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Walleye fishing the best of times

Group finds great trip in Ontario

By Charlie Meyers
Denver Post Outdoor Editor

Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Editor
Wednesday, March 27, 2002
- NORTHWESTERN ONTARIO - For years, my brother Bob and I have had our own version of March Madness. This is the month we reserve a cabin on some lake in Canada for our annual walleye fishing trip. It isn't as easy as it sounds. In fact, we've usually found a way to screw it up.

If you've never gone north of the border on a fly-in, be forewarned: The pitfalls en route to finding a suitable place can run deeper than the lakes. If it isn't one thing, it's usually another. The fish may be biting, but there's no indoor plumbing. The cabin may be decent, but the only walleye around is on a wall in the lodge. The fishing is OK, but, judging from the prices, the proprietor has taken this champagne-of-bottled-beer stuff literally.

For the longest time, we wondered if we ever would land on a truly great trip. And then Bill Frederick showed up at an outdoors show in Madison, Wis., to promote his Big Canon Lake Lodge in northwestern Ontario. Long story short, my brother signed us up and we headed north in July.

"Perfect fishing trip" may be an oxymoron, but this much I can say without hesitation: We've been doing this for years, and Big Canon is unquestionably the best place we've found. It isn't the easiest place to get to from Denver, but, if you've ever considered a fly-in to the remote wilderness of Canada, it's tough to beat. And compared with some of the gouging our group has endured through the years, it's reasonably priced.

It was hardly a coincidence that Big Canon was our best experience. The lodge is run by Frederick, a former commanding officer of the Denver naval-recruiting district, and his partner, Steve Guse. They're career military men who take great pride in their hobby-turned-profession. They fell hopelessly in love with fishing Canada's plentiful waters in the 1980s, prompting them to buy a lodge of their own.

"It was another adventure," Frederick said. "We just looked at a real-estate listing and went there and fished. We had a Realtor who kept saying, "Look at all these other lakes and lodges.' I said, "I'm not interested in all that. I want to go there and fish.' I can fix the cabins. I can't fix the fishing."

The two have fixed the cabins, all right. There are about a dozen on the island, all small but impeccably clean, with mattresses that don't attack your lower back like a walleye eyeing a defenseless minnow. The maids provided fresh sheets and towels every day, a new experience for all of us. We even had - man the trumpets! - indoor plumbing with real, live hot water in the showers.

I didn't see a mouse all week, an unheard of development compared with our previous trips. I'll never forget those nights spent hunched over a card table - OK, a beer-drinking table - listening to the melodic sound of mice meeting their makers amid a minefield of traps. Mickey bait, we call it.

We may stick to minnows and crank bait after discovering Big Canon. The lodge is located amid five lakes filled with nice-sized walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike. If you've got the patience, there are lake trout and muskie, too. Me? I didn't fly into the Twin Cities, then hop a puddle jumper to International Falls, Minn., then drive three hours into Canada, then fly another puddle jumper to wait on the occasional laker or muskie. Besides, in our group, it's all about the ever-elusive walleye.

After a solid first day, we were struggling to find any customers on day two. With nothing to lose, I decided to rig up with one of the leeches roped to the boat for no apparent reason. That drew the obligatory cackles from the peanut gallery - Bob, his business partner, Ed, and Ed's best friend, Robin. The laughter lasted three minutes, maybe five. That's how long it took me to get the first walleye to the boat. Two or three hits later, the whole group was re-rigging as I reminded everyone of my considerable expertise in these matters.

We decided to get adventurous after that, hiring a guide to take us to Segise Lake, a veritable holy grail for walleye hunters. We took two boats out, then portaged to Segise, where two more boats were awaiting us. What followed was, bar none, the greatest fishing experience of my life. Not that it was a surprise, since we were the only boats on the lake.

Frederick and Guse limit traffic on Segise, ensuring a long, fat life cycle for the walleye population. From the moment we hit the lake, it was obvious our guide, an Indian named Jeff Ruhl, knew these waters as well as his forefathers had. He lived at the camp, as did his mother, the cook at the lodge.

We hadn't hired a guide before, so we were curious to see if it would be worth the $175 investment. It didn't take long for an answer. About 15 minutes into the journey, Jeff stopped the boat in a spot that had no visible attraction for fish. No rocks coming out of the water, no sunken trees, no shade, no compelling reason to think big walleye were in our midst. Little did we know we were sitting on a shelf teeming with hungry fish.

I had heard lively conversation within our group through the years, but not the kind of howling that filled the next two hours. We caught 30 walleye, maybe 35, most in the 4- to 7-pound range, before heading off for a shore lunch on a tiny island. Shore lunches are a way of life in Canada. Jeff did all the work, cutting the fish with amazing precision and frying them with potatoes and baked beans. Afterward, we had a rough half-hour basking on a big rock as a bald eagle floated in the distance.

Jeff's mother had been the camp cook for years. This was another new twist for us. We never had been to a lodge that offered meals, much less the down-home breakfasts and gourmet dinners she dished out. Among the menu items were prime rib, Cornish game hens and New York strips. Dessert was served with every dinner and fresh-baked cookies were on the counter for late-night kitchen raids.

A few hours after our trip to Segise, we were showered and en route to the lodge, which had considerably more creature comforts than any we had visited. There was a phone in the kitchen and a television set that featured HBO, ESPN and virtually every major-league baseball game under the stars. And, of course, there were the other fishermen with their stories of the big ones, most of which had gotten away.

This was New York strip night. As I sat glancing at the TV after dinner, my eyelids growing heavier and my career fishing day fading into darkness, I remember thinking I could get used to this.

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