By Michael Patrick McCarty
July 14, 2013
There is a place in the world that calls my name, with a voice as strong and true as could ever be. It thrums in my head, somewhere deep behind the bustle and noise of everyday living. Searching, beckoning – for me, since the first time I learned of it through my readings long ago. It became some vague and unfilled need, an itch I could not scratch, leaving me in want of something I could not capture. I did not know if I could ever get there.
It is a land of windswept waters and shimmering weed beds, dark timbered islands with ledges of stone, and jagged, multi-dimensional rocks that wrap the untamed shoreline as far as the eye can see.
There are loons here, lonely gulls and bright headed eagles, moose and bear, and the occasional otter slipping gracefully through the waves. There are fish here too, toothy critters, and some as long as your leg. It’s about hovering clouds of blood sipping mosquitos, and impossible days of light that do not end, but only change in tone and hue. It’s all about boats and motors and good friends laughing, eager to see what lies around the next bend.
They call the place Manitoba, and she is a crown jewel of boundless and spellbinding beauty. To my everlasting satisfaction I finally made it, having returned from her just now. With focus and joy I hold the spirit of it all close to my breast, lest she slip away quietly like a dark shadow in the night. I miss her already, with a depth and breadth of longing indescribable by mere mortals.
To say that Manitoba is all about game fish would be a vast understatement. There are Northern Pike and Walleye in numbers and size that would give any hard-core angler a tingle. Both species have legions of diehard fans, of one or the other, or both. They do seem to go together as naturally as warm sourdough bread and butter, and that’s just fine with me.
It’s easy to become obsessed with this kind of fishing, and it doesn’t take long to discover why. You simply have not lived an outdoor life in full until you’ve seen a green backed missile smash a brightly colored floating Rapala dropped perfectly at the water line, streaking through the sun dappled waters like a bear on fire as you remove the slack and make that first electrifying twitch. It is what piscatorial dreams are made of.
A pike is a ferocious customer. He is mean and crude and bursting with bad intent. There is never any doubt about what lies upon his mind, that being to destroy and consume any fish or small creature that will satisfy however briefly his incessant appetite and fulfill his instinctual need to perpetuate the species.
When hooked he is a stout rod full of trouble, and you can feel his mood through the line and see it in his eyes when he knows that he has been fooled. You have diverted him from his one unabiding mission, and he will not forgive you for it.
It makes one very glad to be something other than a baitfish. I, on the other hand, forgive him completely. He is only doing what a northern pike is designed to do, and he cannot change his ways no more than a wolf could cease to dog a wounded moose. I feel for him too, because without a doubt life is tough if you’re a pike. Just imagine the millions upon millions of his kind that never made it to breeding size.
The Walleye, on the other hand, seems a most different kind of gentleman. His real name is Wall-Eyed Pike, or Pike Perch. He is really not a Pike at all, but is in fact the largest member of the Perch family.
A tackle thrasher he is not, and I think it fair to say that although they are great fun to catch that is not why we seek them out. Walleye are challenging too, but perhaps that’s not it either. Dare we say that it’s all about the shore lunch fillet, done up right with a side of deep-fried potatoes?
I am squarely in that camp, and he may well be the pre-eminent panfish of North America. I simply cannot look at a walleye without salivating, while instantly picturing that glorious white, boneless slab sizzling in a dark black cast iron frying pan. If that’s a bad thing I stand guilty as charged, but blissfully unapologetic, just the same.
Still, walleye possess their own kind of seriousness. They are a more finicky eater than the pike, and seem more dignified and refined. They may prefer to gorge themselves upon mayflies or minnows depending on the day, or….perhaps not. Fisherman seem to talk of them in hushed and respectful tones, so as not to offend them and put them off of their feed. They remain a most mysterious fish, at least to me, and I plan to spend many more hours trying to figure out what makes them tick.
Of course northern Manitoba is the perfect place to do just that. We four booked our trip with Sam Fett at Silsby Lake Lodge, and they offer some of the finest trophy pike and walleye fishing in North America. Sam and his family have been in the outfitting business for decades, and it’s quite obvious that they know how to turn out some mighty happy sportsmen.
