Lake Nipissing is full of history, full of fish, and full of sweet spots to explore!
Planning my ice fishing trip in Northeastern Ontario has become a yearly ritual. As soon as it gets a little too cold to fully enjoy steelhead fishing, my mind begins freezing over. Thoughts of mixed gas, power augers, propane heaters and wind chills flood into my psyche, like a school of hungry walleye cruising a Northeastern Ontario bay when the sun hits the tree line. Ahhh, hungry walleye.
Ice fishing in Northeastern Ontario is an activity enjoyed by so many outdoor-going folks because it’s a fantastic way to make the most of a huge portion of the year. If it weren’t for ice fishing, sledding, skiing, snowshoeing and other outdoor activities, winter would simply be a waiting game— a long, dark, boring waiting game for spring. You’ve gotta get outside and enjoy it despite the cold. This year, I was determined to do just that—I was heading north to fish Lake Nipissing.
Located about 3.5 hours from Toronto, Lake Nipissing is bordered by the city of North Bay and many smaller towns along its shores. In the original Anishinaabe, “Nbissing” means “little water.” Although it is small compared to the Great Lakes, Lake Nipissing is the fourth largest lake in Ontario, and on average is quite shallow. The fish that call Lake Nipissing home include walleye, burbot, perch, pike, musky, gar, smallmouth bass and cisco—and sturgeon, though they are rare.
One of my co-hosts on the So Fly Fishing podcast, Aldo, joined me for a weekend of ice fishing on Lake Nipissing. Curious about the lake and wanting to understand it more deeply, we spoke to Scott McLeod, Chief of Nipissing First Nation. A lifelong angler, biologist, and conservationist, Chief McLeod has worked for the MNR as a fisheries assessment technician on Lake Nipissing. He shared some of the history of fishing by first peoples on Lake Nipissing.
Nipissing First Nation dates back about 8000 years. Back then, Anishinaabe fished fattier fish like sturgeon and whitefish, harvesting fish for sustenance during spawning runs. Although there is evidence to suggest people did fish through the ice with nets made of Tamarack root, the popularity of ice fishing came with the colonial era. Walleye was not a primary species for Indigenous folks, and only became popular with colonists and settlers.
In the early 1900s, commercial fishing began to wipe out sturgeon and whitefish, and had a detrimental effect on the walleye as well. By the mid-century the commercial fishery was replaced by a sport fishing industry driven by tourism. As with many other water bodies, shore development, mismanagement, and greed had terrible effects on the health of the lake. Chief McLeod and the Nipissing community fought to protect it and help get the lake back to what it once was, while ensuring Anishinaabe had access to the lake—their lake. Today, fish populations have started to rebound, and continue to do so. Proper management has done wonders to help the lake thrive for everyone.
Aldo and I hit the road and headed north, staying in North Bay overnight. We woke up to a gloriously bright, sunny sky—and crushing -40 degree temperatures with the wind chill. I was prepared with my thermal insulated pop-up shelter, large propane heater, foam tiles for a floor, and all kinds of gadgets and gear to make our time out on the ice splendid. Following local advice—from a YouTuber who gives consistent, on-going ice reports from Lake Nipissing—we headed to Callander Bay. We knew it would be a busy spot, but we were hoping to check out some cool wooden ice huts and feel the sense of community and excitement out on the ice.
On the way, we stopped by a local bait shop to grab a little gear. We were in and out and on the ice within thirty minutes. There really are no shortages of places to grab tackle and bait, as North Bay and the surrounding area is a true outdoor adventure paradise.
We pulled up to the boat ramp on Callander Bay, and picked a spot nestled between two huts. We were able to drive out as the ice was thick enough and the snow not too deep. This should always be done with caution—ice thickness can vary drastically from place to place. You should only do this if you’re certain it is safe. This particular spot had a well-defined ice road track from other vehicles and trucks, but I still took a risk. Never take driving, or even walking, on frozen water for granted. It should always be a calculated decision using proper judgment, putting safety first.
When we got out to our spot, we set up the hut and punched some holes. Within minutes I was already on a fish—a beautiful Lake Nipissing walleye. I couldn’t believe how quickly we found success. Not long after, a jumbo perch decided to hit my jig. We laughed with excitement and released the fish back into the lake, feisty and fired up. We fished all day, had more bites, more fish, and more fun.
When we packed up and left, I felt fulfilled—and grateful we were able to fish this beautiful lake. We’re so lucky to have and enjoy these waters. It really is a magical place to explore. If you’re an angler, try your hand at some fish on Lake Nipissing—a lake full of history, full of fish, and full of sweet spots to explore. You won’t be disappointed.
All photos ©️ Mitch Huesling and Aldo Pescatore-Tardioli – sofly.ca