October 07, 2014
There is nothing quite like the expectation of casting flies from a pontoon boat into a reed-lined trough where big trout are known to cruise. Each strip could bring the desired thump, jump, and run of a huge trout–the kind that puts 2X tippet at risk of breaking, if your streamer hook doesn't fail first.
This type anticipation preceded my cast into the clear waters of Patterson Lake. As hoped, the water boiled and my rod tip dipped toward the spot where my Beaver Leech had been. In seconds, the fish made my slack fly line disappear, and soon my reel was humming as the fish (luckily) steamrolled away from the reeds and into open water.
The fish jumped again, this time a startling "is that my fish?" moment as the line disappeared in one direction, and the trout erupted from the water far to my right. I managed to straighten my connection to the trout and the fish jumped again, back-flipping down onto my leader and forcing me to drop my rod tip tarpon-style to protect the tippet from breaking.
The fish changed tactics and ran toward me. Clearly, I was reacting to every move the trout made, and not nearly in control of the situation. I frantically tried to reel in line but couldn't take it in quickly enough, so I began stripping line until the fish jumped close enough to spray water in my face, and then streaked in the other direction.
Loops of loose line around my fingers and my oars could have ended the fight, but I managed to clear them just in time to see my backing knot again disappear out of my tip-top.
Eventually the fish ran out of opportunities, and I used my flippers and constant rod pressure to bring him to the net. The 26-inch rainbow had a massive girth that likely pushed it over the 10-pound mark, but that wasn't the amazing part. My experiences in the previous few days told me that there were trout just like this one throughout the public lakes of Manitoba's Parkland region. Access is free for any do-it-yourselfer, it's a one-day drive from much of the Midwest, yet it seemed my buddies and I who drove up from Utah had the place to ourselves.
Canola Field Hawgs
In the grain fields and rolling hills of southern Manitoba fly fishing there is much more than just public lakes with trophy trout fishing. What has been developed here is a successful cooperative alliance that could be duplicated to the benefit of local fisheries and regional economies in many places.
There have long been some great fishing destinations in the glacial shield lakes of Manitoba, especially the remote northern lakes filled with pike, walleye, and brook trout. But the lakes in the more accessible southern region were not historically known for great trout fishing.
Sure, stocked trout grew quickly in the fertile waters, but summer algae blooms and long, hard winters depleted the oxygen levels, causing cyclical fish kills before the trout had a chance to grow to trophy proportions.
Fortunately, local anglers, businesses, government agencies, and fly-fishing clubs recognized the potential of these lakes and started FLIPPR, (Fish and Lake Improvement Program for the Parkland Region, flippr.ca). FLIPPR combined the efforts of these various stakeholders to help identify, create, improve, fund, and manage high-quality trout fishing in the region.
FLIPPR doesn't stock trout or directly manage the lakes, but it does donate funds to cover the purchase and operating expense of government-installed aerators, and it presents stocking recommendations to Manitoba Water Stewardship. FLIPPR has also been influential in bringing trophy trout regulations to the region, and this organized pride also results in a strong regional catch-and-release ethic.
The result has been a boom in both trophy trout and tourism, although you'd never know it out on the water. Despite increased angling hours, there are so many lakes in the Oakburn, Rossburn, Russell, and Roblin areas that angling pressure is widely spaced.
These are prime small-boat lakes, with only fair wade fishing due to the muddy bottoms, reeds, and shoreline weed beds. But they are perfect lakes for watercraft such as canoes, kayaks, prams, stand-up paddleboards, pontoon boats, and any other type of one-man inflatable craft. Gas motors are not permitted, and that keeps the lakes quiet and peaceful for fly fishing. There is some wind, but I always welcome it, as a nice chop on the water makes the trout less spooky.
My watercraft preference is to use a pontoon boat with an electric motor rigged so the motor pulls you backward while you use kick fins just to steer into casting position. The motor takes you from point A to point B and compensates for the wind, making it much easier to stay out all day without wearing out your legs.
This also leaves your hands free to cast and strip line while fishing or while playing a fish. It's an extremely efficient and effective method, not just for these lakes, but any stillwater lake from Utah's Strawberry Reservoir to the Kamloops area, British Columbia.
Of course you can always troll flies, a time-honored tradition that certainly produces fish, but I prefer to work the water thoroughly with casting and retrieve patterns, often dropping an anchor or using fins to assure you remain in one spot. Surface activity is sporadic, so most anglers use a variety of lake nymphs, leeches, wet flies, and streamers to ply the water.
