Outside: Chasing Lunkers

You’ve heard the lament of that fly fisherman from Missoula — the troutcentric fellow who wet his hackle along the Big Blackfoot, dabbled in words and had a novella turned into a Robert Redford movie — the guy who wrote breathlessly that he was “haunted by water.”

I, on the other hand, had been tormented for years and with far less pretension, by another kind of piscatorial specter: A bobber. Yes, a very large red and white orb attached to a strand of 10-pound monofilament; it, in turn, was suspended to a barbed hook impaling the dorsal fin of a live sucker minnow. And, as best as I could tell in 1969, the bait was swimming blithely about a foot off the bottom.

Many nights afterward during my youth, when I wasn’t thinking about girls and sports, I obsessively dreamt of this one specific day at the lake. It was the evening I watched a bobber — admittedly regarded as a heathen icon by effete trout anglers — suddenly move across the water like the hull of a newly-christened battleship about to sink. It drew deeper until vanishing from sight, leaving a 7-year-old boy to believe it could have been a state record fish.

By the time I grabbed the rod as line spooled, screeching out in spite of the drag, the cheap shaft of fiberglass had bowed to its breaking point. There was no fight; it would be a one-way lunge pulling bait straight toward the deepest part of the lake. The episode continued, thrillingly, as my grandfather watched from the cabin window until the final inch of line left the Zebco reel and snaked through the eyelets. I knew I would never see the bobber again.

I had been fishing for walleyes alone that day off a dock in the middle of a storm. The only plausible explanation, which I convinced myself into believing with nurturing from Granddad, was that the whopper had surely been Esox lucius — a massive northern pike.

Pike are more than fish; they qualify as provincial totems, the wolves of freshwater, and they have attracted obsessive cult followers across the higher latitudes of North America and Europe for centuries. In Finland, it is said, anyone who lands a 22-pound northern achieves “master fisherman” status, though it is a German who holds the world record with a 55-pound beast caught on a lake in his country in 1986.


As a fly fisherman in Montana, I’ve learned that northerns are treated as merely a figment of the angling lexicon. I vowed to broaden the parlance.

On a day in July, the last words I hear from Jean-Luc Dube, a French Canadian talking to me via his SAT phone, is: “I’m going to be out of reach, but I’ll meet you and your son at 3 o’ clock at the landing in three weeks, eh.”

Monsieur Dube’s geographical reference was a boat putout in northern Saskatchewan, 1,000 miles from our front door in Bozeman. As a coordinate, it didn’t seem obscure until I realized the instructions for how to reach the rendezvous point were somewhat imprecise.

Roughly 150 miles north of where the pavement ends at LaRonge, Dube said, we should hang a right at an unmarked notch in the boreal forest and wait at David Lake campground on the edge of the wilderness, “If you happen to miss the turn, eh,” he said, “you’ll only drive a few hours before you reach the next community. Whatever you do, eh, make sure you have plenty of gas.”

In mid-August, with dormant thoughts of pike rising again out of the recesses of my subconscious, my teenage son Carter and I climbed into the Toyota minivan and headed north. We crossed the border and climbed across the prairie. We didn’t reach the forest until the next day, punctuated by sightings of wolves shortly after the minivan jumped off the paved highway onto a bumpy dirt road reminiscent of the Old Alaska Highway. It was the only one left pointing north.

Once and for all, I thought to myself, I would exorcise the bobber from memory and give my offspring a look at what I had been mumbling about ever since he was born.

In the upper Midwest, the fine-eating walleye may be the state fish, but sharp-toothed, carnivorous northerns — picture barracudas in fresh water — were what ruled the imagination. We heard stories from our grandfathers that Canada was the realm where true monster pike dwelled.

I should point out that Canadians laugh at our Yankee infatuation. For a species of fish so abundant and regarded as mere afterthoughts in the far north, they find the level of fixation bestowed upon pike to be funny. Dube, who operates Oliver Lake Lodge, says in his thick distinctive accent, “We are only so happy to meet your fantasies, eh, not only with pike, but lake trout, walleye and Arctic grayling.”

Saskatchewan and the adjacent Northwest Territory enjoy a buzz among pikeophiles for the unparalleled quality of the fishing and number of fly-in guest lodges. It is what Ontario and Manitoba used to be.

