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Fly Fishing for Giant Pike in Northern Saskatchewan

The View From Here

Fly Fishing for Saskatchewan’s Giant Northern Pike: My Favourite Prairie Fishing Adventure:

In This Fly Fishing Article You Will Discover:

  • How to Fly Fish for Northern Pike
  • Where to Find the Largest Northern Pike & How to Get There
  • Where to Find Lodging in Northern Saskatchewan
  • How to Tie Flies for Northern Pike

Warm air rushes over the exposed Canadian Shield rocks and scrubby boreal evergreens that encircle both Northern Saskatchewan’s Pilling Lake and us — the only four anglers for at least 100 km in any direction. I strip out 15 metres of nine-weight floating fly line into the now-rippled water, and roll a large, bushy pike fly out a few feet in front of me.

Loading the stiff rod, I back cast, ripping the yellow-and-red deceiver from the frigid water and unfurling 10 metres of line behind my head before I bring my elbow down hard and shoot the cast out 25 metres toward the shoreline. The fly follows the line’s tight loop and plops down, light as the ball of feathers it is, just a few feet from the overgrown shoreline. Tinsel — our flies are thick with the stuff — glimmers in the sunlight. I strip in three quick pulls, and as the bushy presentation suspends above the blackness of the drop-off, I scan the water for movement. The telltale swirl of a predatory northern pike breaks the surface nearby.

Like a shark encircling its prey, the pike surfaces for a moment before it attacks.

Big Pike On!

Northern pike are aggressive fish that will test the limits of even an experienced angler.

And attack it does, slashing at the fly with an explosive splash; its massive, toothy jaws gnash into my presentation and drive it down beneath the water. My rod bends in response and I set the hook like a tournament bass fisherman — hard and dramatic. Instantly, fly line peels off the reel as the pike makes the initial panic-run once it feels a stainless steel hook embed in the corner of its bony jaw.

Sixty metres of line disappears and I can’t do a thing about it; it’s a powerful run that would do a yellowfin tuna proud.

I finally regain control of the situation. Using the leverage afforded by large arbor reel, I begin the give-and-take battle that ends with me holding a 115-centimetre northern pike up for the camera before gently releasing it to feed another day. After receiving dirty looks from my guide an hour earlier for daring to photograph a pike under 90 centimetres, I finally have fish worthy of the camera.

Double Header Pike

Double-headers (where two fish are caught simultaneously) are commonplace.

“Now that’s a photo fish,” the camp owner says. A pike over 100 centimetres is a quality fish; 115 centimetres-plus is trophy, and 125 centimetres or more? That’s the fish of a lifetime. We know such fish lurk in these waters; we’ve seen the photos and heard the fish tales. But for today, that pike will do just fine.

I breathe deep, and shake the lactic acid from my arm. That makes it a baker’s dozen for me — and it’s not even time for lunch. I glance at my surroundings. Pro-caster Scott Baker-McGarva and I stand in our 14-foot aluminum lakeboat, less than 100 metres from our companions in their similar craft. Beyond that, the Canadian Shield stretches to infinity.

Within Saskatchewan alone, the Canadian Shield, one of Earth’s oldest geologic formations, holds more than 100,000 fishable lakes. It is an inland fishery like none other.

Large Pike

The author with a 125-centimetre northern pike.

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Pike

We are about 160 km from the nearest road, fishing a chain of seven fly-in lakes. The last settlement we had seen was Missinipe, a one-horse-town where we boarded a Turbine Otter floatplane that carried us for an hour north to lakes that seem untouched by man. North of us, one would have to fly more than 500 km to even find Uranium City, a virtually abandoned mining town that saw its heyday in the Cold War when demand for radioactive metals was high. We are beyond the reach of cellphones, TV signals, automobiles — even airplane travel is rare in these parts. We are totally alone; well, except for the tens of thousands of ferocious northern pike we’re here to fish for — on the fly.

In Saskatchewan, every kid grows up fishing pike. But more and more anglers are pursuing these fish not with traditional spoons, plugs and jigs — but with flies. And there is good reason. One would just have to ask Warren Schweitzer, owner and operator of Pointer Lake Lodge (Editor’s Note: Warren recently sold the camp), the fly-in fishing camp that would be our base of operations for these four days. “A fly will out fish a spoon any day,” Warren says to us over the first night’s dinner. “Maybe even a crankbait too.”

There is wisdom to his words – Warren has fished these waters for more than 30 years, primarily with classic spinning or casting setups. For him to admit four uppity fly anglers from British Columbia might just show him a thing or two was no small feat indeed.

