Cree River, Saskatchewan — Like a good warm-up band that readies a crowd for the headline talent, the best afternoon of fishing from 31 years of crashing Canada’s wilderness began with atmosphere and verve.
Four of us, along with guide Patrick Babcock, had spent an early June morning on a 24-foot center-console boat sliding through bends and straightaways on the pure and cold Cree River, 75 miles south of the Northwest Territories, 640 miles north of Saskatoon, heavy in the wilds of a province that straddles Montana and North Dakota.
We had stopped occasionally along light rapids where eddies were loaded with northern pike gulping whatever swam their way. Or in stretches where calmer water, maybe 50 feet from shoreline to shoreline, offered the same freshwater treat for guys throwing fly-lines and plump pike flies, or tossing spoons with spinning rigs.
In a region thick with moose and black bear, ospreys and bald eagles, we meandered 40 miles, fishing when not hurrying to a particular spot, catching toothy pike that might touch 35 inches, until lunchtime put us on a bulge in the Cree known as Dune Lake, a stunning tract with sandy landscape that looked like something from the Leelanau Peninsula or the shifting dunes along Lake Michigan near Pentwater.
The main act was about to step onstage.
The afternoon had turned warm, 70 degrees or more, with whipped-cream clouds streaking a blinding blue sky. My fishing mates were Scott Gardner, a Toronto-based associate editor with Outdoor Canada magazine and a man whose skill with a fly rod makes you envious. Also: Jacob (Jake) Sotak, a business owner, freelance writer and Afghanistan combat veteran from New York City; as well as Dan Armitage, an outdoor writer from Columbus, Ohio.
Armitage was flicking with his eight-weight fly rod a white-and-red Seaducer fly, a classic pattern Gardner had tied with his own design twist. Armitage was retrieving line in rapid left-handed thrusts that made the fly streak like a panicked bait fish.
Sploosh! A big pike torpedoed and splashed water in a vicious boil.
“Look at the fin!” yelped Babcock, who is 41, from Saskatoon, and also owns Cree River Lodge, our base and the only semblance of civilization in this untouched corner of paradise.
“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever had on a fly line,” Armitage said as he neatly kept tension on the fish, applied drag on the reel with his right hand, and slowly steered the pike toward Babcock’s net.
“Oh, oh, what a fish, and you played it beautifully,” Gardner chirped as Babcock slipped the fly from a 41-inch pike’s mouth and eased it back into the cold Cree and freedom.
Quite a show. And it had only started.
In an area of burned-over jack pines (this end of Saskatchewan was all but incinerated in an enormous 2009 wildfire), we were fishing shallower water, maybe 4 feet deep, in streams and cuts jutting from the Cree and Dune Lake. Cabbage weeds had begun to rise in the warming June water, and Babcock suggested I ditch my heavier Dardevle spoons and switch to a lighter black-and-white Mepps spinner.
It was being dragged along, silver blade flashing, when the rod tip bounced and the rod handle torqued. This was a Mack truck of a fish.
“He hasn’t even begun to fight,” Babcock said as he grabbed his net and got ready for some heavy lifting.
A couple of minutes later he was measuring a lineman-sized pike that stretched 441/2 inches and had a staggering 20-inch girth.
“That’s a 27-pound fish all day long,” Babcock said after we had gotten a couple of quick photos and sent the pike on its way back to the Cree. “There are pike — and there are Cree River pike.”
Gardner and I agreed. We have dozens of Canada trips behind us and couldn’t believe the width and breadth of these Saskatchewan northerns.
“Thickest, healthiest pike I’ve ever seen,” Gardner said, repeatedly.
Sotak was giving his fly rod a workout when a pike ambushed and soon snapped his saltwater leader.
“I should have let him run,” Sotak moaned, and he had reason to grieve.
“Forty-five inches,” Babcock said with a nod.
We were working a kind of watery cul-de-sac off Dune Lake that Babcock had named “Steve Quinn’s Bay” in a bow to the editor of In-Fisherman magazine, who had done well here during an earlier visit.
My white-and-black Mepps had been lost to a faulty leader clip, and Babcock had replaced it with an orange-blue-and-silver Blue Fox spinner.
I popped it about 50 feet off the boat’s stern and instantly it was smashed by another pike that had descended from a family of freight trains.
“Look at the shoulders on that!” Gardner yelled. “And it’s got a head like a German shepherd.”
The pike eventually tuckered and Babcock scooped it in, its green-and-white mass no more impressive than a shark-like maw that was stretched wide with jaw-spreaders as Babcock niftily extracted a hook deep in the monster’s gullet.
It was 45 inches long. The biggest pike I’d ever caught.
“That fish is 28, 29 — you’re probably 30 (pounds) there,” Babcock said after dropping it into the bay and watching it fin away. “And that tail was a little buggered-up (wear and tear over the years) or that’s a 47, maybe 48-inch pike.”
This brute, like all the fish caught over four days, was returned to the water, safe and ready for more seasons and years in these immaculate waters. Cree River Lodge, as is the case at the best sport-fishing getaways in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and anywhere else worth fishing, is a catch-and-release locale that explains why big fish and Grade A genetics thrive.
No less important: Barbless hooks are mandatory. Barbed hooks can tear up a fish’s mouth, gills and gullet, and boost mortality significantly. Our catch-and-stay-hooked rate was consistently high and showed again why barbless hooks cost nothing on the pleasure end and contribute mightily to fish survival.
At a kind of merging-lanes confluence where two branches of the Cree met, Jake finally scored. He was flipping an Enrico Pugilisi-style saltwater fly when it was slammed by a northern that stretched 40 inches.
