January 08, 2019
The world is a mighty strange place, seemingly getting more alien by the day. If only there was somewhere we could go, even for a few short stress-free days, where the air is so clear it is invisible and so fresh you can actually smell it. Remember the heady sense you used to get, when you breathed in deeply as your mother pulled a freshly laundered shirt or sweater over your head, one that she had carefully hung outside to dry on a clothesline in the sunshine? That kind of clean.
And when you look around, your surroundings are so serene: it feels as though you're living in a post card. Lush spruce and pine forests for as far as you can see. And the water - have you ever caught sight of anything so pure? When you dip your hat into it, and then put it on your head to cool down in the warm sunshine, the droplets run down your neck and off your nose, taking you back to a much beloved and friendlier time.
I was thinking about every one of these things as I watched my young grandson, Liam, pace back and forth excitedly in the small air service departure lounge while the pilot and service folks loaded our fishing equipment into the bush plane. We were headed to Lake Athabasca at the far northern tip of Saskatchewan to catch the biggest lake trout in the world, and while I've been fortunate to partake in many adventures like this one, it was Liam's first, and our first together.
It changed our lives.
During three fun-filled days of fishing, our small group of eight friends caught giant lake trout with absolute abandon. We even managed to set a new lodge record when we released a 54-pound behemoth. And get this: it was one of several mammoth trout we landed that shattered the 40-pound ceiling.
As a matter of fact, we wrestled so many 30- to 40-pound lake trout into the net that Liam, who was desperately trying to keep track of all the fish we were catching, eventually lost count. How crazy is that? And we did it in August, wearing shorts and flip flops, during the hottest part of the summer.
Even more bizarre is the fact that the fishing we experienced was not a unique stroke of good luck, or somehow out of the ordinary. It is actually commonplace and to be expected in Canada's amazing prairie province.
“For years I viewed stories about the northern pike fishing in Saskatchewan with a healthy skepticism,” says good friend, Scott Gardner, who is the long-time fly-fishing columnist of Outdoor Canada magazine. “Turns out those stories were true. But until I saw it for myself, I just didn't believe such a concentration of truly large pike existed."
Gardner cites a single afternoon in 2017, when his group of four anglers, fishing out of Cree River Lodge, landed seven trophy pike of 40 inches or more, all on fly rods. In southern climes, pike are often skinny, but Gardner says every fish he saw was broad, thick and powerful. “I’d never encountered such well-fed, athletic pike. So you can imagine what a great fight they gave me on fly tackle,” he says.
And that highlights another special aspect of Saskatchewan's world-class northern pike fishery. Because you find the giant predators lounging so often in shallow water, it offers ideal conditions for sight fishing with traditional tackle as well as fly gear.
Truth be told, I am a mediocre fly angler. Don't get me wrong, I love to fly fish, but I spend most of my time on the water with a spinning or baitcasting rod in my hand. So fly-in fishing trips to northern Saskatchewan have an extra special meaning for me. Not only can I practice waving a fly rod like Brad Pitt in a River Runs Through It, I can dupe huge toothy critters into taking the bait. Like the time, I was fishing out of Milton Lake Lodge and spotted several giant knee-knocking northern pike cruising in front of the boat.
I was casting a large, Texas-rigged, 9-inch soft plastic fluke-style bait, watching the fish stalk it as I twitched it on the surface to make it look like a struggling baitfish. One broad shouldered pike that I nicknamed, Miltie, tore across the knee-deep cove as soon as the lure splashed down and I watched wide-eyed as it opened its huge, tooth-filled mouth and inhaled the lure. But I set the hook too soon pulling the lure through the water column, out into the air like an exploding Polaris missile. You will not believe what happened next. The pike tracked the airborne trajectory of my lure and literally raced to spot where it landed and ate it a second time. Talk about a two-time loser.
That is when my guide, Naoto smiled sheepishly and said, "Want to slip into the water and catch them with a fly rod?" The look on my face left no doubt about the answer. You've heard about Seventh Heaven? I was in it.
“I’ve been to a lot of places, and in my opinion northern Saskatchewan has the best pike fly fishing in Canada—and, quite possibly, in the world,” says Gardner, when I tell him the story about Miltie.
"I remember one afternoon on Wapata Lake, near Stony Rapids, when we floated around a shallow, mile-wide bay. The water was between 12 and 24 inches deep, and the pike were laying around like logs.
"Using my favorite white and chartreuse Lefty’s Deceiver, I didn't go 10 minutes without a fish. And I capped the day with a memorable—classic—pike encounter. In the clear water I could see a mid-size fish tracking my fly, when a huge pike suddenly appeared out of no where and accelerated past the smaller fish to attack it first. You just don’t get that experience anywhere else."
The way a northern pike explodes on a big bass-style buzzbait, propbait, chugger, or cigar-shaped walking lure is unlike any other experience. Indeed, when you're topwater fishing for other species - largemouth bass, for example - it is often about delicacy and precision, but with pike you get this savage attack, followed by a straight-up brawl. It is mayhem, but the best kind of mayhem. And it is the reason I always tell folks who have never taken a fly-in fishing trip to Saskatchewan to pack a fly rod along with their spinning and baitcasting outfits, regardless of their perceived prowess.
“The truth is that a lot of the premier game fish targeted by fly anglers—like steelhead and Atlantic salmon in Canada or tarpon in the tropics—are really hard to catch,” says Gardner. “You need advanced casting skills, and you’re lucky to get one or two fish on a trip. Not so with trophy size pike in Saskatchewan."