Their literature and impressive brochures speak of fish long and broad enough to test the skills of even the most seasoned outdoorsman, and they are not exaggerating. Boy do they have the fish!
Silsby Lake Lodge offers commercial flights from Winnipeg direct to an airstrip just one quick boat skip from their lodge, and it does not take long to get a line in the water. They offer full service guided lodge packages, or outpost camps with cabins or tents if you prefer to guide yourself and do some of the work on your own, as we did.
We fished from the High Hill Outpost camp for our first three days, and it was everything I had imagined a classic pike fishing camp to be. The scene and scenery are so picturesque that one could spend quite a bit of time relaxing at camp – that is if the fishing wasn’t so good. According to Sam, High Hill Lake and other adjoining or nearby waters may hold one of the largest concentrations of trophy pike found anywhere in the Province.
They have practiced strict conservation and catch and release policies for years, and it shows. Anglers may keep a few smaller fish each week for lunch or dinner, and great care is taken to fully revive the bigger fish.
A combination of perfect habitat, large baitfish populations, and exclusive access leads to a rare opportunity for mature fish – and lots of them. Sam told me that we had an opportunity to catch a northern of over 50″ in a weight range up to 45 pounds, and I believe him. That kind of possibility adds a very special spin to every cast!
Our small group did not catch the “fatties” as they call them on our brief stay at High Hill but we did catch-all of the smaller pike that we could have wanted and two fish that we estimated to be in the 17 to 22 pound class. It was the first big pike that I had ever brought to the boat, and it is a thrill that I will not soon forget.
Our next destination was Pritchard Lake Outpost, which involved a short boat ride on High Hill Lake, a spectacular jaunt across Silsby Lake, an all terrain vehicle trip of a few miles to Cuddle Lake, and then another spectacular cruise to our new camp at Pritchard Lake. Suffice it to say that this was a big day of boating for a dweller of high mountain valleys and other high grounds, and I thoroughly enjoyed every rollicking wave of it. And the day was still young!
We filled out our booking with two days of fishing at Pritchard Lake, and it was everything that we had thought it might be. There was a surreal quality to this place, which no doubt had something to do with the fact that we were 90 miles from the nearest road on a body of water that in the past had maybe only ever been fished by a brave float pilot or two. The nearest other fishermen to us were probably 12-15 miles away, and true as it was, I nearly had to pinch my arm to remind myself that this was not some far-fetched dream.
We caught thick walleyes and small pike in a small outlet within ear shot of the tent, which tickled us to no end. Fishing on the main lake was slow, no doubt due to the record heat and high temperatures we were experiencing. Not the sort that give up easily, we fished hard and finally started to pick up some chunky pike in the 6 and 7 pound class, which was more than enough to make me grin.
We found the big boys, finally, on the last late afternoon of our trip. They were hanging in a weed bed in the middle of the lake, and the next two hours went by in a slow motion heartbeat. My boat partner and I caught three large pike in that 15 pound plus range again, and we had several others on that were probably bigger but spit the single barbless hook we were using. Later, our other friends fished that same weed bed and boated a 39 1/2″ fish, which surprised us since we had thrashed the area pretty good. Apparently our efforts had just warmed him up for another tussle.
We returned to camp completely exhausted, knowing that we had left behind all that we had to give, and receive, somewhere out there on those lakes. The only thing left to do was to raise a glass to the northern lights and bow before the utter majesty of this small nick of time. Some places are even harder to leave than they are to get to – and Pritchard Lake was certainly one of those.
I had a lot to think about on the boat ride back to the ATV, and it was all good. At first we picked our way through the shallow bars and watched for logs or other obstructions before opening that engine throttle. It reminds you of what it took you five days to figure out; that this is a world to slow down to and that there is no need to hurry like we all do in our lives back home.
