Phelps Lake Pike

Rasmus Ovesen seeks giant pike in the Canadian wilderness

If there is a carbon-dioxide hell, that’s probably where I’ll be going after this trip. I have already covered three flights in order to get to the city of Saskatoon in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, and early tomorrow morning another three flights await before I’m ready for the final leg of the journey: a flight that departs from the barren outpost of Stony Rapids in the north-western corner of Saskatchewan, and one that involves an old DeHavilland Turbo Otter floatplane — a Canadian manufactured aircraft that had its heyday in the post-World War II-era. After two days of arduous travelling, the propeller-driven air freighter will touch down on Phelps Lake’s vast surface and moor at Wolf Bay Lodge in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. Luckily, as time will tell, what awaits me is nothing short of an untouched fishing paradise and a trophy pike fishery that is well worth the eternal flames of the abyss below. Now on our way, from the dead airspace above Saskatchewan I can see how we’re slowly transcending the familiar realm of civilization and disappearing into what appears to be a massive void, way beyond. Symmetrical and lush-green pastures neatly outlined by fences, field boundaries and bordering gravel roads are gradually relieved by vast woodlands, the monotony of which is only broken sporadically by the flickering waters of ancient, glacial lakes and quietly meandering rivers. For a while, there are still sporadic gravel roads, timber industry, wooden cabins, and the odd uranium mine to be seen below us, but as we continue onwards all traces of mankind slowly ebb away. Once on the floatplane with a course set for Phelps Lake, the landscape unfurling below is like an obstinate human vacuum: interminably empty, there is nothing but wilderness as far as the eye can see. PHELPS LAKE Two hours later, Phelps Lake manifests itself below us: silently resting deep in the terrain, with all its chaotic branches, shallow bays and jagged islands in stark contrast to the stoicism of its water surface. It’s an early summer day in the middle of June. Warm light floods the vast expanse underneath the saturated blue skies. A comprehensive high-pressure system has killed all winds, and when we finally land, it’s like touching down on a big mirror. After having said hello to Wolf Bay Lodge-owner Brent Osika, who greets us at the landing bridge, things unfold quickly. My brother Anders and I have half a day’s worth of fishing ahead of us, and soon we find ourselves in a Linder skiff with Merasty B Jason, one of the experienced local guides. The skiff cuts across the flat water with surgical precision. It navigates at a high speed through narrow passages, wide-open expanses and big bays. And being surrounded by nothing but forest, I soon lose all sense of orientation and locality. It’s an intoxicating feeling and it is further amplified when – after a 20-minute boat ride — we arrive at a big, shallow bay, the engine is cut and a deafening silence descends upon us. PIKE IN THE SHALLOWS The spawning – and a long, ice-cold winter – is but a dimming memory, and the pike are hungry. Now, as Jason explains, it’s simply a matter of finding the fish. They tend to school up in the many bays; the shallow ones with dark, muddy bottoms where the water gets warmed effectively by the sun and baitfish are fairly abundant. We still have no idea, however, that we’ll be sight-fishing for them in less than half a metre of water – and, on several occasions, in and along flooded meadows. It doesn’t take long before we find the first few fish. They are hovering above the bottom along shorelines or in places where cabbage beds have slowly started to seep from the silty lake floor. They’re not downright easy to see – not even though the water is surprisingly clear — but it’s obvious that these fish are all small males. We’re soon busy warming up. And it doesn’t take long before the first few pike have shut their spikey jaws around our flies. They are hungry and aggressive. They promptly react at the sight of our Rabbit Zonkers, hunt them down with gluttonous ferocity and, oftentimes, inhale them right along the boat-side in big, splashy explosions of water. It’s been a while since my brother and I have fished for pike, but we’re quickly reminded why we both love to target this lightning-quick and sinister predatory fish. But we haven’t travelled this far to fish for small pike and the guide is quite well aware of it. So, having rekindled our reflexes on a handful of smaller pike, we move on to another one of the lake’s countless bays. Having reconnoitred an additional three bays, we finally make it to a small backwater in the northern corner of the lake. The bay inside, which is backlit by the drowsy beams of the evening-sun, doesn’t look like much at first. The entrance is so shallow that we need to use oars to get in, and at first glance across the dark, ochre-coloured water, there are no signs of pike. It isn’t until we reach the far corner of the bay that I see the shadow of a big pike underneath two bowed moss-clad pine trees, inside a patch of flooded meadow grass. The fish isn’t alone! Several skittish male pike, which by comparison look distinctly immature and juvenile, stick to the big female. With lightly trembling fins and a tense, aggressive look on her face, she seems likely at any given moment to suddenly lunge a malicious attack on one of her suitors. That impression is further enhanced, shortly after, when I cast and place my light-grey rabbit-strip Zonker on the edge of the flooded grass. As the fly hits the water, the big pike is instantly on it — with several smaller pike dragging vigilantly behind. I provide the fly with a little bit of action, making it twist and pulsate below the surface. The pike instantly shoots forward, ploughing purposefully through the water, and all of a sudden the fly has disappeared into the massive cavity inside the fish’s jagged jaws. I set the hook instinctively – so promptly that the cork handle squeaks — and I now feel the weight of the fish as it thrashes about, whirling up the muddy bottom and sending cascades of water metre-high into the air. A hectic fight, with several explosive runs, ensues. The fish is solidly hooked and eventually yields and capsizes close to the boat. It’s bigger than first anticipated, and it is with much effort and strain that I manage to lift it aboard the skiff. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED A quick measurement reveals a length of 125 well-proportioned centimetres. My dream of catching a big wilderness pike has come true – and in a spectacularly visual way. We shoot a quick series of pictures in the shallow water along the bank, and as the fish thrusts itself free of my hand and powerfully swims away, I draw a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished! There’s no time to rest on our laurels, however. A faint, whispering, “Psst” sounds from the casting platform where the guide is perched and pointing towards the water. And as we join him, we quickly spot another big pike – and another one, and another. Less than two hours later we have caught an additional seven full-grown pike with three of them well in excess of 120 centimetres; all of them sight-fished with thunderously brutal takes as a result in the shallow water along the shoreline. Furthermore, we have cast at a couple of fish in the vicinity of 135 cm – fish, that for whatever reason, just didn’t respond to our flies. As we wrap up and head back to the lodge we’re in a state of shock. Never before have we experienced such hectic pike fishing with so many big fish. But as we’re about to find out, during the next five days, this is nothing out of the ordinary on Phelps Lake. During our stay here, we sight-fish another 200 pike with 40 of them well over one metre and several additional fish in the 110–120 cm span. Furthermore, we get to experience some cool dry fly and nymph fishing for trophy lake whitefish and, not least, some sweat-dripping streamer fishing for the feisty lake char that school up along Phelps Lake’s drop-offs. But that’s a completely different story of course… The impression I take with me from the lake is decidedly unambiguous. It may be madness to travel way beyond the outskirts of civilization, to the middle of the vast Canadian wilderness, in search of pike. But it’s most certainly an experience I would never have been without, and one that I’d readily recommend anyone who has a propensity towards big toothy predators in untouched surroundings.

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