Last year I found what may be the best mixed-bag fishing in North America, a place where the smallmouth bass bite was so good it made me want to move there. I was fishing out of Campfire Island Lodge on northwestern Ontario’s Rainy Lake, and though I had the kind of action you might expect to pay big bucks for, the trip was a bargain. Campfire Island Lodge epitomizes the best kind of Canadian fishing destination: a small camp focused on giving serious anglers great fishing at a reasonable cost. What follows is a review of some of the top fish camps in Canada for a variety of species, starting with my new favorite smallmouth spot.
**1. Endless Smallmouth Bass**** [BRACKET “Ontario”] **
Straddling the Ontario-Minnesota border, 227,000-acre Rainy Lake is one of the best places I’ve ever discovered that’s big enough to share. There are nearly 2,000 small, rocky islands dotting the main lake, which together with a convoluted, craggy shoreline and countless underwater humps and reefs form ideal habitat for big smallmouths. Oddly enough, the fish are sometimes lonely. Whereas the lake’s southern end, including Voyageurs National Park, tends to be busy, we never saw more than four or five other fishing boats each day in four days of fishing north of the border.
The icing on the cake is Campfire Island Lodge (807-274-9500; www.campfireisland.com), a terrific small camp a scant 2 miles into Ontario that offers guided fishing, lodging, and meals at bargain rates. Built as a corporate retreat on one of those rocky isles in the 1950s by Kentucky coal baron Brown Badgett, Campfire accommodates 12 guests at one time, spread over three cabins. Now Wayne, Pat, and Dean Howard own and operate the place, with Dean serving as the manager and very capable head guide. The lodge boats are 20-foot Lunds with 75-horsepower outboards, which are more than ample for occasional rough water on big Rainy Lake.
Campfire’s rates are a steal compared to similar facilities elsewhere. For 2004, a four-day, midweek package including the use of a boat, guided fishing, lodging, and meals is $1,065 (U.S.) per person. To get there, you fly by commercial airline to International Falls, Minnesota. Then it’s a short cab trip across the border to Fort Frances, Ontario, where the staff will meet you for a quick boat ride to camp.
Rainy Lake smallmouths live long enough to grow really big. A 20-inch 5-pounder will be 18 to 20 years old. Because the 1987 year class of bass was especially strong, larger examples are currently abundant. They’re fat, too, thanks to a growing forage base of smelt that the bass (and walleyes and pike) are scarfing down in big numbers. To its credit, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources manages the lake as a quality fishery, combining low limits with aggressive size and slot restrictions. The lodge policy is even more restrictive: 100 percent catch-and-release.
Pike are abundant and relatively easy to catch. Thirty- to 35-inchers were common enough to be nearly annoying last fall, and according to Dean Howard, the lodge’s best pike in 2003 was a 44-inch 25-pounder. We tangled with lots of walleyes, too, usually by accident as they hit the plugs we were using to target bass. My wife’s 29-inch 9-pounder was, of course, our largest.
Prime fishing runs from late May to mid-September and follows the typical northern smallmouth pattern: topwaters in May and June, jigs and topwaters in late June and July, jigging tubes and grubs in August, and topwaters and suspending jerkbaits from late August into September.
2. Wilderness Walleyes [BRACKET “Ontario & Manitoba”]
When it comes to bang for the buck, walleyes are probably the best choice in Canadian fishing. That’s because great fishing exists in southern Canada-notably Ontario and Manitoba-and is less expensive to reach than pricier lodges for other major species farther north. Even so, there are two major options that vary widely in expense.
The best deal is going with one of the many fly-in outpost services that operate in southern Ontario. Fly or drive to a seaplane base, from which the outfitter will take your party to a remote camp that often will be the only one on the lake. You’ll bring your own sleeping bag and groceries; the cabin, boat, motor, gas, and other essentials are included in a package that typically costs around $800 for five days. Two such operators are Air Cochrane (705-272-5570; www.aircochrane.com) and Mattice Lake Outfitters (807-583-2483; www.walleye.on.ca).
Walleye anglers wanting a fly-in, full-service lodge should check out Aikens Lake in southeastern Manitoba, which may have Canada’s best walleye fishing for both numbers and size. Aikens Lake Lodge (800-565-2595; www.aikenslake.com) provides deluxe accommodations, food, and guided fishing for walleyes that can top 10 pounds. All that convenience carries a commensurate price tag-about $2,395 (U.S.) for five days’ fishing-but it’s well worth it. **
3. Scoring a Salmon [BRACKET “New Brunswick”] **
Budget Atlantic salmon fishing might be the ultimate oxymoron in all of angling. Good salmon fishing is not cheap, and the best of it-on Russia’s Kola Peninsula or in Norway-can run to five figures for a week’s fishing. In the Canadian Maritimes, however, you can have respectable sport with the species for much less money.
New Brunswick’s vast Miramichi River system is still the queen among Canadian waters. Numbers of returning salmon have trended modestly upward in recent years, although the runs (as in most of Canada) are far below their historic highs. For that reason, much salmon fishing is catch-and-release, and you may be required by law to hire a local guide.
The Miramichi has abundant public access, but the best of those pools will be crowded in the prime times of late June and late September. You’re better off spending a few extra bucks on a river-based lodge that includes meals, cabins, and guided fishing on private water. Prices range from about $400 to $600 per day (double occupancy). Foremost is the venerable Wilson’s Sporting Camps at McNamee (506-365-7962; www.wilsonscamps.nb.ca). For the best in salmon tackle, flies, and local advice, check out W.W. Doak in Doaktown (506-365-7828; www.wwdoak.com).
**4. Looking for Lakers [BRACKET “Nunavut”] **
For numbers and size, no great lake-trout fishing exists short of the Far North. But even though lakes like Athabasca, Great Bear, and Great Slave have well-deserved reputations for lakers in the 40- to 50-pound range (or higher), realize that nobody hauls in that kind of lunker all day long. It can be hours or days between monsters when you’re trolling open water. What’s better is finding steady action with fish running 10 to 30 pounds in relatively shallow water, perhaps even with a fly rod-and that can be as good as it gets.
Besides those big-lake standards, many good outpost camps operate in north-central Canada. The best shallow-water fishing-and the best flyfishing-will be early and late in the season. One relatively new option is Cawker & Young Outfitting’s camp (888-335-3367; www.cawkeryoung.com) on Ennadai Lake in Nunavut, north of Kasba Lake (also a laker hotspot) on the Kazan River system. The area is a mix of treeline and tundra, outposts are an option, and at least some lakers stay relatively shallow all summer.