You can still find untouched northerns— and maybe that elusive 50-incher— in the Canadian wilderness.
By Rasmus Ovesen / Photos by Rasmus and Anders Ovesen
If there is a carbon dioxide hell, that’s where I’ll end up; it’s taken three flights to reach Saskatoon, Canada, and it’s another three flights across Saskatchewan to reach Stony Rapids, a barren outpost in the northwest corner of the province that serves anglers who are eager to disappear in the north country.
The final leg is covered in a De Havilland turboprop, which had its heyday in the post–World War II era, but is still treasured by adventurous anglers and the pilots who fly them. After two days of travel, we touch down on Phelps Lake and moor at Wolf Bay Lodge. I can only hope that the fishing for trophy northern pike is as advertised, which might make my effort worth the carbon-footprint burn I’ll certainly feel later.
During our flights over Saskatchewan, I watched symmetrical, lush-green pastures and a labyrinth of gravel roads give way to vast woodlands and the flickering waters of ancient, glacial lakes and meandering rivers. For a while I saw a few wooden cabins, and the odd uranium mine, but all traces of mankind slowly ebbed away. Two hours later, Phelps Lake appeared below, with all its wild branches, shallow bays, and jagged rock islands. It was an early summer day in mid-June. A comprehensive highpressure system killed all winds, and when we finally landed, it felt like touching down on a giant mirror.
After greetings with the Wolf Bay Lodge owner, Brent Osika, things unfolded quickly. My brother, Anders, and I had half a day’s fishing ahead of us, and moments later we glided across the lake in a Linder skiff with Merasty B. Jason, an experienced local guide, at the helm.
Merasty navigated the boat with surgical precision, at a high speed, through narrow passages, wide-open expanses, and big bays. I soon lost all sense of orientation. It was intoxicating and further amplified when, after a 20-minute ride, Merasty cut the engine and a deafening silence greeted us.
With more than 300 islands, countless reefs, backwaters, bays, and tributaries, you couldn’t possibly fish all of Phelps’s prime spots, let alone its surrounding lakes, in a full week. The season here stretches from mid-June (ice-out) until the end of August, at which point winter looms. At the beginning of the season, these fish have just finished spawning in myriad shallow bays and flooded meadows. During the summer months and onwards through the end of the season, pike move to deeper water, along drop-offs, reefs, and islands, where lily pad and cabbage beds rise from the bottom and baitfish gather.
When fishing Phelps, you don’t have to worry about competition—Wolf Bay Lodge has exclusive rights to guide anglers here, and they host only six anglers per week. In addition to spectacular pike fishing, it is also possible to catch whitefish and lake trout (Salvelinus namaykush). The latter can be found in tremendous numbers, especially at the south end of the lake.
On our first afternoon, we weren’t interested in lake trout, nor whitefish. We were interested in what Merasty had to say. And what he said was exactly what we wanted to hear—“Pike are still in the shallows,” adding, “The fish are hungry and it’s only a matter of finding them.”
Post-spawn, Phelps’s northerns school up in the bays, especially shallow bays with dark, muddy bottoms where the water is warmed by sunlight, and baitfish are abundant. Overall, Phelps is incredibly fertile, testament to all the shallow water and weed growth. and baitfish thrive. We still had no idea, however, whether we’d sight-fish for these pike, which was our hope. But it didn’t take long to find out.
The fish were hovering above bottom, along shorelines and in places where cabbage beds had started to grow from the silty lake floor. The fish weren’t easy to see, even though the water was clear. But we made out silhouettes and declared them to be small males, not the big females we were hoping for.
Soon we were busy warming up. These pike looked rather apathetic, just hanging there, semi-petrified, along the bottom. But sure enough, they were hungry and aggressive. They promptly reacted at the sight of our rabbit Zonkers, hunted them down and, oftentimes, inhaled them next to the boat in a big, splashy explosion of water.
It had been a while since my brother and I fished for pike, but we were quickly reminded why we both love to target this lightning-quick predator. We hadn’t traveled this far, however, to fish for small pike, and Merasty was well aware of it. So, having wiped the skunk off with a handful of small pike, we decided to check out one of the lake’s countless other bays.
