Best. Day. Ever.
An incomparable eight hours of fishing in Canada's north
There are pike. There are trophy pike. Then there are the monsters of northern Saskatchewan. One incredible day on the Cree River
Deep in the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, I travelled by jet boat 30 kilometres up, then back down, the wild Cree River. It was June 8, 2016. And it was the single greatest day of fishing that I or any of my three companions—all seasoned anglers—have ever experienced. And almost every day since, I’ve thought about those special hours, in that very special place.
But here’s the crazy thing: for our guide Pat Babcock, owner of Cree River Lodge (above) it was just another typical day on the water. The river is just that good. Of course, even in unspoiled backcountry, where there’s limited angling pressure, things don’t always come easily. Along the way to our best day ever, we experienced drama, wonderment, heartbreak and redemption.
And as often seems to happen, things did not start out particularly well.
It’s the second morning of our four-day trip, and I wake to bright sunshine streaming through the window of my cabin, having neglected to pull the drapes closed. Cree River Lodge is way up there, just 120 kilometres south of the 60th parallel (above). It’s my first time at this latitude and, forgetting how long the days are, I’m up and at ’em before grasping how early it still is. On the bright side, my three snoring cabin mates offer no competition for the shower.
Scott Gardner9:30 A.M.
Five long hours after I rise, we set off. I’m having doubts about the day, however. Pat simply said he was personally taking the four of us “up the river” in the lodge’s 24-foot, centre-console jet boat, but I was dubious that four guys could comfortably fish from it, especially the fly anglers. Plus, on our first day while fishing from two smaller boats, we landed dozens of pike just 20 minutes from the lodge, including a 42-incher for my friend Dan Armitage, from Columbus, Ohio (above). Although Dan is an expert hunter and angler, he’d never fished for trophy pike before, but he turned out to be a natural.
Scott GardnerI also had a good start on the first day, landing my own 42-inch northern on a fly rod (above). And while it wasn’t the longest pike I’d ever caught, it was by far the heaviest. Clearly there was something special going on in this system, because these were the thickest, healthiest-looking Esox lucius specimens I’d ever seen. Almost every single fish had a deep, powerful body, noticeably wider than its head. So I could have happily gone back to those same spots. But full credit goes to Pat for taking us on a true adventure, when a less dedicated lodge owner might not have bothered.
I see why we need the jet boat (above, with Pat at the helm). Clearly, only a propeller-less vessel could get up this river. At times the winding Cree is wide and slow, opening into innumerable spurs and ponds. And sometimes it becomes swift and shallow, braiding around boulders. An hour into our trip, we stop at a wide pool below a waterfall and catch, well, nothing interesting, just a few mid-size fish. Some of us are feeling a little uneasy, but Pat, exuding a Buddha-like serenity, assures us that the big ones rarely appear until the afternoon.
With the temperature nearing a balmy 20°C, we come around a sharp bend and into a landscape so unexpected I need a moment to comprehend it (above). Rising out of the stunted pine forest is a sand dune two storeys high and several hundreds yards wide. We go ashore and scale the steep hill, using the sparse vegetation as handholds. From atop the ridge, we can see that the dunes extend for many kilometres, almost as far as we can see (below).Jacob SotakIt turns out we’re passing through part of the Athabasca sand dunes, the planet’s most northerly active sand surface. It’s such a stunning place to experience that I no longer really care (much) if we boat any interesting fish, especially considering my massive trophy the day before.
We follow a shallow tributary that’s little wider than our boat into a backwater called Dunes Lake, which is maybe a kilometre in diameter. The shallow lake is ringed with low sand hills, muskeg and burned-out pines, courtesy of a huge conflagration that ravaged the region, and very nearly the lodge, in 2009. In this clear, still water we spot fish, and big ones. By now, our four-angler team has developed a rhythm, with one guy fly fishing from the bow casting deck while the others use spinning gear off the sides and stern. It feels like something is about to happen.
Along the boggy shore of Dunes Lake, Pat sneaks toward a massive pike. Dan, on the casting deck, takes his shot with an 8-weight rod and one of my freshly tied, five-inch-long articulated Seaducer flies. Dan claims he’s not very adept with a fly rod, but he executes a fine cast and, when the fish strikes, a solid strip set. Despite having only 24 hours of experience fishing for large pike, Dan perfectly manages the fight to land his second fat 42-incher in two days (above).
Now my friend Jacob Sotak is on the deck. An entrepreneur, freelance writer and U.S. Army combat veteran from New York City, Jake has never been anywhere this remote (well, except Afghanistan), and he’s already falling hard for this wild place. Jake has also never fly fished for creatures of these proportions, but he arrived well stocked with a box of Enrico Puglisi-style saltwater flies, which, it turns out, are simply lethal on pike. Everything comes together when he spots and sticks a giant fish. But it unexpectedly runs toward the boat, forcing Jake to frantically crank in line. Then the fish blazes right past us and starts pulling line back out. In the heat of the moment, Jake applies a little too much pressure and his leader breaks. It’s heartbreaking, particularly when Pat observes that it was at least a 45-inch pike—the biggest we’ve seen yet.
How many huge predators lurk in this little lake? A lot, apparently, since my pal Lynn Henning has now hooked a beast on a #4 Mepps spinner. Lynn is a veteran of many trips to northern Canada, but this pike, at 44½ inches (above), is his biggest ever. Pushing 25 pounds, it’s built like a railroad tie with fins and a snout. After less than five hours on the water, half of us have already landed the fish of a lifetime, and the sun is still high in the sky.
