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The Trip of a Life Time

Fly fishing at Arctic Lodges, Saskatchewan
by: Field Editor, Colorado
Published on FishExplorer.com
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For many, me included, fishing is more than a pastime; it’s a way of life. While fishing may not truly be a necessity of life, it often feels like one. At times fishing is much like an addiction in all senses of the term, so much so that failing to get in sufficient time on the water results in withdrawal symptoms relieved only through casting a line in the endless pursuit of finned quarry.

The drive to fish is high for us addicts, so we typically fish local waters for our angling fix, while secretly yearning to visit “far-a-way” exotic places where fish practically beg to be caught. We dream of rivers and lakes where fish hit on every cast and trophy sized fish are the norm.  Faraway lands where we catch so many fish our muscles ache from endless battles and we tire of catching, looking forward to the day’s end.  OK, maybe that last one is stretching it a bit. Still, trips of a lifetime are every anglers dream.

Over the years I’ve fished all over North America, from Mexico to Canada. Most waters visited are just a change of scenery.  Yes, I caught fish and occasionally expanded my life list, but rarely did I classify my time away from home as a trip of a lifetime.  However, my recent trip to Arctic Lodges on Reindeer Lake definitely falls into the trip of a lifetime classification; one that I plan on repeating.

Reindeer is an enormous body of water, the second largest in Saskatchewan and the ninth largest in all of Canada.  Residing primarily in Saskatchewan, the northern end is in Manitoba.  From south to north it is over 140 miles long and dotted with thousands of islands.  The highly indented shoreline is longer than any other North American lake. Over 90 tributaries drain into Reindeer Lake.

Access to Reindeer and its bountiful fishing is primarily by airplane or boat.  Direct road access is limited to Southend Indian Reserve, SK at the southern end of the lake via Highway 102. The small community of Kinoosao is served by Highway 394 near the Manitoba border.

Arctic Lodges is located approximately in the middle of Reindeer on a remote island. The lodge is unique in that visitors may fly themselves to its nearby island airstrip.  From there, it’s a short boat ride to the Lodges’ docks. Those without their own air transportation typically fly commercial air to Winnipeg the day before their stay at Arctic Lodges. The following morning they catch a charter flight to the island, arriving in time for lunch, and a half day’s fishing.

We had the good fortune to have near perfect weather during our flight to the island airstrip last year, allowing me to visually drink in the landscape.  The changes are dramatic, as the terrain changes from relatively “dry” open lands, to increasingly wooded lands interspersed with water, lots of water. There is also the transition from a heavy human foot print to wilderness, where human presence is practically nonexistent. The change is striking.  Flying to the island, it struck me just how much mankind has impacted our planet. I’m thankful there are areas relatively unchanged and feel privileged to have enjoyed them in my lifetime and hope all who follow me are equally as fortunate.

During the flight, my contemplative state was broken as the plane descended to the dirt landing strip cut through the trees and capped at both ends by water.  As the wheels touched down I spotted the remains of a DC-3 sitting to the side.  A poignant reminder that we had arrived in the wilderness where things don’t always go as planned. 

Arctic Lodges staff greeted us as we stepped off the plane.  Our luggage was quickly loaded onto the boats and soon we were greeted by co-owner Jan Littlechild at the Lodges’ docks. From there, we were shown around the grounds. After our tour we were taken to our cabin where our luggage awaited us.  During our entire stay, there was always someone available to assist; Arctic Lodges’ hospitality is second to none. 

Our cabin, while rustic, was comfortably furnished with beds, table, chairs, wood burning stove, plywood floors, electric lighting, and indoor plumbing, many of the conveniences of the modern world in a wilderness setting.  Indoor plumbing is a nice feature for one who rarely sleeps through the night and loves a hot morning shower. Once settled in, we rigged our rods and headed to the lodge for lunch.  Afterwards, we met our guide Peter, and spent the afternoon chasing Northern Pike. At day’s end it was back to the cabin to freshen up and then we headed to the lodge to enjoy the first of many delightful multi-course meals. 

Our daily routine was to rise around six, shower, dress, and head to the main lodge where a friendly smile, a warm fire, a cup of coffee, pastries, and a hearty breakfast awaited us. Afterwards we gathered our gear and met Peter for the day’s fishing. After a morning of fishing (and lots of catching), we were treated to a shore lunch, followed by more fishing.  Typically, Peter had us back to the lodge by five, allowing time to clean up, have a drink, enjoy a great meal, and then spend the evening socializing, watching television, catching up on the computer (Wi-Fi is available), playing pool, taking a walk, or even doing a bit more fishing, truly "Living the life of Riley!"

While Reindeer is big water, Arctic Lodges uses 18 foot Crestliners with 50 horsepower motors to get you around the lake. They have an ample front deck to cast from, be it flies or spinning gear, and readily accommodate two anglers.  During stormy weather we appreciated these larger boats. While I personally felt a bit “lost” every day, the local guides are extremely knowledgeable. Never once was I concerned about getting home safely.

