Small classified ads have populated the back pages of Field & Stream and other outdoor magazines for decades. I used to smile at the ones for chinchilla farms or quail eggs, red-wiggler worms or low-budget, top-secret fishing lures. I used to also smile at all the little ads for Canadian out-post fishing camps. What would happen, I often wondered, if I just picked one of them from a page out of the blue and went fishing there? I liked the idea of being on my own without a full-service lodge staff, and do-it-yourself outposts are substantially less expensive. No daily schedule; fish, eat, and sleep whenever I wanted. I can cook and clean for myself, of course, and I thought I could probably find my own fish, too, even in an unfamiliar lake as long as an outfitter pointed me in the right direction.
So I started reading those little ads more seriously, trying to figure out what the best options might be. At the same time, and needing a fishing companion, I began arm-twisting Dave Hurteau, F&S deputy editor, an old friend and consummate outdoorsman with whom I already knew I could get along in some far-off wilderness. The objectives were pretty simple: Catch walleyes until we tired of them. Eat fresh fish for lunch. Sip a little Canadian whisky or beer on a cabin porch while gazing out over an isolated lake. And sleep the righteous, relaxing sleep of fishermen after a day on the water. As it turned out, we got all of that and more.
Land of a Gazillion Lakes It’s 4 a.m., and black as the ace of spades outside as I pull into Hurteau’s driveway in upstate New York to pick him up on our way to the airport, where we’ll catch a flight to Minnesota, then on to Ontario. We make it to the airport in plenty of time to check in for our 6 a.m. departure that ends up being postponed until 10 a.m. Now I’m grumpy. We are at the mercy of the airline, and doing what so many travelers seem to be doing these days–killing time. Eventually we make Minneapolis, and from there take a small plane north to International Falls on the Ontario border. We jump into a rental car and begin the three-and-a-half-hour drive up to Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and the base camp for Anderson’s Lodge, our outpost outfitter.
In researching places to go, I quickly found more outpost outfitters in Ontario than in the other provinces. Partly, I suppose, because it’s easy for clients from the midwestern U.S. to reach. Partly, too, because Ontario, and especially northwestern Ontario, has roughly five gazillion small wilderness lakes, many accessible only by floatplane. Some lakes have pike and lake trout. Others may have only pike and walleyes. A few may have smallmouths. A few others, perhaps brook trout. So a choice of outpost outfitter depends partly on what you want to catch. Most of the outfitters I researched were very explicit as to what fish were available at their camps.
I chose Anderson’s Lodge for a couple of reasons. First, when I plunked my index finger down on the page, that’s where it landed. Second, their outpost camps are on Lac Seul, a huge lake roughly 150 miles long that offers more species than outposts on smaller waters. Here, we could potentially catch walleyes, pike, smallmouths, and even muskies.
The Anderson’s staff was extremely helpful on the phone when I first called, and that sealed the deal. Our all-inclusive fly-in trip cost about $1,300 per person. Other packages for two can run up to $3,500 per person depending on what you do and how long you stay.
Long Road to Isolation
After a night in a comfortable cabin at the base lodge, we are on the lakeshore dock at 7 a.m., ready for the fly-in to our outpost. There’s a loud roar, seemingly right in the treetops. A Cessna 206 banks over the lake, lands on its floats, and taxis to the dock. I mentally run a list of my gear as the pilot helps us load up. This is obviously not a good time to forget anything
It’s a short flight to the eastern end of Lac Seul over countless bays and points. I am thinking of fish, of course, and trying to check out good-looking spots as we go. Hurteau, meanwhile, is sitting next to the pilot and grinning in total delight, this being his first trip in a small bush plane.
The Cessna banks yet again and splashes down at a dock where boats and a cluster of small buildings glow in the early-morning sun. Kevin Chartier, Anderson’s resident caretaker, helps us unload and provides a tour: two cabins for guests, a caretaker’s cabin, a fish-cleaning shack, and a utility shack where we’ll find gas for our boat. Chartier is very specific: As per most outpost camps, we do the work. He gives advice as needed.
I am impressed by two things. First, the grounds and our cabin are impeccably clean. Having been to lodges that looked like garbage dumps, I am relieved. Not because I’m a neat freak but because if an operator takes the trouble to run a clean layout, it usually means everything else will work well, too.
Second, there are solar panels on most of the roofs. It turns out the various lights are run off -solar-charged battery banks. The cabin refrigerator, stove, and freezer, mean-while, are propane powered. Happily, I won’t have to listen to a roaring diesel generator all night. After what has seemed like eons of travel, it’s time to go fishing.
