Published September 06, 2011, 10:27 AM

Lure of the lodge: Winnipeg River gets into the blood when you grow up there -- just ask Jessica Pedruchny

The goal for this morning on the Winnipeg River is to catch enough walleyes for shore lunch. We’ll spend the afternoon casting bays for pike or smallmouth bass and soaking in the hot, Manitoba sun and some of the most rugged wilderness scenery the province has to offer within easy driving distance.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

NEAR POINTE DU BOIS, Man. — Eric Busch might have been the guide on this August morning that showed all the signs of being a scorcher, but he didn’t think twice about asking his fishing partner for advice on picking a walleye hotspot.

Jessica Pedruchny grew up on this remote stretch of the Winnipeg River, and she knows it well.

“So, where are we going to fish this morning, Jess?” Busch, 30, asked as he steered the boat from the dock at Eagle Nest Lodge for another day on the river.

The goal is to catch enough walleyes for shore lunch. We’ll spend the afternoon casting bays for pike or smallmouth bass and soaking in the hot, Manitoba sun and some of the most rugged wilderness scenery the province has to offer within easy driving distance.

Pedruchny, 26, doesn’t have to think long before she points toward a series of distant rocks that jut from the river. To say it’s dry in southeastern Manitoba this summer would be an understatement, and the rocks stick far out of the water.

There’s enough deeper water close by, though, to make the spot attractive to walleyes.

Busch likes trolling crankbaits this time of year, and he slowly steers the boat into the current as we bounce Shad Raps and Reef Runners off the rocky bottom in 12 to 15 feet of water.

We haven’t gone far when Pedruchny reels in a 16½-inch walleye. She follows up with a similar-sized fish a short time later.

No wonder she likes this spot. So much for Busch’s disclaimer the walleyes might be reluctant to hit crankbaits because of the late-August heat wave.

“I still get excited when I catch fish,” Pedruchny admits. “It doesn’t matter what kind it is or what size it is.”

Way of life

The Winnipeg River has flowed through the soul of the Pedruchny family for half a century. Jessica’s grandparents, Metro and Ruth Pedruchny, purchased Eagle Nest Lodge in 1965, and her grandfather began running a trap line on the river in the 1930s.

Located in one of the most remote parts of 1,053-square-mile Whiteshell Provincial Park, Eagle Nest Lodge was built in 1950 on a five-acre site that once was home to a North West Company fur-trading post.

Jessica’s parents, Fred and Jo-Anne, bought the lodge in 1975. They still own the lodge, which only is accessible by boat or floatplane, and Eagle Nest Landing, a drive-to resort 27 miles downstream.

These days, Jessica does most of the marketing.

“It really is a family sort of business,” she says.

Besides knowing her way around a fishing rod — she has an arsenal of lures that would be the envy of any hard-core pike or muskie fisherman — Jessica has a floatplane license, hunts big game and even fills in as a fishing guide.

Those kinds of skills go with the territory when you grow up at a fishing lodge.

“I was always a real curious kid,” she said. “I always wanted to try. I always wanted to hang out with the boys.”

Jessica has an older sister, Lindsay, and a younger brother, James, and says they never were bored as kids.

“We grew up in lifejackets,” she said. “That was part of what we wore every day. We did a lot of fishing and frog catching and turtle catching. I loved it, though, as a kid. There was always something to do.”

Call of the wild

Little wonder, then, that Jessica returned to life on the river. After graduating from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, she spent a year and a half working as a marketing and development specialist for Great-West Life Assurance Co., which is headquartered in downtown Winnipeg.

“I had a good job, but my heart just wasn’t in insurance,” Jessica said. “I’d come back to the lodge every weekend.”

Usually, she’d stay until early Monday morning, making the trek by boat or floatplane to the landing in Pointe du Bois and the two-hour drive into rush hour traffic so she could be in the office by 8 a.m.

“It was important to try something different, and I did,” she said. “I did enjoy the job, but I really did miss the lifestyle. It was the summers that killed me — coming up here and seeing the guests.”

And so she approached her parents about returning to the family business.

“We didn’t twist her arm,” Jo-Anne Pedruchny said. “She came back more than willingly.”

Desk job hiatus

Jessica and Busch both say a gift for conversation is a crucial ingredient to being a good guide, and time between catching fish offers the opportunity to swap stories.

Busch, who grew up in Winnipeg, spent most of his weekends as a kid at the family cabin near Pointe du Bois. He started working at Eagle Nest mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs when he was 15 years old.

“The next year, Fred told me I was going to be guiding,” he said.

Busch has a degree in agricultural ecology and has worked in farming towns in both Manitoba and Ontario. He’s also guided for other lodges in Ontario and the Northwest Territories and most recently lived in Vancouver.

Planning to return to Manitoba, he called Fred Pedruchny this spring about some part-time guiding work at Eagle Nest and landed a full-time gig, instead. So did his girlfriend, who is working as a cabin and kitchen worker.

“I never dreamed I would be back here full-time,” Busch said. “It feels different because I was always the kid around here. Now, I’m one of the older guys.”

Someday, Busch says, he’ll have to go back to a desk job, but for now, he’s enjoying the fishing guide life.

“Fishing changes so much day to day,” Busch said. “Being out here every day, you get to see it.”

Good place to be

Catching walleyes, along with the occasional pike and smallmouth bass, proves to be easy, and we break for lunch on the only island the lodge was permitted to access during a month-long ban on open fires and back-country travel the province imposed because of extreme fire danger.

Conditions since have improved, and Manitoba Conservation lifted the ban Thursday.

As Busch and Jessica prepare the fillets for the frying pan — they’ll use a propane stove instead of an open fire — a second boat pulls up to the island. Jim Wallace and George Hayes of Winnipeg also have had a successful morning on the water with another guide from the lodge.

“If you want a great place, great people, this is it,” Wallace says, sporting a white “Shut Up and Fish” T-shirt. “It’s accessible, it’s affordable.

“It’s hard to get away from the city so easily,” he adds. “We leave the lodge, and three hours later, we’re home. Plus, there’s the variety of fish.”

His preference, he says, is whatever bites.

“I’ve probably, overall, done better for bass than anything but it was not deliberate,” said Wallace, a retired Army officer who has been coming to Eagle Nest for 30 years. “It’s nice and peaceful. Even if I’m catching nothing, I feel good about being here.”

As planned, Busch and Jessica spend the afternoon casting for pike in shallow bays. The biggest pike of the afternoon measures 35½ inches — shy of the 41½-inch minimum for Manitoba’s Master Angler program, but respectable just the same — and Busch lands big walleye honors the next morning with a 23½-inch beauty that quickly is returned to the lake.

The only thing missing, it seems, is other boats. The Manitoba government restricted development on the 30 miles of Winnipeg River from Pointe du Bois to the Ontario border, and the area remains as pristine as it was 50 years ago.

Few anglers venture this far upstream without a guide, Jessica says.

“This is a fairly difficult river system to fish because it changes throughout the year,” she said. “It’s difficult to navigate. It keeps people away. It keeps this area very remote.”

Just the way visitors to Eagle Nest like it after all these years.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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