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In northern Manitoba, big fish come with the territory

We hadn't even wet a line, the sun still was high in the afternoon sky, and the day already had served up several weeks' worth of adventure.

Miles more of it awaited on the horizon.

The destination was Reed Lake, a northern Manitoba jewel nearly 500 miles northwest of Winnipeg that's known for serving up some of the best drive-to fishing in western Canada. Reed is perhaps most famous for its trophy northern pike, but the big lake also offers good fishing for lake trout (at times) and walleyes. Check out the pages of Manitoba's Master Angler Guide, which recognizes anglers who catch big fish, and Reed is well-represented.

The seed for this late March trip had been planted several months earlier by Andre Desrosiers and Stu McKay of Selkirk, Manitoba. McKay is well-known in catfish and walleye circles as owner of Cats on the Red in Lockport, Manitoba, and Desrosiers is a natural resources officer for Manitoba Conservation in Selkirk.

Frequent fishing partners, the pair both had caught their share of walleyes and were ready to finish off the winter by matching wits with lake trout, a fish that can be difficult to catch under the best of conditions.

Desrosiers also had spent several years working in the North, and a fishing trip to Reed Lake offered the perfect excuse to return.

"I love the North," Desrosiers said. "I needed to get back up there."

The journey begins

And so we set out, eight of us in three vehicles, in the predawn darkness on a rainy Thursday in late March with four snowmobiles and a tracked ATV in tow.

Also making the trek north were Desrosiers' dad, Lucien, of Winnipeg; Mitch Walker, who works for Manitoba Conservation in Lac Du Bonnet, Man.; Dale "Eso" Esopenko, manager of a Winnipeg golf course; and Jim Stinson, a retired RCMP officer from Lockport.

Two Yankees - Brad Durick of Grand Forks and myself - rounded out the delegation. We'd both fished with McKay and Stinson several times over the years and willingly took the bait at McKay's invitation.

Rain would have been bad enough on this morning, but it quickly gave way to sloppy snow that stuck to pavement and turned the highway into a slippery mess. There were a few close calls in the first two hours, including a trailer that narrowly survived a jackknife encounter, but conditions gradually improved as we traveled north.

By the time we pulled into Grand Rapids, Manitoba., and crossed the Saskatchewan River shortly before noon, Manitoba Highway 6 _ the gateway to the North - was mostly free of slush and ice.

We were on the home stretch.

The countryside also evolved as southern Manitoba passed into the rear view mirror. Unlike the rugged, granite cliffs and islands that make up the Canadian Shield, this part of northern Manitoba is flatter, highlighted by spruce bogs in the low country and jack pines and limestone outcroppings on higher ground. Spindly poplar and birch trees dominate in many areas, the result of a massive forest fire that roared through the area in the late 1980s.

Woodland caribou, grouse, moose and black bears make their homes here. The terrain is beautiful in a sparse, yet striking, way.

As for the fishing, the opportunities are nearly as limitless as the country itself.

We all felt a sense of accomplishment and anticipation as we pulled off Manitoba Highway 39 into the Reed Lake Campground, some 10 hours after our morning drive through rain, snow and slush had begun.

The afternoon sun, a welcome sight after our harrowing drive, was brilliant as it reflected off newly fallen snow. This far north, winter still was very much in control.

Despite the long drive, there'd be time to fish a few hours before dark. First, though, we had to unload the snowmobiles and ATV, portable ice houses and other gear and make the four-mile trek from the campground across the ice to Peterson's Reed Lake Lodge, a fixture on the big lake for more than 60 years.

The adventure wasn't over yet.

Heavy snow, coupled with warm temperatures, had covered Reed Lake with slush, the bane of ice travel. Much of it lay hidden beneath a deceiving crust of snow.

Anticipation turned to anxiety as we headed onto the ice.

Camp owner Hal Peterson later would describe the slush conditions as "horrendous," preceded by a colorful expletive.

"I haven't seen it this bad in years," he said.

Encounter slush - especially horrendous slush - and there's only one thing to do: shut the eyes, hit the throttle and try to keep moving.

That's what we did. The entire trip.

While lake trout were the primary focus for most on this trip, a few of us also hoped to sample the pike fishing.

