November 17, 2017
I'll never forget my first fly-in fishing trip to a remote outpost camp in northern Ontario. I was a university student and had saved enough money from a summer job to take my dad, who had introduced my brother and me to fishing and who had always yearned to experience a fly-in trip.
We flew out of White River, a small town on the north shore of Lake Superior, between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, to a puddle of water called Jembi Lake, in a piston-driven Beaver floatplane that was so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think.
Calling it a "camp" was charitable. It was a small, weather-beaten canvas outfitter tent erected on an elevated plywood floor. Our beds were constructed out of two-by-fours and plywood, on top of which we laid our air mattresses and sleeping bags. A table and four chairs were in the middle of the tent and a wood stove in the corner. A Coleman lantern hung from the ceiling. A set of mismatched pots, pans, cups, saucers, dinner plates, and utensils rounded out the necessities, along with a cast-iron skillet in which I'm certain scores of walleyes had taken their last swim, this being back in the days of "catch and release into the grease."
Our boat was a 14-foot aluminum, pretty slick we thought at the time, powered by 5.5 smoking horses. For three days we caught walleyes and pike and lived like kings in heaven. How times have changed. Across the central part of northern Canada, but especially in the walleye heartland of Manitoba and Ontario, there are more and better fly-in options for walleyes today than ever before—from luxury resorts with plush accommodations, maid service, gourmet meals, and guides, to spiffy outpost cabins resembling lakeside holiday homes, to where you bring in your own supplies, cook your own meals, and fish from a boat supplied by the outfitter.
"It's bucket list time," says Jim Grayston, the Fishing and Hunting Partnership Coordinator with Ontario Tourism. "With more than 400,000 lakes in Ontario, walleye are still the number-one species. And as good as the fishing is on the more accessible lakes and rivers, you still see cottages, lodges, and other anglers. That's not the case when you fly into a wilderness lodge or outpost camp. There also is the romance of the trip. You're flying above the treetops in a float plane to get into a lake that you'll have all to yourself. It ties together the entire experience."
Grayston also points out that most fly-in walleye waters are carefully managed by the lodge owner or outfitter to ensure that the quality of fishing remains first-class. Most have adopted the In-Fisherman philosophy of selective harvest where a few smaller walleyes are kept each day for shorelunch and dinner, but no fish are taken home. Having no commercial fishing, user conflicts, or winter angling also enhances the experience.
"It's fishing the way people imagine it to be," says Brad Greaves, who along with his wife Karen, operates Ignace Outpost Camps, one of Ontario's premier operations. "By flying in to your own lake, you can escape fishing pressure. Many of our guests tell us the fishing today is better than it was 20 or 25 years ago. It's because we manage our lakes carefully."
MAIN BASE LODGE OR OUTPOST CAMP?
With a fly-in trip, the first decision you usually have to make is choosing between a main base lodge offering an American Plan or an outpost camp where you and your friends look after yourself as far as cooking meals and fishing is concerned.
The main base American-plan option is more expensive, but it's also the most relaxing and requires the least amount of planning. You pack your clothes and other essentials, arrive at the local airbase, and fly into the lodge by float plane; although, a few resorts have carved airstrips out of the bush near their lodges.
You sleep in comfort, wake up to enjoy a hot shower and hearty breakfast, then walk down to the dock to meet your guide who may already have the boat running. At noon, you gather at a shorelunch spot to devour a meal of freshly caught walleyes cooked by the guides over an open fire. There's always plenty to eat, including homemade bread, baked beans, corn, salad, fried potatoes, hush puppies, and apple pie.
As the guides put out the fire and clean up, there's often time to stretch out on a rock for a short nap, or to enjoy a cold drink before heading back out onto the water. Around 5:00 p.m., everyone heads back to the resort for cocktails before sitting down to a first-class dinner.
On the other hand, modern outpost camps present an alternative. The ones like Greaves offers come with new boats and motors, propane refrigerators, solar lighting, radio phones, and on-demand hot water for a shower.
Another consideration is that main base lodges tend to be on larger lakes, hence the need for a guide, whereas outpost camp lakes are smaller and more manageable.
"We have 14 outpost cabins on 8 different lake systems ranging from 2,000 to 30,000 acres," Greaves says. "On the smaller lakes, our cabin is typically the only one, while on the bigger lakes we have a full-time staff person to assist guests if they need help operating equipment or advice on the best fishing locations and tactics. You can tailor your outpost experience the way you want it."
One of the reasons I always leap at the chance to hop into a float plane and fly into a remote Canadian walleye lake is the phenomenal learning opportunity it provides. There are so many fish willing to bite that becoming skilled at a new technique or fine-tuning a new presentation is easy. Perhaps you have yet to develop confidence in techniques like snap-jigging hardbaits such as a Rapala Jigging Rap or trolling Slow Death rigs, not because you used the techniques incorrectly on your home waters, but because there were few fish where you tried to learn the techniques.
Now, put yourself on a world-class fly-in fishery like massive Reindeer Lake that straddles the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border for over 200 fish-filled miles. It's where I was a couple of years ago, with a good friend, fishing for giant northern pike for which the lake is famous. But my buddy also wanted to learn how to cast swimbaits on heavy jigs for walleyes, so we dedicated an entire day to the technique.
