By Al Schultz
Hello, Al?”, the voice on the other end of the phone said, “This is Mike Deming of Sportsman’s News, congratulating you on being selected. You are going to Canada to catch trophy northern pike!” A hundred different emotions hit me like a freight train! I was incredulous, ecstatic and surprised to name just a few. I was just returning from a SWAT callout and a call from the Sportsman’s News team had been the furthest thing from my mind. I am just a regular guy and had been on one local guided fishing trip in my life. Prize trips and winning drawings never seem to happen to regular guys, unless it’s through the Sportsman’s News writing competitions or their Pro-Membership Sweepstakes that is. I found out personally that it can and it does regularly occur through Sportsman’s News!
I first became aware of Sportsman’s News on the racks by the entrances and exits of the Sportsman’s Warehouse stores I frequent. The stores are conveniently located near me and they always seem to have what I am looking for when I want it, depending upon the season. The ‘News’ is free and always has honest gear reviews and articles about destinations that regular outdoors guys can afford and would enjoy going on. I read Sportsman’s News as much for the insightful gear reviews as the articles about “dream” destinations. Little did I know the impact this “freebie” newspaper would later have on my life.
Fast forward to the phone call from Mike Deming and just like that, the groundwork was laid for one of the most epic fishing adventures of my life!
Mike explained he would be going with me to film the trip for Sportsman’s News Television. We would be traveling approximately 50 miles north of La Ronge, Saskatchewan to Ruffo’s Sportsman Lodge, with our quarry, trophy northern pike of Jurassic proportions. The trip was to occur the first week of July and once all of the travel arrangements were made, I was like a kid waiting on Christmas. The dates couldn’t come soon enough. My partners on the SWAT team probably got sick of hearing about the trip. Here in the northwest, we don’t have northern pike and certainly none as long or as thick as a man’s leg!
Finally, the day arrived. I traveled via Air Canada from Seattle to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where I met up with Mike. Up to this point, I had only spoken to him on the phone or via email. Meeting in person, I instantly liked the guy. He’s competent and professional. What’s more, he is really down to earth. We drove in a rental car from Saskatoon north to La Ronge where we were scheduled to connect with a float plane. The drive was approximately three hours and we had to take some detours due to forest fires that happened to be occurring in the province.
During the drive, I had ample opportunity to talk and get to know Mike. I learned that we had trodden some of the same dirt in the Marine Corps back in our day and both of us had participated in the Team Spirit exercise in 1986. He as a Sgt. and I a Corporal. I was pleased. Normally, I am the kind of guy that would prefer to go on a trip alone, rather than spend it with someone I can’t stand being around or doesn’t share the same enjoyment and respect I have for the outdoors. Mike definitely loves the outdoors and he is passionate about hunting and fishing. He is a total outdoorsman first, who happens to manage a major outdoor news periodical and TV show. It would become apparent to me throughout the trip that he is serious about providing regular folks like me with honest, wonderful outdoor experiences where we would get the most bang for our hard earned buck.
Having been “burned” before many times by guides who were all hype and false promise, Mike is driven to vet the best guides and outfitters and put them out there for his reading and viewing audience as well as those folks who have entered the Pro Membership Sweepstakes. As I would observe and learn over the course of this trip, Mike and his team personally book with various outfitters, guides and lodges and they ask the tough questions, take honest notes and make insightful observations. They weed out the fly-by-nights versus the quality experiences and they have the experience to know a quality experience versus a shoddy one. Someone like me, with nothing to compare to, wouldn’t know what to expect or even what I should realistically expect. What I experienced at Ruffo’s blew all my expectations out of the water!
We arrived at Ruffo’s Sportsman’s Lodge the following day, via a short float plane trip. As the plane pulled up to the rustic dock at this wilderness retreat, I observed two figures onshore waiting. In the background were several others waving a greeting at us. The two on the dock were Ruffo Schindler, the owner and proprietor of Ruffo’s and his right hand man, Stefan Schroder. Stefan was quick to grab everyone’s luggage and gear and transport it to our respective spacious cabins where we would be staying. Ruffo shook all of our hands welcoming us as we stepped off the float plane. I learned that the others in the background who were also waving were our guides.
Andrew has been guiding at Ruffo’s Sportsman’s Lodge for most of his adult life and always knows where to find the big ones.
Within an hour after we arrived, we had assembled our gear and were headed out with our own guide, Andrew. In talking with Andrew, I learned that most of the guides belonged to the Cree Indian Nation and nearly all had lived their entire life in this region. The grandfathers and fathers of many of them had been guiding in this area and Andrew had grown up doing the same. Andrew was amazing. He had a quick wit and smile, was a very competent boatman and knew the Churchill River system we would be fishing like the back of his hand, seriously. How he could take us miles and park the boat over submerged “cabbage patches” without GPS amazed me! He would take Mike and I out every day and I can honestly say he never stopped in a place we didn’t catch fish. Walleye, Pike, Lake Trout, he knew where to go.
Shore lunch is something all the guests enjoy each and every day. All the fresh walleye and pike you can eat.
