Writing this post is long overdue, but also a wonderful walk down memory lane to the most impactful fishing adventure I’ve been on to date: my very first fly in fishing trip to celebrate my fathers 70th birthday. Dad had been taking his sons on an annual fishing trip for over 3 decades, so we knew how special these trips were, and how doing a fly in with his sons would be an incredible opportunity.
Planning a trip like this one was a bit of a challenge, as our previous trips had all been to places we could easily drive to for a weekend. However, I soon learned that things would fall into place. The first challenge was to find out where we’d go!
There are limitless options for fishing camps in Ontario, and all we really knew was that it had to be a great outfitter, we wanted American Plan (meals provided) as this was to be a real special holiday, and we wanted it to have full amenities so my father wouldn’t be showing in the lake. I can remember vividly the day that I was at a charity BBQ flipping burgers when I was discussing the trip with a buddy from the office. I explained that I didn’t know where to start to find a great lodge. He looked at me and said the new memorable words “my college roommate owns and operates a great fly in lodge, I’ll give you his contact information…”. And thus I was connected with Esnagami Wildness Lodge, and owner Eric Lund.
I remember my first phone call with Sue Lund, it was during the off season so they were in their winter home and she was as enthusiastic to receive the call as I was to make it. It would be the first of many phone calls and emails that I would need as an organizer, and both Sue and Eric were patient, thorough and professional in their dealings. We were able to secure a date and now only had to overcome over a year of anticipation and waiting for the big trip. Now, Esnagami Wilderness Lodge is not really any more expensive than other top quality lodges, but it was more than we were used to paying for our more “local” trips, plus we wanted to treat Dad, so we planned over a year in advance to save up enough money so that it wouldn’t be a burden to any one person.
The extra time allowed us to make use of Christmas and Birthdays to improve our rain gear, fishing rod and reals, and of course tackle. We would be meeting in Haliburton Ontario where my Dad lives, and then making the drive to Nakina, Ontario to Cordingly lake where the float planes leave from. We would need to arrive the night before in order to make the long drive and be ready for an 8:00am flight. Our drive was full of excitement and anticipation, we were like school boys. We had everything planned out, breakfast in Huntsville, lunch in Cochrane, and then the final stretch drive to Nakina for dinner at the Nakina Train Station. Sadly, this restaurant is no longer in operation. Our dinner there consisted of great food, and the company of other anglers who were flying to various lodges the following day also through Nakina Air.
Our accommodations for the night before the trip was actually a cabin right at the air base. It was great to have the space to stretch out, play some cards and do one last gear check. What we were not expecting was the note on the door when we arrived that asked us to be ready at the dock at 5:30 for a 6:00am flight (30 minutes to unload, weigh gear and load the plane). The trick was that we were counting on breakfast in Nakina, but would not have the chance now as nothing would be open. This concern would turn out to be unwarranted, as things worked themselves out :).
We arrived at the dock and watched an efficient operation take over. We were mesmerized by the speed and efficiency with which our gear was weighed and loaded onto the float plane. My Dad got to ride up front with the pilot, an extra special treat. If there was any part of the trip that was dissapointing, it was the flight. I think we had stoked up the “fly in fishing” part of the trip so much that we never considered how long the flight actually was. It was less than 10 minutes! Before we even had a good look around we were circling in and could see the buildings of Esnagami Wildnerness Lodge before us.
I was and continue to be amazed on how a pilot can put a float plane up to a dock better than most anglers can do with a boat, but it happens each time. We were tied off at the dock and warmly greeted by owners Eric and Sue. This was a nice touch, and the first of many that week. After introductions Eric explained that our gear was already being taken up to our cabin and would be waiting for us. He then pointed out that because of the early flight we must have missed breakfast, so they had set an extra table for us, and come on up for a hot breakfast.
That breakfast was the first of many great meals at the lodge. Each breakfast was made to order, so if you wanted eggs, and pancakes, with hash browns and bacon,you just had to ask. Each day I had something a little different just because I could, although I found myself ordering the fresh blueberry pancakes often. That first breakfast also afforded us It our first view of the amazing main lodge, full log construction with loft and qualify wood furniture, as rustic as you could hope for, but at the same time immaculate. Attached was also a common area where you could hang out if the weather was rough, watch some TV or play a board game, and it had a small tuck shop as well.
It was also where Eric met with each group to review a map of the lake with marked hot spots. What was interesting about the map was that he updated it as the summer progressed, so it identified the best spots that were currently working for Pike and Walleye, but also where they were the previous months so you could see the fish pattern progress.
