Miles of walleyes and pike in Manitoba
SHINING FALLS LODGE, Man.—The big pike blasted out of the weeds and T-boned the walleye on Tobias Becker's line right next to the boat.
That will get a fisherman's attention.
For a few seconds, it looked as if Becker would land both the walleye and the pike—it's happened before—but then the toothy Esox lucius decided something wasn't right and loosened its grip, leaving the walleye only slightly worse for the wear.
The pike was still down there, though, and obviously hungry, or at least in a nasty mood, so Becker kept trying to catch it.
Owner of Shining Falls Lodge with his wife, Ellen, Becker, 33, was showing a pair of newbies the ropes on Family Lake in eastern Manitoba's Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park. Fed by the Berens and Dogskin rivers, Family Lake offers 35 miles of pike- and walleye-filled water to explore.
That can be a daunting task for first-time anglers on the lake.
"Usually, the first day in camp is more kind of, 'OK, we're trying not to get lost and we found a spot' " to fish, Becker said. "So then, you kind of start figuring out the structure and what works on the lake.
"Every week is different, and it can differ from day to day."
Walleyes tend to be deeper on warm, sunny days, for example, and shallower on overcast days, Becker says.
"If it's a cloudy, choppy kind of rainy day, you'll catch them in like 6 feet of water even this time of year" in mid-July, he said.
Coaxing the pike
Becker was fishing the edge of a mid-lake weed patch when the pike got the adrenalin flowing. It hit the walleye jig two more times but failed to connect, so Becker shifted gears and switched to a baitcast rod and tossed a white and red Len Thompson spoon into the depths.
Bam! The pike slammed the spoon, and the fun was on.
A couple of powerful runs and an adrenaline rush later, the pike was in the landing net. None too soon, either; the hook somehow had come off the split ring on the spoon.
That was a first, Becker said.
The pike measured 39½ inches, just short of the 41 inches required to qualify for Manitoba's Master Angler program, but a darn respectable fish just the same.
Becker quickly revived the pike and sent the fish on its way. The camp's policy of catch-and-release only for northern pike has helped maintain trophy fish numbers, he says.
"Nowadays, the replicas are equal or sometimes better, and they'll last longer" than traditional skin mounts, he said. "Convincing people of that is sometimes tough, but there is no longer any reason to keep that big fish."
Becker shared the story of a similar big pike encounter that had unfolded a few days earlier when lodge employee Orion Jaques landed a 41¾-inch pike in the same spot.
"The pike chased a walleye, grabbed the walleye, and let it go at the boat," Becker said. "Orion threw out a spinner but the fish wouldn't take it."
He switched back to the jig and resumed walleye fishing.
"All of a sudden, he's reeling up to check his minnow, and the pike came in like a submarine," Becker said. "Orion threw out a spoon, and as soon as the spoon hit the water the fish grabbed it."
Time on the water
Growing up on a farm near the boundary of Whiteshell Provincial Park east of Lac du Bonnet, Man., Becker says he knew little about the fly-in fishing lodge industry until he and his wife bought Shining Falls Lodge, where they now are in their fifth season.
"I had never done a fly-in personally," Becker said. "It's one of those things where I barely even knew they existed. I knew there was basically floatplane service in Lac du Bonnet growing up, but I didn't really realize the extent of the industry."
When he got a break from farm work, Becker says he did most of his fishing from a canoe or 12-foot boat with a 2.9-horse motor.
"We'd drag it up to Nopiming Provincial Park or find a creek and drag it a mile through the bush and find a place to camp for the week," Becker said. "That's how I always had done my better fishing, so to speak."
Five years as a lodge owner has given Becker the knowledge to catch fish on Family Lake in a variety of conditions, even if it sometimes means traveling to the north end of the lake several miles from the lodge.
"I usually get stuck on walleyes, and when you're catching them, you're catching them," Becker said. "And when you're not, you go, 'Let's find another spot.'"
