July 07, 2016
You've fantasized about it for years, right down to mentally packing your tackle and rigging your rods and now the rubber is hitting the road. Your time has come to fly into a remote lodge in northern Canada to catch the trophy pike of your dreams. What you do before you lock your front door and take off on the adventure of a lifetime will contribute as much or more to your success as anything else.
I've been fortunate to have experienced some of the finest fly-in pike fishing "my home and native land" has to offer, including catching several pike over the 30-pound mark — fish with bodacious bodies and huge heads outfitted with enough teeth to chew off your leg. I've also experienced the good, the bad, and fortunately, only once, the downright ugly in terms of outfitters, accommodations, and fishing. Take my word for it, you only want the best.
Numbers or Trophies?
What do you consider a trophy pike? If you've never caught a 20-pounder, that may be the benchmark. For others, however, it is only two-thirds of the way there. Or, do you enjoy lots of activity catching 30, 40, 50, or more "nice" pike a day, with the chance of hooking a giant, or forsake the hand-to-hand combat and target goliaths exclusively.
If it's your first fly-in trip, you don't have to answer these questions, I can read your mind. You want both — catch lots of trophies. It's possible, but the reality is in most cases, while tourism bureaus and resort operators claim the contrary, some lakes are more suited to pump out numbers of 12- to 20-pound pike with an occasional bigger fish, while other waters have less action and are more known for their King Kong critters.
Even in some of the giant lakes where both options exist, you still usually find it necessary from a timing, location, and presentation perspective, to prudently pick your poison. Case in point: A few years ago, friend Mark Stiffel and I fished Reindeer Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan. Reindeer is massive, stretching over 150 miles north to south, 40 miles east to west, and covering an enormous 2,500 square miles. If it was in the United States it would rank among the biggest lakes in the country. You can find every type of pike structure and cover there.
We'd caught plenty of pike in the mid- to high 20-pound range, so we set our sights high, specifically targeting giant fish weighing more than 30 pounds. We knew the risks and rewards of our "trophies only" strategy. If we caught but one or two pike that size, we'd be happy. But, after flying into the lodge and speaking with the other guests, it was evident that most folks considered a big pike to be in the mid- to high teens, and catching numbers of fish this size was at the top of everyone's agenda. Not surprisingly, the guides took their cues from the guests.
Even though we were specific about our intentions with our guide, George, who was a delight to be with in the boat and one of the most amazing woodsmen I've ever met, it didn't take long to realize that we weren't on the same wavelength.
"That is the 67th northern you've caught today," George beamed with pride, while I winked at Mark and he scrunched his nose back at me. Over shorelunch, we went over our plan with our guide and ensured him that we wouldn't be disappointed if we didn't catch many more fish as long as we could pull away from the shoreline shallows and fish deeper structure and cover, where we were certain the giants clustered and cruised.
George reluctantly gave in, allowing us to explore a number of large, main-lake island indentations, searching the deeper water for the last remaining strands of green growth. We worked hard to put together the pattern and then struck lightning at the very first spot we found — not once, but seven times in 30 minutes, including a giant that Mark caught on his first cast and the biggest caught by any guest staying at the camp that year.
Timing the North Country Bite
I mention our trip to Reindeer for another reason. We had selected the last week in August because it is early autumn this far north. It was the last week the resort was open before closing for the season. A lot of anglers from southern climes forget when they plan their pike trips that the Prespawn, Spawn, Postspawn, Presummer, Summer Peak and Postsummer Calendar Periods typically last for days, not weeks.
Something else that can complicate your timing — you'll either be fishing in the "Land of the Midnight Sun" or mighty close to it. On a trip to Great Bear Lake in early July, we covered the cabin windows because so much sunlight was streaming into our room at 2 a.m. Another time we felt strangely hungry, looked at our watches, and suddenly realized it was 10 p.m. and we'd missed the dinner bell.
These 18- to 22-hour days of constant sunshine can heat up the shallows much more significantly than most anglers realize and reposition fish, especially the biggest pike that have a much cooler temperature preference than small and medium-size ones. So lake types play a huge role in finding fish.
On a fly-in trip, for example, to northeastern Ontario's wonderful Kesagami Lake in late May, amid a snowstorm no less, we found giant pike cruising the shallows in knee-deep water, where they smashed big noisy buzzbaits whirling over their heads and crushed 7- to 9-inch soft plastic Texas-rigged fluke-style baits skittering across the surface. Yet, only a few weeks later in July, lodge manager Charlie MacDonald told me the resort closes because the water heats up to such a degree that the lodge doesn't want to jeopardize the phenomenal trophy fishing.
Lying in the marshy Hudson Bay Lowlands, Kesagami Lake is shallow, vegetated, and prairie-like. If you were to fall out of the boat in many parts of the lake, you could stand up and haul yourself back in. Saskatchewan's Reindeer Lake, by comparison, is a typical Canadian Shield lake with granite shorelines and depths exceeding 500 feet. Still, even in Reindeer, the shallows warm up quickly and the biggest pike relocate and seek ambush spots in 62°F to 64°F water.