My favorite way to find trout in an unfamiliar Manitoba lake is to use a herringbone search pattern. To do this, position your craft about 40 to 100 feet from shallow, shoreline structure then cast, retrieve, and repeat on left and right sides of your boat as you slowly move backwards along the perimeter of the lakeshore or across a bay. If hits come mostly inshore, then fish are likely cruising the edges for food. If fish strike more on the open-water side, then move out deeper and repeat the process.
These littoral and sub-littoral zones are prime areas to find fish. If you find fish eating regularly in 12 feet of water (for example), the lake contours may be 10 feet offshore, or 100 yards out in a bay, depending on the lake topography. Even in deep water where you can't see the bottom you are still fishing structure, and fishing depth is often critical.
The fish also may be suspended at depths along a contour. This matters greatly if trout have a small strike zone, and won't move far to take a fly. You have to fish at or very close to their level and cruising area to get hits. On other days it seems that any fly that keeps moving gets eaten, almost regardless of depth or area. These large-strike-zone days are fun–enjoy them!–but to be consistent, you'll need to develop a sense of what your fly is doing and how to repeat your successes once you've found them.
My most successful Manitoba fly-fishing sessions have been when I discovered through experimentation and observation what bottom contour and depth the fish were feeding at, and then reproduced those results regularly with the right fly line, fly, and retrieves. Although fly pattern is important at many times in Parkland lakes, retrieve depth and speed is often equally important.
The right sink rate of fly line is very important. My favorites are the clear, slow-sinking lake lines that sink at about 1.5 inches per second (often called intermediates even though their sink rates are more than true intermediates) and also a type 3 or type 4 sink rate such as RIO's InTouch Deep 3 or RIO's InTouch Deep 5. I also carry a floating line for shallow feeders and dry-fly situations, and a real fast sinker like RIO's InTouch Deep 7, which sinks at 7 to 8 inches per second.
Retrieves can be basic or complex. Fast retrieves are good when searching waters with baitfish-type streamers, but leeches and nymphs should normally be fished very slowly. A slow retrieve also allows you to experiment by swimming the fly through different depths following a single cast. If hits come early, a slow-sinking line is in order. If hits come after it has time to sink, either increase the line sink rate, or increase your countdown to get the fly to that level before starting the retrieve. Also be ready for hits to occur as the fly sinks during the countdown, or pauses between strips.
Some fly fishers like to "bong" for trout. This is a specialized stillwater method using a floating line, a 9- to 30-foot leader, and a Quick Release Indicator (stillwaterflyfishingstore.com). You pin the indicator in place, but it pops loose when you set the hook, and slides up and down the leader. This allows you to use very long leaders and suspend nymphs and other small flies at specific depths. The method is often very effective when fish are being picky and not hitting swimming flies.
Rods are personal preference, but I suggest mostly 8½- to 10-foot sticks from 5- to 7-weights. You'll be under-gunned with a 4-weight, and an 8-weight may splash too heavily and wear out your arm.
Electronic depth finders are helpful for keeping you in the right zones. Few avid stillwater fly fishers go without a sonar unit at least some of the time. Since it seldom shows fish in the shallow depths (unless it has a super-wide transducer beam or a side-finder function), it is mainly used to determine the bottom contours you need to identify the feeding lanes of stillwater trout.
Trout sometimes shy away from sonar signals and other underwater noise-generating items like motors, so it's not a bad idea to turn them off and go into stealth mode once you know the lay of the land, so to speak. Use quiet fin movements or a light breeze to move you along a fishing lane, then motor back around upwind for another quiet pass.
Also, the biggest fish seem to sense boats at the surface at close range.
Anglers who can cast far always seem to get bigger trout, but to be honest, a 40-foot cast by a stealthy fly fisher catches plenty of good trout as well. In general, the noisier you are, the farther you'll have to cast.
As you would rightly suspect, you can't grow fish this size without a bountiful food supply. Manitoba's Parkland lakes are full of caddis, mayflies, midges, scuds, daphnia, leeches, minnows, backswimmers, damselflies, dragonflies, and quite a few terrestrials. Many common lake flies work in Manitoba but there are also some specific flies you should tie or buy especially for these waters.
If you are already an ardent stillwater fly fisher, you probably already have many of the flies that you need, and your favorites will work here. However, there are some patterns that you may not have thought of. A good reference is Bob Sheedy's Top 50 Stillwater Fly Patterns (Fly Fishing Canada Publications, 2004). Sheedy is a local fly fisher (mwflyfishing.net) who has spent years working with FLIPPR and fishing the Parkland lakes. His book is a result of years of experience and success on these waters.
My fly box carries the following Manitoba Parkland favorites: Beaver Leech, Purple Beaver Bugger, California Leech, Punkinkead Leech, Tullis Wiggle Bug, Pine Squirrel Zonker, Stickleback Minnow, P-Quad, Midnight Fire Bugger, Doc Spratley, and the Spear Lake Renegade.
