The first morning we met our guide John, a Dene native who has lived in the area his entire life. He’s a man of few words, so if he speaks, it’s important. When he says “shortcut,” Cermele and I think we’ll be wetting a line in a few minutes. Instead, we learn “shortcut” means coursing through a series of narrow, shallow-water braids up the Pipestone at full throttle for an hour. It’s an exhilarating roller-coaster ride and when we emerge, we’re surrounded by fish.
Cermele and I are awestruck—the water is clear, there’s plenty of structure and baitfish, and we can see small pike finning in all the places you’d expect to see them. We can hardly resist the urge to cast and start stripping line from our reels, but John doesn’t stop the boat. He has something else in mind.
He pulls into a favored haunt called Jackfish Bay (jackfish is another nickname for northern pike) and motions for us to cast along the weeds. Cermele and I take turns casting long, flashy, colorful streamers from the bow of the boat. We’re successful on the first cast, the second, the third, and nearly every cast after.
There are fish everywhere—in shallow water, suspended off deep-water shelves, beside structure, and even along the boat. Some of the most explosive takes are from fish that follow the fly up to our rod tips and strike at the last second. It’s incredible action, but the icing on the cake is the average fish measures between 25 and 35 inches—a trophy fish in many lower-48 fisheries.
If Cermele and I learned anything that first day, it’s that cabbage is king. Find clusters of underwater weeds, which coincidentally looked like leafy cabbage, and you’ll find the pike. The fish are ambush predators that lurk amongst the vegetation and surprise small baitfish and perch.
After only 20 minutes, I connected with a fish I traveled so far to find, a pike over 40 inches. The next three days was a continuation of those first 20 minutes, but only because John’s knowledge of the fishery was indispensible. He knew every cut in the river, every weed bed, and every pike-holding bay like the back of his hand. The only time we weren’t catching fish was when we were shuffling from one section of water to another.
Survival of the Fittest
The damage left from the jaws of a big pike is disturbing. Several fish, including a handful over 40-inches long, had bite scars and healed-over puncture wounds from bouts with other fish. Even more disturbing were fish with fresh lacerations or bleeding abrasions likely incurred a few hours before we caught them.
There’s a reason pike are nicknamed water wolf. They’re one of the most aggressive freshwater predators in North America. Watching a 40-inch snake-of-a-fish shoot through the water like a launched torpedo and ambush a fly is one of the biggest thrills in the sport and the fish in Wapata Lake and the Pipestone River didn’t dissapoint. They’re truly cannibalistic. In their world, it’s eat or be eaten.
Cermele found out just how ruthless on the second day when he hooked a small pike that presumably tangled itself in the weeds. John steered the boat close so we could attempt to free the line, but on closer inspection, the little pike wasn’t moving because it was stuck—a pike twice its size clamped on and refused to let go.
Cermele coaxed both fish out of the weeds to the side of the boat, but John’s first attempt with the net was a miss. Amazingly, he got a chance to redeem himself and made a diving catch just as the large fish opened its jaws. It was one of Cermele’s most memorable fish of the trip, and he never even had a hook in it.
We caught big pike stripping streamers in deep water and big pike on topwater poppers with equal efficacy. In only a few days of fishing, we saw so many pike attack grayling, walleye, and even other pike dangling in the water that Cermele and I joked about losing a finger if we left our hands in the water too long.
An Exceptional Fishery
A popular conversation piece at Cree River Lodge was a worn, yellowed map taped to the wall. At the end of the day, anglers and guides converged around it to see where we traveled, and where we should go.
The highlight was watching John run over the hundreds of square miles with his finger, noting pike hotspots and the best places for fur. He knows the terrain intimately and drew invisible circles around familiar landmarks while walking us through his trap line.