By Steve McGrath
The large spoon glimmered in the overcast light as its high arcing cast took it towards the shore of Manitoba’s Utik Lake. The heavy lure rhythmically worked its way through the tea-stained water with each crank on the reel, a retrieve filled with visions of trophy pike. The spoon didn’t just stop this time; it was the type of strike you’d expect from an apex predator. The bend in the rod said it all; the battle was on.
Sportsman’s News Senior Editor Kent Danjanovich and I had heard about North Haven Resort in Manitoba and decided we needed to experience it first hand. We were greeted in the Winnipeg airport by a representative of the resort who took our bags and settled us into a neighboring hotel for a short overnight stay. The alarm came early the next morning and the same representative was at the hotel to take us to a smaller airport where the chartered plane was waiting. The flight took us north over Lake Winnipeg and over some of the least populated areas I think I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to see why Manitoba has a solid reputation as being a fisherman’s paradise. The landscape below was dotted with lakes, ponds, rivers, and falls; with few structures in sight.
Utik Lake is home to North Haven Resort and is a large body of water that lies just over half way up the Manitoba province. It is nestled between countless other lakes which I can only imagine hold large fish as well. North Haven doesn’t own the lake, as it’s a part of Canada’s Crown Lands, similar to our own Forest Service. They have, however, managed to arrange for exclusive fishing rights on the lake, I don’t recall seeing any other buildings on the lake during our week there. Bottom line, it’s a remote lake that North Haven goes to great length to keep pristine and in tip-top shape for anyone looking for an experience like no other.
The pilots made a low pass and sweeping turn as we got a good look at the crushed gravel runway. The runway is purpose built for North Haven Resort, with the heavy equipment needed to construct it coming in on the winter roads. In fact, the guides talked about the runway construction project being featured on “Ice Road Truckers” one season. The resort spared no expense in making this the ultimate northern pike destination. The management and guide staff greeted us as we stepped off the plane and led us to a nearby dock and a waiting pontoon boat that motored us over to the main lodge. A smiling wait staff greeted us at the front door with mimosas in hand and a hot breakfast waiting.
Our guide, Matt, came to our table and introduced himself to us and discussed plans for the day. Shortly after we finished a delicious breakfast, he met us out on the dock in what would be our “office” for the week. The lodge had brand new, custom-made 19’ Lund boats. The boats were built to ride comfortably across the expansive lake, especially during times of wind or rain. They were as equally well planned for client comforts while fishing. The fishing deck on the front of the boat was extended deeper into the boat than most and cutting-edge electronics made sure we were right where the fish wanted to be. North Haven provides all of the fishing gear you’ll need on the lake, from rods and reels to the lures that have proven effective. They proudly tout that you will only need to bring your clothes and they will provide the rest! We found their gear to be top-notch and in great working condition during our stay at the lodge.
The bend in the rod came at a time when the casts and retrieves all started to blend together, eyeballing likely water and hurling hopeful casts with questionable accuracy. Between Kent and I, we had boated a number of fish that morning, but none that would stretch the tape to trophy standards. The feel of this fish combined with the sudden sense of urgency on Matt’s part told me this one was different. The fish made frenzied runs while I did my best to make gains on it when it slowed down. The battle was back and forth, with me slowly making ground on the fish until it got close enough for Matt to pull the net out and start to pace the starboard side of the boat like an eager puppy. The fish slid out of the stained depths and showed herself for the first time, a trip-making fish by just about anyone’s standards. Matt slid the net under the belly of the big northern, quickly bringing it aboard the boat to put a tape to it. There would be no fish stories on this one, he was going for an official measurement. 40 ¾”, a mere ¼” short of the trophy designation set up by the Manitoba Tourism Board, but a clear trophy to me. The fish was quickly returned to the water to continue to grow.
The giant fish only further encouraged our child-like enthusiasm for the toothy critters, but it was lunch time and time to swap out rods. The rod locker stored lighter weight rods, rigged up with jigs for us to be able to catch our own lunch. This was my first fishing trip to Canada and what excited me equally as much as the trophy fishing was the famed shore lunches. The light-tipped jigging rods were a nice break from the large spoons and heavy crankbaits we’d been throwing at the pike and ended up being a nice segway into shore lunch. The walleye came rather easily, with all of them being around 20”-25”. We stopped when we had caught enough for lunch.