The Pre-Cambrian Shield country, where Oliver Lake resides, is an underlay of granitic crust that runs as a belt the entire width of Canada, covered by moose-filled bogs, ragged pine forests and jewels of sparkling lakes carved from retreating glaciers. It is a landscape that has been largely impenetrable to easy road building and industrial resource extraction which is why most people arrive at Oliver Lake Lodge, located on McKay Island, by floatplane from the First Nation community of Missinipe. (It is a pricey undertaking, though no less so than the cost of guided fly-fishing at destination Montana trout lodges).

Carter and I were pursuing a less expensive route, the “portage special” offered by Dube and his business partner Mike Pundyk. This option involves driving to the putout, being ferried down the David River, portaging around a waterfall and taking another boat ride to the lodge an hour uplake.

Oliver itself is 20 miles long and five miles across. Via a channel at the north end, one can also reach Nokomis Lake that is 18 miles from top to bottom and theoretically offers a passage to Great Slave Lake and the rivers angling eastward into Hudson Bay. These giant, deep troughs of water, plus a couple of other smaller tarns, are part of Oliver Lake Lodge’s exclusive permit area — in all a couple hundred square miles of exclusive terrain legendary for yielding trophy fish. “You’re liable to see more moose and black bear than other fishermen,” Dube said.

All of the waters within its dominion are, by provincial regulation, managed as trophy catch and release. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the restrictions was Dube’s father, a previous owner. Save for a few smaller fish that become savory shore lunches, pike are landed on barbless hooks and set free.

Those conservation measures, combined with low fishing pressure, is a far cry from the old days in eastern Canadian provinces when Americans returned to the States lugging giant coolers full of walleye and northern filets, often dozens of pounds per angler. The practice was unsustainable and began to seriously affect the quality of fishing on lakes in Ontario and Manitoba. Saskatchewan, the new frontier, wisely charted a different course, in part inspired by the success of creel limits and catch-and-release stipulations adopted to protect Western trout populations in the Lower 48.

“For some people, fishing trips to Canada were regarded as ‘meat runs,’” Dube says. “But what we have learned is that conservation pays huge dividends. We’re able to preserve both the quality of the fishing, in terms of sheer numbers of fish that our clients catch, and in the size of the fish that are out there. We don’t hear any grumbling from people who return their trophy-sized fish back to the water. It gives them far greater satisfaction than killing the fish and putting it on the wall.”

Clients have the choice of packing their own food or signing up for meals at the rustic main lodge. Over a gourmet dinner of pork tenderloin that awaited us upon arrival, we strolled from a bare bones cabin (replete with hot showers) to the lodge ornamented with massive pike, lake trout, and walleyes on the walls. They were longer than I was when the bobber went under.

“Are there fish this big in the lake?” Carter asked Dube.

“Bigger,” he said. “Much.”

Above the dining table was a board posted with the names of anglers who, in the previous weeks, had landed pike over the 40-inch threshold and equal roughly to the Finnish threshold of 22 pounds. Since the ice had finally come off Oliver in June, dozens of spin casters and fly fishers (most of them return clients) had made it onto the list.

Northerns can be notoriously ill-tempered fish, voracious and aggressive. They love hanging out around weed beds and will strike at anything moving in the water — frogs, squirrels, flotsam, and other fish. The arsenal of lures most effective at Oliver Lake includes classic spinning pieces bright and with action, spoons and crankbaits.

Unfortunately, we arrived as a cold front was moving rapidly inland from the northern Pacific. I will not paint an idyllic rose-colored impression, though the brisk weather had killed off mosquitoes. “Pike like sunny days,” Dube says. “Changes in barometric weather can make them fussy.”

Over the course of four days, it would rain nearly every day. Most of the time, the wind blew hard, raking the lakes with a white-capped chop that pounded the boat. We were soaked and chilled and jarred. Clearly, with son at my side, I remember feeling dispirited on the first morning shortly after sunrise when we were standing on the dock preparing to leave the protected harbor sheltering the lodge. I did not want Carter’s introduction to be miserable.

“Bring the raingear,” Dube said, “because it’s going to be rough and damp out there.”

A brief flicker of sunshine — our last glimpse of blue skies — quickly was smothered by clouds. Soon, we had entered the maw of the lake and Carter discovered the meaning of the word “rollers.”

