Lake Nipigon: Land of the Giants
Located about 120 kilometres (75 mi) northeast of the city of Thunder Bay, Lake Nipigon is the largest lake found entirely within the boundaries of Ontario. The lake drains into the Nipigon River and then flows deep and fast into Nipigon Bay of Lake Superior. The Nipigon river is also the largest tributary of Lake Superior.
Lake Nipigon has a maximum depth if 165 metres (540 feet) and many islands large and small. Much of the lake is wild and undeveloped, and because of this it has one of the most pristine cold-water fisheries in the world. Here is a guide to catching its four primary sport fish.
Gord Ellis with a trophy Lake Nipigon brook trout
The most priceless gem in Lake Nipigon’s crown is its brook trout. These fish are among the prettiest of all freshwater fish and, like snowflakes, every single one is different. Some Lake Nipigon brook trout are fat and as colourful as a clown. Others can be longer with a slivery sheen. Brook trout demand pristine conditions to grow large and there is no better lake to grow them big than Lake Nipigon. The cold water, abundant food and lack of human impact on the lake makes it perfect for them to grow to impressive size. An average Lake Nipigon brook trout clocks in at about 20 inches, with some exceptional specimens reaching 25 inches. A 25-inch Nipigon brookie can weigh 7 pounds or more.
Alyssa Lloyd with a fly caught brook trout
Brook trout can be caught throughout the open water season on the lake, from ice out to the season closure on September 15. When the ice leaves the lakes – usually in early to mid-May – the brookies will be shallow and generally along shore. Brook trout love points, rocky reefs, saddles and small islands. Casting spoons, jigs and crankbaits to shore and slowly working them back to the boat is the top technique. As the water warms up in the summer, some trout will hang off steep rock cliff faces, windswept mid-lake reefs and current breaks. Lake Nipigon does have areas where there is current. Looking for pockets of cooler surface water in the 50 to 57 F. range often pays off in the summer. In August, brook trout become even more colourful and aggressive as the spawn approaches. The trout will move to shoreline areas at the mouths of bays and around rock strewn islands. Flashy, colourful lures and fly patterns will pay dividends. Brook trout are found throughout Lake Nipigon, but the more untouched angling is found on the northern extremities of the lake where access is by boat only.
Chantal Baron with a fly caught trophy brook trout
Top brook trout lure choices include the Williams Nipigon spoon, Little Cleo, EBG and Krocodile in silver with red, orange or blue. Bucktail jigs like the Mighty Mitch and Jungle Joe jigfly in smelt, brown or black are a great choice as is a four-inch Berkley Power Minnow on a 3/8-ounce bullet head jig. The Rapala #9 Countdown in silver, blue and fluorescent orange is a great lure as is the Luckycraft Pointer. Spinners such as the Mepps Comet and Aglia in #3 and #4 blade size work well. Top flies for brookies include Marabou muddlers, Sex Dungeon, Lefty’s Deceiver and Bead head Woolly Buggar. The limit on Nipigon brook trout is one fish over 22 inches (zero fish with Conservation licence) but catch and release is widely practiced and promoted on the lake to protect this precious resource.
Gord Ellis Senior with a nice Lake Nipigon laker
Lake Nipigon is without a doubt the best lake trout fishery in Ontario. It is also arguably among the best lake trout fisheries in all of Canada. Nipigon has an impressive amount of cold deep water, with abundant soft-finned forage that grows lakers huge. On Lake Nipigon, lakers in the 12-to-15-pound range are common, with many topping 20 pounds. A 30-pound class fish is a real possibility, and fish 40 pounds plus are not unheard of.
A beautiful Lake Nipigon lake trout caught on a jig fly
In the spring lake trout will move shallow and can be caught trolling unweighted spoons like a Williams Wabler, Lucky Strike Half Wave or Worden’s Worry. As the surface water warms, downriggers are often used to take the spoons down 20 to 40 feet below the surface. Anglers who prefer to cast or jig do very well fishing lake trout as well. In late spring and early summer, lake trout can be caught casting spoons like the Williams or white tube jigs over rocky reefs or just off the sides in deeper water. Lake trout will also move up on shorelines or rocky saddles where the wind has stirred up the minnows and bugs and the trout get turned on. It is an exciting feeling hooking a 20-pound laker in 3 feet of water on spinning tackle.
A 45 inch Lake Nipigon pike on the fly
While brook trout and lake trout are the bread-and-butter fish of most the anglers that visit Lake Nipigon, the northern pike fishery is second to none. In fact, it may be the best kept trophy fishery secret in North America. In most jurisdictions, a 40-inch pike is a rather large one, even a trophy. On Lake Nipigon, the average fish is about 36 inches, with a 40 incher a nearly daily occurrence. There are very few lakes anywhere that boast as many pike in the mid 40-inch range as Lake Nipigon. Pike of 48 to 49 inches are caught here every year, with the possibility of a 50-inch pike being real.
Lake Nipigon pike are big and feisty
Pike are found throughout Lake Nipigon, but they gravitate to bays with marshy areas or river-mouths. From ice out to late June, pike will be shallow and very accessible to the angler. These fish are post- spawn, hungry and often visible. There are few things more exciting than casting to giant pike that are sitting in two feet of water. In skinny water, shallow running lures such as a Mepps Mu0sky Killer or Blue Fox Vibrax spinner are both a great choice as is a weedless Johnson Silver Minnow. If fish are sluggish, a Texas rigged rubber swimbait or plastic worm can do the trick. Fly fisherman will have a hey-day catching big pike with large streamers or Dahlberg Divers. In the summer and fall, the larger pike will move to the deeper weed-beds, rock reefs and especially rocky saddles between islands and points. Muskie styled Jerkbaits such as an 8-inch Suick or muskie sized spinners like the silver bladed Buchertail both do the job. Keep in mind when fishing pike that any lure used on Lake Nipigon can only have a single barbless hook (the hook can be a single treble).
Walleye can be caught throughout the Lake Nipigon system
While Lake Nipigon is a phenomenal environment for cold water species like trout and pike, there is a vibrant walleye fishery found here as well. Walleye are not found everywhere in the lake, but many of the larger rivers entering the lake and several large bays, have excellent populations. The mouth or lower portion of a river, especially if there is a rapids present, will nearly always hold a few walleye. And like nearly every species in Nipigon, the walleye here can grow large. There are many fish in the 30-inch range caught on Lake Nipigon each season, and it is not out of the question to hook a bigger one. These walleyes are old, however, so catch and release is a key to maintaining the population.
Walleye caught on a ned rig
You don’t need fancy gear to catch walleye, a quarter or 3/8-ounce jig head and white /yellow/ chartreuse twister will usually do the job. Some anglers prefer to jig with a minnow shaped Power Bait or plastic shad. Trolling a 3-ounce bottom bouncer weight, Little Joe spinner and minnow or nightcrawler is a good way to locate fish on large flats. A rubber floating worm can replace live bait behind a spinner and works nearly as well. Look for fish in bays, areas where the wind is working up a froth along the shoreline, or where a river is dumping in stained, warmer water. Walleye prefer slightly warmer water to the typical temperatures found in Lake Nipigon.
Those are the big four sport fishing species on Lake Nipigon. Each one has its attractions, and they all grow big. Lake Nipigon is any anglers dream fishing destination.
It is truly the Land of the Giants.
Posted by Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a lifelong resident of Thunder Bay, Ontario and a full time journalist, broadcaster, professional angler and guide. He is the senior editor of Ontario Out of Doors …