By Kent Danjanovich
You have all heard me talk about my trips to Canada for big northern pike over the years. They are one of my most favorite fish to catch on a fly rod. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even mind throwing a Mepp’s or a Dardevle either when going after these gnarly toothed monsters! Every encounter (and there are always plenty of them) is a different adventure and you always have to be on high alert for the big one, ready to engulf your fly or lure.
Well, because we have had such great success on our visits to Big Sand Lake Lodge in northern Manitoba over the years, it made perfect sense to include them in our Pro Membership Sweepstakes in 2016. The prize package would include an all-inclusive trip from Winnipeg for two to join me during the week of June 25-30. The big day of the drawing finally came around and the lucky winner’s name was pulled out of the barrel.
Because I was going to accompany the winner and their guest on the trip, I was to be the lucky one to give them a call. After a couple of rings, a soft ‘Hello’ came across the line and I quickly introduced myself to Merle Plank of Tremonton, Utah. “Merle, you are our latest winner in the Sportsman’s News Pro Membership Sweepstakes”, was my opening line. After a few seconds of silence, Merle’s original reply was something like, “Yah right, who is this, really”?
Pro Membership Sweepstakes winner Merle Plank of Tremonton, Utah, had always wanted to take a fishing trip to Alaska or Canada, and winning this trip gave him the opportunity to share it with his brother.
Well, after a little more explanation from me and plenty of reassurance that it was legit, Merle finally realized that he had really won. “I have always wanted to take a fishing trip to somewhere like Canada or Alaska, but I never thought in my wildest dreams it would ever happen”, he uttered, with a grin so big that you could feel it across the cell phone waves!
For the next 30 minutes, I filled Merle in on the dates of the trip and what he needed to do to prepare for his fishing trip of a lifetime. He asked plenty of questions about equipment and lures, along with what to wear and how to get there. I gave him as much information as I thought he could handle at the moment and told him that I would be in contact with him along the way as well to make sure he put together everything that he and his guest would need.
After two or three more visits on the phone, the time for the actual trip finally arrived. Merle and his brother, John, decided to make it an even more memorable experience and decided to make the drive from Utah to Winnipeg, Canada. It would be about a 20 hour, on the road journey, but one that would cover a pretty good chunk of land across the upper part of the country and give them a chance to see some spectacular views along the way.
Merle and John would meet up with the rest of our group that included myself and fellow Sportsman’s News Pro-Staffers Rick Rosenberg and John Wooge, along with Colby Labrum, Matt Rosenberg and Kent Frei at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg on the evening of June 24th. I knocked on their door at about 8pm and met them both, in person, for the first time. This time, I got to see those big smiles, face to face as I filled them in on what would happen the next morning as we departed for the main lodge at Big Sand Lake.
The Big Sand van was waiting for us in front of the hotel by 6am and by 6:30, everyone who was going to the lodge found themselves intermingling at the Calm Air terminal. All of our luggage was weighed-in for the flight and then it was just a matter of waiting until our group was called. By 7am we were starting to get a little antsy and we were then informed that weather between Thompson (a refueling stop) and Big Sand Lake was a little dicey, so the boys poured themselves another cup of coffee.
Twenty minutes later we were out the door and boarding our plane. The hour and a half flight had seemed to ‘fly’ by when our pilot informed us of our final approach into Thompson. He also informed us that we would be on another ‘holding’ pattern there until they got the OK to continue on to Big Sand. So, we made our way into the small terminal to wait it out.
About 45 minutes later, it was back on our plane and off to the lodge. All along our way, I kept an eye on our lucky winners and found myself literally as lost in their excitement as they were. A short thirty minute flight found us circling the sand esker runway on our approach. As we came to a stop at the end of the runway, the outgoing group of fishermen were lined up, ready to depart for home.
As we deplaned, Rick Bohna, Big Sand’s general manager, greeted each of us and let us know that the fishing had been great and the weather was supposed to get better and better as the week progressed for us. With the crew quickly unloading our gear and reloading the outgoing groups’ luggage, our new group of 40+ fishermen made our way to the main lodge for brunch and a quick orientation. Fresh walleye, baked beans and taters welcomed us and believe me, tasted pretty darn good!
Big Sand Lake Lodge consists of the main lodge and eight duplex style cabins and then four outpost camps that are only accessible by float plane. We would be staying at the Jordan Lake camp and because of its closer proximity to the lodge, we would be the last group to fly out. So, our wait would be aided by a trip to the tackle shop for some local knowledge and purchases and then a game or two of cards for the eight of us.
Finally, our turn arrived. But, because the float plane could only handle seven passengers at a time, four of us and most of the luggage were loaded on the plane and then off to the outpost camp. Fifteen minutes later we were unloading our gear on the dock at Jordan Lake. As soon as the task was completed, our pilot started the Norsman back up and turned from the dock to start his taxi. But because of an odd wind direction coming out of the west, the plane was pushed to the left of the dock, coming to rest on the only large rock in the immediate area. Myself and John Wooge, my cameraman on this trip, quickly donned our waders and boots and went to work on freeing the left float of the plane from its perch, a chore that would be a tough one.
Finally, we were able to angle the plane so that the pilot could start his taxi. As he made his taxi into the wind and started his take-off, water could be seen pouring out of his left float, not a good sign for getting the rest of our gear and the other four of our party from the main lodge that afternoon.