As most walleye anglers will attest, the pursuit can be addicting. When he hooks a walleye, Becker says he'll throw a marker buoy and work the location. That's the beauty of having a wilderness lake to yourself; the marker buoys aren't boat magnets like they are on more accessible waters.
"If I catch a fish, I know there are hundreds down there if they're biting," Becker said. "You can search around the buoy until you find that spot, and if the fish are really schooling on that spot, you can zero in on where it is.
"It's the poor man's GPS instead of fancy depthfinders where you mark the waypoints," he added. "It's all part of the fun."
When the fish are really hitting, it's not uncommon for boats to land 50 to 100 walleyes a day. There's always fish biting somewhere on the lake, Becker says; the trick is knowing where.
"I don't know if we've ever had anyone actually get skunked," he said. "Usually, if I find at lunch someone didn't catch anything, I'll head out in the boat and show you a spot and park you on a spot and drop the buoy and catch a couple of fish."
Doing that also helps less experienced anglers get the "feel" for how a walleye bites when it hits a jig; bites can be subtle.
"It's part of the thrill of walleye fishing for me," Becker said. "Sometimes, they're a challenging fish."
Dr. Ben Martin was part of a six-person Nebraska crew with sons Steve, Mike and Benjamin—all physicians—who have been making the trip to Shining Falls for several years. Son-in-law Bill Benson of Norfolk, Neb., and Joseph Vampola, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also were part of the crew.
Their years of experience fishing Family Lake served them well, and the crew at times caught walleyes as fast as their jigs hit the bottom.
That's just one of the reasons they return to Shining Falls, the elder Martin said.
"I love this place," he said. "Probably 10 years ago, I had a group of guys I used to fish with. They heard about it, and they asked me to come along so I did. I really enjoyed it. I missed one or two years but I've been back ever since."
Now, the trip is a Family Lake tradition.
"You love it—how could you not come back?" said Dr. Steve Martin, a cardiologist at the Nebraska Heart Institute in Lincoln.
Besides the fishing, shore lunch cooked over an open fire at the top of Shining Falls always is a highlight, Steve Martin says.
"Part of it is the way they host," he said. "You can get all different levels of exposure to nature you want. You can have them just basically take care of you or you can rough it about as much as you want.
"I love that, the fact they have a little bit of a safety net there. They'll take care of you as much as you let them."
Family trips also offer the opportunity to brag and sling a little bull. Bill Benson said he was sure the best way to catch walleyes on Family Lake was to use 3-inch Gulp minnows, either yellow or pumpkinseed colors.
"It's the single tail action of the Gulp minnow," he said. "It makes a lot of difference."
Shining Falls, he says, is midsummer trip not to be missed.
"It's a great place to come up for family and camaraderie where you've got good fishing, good food and beautiful scenery," Benson said.
As a lodge owner, Becker says he enjoys being part of that experience.
"A lot of people find this place is a special place in their world, which is neat," he said.
If you go
• Shining Falls Lodge is located in eastern Manitoba at the northern edge of Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park.
• The lodge is about a 60-mile floatplane ride from the Bluewater Aviation floatplane base in Bissett, Man. The gold mining town is about 3 hours northeast of Winnipeg and about 295 miles from Grand Forks. The last 25-or-so miles are gravel.
• Because of Bissett's remote location, visitors to Shining Falls Lodge generally arrive the previous evening. Northern Wings Bed and Breakfast—(204) 277-5215—is a popular option.
• Shining Falls Lodge offers both American Plan (all meals included) and Housekeeping packages for anglers who want to do their own cooking. All packages include coffee delivered to the cabin every morning and free wi-fi and satellite phone.
• The lodge has four cabins that sleep four to eight people, and the camp can accommodate up to 24 guests.
• Fishing generally is unguided although guide service is available upon request at an additional charge. The camp offers 14- and 16-foot boats with 20-horse Yamaha four-stroke outboards.