Lake of the Forties…Plus!

“Today we’re going to take a trip up river to Sand Lake,” Chip Cromarty announced as we met him for breakfast in the Cree River Lodge dining area on day two of our 4-day adventure. “We’ll have about an hour-and-a-half-boat ride, but it’s an awesome ride. Today is big pike day!” Chip finished with a “You’re not going to believe this” smile.

The previous day, our first day at Cree River, we spent hovering within eyesight of the lodge. We were filming a show for MidWest Outdoors and Saskatchewan Tourism. I, like many fishermen, often wonder why guides have to travel to the opposite end of the lake to catch fish.

Our first day, we motored away from the dock, and Chip idled down to our first spot, less than a mile from the lodge. It was a main part of the river channel marked with buoys, so you can motor through without any concerns. “We’ll just head up to this second buoy and see what we find,” Chip announced. “Oftentimes, this is a great walleye spot.”

Chip Cromarty and I have known each other for quite some time. He’s been a guide in Saskatchewan for just about as long as I have worked for MidWest Outdoors—over 25 years. We met 20 years ago while Chip was working for Wollaston Lake Lodge, one of the premiere lodges in northern Saskatchewan, then owned by Sharon and Brian Elder.

Chip, a proficient fly fisherman, loves chasing and catching giant pike. While he doesn’t mind fishing with conventional gear, his specialty is fly-fishing. Through the years, he developed a name for himself in the fly-fishing arena, tying flies (streamers are his favorite) and catching giant pike. He became one of the top guides at Wollaston, being requested often by repeat clientele.

Within moments of drifting past the buoy marker, we proceeded to catch walleye after walleye, using the Canadian staple of 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs tipped with Gulp minnows. The channel was 8 to 12 feet deep, and around 2 to 3 boat widths wide. Go too far in either direction, and you wound up on a 3-foot ledge. We would motor up to the buoy in the current, drop down, hook into a nice 16- to 18-inch walleye, and drift down while landing the fish.

It was a windy and cool Saskatchewan late-August day, so after a couple hours, we picked up and Chip suggested heading to see if the walleyes were in front of the lodge. “Usually, you can catch walleyes right off the dock here at Cree River,” Chip says, “but the bigger fish haven’t been around the dock yet this year. Now is about the time when the bigger females should begin arriving.”

Chip set up a drift that sent us right across the front of the lodge, about 50 feet from the dock. As we get just past the dock, we landed a nice walleye—then two, three, four—and proceed to catch fish on every drift. I could jump in and easily swim to the dock, we are that close to the lodge. Apparently, you don’t have to go far to catch fish at Cree River.

Another hour later, it’s lunch time, and due to the cooler day, we decide to head into the lodge for a hot bowl of soup and a sandwich, which sounds terrific to Chip, myself and the camerman/producer, Josh Burlet. Josh says that we just about have a terrific segment “in the can.” And we only filmed a half-day!

After lunch, we make several more drifts in front of the lodge, catch more walleyes, and then Chip says there is a weed bed across the way. Let’s head there and see if we can catch a pike, and close out the day’s segment.

You don’t have to tell me twice that we are going to cast for pike. It’s probably one of my favorite species. I have been lucky enough to travel to Saskatchewan for big pike and to film shows for MidWest Outdoors for most of my years at the company. I have caught my fair share of 20-plus-pound giant pike. It never gets old to me. It is a fun way to fish, and northern Saskatchewan’s beautiful and rugged scenery, along with the awesome fishing, has amounted to some of the most memorable trips of my life.

A pike’s bite can be ferocious; the torpedo-like fish can hit anywhere during a retrieve. Sometimes, they strike as soon as the bait hits the water, like you landed your lure right on top if them. And other times, they flash right at the boat, coming from out of nowhere, striking right in front of you, just before taking your lure from the water; it can cause you to jump right out of your skin! Still other times, you can dangle a lure right in front of them, then watch their gills flare and engulf your lure. They are aggressive and unpredictably, predictable predators.

As I mentioned earlier, Chip and I have known each other for most of my career. I have had the opportunity to fish with him several times, and also get together with him whenever he comes into town for sport shows during the winter season. We have become good friends. So when he called me up a year ago and said that he was now working at one of the best big pike waters in Saskatchewan, and asked if I’d come fish with him, I didn’t hesitate.

So, changing gears from walleye, I put down my 6-foot, 9-inch medium-light Veritas, and picked up my 7-foot medium-heavy rod, and tied on a fluorocarbon leader and a black Yakima Husky Tail. The weed bed was across the way, kitty-corner from the lodge, and tucked out of the wind. We stopped just on the outskirts of the bay, in 10 feet of water with beautiful, 6- to 7-foot stalks of green cabbage. It looked very fishy, and appeared to be classic fall trophy pike water.

I quickly got up on the front casting platform of the boat and made two casts, while Chip rigged his spinning rod with a black streamer fly concoction that he tied a few days earlier. With one twitch of the rod, he felt weight, and said it might be a good fish. It was. And as easy as that, 5 minutes later, we had the fish in the boat, with the lodge in sight, and wrapped up our first day’s show with a 40-inch Saskatchewan trophy. Could it really be this easy?