A couple of miles into our ascent of Oliver Lake, Dube slowed to trolling speed and encouraged us to drop our lines as we passed along a rocky shore lined with weeds. Waterfowl scattered everywhere and he pointed toward a patch of muskeg where a Bullwinkle had been lounging a few days before.

Within five seconds of his rapala hitting the water, Carter’s rod tipped violently, nearly pulling the gear from his hands. The first northern he landed in his life was an 8-pounder with beautiful olive-green markings. Dube gently removed the fish and set it free. The mood lightened as each fresh location was better than the last.

The second day in, however, we had yet to see our names on the board. Meanwhile, the weather had turned fouler. Dube, who looks and speaks like a burly Klondike lumberjack, was unfazed and proved especially adroit at finding calm water.
On neighboring Nokomos, we drifted in the lee behind islands and pulled into weed-filled backbays. In spot after spot, northerns in the 29- to 35-inch range were abundant — fish weighing between 8 and 15 pounds.

Early on, opting for a gaudy bucktail resembling a pheasant chick, Carter became a deadeye, complaining before our retreat to the lodge for dinner that his arms were feeling fatigued from the action.

Between us in half a week, the tally could climb to 80 pike and hefty lake trout, not including the northerns and walleyes Dube turned into broiled lunch, fish and chips, and breaded snacks, proving that Canadians can make pike every bit as tasty as walleyes. At night, we enjoyed flavorful suppers, tales of anglers past, and cribbage in our quarters. “I think I’m beginning to understand why you became such a northern fanatic,” Carter said.

Eventually, on day three, I took the lead in our unofficial fishing derby by making the board and landing a 41-incher on a five of diamonds spoon. Going into the last morning, my son was growing impatient. Again, he readied himself with a selection of bucktails and I returned to dependable black and white daredevils.

In the first bay, four casts, four retrievals, four fish, all over 10 pounds.

On Carter’s next throw, the drag came alive. A northern twice as large as the previous fish had struck. He horsed it closer to the boat while Jean-Luc waited with the net. “This is your fish for the board, Carter,” he said.

But before he could get it to the surface, another pike torpedoed out of the understory of weeds and clamped on, swallowing the lower third of Carter’s catch. It wouldn’t let go, sharply shaking its head and then running hard. Carter struggled to maintain line tension as the fishes twisted into the greenery and in an instant, the line had snapped.

The whole time I had been reeling in to stay clean of Carter’s line. As he moved toward the tackle box for another lure, Jean-Luc and I watched the flutter of my spoon.  Nearing the boat, it glittered in brighter light. Behind it, we could see a shadow and then the form projecting it.

The pike was enormous. It moved beneath the boat, perfectly visible in the clear water, and the two of us looked at each other dumbstruck. “Get your spoon in the water,” Dube said sternly to Carter. “That pike has got to be over 50 inches. It’s gargantuan.”

The eternal paradox is that franticness is the archenemy of angling strategy. The fish, paying no attention to lures swirling past it, continued as a phantom submarine that Dube said exceeded 4 feet in length and easily would have topped 38 pounds.

It purged the bobber forever from my head and planted a haunting impression in the thoughts of Carter. “You’ve just seen the biggest fish of the year,” Dube said.

No one said another word for a few minutes.

Great fishing, in the end, is neither about quantity nor size. While Oliver Lake Lodge delivered spectacularly on both accounts, the trophy that Carter and I carried home was not a vow to return and hook the great dark whale (though we do intend to become repeat Oliver Lake clients), but a sight that came later to us in the twilight.

For a couple hours, he had been nailing more pike with bucktails when he noticed that I had set the rod down and was merely marveling at the expressions on his face, listening to squeals in his changing voice — him getting savvier and more contented with every cast.

He turned his head and caught my eyes. “Well, aren’t you gonna fish any more, Dad?”

“I am fishing,” I said, and then mentioned the well-worn quote from Henry David Thoreau: “‘Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.’”

“Well, what is it about, then?” he asked, retiring his own rod for the night and joining Dube and me as we soaked in the solace.

The wind had stopped; the horizon was a double band of white and orange. Against it sailed a large group of loons — a massing of the sonorous birds I had never observed anywhere else, including in my own childhood. They advanced on us from a distance, crossed overhead and landed in the next bay. They created a chorus.

Today, he can still hear it in his head.

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