Hunting Huge Pike

Hunting Huge Pike

in northern Saskatchewan

  • By: Jim Reilly
The third day of summer was bright and clear in northern Saskatchewan. From the bow of the boat I scanned a weed bed that ran along the shore. Somewhere in that jungle of grass was the monster pike I'd seen on our first drift past this spot. All morning we had been silently creeping along the thick weed beds and peering into the potholes and channels in the grass for the long, cylindrical shapes of northern pike. On the previous two days we'd seen and caught enough pike to keep things interesting, but nothing with much size. This fish, however, was different: It was obscenely large.

We'd spooked it on our first pass along this weed bed, and until it swam out of sight into the deeper water my eyes never left its thick torpedo shape that made it seem more like a prehistoric marine reptile than a fish I could catch. Pike this far north grow one inch per year, which would put this fish closer in age to my father-who was seated behind me casting a lure-than to me.

After turning from shore and motoring upwind so as to drift quietly back to where the fish had spooked, we were once again in position. Aaron Laborde, an amiable and very capable guide who was working his first season here at Milton Lake Lodge, stood at the back of the boat and steadied us with a crude pole he'd fashioned the previous night from a tree limb. This was close-quarter fishing; we had to get as near as possible to the weeds in order to spot and select a target. A blind cast into the weeds would undoubtedly hook a pike, but at the risk of spooking something large gone unseen. So I stood silent and still on the casting deck of the 18-foot Lund, fly line pooled around my feet and a large streamer in my hand, ready to quickly flip a cast into the weeds if we spotted the pike.

The Last Lodge in Saskatchewan
Fly-fishing for pike requires a person to cultivate a very particular arrangement of time and place, to paraphrase Ted Leeson. And for me and my father, the time was

the third week of June, and Milton Lake Lodge was

the place. Just shy of the Northwest Territories, it is about 520 miles and two plane rides from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, (itself rather out of the way) to the lodge's dock. That's a long way to go for a fishing trip, but the promise of 40-inch pike has long attracted anglers to travel into this northern wilderness.

Milton Lake Lodge is both the newest lodge operation in Saskatchewan and likely the last to be built on a virgin lake. Decades ago the provincial government granted a limited number of allocations to establish fishing lodges on lakes around Saskatchewan. The allocation for Milton Lake, which includes seven fly-out lakes, had laid dormant until present owner Ted Cawkwell purchased it and began building in 2004. That spring a Twin Otter began dropping off the first of 250 deliveries of building supplies; all told around 750,000 pounds of nails, concrete, plumbing, furniture and everything else that makes up a high-end lodge were flown in, and over the course of 90 days that summer the lodge was built.

Situated on a low bluff, the lodge has a commanding view of the 10-mile-by-10-mile lake and the beautiful if featureless landscape that surrounds it. The 16 bedrooms extend off either side of the main building like wings and are what one would expect to find in a luxury hotel rather than a remote fishing outpost. In fact, with the leather couches, a big-screen television, satellite cable and other modern comforts, it was easy to forget just how isolated we truly were. Although we were still plugged in, so to speak, we were pretty much on our own.

There were 16 of us on this trip: a large, boisterous corporate group, several smaller groups, and my dad and me. Officially, my dad was there to be the photo model for the requisite hero shots. Unofficially, though, this was my chance to repay him for all the times he'd taken me fishing while growing up. I wanted to show him something awesome that he'd never otherwise have a chance to see and experience-things like float planes and the sub-arctic wilderness, gourmet food and expense accounts. But above all I wanted us to catch some big pike.

Anglers can arrange the place and the time to their hearts' content and still get screwed over by the weather, which is kind of what happened to us. Our goal was to target post-spawn pike in the shallows, where they are best positioned for fly rods, but weather conditions weren't cooperating. A low-pressure system had set up shop in the region and brought with it cloudy skies, blustery winds and spitting precipitation at times.

We had spent much of the first two days motoring from cove to cove searching the shallows for pike and trying to stay out of the wind. We found fish often enough to keep it exciting and my dad seemed to have more luck with the lures he'd chuck far down the weed lines, but we had not caught anything large. In fact, on the first day we were hard pressed to catch even a decent-size pike to contribute to that day's shore lunch. Just before we were about to give up and arrive empty-handed, my dad hooked a 27-inch pike, which was the largest we'd caught so far, and we threw it into the livewell.

By Saturday afternoon, the summer sun had warmed the water to the magic temperature of around 56 degrees and the pike began to move into the weedy shallows. If we were careful to drift in quietly and avoid spooking them, we found pike in almost every weed bed where we looked. In the shallow water amid the weeds and shadows, the big pike could have passed for submerged logs. When I did spot a large pike, I was both elated at finding it and amazed that something so big could have remained hidden from me.

But back to our big-fish story: I finally saw the pike we were hunting as we drifted past the weed bed for the second time; the fish had moved into the slightly deeper water off the grass. I made a long cast and quickly stripped in the black Double Bunny that Aaron had tied onto my wire shock tippet. I felt the first take but it came up short. I continued to strip and the pike followed before finally moving in and inhaling the fly. I set the hook and my reel spun as the pike swam to deeper water. Several times I brought the pike near the boat before it set off again. On one of these powerful bursts the flyline burned through the skin of my left index finger. I eventually brought the fish alongside where Aaron trapped him in the net-cradle. The fish measured 39 inches, with a 15-inch girth. Its powerful caudal fin was the size of my outstretched hand. This was the fish we'd come to catch and we wanted more.

The next hour or so that followed was an example of what these northern lakes can offer when the conditions are good. My dad and I caught more than half a dozen pike above 35 inches. They were concentrated in a small silt-bottom cove and would swim in and out of our vision-and sometimes right under the boat. In the water these fish looked like piscine versions of Doberman pinschers-dark, muscular forms with the broad triangular head of a predator-and when hooked they fought with Doberman-like strength as well. Aaron, who had been apologetic about the slowness of the previous days, said, "This is how fishing up here is supposed to be."

Overcast weather returned on Sunday, our final half day of fishing. We spent the morning making one last attempt for large pike but had little luck, so we motored to the lake's outlet to try to nymph up some grayling. Aaron and I fished beadhead nymphs and dries to the grayling that were rising in the pool below the outlet, but the trees and brush prevented me from getting any distance on my cast. After 10 minutes of getting hung up in the trees and bitten by dense clouds of mosquitoes, we hiked back to the boat where my dad was waiting.

A little more than an hour later we boarded a De Havilland Beaver to begin the long journey back to Saskatoon. Our stay at this time and place had come to an end.