If you like fishing for warm-water species, as I do, you probably dream about going to Canada where fish like the northern pike and walleye are revered, not considered an invasive pestilence, as they often are in trout country.
Over each of the past four years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to northern Saskatchewan (click here for those trips) and with the assistance of Tourism Saskatchewan, I had another opportunity to visit Pike Mecca after the recent conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held in late June in Bismarck, North Dakota.
The day the conference ended, a dozen outdoor writers piled onto a charter plane at the Bismarck airport and flew to the proverbial “end of the road,” Stoney Rapids, Saskatchewan, with stops at Saskatoon and two unpaved landing strips to let off groups of anglers. If you want to know where the road ends, go to Google Maps. You’ll find Stoney Rapids under Google’s “remote places” category.
As we deplaned and started loading into an old school bus for a short ride to our floatplane port, disaster struck. My Rod Caddy had accidentally been taken off at the last exchange. No fishing rods!
|Sunset at Cree River Lodge. All photos by Bill Schneider.|
Serious anglers know the reason for the exclamation point, but for the non-fishaholics among us, trust me; losing your trusty, blood-stained fishing rods is akin to losing your wallet or pet, if not your children. I felt light-headed, had to sit down, and almost needed to go to the local clinic for shock treatment.
Anybody who has experience with airlines losing valuable items, which is just about everybody, knows how this usually goes. Basically, you’re in trouble, and those past stressful moments in airports dominated my thinking as the concerned people at TransWest Air, our charter flight operator, and Daryl Demoskoff, our Tourism Saskatchewan host, assured me and fellow outdoor writer, Gene Colling, also missing his rods, that they’d find them pronto and get them into the lodge, “but not today.”
Skeptical and shell-shocked, thinking about how awful it’d be fishing with borrowed rods for three days, we squeezed into a vintage 1956 Beaver floatplane for a 20-minute jump over to Cree River Lodge, just southeast of Stoney Rapids on Wapata Lake. They haven’t made Beavers for decades, but many are, incredibly, still in service safely carting anglers into secluded lakes. (Click here if you want to see what it’s like to ride in a fifty-year-old Beaver; not our trip, but similar.)
The owners of the Cree River Lodge, Kim Kruchkowski and Pat Babcock, met us at the dock when we pulled up in our Beaver. They’d purchased the lodge this spring from long-time owners Bob and Bonnie Cross. Both have family members involved in the fishing lodge biz, and they’ve finally fulfilled a lifetime dream of owning their own place.
|Lodge owners Pat Babcock (left) and Kim Kruchkowski.|
Northern Saskatchewan economy is heavily dependent on fishing and supports around 400 lodges, about half of them fly-in facilities like Cree River, and many Canadian kids grow up dreaming about owning one someday. “Since we bought this place, there hasn’t been a day we haven’t been up from dawn to dusk,” Pat said with a big smile, clearly loving his new life. No time clocks at fishing lodges.
“Dawn to dusk,” incidentally, is a long time in June in northern Saskatchewan. We were there just after the summer solstice when it stayed light enough to see almost all night. If I lived there, I could fish 24-hours a day, eh?
We arrived at the lodge about 2 pm, and after a quick bowl of soup served up by master cook Carmen Gain, we jumped in a 16-foot Lund with a quiet-running 30-horse Yamaha four-stroke. Entertained and coached by our native guide, Louis-Martin John or “Louie,” we flayed the waters near the lodge for a few hours, had a nice sample of the angling treats we could expect for the next two days, caught some nice pike on both flies and lures. Duane Radford, an outdoor writer from Edmonton Alberta, graciously allowed me the use of his extra 8-weight fly rod, and I used a spinning rod from the lodge–perfectly adequate, of course, but just not the same as your own rods.
We zipped back to the lodge at 7:30 pm, just in time for steak night. “Every group gets one steak night,” Carmen assured us. That meal and all the rest were amazing, which is something I’ve frequently noticed at lodges I’ve visited. A stuffy gourmand who writes reviews about five-star restaurants could learn a few things about cooking by visiting fly-in fishing lodges like Cree River and talking to the cooks like Carmen.
The Cree River Lodge is a mid-sized facility using native guides and with five, two-bedroom modern cabins and can accommodate up to 25 anglers at a time. It bills itself as “the northern pike capital of the world,” and as you’ll soon read, it definitely has some monster Y-boned water wolves swimming around. It also offers superb walleye and graying fishing.
The lodge has a carefully chosen location on the Cree River where it pours out of mighty Wapata Lake, nicely protected from the elements, “We can always find good places to fish in any weather conditions,” Pat noted.
The next day when I crawled out of bed at 6 am and went outside to start my search for caffeine, guess what? There on the doorstep was my Rod Caddy. Now, that’s what I call a Good Morning. Sometime during the night, TransWest had flown a floatplane in just to bring our rods–at no expense, I might add. Now, that’s what you call Customer Service. Little different than American mega-airlines, eh?
That day we fished the river and lake for pike and walleye, catching a lot of both but no trophies, and had a traditional shore lunch of deep-fried walleye and spuds with a can of beans on the side, all garnished with friendly conversation. It doesn’t get better than that.
Talking with Louie, our 65-year-young Dene guide from nearby Black Lake, spiced up the day. He’d use native names for big fish and little fish, names I can’t spell, and sing native songs to the fish for us when action slowed. He’s lived there his entire life, never traveling out of the local area, and taught himself English so he could guide. He spends his winters “hunting for a woman.”
Our last day at the Cree River Lodge was epic. We took a 45-minute boat ride up the Cree River to a lake not named on any map but known locally as Unknown Lake. Kim and Pat call it “The Dunes,” because of a massive sand dune dominating the eastern shoreline. Some anglers might consider the ride up the river worth the trip–not a single structure along the way, giving you the almost uneasy sense of extreme remoteness. You couldn’t help thinking what might happen if the motor wouldn’t start.
|Gene Colling (left) and our guide, Louie, and a 47-inch pike|
But the fishing made us quickly forget the spectacular river trip. Gene, my boat mate, caught the biggest northern pike I’ve ever seen, a massive 47-incher. When he finally wrestled it up to the surface, it looked so gigantic that Louie abandoned his native tongue and call it a “holy shit fish.” The Y bones in this old hen, which probably weighed 32 or 33 pounds, would be about the size of a turkey’s wishbone. And it’s still out there, carefully released, wolfing down those hammer handles and becoming next year’s 50-incher for an angler fortunate enough to make the epic journey to Unknown Lake.
Oh, yes, I had a great day, too, catching a 42-incher on a streamer and later a pike just under 40 inches exploding on the surface to devour my little yellow popper, giving me a heart attack and a 15-minute battle. That’s as good as fly fishing gets.
We caught pike all day, with Gene also pulling in a 45-incher, the second biggest pike I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen more than most), broken up by a box lunch (no time to cook today) at the Dunes.
On the way back to the lodge, Gene and I schemed and dreamed about how we could get back here again and have a shot at the ultimate goal of any pike angler, catching a 50-incher. There aren’t many places on earth where there’s even a chance of doing it, and the Cree River Lodge is definitely one of them.