Delighting in a northern Manitoba bounty

Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com Fishing editor Ken Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2; look for his "Reel Speak" segment.

EGENOLF LAKE, Manitoba — There is a particular glory hole in the back end of a clear-water bay on Lake Atimkameskak that has produced scores of big-fish stories. But for the first 90 minutes on the day I visited, it had produced nothing but exasperation.

When guide Marvin Cook and I arrived there at midday, after being dropped off by floatplane for the afternoon, we'd headed right to the glory hole. And there were about a dozen large pike in the back, lying like logs on the sand in 3 to 5 feet of water.

I had cast a potpourri of spoons, spinnerbaits, plugs, jigs and soft jerkbaits at these fish, even, as with the latter two, dangling them in front of the fish's noses almost directly beneath the bow of the boat.

They either ignored my offerings completely, or swam slowly away, not alarmed either by my casting, the presence of the lures, or the sound of the outboard motor, which Cook kept running as the wind drifted us throughout the bay.

Then an accidental discovery turned the tide.

I'd put a large floating red plastic worm on a blue jig head and made a few casts to no avail, when I had a minor backlash in my baitcasting reel. I fixed the snarl and reeled up my line to find a tug at the other end, which turned out to be a 38-inch-long Northern pike.

The fish had picked the lure up while it lay on the bottom completely motionless, and after Cook had posed with the hefty pike for a photo, then released it, I realized there was a message in this: fish really slow and offer something different and unobtrusive.

After 15 minutes — during which time the jig failed to produce another fish — I took out a fly rod, strung up the line, and tied on a large red-and-white beadhead streamer. This took a good five minutes, during which we drifted over several nice fish, Cook scouring the water and saying again and again, "There's one … nice one."

When I finally was ready, he motored away from shore to the middle of the bay and I lobbed a cast out a short distance and quick-stripped in the streamer.

Then I cast again, this time a bit further, letting the fly sink to the bottom before retrieving. When the fly was about 20 feet away, I saw a long shadowy figure cruising in behind it. So I stopped the fly, then twitched it and watched a cavernous mouth open up and inhale. I set the hook; the pike swirled and streamed off like a torpedo.

"Geez, Marvin, I can't believe it."

"Maybe now we've got what they want," Cook responded. "Now we're cookin'."

After an excellent battle, the pike came into the landing cradle and Cook unhooked the fish and measured it at 39 inches. Another well-fed specimen, it likely weighed about 17 pounds. After a few photos we revived and released the fish.

We continued sightfishing and teased up two more similar-size fish before scaring off all of the pike that had been in the little bay.

We tooled to several other bays, catching a bunch of smaller fish and, just 15 minutes before the float plane returned, a 43-inch beauty. None of the other pike was caught by sightcasting, as the water elsewhere in the lake was dark and that, combined with wind, made it too hard to see into the water in those bays.

Loads of walleyes, too

Atimkameskak is one of a slew of lakes that are exclusively fished by guests of Gangler's North Seal River Lodge, which is located on Egenolf Lake in far-northern Manitoba.

A few have outpost camps, which include comfortable cabins for a small group. Supplies are furnished and you are self-guided, but most are accessed via daily fly-outs or portages. A few of the latter require short overland hikes, while several feature a journey via super-all-terrain vehicle, which in itself is an experience.

One of the places accessed by vehicle is Minahuk Lake, which flows into the North Seal River just above its entry in the northwestern corner of Egenolf.

One day Cook and I took a boat from the lodge at Egenolf to the shore where a vehicle was stored in a sapling stick shed closed with barbed wire. This precaution helps keep black bears — abundant in this area — from chewing on vehicle parts, as remarkable as that seems.

We loaded gear into the back of the rig and drove for 15 minutes, up and down esker fingers, over saplings and through a bog. Bumpy but stable, the ride was great fun, and repeated at the end of the day on the return trip.

At Minahuk Lake, we pushed a boat through shallow grass into a bay, and were starting to motor away when Cook remembered that we'd left our cooking pans back on shore. He suggested that I drop him off at a spot where he'd walk 100 yards to the put-in site, while I readied my tackle and escaped mosquitoes and black flies out in the bay.

While I was preoccupied, Cook walked through the bush and startled a cow moose, getting within 20 feet of the surprised animal.

On the water we went to an inlet stream and found a prodigious number of 20- to 25-inch walleye in shallow water, as well as loads of Northern pike in various bays.

At one point I was catching walleyes at the inlet when my curlytail jig was cut off by an attacking pike. I replaced that with a larger shad-tailed jig and continued fishing, only to have that cut off by another pike.

Cook suggested that I cast a spinner out on another rod, which had a titanium leader, to clear out the pike and return to walleye fishing. So I did, and caught three pike in rapid succession. The last of these, a fish of about 7 pounds, had my shad-tailed jig in its mouth, which we retrieved. I tied it back on my spinning rod and resumed catching walleyes. Where else can you do something as improbable as this?

Not only was Minahuk a great place to visit via vehicle and to fish, but we had the good-size lake completely to ourselves. During lunch ashore, we feasted on walleyes.

