Fish Tales: Annual Trip Stirs Soul, Sparks Unforgettable Memories
Lots of ice.
Those three words characterized most of the e-mails and phone calls I had received in the two weeks leading up to June 18 -- the day my dad and I were set to depart on our annual Canadian fishing trip.
This was my eighth journey to the far North. Like the previous seven trips, Dad and I would fly from Raleigh to Minneapolis to Winnipeg, where we would meet my grandfather, uncle, cousin, great uncle and 18 other friends. On June 20, we would all take a charter flight to Gangler's North Seal River Lodge -- some 700 miles north of the U.S./Canadian border.
My grandfather started the yearly tradition some 20 years ago. He describes it as "the trip of a lifetime that we take every year," and I couldn't put it any better. The trip has become a part of the fabric of all of us, and we spend the other 51 weeks out of the year gearing up for the next edition. The allure of catching dozens of fish every day in the wilderness 150 miles from the nearest road is something that cannot be matched.
But this year's trip was in jeopardy.
It had been an unusually cold and long winter in northwest Manitoba. Normally ice is gone by the end of May, but this year, as the end of June approached, it still choked most of the lakes there. Wayne and Ken Gangler, the father and son co-owners of the lodge, were forced to cancel their first two weeks of the fishing season. We were the third week.
The Ganglers attempted to get into the lodge on June 1, but when they arrived, two feet of snow was still on the ground. The lodge's dirt runway was inaccessible. They turned around and headed back to their home in Tampa.
As our departure date loomed, I made countless phone calls to my grandfather in New Jersey. I frantically checked weather reports from Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, a remote village some 60 miles to the southeast of the lodge. Temperatures were rising, but still ran 10 degrees below normal. They continued to drop below freezing at night, further delaying the ice melt. As of June 13, one week until our scheduled arrival, it was still up in the air.
But thankfully in the early morning of the 20th, we boarded the chartered ATR-42 turboprop at Winnipeg International Airport and were off. Thick fog at the lodge forced us to land in Thompson, a rough mining town in the central part of the province.
Four hours later, I found myself once again standing on the dirt landing strip behind the lodge. I walked to the end of the runway and looked out over the water. The ice made the gray overcast day even grayer.
"Well, looks like there's plenty of ice for our beer," joked one of our anglers.
Chasing the "Canadian Grand Slam"
The North Seal River Lodge is nestled along the shores of Egenolf Lake, one of the larger lakes of the North Seal River system. Egenolf is about 20 miles across at its widest point, but only a small fraction of the lake located adjacent to the runway was open this year.
The area is so far north, it never really gets dark at night, just gray. My first night up there in 2001, the sun was shining through the window and I got up to start my day. My cousin told me to go back to bed because it was only 3 a.m.
There's a main lodge, complete with a kitchen, a lounge and dining area, and a tackle shop. The fishermen stay in one of eight cabins, which hold between two and four people. There are a couple of other cabins for the staff, and another group clustered together for the native guides.
The Ganglers opened their North Seal River Lodge in 1998 after operating another lodge on the much larger Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan for a number of years. Reindeer had been overrun with commercial fishing, so they decided to move to the North Seal region. The area was renowned for its fisheries, but no outfitter had been able to sustain success there because of it was so remote.
To say that the Ganglers pulled it off would be an understatement.
In addition to Egenolf, the Gangler family has exclusive rights to a vast expanse of 7,200 square miles of lakes and rivers. Four are accessible by ATV or boat, but the rest require a floatplane.
While Egenolf boasts trophy fishing for the "Canadian Grand Slam" -- northern pike, lake trout, walleye, arctic grayling and whitefish -- each of the "fly-out" lakes is unique and offers its own adventure.
Some of the larger lakes have outpost camps for anglers looking for a more rustic experience. At the main lodge, there's a chef and wait staff take care of the guests, and it's pretty luxurious.
The outposts offer fishermen varying degrees of "roughing it," from a mini-lodge just a step below the main lodge in terms of service, down to basic cabins where guests are provided food, but have to cook and guide themselves around the lake.
My grandfather famously said that we go on the trip "to fish, not [bleep] around," so we've stuck with the main lodge.
This year was different, though. Ice shut down all but one of the outposts, and many of the fly-out lakes we are used to fishing were closed. It was a bit of a shock from the previous trip, perhaps our most successful ever.
The highlight for 2008 my 86-year-old great uncle George, known affectionately as "Unc," hauling in a monstrous 46.5-inch lake trout -- the largest caught in Manitoba that year.
We had to be resourceful -- and patient -- but thanks to the Ganglers' dedication, we got our trip off and running.
Canadian Shore Lunch
Sunday morning I strapped myself into one of the small folding seats on the lodge's DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter for the trip's first fly-out.
The cabin of the venerable 10-seat single engine plane smells like exhaust. The seats are bolted into a wooden floor. In front of me on the bulkhead is a plaque that reads "manufactured 1956."
The pilot is your stereotypical crusty Canadian bush pilot, decked out in waders. He opened the throttle and skillfully maneuvered the old bird off the water. As the Otter slowly climbed, I looked out over the terrain.
The area is located in the sub-boreal forest, just on the border of the arctic tundra, and is covered in trees that are uniform in size. The land is relatively flat, with the occasional esker winding through.
