The Fishing Lodges and the Heyday of Fishing at Devil Lake

Devil Lake has been known for its excellent fishing since the earliest days of tourists and cottagers. This remains true even today, but what is not so well known is that the lake once was the home of much larger fish than are being caught today, and it was also the home of two fishing lodges. The heyday of fishing on the lake was from the 1920s to the 1940s, when record fish were being caught. This article will describe some of the history of this industry, and why fishing in Devil Lake today it is not what it was. Readers may also want to read my article “Early Tourism at Devil Lake and the ‘Johnny Greenspoon’” which provides additional information about the subject.

By the early 1900s, tourists were becoming aware of the fishing in Devil Lake. Often, they were from the United States, and were brought to the lake by guides who accompanied them from nearby fishing lodges such as The Opinicon at Chaffey’s Lock. The first lodge on Devil Lake itself was called the Cabin Club, also known as the Ithaca Club. It was started in the early 1900s by a group of professors, doctors, and businessmen from Ithaca, New York. Initially members would come by train, bringing with them tents and other provisions to last the summer. The camp was set up on what was then “DeMarsh’s Island” (now Vanderbilt Island). In 1914, an old log barn was purchased and converted into a two-room log cabin. It is not known how long the Club operated, but in about 1928 the island was sold by Benjamin DeMarsh to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Vanderbilt, and the club was disbanded.

The second lodge to be built on the lake had a much longer lifespan. The property on which the resort came to be built was purchased by Frank Brock from the Jones family in 1920. He sold the property to William Gray of New York City in 1927. By 1928, members of Gray’s family were joining him for extended visits, including his son Jim. William Gray was 64 years old when he purchased the property and, as time passed, he spent less and less time at the lake. His son Jim began to come more frequently for extended stays, and often the camp was filled with his business associates, also from New York. It is not known if Jim charged his associates for their room and board, but the premises came to be known as the Devil Lodge Rod and Gun Club (the name was shortened some time later to Devil Lodge). In 1942, two of Jim’s associates, Frank Russo and Edward Cantelmo, became part owners of the Lodge. Over the years several buildings were added and, in 1944, a grand two-story building, called “Harmony Hall”, was built. It had a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, and a games room above, both with large fireplaces. At its peak, Devil Lodge could accommodate over 20 guests. Jim Gray and Frank Russo both died in 1948. The property fell into disuse for several years, until it was purchased in 1958 by Misoslaw Olszewski and his wife Ewa who, earlier that year, had emigrated to Canada from England. They renovated the three main buildings, ready to receive guests by the following year. The resort was run on the American Plan, which meant that room and three meals per day were included. In addition, the dining room was open to the public for lunch and dinner by reservation. The Lodge was seasonal, opening from May to October. Miroslaw quickly learned the various fishing spots of Devil Lake, and upon request he would act as guide for his guests. According to his daughter-in-law Hanna, who still lives nearby, he loved guiding and would not accept any payment for his services. Hanna recalls that the Olszewskis ceased operations at the Lodge in about 1967. In the summer of 1969, most of the property was severed into smaller lots. Devil Lodge itself continued in operation on a smaller scale for several more years under two owners. Harmony Hall and the sleeping accommodations were purchased by a family named Mloszewski, who ran the Lodge for five years before selling it to Gurd and Irena Janas, who also operated it for a few years until Gurd’s death. Irena tried to carry on alone but was unable to do so, and in the late 1970s the Lodge was closed for good. The former Devil Lodge property is now privately owned homes and cottages.