The next morning is perfect weather, a little warmer, with sunshine and no wind. The lake is like glass, and makes for an enjoyable boat ride up the river to Sand Lake. On the way, Chip points out some areas of interest, and where he plans to stop and fish on our return back to the lodge. There are so many fishy looking spots that I wonder how many trophies we are passing up on our hour-and-a-half adventure.

We turn into a small river channel, and 20 yards later it opens up to Sand Lake. Chip informs us that we have arrived, and that the reason they call it Sand Lake is that there is a huge sand deposit (part of the Athabasca sand range) on one end of the lake that measures 10 miles square. You can see the 50-foot-high sand cliff from our end of the lake as we approach.

Once again, I jump up on the casting platform and begin throwing my spinnerbait. Chip says there are sporadic weed beds and knows exactly where they are located. He says to fancast the entire area to begin with, and once we get closer to the beds, he will let me know. I take a couple casts and go to pick up my second rod, rigged with one of Chip’s streamer flies. And as I look over the side of the boat, there is a monster pike sitting perpendicular to the boat, like he came to check us out, saying, “Hey guys, I’m here; throw me something.”

The pike turns slowly to swim off to our right, and Chip tosses his lure about 20 yards in front of the direction the fish swims off. Two seconds later, he has the giant on his line. Minutes later, after a nice fight, we have our first fish measuring 48 inches. What a way to start the day!

A few minutes later, we reach our first weed bed, and Chip mentions I should be just about able to cast to it on the front of the boat. My first cast that hits the weed bed lands me a 46-inch trophy! Two 40-inchers, and we just started the day.

There have been many times when we have fished hard for a 40-incher to try to close out a show for MidWest Outdoors Television. I don’t think I remember one in my career where we open up the show with two fish over 40 inches!

Sand Lake is approximately 700 to 900 acres, and within a few hours fishing, we have numerous 38- to 40-inch pike, and 42-, 44-, 46-, 47- and 48-inch trophies—an amazing number of trophy pike. It gets to the point where we are pulling our lures away from 30- to 36-inch fish, simply so we don’t have to take them off our hooks. It is amazing how quickly we get spoiled.

We make a stop for lunch at the sand bar to view and photograph this magnificent, natural wonder, and we climb up the cliff to see the stretch of sand in every direction. As I mentioned, Saskatchewan offers some of the best natural scenery in Canada.

We spend more time in Sand Lake than Chip thought we would, because the fishing was on, so some of the stops on the way back have to be trimmed. One stop Chip definitely wants to hit, though, as we begin our trip back to the lodge, is Crater Lake. Crater Lake looks just as its name suggests—like a giant half-mile-wide meteor fell from the sky and produced this crater just off the main river channel. We motor to an area where the crater comes into contact with the river, and make a few casts. This area looks to be 4 to 8 feet deep, with a bottom strewn with rocks and boulders. It produces a 45-inch monster that is one of the fattest pike I’ve ever seen. A true Saskatchewan fall trophy.

A nice thing about pike fishing during August and September in Saskatchewan is the feeding frenzy that happens with these alpha predators. They really put on the feedbag to stock up for the long Saskatchewan winters, so the girths of these fish get massive during this trophy season.

The next stop on our way back is a little lake with one weed bed. We travel through an extremely narrow inlet (a boat width wide and only 2 feet deep) that looked to open up to a little 300-acre lake. On our way in, we see a nice pike that seems to be guarding the inlet of this little lake like a sentry. We catch and measure him at 41 inches, then proceed to cast the weed bed, and it produces another nice 40-incher.

It is getting late for our trek back now, and Chip says we better head back to the lodge for dinner. On our way out and back into the narrow channel, which we arrived at not 20 minutes earlier, there are two nice pike sitting in the same hole where the one we caught on the way in was. We stop the boat and try casting for them, but they scatter.

Outside the inlet there are weeds that look to good to pass up, so as Chip begins straightening up for our boat ride home, I take one more cast at a small inlet in the weedy shoreline. Before Chip can say, “Nice cast,” there is a huge swirl, and my drag screams line as the fish makes a huge run about 50 yards down the shoreline. It then turns around and swims right back at the boat.

As I am trying to reel as fast as I can to avoid slack line, she makes a 45-degree turn and buries herself right into the weeds. I muscle her out, and land the weed-covered fish that measures 43 inches, and happens to be the missing number in our 11 fish tally of 40-inch fish for the day: three fish in the 40-inch size; a 41-, 42-, 43-, 44-, 45-, 46-, 47- and 48-incher to round out the end to an amazing day. Chip goes on to say that it is his second time catching 11 fish over the 40-inch mark. Sometimes, it’s good to travel far from the lodge.

I can’t wait to see the show come early spring, and what Josh does with so many outstanding fish to feature in the show. Watch for it on MidWest Outdoors.

Chip Cromarty, Pat Babcock (owner of Cree River Lodge) and northern Saskatchewan did not disappoint! 

 

For more information…

fishsask.com or creeriverlodge.ca