Part of the daily regimen is the shore lunch, a simple meal of fresh fish, typically northern pike, baked beans, fried potatoes, and “hobo” coffee. A meal I never tired of during our stay.  It was amazing to watch the guides pull into a spot and over the course of 45 minutes, build a fire, fillet the fish, cook, and clean things up.  While we offered to assist, the offer was declined and probably with good reason, why slow down the progress of a well-rehearsed routine?

While the accommodations and hospitality make the trip special, fishing is the core reason for visiting Arctic Lodges.  Most anglers chase northern pike, lake trout, walleye, and arctic grayling. If you’re truly adventuresome, you can try for all in a single day and score the Arctic Lodges grand slam.  I managed it, and with flies, although lures might be a bit easier option. Other species such as yellow perch, lake whitefish, cisco, burbot, and suckers are also present.

Most visitors are there for northern pike and lake trout.  From what I could tell, northern probably edges out the lake trout in popularity, but I’m not positive.  What I am sure of, however, is catching northern there is as close to a sure bet as you’ll ever get. And if your goal is to catch a “trophy” - a 40 inch fish or better is my definition - I’m not sure you can find a better place than Arctic Lodges.   Trophies of all species are a distinct possibility with the lodge record lake trout being over 70 pounds. 

To maximize your experience, discuss with your guide what you’d like to accomplish that day.  Our experience was the guides are extremely willing to accommodate you, but also do yourself the favor of listening to what the guide has to say.  They know the area and fish well, so their thoughts should be given full consideration before heading out.

Historically, most lodge visitors use conventional gear, which is an excellent way to catch fish. For guidelines on what to bring/use Arctic Lodges’ website provides excellent advice.  While not as popular, fly fishing is also an excellent and effective way to fish, especially for the pike and grayling.

 

Lake trout and walleye can also be caught on the long rod, but doing so requires some slight adjustment on the part of the angler. 

Being an avid fly fisher, I opted to fly fish exclusively. While I could write a book on our adventures and, in a way I did through my daily blogs on FishExplorer.com, I’ll limit my fishing exploits here.  I’m most proud that I managed the grand slam on one day, and even went slightly better by landing a white sucker and lake whitefish also.  If you decide to attempt it, my advice is to catch the walleye first, followed by a lake trout, then the pike or grayling.  Additionally, I managed several 40 inch plus northern pike during our stay.  While my lake trout was a baby at 30 inches, I was alright with that.  After the big pike, everything else was bonus in my book.

My rods were 5, 7, and 9 weight rods, two each, except for the five weight rod. For each rod I had a reel loaded with a floating line.  For the heavier rods I carried a second reel with a running line and a collection of sinking shooting heads, ranging from type I to VI.  For the minimalists, a floating and type III sinking line would suffice. 

While floating lines are popular, and are great when the fish are shallow, sinking lines, especially shooting heads, have the distinct advantage of getting the fly down to the fish, and keeping it there.  This paid off in terms of our ability to catch lake trout, and at times walleye and pike.  The reason is simple.  Floating lines by their very nature cause the fly to lift on the retrieve.  While not a bad presentation, when the fish are holding deeper and refuse to come up in the water column to chase a fly, the sinking line keeps the fly down in the strike zone longer, allowing you to fish deeper. Further, you don’t need heavily weighted flies with a sinking line. Less weight means longer casts, longer retrieves, ultimately more strikes and fish in the boat.

Aside from getting deep, shooting heads have the advantage of longer casts.  The typical cast with a standard line rarely exceeds 50-60 feet by the average caster, whereas with a shooting head, 80-100 feet casts can be readily made.  While the fish are not “spooky” compared to our southern waters, the reality is, being able to stay off the fish is a distinct advantage at times.

I carried far too many flies and on my next trip I’ll cut back.  I plan to carry a couple small boxes of trout flies.  One of dries, sizes 10-16, the other basic a collection of nymphs such as hare’s ears, pheasant tails, soft hackles, etc.  You should have a range of colors and sizes from 10-16 also.  And I’ll carry a few woolly buggers for good measure.  For the walleye and lake trout it will be a basic collection of streamers and woolly buggers from two to four inches in length.  Clousers are my favorite, and brown/white, olive/white, gray/white, and chartreuse/white will do the trick.  You might add a few bunny bugs just for good measure. 

Pike are easy. Lots of big saltwater streamers in the 6-12 inch class will do the trick, such as deceiver, bunny leach, whistles, and half and half.  I like patterns that give a big profile with minimal weight. For top water I’ll have a collection of Dahlberg Divers and foam poppers. There’s nothing quite like the visual effect of the top water takes from Northern Pike.   As to colors, red, yellow, white, and chartreuse tended to work best for pike.