About 10 minutes later, we touched down at Blackfish Lake, just northeast of the lodge. My dad, uncle, cousin, and two other fishing buddies were with me, along with three native guides -- Richard, Marvin and George.
The guides are quiet, but they warm up when you get to know them.
My family has been fishing with Richard and Marvin for the better part of 10 years and we've developed a rapport with them. They've lived in the region all of their lives and have the geography down pat. They can also remember about every big fish you've caught with them, where you caught it and what lure you used.
Richard, who usually guides my father, is quiet but ultra-competitive. He loves to catch big pike, and his eyes light up when you get into a good bay.
Marvin, who is equally skilled, likes to joke around. If you're having a slow day, he'll entertain you with wild tales from the off-season or jump in with our good-natured ribs at my cousin, who is an infinite source of unintentional comedy, usually at his own expense.
By noon, it was close to 70 degrees. I was fishing with Dad and Richard, and was off to a solid start -- about 10 fish in the boat by lunch time.
The Canadian Shore Lunch may be the best part of every trip. All fish are released except for a couple that we keep for lunch. Pike and lake trout taste great, but I've always been partial to walleye. No walleye that day though.
The guides grabbed some logs and started a roaring fire. Marvin then quickly cleaned the fish, producing a bunch of beautiful fillets. I've had dozens of shore lunches over the years, but I've never had one bone in my fish. Amazing.
The fish is breaded and fried in a huge skillet with a brick of lard. Potatoes and onions are sizzling in the other skillet. Beans and corn are cooked in the cans. As I'm writing this, I can still smell the ash from the fire in my nostrils.
I serve myself a heaping plate of food, grab a cold Labatt Blue pilsener and sit down on the ground. As I take a bite of the fried fish, I see the carcass of the pike that produced it still sort of flopping around on the ground. Doesn't get much fresher than that.
Saving the Best for Last
Friday, our last day, happened to be the best of the week.
I had just come off the worst stretch in my fishing career. After a picture-perfect Sunday, the weather wreaked havoc on us.
Monday I flew out again, this time to Stevens Lake, which is usually an outpost camp not available to us. The ice moved and clogged up two narrow channels that were the only access points to the rest of the lake from our landing spot. We were forced to troll in a circle in one area for the entire day -- eight hours -- until the Otter came back. I caught two small lake trout.
Tuesday, fog cancelled all fly-outs. It also happened to be a brutally cold day, with temperatures hovering in the mid-30s with sleet and freezing rain. No way that was June 23! I caught four fish and went back to the cabin at 2:45 p.m. The only highlight was the shore lunch that included the entire group.
Wednesday, my uncle Mike and I flew out to Clisby Lake in a helicopter because the ceiling was too low for a floatplane in the morning. Clisby is a sliver of water south of Egenolf known for producing huge pike. I pulled out a 48-incher last year and was salivating at the chance to return. Unfortunately, Clisby usually turns off in bad weather, and it was another tough day. One small walleye in the morning and one tiny pike in the afternoon.
While I was having a great time, I was frustrated. I was freezing my butt off and wasn't catching anything. We always have a pool for the biggest fish in each species and I wasn't even close this year. It's hard to suppress the patented Krahnert competitiveness gene.
I went back to Stevens Thursday and rebounded. It was a gorgeous day, even nicer than Sunday, and we caught a ton of fish. I boated over 50 fish along with a trophy 41-inch pike.
But Friday was more special. We went back to Stevens and the weather was horrible. It was our annual family fly-out day, and the three generations of John Krahnerts were together, along with my uncle and cousin.
The five of us were divided among three boats and most of the day we fished in the same area. One after another we were sticking pike and walleye. My cousin had been having a tough week also, but he broke out first, nailing two trophies before lunch. You could hear his trademark cackle from across the bay.
I caught a 41- and 40-incher and my grandfather pulled in a nice 40. My dad had the best day by far, nailing six trophies, the largest a 44. And my uncle, who was relegated to the role of photographer for most of the day, caught fire at the end of the day and landed two trophies, including a 43 on the last cast of the trip.
Unforgettable - Again
I must admit, it's a struggle to put this trip into words, and I'm sure I haven't done it justice.
This adventure is the highlight of my year, and even though this year's conditions were the most difficult we've ever had, I appreciated this one more than the previous seven.
It became clear to me that the fishing is secondary. It's nice to catch a lot of trophies, but it pales in comparison to standing on the edge of the world in one of the few places still unmolested by human hands.
I see most of the guys that attend once a year. Yet when we reunite, it feels like we never left. We're sort of like a family. Coming back to the Ganglers' lodge is like coming home.
The memories of the fish fade with time. But I'll never forget the long boat rides with my great-uncle George, who is an inspiration to everyone who goes on the trip. I'll never forget shooting the breeze with Ken every night about what it's like to be an outfitter. I'll never forget motoring away from an angry bear with my grandfather my first trip when I was 15.
And I'll never forget the bonds and friendships this trip has created. It has brought me closer to my family and has introduced me to a wonderful group of people.
Before I knew it, I was sitting inside the chartered ATR again as it rumbled down the landing strip.
After a few minutes of climbing, the layer of clouds tucked the North Seal away for another year.
Contact John Krahnert III at 693-2473 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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