Since there are no major airports in the immediate area, you'll need to either drive from your home base (10 hours from Minneapolis) or else fly to Winnipeg and then drive to Russell, Oakburn, Rossburn, or Roblin, Manitoba. Whether you are driving or flying you'll need a current passport. Be polite, and law-abiding tourists should breeze right through the border crossing.
I use Russell Inn (russellinn.com) as my headquarters but the Jolly Lodger (jollylodger.com) also hosts many fly fishers, and there are accommodations in most towns and also some lakeside lodges.
There is a campground at Patterson Lake (rossburn.ca) that helps keep you on the water in those critical summer morning and evening hours.
The motels and stores in the area are likely FLIPPR contributors and supporters. They may not fish themselves but they help keep the lakes vibrant, and every local I've run into has been very friendly and helpful.
These lakes and these fish are a valuable resource, so treat them with respect for the next visitor, or for yourself when you return. This is a special place for stillwater fly fishers, and although there are no fancy fly-fishing lodges or destination fly shops, it's a worthy destination for independent souls who like to figure things out for themselves. If you do require some one-on-one instruction, stillwater expert Phil Rowley Â(flycraftangling.com) conducts annual schools in the area.
Once you learn the waters, you'll fall in love with the trout, the region, and the people. I know several fly fishers who for many years have made two trips per year, each one two weeks long, to float these waters. It is that good.
This lake north of Oakburn is the original FLIPPR showpiece, and has a variety of bays, islands, reefs, and points with trout in the 14- to 28-inch range. A 30-incher is possible. Just about any structure from 2 to 18 feet deep is worthy of some searching retrieves for the big browns and 'bows there, and the campground makes it easy to stay on the water during the best hours. It's very close to Tokaruk Lake.
This is one of the "hot" lakes, past and present because its 'bows and browns grow fast, and these muscled footballs are some of the hardest-fighting trout you'll ever catch. Use 2X or heavier tippet or you'll lose all your flies. I'm not kidding!
Two lakes in one, Twin Lake is a tiger trout lake located in a scenic, wooded location north of Roblin. It's a great place for a change of scenery, or to get out of the wind. Tigers are beautiful, and if you've never caught this brown/brook hybrid, Twin Lake should be on your must-do list.
One of the "newest" lakes in the area, Persse Lake received both trout and aeration in 2010. The trout are now mature, and this lake has the potential in the next two or three years to produce some truly giant rainbows and browns.
This fairly new FLIPPR project is already producing some hefty rainbows and tigers.
North of the Town of Sandy, this lake suffered winterkill several years ago due to an aeration malfunction. It was replanted with rainbows, and is a clear example of how fast the fish grow in these lakes. Already the fish are as big as they were before the fish kill.
Lake 400 is located just south of the town of Sandy Lake. It is not a FLIPPR lake, and there is no aerator, but so far it seems it doesn't need it. The growth rates are high from the abundant insects and minnows.
East and West
If you like to fish for 20- to 30-inch trout right in downtown Roblin, these are your lakes. Despite the urban setting, the fishing is good enough that it hosted the Canadian Fly Fishing Championships a few years ago. These lakes are also home to many perch.
Duck Mountain Lakes
These stillwaters are in a provincial park north of Roblin. The region is a wonderful boreal forested area with many clear lakes, hills, lodges, and camping opportunities in addition to some great fishing at times in dozens of lakes. Use gov.mb.ca to research Manitoba's parks before you visit; the website has maps and information on campgrounds and lodges in the area, not to mention other activities for families. If you want to combine a family vacation with a fishing trip, Duck Mountain Provincial Park should be on the list. Don't confuse it with Saskatchewan's nearby Duck Mountain Park.
Fishing is often good right near the launch ramp for smaller fish, especially in spring and fall. For the more adventurous, motor or row to the islands or the remote other end of Gull Lake in search of bigger brookies, splake, lake whitefish, and rainbows to 30 inches.
East Blue Lake
Several of Manitoba's trout records come from here, but the water is so clear that fly anglers sometimes have difficulty here except during spring and fall. Long casts with long, light leaders are required, unless night or low light and wind makes the large, experienced fish less spooky.
This small 13-acre lake has potential for large brown trout up to 30 inches, and smallmouth bass to 24 inches. I've done best here fishing weighted nymphs and small leeches slow and deep.
At close to 1,000 acres, Laurie Lake is avoided by some fly fishers who prefer other more intimate waters. That doesn't change the fact that there are browns and splake to 28 inches, and plenty of room to roam.
A small lake near East Blue Lake, this is a great spot to get out of the wind and still have good fishing.