Have you ever noticed that every town, village, hamlet, city, state, province and country seems to be the world capital of one thing or another? From possessing the biggest ball of thread to being the hottest, coldest, wettest or driest place on Earth. It is even worse when the locale lay claims to something fishy. I mean, how many walleye, bass or musky capitals can you have?
So, let me say this: Manitoba is the ice fishing capital of the world — no ifs, ands or buts about it. The province that sits smack dab in the center of Canada — Canada's Heartbeat — is where you go to catch the biggest and the most fish in the winter.
The foundation for this proposition starts with Lake Winnipeg, the 12th largest lake in the world and the third largest lake entirely within a country with more than two million bodies of water.
More 8-, 9- and 10-pound plus walleyes are caught in this massive lake on any given Saturday or Sunday in the winter, than are landed in almost any other lake in North America over the entire season. As a matter of fact, more trophy-size walleyes are iced on Lake Winnipeg in a typical winter weekend, than as in most northern states in a year.
Is that crazy, or what?
"As great as our open water season is here in Manitoba," says Donovan Pearase, who runs Blackwater Cats, the renown Lake Winnipeg guide service, "you simply can’t ignore the fact that it is one of the greatest trophy walleye ice fishing destinations on the planet. For more than a decade now, people have been hearing about the giant greenbacks that swim in the inland ocean we call Big Windy. Older year-classes of big fish are now at, or near their peak for both age and maximum size, so you have never had a better opportunity to catch a truly immense walleye pushing 32-inches in length and 14-plus pounds in weight."
Todd Longley, Manitoba's famous — or should I say, infamous, Rock and Roll fisherman — runs City Cats guide service and he agrees that Lake Winnipeg's winter walleye secret has been exposed.
"What is so amazing," says Longley, is the ice fishing is only 45 minutes from downtown Winnipeg. The south basin of the lake is world class walleye fishing and every year anglers from across Canada and the United States converge on the walleye Mecca for a chance to reel in a monster greenback."
Because the lake is so immense - it is 250 miles long by about 40 miles wide and bigger than Lake Ontario - getting around Big Windy on your own can be tricky.
"We guide out of well equipped, heavy duty, four-wheel drive trucks and use top of the line portable shelters with propane heaters," says Pearase. "Most groups, especially regulars, realize that the better equipped and more mobile we are, the better we can put them on fish. No group is the same and we run trips for every level of experience."
Longley, too, is marvelously able to conquer every condition Lake Winnipeg throws at him. "The minute you step into my one-of-a-kind Ice Ridge Reaper track van, you know it's game on," says Longley. "There is no where we can't go, in any weather condition. And it is not a 9:00 to 5:00 fishing trip, either. We fish from dawn until dark unless you want to start later or come in earlier. I have big Eskimo ice fishing shelters, including the new Outbreak 450i with propane heaters to keep you warm. And we eat like kings, out on the ice, with some of the best barbeque in Manitoba."
Being properly prepared to conquer the inland sea in pursuit of 34-inch walleyes topping 16-pounds, highlights something else that Pearase and Longley say is important. Timing the peak winter bite.
"Anglers always think March is the best time to ice fish Lake Winnipeg," says Pearase. "Don’t get me wrong, March offers great fishing, but that is because the weather is nicer, so ice anglers have greater mobility. The reality, however, is that for many years we've had our best fishing, for numbers and trophy size walleyes in January. The fish haven't been harassed and they stick around once you find them. So you can set up a shelter and work the school all day long."
Longley agrees that first ice is prime time on Lake Winnipeg, as the trophy greenbacks are still feeding heavily. And like Pearase, he also sees a mid-February spike in activity. "But March madness speaks for itself," he chuckles, "with a hot bite and lots of big fish. In my opinion, it is probably the best time to ice these emerald green monsters."
Speaking about giant eye-popping Lake Winnipeg walleyes, Pearase cautions newcomers to leave the wimpy panfish gear at home. "The biggest thing to consider is your rod.," he says. "Traditional 28- to 32-inch, medium and medium light rods lack the backbone and hook setting power to get the job done on our big greenbacks.