That’s because large pike are both plentiful and not easily spooked. If you can cast a fly 30 feet, you can catch a trophy pike. And if you can cast 40 feet with even moderate accuracy, Gardner contends that fly fishing is actually the most effective presentation.
Although he’s a veteran of many fishing trips to Canada’s Far North, Michigan’s Lynn Henning, is a recent convert to fly fishing for pike. Like most anglers, he has spent most of his time casting surface lures, jerkbaits, in-line spinners and soft plastic swimbaits using traditional tackle. But after a recent fly-in fishing trip to Saskatchewan, he’s hooked on hand-to-hand combat.
“That first tug tells you why fly fishing for pike is a different sensation,” says Henning, who is a sports columnist with the Detroit News. “You’re more one-on-one with the fish, using your hand to feed or pull in line.”
Not surprisingly, Henning, whose personal best pike is a 47½-inch bruiser he landed from a nameless tributary near Cree Lake Lodge, has now added Wollaston Lake Lodge and Minor Bay Lodge (both on world-famous Wollaston), plus Selwyn Lake and Scott Lake to his list of “must-visit” destinations.
But as good as the northern pike fishing is in Saskatchewan, you simply cannot - must not - miss out on the incredible lake trout action.
When Liam and I fished on Lake Athabasca, we used 7'6"- to 8-foot long medium heavy action trolling rods with large capacity level wind reels spooled with 50- to 65-pound test braided line. We, then, tied on an 8- to 12-ounce banana weight, four-foot long 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader, quality snap and a Magnum Bondy Bait.
Once we began trolling, we let our baits plummet to the bottom and then fine tuned their position by slowly letting out subtle amounts of line until the lures were swimming a foot or two above the bottom. Then we turned the reel handles a couple of times to elevate the baits slightly and began pumping them aggressively - almost like a saltwater angler setting the hook into a sailfish - before pausing briefly, then letting the baits tumble back to the bottom.
It was beyond lethal. As a matter of fact, it was the fastest fishing I have ever experienced, for any species of fish, anywhere in the world.
As a matter of fact, it was so outrageous, I have an early season trip planned to Orvis-endorsed Wollaston Lake Lodge, so I can catch the fish on a fly, when they are cruising in waist deep water.
Traditionally viewed as denizens of the deep, there are times when you find lake trout in shallow water, such as early spring and again in late summer when they move onto reefs and rocky shorelines to spawn. At these times, casting heavy, sinking flies can result in spectacular catches.
And there’s another little-known secret to targeting trout with flies, and that is trolling for them. To a fly-fishing purist, trolling might seem sacrilegious, but as Gardner and I see it, it is simply another way to catch fish that you might otherwise never hook. And Gardner has developed a simple system that he says is as effective as trolling with classic oversized spoons.
"Because Saskatchewan’s lake trout are so powerful," says Gardner, "you need a stout 10-weight fly rod, rigged with a full-sinking line, and at least 100 yards of backing. For flies, you need minnow-imitating streamers of six to 10 inches in length, made with swishy materials like long feathers or rabbit strips so they have lots of action.
“You’ve got a killer lake trout fly if it flashes and shimmies when moving, and jackknifes on the pause. Simply troll with your rod tip pointed back at the fly, and your drag set fairly heavy. And when you feel a trout hit, set the hook hard and enjoy the toughest fight you’ll ever get from a freshwater fish.
“I told my boss about it, when he was preparing for a trip to Cree Lake Lodge, but I could tell he wasn’t really convinced by the method. But he boated trout after trout trolling flies and now he’s a believer.”
Talking about astonishing numbers of fish, walleyes tends to get over looked on fly-in fishing trips to Saskatchewan. It is ironic because in the rest of North America, they're one of the most popular and sought-after fish. But the giant lake trout and northern pike tend to steal the headlines.
Trust me when I say—do not leave your walleye tackle at home. Indeed, while buddy Mark Stiffel and I enjoyed the northern pike fishing of a lifetime - we caught gargantuan pike using Williams Whitefish spoons tipped with 6-inch white curly tail grubs - while fishing out of Arctic Lodges camp on Reindeer Lake, it is the walleye fishing that we often reminisce about the most.
Maybe it is because we caught 18- to 24-inch walleyes almost at will, casting five- and six-inch Bass Magnet Shift Shad swimbaits pinned to 1/2- and 3/4-ounce jigs. The fishing was so fast, so furious, so frenetic and so delirious that we couldn't stop laughing in the boat.
“Those Cree River walleye fought harder than the ones I get around home on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie,” says Lynn Henning. "Part of their spunk might be explained by sharing the water with so many toothy predators. Twice as I was reeling in walleyes of 16 to 20 inches, they were just a few feet from the boat and — slam. They were broadsided by pike, that chomped down and carried them away, hook, line and sinker.”
Gardner, on the other hand, confesses that he doesn't even take walleye tackle with him on his Saskatchewan fly-in trips. “I just use my pike baits," he chuckles, "including flies up to eight inches long, that are a little too big for northern pike. But the walleye smack ’em. Welcome to Sask-style walleye fishing."
Of course, part of our love affair with walleyes stems from the fact that they are the essential ingredient to shore lunch, the wonderful and quintessential ritual of any Canadian fishing trip. You will never have fresher, more succulent fish in your life than walleye filets just minutes out of cold, pure water, lightly breaded and shallow-fried in a cast iron pan, over an open fire.
“Put them on a plate alongside fresh fried potatoes and baked beans. Then find a spot overlooking the water, and you can dig into the freshest of all.
He is right, of course, and it is why a Saskatchewan fly-in fishing trip is the perfect anecdote to everything that ails the world.