Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Girls' ice-fishing weekend in Georgina, Ontario

It takes Andrew Emsley less than a minute to catch his first fish — but you’ll never find him eating it. “I don’t like the texture,” he explains. “If you want a fish, I’ll catch and fillet it for you, but I won’t eat it.” 

These wouldn’t be such surprising words if they weren’t coming from the owner of Dave’s Fish Huts, an ice-fishing rental business located in Georgina, Ontario, the “ice-fishing capital of Canada.” 

My friend Chloé and I ended up in Emsley’s care after deciding to embark on a somewhat unusual weekend excursion for two twenty-something city women — a night of ice-fishing on Lake Simcoe. 
Ice-fishing had been on our bucket list for more than a year, but the number of unknowns outweighed the certainty of fun.

Would we need to buy equipment for a one-day excursion? Would we have to use live bait? How would we fillet a fish? And would we be safe? (Raised on the legend of the Kinosoo, a giant man-eating fish that resides in the waters of Cold Lake, Alberta, I am a firm believer that fish are to be feared.) And then there was that one last niggling factor — I’m vegetarian, with little interest in eating or harming fish.

But after an email exchange, Emsley manages to convince me that being an animal-loving vegetarian with an intense fear of fish doesn’t have to mean exclusion from the winter sport.

“No question is ridiculous,” he tells me. “We understand that there are a lot of people who have never been ice-fishing.” He also assures me that there are no mythological fish dwelling in Lake Simcoe (there are rumours of a creature called the Igogopogo, but locals insist it’s a freshwater seal), so we book a hut for $45 each per night.

It’s late afternoon when we check into the office, just an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Although Emsley greets us warmly by name, another fisherman gives us a bemused once-over. “Are they going fishing?” he asked.

Emsley later tells us that although plenty of women ice-fish, they usually arrive with a husband, boyfriend or father in tow. In fact, in his six years operating Dave’s, we’re the first set of women who have decided to host our girls’ weekend in one of his huts.

After giving us a demonstration of how to use our borrowed rods, bait the hooks and change the lures, we’re shuttled to our hut via snowmobile. Despite the frigid wind and blowing snow outside, the propane-heated hut is surprisingly hot. Two long benches, which will later serve as our beds, run along either wall and face the rectangular fishing holes. They provide a clear view of the fish swimming 13 feet below.

I’m surprised that I can actually see the fish, which Emsley explains is exactly what makes the sport accessible for first-timers. “It’s popular for families with kids,” he says.

In shallow waters, anglers are provided with a clear view to the bottom of the lake, allowing them to see the fish and refine their technique. And with smaller fish such as perch up for grabs, catching and releasing loses its intimidation factor. There, along with co-worker Murray Cooper, Emsley demonstrates how to catch and release before he releases us, slightly terrified, to cast our lures.


An hour in, when I catch my first fish, it’s unintentional — I’m distractedly digging through my purse when I feel the telltale tug. “I didn’t mean to catch it,” I blurt out, horrified. The perch, no more than five inches in length, thrashes at the end of my rod. “Isn’t that the whole point of fishing?” Chloé asks, laughing. It’s becoming clear that this is not a spa weekend.

But by the time Emsley and Cooper return to check on us later that night, we feel like old pros. We sit with them under the dim glow of the hut’s lantern, sipping Tim Hortons and trading fishing tales. Although it’s not until the next morning that we catch more fish, including a rogue crayfish, it's that night that we feel like true fisherwomen.

If You Go:

When to book: Without the constant noise of snowmobiles and ice traffic, fish are less likely to become spooked during the night. However, day fishing offers pristine views directly into the water, which appeals to children and beginners. Huts vary in size from four- to 10-person huts and reservations should be made in advance.

Before you go: Purchase an Ontario Outdoors Card ($9.68 for Ontario residents), along with an accompanying one-year fishing tag. Conservation tags ($15.90) allow up to 25 fish, which is a safe bet for first-time fishers. Licenses are available for purchase online, at Service Ontario offices and at selected retailers such as Canadian Tire.

Story originally published on Chic Savvy Travels

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