"I use a 42-inch, medium heavy Quantum rod for most of my heavy lifting. It is overkill when you hook into a 2-pound eater, but it is perfect for working the lures, setting the hook and getting the tanks top side."
On the subject of lures, Longley relies on REELBAIT Tournament series Flasher Jigs on his deadstick rod. "My favorite color is pink and white," he says. "I will hook a live minnow through the tail and keep it on with a Bait Button, because barbless hooks are the rule in Manitoba. I'll fish the jig and minnow combination about 6-inches off the bottom.
"For the second hole, I use a Shimano medium heavy rod with a purple and chartreuse Jackall TN 70 lipless crankbait. I snap jig the lure to call in the fish. I also use a Pelican Flutter spoon tipped with a minnow head, and a pink and white Acme Tackle Hyper Glide. The side to side action on that lure drives the walleyes nuts."
One could make a case for Manitoba being the ice fishing capital of the world based solely on Lake Winnipeg, but they would be missing out on some of the most spectacular wilderness ice fishing found anywhere.
"When I am guiding a group of two ice anglers," says Bryan Bogdan, owner of Wekusko Falls Lodge in Northern Manitoba, "I'd expect them to catch at least 25 walleyes a day. And it is a good bite all day long, not just at the low light periods. The average walleye is 22-inches with lots of 24- to 26-inch fish and a high potential for a 30-inch plus Master Angler.
"When we target northern pike, on the other hand, I expect to see at least 25 flags fly every day. The average fish will measure 28-inches, but you land a couple every day that go 40-inches and bigger.
"Those same two anglers will ice at least eight lake trout every day, and they will be bigger, 30- to 33-inches on average, with a high potential for fish exceeding 40-inches."
This multi-species opportunity is the attraction of ice fishing at a lodge like Wekusko Falls. You can dedicate a day to each species, or mix it up as the day unfolds. And fishing in a scene right out of a Hallmark greeting card, without another angler in sight, only adds to the splendor and excitement.
"We don’t live where there is cell reception everywhere," says Bogdan, "But you can drive to the lodge on a modern highway. And you can catch giant walleye, northern pike and lake trout without seeing another angler."
The remoteness that makes ice fishing adventures to places like Bogdan's does mean that the visiting angler needs to be well prepared. If you forget something, you don't just drive into town to get a replacement. That means careful planning.
"As a rule of thumb," says Bogdan, "you should plan to bring 34- to 36-inch, medium heavy rods spooled with 14- to 17-pound braid. This will let you catch bigger trout and yet, still finesse walleye. Our big burbot, however, have been known to break rods and you never know when one of the bruisers is going to hit. When the burbot bite is on, typically in April, you can land 15 or more a day and they'll average 28-inches."
Bogdan also says that visiting ice anglers should bring a good supply of rattle spoons - Buckshot, VMC, PK and Flutter Fish being his personal favorites. And when the ice is thick and the snow is deep, he finds nothing beats glow-in-the-dark colors.
"Rattlebaits also work well," he says, "as do tube jigs for lake trout. Of course, we rely on tip ups and quick strike rigs for northern pike."
What has always appealed to me personally about fishing in the north country is the opportunity to hop onto a snowmachine and run through fresh powder snow exploring remote waters.
"If you want to get away from the crowds and experience a northern adventure with endless fishing possibilities, you want to come to Lake Athapapuskow," says Brett Baynton, owner of Bakers Narrows Lodge. "A unique feature of the lodge is the accessibility to so many lakes and the excitement of exploring these remote fisheries."
When I ask Baynton about the best time to come, he chuckles and then I understand what he means. There is never a wrong time up here.
"Last ice is super fish time," says Baynton, who once caught eight Manitoba Master Angler Award winning pike in a single day. "You can hit the narrows and bays for walleye and pike, or the humps for lake trout. Burbot also spawn from mid-March to mid-April and the lakers feast on their eggs. It can be fantastic fishing for trout.