While you can find a tremendous number of magnificent fly-in pike fisheries across all of north-central Canada, from Alberta in the west to Ontario and Quebec in the east, the northern half of Saskatchewan and Manitoba is the undisputed pike heartland. The reason includes a unique convergence of soils, climate, geology, and geography.
If you draw a line from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, through Prince Albert and Nipawin and over to The Pas in Manitoba and then continue eastward, the area north of this line encompasses possibly the finest concentration of pike lakes anywhere on Earth. It includes such marquee waters as Lac La Ronge, Cree Lake, Wollaston Lake, Lake Athabasca, Reindeer Lake, God's Lake, Utik Lake, and Knee Lake, to name a few.
Another thing about these premier pike lakes, as well as Great Slave Lake and Kasba Lake in the Northwest Territories and Kesagami Lake in northeastern Ontario, is that they're big — really big. Which brings up the topic of accommodations.
Outpost Camp or Main Base Lodge?
As a general rule, fly-in outpost camps, where your boat, motor, gas, and lodging are provided in the trip package, but you guide yourself and cook your own meals, are generally offered on smaller to mid-sized pike waters from about 1,000 to 10,000 acres. The beauty of an outpost camp is you typically "own" the entire lake and never see another soul until the float plane flies in for a mid-week check or picks you up at the end of your stay.
Because outpost camps function best on "manageable" size waterbodies that don't intimidate the self-guided boater, they tend to be more "number" rather than "trophy" pike fisheries. They're perfect for family and buddy fly-in adventures where you can quickly get a sore arm from catching nice, often double-digit size pike, all day long. And, you still stand a chance at hooking a much bigger fish. But, most outpost camp lakes don't consistently produce giants.
There once was a time when "outpost camp" meant rustic accommodations, but that's not always the case today, especially in northern Ontario where you find more fly-in outpost camps than anywhere else in the world. Many offer amenities from hot and cold running water to central heating and air conditioning.
At the other extreme are full service five-star resorts, usually on the largest waterbodies, where you're pampered with plush accommodations, maid service, gourmet meals accompanied by fine wine, hot tubs, delicious daily shorelunches, and guides running new boats and motors equipped with the latest sonar.
Of course, you get what you pay for. Whereas the daily per-person price for an outpost camp sets you back generally between $100 and $200 a day, depending on options and flight distance, the same day at a five-star fly-in may cost $750 to $1,000. The daily per-person price for a three- or four-star fly-in lodge, on the other hand, usually falls somewhere in between because you're typically offered many more options, such as whether or not you want to cook your own meals or use a guide.
Guide or No Guide?
Some of my best friends and some of the best anglers I know are guides at fly-in fishing resorts. Get one of these hot sticks and you'll be catching nice pike from your first cast to your last. They're worth their weight in gold.
But the opposite can be just as true. Several years ago, for instance, I enjoyed one of my most memorable fly-in fishing trips. It was so good that In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw filmed footage for In-Fisherman at this resort two years later. I suggested he insist on getting one of three specific guides (there were a dozen at the lodge) who knew the massive lake like the backs of their hands, who shared secret isolated GPS waypoints, and who were incredibly fine anglers on their own accords.
Wouldn't you know it, when word got out that In-Fisherman television was flying in, the owner scheduled his grandson to be Straw's guide. The lad was a great kid, but lacking the wondrous waypoints accumulated by the hot sticks in camp, it was a much bigger struggle than it needed to be.
When I'm planning a fly-in trip, I often make it clear to the tour operator that I'm fine with fishing without a guide, or using a guide on the first day or two to get my bearings and a feel for locations and conditions.
As you'll discover, even though many premier fly-in waters are huge, most guides take their guests to the same spots and have them cast or troll using the same relatively few lures. Because the fishing is usually so good, it works, to a point. My buddies and I, on the other hand, enjoy fishing "out on the edge" while we look around the corner. When the guide-boats zig, we like to zag. When everyone is throwing 1/2- and 3/4-ounce spinnerbaits over submerged woody cover in knee-deep back bays and coves, we like casting big gold and silver Williams C90 HN Whitefish spoons with the treble hooks replaced by single Siwashes dressed with white curlytail grubs over the tops of the deepest cabbage stalks we can find. That's how we nabbed the giants at Reindeer Lake.
When I have a great guide, I enjoy asking him where on the lake he's never been and has always wanted to explore. When he tells me, I always suggest we go there. One time this resulted in 40 lake trout weighing more than 20 pounds, with a pair topping 40. We rode out a bad thunderstorm beyond sight of the shore, but we survived and became life-long friends. He remains the finest deep-water trout and salmon troller that I've ever watched weave his magic.
When you narrow down the list to the two or three outfitters that offer the services you're looking for, contact the camp operator by phone. It's amazing how much more you learn by speaking with them directly compared to emailing them or viewing their websites. Request contact information of at least three or four anglers from your area who have visited and fished at the lodge. If the outfitter refuses, strike them off your list. Once you're provided with contacts, follow up.
Don't beat around the bush. Ask direct questions about the accommodations, food, guides, and quality of fishing. You'll be flooded with so much "insider information" that even Martha Stewart would blush, which is precisely what you want. After all, it's your money and your fantasy. So make it come true. –
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer lives in Kenora, Ontario. He's a former Ontario resource manager and a longtime contributor to -In-Fisherman publications.