This may be Canada’s best pike fishing

Some places have big northerns, some have lots of them, but Cree River Lodge has both—all in shallow water

There are northern pike, and then there are Saskatchewan's Cree River northern pike—long, thick, powerful... and everywhere you cast

1Scott Gardner

This is a story about a very special place: the Cree River and Wapata Lake, way up in northern Saskatchewan, just 100 kilometres below the 60th parallel. Just how special was it? Well, in four days on the water at Cree River Lodge I saw and caught more and bigger northern pike than I ever thought possible.

This was my fourth visit to a remote northern lodge, and I've caught big pike on both spin and fly gear. But I have never seen—or really imagined—a pike fishery of this quality. Plus there were Arctic grayling and endless numbers of walleye. At a conservative estimate, my group of four must have boated at least 400 fish, including over 20 pike of trophy size—and 98% of the northerns came out of water less than three feet deep. If you like pike, put this place on your “must-visit” list. Here’s a taste of the action, with fish porn aplenty. 

bScott Gardner

How’s this for a start? About half an hour into our first day, my friend Dan Armitage of Columbus, Ohio, hooked this 42-inch monster (on a five-inch split-tail swimbait), demolishing his previous personal best pike record. And just as exciting was the 35-inch fish below. Why? Because it was the first-ever pike caught by my friend Jake Sotak, and he did it on his fly rod. Although he’s an experienced outdoorsman, this was Jake’s first time in the remote far north, and it made quite a contrast from the 350-square-foot Manhattan apartment he’d left behind the day before.

We pulled these fish—and at least 20 more in the mid-30-inch-range—out of a gently swirling, pond-sized back eddy of the Cree River known locally as the Devil’s, um, Perineum (well not that exact word, but we’re keepin’ it classy.) That two hours was incredible, but just a mild preview of what was to come. 

aScott Gardner

cScott Gardner

For our first afternoon we tried Rick’s Bay on Wapata Lake, which ended up being one of my most productive spots. A large, soft-bottomed bay ringed with reeds, it ranged from one to three feet deep, and the northerns were absolutely stacked up in it. Although ideal for fly fishing, it presented a problem for me, since I was using an intermediate sink-tip line. These lines are usually very useful for running a big, bushy pike fly a foot or two under the surface, but in this shallow bay it ran my flies into the muck. Fortunately my pal (and Detroit News sportswriter) Lynn Henning let me borrow his outfit, which had a floating line. And then I seduced the 42-inch monster above with a five-inch-long, perch-coloured Seaducer fly.

Based on that pike’s length and, more importantly, it’s massive girth, it was at least 25 pounds. That made it substantially bigger than my previous personal best pike, which was 45 inches long, but just shy of 20 pounds. And it turns out that steroidal girth and strength is typical of the fish in the Cree River system. Believe me, playing this thick, powerful fish in 24 inches of water was about as much fun as I’d ever had with a fly rod. At least until the next day...

3Scott GardnerOur second day dawned bright and sunny, so Pat personally took our group of four on a 60-kilometre adventure up the Cree River in his 24-foot jet boat—the only kind of vessel that could make such a journey. Above is the boat, with Babcock at the console.

4Scott Gardner

Interspersed with rapids and slow stretches that turn into ponds and lakes, the Cree winds through the Athabasca Sand Dunes—a unique and remarkable landscape. It's also pike heaven, and offered up the most mind-blowing day of pike fishing I've ever experienced. For the full story of that day, see Outdoor Canada's 2017 Fishing Special or check out the web version.

But the short version is this: our group of four landed seven 40-inch-plus fish on just that ONE day (above), plus at least as many in the mid- to upper 30s. The day’s star was Lynn, who nabbed three, straight-up trophy fish, including a 47-inch, 30-pound water wolf (below left, with Babcock on the right).