After getting our fill we headed to our cabin, and what a treat that was. We were on American Plan but our cabin had a full kitchen, with living / eating area, three bedrooms and a bathroom with shower. There were electric lights during the day until 11:00pm, with propane lights if you were up later. There was also a wood stove for heat and a nice sized deck to relax on.
We rigged up our rods, changed into our fishing clothes and headed down to the docks to see the boats, but to also meet the guide that we had hired for the day as a bonus for Dad, and hopefully some assurance for us of a good start to the day. The boats were 18ft cedar strips with 20hp mercuries. If you have not had the chance to fish from one of these boat you should try to find a way to make that happen. Spacious, stable and beautiful, a real treat to fish from. We were fortunate that our guide for the day, Mark, was also the head guide meaning he had many years experience working the lake. He met each of us and did a great job of asking just the right questions to learn what our goals were, and also what our experience level was.
He grabbed some minnows for jigging, took a look at our rods and reels to see what we were working with, and then loaded the shore lunch kit into the boat and we were off to the first spot to jig for some walleye for lunch. A short boat ride later we pulled up to a spot that Mark said was working well the day before. We all fished it for about 7-10 minutes with no action when Mark asked us to reel in. We looked at him with surprise as we were used to fishing spots for a long time, even if we did not catch anything. He simply said the bite was not on in this location, let’s move on, and we did. It was an important learning opportunity for us to use in the future, to work an area or technique long enough to know if it will be effective, but also knowing when it was time to move on.
Our second spot had a Walleye on my line on the first drop, and it was quickly on the stringer. Seeing that beautiful dark green with the gold belley is so satisfying. Mark also dropped a marker bouy over so we knew exactly where we wanted to stay close. We had a great morning jigging up walleye and just enjoying our time together on the lake. At each location Mark was sure to make sure we saw on the map where we were. We pulled up on the shore for our lunch destination and again watched experience and efficiency as Mark started the fire, cleaned the fish, cut potatoes and onions opened beans and in about 40 minutes had us eating a meal all should experience, a shore lunch cooked over an open fire, on a remote Canadian Lake.
One thing that I should note is that the lodge has a fun contest that they use to also promote catch and release. All Pike 30 inches or larger, and all Walleye 24 inches and larger are to be returned to the lake. These are considered trophies for entry into their contest for a free trip back to the lodge. They give away two from all of the entries, as well as a trip for each person who caught the largest Pike and Walleye. Your entry also gets you a free trophy fishing shirt for bragging rights. That afternoon we decided to focus on Pike locations so we had some balance to our fishing options. Early in the afternoon my brother Chris lost a large fish at the boat, much to the dismay of the guide. I was able to land a 30.5 in Pike, which while not huge, did get me a shirt and an entry into the contest. Our trip was in the middle of August, where I find it to be some of the toughest fishing when it’s super hot and there is lots of deep water for fish to tuck into. We wrapped up our day having all caught fish, and headed to the first of many amazing home-cooked and plate-served meals. That evening, like most, we also went out for some evening fishing at some of the closer locations.
The second day was the most challenging for us. While we had a map and had just spent a day with a guide, it seemed like when we were on our own we had all lost memory of exactly where each spot was, and which island was which. Esnagami Lake has 120 miles of shore line, that’s a lot of lake! After an OK day of fishing we returned to the lodge where I arranged for some additional guide service for later in the week. There are a few side trips you could book, one was river Walleye trip, but the river that year was too low to use. There were also two portage lakes available, you just had to sign up. So the third day we headed to Spotted Lake. We chose this because the lake allowed for 4 people in 2 aluminum boats, and also because it was going to be a very windy day, so getting onto a smaller lake seemed wise. We followed the map to the portage destination and pulled our boats on shore.
We made a short hike to 2 waiting boats on the other side, with gas ready. In a short amount of time we were off fishing. Eric and provided us with a map of this lake as well, and had made recommendations for fishing locations, technique and lunch spot :). We had a great day fishing, using casting, trolling and jigging to great effect. We caught several blue Walleye which was a treat. At one point during the day my Dad and I were casting a tiny narrow bay. I had caught about 8 Pike on 9 casts at the shore, while my Dad was casting back at the opening to the bay. He told me he was snagged, so I fired up the motor and started slowly back trolling towards his line. I was watching intently so I didn’t run the motor on a rock or log as I approached his line. I then stopped and stared in disbelief before shouting, “That’s not a log, that’s a huge fish!” Dad started to reel and as if the fish sensed it, it fired off and snapped his line like it was nothing.