We moved around the lake looking for a lunch spot that would shelter us from the wind that had been hounding us all morning long. The lodge has a number of “lunch spot” locations around the lake, all of them complete with picnic tables, fire boxes and plenty of cut wood to cook a feast fit for a king. After a bit of a run in the Lund, we found a nice spot to have lunch, out of the wind and as scenic as any lunch spot I’ve ever been to. Matt got to work splitting wood, building the fire, then turned his attention to the fish we had just caught. He fileted them out and prepared them five different ways, from a honey garlic to a spicy breading. The tables were covered with fresh linens and the places set for what would be a pretty memorable meal. The sides were just as plentiful and delicious, with fresh cut French fries to corn, coleslaw and beans. This was no ordinary outdoor lunch, it truly was an experience on it’s own.
The accommodations at North Haven are second to none, from the grand lodge built right on the waters edge to the private cabins with no details overlooked. The main lodge has a fully stocked bar, game room, lakeside hot tub on the front deck and a private meeting room available for those needing a business excuse to be up there for the week. The mornings start with your guide coming into your cabin and lighting a fire to get things warmed up. A delicious hot breakfast is hosted in the main lodge before your guide meets you at the dock to head out for a day of fishing. As was mentioned before, the shore lunches are legendary and certainly live up to any hype you’ve heard about them. At the end of a full day on the water, a gourmet dinner is prepared by staff chefs with some of the offerings the week we were there being rack of lamb and prime rib. The homemade ice cream and fresh berries put the food options that week over the top. After a full day on the water fighting fish, the glow of the lights around the lodge are a welcome sight.
We weren’t the only guests at the lodge that week and were fortunate enough to share it with a couple of pike veterans. Bill and Wayne were from the Chicago area, who had both fished a number of trophy pike lodges over the years, but from the stories that were told over the week, it was pretty apparent North Haven was their clear favorite. Those “fish stories” were told over the freshly prepared dinners each night, with the TV above the bar showing photos from the day. It was hard to fool anyone on just how big your fish may have been! It stood out as a real testament to the quality of the lodge and the experiences they provide by the sheer number of return clients they host each year.
My travel partner on this trip, as you know, is a fishing nut, frothing at the mouth to catch just about any species that swims. But no other fish get his interest quicker than northern pike, especially when he can throw a fly rod for them. Wind is not a fly fishers friend and we had our fair share of wind that week, but there were times it calmed down enough for Kent to string up a heavy weight rod. We had boxes loaded with pike flies from Rainy’s, enough that neither one of us would run out when fishing the predatory northern fish. The custom Lund boats had more than ample room to cast from the front deck and it didn’t take long for Kent to hook up with a solid fish. When the conditions permitted, the casting and more importantly, the catching, was consistent. So consistent that Kent ended up breaking a rod one afternoon. It’s still being debated if a trophy fish is to be blamed or if it was an operator error, either way, the fly fishing didn’t disappoint.
North Haven is known for trophy northern pike and rightfully so. What they don’t talk about much is the lake trout fishing there, which can be equally as good. The weather forced us into a lunch spot one afternoon that happened to be near one of the deepest parts of the lake. Matt rigged up heavier rods, with equally as heavy jigs and had us drop them down to the depths and jig for some of the behemoths that lurk in the dark. It wasn’t long before one of our rods doubled over in what promised to be a good fight. When using heavy gear at those types of depths, it’s a bit of an unknown when the hook is set, just how well it might be embedded in the fish’s mouth. The key to a successful fight comes down to keeping the tension on the line. After a solid fight of give and take, the large lake trout came to the boat with the fight ending in a large belch from the fish as it equalized after coming up from nearly 100 feet. The big laker ended up measuring just over 38” with girth that would make a sumo wrestler jealous. After a couple quick snapshots, it was released back to the depths for another lucky soul. It was a fun break from the pike action and is something that should be taken in serious consideration when booking a trip with North Haven Resort.
As you can see, if you are looking for a trophy pike lodge that is clearly a cut above anything else out there, do yourself a favor and give North Haven Resort a look (northhavenresort.ca and 866-531-3848). Not only is the fishing spectacular, but the spa and fitness facilities (full-time masseuse available throughout your stay) are outstanding as well. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.