And on the way home, after returning the vehicle to its bear-proof cage, we passed a rock outcrop where a timber wolf was sitting. It loped away when we stopped the boat to try to get a photograph, but that's the first live timber wolf I've seen in this country.

The Manitoba slam

Minahuk Lake is an example of the great diversity that exists in the North Seal River region, on top of the quantity and quality of fishing.

The Gangler family has roughly a 7,200-square mile region that they cover, and that encompasses scores of lakes of all sizes, some noted for big pike, some noted for large average-size walleye, some noted for lake trout, and some noted for all of these species, as well as Arctic grayling.

It is possible to catch all four of these premier species — the Manitoba slam — while vacationing here, and sometimes in a single day at one lake (including Egenolf Lake, where the lodge is located).

I caught all four over the week, in fact, and also caught a 4-pound whitefish (accidently, as I was flyfishing for grayling at the time) on my last afternoon to make a super slam.

That whitefish, plus one of my grayling and one of my pike, were large enough to qualify for the Manitoba Master Angler awards program, which provides a certificate and patch to those who catch "trophy" fish exceeding a certain minimum weight.

Gangler's waters are heavily represented each year in the final awards listings, and a majority of the people fishing with them catch at least one trophy Northern pike. Some catch many, especially if they hit it right at a particular lake when the fish are very active. When that happens, you can't believe how fast the action can be for all sizes of fish.

All fishing is catch-and-release (other than a fish for shore lunch), and with only barbless hooks, which is a requirement throughout Manitoba.

Pike are the main draw and monsters are landed every year here. Trout are abundant and some fish up to 40 pounds get taken, although the majority are small. The most consistent fishing occurs when they are stacked in deep holes in these lakes and when they are slow-trolled with weights trailing spoons and plugs.

This region is the northernmost range in Manitoba for walleyes (they do range further north in the Northwest Territories), and although you'd think that the fish would all be small, this is not so.

Some lakes produce a lot of 24- to 25-inchers, and guests have caught a few in the 29- and 30-inch class, which is topping 10 pounds. One day I caught a walleye that was 24½ inches long, yet easily weighed 6 pounds thanks to a terrific girth. That fish is destined to be a giant.

Grayling are fairly good size, too. Dan Armitage and I fished exclusively for grayling one morning, catching them on both fly gear and light spinning tackle; the average size was 16 inches. These are mainly caught in flowing water here, and we'd have caught more had it not been early in the season with the water still running cold and high.

It was, at times, possible not only to spot and sightfish to pike, but also to spot and sightfish for walleye in shallow water (really incredible), as well as for grayling. Such a possibility would be extraordinary and hard to believe in most places, but not in this northern Manitoba wonderland.

Game-fish profile

Species: Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

Other names: American grayling, Arctic trout, Back's grayling, bluefish, grayling, sailfin Arctic grayling.

In general: Grayling belong to the Salmonidae family and are related to trout and whitefish. They are distinctive-looking fish with a sail-like dorsal fin, and a superb sport fish. Their firm, white flesh is good eating, though not on a par with the wild trout and char that inhabit similar ranges, although they are excellent when smoked.

Identification: With their graceful lines, large fin, and dramatic coloration, grayling are striking fish. Most striking is their large, purple to black dorsal fin which extends backward and fans out into a trailing lobe, speckled with rows of spots, which may look bluish while the fish is in the water. Generally grayish-silver overall, grayling usually have shades or highlights of gold and/or lavender, as well as many dark spots which may be shaped like Xs or Vs on some fish. It has a small, narrow mouth with numerous small teeth in both jaws. The Arctic grayling also has a forked caudal fin and relatively large, stiff scales.

Size: A small fish, with maximum lengths to 30 inches, grayling can reach a maximum weight of about 6 pounds. The all-tackle world record for Arctic grayling is a 5-pound 15-ounce fish from the Northwest Territories in Canada, but any Arctic grayling over 3 pounds is considered large, and a 4-pounder is a trophy.

Distribution: Arctic grayling are widespread in Arctic drainages from Hudson Bay to Alaska and through central Alberta and British Colombia, as well as in the upper Missouri River drainage in Montana. Once found in some of the rivers feeding Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior in northern Michigan, Arctic grayling have been considered extinct there since 1936. They have been widely introduced elsewhere, especially in the western U.S.

Habitat: Grayling prefer the clear, cold, well-oxygenated waters of medium to large rivers and lakes. They are most commonly found in rivers, especially in eddies, and the head of runs and pools; in lakes they are found at river mouths and along rocky shorelines. They commonly seek refuge among small rocks on the streambed or lake bottom.

Life history and behavior: Adult grayling spawn from April to June in rocky creeks; fish from lakes enter tributaries to spawn. Instead of making nests, they scatter their eggs over gravel and rely on the action of water to cover the eggs with a protective coating. The eggs hatch in 13 to 18 days. Grayling are gregarious and flourish in schools of moderate numbers of their own kind. Arctic grayling of northern Canada may be especially abundant in selected areas of rivers.

Food and feeding habits: Young grayling feed on zooplankton initially and become mainly insectivorous as an adult, though they will also eat small fishes, fish eggs, and, less often, lemmings and planktonic crustaceans.

For more fish species information, see "Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia," available through www.kenschultz.com.