Gardner struck again. A man who ties his own flies, with simplicity and artistry, whipped a chartreuse-and-white Lefty’s Deceiver off a weedy point that spilled from a tall triangular stand of jack pines and sand. This pike was a bit of a dramatist, crashing the surface with a belly-smacking leap and eventually checking in at 393/4 inches.
We headed for the lodge and for a beer and shower ahead of dinner on a typical evening in June’s high north. The sun wouldn’t bow low for hours and not long afterward would soar above the eastern horizon along Lake Wapata (a broad expanse of the Cree River and the lodge’s base). We sat on a deck, sipping our libations, protected from mosquitoes by a ThermaCell unit that kept the flying carnivores at a distance.
Accommodations at these northern Canada lodges tend to be standard: rustic cabins, with bathrooms and showers, accompanied by a nicely furnished main lodge and dining room that makes the wilderness not only bearable, but comfortable.
Dinners vary: Pork chops, fried chicken, Shepherd’s pie, cucumber salad, dessert each night, etc., which is just fine when midday eating can, on days when it’s not easier to simply pack sandwiches, center on that most glorious of Canada fishing meals: the shore lunch.
We feasted the next day after a front had turned our 70-degree sunshine to gray, cool skies and air that typify how weather can shift in the far north.
It was only right, given the menu plans, that we were taking a break from pike and fishing the next morning for Cree River’s co-specialty, gold-and-bronze walleyes.
This is as far north as walleye range in North America. They don’t run as big in these waters, where, because of a narrow growing season, pike might add a half-pound per year in bulk and walleye even less.
But Gardner and I each noticed the same thing as I tossed a white jig, with white Twister tail, into Lake Wapata’s 10-foot-deep, sand-bottom shoals, and he stuck with his fly rod and a sinking line.
These fish fought harder than the standard Lake St. Clair/Detroit River/Lake Erie walleyes.
And part of their spunk in early June might have been explained by what twice happened as I was reeling in walleyes of 16 to 20 inches or so.
A few feet from the boat — slam — they were broadsided by pike who chomped down and carried them away, hook, line and all. The pike eventually spit them out when a line tightened and the pike figured these guys weren’t going peacefully. But what an illustration in pike appetites and how big can be the prey they gulp.
The four of us were working with guides in two 16-foot boats, not far from each other, when Sotak got the best walleye of the day, a 28-incher — big for this high-latitude range.
I got another that went 25 1/2 inches as the four of us caught walleye after walleye, returning all except for four fish we kept in each boat for a 1 p.m. lunch that convened on a sandy spit heavy with jack pines and spruce.
The fish were, of course, succulent. There is an indescribable sweetness, a feathery lightness, to walleye or pike filets minutes out of water so cold and pure. Toss them, hot and savory, onto a plate alongside fried potatoes, baked beans, and creamed corn, heated on a campfire that drove the midday chill from Saskatchewan’s air, and this day had turned as blissful and as satisfying in its blessed ways as the previous afternoon of pike fishing had been so many miles down the Cree.
But this is why fishing trips to Canada’s wilds are Nirvana for those whose souls are so stirred. Even the most casual, the least adventuresome, moment can be a foray into spheres of peace and discovery.
The morning before we set out on our Cree River trek, I had grabbed a cup of coffee from the lodge and wandered onto a dock 40 yards from the dining room.
Babcock and his staff always keep spinning rods and tied-on lures in dock pillars of 6-inch cast iron. They are hollow and work perfectly as rod-holders in the event you spontaneously choose to wet a line. That seemed like quite the invitation at 7 a.m. as a yellow-orange sun began creeping above the shoreline jack pines.
In the distance, maybe 400 yards away, a loon began crooning in a long, mournful one-note song that took one’s breath away.
I made four clockwise casts with the orange-and-white spoon.
On the last cast, a standard-issue Saskatchewan pike, maybe 26 or 27 inches long, struck and sparred until it came to the dock, and I was able to slip it in an instant from the spoon.
I walked back into the lodge to eggs and toast. And I hope, in a moment of necessary reverence and silence, something akin to proper thanks was given for days and moments and experiences so sublime.
Where: Cree River Lodge
Location: Cree River Lodge is 640 miles north of Saskatoon, and 75 miles south of the Northwest Territories, 40 miles southeast of Stony Rapids
Access: The initial destination in Saskatchewan is Saskatoon International Airport. Air service, mostly provided by jet-prop commercial aircraft, is available from Saskatoon to Stony Rapids. Guests then board a vehicle for a 40-mile drive ahead of a five-mile boat ride to Cree River Lodge on Wapata Lake.
Fishing: The usual gamut of northern Canada game fish is available, although Cree River’s specialty is big northern pike. Walleye are abundant, and Arctic grayling, although spotty, can be caught. Lake trout require a 10-minute float-plane trip that might or might not be available depending upon pre-arrangements with the camp staff.
Recommended tackle: Medium spinning outfits (12-15-pound test line or heavier) work everywhere. Fly-fishing is highly advised, particularly for pike, with eight-weight outfits ideal for northerns.
Weather: Days during late spring and summer can run into the 70s and 80s. But be prepared for 40s and 50s, as well. Showers can crop up at any time and rain gear is mandatory.
Most desirable months: Cree River has excellent fishing throughout June, July and August. Pike and walleye are abundant even into the autumn ahead of ice arriving in November.
Rates: $1,895-$3,195 depending upon length of stay, from three days to seven days. Air fare and guide and camp gratuities are extra.
Contact: Patrick Babcock (306) 276-7841 or creeriverlodge.ca