buddy. Canoes are the original adventure craft, and they still stand out on rivers as a prime fishing vessel. They’re right at home on our wild rivers, and make it even easier to answer the timeless question of “what’s around that next bend?”

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