After scouting out a few, we finally made it to a bay in Phelps’s northern corner. The bay, which was backlit by the beams of an evening sun, didn’t look like much at first. The entrance was so shallow that we used oars to get in, and at first glance across the dark, ocher-colored water, there were no signs of pike. When we reached the far corner of the bay, I saw a big shadow under two bowed, moss-clad trees, and inside a patch of flooded meadow grass.
That fish wasn’t alone. Several males stuck close to the big female. With lightly trembling fins and a tense, aggressive look on its face, the pike seemed likely, at any given moment, to lunge at one of the males. I gave it something else to contemplate when I cast a light-gray rabbit-strip Zonker to the edge of that flooded grass. As soon as the fly hit the water, the female was right behind it. I gave the fly a little bit of action, and the pike instantly shot forward, plowing purposefully through the water to inhale the fly. I set the hook instinctively and felt the weight of the fish. It made a couple explosive runs and a couple cartwheels before I had it next to the boat. The fish was bigger than we thought. I lifted it aboard and put a tape from nose to tail—49.2 inches, just short of that magic 50-inch mark. Still, my dreams of catching a big wilderness pike had come true. We shot a series of photos in shallow water along the bank, and as the fish thrust free, I drew a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.
There was no time to rest, however. A faint “Psst” sounded from the casting platform where Merasty was perched. He pointed at the water. We joined him on the bow and quickly spotted another big pike . . . and another . . . and another.
Two hours later, we’d caught seven more full-grown pike, including three in excess of 47 inches. Furthermore, we cast at a couple of fish that Merasty estimated at 53 inches long. Those fish, for whatever reason, just didn’t respond to our flies. As we headed back to the lodge, my brother and I were in a semi-state of shock; we’d never seen so many big fish. But over the next five days, we learned that this is nothing out of the ordinary on Phelps. During our stay here, in fact, we sight-fished another 200 pike, with 40 of them measuring well over 40 inches and several more ranging in the very high 40s. Furthermore, we got to experience some cool dry fly and nymph fishing for whitefish, and some streamer fishing for feisty lake trout that schooled up along Phelps’s drop-offs and shoals.
To the non-angler, it may sound like madness to travel way beyond the outskirts of civilization—to the middle of the vast Canadian wilderness to search for pike. But if you’re into pike, and a 50-incher is your goal, you shouldn’t hesitate to fish here, no matter how far you may have to travel and how you might pay for that carbon footprint later on.
Rasmus Ovesen lives in Oslo, Norway, and fishes around the globe. Check out his travels at instragram.com/rasmus_ovesen.
- For additional information about prices, check the following link, or send an email to the camp manager, Brent Osika: [email protected].
- A regional Saskatchewan fishing license is mandatory, and you’ll need to buy it ahead of your trip. Buy online at: https://saskatchewanlicences.active.com/licensing.page.
- For additional information about fishing possibilities in Saskatchewan, and the wealth of other interesting wilderness activities ,visit Tourism Saskatchewan: tourismsaskatchewan.com.
- To reach Phelps Lake and Wolf Bay Lodge, you’ll travel via Toronto or Calgary to Saskatoon, where you land on a Sunday and stay overnight. From there, a domestic flight, which Wolf Bay Lodge can arrange, takes you to Stony Rapids on Monday morning. The last leg of the trip, from Stony Rapids to Wolf Bay Lodge, takes about two hours.
- When fly fishing Phelps for pike, 9- to 10-weight rods paired with floating or intermediate weight-forward lines are typically used. Lighter rods can be used, too, since really big flies are rarely necessary. However, since there are great chances of hooking a real monster, the larger rods are preferred.
- Long rabbit-strip Zonkers in light colors, preferably with weed guards that allow you to fish them along the bottom or through weeds and lily pads, work well here. Furthermore, small imitations of the lake’s silvery baitfish are productive, and the same goes for noisy poppers and Gurglers.
- Be sure to take along a 9-foot 5-weight and a few dry flies and nymphs
- if you’re interested in catching whitefish. Also, take an extra 10-weight, or
- even a 12-weight, paired with a fast-sinking fly line for lake trout.