Our next move was to check out the camp, which included our two sleeping cabins, a main eating and cooking cabin and a shower cabin adjacent to the generator station. Although this camp is used extensively during moose season, it had to be thrown into action for the fishing season because of a visit to one of the other camps by an inquisitive black bear that wanted to be destructive. So we went from cabin to cabin, doing a little clean-up and readying everything for the rest of our stay.
Finally, at about 8pm, we received a call on the CB that the plane would not be able to return that night, so we threw together a quick dinner and grabbed our gear to head out for a couple of hours of evening fishing. Since I was the only one of the group (Myself, John, Merle and John) that had experience in this kind of setting, I clued everyone in on what was what and we loaded into our boats and headed out to explore a few of the bays adjacent to camp. Actually, this opportunity proved to be a plus for the rest of our stay, as we were able to find a couple of great spots that we not only caught fish in that night, but also produced some great fish in the days to come.
Colby Labrum caught this nice northern on his 8-weight Redington fly rod.
The next morning found us cooking up a hearty portion of scrambled eggs and sausage as we waited for word of the arrival of the rest of our group. Finally, the call came and our group soon touched down, in a new plane at about 10:30am. As Rick, Matt, Colby, and Kent rounded up their gear, I threw together sandwiches for our shore lunch and then packed everything down to our awaiting boats. We paired off in twos for the day and then started our motors and headed down the western side of the lake in search of northern pike and walleye.
Although no monsters were caught on our first day, a glimpse of what was to come started to unfold and after a good day on the water, that steak dinner sure tasted good back at camp. After dinner, we again headed out to a few locations close to camp, with everyone reporting back by about 10:30pm with reports of good success and new options for our next days’ adventures.
Our third day found us making our way to the farthest reaches of the lake, exploring the many bays and searching for tributaries that we knew would hold big numbers of walleye as well as some monster pike looking for their next meal. Because John Wooge and I were staying close to Merle and his brother, John, as we were filming for an upcoming episode of SNTV, Rick and Colby and Matt and Kent stayed together in their explorations before lunch. We had designated an area to meet at for lunch at about 1pm and we would then talk about what we would do for the rest of the afternoon.
By the time we met up, all of us had already had a great day of fishing. Stories were flying in every direction and I am pretty sure most of them were true! Merle and John were learning the ropes pretty good and had landed big numbers of fish, but no real monsters yet. Rick informed us that they had found a tributary at the end of one of the bays that looked to have some real promise, so after lunch we headed in that direction to take another look. Along the way, I spotted a small detour and our two boats soon found ourselves in a great looking bay, with weed growth forming to make for some great shallow water action.
John Wooge decided to get into Merle’s and John’s boat to film, so I worked my way to a rocky point a few hundred yards from them. After a few casts, I hooked into a good fish on my fly rod. Immediately, my big northern headed for the middle of the bay on a non-stop run. From my experiences in fishing for pike, this is always a definite sign of a big fish. As my backing started to show itself on my reel, I quickly tried to slow her down and regain some line. At this point, I gave a few waves to the other boat to head over to my location. It was a good thing that I did.
As the other boat approached, I am sure they could tell I had a big one on, if only by the wide smile that I was sporting. They eased their boat alongside mine and soon slid their net under our first big fish of the trip, a thick northern pike that would stretch our measuring tape out to nearly the 40-inch mark. Now Merle and John saw for the first time what was awaiting each of us in the tea-stained waters of northern Manitoba. And about twenty minutes later, they would find out for themselves.
After we all landed a few more fish, we decided to head back out of the bay and up to the tributary that Rick had told us about. When we arrived, Matt had already landed two northerns over 40 inches and Kent and Colby were hooking into walleye on almost every cast. It didn’t take long for John Plank to get into the big fish action, as he found himself battling a 42 incher of his own that had engulfed his "Five of Diamonds" Dardevle. The rest of the afternoon saw us land well over 100 walleye and nearly that many pike. At about 5:30 pm, we begrudgingly set our rods aside for the ride back to camp.
Rick threw together a great pork chops and taters dinner for us and it was then back to our boats for some more evening exploration. The whole group was now getting the hang of things and big numbers of both pike and walleye made their way to our nets again that evening.
Merle and John Plank hooked into plenty of fish, including this hard-fightng walleye. The crystal clear lakes of Manitoba are teeming with game fish such as northern pike and walleye. Below Inset: A shore lunch at Big Sand Lake Lodge is a big highlight – that is if you can take a break from the unbelievable fishing!
The next two days found us, of course, back to our new favorite spot on the lake, landing more big numbers of both species. This time, ten hearty walleye were set aside for a terrific shore lunch and believe me, if you have not had the chance to try fresh walleye cooked in a skillet over an open fire in the Canadian Wilderness, you are really missing out!
The next morning, unwillingly, we found ourselves loading our gear into the float plane and heading back to the main lodge. In all for the week, five Master Angler pike (41” and over) had been caught by our group and literally hundreds more, with many in the 32 - 40 inch mark to our credit. And yes, in the end, all of those stories that I had told our Sportsman’s News Pro Membership winner, Merle Plank about were really true! By this time, he was not only talking non-stop about this trip, but about looking to do another one and maybe even an Alaskan adventure as well.
Yes, being a member of the Sportsman’s News Pro Membership Sweepstakes truly does have its benefits, so if you aren’t a member yet, what are you waiting for? Just ask Merle Plank and his brother John. For more information about Big Sand Lake Lodge, check them out under Endorsed Outfitters on our website or at www.bigsandlakelodge.com