Being less keen to fly fish than the rest of us, Lynn had earlier settled in at the stern to use his spinning rod all day, the sly fox. While fly fishing is an exceptionally fun way to tackle big northerns, it’s rarely as efficient as spinning gear. Moments after entering what looks like a pretty improbable pike hole, Lynn is on again, and it’s a serious fish.
We’re back in the river in what Pat calls Steve Quinn’s Bay, named for the long-time In-Fisherman writer who had some luck there on a previous visit. I would have called it Steve Quinn Slough, since it’s barely 40 feet wide and heavily weeded. And because it’s out of the wind, the bay is also heavily infested with mosquitoes. It feels more like a Florida alligator ditch, and from the way Lynn’s rod is bent and throbbing, maybe that’s what he has on (above). What finally emerges is the largest thing I’ve ever seen come out of freshwater—a great kraken of a pike, a fraction less than four feet long, with a head like a German shepherd (below).
As Pat frees the monster, he displays both courage and his devotion to these magnificent fish. Even using a long-handled hook remover, he still has to put most of his forearm down into the fish’s mouth to retrieve the small lure, risking a severe mangling if the beast escapes the jaw-spreaders and clamps down. The moment also reinforces the wisdom of the lodge’s strict barbless policy, which results in a pike mortality rate of near zero.
Using a four-inch swimbait, Dan hooks and lands a 40-inch pike about two boat lengths away from the last fish (above). This run of big northerns is so stunning that Dan, a garrulous and entertaining raconteur, is at a loss for words.
Just upstream from the Steve Quinn’s Bay mutant-fish factory, two river branches meet in a spot called the Confluence. Many parts of the Cree have been difficult for me to read, but this is a classically fishy-looking spot. And Jake, who grew up fishing the rivers of Vermont, can see it too. With the boat holding in a back eddy, he stands at the bow and lays one of his saltwater flies at the edge of the swift water. On his second cast, there’s a coppery-green flash in the tumbling water, and he’s into another big one. With the boulders, current and deadfall, it’s a difficult spot to manage a log-sized fish. But this time Jake plays it patiently and perfectly, and is rewarded with his first true trophy—a 40-inch, bull-shouldered northern.
The gang has now noticed with some amusement that I’m the only one without a big fish today. Like everyone else, I’ve landed many fish in the mid-30-inch range, so it’s hardly a skunk. But it would be nice to join today’s lunker club. Upstream of the Confluence, we come to a slowly swirling, pond-sized back eddy ringed with steep, unstable-looking sand hills and scrubby vegetation growing around more charred pines. It’s called the Crater, and it does resemble the blasted-out aftermath of a meteor strike.
Pat is pretty confident there’s a good fish here, so I am too. I’m on the bow deck, waiting for my chance, when Lynn, casting his trusty spinner off the stern, stings another big one (above). It measures 40 inches, his third trophy in less than three hours. A long-time sportswriter for the Detroit News, Lynn is one of the most interesting guys I know, and a charming conversationalist. I decide that back at the lodge we’re going to have a conversation about him catching my fish.
With our sixth giant pike safely released, we move farther into the Crater. We’re limited by the very shallow water, but Pat points out a stretch of collapsed hillside where the mild current bends around a fallen tree. “Think you can you put it in there?” he says. It’s 60 feet away, but thanks to weeks of fly-casting practice on the lawn, I drop my all-time fave pike fly—a 2/0 white-and-chartreuse Lefty’s Deceiver—practically among the tree’s submerged branches.
After just three seductive strips of the fly, the line goes tight. The water is only 18 inches deep, so as the fish accelerates across the pool, we can see the wake from its thick body. As I put the brakes on it, the huge pike has no room to manoeuvre and actually goes airborne with a heart-stopping lunge and an ungainly splash. After a thrilling fight, I hoist it for a photo (below) and quickly let it go. In all the commotion, I never get a good look at the measuring board, but Dan and Jake claim, with exaggerated mock sympathy, that it stretched a mere 39 7/8th inches. Deciding with Solomon-like wisdom that numbers don’t really matter, I unilaterally declare it a trophy fish.
And, of course, numbers aren’t that important, especially when you have the privilege of fishing in such a spectacular part of Canada, with great people of good cheer. But numbers do help tell the story. So in case you’ve lost count, the day saw four anglers in a single boat land some four or five dozen respectable pike. We all had fish over 40 inches—seven, in total. And three members of the group set personal records, with Lynn setting, then 90 minutes later breaking, his record with that jaw-dropping 48-incher.
We’re sitting in the lodge’s log-walled lounge, weary, sun-reddened and radiating that special kind of contentment unique to successful anglers on a fishing trip. We can’t stop going over and over the day’s extraordinary events. Plying Pat with celebratory drinks, we unanimously declare it the greatest single day of fishing any of us has ever experienced. And Pat? He just shrugs, offers a quiet, seen-it-all-before smile and says, “Well, that’s what it’s like when you go up the river.”
Associate editor Scott Gardner would gladly chew glass to get back to the Cree river.
Visiting Cree River Lodge
Along with trophy northern pike, Cree River Lodge also offers fishing for walleye and Arctic grayling, with exclusive access to Wapata Lake and a long stretch of the Cree River. Open from June 1 to September 15, the lodge features modern cabins with electric heating, hot-running water and impressive grub and hospitality. With a hardy vehicle, it’s possible to drive to the lodge from points south, but most anglers fly from Saskatoon to Stony Rapids, where they’re met by lodge staff for the one-hour truck-and-boat trip to the Cree River.
For more info about Pat Babcock’s Cree River Lodge, call (306) 276-7841 or visit www.creeriverlodge.ca.