If you’re an avid angler, you can’t help but dream of some day heading to one of those exotic fly-in destinations we see so much of on television or read about in magazines. Fly-fishing for bonefish on the salt flats of Belize, tackling huge blue or black marlin off Cabo San Lucas or just braving the icy waters of the NWT’s Tree River in pursuit of Arctic char. But fishing dreams are just that for many of us - wallet-straining aspirations we hold out in front of ourselves like so many piscatorial carrots. They help keep our spirits up as we suffer the maddening crowds at our favourite local fishing holes, perseverance alone often largely responsible for the good days we enjoy on the water. But there is an alternative, and an economical one at that.
Western Canada’s best-kept fishing secrets are the many fly-in lodges we have that offer tremendous angling opportunities at surprisingly affordable rates. A friend and I recently returned from one of these lakes where we enjoyed four days of world-class lake trout action. This, like many of the West’s lodges, offered the perfect blend of services. They fly you in, provide a dependable boat and motor for every two anglers, and bunk you in warm, comfortable cabins. Your accommodation comes equipped with a stove and refrigerator and guests are responsible for providing their own food and bedding. Many offer hot showers as well. Once you settle in they turn you loose on a gorgeous lake teeming with fish.
I much prefer this range of amenities rather than the full-service provided on what is sometimes known as the American Plan that was so popular fifteen and twenty years ago. Generally speaking, at full service lodges you must eat your served meals according to the lodge’s schedule; miss the 6:00 p.m. dinner bell and you may find yourself eating leftovers, or perhaps being relegated to scrounging up a sandwich or some other similar pedestrian fare. I’ve come to believe that when I’m on vacation, especially a fishing vacation, I don’t want to have to be on anybody’s schedule but my own. The beauty of the lodges that allow you to bring and cook your own food is that they allow for complete flexibility. You fish when you want to fish, eat when you are hungry, and sleep when you are tired. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what a fishing vacation should be all about. The cost saving is simply a bonus.
What is the fishing like at these lakes? In a word, spectacular. As a rule, that is. No different than fishing anywhere else, you are subject to some degree to the whims of Mother Nature; there is just no predicting what weather you might be confronted with, nor is there any iron-clad guarantee that the fish will be starving for your attention. Let’s just say that I’ve never come back from one of these fly-in trips without a handful of terrific fish stories and a trunkful of great memories. On our recent lake trout adventure, we caught fish by the boatloads, including a 25-pounder, many in the 12-20 pound class, and a good number that came to a cast fly when we decided to switch over from spinning tackle. We also spent a wonderful afternoon casting spinners and small flies to eager Arctic grayling at the mouth of a tributary river that empties into the lake. This was pretty darn good fishing by any standards, and based upon the photos we saw in camp, there is no shortage of bigger, much bigger, lakers cruising the depths of that lake. It’s also worth mentioning that we had the entire lake to ourselves each day and didn’t manage to cover a fifth of it.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to fish several of the west’s do-it-yourself fly-in lakes. I’ve not visited a single one that I wouldn’t return to given the opportunity. Look to the internet, advertisements in outdoors magazines, and provincial tourism departments for a full list of opportunities. Each of these lodges offer something a little different, so you’ll want to collect information on several before making your decision. The first order of business will be deciding what species of fish you would like to target. Lake trout, northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass and Arctic grayling are the common choices to be found at fly-in lodges across the West. Some lakes feature three or four of these fish, others only two, but each lake has its specialty fish for which it has earned its reputation. You also need to decide early in the process whether your goal is simply to catch lots of fish or if you’re looking for big fish of a specific species. Your time restrictions can also be a major factor in your decision on where to fish. Most of these lodges have a season that runs from late May to early September, but it should be noted that the further north you go, the shorter the available angling season. Ice-out in the extreme north may not occur until mid-late June in some years and freeze again by mid September.
Prices vary from lodge to lodge, but you should expect to pay from $200 per day and up, depending largely upon the length of your stay and the distance you have to fly. This price typically includes your flight in, your boat and your lodgings. You are responsible for bringing in your own food, beverages, fishing tackle, sleeping bag and personal items.
Fantastic, affordable fly-in fishing is not restricted to the northern lodges. A few years back a friend and I flew in by helicopter to a remote cutthroat trout fishery along the Eastern Slopes of Alberta. The two of us enjoyed two days of wilderness, camping and angling. We brought in our own tent and food, and the $500 cost of the helicopter was a fixed rate; we could have stayed an hour or a month for the same price. The wilderness fishing was everything you’d expect and more.
A word of caution before putting your hard-earned dollars on the table is to check references. Advertisements can be misleading, and it pays to speak directly with fellow anglers who’ve been to that lake recently. Beyond the insights they can offer about the fishing, boats, and accommodations, they can provide a wealth of information about things that the camp operator might simply forget to mention that will help facilitate a truly positive experience.
Trips where you tire from reeling in fish after fish do not have to be relegated to dreams only. There are quality, trophy-class fisheries available right out our back door here in Western Canada. Consider one of these excursions for your family or friends for next season; trust me, you won’t regret it.