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By Joel Shangle for Mercury Marine
SOUTHEND, Saskatchewan, Canada – It is, as the literature reads, “15 miles north of the end of the road.”
Considering that “the end of the road”– the settlement of Southend, Saskatchewan, Canada (population 35) – is already 150 miles north of the nearest stoplight, 15 miles beyond that might sound more like the end of the Earth.
But as you push off the dock of Reindeer Lake Trout Camp and a third-generation Cree Nation guide points the 18-foot skiff south onto the sprawling, pike- and Mackinaw-rich waters of Reindeer Lake, this particular spot quickly seems like exactly the right place to be if you’ve arrived here with a fishing rod in your hand.
“Most people who come here will catch the largest freshwater fish they’ll catch in their entire life,” says Andy Millward, the general manager of Trout Camp. “There are just very few places in the world like it. It’s almost impossible to understand how good it is until you see it for yourself.”
Millward and the Trout Camp crew have the experiences (and photographic proof) to back that up.
The lodge’s biggest pike of the 2017 season stretched the tape measure to 51 inches, and Trout Camp guests routinely hook and release “silly numbers” of pike over 40 inches, according to Matt Matkin, the lodge’s director of fishing operations.
“A 40-inch pike is the Holy Grail for pike fishermen, especially on a fly,” Matkin says. “We’ve had groups land as many as 50 40-inchers in a week. We had one guest catch six 40-inchers. Six! You can catch pike and lake trout in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado, but there’s really nowhere in the Lower 48 where you can experience anything like this.”
“Fishing is livelihood here”
Encompassing a drainage of more than 23,000 square miles in the boreal forest of north-central Canada, the waters of Reindeer Lake and the Reindeer River came to the attention of the outside world at the turn of the 19th century when they became links in the fur-trade routes between Hudson Bay and the Rocky Mountains.
Nearly 225 years later, the lake’s natural resources are still the lifeblood of the region; but instead of beaver pelts, the most precious commodities now are the green-mottled backs and sharp canines of the lake’s trophy-class pike that are caught in abundance in the summer, and the burnished-yellow/orange flanks of spawning lake trout that show themselves in the fishery in the fall.
“Fishing is livelihood here,” Millward says. “It breathes life into the entire community. You hunt and trap in the winter, and you fish the rest of the year to support your family. We’re just part of that culture.”
Trout Camp’s guides are all local Cree, some of whom have guided the lake for 45 years, and many of whom have either picked up or passed along their fishing knowledge among brothers, uncles, sons and grandparents since the lodge was opened in the 1970s.
Millward’s family has owned and operated the lodge since 2012: Andy’s older brother Robert purchased Trout Camp from the original owners after fishing here for several years, and Andy’s nephew Tyler Praska is the chef and marketing manager. Matkin is a childhood friend of Praska’s who fished here one summer and hasn’t left since.
“This place is just super cool, man, it’s hard to imagine ever NOT fishing here,” Matkin jokes. “There’s such an abundance of fish, and most of them have never seen a fly or lure in their lives. They’re so super aggressive, it’s crazy.”
From ice-out to false spawn
Reindeer Lake stretches more than 140 miles from north to south and 37 miles east to west, with an almost-endless proliferation of islands, channels and bays for the lodge’s guests to explore. Beginning June 1 with “ice out” and continuing straight through to the end of the lodge’s season in October, Trout Camp’s skiffs and 40-horse Mercury FourStroke outboards roll through a fishing schedule that covers a multitude of techniques and satisfies both fly and conventional angling tastes.
The early-June ice-out is dominated by a mid-water pike bite on the deeper, rocky shoals along the lake’s shorelines and islands. By the third week in June, the pike population begins to transition into the lake’s shallow bays as water temperatures creep into the mid- to upper 50s. By the end of June and into August, the top-water bite comes alive, and pike attack everything from walk-the-dog-style hard baits to mouse- and frog-imitating surface flies.
“The best thing I can relate the top-water fishery to is flats fishing,” Matkins says. “It’s all ‘spot-and-stalk’ fishing where you’re standing on the front deck looking out into the grass for signs of life to cast to. You can throw a mouse or basically any top-water pattern some days in August and catch fish all day long.”
The Mackinaw fishery heats up in late August as the water cools down, a change that alerts fish that it’s time to try to spawn. By the middle of September, lakers sporting spawning colors can be caught by the dozen in 5 to 17 feet of water.
“During the September lake-trout spawn, your guide will look at you and say, ‘We’re going to catch 100 fish before lunch,’ ” said Robert Millward. “Those days are the greatest family experiences, where you’ll see photo after photo of kids with these massive fish. It’s a pretty memorable time.”
REINDEER LODGE TROUT CAMP AT A GLANCE
Facilities/lodging: Main lodge with dining room, lounge, laundry; 12 guest cabins with full amenities (each accommodates four to 10 guests); fish and game-processing facilities
Location: Reindeer Lake in north-central Saskatchewan, Canada
Fishing: Primarily northern pike, Mackinaw (lake trout); walleye and grayling are available in outlying fisheries
Hunting: Guided black bear hunts in the spring; moose in the fall
Dining: Trout Camp serves full breakfast and dinner at the lodge; shore lunches are prepared daily by the guides
Boats: 18-foot aluminum skiffs powered by 40-horse Mercury FourStroke outboards
Season: June 1 to Oct. 1
To learn more, find pricing information or to reserve your visit go to http://www.troutcamp.com/.