Written August 24, 2019 by Wil Wegman
The first time I ever fished Orillia’s Lake Couchiching was in the fall of 1986. I was just getting into the tournament bass fishing scene and practicing for my first ever “Orillia Fall Challenge”. In pre fish, I learned how the lake’s dominant smallmouth bass community seemed to congregate around one general area of the lake … known then and now simply as “The Limestones” a series of huge flat rocks that attracted bass like bears to honey! I was amazed at how easy and how many smallmouth I caught there under beautiful calm conditions. However even then, the site of so many boats with weekend anglers, stacked within casting distance of one another, gave me great angst and I wondered just how many boats would be there a few days later during the actual tournament.
So, I began looking elsewhere and found some other spots loaded with similar features as the Limestones … rock, aquatic plant growth and either baitfish or small perch for the bass to feed on. Long story short … come tournament day, the weather had changed to overcast skies and heavy winds and the lake had completely transformed to a scary rolling mass of three footers. I picked one of several spots where I could get out of the wind, threw the anchor to hold my aluminum boat and just hoped for the best. Fortunately the fish cooperated that day and the next, and somehow I ended up in top ten out of a large field. I was hooked on Cooch and on tournament fishing!
Yes, that first tournament was the start of an on again, off again, long standing love affair with one of my favorite (and sometimes least favorite) lakes in the province. Ok truth be told, I actually ended up naming my dog (a beautiful Nova Scotia Duck Toller) “Cooch” – a moniker thousands of anglers affectionately call this lake. For over 20 years, I also ran my amBASSadors Cup tournaments here (for students of the bass fishing courses I used to teach at Seneca, Georgian and Fleming colleges). I’ve fished hundreds of bass tournaments since and was fortunate to qualify for Team Ontario out of an Orillia Tournament a few years back. Although I primarily fish for large or smallmouth bass on Cooch, I have also targeted pike, perch and yes even the occasional walleye in this multi-species fish factory.
Since my start in the mid 1980’s, I have seen several key changes affect the fishery and learned firsthand how fish here have altered their behavior as a result in order to adapt. The anglers who have adapted with those changes can still have outstanding results but have accepted there are good days and bad … those who don’t adapt are left scratching their heads wishing for the good ol days again.
Today, let’s have a quick look at just a couple of those changes and see how anglers can adapt to still enjoy some tremendous fishing on Cooch. In future articles we will explore other changes and how they affect the fish community.
Zebra Mussels: This might be the biggest influence of all the changes I have witnessed to the lake since the mid 1980’s. Each zebra mussel filters over a litre of water daily making it much clearer than ever before … even though it was considered quite clear from the start. Understanding that clearer water means light penetration is increased and therefore aquatic plant growth can grow thicker and deeper than ever before. This fact can set anglers up for some good deep water action- whether it’s for bass, pike, perch or walleye. The other major consideration for anglers, is that ultra-clear water means fish rely on their eyesight more to feed so under calm, sunny conditions natural baits like Mizmo Tubes and Senko’s are a perfect presentation.
The basic rule for occasional anglers to keep in mind is that under these conditions or simply during the slow mid-day bite, fish are not as active as earlier or later in the day so slower, soft plastic presentations in natural baitfish colors shine. When it’s overcast or there is a chop though, think active fish and faster moving hard baits. This is when, I love throwing Rapala crankbaits or X Rap jerkbaits. Be sure to make long casts though - especially in shallow water where fish can often see you before you see them. Of course early morning, dusk or whenever there is overcast without too much chop, Cooch’s large and smallmouth bass love a Rapala X Pop, Storm Chug Bug or a walking bait like the Rapala Skitter Walk.
More Largemouth: Over the years an increase in native aquatic plants like coontail and cabbage have added to the quality of habitat for these ‘weed-loving’ bass. In response, the lake’s largemouth population has grown significantly since the mid 1980’s. Today, there are days when targeting the lake’s big beautiful largemouth instead of smallmouth pays huge dividends. This certainly is a major shift in the fish community and anglers can reap the benefits. The beautiful part is that weed-rock combinations almost anywhere in the lake can hold either largemouth or smallmouth … so quite often you never know just which one you will catch.
I love throwing a Terminator buzz bait overtop shallow weed flats or through pencil reeds early and late in the day. As the sun comes out bass in Cooch love the wonderful deep weedlines or patches scattered throughout the lake. I have most of these saved on my Lowrance HD Unit. These fish holding magnets are often isolated and it can take a fair bit of legwork - not so much to find (because your Navionics map can help) but to decipher and pick out the edges and sections that hold fish. A good sonar with mapping and GPS capabilities can definitely help the occasional angler do just that.
As we approach the early fall period, try to forget about the days you may have stunk up the joint this past summer… it happens to the best of us! Fall is a time of resurgence when fish go on the feedbag yet many weekend anglers put their rods away! PLEASE DON’T IF YOU LOVE TO CATCH FISH!
For largemouth, pike, and the odd walleye, begin by using a deep diving crankbait like the Rapala DT16 or even 20 along the outer edges of deep weedlines. Generally flashier colors like Rapala’s hot mustard are hard for Cooch’s pike to resist, while I find largemouth prefer more subdued hues such as Helsinki Shad while walleye like the perch pattern. All, plus the occasional deep smallmouth love fire tiger though … just sayin! Smallmouth will begin feeding heavily soon after Labor Day and many seem to migrate to the northern section of the lake – occupying ambush locations next to rock with sparse weed growth. Keep the basic rule discussed earlier in mind. Soft plastics like tubes or drop shot when it’s calm and sunny or mid-day … and then hard baits like jerkbaits when it’s not. Top water for calm/semi calm low light conditions – not just in shallow water but deep too!
The cool thing is that almost 35 years after my first visit to the Limestones; this significant landmark still holds plenty of nice smallmouth … and many anglers have learned tons of other productive areas so the fishing pressure there is nothing like it was decades ago. Still, it’s important to remember that with all the changes Cooch has endured since 1986 – fishing here is typically no longer super easy … like I experienced in those early years but it can still be amazing! The fish are still there… ready, willing and able to pounce on your artificial baits - but ya just gotta work a little harder for them is all.
Please do us here at Orilliafishing.com and all anglers who love this special lake a big favor and practice catch and release (especially with bigger fish) to conserve this fishery for future generations.
Wil Wegman is an award winning outdoor writer who has written for most Canadian and many US outdoor publications. He lives in Simcoe County and enjoys promoting local fishing opportunities such as those found here:https://experience.simcoe.ca/play/outdoors/where-to-fish Wil is an active fishing seminar host, conservation director for his Aurora Bassmasters, and every year competes in the Sun City Swim across Cooch. In August his 4 km cross lake “Swim With the Fishes” fundraiser raised $2,900 for the local Orillia Animal Shelter. In 2017, Wil won the Rick Morgan Professional Conservation Award, the National Recreational Fisheries Award and was inducted into the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame. He is the only two-time winner of the Bill Bond Memorial Award – for his contributions towards “Conserving and Protecting the Fisheries of Lake Simcoe”. You can read more of Wil’s articles on his Focus on Fishing website here: www.wilwegman.com