It also warns you that there is danger here too, easily found. Like much of the north country, Manitoba can be a gentle sister or one mean mama, and things can change rather quickly. The character of a trip can be redefined in the blink of an eye, and sometimes not in a good way.
You can sense it in her moods, in the air and upon the changing weather. She can be a woman of tough love that suffers few fools, and rarely more than once. As with all wild things in wild places, there is a thin red line between the living and the not. Fail to respect her, and it’s “Gone beaver”, as the Mountain Men used to say.
If you doubt this then you are simply not paying attention. There are rocks here aplenty, anchored just under the surface, waiting for the unwary sport. Hit one just right and it can punch a hole in your boat faster than the stab of an eagle’s beak, or bash your engine prop off in an even bigger hurry. Do so and you may spend a cold wet night on the beach; that is, if you are very, very lucky.
But in all things worth attempting there is no reward without risk, as well it should be. A little danger can be an exhilarating thing, and it does one good to get that much too civilized blood pumping in the veins. Meanwhile, she dares us on into the waves and spray.
“Take me if you can”, she says…Are you ready?
I could go on and on about our Manitoba experience, but perhaps I shall save some more of it for another time. It’s always good to keep a few good things in reserve to savor and contemplate, at least for a while. One last point though.
Take my advice and don’t ever let anybody tell you that a Northern is not fit for eating. All of my life I have heard pike described as inferior fare – too many bones they said. Well, I am hear to tell you not to believe them.
I asked our Cree Indian guide Lenard about the matter before I got to try one, and being a man of few words it was an easy decision for him. He told us that he liked walleye and pike about the same, and that he liked his fish baked or fried, but not boiled. “They don’t taste too good boiled”, he said. So there you have it.
We found the taste of pike delightful and not too far removed from that of walleye, and the bones not so bad if you filleted them well and were on the lookout. They are fabulous cooked simply on the grill, and my friend who knows a lot about these sort of things thought the feel and texture reminiscent of a nice hunk of halibut. Poor man’s lobster he called it, and it simply screamed to be dredged in butter and garlic. It was one of the greatest surprises in a most surprising trip.
Home now in the brisk night air of the Colorado Rockies, I am left with only memories and whimsical deliberations.
How many modern-day human beings, for example, have been blessed to be able to say that they have pitched a plug to game fish that have never seen a lure; in a lake that most certainly has never been plumbed with any kind of thoroughness?
How many of us have become part of a place where a loon can be born to paddle and dive and court; to lay its head back and cry to the heavens for the sheer pleasure of its echo without ever being heard by a human ear?
And by the way, does any bird or animal possess such a plaintive and soul-searching call as the loon? I don’t imagine I could stand it if there was.
How many of our kind have marveled after bears who have never seen such strange two-legged creatures and do not act like the bears of the settled country, or at gulls that are not at all like their more urban cousins and would never think of looking for a handout, but are only disturbed and offended by our presence?
It is all business as usual in Manitoba, and I am a most fortunate son and a far richer man for the transaction.
Many ordinary souls may look at her as a lonesome place, but not I. There is grace here, and the elegance of intelligent design. This world does not suffer for need or lack of anything, including people. It remains an enchanting realm of elementary nature and high adventure, and one cannot feel lonely when most solidly at home.
I know now that a small part of her essence will always be with me, and I can not wish for more. Yet the best part of Manitoba is the way that you feel when you get there, and in the hope that she gives to you to know that she is there, waiting, when you are not. I will return to see her again, should the spirits and the fishgods smile.
Perhaps she waits for you.
*Izaak Walton, one of history’s most famous fisherman, offered a recipe for roast pike in “The Compleat Angler”, and he had a thing or two to say about cooking pike for the dinner table.
He wrote: “This dish of meat is too good for any but anglers, or very honest men; and I trust you will prove both, and therefore I have trusted you with the secret.”
Gee Izaak – tell us what you really think!
Stay tuned for the recipe – while I hunt for my misplaced copy of this most famous angling book!
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We highly recommend the good folks at Silsby Lake Lodge, and they have a great website too!