Flash in the Frying Pan
Our outpost boat is a 16-foot Lund skiff with a 20-horse Mercury outboard. The live minnows we bought back at base camp are now in a bait bucket on board, along with all our tackle.
“O.K.,” I ask Chartier, “where should we try for walleyes?” He takes our lake map and marks a little X at places we should try. “First, though, fish that rocky point.” Chartier gestures toward a jumbled lakeshore ledge about a quarter of a mile distant.
The outboard is fairly new and starts on the first pull. We motor over near the point. Our medium-weight spinning outfits are rigged with 6-pound mono and 8-pound braid. Following earlier suggestions from the outfitter, we tie on 1⁄4-ounce jigheads and impale a live minnow through the skull on each. I position the boat so the light breeze will drift us across the front of the point, and we start casting toward the rocks, letting the jigs sink until they hit bottom, then retrieving in short, gentle hops.
It takes no more than a few minutes until Hurteau is into a fish. It is indeed a walleye, about 14 inches long, that is promptly whacked on the head for lunch later. It becomes apparent over the course of a couple of drifts that there’s one little sweet spot near the point that holds a school. Away from that one spot, we score nothing. After a couple of hours, we have caught and released several walleyes, keeping four–our daily limit–for a meal. Eating fresh walleye fillets is at least half the joy of catching them, and we’re hungry. So we motor back to camp.
Hurteau goes to fillet the fish, while I cut up potatoes into a very large pot for boiling–they’re easier to fry when they’re parboiled. I also have a frying pan filled with oil on the stove for the walleyes. I put a little water on my finger and flick it at the oil, which hisses and spits sharply. The oil is hot enough. The sound reminds me of a favorite quote from Thoreau: “The fat sizzles and calls for fish.” He was describing cooking brook trout in the Maine woods, but only, I think, because he never encountered walleyes.
Hurteau arrives with the fillets, which he breads, then slides into the oil. They snap and bubble and hiss and turn golden brown. A pan of fried potatoes and onions is ready, too, and we sit to eat like two greedy little kids. It has been a very long day, and I’m tired. I take a glass of Canadian whisky out on the deck, where I can sit in the shade and gaze out over the lake. I don’t have to be anywhere. There’s no telephone, no computer to pound. From behind me I hear the sharp snap of a beer-can tab, and then Hurteau joins me. Unlike me, he still has little kids at home, and I think his escape is even greater than mine.
The Muskie Moment
By virtue of our outpost-camp schedule–that is, no schedule at all–our noon break extends into midday naps. But by the middle of any afternoon, we are ready to fish again, and having beaten the walleyes into submission in the morning, it’s pike and muskie time. Even having caught many pike over many years from New England to northern Manitoba, at Lac Seul I get totally skunked. I try everything I can think of. I get a follow once in a while. But I cannot get a pike to eat.
Hurteau finally lands a pretty good northern while casting a spinnerbait off the dock. In retrospect, I see that as the ultimate insult–like the little kid catching a monster bass from the family dock at high noon. For all the miles we have put on the boat and the thousands of casts we have made, we deserve better. Must be the Lac Seul pike don’t read Field & Stream. I will hear from some other anglers that the pike bite turns on after we leave, but why it was off in the first place, I can only wonder.
Lac Seul is also known as a big muskie lake, producing numerous 50-plus–inchers every year. Broad coves strewn with stumps and weedbeds adjacent to deep-water channels are abundant here, the kind of water that just screams big fish. So we try, and try some more. Heaving and cranking giant double-bladed muskie bucktails is strenuous work, so we take turns, one casting while the other rests and runs the boat. After two afternoons of this, we haven’t raised a fish.
Finally, in the last hour of the last day, Hurteau is casting as I gently run the motor to traverse the shoreline. I hear a grunt from the bow. His rod is bent and bucking. My heart leaps. Then the line goes slack, and the rod straightens. Hurteau’s shoulders sag as I watch. My heart falls back down. “It’s gone,” he says. “I didn’t see it. Who knows?” The sun is off the water now, making the surface an inky black. And somewhere in that blackness my imagination swims unfettered by truth. With no evidence to the contrary, I believe to this day that Hurteau was briefly connected to a monster muskie, the jaws of our dreams.
Before light the next morning we are up in a frenzy of dishwashing, cleaning, and packing. Our floatplane out is due shortly after dawn, and we have to be ready. We leave a tidy camp for the next group, although we leave reluctantly. With a long drive and a succession of airline flights, our carefree outpost world is exchanged for a world of care.