Peterson talked up the pike fishing when he stopped by the cabin shortly after we arrived at camp. The camp is closed most of the winter, but opens for ice fishing in March. This year, Peterson had his first group of anglers in camp March 15.

"Pike really turned on in the last few days," he said.

As for the lake trout, well . . . the endorsement was hardly glowing.

"They're getting a few," he said. "They're hit and miss - especially through the ice."

Reed is a big lake with lots of places for fish not to be, as we found out that first afternoon. We'd set up near "The Goalposts," a couple of midlake rock piles that jut out of the water, in an area known to produce lake trout. We marked a few fish, but there'd be no lake trout - or any other species - pulled through the ice that afternoon.

On the bright side, we found we didn't need the auger extensions we'd forgotten at home.

The next morning, an assortment of snowmobiles and an ATV pulling portable houses headed into the sun filled with renewed optimism. Three other Canadians -Dave Colibaba, Marc Lefebvre and Kurt Henry of Thompson, Man. - would be joining us later that day. Colibaba, especially, had fished Reed numerous times, and would help steer the crew in the right direction.

Stinson, Durick and I set up about a half-mile from the rest of the pack in about 65 feet of water, where Durick eventually landed his first-ever lake trout, a 25-incher we kept for dinner. He also caught an eelpout of about the same size that would be chunked up and boiled as tasty hors d'oeuvres that evening.

Meantime, the rest of the crew didn't fare much better; McKay had released a 26-inch lake trout and a 31-inch eelpout when the group broke for lunch, but that was it.

Peterson, the camp owner, stopped by on snowmobile early that afternoon and suggested we try for pike since the lakers weren't cooperating. He pointed us toward a narrows at the entrance to a large bay where big pike stage this time of year.

Deciding it was better to catch big fish than no fish, Stinson, Durick and I packed up the fish houses and headed for the narrows.

It turned out to be an excellent choice.

A group of six Canadians also staying in camp had been fishing the narrows for a few hours when the three of us arrived. Regulars at Reed Lake in March and early April, they'd driven all night from Miami, Manitoba, in the southwestern part of the province, and were icing a northern as we pulled up.

Thoughts of the slow lake trout fishing soon would be forgotten.

The beauty of pike fishing through the ice is it's more of a social occasion, which involves staring at tip-up flags or waiting for a rod to bend over in its holder. That left plenty of time for conversation on this brilliant March afternoon. Even this far north, temperatures hovered near the freezing mark.

Calem Alexander was part of the group that had driven all night to be here. Alexander said he'd had good days for lakers on Reed, but the pike fishing was really something. The number of Master Angler pike that Reed produces in March is what drew him to the big lake in the first place, Alexander said.

"Four years ago, we hit the pike just unbelievable," he said. "I don't know how many pike in total, but we figured it was 25 over 38 inches (in three days). That will probably never be repeated in that short of time."

Set up over about 9 feet of crystal-clear water, Stinson, Durick and I landed about 15 pike longer than 30 inches over the next day-and-a-half, mostly on herring fished below tip-ups, but also on salted shiners fished with a jigging rod. Each of us released pike exceeding the 41-inch minimum required for a Master Angler, and Durick released a whopping 44-incher that blew his previous personal best of 34 inches right out of the water.

The rest of the crew toughed it out on lakers and landed a half dozen up to about 31 inches and lost a few others the next day. The trout were there, Desrosiers said, later, but they were reluctant to strike.

"I have no idea why those lake trout wouldn't go," Desrosiers said. "They should have been.

"We had to work hard. In terms of lake trout fishing, it's typical. You've got to work for them, and they generally don't bite all day long."

As for the pike, Reed certainly lived up to its reputation, and the three of us who targeted them had no regrets about the move.

"I didn't see it happening with trout" on this trip, Stinson said on the drive home. "You've got to fish the conditions you've got. You can't change the weather, so you fish what you've got."

From slushy roads to a slushy lake, nothing on this trip came easy. But in every sense of the word, our excursion to Reed Lake was an adventure everyone with a passion for late-winter fishing should experience.

Desrosiers might have said it best:

"Reed Lake is a gorgeous place, but it's not the only one" in the North, he said. "There are many lakes just like it, and that March-April ice fishing is my favorite time of year. And knowing how (Americans) love their ice fishing, they could extend it by another six weeks."

Big fish, and big adventure.

In northern Manitoba, it goes with the territory.