1Scott Gardner

1Scott Gardner

The next day we allotted a couple of hours to nab some walleye for a big group shorelunch. Talk about overkill—each boat was assigned to bring four fish which, after anchoring in one of the Cree’s inflows, took about 15 minutes. We kept a foursome in the 16-inch range for lunch, but there were lots of bigger ones around, including this nice one of Lynn’s. In the background is Wade Babcock, Pat’s dad and a guide at the lodge. Wade, by the way, is hilarious and has some pretty wild stories from his decades as an outdoorsman. 

1Scott GardnerWhen jigging walleye loses its challenge, what do you do? Bust out your fly rod, of course. With a fast-sinking Versileader weighted leader I was able to get my Clouser fly down about eight feet, which was enough to tempt the walleye, including the 24-incher above. If I was hungry, fly fishing wouldn’t be my first choice, but once I got the hang of it, I did almost as well as the spin guys. Walleye aren't known as fighters, but on a fly rod, a two-footer puts up a pretty good tussle.  

Then I had an idea. For a few years now Gord Pyzer has been urging OC readers to use more aggressive baits for walleye. So I changed to a bushy, weighted eight-inch-long Monster Magic pike fly on a 2/0 hook, and darned if I didn’t get my biggest walleye of the trip. Thanks Gord! I also landed a few northerns, including a 36-incher that was probably in the rivermouth snacking on walleye (just like I would be at shorelunch an hour later.)

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1Dan Armitage

Oh, and if out-of-this-world pike fishing wasn't enough, the lodge also has arctic grayling. I hit the grayling spot on an off day, and only nabbed one—my first ever. They are, by the way, the hardest fish to hold I have ever encountered—hard-bodied and strong like a saltwater fish, but incredibly slippery.  Still, a bucket-list fish I never expected to catch. 

jakeScott GardnerTo pass the time in the evenings (not that it was a problem given the gifted storytellers/BS artists among my group and the other lodge guests) I had packed a small fly tying kit. And on our final night, Jake—who had experienced heavy casualties among his few pike flies—tried his hand at tying some. Turns out he was a natural, and next morning it didn't take long for him to land a pike (above) on one of his creations—a Seaducer in a custom blend of colours he dubbed Jake’s Tiger Lunker (below).

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Jake is a serious, no-nonsense guy—he's a business exec, and a US Army vet who saw combat in Afghanistan. So seeing him grin like a little kid when he caught fish on his fly was a true highlight of the trip, if not my outdoor career.

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On my final afternoon Wade and I headed back to Rick’s Bay, where he guided me to one of my best ever afternoons in 30 years of fly fishing. Using a chartreuse Lefty’s Deceiver fly (and with my floating line on this time) I doubt I went more than 10 minutes without a fish. And as if I hadn't had enough excitement already, that included a final 40-inch fish (above) and a seriously stout 38-incher (below).

In the month or so before my trip, I’d made a point of practising my fly casting for half an hour on the lawn, two or three times a week. My goal was getting sharp enough to launch 40 feet of line with a single false-cast, in any conditions. And it really paid off. We encountered some strong winds during the trip, but they didn’t bother me at all. And getting the line out fast translated to my bait being in the water more and, I am certain, more fish. 

1Scott Gardner

2Scott Gardner

My trip to Cree River Lodge was the adventure of a lifetime. But if there is a single aspect that will stay with me, it’s continuing awe at the density of the pike population, and the extraordinary girth and power of these fish.

And if you can’t wait  to sample the action for yourself, you’re in luck! Due to some unexpected cancellations there are still bookings available in June. There are also a few later in the season when, I’m told, the fish are even bigger. It’s hard to imagine. And though the location is remote, it’s not hard to get there, thanks to daily two-hour fights from Saskatoon to Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan. Then it’s a 60-miunte jaunt via car and boat to the lodge. For more information, contact Cree River Lodge owner Pat Babcock at www.creeriverlodge.ca, e-mail creeriverlodge@gmail.com or call (306) 276-7841. And many, many thanks to Pat and his staff, along with Tourism Saskatchewan for their hospitality and support.