"One of my guides, John Wolters still holds the Manitoba record for lake trout. He caught a 64.5-pound behemoth in Athapapuskow. John also caught the 17-pound 4-ounce provincial record burbot that was eventually beaten by the 22-pound world record fish, that was also caught in Lake Athapapuskow. We have some heavy fish up here."
Heavy, indeed, and oh, my, so many of them. As a matter of fact, as I listen to Chris Matheson, owner of Kenanow Lodge, nonchalantly list his expectations for what an average ice angler can expect to catch each day, I am left speechless.
"We are ice fishing pristine waters up here," says Matheson, "using the same skidoo trails as the backwoods trappers. So you can customize each day's adventure.
"It is not uncommon for an ice angler to catch 50 walleyes a day, 20 pike and 10 lake trout. And something a lot of ice anglers don't realize is that when the season closes in the south and the ice deteriorates back home, we still have a month of excellent fishing up here. The weather is fabulous, and we are typically ice fishing in sweaters and shirtsleeves. Just don't forget the sunscreen."
Heading back south, toward eastern Manitoba, I ask Vance Hrechkosy, the owner of Trail End Camp & Outfitters, near Pointe du Bois, if the notoriety garnered by nearby Lake Winnipeg ever frustrates him.
"I am not going to take anything away from Lake Winnipeg," says Hrechkosy. "There is no better place on the planet to ice fish for walleyes. I hit that barren expanse at least once every winter, too, for my walleye fix. A bunch of my regular guests do two or three days on the big lake, as well, and then come to visit us at Trail End.
"Once at our door Mother Nature opens herself up with an abundance of wildlife and lake after lake untouched by snowmobile traffic. We specialize in trophy pike fishing, icing 40 or more fish a day with at least one 40-inch plus trophy. We are also right next door - only a 20-minute snowmobile ride - to two great lake trout lakes. They are my personal favorite spots for winter fishing because they are tough to get into during the open water season, but a quick ride in the winter. Lake trout are a little more fickle - one day you might catch 50 trout and the next day four or five. It seems like once the venison sausage is roasting on the open campfire and everyone is settled in, the fishing intensity drops off. "
The ever conservation-minded, Hrechkosy releases all pike over 28-inches and says most of his guests only keep a couple of small fish to eat. "It's about the experience of getting out in an area where you still see fresh wolf tracks daily and otters sliding across the ice," he says. "This is a serene place where filling coolers is not the agenda."
It sounds like my kind of place and I am already looking at the dates on my calendar to see when I can free up time for a March adventure.
That is, if I don't head west, to the Dauphin region, where a few years ago I enjoyed non-stop walleye fishing and some of the biggest jumbo perch I've ever seen. I always wondered if I hit the proverbial pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, or if the ice fishing is really that spectacular.
"It really is that good," says Riverside Lodge owner, Gil Paradis. "Lake Dauphin has been managed through the Intermountain Sport Fish Enhancement program for over 30 years and the results show. Outdoor Canada recently named Lake Dauphin one of “Canada’s Top 10 Drive to Walleye Hot Spots”. This is a lake where the entire family can enjoy catching fish all day long.
"Kids really enjoy the warmth of our heated wooden ice shacks while catching fish right along with the adults. Our lodge and cabins are very comfortable for small or large groups and guests can drive right to the lodge, with the City of Dauphin only 20 minutes away. And when you fish with us you don't have to travel across the lake, as we are located only a mile away from the best walleye grounds."
Like most of the resort and lodge operators in Manitoba, Paradis accommodates both Do-It-Yourself ice anglers, and those who prefer to be treated to an ice shuttle out to a cozy pre-heated shelter after they enjoy a hot home cooked breakfast. And you better eat well, because Paradis says that the average Daughin Lake walleye measures between 19- and 22-inches and on a good day you and couple of friends can expect to catch upwards of 70 or more fish.
I rest my case - the proof is conclusive - Manitoba is the ice fishing capital of the world!