Lynn Lake, Manitoba — Somewhere on that cedar-thick esker was a bull moose the guys had seen scampering skyward through trees and moss and away from a 16-foot aluminum boat that had invaded Pyta Lake on a Friday morning in late June.
But that was minutes ago and the moose had now given way to fishing northern Manitoba wilderness water: charcoal-colored, deep in places, but otherwise rimmed with shallow bays and cuts filled with light-green wild rice, deeper-green lily pads — and northern pike waiting to chomp on a white Clouser Deep Minnow fly flashed with red tinsel.
This was going to be the main act on a 2019 trip. Rather than wear out spinning reels and every Dardevle and Mepps spinner a guy could throw into Canada’s cold depths, the plan this year was to get serious about using a fly-rod combination rather than simply dabble with one as had been done in earlier years — for trout on the Au Sable and Manistee rivers in Michigan and on the Madison River in Montana, and for Arctic grayling in Alaska and in the Northwest Territories.
Thanks to fishing buddy Scott Gardner, who has a nice gig in Toronto as associate editor of Outdoor Canada magazine, I’d gotten a taste of fly-fishing for pike on a trip a few years ago to Gods Lake in Manitoba.
Now it was time to attack, which paid off as quickly as our guide, Eli Sinclair, steered into a weedy bay. There was a fast-water inlet as part of a system connecting three lakes, with enough rocks and depth and vegetation all part of a structure that pretty much screamed this had to be the place for a Manitoba pike party.
I let out 10 feet of bright-orange fly line, whipped a couple of false casts as extra line was stripped to add distance, and dropped the white Clouser against a rocks-and-weeds shoreline in maybe eight feet of water.
The pike were ready for an 11 a.m. brunch.
A nice 30-incher hit instantly, and that first tug told you why fly-fishing for pike is a different sensation. You’re more one-on-one with the fish, using your index finger as a guide-and-drag just above the reel, while the other hand feeds or pulls line, depending upon the size of the fish.
If it’s a big boy, slack line eventually disappears and now you’re working the reel as you give the fish more leeway and avoid snapping a tippet.
These weren’t huge, the 20 or so pike caught in an hour, all with that white Clouser and its red tinsel swimming and looking delectable a foot or two beneath the surface. But they were nice northerns, most of them 25 inches or the low 30s in length.
And they were a treat on that 9-foot, 8-weight rod, with 8-weight line to which was tied a 5-foot, 30-pound leader, with 12 inches of flexible wire at the end designed to withstand the pike’s teeth and brawn.
I was fishing this 70-degree morning with my son, Griffin, who lives in Walnut Creek, California, and who had teamed up with me on this year’s trip along with two friends who were fishing in a second boat in the same big bay: Gardner, and Joel Kellman, an attorney for Dykema, who lives in Huntington Woods.
We had flown into Manitoba two days earlier, June 20, bound for the province’s northern tier with its wilderness spanning thousands of square miles, a sprinkling of lodges, and some of the world’s sexiest freshwater fishing. The trip is a multi-stop journey, at least for a guy from Metro Detroit: Windsor to Toronto, Toronto to Winnipeg, and then Winnipeg north 500 miles to one of northern Manitoba’s tiny, local air outposts. From there, gear and rod cases and guests would be carted a couple of miles to a dock on Lynn Lake for the 20-minute flight on a de Havilland Otter floatplane to what this year was going to be a new venue: Laurie River Lodge, on a knoll overlooking McGavock Lake, the only civilization on a 1,600-square-mile tract of water and wilderness.
We had done fine in a first two days fishing McGavock’s bays and reefs. Lots of pike, a like number of walleyes, with the occasional snippet of wildlife scenery. The latter came in a hurry, in our first hour of the first day when 200 yards off our boat bow we watched a cow moose and her calf swim across a narrow stretch of water between the mainland and a tiny island loaded with alders and cedars and fronted by a long patch of lime-green wild rice that probably enticed mama moose.
Before a late-week cold front showed up, temperatures were hot by Manitoba standards, in the low 90s, which is about 20 degrees above average in a region where a few weeks earlier ice had yet been hanging in the lakes.
But we were hitting fish consistently, with the early champion a pike Griffin got late in the afternoon on our second day.
He was spin-fishing exclusively and, after flipping Johnson Silver Minnow spoons, decided to lean on the old big-fish, big-lure adage. He went for a gangly spinner bait, with white the color recommended by boat guide Alfred Michelle, who late that afternoon was directing his and Gardner’s craft.
“Hit like a thunderbolt,” Griffin said. “It felt like a bomb went off underwater.”
There was one problem.
The pike was moving in a bad direction.
“Alfred, looks like he’s making a run for the prop,” Griff yelled, as he held the rod high and tried steering the fish away from propeller blades that could have snipped the 15-pound test line and made this trophy a free fish.
Alfred grabbed the net and read the line beautifully as he maneuvered the boat, with Griff doing his job, tightening or loosening the reel’s drag while keeping the rod clear of the stern and blades.
With a lovely net-scoop, Alfred had the pike: 40 inches, perhaps 20 pounds.
The good news for a trophy fish, and for Manitoba’s fisheries, is that this is all catch-and-release water. You land the fish, pluck the lure’s barbless hook, get a couple of quick photos if necessary, and get the fish back in the water, where, with a flip of its tail, it heads for the depths, safe and sound.
This was June 21, the longest day of the year, with sunlight in Manitoba’s far north lasting until nearly midnight before the sun peeks again in the east around 3 a.m. One plus to Laurie River’s camp, which isn’t the case everywhere, is you have the option to fish evenings, after dinner, and after the normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. fishing days have ceased.