 During the early years, a number of local residents acted as fishing guides on Devil Lake (both on their own and for Devil Lodge). These included Wallace McComish and Johnny Green starting in the 1920s and, later, Dick and Ken Andrews, Ralph and Dick Jones, Orville Brown, and others. In those days the guides would take their guests onto the lake in a small boat called a skiff. Typically, in our area fishing skiffs were small wooden vessels, perhaps 12 to 16 feet in length, and were often made of local cedar, some even made by the guides themselves. They were similar in shape to a canoe with pointed bows and sterns, and were powered by oars (some, particularly in the Rideau system, were later powered by small engines). The guides would row while their guests (one or two per boat) fished. They would fish all day at various secret locations supposedly known only to the guide, stopping at mid-day for a “shore dinner” (usually sandwiches and pan-fried fish cooked by the guide), and return home in the evening. Most guided fishing in the lake was for lake trout (also called “landlocked salmon” by locals), pike, and bass, all of which, at the time, could grow to what today seem like enormous sizes. In the 1940s, the proprietors of Devil Lodge claimed that one of their American guests had caught a trout weighing 43 pounds. The claim was never substantiated, although the monstrous fish was mounted and still hangs above the fireplace in what was then Harmony Hall at the Lodge. The accompanying photograph of the trout is provided with the permission of current owner, Diane Amacher. Harold Green’s catch in about 1934 of a trout caught in Devil Lake, using one of his father’s famous lures, the “Johnny Greenspoon”, which was witnessed and weighed at 35 pounds, still stands as the Devil Lake record (it was also said to have been the largest trout caught that year in North America).

Pike were also quite large in the early years. Another local resident who gained some repute as a guide on Devil Lake was Ralph Jones. He was the oldest child of Edwin and Mildred (Brown) Jones, and was born at Bedford Mills in 1915. He grew up on the family farm, eventually moving to the United States. He became a fishing guide officially licensed by the Province of Ontario at the ripe old age of 12, and he frequently guided American tourists. In 1932, while guiding two Americans near the head of Devil Lake, he and his party amassed a remarkable catch of northern pike. They kept the largest half dozen, and took them to Westport where they were officially weighed and measured. The total weight came to just over one hundred pounds, including ones 12, 14, 16, 18 and 26 1/2 pounds respectively. The two largest fish were said to have been the largest pike ever taken in the Rideau corridor, the largest by a wide margin.

Something seems to have happened to the lake, perhaps during the 1960s, as it was observed that there were fewer and smaller fish being caught. For a time, pike were being reported as having open sores on their bodies. According to C. Yvonne Thomas’ “History of the West Devil Lake Community”, the largest trout caught in recent years in Devil Lake (caught in 1974 by Don Knight) was a 16-pounder. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the fish began to make a comeback, due perhaps to changing conditions in the lake, but also due to efforts by concerned individuals. In 1970 and 1972, the lake was stocked with trout by the Ministry of Natural Resources and, in 1986, the Ministry introduced a fisheries management planning process. In 1987, fishing licenses began to be required for Ontario residents for the first time, fishing seasons were shortened, the two-week winter lake trout fishing season was cancelled outright in lakes north of Kingston (including Devil), and limits on daily catch numbers and size for most species were introduced. From the 1970s to as late as the early 1990s, residents of Devil Lake vigorously advocated for stricter regulation of the lowering of the lake’s water level in the fall (which is controlled by dams at Kingsford Lake and Bedford Mills), in order to protect the spawning season of the trout. Today, all of these measures seem reasonable and are accepted as normal, but at the time some were received with great consternation and disbelief. Nevertheless, those of us who enjoy a tranquil day of fishing on Devil Lake should be thankful for the foresight and courage of those who took action to preserve our beloved pastime.

Today, perhaps one of the major fishing concerns for residents is the illegal poaching, especially near the Perth Road culvert, of large numbers of panfish at night, allegedly bound for markets in Toronto. Details of the efforts of Association members to curtail this activity can be found in the “environment” section of our website. Growing numbers of invasive water plants in Ontario, such as Eurasian water-milfoil and starry stonewort, also pose a real threat to the future of our lake’s fish. Starry stonewort impedes the ability of fish to move freely and to spawn in the shallow regions of the lake where the plants thrive. When large stands of water-milfoil begin to die off in the fall, the decaying plants can reduce oxygen levels in the water, potentially affecting the fish communities. We all, both Devil Lake residents and visitors, must be vigilant to adopt measures to prevent the spread of these invasive plants in order to keep our lake healthy and the fish abundant. As noted on Ontario’s invasive species reporting website, once introduced to a new area starry stonewort is almost impossible to eradicate, and both plants spread very quickly.

John Gray