Warm from a soak in the camp’s trademark wood-fired hot tub, we begin to rig our gear for the next day’s fishing. Fly fishing for pike is far from the finesse presentations Montana trout fishermen might be used to. Super heavy-duty, eight-, nine-, and even 10-eight rods are the norm, equipped with large-arbour reels that can offer the fast retrieve needed for fighting these heavyweight freshwater barracuda. The pike of northern Saskatchewan are not shy either — we run steel leaders at the terminal end of our lines.

Pike are voracious predators, and their teeth will sheer through conventional fishing lines with ease.

The View From Here

The view over Northern Saskatchewan – more water than land!

Four Lake Adventures

Fly-in lakes such as those accessed from Pointer Lake Lodge see only a handful of fishermen every year, and the fish they hold strike unabashedly at anything that lands in their field of view. Many are the stories of baby ducks and water-bound rodents, like martins, being gobbled up by pike, and I witnessed pike-to-pike cannibal attacks on a constant basis. At times, I’d release a small, three-to-four-pound pike only to see 15-pounder devour it moments after it left my hands. To even hold these fish for the obligatory photo will leave your fingers with micro-cuts from their sharp gill rakers; truly a prehistoric predator and top of its respective food chain.

But there are more tales of horror on the wild northern pike’s depravity. A few years back, Corey Schweitzer, Warren’s son and a fly fishing expert, had to be flown to a hospital when a near-125-centimetre pike chomped its one-centimetre-long teeth into Corey’s bicep while he posed for a picture, tearing through his flesh and skin as if man were the prey species.

And a longtime friend of my own, Gary Mulligan, regaled me with a sad story of his friend who lost a small puppy to a beastly pike. The pup was taken in the massive, alligator-like jaws as it cooled itself in a slough one fateful Prairie summer day.

Slough Shark

A big northern pike surfaces, hooked with a fly.

With this in my mind, I load up my nine-weight and make another cast towards the shore. It’s late-June, less than a month after ice-out, and the pike are already retreating from the impending summer sun. It took the lot of us but an hour to determine where the fish hide — where the clear, shallow shoreline water turns to blackness, predators lurk. Aided by the weight-forward, shooting-tip fly lines, we unfurl long casts from boat to shore, stripping out flies across the surface, then suspending them above the black depths. And in these plentiful waters, most casts are rewarded by a shockingly viscous strike, and a short but exciting top-water battle.

Pointer Lake Lodge is a rustic but comfortable operation smack-dab in the middle of four isolated lakes. Besides your fishing partners, the haunting call of the loon is your only companion on any given lake — you will never see an angler outside your party. All that matters is which lake to fish first: the strictly managed trophy fishery of Pilling Lake, perhaps? The Saskatchewan Government is preserving this water as a trophy fishery, so don’t expect more than one day per trip on Pilling; but full of pike exceeding 110-centimetres, it may be the highlight of the trip. Perhaps namesake Pointer Lake will follow. This big-water lake will present a greater challenge, but its calm bays and weedy shorelines are known to hold brutes. There’s still Moffat and Johannsen lakes too – waters of plenty both. While not known to harbor pike in the sizes found in Pilling, only a few casts will go unrewarded.

The Big One

The largest pike of the trip: a 130-centimetre monster!

Just ask Baker-McGarva. The northern sun is high on our second day out, lighting up the ice-clear water in one of Pointer Lake’s shallow, muddy bays. Looking not unlike scene from a tropical mangrove, our twin boats bob up and down in the three- to five-metre-deep water. The four of us unroll casts tipped with flies the size of ceremonial headdresses. They plop with a splash on the still surface and tempt the few medium-size pike that swarm through the underwater weeds. Baker-McGarva’s cast lands a good 15 metres portside, and the experienced, FFF-certified instructor allows his bucktail to sink beneath the surface right above what appears to be a submerged log.

Suddenly – the log comes to life. It is a massive, resting female pike, and like a cobra waiting to attack the fish spins a one-eighty to annihilate the sub-surface offering. Baker-McGarva’s eight-weight Sage rod bends into a rainbow as the pike takes off — clearly in control of situation. But as the alligator-sized slough shark surfaces, my companion re-gains composure and begins to wind in the feisty fish. A true Pointer Lake beast, the 120-centimetre-long fish has almost twice the girth of my huge pike from the day previous, tipping the scales at an estimated 15 kilograms. We gently release the old girl back to her bay, thankful for the northern pike experience of a lifetime.

Warming Up

Warm up your arm – fly fishing for five days straight is hard work.

Fly Tying 101

Grunts of a distant black bear echo in the evening twilight that lingers past midnight during these long summer days of the north. The sound carries through the scrubby boreal forest and bare Canadian Shield rocks that make up most of northern Saskatchewan. Although the province is large, at 650,000 square km — 9.1 per cent of which is fishable water — there are just over one million people living here. And half of them reside in the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. This is what makes the province such a grand inland fishery — utter seclusion is not just easy to find, it’s hard not to find.

