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Lake Mistassini in Quebec's James Bay region is the stuff fishing legends are made of. Located 220 miles east of James Bay and over 400 miles north of Montreal, Lake Mistassini is the largest natural lake in Quebec. This is fly-in country; getting to the lake by road takes considerable effort, not to mention a stout and reliable vehicle and valuable travel time. Most visitors fly to the region via float-plane, so as not to miss a minute of fishing action. Speckled trout, lake trout, northern pike, and walleye are the main species sought by visiting anglers. They are richly rewarded for their efforts, if they know where to fish. The long, narrow lake covers over 575,000 acres and is about 100 miles long; a knowledgeable guide is a must on such a huge body of water. Fortunately. the local outfitters at Lake Mistassini have many years of experience in fishing the big lake and know the best fishing spots.
Besides the usual cold water species which grow to trophy size in the deep lake, scientists have recently discovered that Lake Mistassini holds a special variety of lake trout other than those found in the shallow near-shore waters. The deep-water lake trout appear to be the same species once common across the northern part of the continent and now found in only a couple of lakes outside of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Unlike the shallow-water lake trout, the deep-water species lives in dark, cold, high-pressure environments.
Lake Mistassini has been home to the Cree Nation for hundreds of years. When French explorers came to the area of the lake in the early 1600s, the lake was called 'mista assini' in Cree, meaning large rock. This could have referred to the large rock located near the outlet to the Rupert River. A series of rocky island ridges virtually divide it into two separate lakes. Early French trappers reached the lake by paddling up the tributaries to the large lake and exiting through the out-flowing Rupert River on their way to James Bay. Eventually the local Cree aborigines ended up handling the fur trade locally for the fur trading companies that followed. From this early experience in commerce with the immigrant Europeans comes a long tradition of providing services to fishermen, hunters and outdoor adventurers that they continue today.
The wilderness area around Lake Mistassini is primarily used for logging. Between the forested areas are marshes that produce a bumper crop of blueberries, a well-known product of the area. Caribou, moose and black bear are common here as are a variety of smaller animals. Hundreds of small and large lakes and a network of rivers and streams offer great trout fishing and scenic vistas. The entire area is primarily uninhabited except for a few Cree villages and the occasional hunting cabin. In winter, the snow is usually deep and early, making travel by snowshoe or cross-country ski the only alternative to snowmobiles. The rocky countryside clothed in winter white is an inviting landscape for snowmobile treks along the old logging roads. It is easy to get lost in this wilderness, and there are few detailed maps, necessitating a good guide and adequate preparation.
Subsistence hunting and fishing have long been a way of life for the local Cree who have turned their native knowledge and business skills into a thriving industry based on tourism. The Cree nation applied for and received recognition and funding as a Regional Tourism Association from the province in 2007. Headquartered in the one local Cree town along the shore, Mistissini Village is home to a number of fishing and hunting adventure enterprises located near the lake. Some have built large modern lodges on islands for fishing excursions, while others focus on hunting packages and often include snowmobile trekking and camping packages. With a population of 3500 people, the town of Mistissini has erected a modern 20-room lodge, and the town has geared up for an influx of tourists with several restaurants and cultural festivals open to visitors.
Cultural tourism is encouraged, with visitors allowed to respectfully experience facets of native cultural life. Visitors to Lake Mistassini and the Village of Mistissini are invited to join selected families around the fire for traditional storytelling and meals. Bhaadhaagoosh'shoon, Chiiwetaau, and Mamoweedow Minstukch are traditional ceremonial events featuring songs, dance, rituals and crafts. Several shops selling native crafts such as carvings and leatherwork offer exciting one-of-a-kind items for the collector or for home decor. In a land far from the highways, cell phones and constant traffic noise, the Cree offer a glimpse of a simple way of life colored by complex ritual and intriguing history.
Lodging at Lake Mistassini is mostly limited to the hunting and fishing camps and lodges operated by local businessmen. Hunting and fishing licenses from the Province of Quebec are required, and certain activities may require a separate permit from the Reserve itself. Most lodges can make provision for travel and can arrange to handle passengers arriving via float-plane. A trip to Lake Mistassini is the kind of event avid outdoorsmen dream about and plan for a lifetime. Lake Mistassini awaits, deep and mysterious and teaming with fish.
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