I wish I could describe in better detail that first fish I caught and hooked, but the truth is I was overwhelmed and that first day was a blur of spoon tossing, fish catching mayhem like I’ve never experienced in my life! Despite our late start at approximately 10am, Mike and I still managed to boat literally 100 fish before 5pm. And that was even after shutting down for an hour and a half while guides Andrew, Johnny and Les prepared an exquisite shore lunch consisting of fried potatoes and onions, fresh caught walleye fillets and pike. Come on now, this was only day one and we had just arrived. I still had five more days to fish. I expected to catch maybe a hundred fish over the course of the trip and would have been thrilled. This was beyond my wildest dreams!
That evening Ruffo, his wife Maxine and the staff treated us to a wonderful steak dinner. Over dinner I got to meet some of the other guests, 13 others in all and great people every one of them from all walks of life. The trip for me seemed exotic. Granted, we were still in North America and Canada is an English speaking neighbor, but for a guy like me from the northwest, pike are as exotic a species as peacock bass. The float plane trip into a remote wilderness destination, just added to the experience and traveling with the guides up the winding Churchill River system to the various lakes, portaging over and around rapids just contributed to the whole experience.
Every day was a grand adventure for me. Our worst day, Mike and I boated 63 fish and on our best we caught and released 121. We observed bears, bald eagles, otters and pelicans. On day three the winds had picked up and Andrew took us to a spot where the wind and water had pushed baitfish up along the shore of an island. Reeds were submerged and closer to the shoreline, weed beds were exposed. I tossed a large, weedless Les Johnson Silver Minnow spoon with a yellow, “5 of Diamonds” pattern towards shore and began my retrieve. It was instantly struck with a savage fury that coursed through the cork grips of my rod handle and into the soles of my feet like an electric shock. As I set the hook, I knew I was into a heavy fish.
Mike dropped everything to make ready with his camera equipment and Andrew was positioning the boat and offering advice based upon years of experience fishing for these behemoth flesh eating machines. After several drag screaming runs the pike, all 40 inches of him, rolled near the surface by the boat and Andrew deftly scooped him in the net, just as the hook broke off my spoon! I was breathing heavy because I was so excited. This was by far the largest fish I had caught and it was a tremendous experience for me, shared with men who had fast become my friends. All due to one man’s vision to provide regular sportsmen and women with quality opportunities with trusted and vetted guides and outfitters. How could I have been so lucky as to be drawn?
Sportsman’s News President and videographer on this trip was able to take a break from the camera to land this whopper 46” pike.
By the end of the trip, the largest fish brought to our boat had been 45 inches, but larger fish had followed our lures up to the boat as well. It was an incredible experience. I don’t know how else to describe it. “Epic Adventure” seems too tame a phrase. The fishing had been spectacular. The fish were of truly trophy proportions. They had tackle wrecking strength and teeth. Mike and I literally had to replace wire leaders that were frayed or damaged and I had large metal swivels bust. The soldered hook had been wrenched out of my spoon by a large pike and the lure end of my 50lb braided line needed to be trimmed back approximately 18 inches daily, due to the fraying from the teeth of the large pike above the wire leader! One pike we caught and eventually had for lunch had a whole adult duck in its stomach!
But, what impressed me most was the people I was surrounded by. From the guests to the guides, everyone shared the same passion and love of the outdoors. Most of all, I was impressed with Ruffo Schindler, the proprietor. It was his genuine concern and priority that all of his guests have a wonderful experience and no stone was left unturned to that end by him or his attentive staff.
While we were there, Saskatchewan was being ravaged by forest fires. No less than 115 of them raged across the northern half of the province. Mike and I literally photographed fires that were burning right to the shoreline along the waters where we were fishing. Every morning we’d awake to a fog-like shroud of smoke from these fires, like the campfire smoke from a thousand voyageurs centuries before. Because of this, supply planes were unable to fly or had been re-routed to assist with the efforts to fight the fires or supply those who were. It is said that adversity “builds” character. I disagree. I believe adversity “reveals” character, and in this regard, I observed the true nature of Mr. Schindler.
Despite waning supplies due to the lack of flights, to include fuel for his generators and fleet of 16 ft. Lund boats and motors, food stuffs and water, etc. Ruffo continued to be optimistic. The staff managed to provide quality, home cooked meals for us despite the lack of supplies. They worked diligently to provide us with a continued quality experience. Ruffo is a man of faith and integrity and he has surrounded himself with a staff that share the same qualities. That and the caliber of fishing that I experienced from his lodge made this one of my greatest experiences. The accommodations were wonderful. I would highly recommend Ruffo’s Sportsman Lodge to anyone.
Go to www.ruffossportsmanlodge.com
to reserve your trip now. I can’t think of a better fishing experience for you or your family. Additionally, having now personally observed the effort that Mike Deming and his staff put into vetting the various guides and outfitters, the questions asked and answered, I would trust anyone Mike and his team have determined to meet their “Platinum Approved Outfitter” standard. In fact, before I ever book another trip to anywhere for anything, I will consult with him or his team to see who they would recommend. My experience as a “winner” with the Sportsman’s News team has been nothing short of incredible, truly!