While it’s never a good story when the fish got away, to have seen this monster Pike was just as exciting and it renewed our efforts the rest of the day. Our lunch that day were sandwiches, fruit and home-made cookies. Each evening at dinner the staff would ask you what your plans for lunch were the following day. If it was shore lunch, they’d have a kit ready with everything you would need shy of the fish. If you were doing boxed lunch they would take your order and there would be a cooler that morning with your name on it and your pre-ordered lunch inside.
Our fourth day we had booked time on another portage lake, Betty Lake. It was also a smaller lake, in fact this one only had 1 boat available, so we decided that two of us would use it in the morning, then we’d meet for lunch and switch. The fishing was great with lots of medium sized Pike who were ferocious with their hits. The funny part of this story (depending on your perspective) came when Dad was taking a lure out of a Pike. It was a bit of a job so he set his rod down to two hand it, and released the fish. He then reached for his rod which was nowhere in sight. He had forgotten he was no longer in the 18 ft boats and had actually dropped his brand new rod and reel over board. He was a bit sour the rest of the day. To cap off the day for Dad, later this same night we were out for our evening fish when he hooked into a huge Walleye while jigging. He was fishing with my older brother, who reached down and grabbed Dad’s line to crane the fish in the boat. From our perspective a few metres away, we knew this was a huge fish and just as we shouted to use a net… snap went the line and another massive fish got away. Dad consoled himself with a cold drink or two.
Our fifth day had two features we were excited for. One was that we were back with a guide, and the second was that it was group shore lunch day. Once a week all of the guest who want to join at a predetermined location for a huge meal. This day was a Walleye day for us. Overcast skies with just that bit of wind to create a chop, we were set for some hot Walleye action. Our guide for the day also told us our two boats were tasked with catching enough fish for the whole group, and he hoped we were up for it, and so did we. That morning we fished shoals, sand bars, shore lines with wind, all the traditional spots. We used 1/4 oz jigs with platic grubs, mostly tipped with a live minnow.
We caught a lot of fish. Once we had enough fish we just kept going and releasing all we caught until it was time to head for lunch. We met at the prescribed location and I was again treated to an example of efficiency when two guides cleaned enough fish for 20 people in about 10 minutes, not wasting an ounce of meat. It is really impressive to see an experienced angler clean fish. Our lunch for the day included fresh walleye and pike, beans, fresh made onion rings, warm bread, and a Walleye chowder. Drinks were provided for all and we had a great time chatting with all of the other guests. It was a great experience to be connecting with people from all different geographic locations, brought together in one place by our common interest in fishing.
That afternoon we headed back on the walleye hunt, at one point getting into a school where each fish was more than 20 inches but just less than 24 inches, a great problem to have.
Our trip had one day left, and while we had all caught a pile of fish, we were still missing one thing, and that was to get a big fish for my Dad to cap of his special trip. Our last day found us with our 3rd guide for the week, and we made it clear to him that our goal was to get a big Pike for Dad, so we asked him to take us to high percentage areas. Our morning saw us in various Pike spots, and while we caught lots, we were not getting the big ones, mostly mid 20s.
Just before lunch we were at a spot called Betty Falls, which is the outflow from Betty Lake (where Dad lost his rod). We were enjoying the scenery and casting some great Pike water when I looked over to see activity in the other boat. My Dad’s rod was bent, the guide was getting a cradle net ready, and my brother was reeling in to get his line out of the water. It was a unique perspective to see it from another boat, and I grabbed my camera with zoom lens and started shooting. I took two of my all time favorite shots. One was of my Dad proudly displaying his 35 inch Pike (which until recently was his largest pike ever), and the other was a shot of the guide with the fish in the net, my Dads rod still bent, and my brother clapping his hands in support. That picture captured the moment perfectly.
We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to add to our trophy Pike total, already beginning to talk about the long drive home facing us tomorrow. We decided to pass on the evening fish and spend time just chatting with each other and the rest of the guests down at the main lodge. Being on the American plan you have extra time when you don’t have to cook or clean up, and in fact each day staff came in a tidied our cabin, including making our beds and washing any dishes we did happen to use (again, a real nice touch). First thing the next morning our gear had been brought down to the dock where Eric and Sue again met us in person to thank us for choosing Esnagami Wilderness Lodge, and to wish us well.
I haven’t been back (yet), but it still ranks as my favourite fly in fishing trip for that perfect combination of a great lodge, great fishing, and great memories of fishing with family. I’ve since been to several different lodges/outfitters, but I’ll always remember Esnagami Wilderness Lodge as my first, and I know I’ll be back again.