MAKOOP LAKE, Ontario — I was indeed tired. And that was the hope — to catch fish after fish after fish, to the point of exhaustion.
And I did catch a lot of fish on my first-ever fly-in trip to Canada. But I had decided to go the non-guided route this first go-around. And while it was still the adventure of a lifetime, less adventure and more of a concentration on catching fish might be the way to go in the future.
Years ago, I did my first trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. I’m hoping to do another trip there, maybe as soon as next summer. I learned a lot from that experience, so the second time will be different, from what I pack to the type of experience I pursue.
Same thing if I do another fly-in fishing trip.
There are a number of fly-in fishing “outfitters” to choose from. There are similarities with most; some differences, too. Cost is among the primary differences, along with the type of trip — guided, non-guided … And, of course, if it’s a guided trip, it’s going to cost more. Often a lot more.
Cost, though, wasn’t the only reason I went with the non-guided trip to Makoop Lake Lodge in far northwestern Ontario the second week of August. Although in existence for less than a decade, the fishing camp already has built a reputation as an exceptional value. And it’s all-inclusive — minus, of course, a guide, as well as the hotel in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, our fly-out point the night before that morning float-plane ride to Makoop, some 300 miles to the north.
The week-long trip included accommodations in comfortable cabins, three hearty meals a day by a top-notch chef (including shore lunches) and unlimited use of the lodge’s fishing boats (with gas) for about the same price as the three-day, all-inclusive guided trip I was originally leaning toward.
But most important to me was the fishery: Only a few dozen anglers have fished this 28,000-acre pike and walleye haven each year for the last several years.
The big draw is the pike. With an endless food supply of whitefish (and the occasional walleye, and even smaller pike), these “water wolves” get big — fish 40 inches or longer are a real possibility, with many 38s and 39s. And, with all that food, the pike here are bulkier than at any place I’ve fished. The fight is unforgettable. And while trophy-sized walleyes are rare at Makoop, the lake is brimming with the fish, including a good number between 18 and 22 inches.
Yes, it was an amazing experience. But I’m wondering if my first fly-in fishing trip wouldn’t have been even more memorable with a guide. (Makoop offers some guiding, but for the most part, it’s a non-guided experience.)
First, when you’re fishing in a boat of two anglers, which was the setup at Makoop, someone’s got to run the boat. That’s not usually a huge deal. But combine the fact that it was our first time on Makoop, that it’s a big, mostly-uncharted, wilderness lake with plenty of obstacles (lots of rocks and shallow areas), and that windy, rainy weather can be the norm in northwestern Ontario in early August, and it can make navigation — and, in turn, fishing — a challenge. And, as is often the case with rocks, they seem to draw boat motor props like magnets. As the week went on, keeping some of these boats/motors running became more and more challenging.
So, overall, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to keep the boat going and in position to catch fish. Back-trolling for walleyes wasn’t a major issue, but casting for pike could be difficult. There were times I just couldn’t do it.
But while this trip includes gourmet meals and comfortable cabins with electricity, running water and showers, and limited Wifi was available in the lodge, this is a wilderness adventure, too. And, in that regard, it didn’t disappoint, either. The overall experience was something I’ll never forgot. Exhausted each night, I slept well after dinners that included bacon-wrapped filet mignon and stuffed pork chops and, of course, eight to 10 hours on the lake each day.
I only wish it was fishing — catching fish — alone that had tired me out. But when you hear stories of near-virgin fisheries teeming with walleyes and big pike, you don’t always think about things like the boat and navigating the lake and what’s ultimately needed to get to and land these fish.
And that includes tackle and gear, too. Like that Boundary Waters trip, I packed for about every possible scenario. I managed to keep under the 70-pound limit, but that’s still too much stuff for a fly-in-fishing trip, even if it was for a week.
In the end, there proved to be just a handful of must-bring items:
- A rain suit, which doubles as an outer layer for colder temps.
- A passport and cash. Tipping staffers is the norm at these camps, and it doesn’t hurt to have some Canadian currency, either — some places along the way don’t note the exchange rate.
- About half the amount of clothing you might think, maybe less.
- A solid pair of waterproof hiking boots or shoes.
- A smaller-than-you-might-think tackle box.
And, if I do another fly-in trip for pike and walleye, here’s all the fishing tackle/gear I would bring:
- Two fishing rods, one a firm 7-footer, the other a medium 6-footer. “Collapsible” rods can be convenient for fly-in trips, but one-piece rods up to at least 7 feet fit just fine in these float planes.
- Three reels, all spooled with 20-pound XT line (a must for pike, but also good for walleye, especially the strong fish we encountered at Makoop).
- About a dozen 20- to 30-pound 12-inch steel leaders (even with the strong leaders and line, snapped lines weren’t unusual, what with the aggressive pike, heavy weeds and rocky terrain).
- Several pair of long needle-nose pliers (we dumped two pair in the water trying to release these feisty, toothy fish). Fold-up, multi-purpose tools that include pliers, knife, etc., are a good fit here.
- A pair of fishing gloves (again, big, feisty, toothy fish).
- A variety of jigs and Mister Twisters for walleye (many of these camps don’t allow live bait, including Makoop). With whitefish the main food source for Makoop’s walleye, white Mister Twisters with an orange or gold jig proved popular in our boat. Many in the group that week also landed a number of pike while jigging for walleye, including several 38- and 39-inchers. Quite the feats.
- Pike lures. Some brought piles of bucktails and the like for pike, me included. But if I were to do it again, I’d bring mostly Mann’s 1-Minus bass crankbaits and Five of Diamonds daredevils with ruby-red eyes. The 1-minus is nice because it only cranks to a maximum of a foot below the water surface, which is good for the weedy areas you find pike. It was the pike lure of choice for most all of the anglers at Makoop that week. But our boat had the most success with the yellow Five of Diamonds. The Makoop pike couldn’t get enough of it, and we even caught some nice walleyes on the lure (on the 1-Minus, too). We only had two Five of Diamonds in our boat, and both were gone by mid-week, so I would definitely bring at least a handful the next time.
And, next time, I’ll strongly consider a guided trip, too. But Makoop will still be in the mix. With a year under my belt, I would know more of what to expect. And the water wolves of Makoop will still be there, in force, waiting to jump on pretty much anything that moves.
No, you don’t need a guide to find these fish. Nor to remind you that this is, really, what it’s all about.