I sit on the dock this fifth evening of a five-day fly-out fishing trip in Manitoba's wilderness, savoring the silence before tomorrow's check-in to reality. Across the wide bay, where the Astutini Rapids rush into Whiskeyjack Lake, the shadows fall. Phantoms, both fierce and friendly, emerge from the play of light on the foliage. Are these the Manitou of old Indian tales, or the muse of totem carvers of the Pacific Northwest? You start thinking like this after five days in the wilderness with no television, no cell phones and no e-mail, nothing to drown out the silence of life's essentials. Seeing things differently, with the volume turned down.
Five days in the wilderness is not for everyone, but it's just what I need when real life starts feeling like reality TV. And the best way I know how to drop out is to fly-in to an outpost camp on one of the many lakes in Manitoba's backcountry. This time it's Whiskeyjack, via a de Havilland Beaver operated by Thunderbird Lodge & Outposts.
Most anglers traveling to Canada don't make it past a full-service, American-plan lodge, complete with fresh linens daily. Fishing these lakes is not unlike making a turn on a golf-course with guides who could be caddies. "Sir, for this hole I'd recommend eighth-ounce chartreuse tipped with a minnow. Perhaps we should let this other boat play through." All that's missing is the plaid pants.
But just a hop, skip and a jump via floatplane from many of these lodges is the outpost camp and an entire lake all to yourself. No cooks. No guides. Just a rough little cabin and a long dock on a granite outcropping. It's do-it-yourself fishing and, like any D-I-Y project, you might not know what you're getting into, but it's always an adventure.
On this trip to Whiskeyjack, as we make a final turn before landing, the pilot, whose face looks as though it had never experienced a razor, points out a couple of hotspots. "Dat cliff der drops twenty feet and it's stacked with 'eyes. You shore to get you shore lunch der, eh?" and "Watch out for da reef der, eh?" shouted over the roar of the Beaver. Eh? indeed, I nod, masking my grimace with a grin as he lets the air out and sets the big plane down.
After an instructional tour of the place, the pilot points out the radio. "If you run out of bait or beer, just call and we'll buzz some over, eh?" he says, with the nonchalance of a Domino's delivery driver. It's both reassuring and annoying to know things in Canada's outback aren't completely uncivilized. Sputter-cough-sputter, the Beaver roars to life, and within moments, it's up and away, with nothing but the murmur of the Astutini to replace the engine's hummingbird buzz.
The pirate's map of the lake on the cabin wall is complete with X-marks-the-spot where slabs of walleye tinged tannin-gold lay. Without the formality of unpacking anything but some tackle, we're racing across the lake to "dat cliff der" as fast as the battered Lunds will carry us, all while watching out for "da reef der" and udder reefs that announce their presence like fingernails on a chalkboard.
We're hungry, and the only thing that will fill us is a fresh shore lunch washed down with lukewarm Molson, having just now remembered the first tenet of outpost camp — keep the beer cold. Keeping the beer cold will prove hard to do during this last week of July, when record temperatures and wildfires will scorch the Laurentian Shield. (Tip: If you want phenomenal fishing, go in June. If you want good fishing, without the bugs, go in July, or even August.)
The other main tenet of fish camp is when you're hungry for there's-no-fresher walleye, tie on a jig. We follow this rule to the letter, selecting our favorite colors from the gumball assortment and sending the salted-minnow-tipped jig into the depths.
My prayer is answered before it even escapes my lips as something hammers my offertory mere feet below the boat. The viciousness of the hit tells me this is no walleye, but a northern pike, the other trophy swimming Whiskeyjack's waters. After a brief, but brutal, fight, we have the pike boatside. It glares at us with hatred and twice I flinch at his thrashing, before getting a firm grip. I can't help but announce the first fish's arrival with a howl as I hold it up for the guys in the other boat to see. Appropriately, they RSVP with an even less civilized gesture.
The pike is returned from whence he came, and we get back to the atavistic business of gathering our lunch. The delay has put us behind the other boat, and before we catch our lunch, they're already motoring back to the dock. Still, we'll get the spoils as they'll have the grease hot and, hopefully, the beer chilling in the rapids, by the time we catch a couple of eaters and make it back. To ensure this, we release a few extra fish before hunger drives us to the dock.
And so it goes in fish camp. Five days of little else besides water and walleyes, with the occasional northern to spice up the day. Inside the boats, anglers past have penciled their time in hash-marked fish counts. For the uninitiated, this appears to have prisoner's monotony, but outpost anglers know better. Unlike prison, the release date from fly-out fish camp comes too soon. The bumblebee hum of the approaching float plane replacing the quiet whisper of the rapids, real life chasing away the spirits in the trees.
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