On this trip we used a variety of fly patterns.  All worked.  But ultimately we used mostly large salt water versions of seaducers and deceivers.  With the large 3/0 hook and 8-10 inch profile, these patterns tend to minimize the number of hammer handles we had to deal with. My good friend Ron stuck with smaller patterns part of the time and I joked with him about doing a good job keeping the smaller fish away from me.  He even declared his new name was Dr. Hammer Handle.  When it comes to pike there really isn’t going to be a fly too big, but there is that trade-off, small flies, lots of action with smaller fish, bigger flies, less fish but typically larger specimens. It’s your call at to what to use, as there really aren’t any bad choices.

For leaders, I carried 9-foot tapered leaders from 5X-0X for the floating lines and used straight tippet material for the sinking lines.  When fishing for pike we tied on a section of 40 pound monofilament to cut down the fly loss.  I don’t care for wire, as I think it kills the fly’s action too much. 

Knots were simple.  Loop to loop connections for the leader to fly line, and I use loop to loop for the bite tippet also, although you might consider a stronger knot here.  Tippet to leader was a simple surgeons knot.  Flies to the leader were done with improved cinch knots or in the case of the bite tippet, a Duncan’s loop or if I was lazy a three wrap cinch knot.

As to accessories, nippers are about it, as the guides net and handle the fish most of the time, but, to be safe, I carried forceps and pliers.  Don’t forget to bring dry bags for everything you’ll carry on the boat and want to keep dry.

A final note on gear, have cool weather clothing.   I wore long handles on rainy days.  Dress in layers and be sure to bring a good set of waterproof outerwear, jacket, pants and shoes.  Sunglasses and sunscreen are also a must.  Bug spray is a good idea, but we didn’t have much issue with mosquitoes on our trip. And don’t forget your camera!

After my trip I reflected on what makes a great trip.  Outstanding fishing is one measure, but accommodations are equally as important in my mind.  Nothing spoils an otherwise excellent trip quicker than being uncomfortable. Of all the camps/lodges I’ve stayed at over the years, Arctic Lodges is one of the best.  Not because of the facilities, which are more than adequate, rather the people and the service they provided.  Every day we had fresh linens and the cabin and bath were cleaned.  While the food was excellent, it is the service that sets Arctic Lodges apart.  Meals are served in a timely fashion, glasses/cups kept filled, etc.  Every day the guide was waiting for us, not the other way around.  There was always "dock help" to assist our comings and goings. Anytime you needed something, someone was available and willing to assist. I could go on and on.  Simply, Arctic Lodges understands the concept of service.

Ultimately what makes a great trip are the images one takes home. The memories that are burned into your mind and the basis for many a story over a glass with your fishing buddies.

One such image came while fishing for northern pike.  We’d pulled into a remote cove (they’re all remote on Reindeer), and proceeded to consistently catch pike.  Most times when you see the take, the fish comes dashing in from the side, slashes the fly and it’s off to the races.  As I was stripping my fly back, I spotted it off the end of the boat and was preparing to lift it from the water and recast when a large gaping mouth appeared.  At that instant I was looking down the throat of a massive predator, then the jaws closed, and my fly disappeared.  In that moment I was rather glad not to be a fly. Returning back to the depths from which it came, I caught a glimpse of the large fish that inhaled my offering.  Long after the photograph fades, the image of that take will still be vivid in my memories.

There are many other images/memories that will stay with me; shore lunches, smiling faces at day’s start and finish, the question “how was fishing”, the camp which seems more like a small village, the airstrip on an island, boat rides like glass, boat rides that were bone jarring, the power of the weather, the news of a plane going down and lost lives (a powerful reminder of how unforgiving nature can be), and . . .  the list of images is enough to fill a book.

One afternoon as we were running from one spot to another, I realized I had no idea of where I was and without my guide I had little chance of getting anywhere close to civilization again.  Once the motor was killed we were left with the sights and sounds of a land mostly free of the trappings of humanity.  The magnitude, majesty, and beauty of this northern wilderness produced many such images, both on the camera and in my mind. 

Simply, in my few days at Arctic Lodges I gained memories enough to provide many a story for the rest of my life, all thanks to my newfound Canadian friends.  Those memories are what made this adventure the trip of a lifetime. May you too be blessed with such an experience.

 

© 2017 David Coulson
About the author, David Coulson:
To say fly fishing is a passion for Dave is an understatement, he lives by the adage, ďfly fishing isnít a matter of life or death, itís much more important than that.Ē Simply, if itís a fish, then Daveís willing to chase it on a fly. This includes making two or three trips a year out of state to places like Alaska, Canada, East and West Coasts to fly fish for salmon, northern pike and salt water species, such as redfish. The rest of the time Dave spends his time plying Colorado waters with a fly rod for everything the state has to offer such as bass, perch, crappie, bluegill, walleye, catfish, pike and yes even trout with a fly.
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