"How big?" my partner asked.
"Big, big, big!" I replied, as I struggled to stretch the massive fish along the oar.
Later when we reached our camp we measured the oar to the line I had scratched into the paddle surface, the nose location of that very large fly caught fish.
"Forty four inches!" my partner exclaimed. "Why that is almost four feet in length.
"Now," he said, "Let's see how long the one I boated was."
We stretched the metal tape along the other side of the oar where we had marked the length of Paul's fish.
"Forty-two inches!" we both excitedly echoed to each other.
"Those were very big Northerns that you 'fly boys' released!" This latter comment came from Wayne Nordstrom, one of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association members who shared this northern Alberta fishing adventure on Island Lake with Paul Quinnett and myself. Paul is a psychologist and long time outdoor writer from Spokane. He recently authored "Pavlov's Trout," a fishing book with a twist that I would recommend to all anglers. Paul and I 'hooked-up' that is, decided to fly fish with each other when we discovered that Alberta Tourism was going to fly us up north to Fort McMurray to this 'rustic' fishing resort destination.
At Fort McMurray we boarded a Beaver float plane for our hour long flight over the Athabasca Tar Sands to Island Lake Lodge. Island Lake is one of the larger lakes on the Cambrian Shield and is renowned for its large Northern Pike.
Paul and I had both caught Northern Pike on conventional spoons and plugs in the past but were determined on this trip to take these powerful fighters on a cast fly. We started by experimenting with streamer type flies, combinations that I had found successful on saltwater salmon. These were primarily bucktails, long winged flies with streaks of pink, orange and red. The red and white on spoons has always been a favourite for Northerns.
We were not prepared for the outstanding action we found! Almost from the first cast we found the lake teeming with slashing Northerns determined to hook themselves. Virtually every fly we tried that was a bucktail-streamer type eventually hooked a fish. But, it was 'Paul's Pulsing Poulet Pike Pulverizing Practitioner', a chicken-feathered conglomeration with streamer white and orange chicken feathers and a half dozen streaming silver Krystal Flash threads that broke the barrier between 5 pounds and twenty five-pound pike. Paul had tied these up following suggestions from one of his Northern pike fishing friends. Orange was the key colour Paul told me. Sharing his patterns, I soon found that the silver Krystal Flash seemed to produce a greater number of strikes.
I was using my G. Loomis seven weight ten foot IMX graphite rod, my favoured salmon beach casting weapon and found this an exceptional rod for these Northerns. The rod has a stiff action for a seven weight but this was an advantage during our three day trip because of the early fall winds we had to face. I tried a number of fly lines and finally settled on a Cortland five-foot sink tip and a Berkley Specialist weight forward dry line (WF-8-F). I found both equally effective. Paul started with a floating line but found that he had more success with a slow sinking line. Our success centered on what Paul called a 'honey-hole,' a shallow area on one side of an island, fortunately for our casting, on the lea where the larger Northerns seemed to concentrate. Their strike was a soft but solid take followed by a powerful surging struggle. The larger fish, those in the fifteen to twenty-five pound range, kept us in our backing for a good length of time before we were able to reel them in to the boat for release.
Island Lake provided us with both quantity and quality fly fishing! These Northerns were not surface fish but rather fought like chinook, deep and sulking when hooked on the fly. The exception was when we used a surface fly which we 'popped' along near weed beds to entice surface strikes. The sight of these sleek torpedo predators breaking the surface to slash at our flies was heart stopping, a vision which will draw me back many times to fly fish for Northern Pike!
Island Lake Lodge proprietors, Jim and Gen Comeau, (780) 743-0214, told us that the fishing for these Northerns and Walleye in this shallow lake begins in June and lasts through to September. The lake is accessible only by aircraft and fishing is restricted to sport fishermen. The lodge is a group of cabins which provides sleeping and personal cooking facilities for anglers. Boats with motors are provided along with access to Gardiner Lake, one of Alberta's designated trophy lakes. The Lodge supports the 'Catch and Release' program to save these old and very large fighting trophy fish. Our success with large Northerns was a certain sign of positive benefits of this program.