NEAR THE PAS, Man. — The lake trout came charging from the depths, its ascent clearly visible several feet down as it raced toward the lure that now was almost to the surface of the gin-clear water.
Far from a monster — especially by northern Manitoba standards — the laker hit the lure just inches from the surface.
In the way lake trout always do, the fish twisted and turned and thrashed at boatside, giving a boost to the adrenaline rush that always results from the sight of a fish smashing a lure.
Then — just like that — the encounter was over. The lake trout shook the barbless hook, disappearing as fast as it had appeared as it raced back to the bottom of the lake some 50 feet below.
It was the first day of a four-day northern Manitoba fishing adventure headquartered at Clearwater Lake near The Pas, a northern Manitoba community of some 5,500 people about 400 miles northwest of Winnipeg.
Known for its big lake trout, Clearwater Lake is nearly circular and measures about 15 miles in diameter with an average depth of 43 feet and a maximum depth of 127 feet.
As its name suggests, the lake is extremely clear; to say the visibility is 20 feet or more wouldn’t be a stretch.
In what has become an early June tradition, about 90 men — past and present Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and other law enforcement personnel, along with invited friends and family — had gathered at Camp Atikameg, a Boy Scout camp on Clearwater Lake’s eastern shore, for the 34th annual The Pas Peace Officers Fish Derby.
Atikameg is Cree for “small whitefish.”
Ron Nies of Minneapolis and I were here at the invitation of Jim Stinson of Lockport, Man., who spent 30 years working as an RCMP officer before retiring in 1998. I met Stinson in 2003 while covering a fishing event on the Red River in Winnipeg, and we’ve had numerous adventures — and a few misadventures — in the years since then.
This year’s derby was June 6-9, wrapping up with a morning meal, awards ceremony and prize drawing Monday, June 10. Anglers could fish Clearwater Lake for lake trout and pike and five nearby lakes and the Saskatchewan River for walleyes, pike and smallmouth bass.
The derby isn’t so much a competition as an excuse to get together to wet a few lines, swap some stories and sling a few barbs.
“The guys have a good time — they look forward to it,” said Dave Mancini, a retired RCMP officer from The Pas and the event’s chief organizer. “Some of the guys would just as soon sit around and (visit) because they live in the North, and they fish all the time.”
Quite a production
Originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Mancini got his start in the RCMP serving with Stinson in Flin Flon, Man., in the mid-’70s. The derby has grown since its early days, Mancini says, from an event that offered a “40-ouncer” of Crown Royal for the biggest fish to the present-day version that includes a silent auction and raffle drawings, a Thursday night “meet and greet” — this year’s menu featured barbecued pork, meatballs, perogies and corn on the cob — and a “wind-up” breakfast June 10 at The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 19 in The Pas before everyone headed their separate ways.
Trophies were awarded for the largest lake trout, northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass, “other” species and combined overall length of fish caught, and all of the 90 people who attended took home derby swag and at least one prize, most of them donated by area businesses.
From Winnipeg Jets tickets to pressure washers and lawn furniture, thousands of dollars worth of prizes were awarded during this year’s derby.
“That’s the way we’ve worked it the last several years, and guys seem to like it,” Mancini said.
“We never used to have this — guys would just come fishing. We never had a ‘meet and greet.’ We did a fish fry, and then it sort of went from there, and now we have this event, and then we fish, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and wind up on Monday.”
Organizing the event is quite a production. The derby’s executive committee has a “cheat sheet” with a timeline of what needs to be done in the months and weeks leading up to the event, Mancini says.
In addition to the entry fee of $150 Canadian (about $112.50 U.S. funds), which includes lodging and two meals, proceeds from a silent auction and various raffles keep the derby on sound financial footing, Mancini says.
“We go for donations, but when we’re getting prizes, we’ll buy just as much as they’re donating so it works out well,” he said. “They’re giving something, but we’re not just taking and not giving anything back.”
The Boy Scout camp is just one of the beneficiaries.
“We spent $2,500 and bought all new mattresses for the bunks,” Mancini said. “We bought deep freezes, fridges and stoves over and above what we paid for the facilities. We keep enough seed money to get us going for next year; the rest goes into community projects.”
For Stinson, the annual Peace Officers Derby has become a highlight. He helped organize the early excursions back in the day.
It started when some peace officers who were fishing buddies made annual trips to the Warpath River on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, Stinson recalls.
“When we first went up there, two of the guys were Americans” from what now is U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Stinson said. “And at that time, it really was not a derby — just a bunch of fellow law enforcement guys going fishing.”
Eventually, they moved north to The Pas, and the crew got larger as other officers heard about the trip; within a few years, as many as 125 people were attending.
Stinson took several years off but started attending derbies again in 2017. After experiencing the event firsthand, it’s easy to see why.
Maybe next time
Fishing in Stinson’s boat, the three of us spent the first two days on Clearwater Lake before shifting gears to walleyes and smallmouth bass. And while there were no big lake trout for us, several anglers attending this year’s derby landed lakers big enough to meet the 35-inch species minimum required to qualify for Travel Manitoba’s popular Master Angler program.
Greg Shaw, a recently retired natural resources officer from Neepawa, Man., who says he caught the lake trout bug while stationed 2 hours north of The Pas in Snow Lake, Man., landed big lake trout honors with a 42½-inch behemoth from Clearwater Lake. Glenn Stuckless of Thompson, Man., took home the big pike trophy with a 44-inch northern pike, also from Clearwater.
“There were lots of big lake trout — I would bet there were probably 15 or so entries, and I can guarantee there were at least that many people that didn’t enter — 35-, 36-, 37-inch lake trout — because they knew there were bigger ones caught,” Mancini said.
As good trips always do, the days passed much too quickly, but the lure of the North hopefully will lead us back to The Pas and the surrounding area someday soon.
There’s a big lake trout up there with my name on it. Somewhere in the depths of Clearwater Lake.