We were working a bay at 9 p.m., into which spilled a pair of streams known, not shockingly, as Twin Rivers. A reddening sun hung in the west. We were catching pike and talking about a pair of eagles Joel and Scott had seen seated high in a cedar tree, not far from their nest, which was about the size of a car’s interior and held a couple of eagle chicks.
In the bay’s still water, not more than 20 feet away, a lone loon floated in its immaculate black and white wardrobe. There were minnows galore in this bay and the loon was having dinner on dives that might last 30 seconds or more. Then it would surface, maybe 50 yards or more from where it plunged. You take these trips indeed for more than fishing.
But it was during our trek two days later that the catching was best, in a chain of lakes you could reach only by way of two hikes, or portages as they’re known. We loaded our gear and rode to a shore point on McGavock Lake, where we headed on the first of two 15-minute hikes. There was a path through the bush, spanning two tracts of wilderness, totaling three boat trips. And you were glad for mosquito repellent.
But now we were in brilliant water, Pyta Lake, flanked by those tree-lined eskers from which the bull moose had been seen sprinting for high cover.
We came finally to the pike haven where my Closure Minnow was about to be slammed a couple of dozen times. And I wasn’t the only winner.
Gardner, who is a fly-fishing whiz, was doing beautifully, as well, in the same water Laurie River’s guides call Psycho Bay, which seems apt given the place is crazy with fish.
Along the bay’s shore, there was an inside turn — a shallow cove with winds slapping it at 15 mph. Gardner knows what happens when water and wind converge in just such a cul-de-sac.
Microorganisms are pushed by the breeze. Minnows that are weaker swimmers follow them, with predators hot on their tails. The water becomes churned. Visibility is reduced, thus fish don’t fear bald eagles that otherwise might swoop down and sink their talons into a lunch or dinner entrée.
And, so, the fish gorge.
Gardner was using a heavy 9-weight fly rod with an intermediate sinking line bearing at the end a 3-foot, 20-pound leader, to which was attached a White and Red Supercharger, which essentially is a five-inch tinsel fly Gardner ties as part of the legions of flies he annually constructs from scratch.
Gardner can double-haul a fly 70 feet or more. The distance wasn’t always necessary, but being able to toss so far simply exposes the fly to that much more water — and fish.
And late that afternoon he had a bruiser after it inhaled the Supercharger.
It took a couple of minutes for a man who has caught all kinds of fish on a fly rod, in fresh and salt water, including sailfish, to sway the pike into Alfred’s net: 39 inches, with a tail chomped off during the kind of intramural battles pike can have. It was a 40-inch fish, otherwise, and a good 20 pounds.
Gardner fly-fishes almost exclusively and insists this is the way to go for pike.
“They get so big up here,” he said, talking of Canada’s far north, “and they have this explosion, this aggression. They’ll come out of nowhere and they hit so hard. You get to use big, crazy-looking flies when you’re fishing for them, and then you’re retrieving, and you have this direct tug-of-war after they’ve been hooked.
“And I like that. They’re big and pull hard. They don’t jump, but it’s just like a brawl. With a lot of different species in fly-fishing, it’s more delicate and you’re using small flies. With pike, it’s a brawl.”
It wasn’t always about pike, or about fly rods, as the payoffs from a day’s hikes and boat crossings became constant.
We moved to deeper water in the lake corridors and all of us scored on lake trout. Griff had a five-species bonanza for the day: pike, lake trout, walleye, burbot (a kind of fresh-water cod with an eel’s tail), and even a whitefish.
Kellman was on his first, fly-in fishing jaunt and did marvelously: topping out with a 35-inch pike, and hauling in the week’s best walleye, a lovely, bronze-and-gold trophy of 29 inches.
He spent the week cranking in fish and, more often, being transfixed by nature so sublime.
“There was nothing in the way,” he said, in words that seemed particularly profound. “It was like looking at the universe.”
He talked particularly about that north sky, late at night, when a blood-red sun sat at a point about 10 o’clock on the horizon, with the moon just beginning to appear at a point that might be considered 2 o’clock.
“I could see them all in one, small sky,” Joel said. “Nothing in between them.”
Nothing, anyway, that could adequately be described. Finding words that do Canada’s fishing wilderness even a measure of justice are hard to come by — even if fish, blessedly, are not.
On the fly
What: Laurie River Lodge.
Where: On the Laurie River water system in northern Manitoba, about 500 miles north of Winnipeg. The lodge and cabins rest on a knoll along McGavock Lake.
When: Fishing season at this venue generally runs from late May into late August.
Fishing: Northern pike, walleye, and lake trout are the primary targets. You can also take short fly-out trips (extra charge) at adjacent lakes.
Accommodations: Comfortable-plus. There are six cabins, each containing individual bedrooms, with multiple three-piece bathrooms. A main lodge and dining room are the base for exceptional meals. There is a bar, as well as tackle shop, within the lodge. This is a venue that works well for those who might be as much into a nature tour as for a fishing trip.
Options: Outpost camps, which are more of a do-it-yourself adventure, are also available at lower cost.
Getting there: A flight to Winnipeg, which can be taken out of Detroit, or out of Windsor, is the best recommendation, locally. From Winnipeg, a private commercial turbo-prop airplane delivers guests to Lynn Lake for a float-plane trip to the lodge. The trip from Winnipeg is covered as part of the overall price package. Flights to Winnipeg are a separate expense. Guests re-trace the route on the way home. Ours was marked by a single, enjoyable exception: The return trip to Lynn Lake was by helicopter.
Duration and cost: Trips are generally seven- or four-day stays. Prices vary widely from about $2,500 to $5,000 per person.
Contact: Laurie River Lodge at 800-426-2533, or at laurieriverlodge.com
Or, go to TravelManitoba.com