This solitude is comforting to the four of us, as we smoke Cohibas (perfectly legal in Canada) and tie new fly patterns for the following day.

Steel Fishing Line

Ensure you use steel braided leaders to connect your flies to the fly line – pike have sharp teeth!

There are few things in the angling world more satisfying that tricking a fish with a pattern you tie yourself. That’s why smart anglers bring not a stock of over-the-counter pike flies, but a Tupperware box of tinsel, marabou, deer hair, polar bear hair, feathers, Flashabou, thread and other tools of this gentleman’s trade. We tie our creations big, bushy and bright — never sparing the tinsel, which seems to infuriate pike and tempt them into a strike with its siren-like glisten.

We tie deceivers — red-and-white and red-and-yellow flies that deceive a pike into believing they are prey. We tie imitators — white hackle, spotted feathers and olive greens — that utilize the fish’s cannibalistic nature by appearing to be a hapless, young pike ripe for the devouring. And we tie creations yet to be classified: The Disco Leech, The Pike’s Delight and other flies inspired by laughter and Glenfiddich.

And we tie creations yet to be classified: The Disco Leech, The Pike’s Delight and other flies inspired by laughter and Glenfiddich.

The Pike’s Delight, a crafty baitfish imitator, would take five 100-centimetre-plus pike out of Pointer Lake with ease the following morning, and the Disco Leech, essentially a Bunny Leech with loads of tinsel, is so incredibly effective we tie a half-dozen of them, at times making it our go-to presentation for guaranteed hits.

Toothy Critter

Be careful when removing hooks from a pike’s mouth – their teeth are razor sharp.

World Class, Close By

The final day ends in a waft of smoke, as a stiff wind carries bone-grey plumes from a far off forest fire into our camp to the point of nearly blocking out the sun. While we’re far from danger, the rage of these northern fires cannot be underestimated. Our arms ache from making hundreds upon hundreds of casts with heavy, sopping wet flies and stiff rods. Our hands are blistered from the rubbing of the cork, our creels are empty as it’s a strict catch-and-release operation — but our minds are full of the memories. Northern pike: these wonderfully ferocious freshwater sport fish that attack flies with such fierceness it’s hard on the heart. Some underestimate the sporting quality of the pike — but they are those who have not flown deep into the Canadian Shield and pursued these slough sharks on the fly.

For in the north, the pike-eat-pike world of Saskatchewan, there is no greater game fish. And there is no better pursuit of these fish than on the fly.

Northern Tropics

Don’t go thinking Canada is cold all the time!

Bring The Camera

Since the usual route visitors take to Pointer Lake Lodge is to fly into Saskatoon Airport (YXE) and rent a car for the five-hour drive north to Missinipe, your staging grounds to the fly in lakes, there are many opportunities for photographs. Elk farms, huge deer, rolling grasslands and knee-weakening sunsets are staples of the prairie landscape. Once north of La Ronge and onto the gravel roads, you’ll find yourself in true wilderness. Large animals such as black bears and moose lumber though these areas, and birds like the ubiquitous loon float about on calm sloughs, chiming their signature call to anyone who’ll listen. Trout fishermen dub the loon “devil bird,” for its propensity for feasting on fish. However, it is a bird loved by most of Canadians, evident by the fact it graces the country’s one-dollar coin, dubbed the “Loonie.”

Saskatoon is a vibrant city, just shy of 250,000 people. Anglers visiting the province for its pike fishery might wish to bookend the trip with a few days in the southern part of the province. In the summer, the Folk, Fringe (www.25thstreettheatre.org) and Jazz (www.saskjazz.com) Festivals bring culture to the masses. Any time of year, the Mendel Art Gallery (www.mendel.ca), on the banks of the historic, 2,500-km-long Saskatchewan River, is a fine and renowned house of art. Also, as you make the trek from Saskatoon to Missinipe, you’ll notice one the best things about the landscape is the non-stop barrage of quaint small towns to stop in and enjoy. Those who love the Heartland, full of good people and unique settings, will love Saskatchewan.

Trading Post

Get your fishing licence and stock up on tackle, supplies and beer at Missinipe.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

3 comments… add one
  • fishing for pike Aug 12, 2012

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I’m hoping to offer something back and aid others such as you helped me.

  • David Webb Jul 15, 2012

    Sure, why not?

  • Ken Erickson Jul 14, 2012

    Is this the same Cory that I used to hunt coyotes with in southern SK? Still training upland hunting dogs? Ken

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