Pictured above: Scrapping the game plan on the final day led to Michael Blinkoff’s (left) personal-best pike.
Like the legendary coureurs de bois who voyaged across the uncharted Canadian wilderness 400 years before us, my father and I pushed off from the sandy beach and set out across Reilly Lake, an offshoot of vast Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Remarkably little has changed over four centuries in this remote area of Canada. Hundreds of miles of shoreline remain untouched by human activity, and the bald eagles that perch atop the tallest trees scan waters that still teem with walleye and northern pike. But, while the French fur traders in birch-bark canoes relied on paddle power and primitive navigation, our aluminum boat had a 4-stroke Yamaha and a portable Humminbird chartplotter.
At almost 2,000,000 acres, Reindeer is the ninth largest lake in North America. It straddles the border of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 550 miles due north of North Dakota, and is famous for its trophy pike fishing. Our group of 10 had been delivered by float plane to the dock at Reilly Outpost, a do-it-yourself camp run by Reindeer Lake Lodge. Reilly Lake is a 70-square-mile body of water that is fed by two major rivers and meanders through 23 miles of rock cliffs, weedy bays, and numerous islands before it meets Reindeer Lake’s Vermillion Bay.
While Reindeer Lake’s shorelines were mapped years ago, there remains much to be discovered. Other than the “X”s that marked propeller-eating boulders on a laminated map provided to us by the camp manager, what lies beneath the surface was a mystery. It was up to us to find the drop-offs, channels, reefs, and flats that would give up the lake’s walleye and pike.
Our first destination had potential obvious to any fisherman. It was a spot where the narrow Wathaman River flows west to east through a series of shallow rapids before dumping into the top of a large bay that widens as it stretches to the south. Once I had the suction-cup-mounted transducer tracking the bottom at top speed, I started the AutoChart Live feature on the chartplotter. Traveling at almost 15 miles per hour, I kept an eye on the split screen, simultaneously navigating on the chart and watching the sonar to make sure I had enough water under the boat to proceed at top speed. Meanwhile, the autocharting function began drawing contour lines along either side of the trail left behind on the GPS map. For the next 5 days, as we traveled back and forth across the lake and explored its many islands, bays, and shorelines, the solid blue map filled in with contour lines revealing details of the underwater terrain.
As we passed through a narrow stretch between two islands, I cautiously backed off the throttle a bit and noticed strong vertical lines on the sonar screen. Looking over the gunnel confirmed the presence of a cabbage weed bed, with the tips of the weeds about a foot below the surface in 8 feet of water. Tempted to stop, I instead dropped a waypoint and made a mental note to check for pike on the way back.
When we reached the mouth of the Wathaman, I nosed the boat up into the rapids and put the engine in neutral, letting the current carry us out into the bay as we dropped down walleye jigs and I watched the sonar screen. The rapid changes in depth were surprising. Instead of a simple shallow basin, we drifted across a sharp drop-off from 6 feet down to 35 feet, across a rise to a broad flat, and over another deep hole before drifting into a weedy, marsh-ringed bay.
The walleye were abundant, and every time we drifted across a school, the hits came fast. We had several double-headers of 1- to 3-pounders, although I had an obvious advantage in the stern of the boat. By keeping an eye on the screen, I could anticipate the depth changes, and by using a heavy ½-ounce jig, I could keep my presentation on the bottom where the walleye were.
With each drift, the sonar data continued to map the bottom and refine our lake chart, and I narrowed down where the walleye were concentrated. As we returned to this spot and others several times over the next few days, it became easier to pin down the walleye schools, which shifted their locations based on the time of day, or perhaps the weather. Sometimes they were concentrated in the deep 25- to 30-foot holes; other times, they moved up into shallow areas to feed. Once we found them, we could easily target those locations and similar depths in the area. On one day, it seemed every walleye in the lake had had moved onto the top of a saddle, where every drop of a jig in 6 to 8 feet of water was met with a sharp tap, often before the jig reached bottom. I was even able to switch to a fly-rod rigged with a Clouser Minnow and check “walleye on a fly” off my life list.
The walleye fishing was incredible, the fastest I’ve experienced in dozens of Canadian fly-in and drive-to fishing trips. In two hours of fishing with barbless single-hook jigs, we could catch and release several-dozen walleyes. However, the reason we’d made the 2,000-mile trip to northern Saskatchewan was to catch big pike. And, to be honest, the pike fishing wasn’t living up to our lofty expectations. For the first few days, we caught pike consistently in a wide range of sizes, including a couple of 40-inchers, but we didn’t find the trophy-size fish we were looking for. I “knew” that the key to finding big pike in late July was to target cabbage weed in deeper, cooler water, and I used the fishfinder to locate some perfect-looking weedbeds in open water, but for some reason, the big pike weren’t there.
On the second-to-last night back at the camp, while trading fish stories over bourbon and beers, it became obvious that the other two-man boats were having better luck catching big pike. Most of them were being caught on spoons chucked into shallow weedbeds and toward marshy shorelines. When Bruce and Bill, the pair of doctors in our group, described pike smashing spoons split seconds after they splashed down, I was convinced there was a pattern that couldn’t be explained by the “blind squirrel” effect.
My dad and I had been entertained by the doctors’ fish-finding strategy, which seemed to be to cast in all directions while letting the wind carry them into areas so shallow they had to lift their outboard and extricate themselves with the single paddle on board, bickering the entire time. It turned out that they discovered troves of big, hungry pike in areas where I would have expected to find only hammer-handles.
I had been overthinking it. On the last day, I ignored the fishfinder and focused on working the shoreline of a bay next to one of our best walleye-fishing spots. While I had the hot hand when it came to walleye fishing, it was now my dad’s turn to out-fish me. Standing in the bow, he worked a five-of-diamonds spoon by pitching it tight to the bank and starting an immediate, fast retrieve to keep it from snagging bottom. That afternoon, three times within a hundred-yard stretch of shoreline, the spoon was hammered just as it came through the shallows and reached the first drop-off. All three fish were over 40 inches, including a thick 44-incher that set the new personal-best mark for my dad.
I would have given anything for another day or two on Reilly, and I’m sure my dad felt the same, but our flights were booked for the inevitable return to the real world. I have some great memories from that trip, but the lesson that will stick with me is that electronics and experience can make you a better fisherman, but you also have to remember to look up from the screen sometimes and avoid locking into a game plan the fish haven’t read. It’s something I’ll put into practice any time I’m exploring a new body of water, and certainly on my next trip to Saskatchewan.
About Reindeer Lake Lodge
Established in 1956 on a private island in the middle of Reindeer Lake, Reindeer Lake Lodge is one of the oldest lodges on the lake.
Over the years, the full-service lodge has had many upgrades including new, modern cabins with hot showers and daily maid service.
For self-guided groups of up to 12 fishermen, Reilly Lake Outpost camp is located approximately 18 miles west by air from Reindeer Lake Lodge. The camp includes two 18 X 24-foot upright log cabins with kitchen/dining facilities at the front and beds at the rear. Behind the cabins are washroom facilities complete with sinks, toilets, and hot showers.
Guests can fly directly to Reindeer Lake Lodge from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to the private airstrip just behind the lodge. To reach Reilly Lake, guests fly into the main lodge and travel one hour by boat or fly direct out of La Ronge, Saskatchewan, on a floatplane.