After rigging medium-heavy spinning rods with 3/4-ounce jigs tipped with 6-inch swimbaits, I made a cast to the shallow portion of an island point that our Cree Indian Guide, George, said was one of his favorite walleye spots. After letting the bait touch bottom, I snapped it up smartly and started swimming it back to the boat. It didn't flap its tail for 20 feet before a gorgeous 24-inch walleye crushed it. I'm not sure who was more impressed, my friend Mark, me, or George.
The rest of the day we wailed on burly Reindeer Lake walleyes up to 7 pounds, swimming soft-plastic paddletails past their noses. Not only did Mark catch more walleyes in a single day than he would have in a year fishing back home, he developed confidence in a new presentation that he could subsequently take to any walleye lake on the continent and catch fish. Nothing succeeds like success, which is why the fastest way to learn a new walleye method is to show it to hordes of hungry fish.
Those three fish-filled days at Reindeer that Mark and I spent in the boat with our soft-spoken guide were crammed with valuable lessons well beyond the fishing. George and his family hunt caribou on Reindeer Lake in the winter and trap beaver, otter, fox, lynx, and timber wolves in the surrounding wilderness. Listening to his stories of being caught in winter whiteouts, hundreds of miles by snow machine from his cabin, was the icing on the cake.
George must have thought that learning how to fish swimbaits for walleyes was a fair trade, too, because when it came time to cook some walleyes we'd caught for shorelunch, instead of pulling up onto a nearby shoreline, he invited us to his log cabin on the lake, where his wife cooked us the most scrumptious bannock over a wood fire.
Something else to consider is whether to pick a fly-in lake where walleyes are the primary species or secondary to other species. It's hard to go wrong either way, given that it's rare to find a walleye lake anywhere in the North Country that doesn't also offer superb fishing for lake trout or pike and often both. Some even have muskies, smallmouth bass, and brook trout.
Lakes like Gunisao in Manitoba, however, are renowned for their spectacular walleye fishing, not just for numbers, although 100-walleye days are common. "More than two-thirds of the Master Angler Award walleyes that were caught in Manitoba the last two years were landed by guests staying at Gunisao Lake Lodge," says Ryan Suffron, Manitoba Travel's Fish/Hunt Consultant. "Those are walleyes bigger than 28 inches. Last year, 450 lodge guests landed 1,155 Master Angler walleyes."
Some of the best fishing I've ever experienced has also come while chasing other species. I highlighted the excellent walleye action we had at Reindeer Lake. I had a similar experience on a trip for big pike at northeastern Ontario's Kesagami Lake. I took a break one day to catch walleyes for shorelunch and hooked so many 24- to 26-inchers that I struggled to catch "eaters" small enough for a meal. That's when it struck me that most famous fly-in pike and lake trout fisheries outside of the extreme Far North offer walleyes, too.
The best bite is rarely when you think it should be. I've routinely had my best fly-in walleye fishing in the hottest part of the summer when air temperatures hovered in the mid-80s. But spring-fed lakes and natural flowages in the North Country take a long time to warm, so even in mid-summer, you find surface water barely warm enough for a quick dip. Down a few feet deeper, it stays in the 64°F to 67°F range, optimal for walleyes through the summer.
Walleyes aren't stressed by hot water or low oxygen levels and continue to feed heavily. You rarely need to get up at the crack of dawn, stay out until sunset, or fish deep. Walleyes bite all day and typically remain in shallow to mid-depths throughout the hottest part of summer.
"Our outpost camp lakes are located within the Arctic watershed," says Greaves, "so the water never warms up to the point that the fish become sluggish. Our guests commonly catch the biggest walleyes in July and August."
Because you access these waters by a pontoon-equipped float plane or small wheeled aircraft, you need to be conscience of the weight of what you pack. Most fly-in first-timers bring far too much tackle. And no amount of sweet talk is going to convince the pilot to overload the plane. This is especially important when you're heading to an outpost camp.
"Bring only the things you require, like special medications," Greaves says, "but leave behind non-essential items like landing nets and paddles that we supply. And get together with your friends and pack as a group."
Depending on the type of aircraft and flight distance, you're generally limited to between 50 and 100 pounds per person of food, clothing, and tackle. Greaves suggests dividing that into 60 pounds of personal gear and 40 pounds of "group items" to be shared among your party. Instead of everyone bringing jigs, bottom bouncers, snapweights, and spoons, pack as group and divvy up when you arrive at the lodge.
Everything you bring is eventually carried, loaded into a small float plane tied to a dock, and then unloaded and carried to your base camp. If you're heading to an outpost with food, stick with cans not bottles, and leave flimsy paper bags and big heavy coolers at home. Greaves says small and medium-size cardboard boxes are the way to go, and don't pack them so full that someone has to strain to carry them.
Having many times experienced the wonder and joy of flying into a Canadian wilderness lake to fish for walleyes, I can tell you that Grayston is wrong when he said it's something you can check off your bucket list. When you do it once, you'll want to do it over and over again.