A Big Slice of Heaven
For fishermen who love trophies - and lots of 'em
God's Lake in Manitoba is the place to be.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, June 2007
More than 670 miles north of St. Paul, the God's River roars out of this northern Manitoba lake in a series of whitewater rapids that few adventurers would tackle straight on.
But Dulas "Junior" Watt is a Cree Indian fishing guide who grew up on God's River. With two Minnesota anglers on board, he pointed his 16-foot aluminum boat straight into the frothy rapids and roared downstream.
Shore Lunch Fish Fry
Shore Lunch Fish Fry
He stood erect in the boat's stern, holding the outboard's tiller while his black hair flew from under a baseball cap that said, "Women Love Me, Fish Fear Me."
At the second set of rapids, Junior pulled up, and Dan Coborn, 76, of Sartell and Bob O'Gorman, 82, of Cannon Falls dropped their Rapala lures into the God's River rapids.
After a few casts, Coborn landed a monstrous brook trout pushing 5 pounds.
"What an experience," Coborn said that night at dinner at God's Lake Lodge. "Running through those rapids, I was hanging onto the boat pretty good. But the first trout I caught was a monster."
There's a reason Coborn has been flying to God's Lake for three decades: Few waters in North America produce as many diverse, trophy fish.
Last week, the list of "master angler" fish caught this season by God's Lake Lodge guests included 19 northern pike weighing at least 18 pounds (or 40 inches long). One pike was more than 25 pounds.
Lodge owner Lee Nolden keeps a chart in his dining room of other fish that qualify as Manitoba trophies. So far this season, the list also includes 25 walleyes weighing at least 8 pounds (28 inches), nine brook trout weighing more than 3½ pounds (20 inches) and two lake trout weighing more than 15 pounds (35 inches).
"It's world-class fishing for three species (walleyes, pike and lake trout), and the God's River is one of the best rivers in the world for brook trout,'' said Nolden, who grew up in St. Cloud but is a naturalized Canada citizen. "God's Lake has always had that reputation."
I'd heard God's Lake bantered around sports shows for years but had never seen the huge, sprawling lake and namesake river until I flew to northern Manitoba earlier this month with seven Minnesotans. The group included Jim Lehr of Ottertail; his son, J.D., of Wyoming Township; Roger Poganski and Jim Akervik of St. Cloud; and pilot Dale Fehrenbach of Perham.
Many in the group had been coming to the lake for a decade or more, and past guest lists included the late wildlife artist Les Kouba and sportsman Vern Aanenson, owner of Old Dutch Foods.
On one such God's Lake trip, when certain provisions went dry, Kouba famously said, "The last time I ran out of whiskey was at the eighth-grade class picnic."
Walleyes are one thing God's Lake doesn't run low on.
At 65 miles long, 20 miles wide and with more than 40 tributaries, God's Lake has the space and habitat to produce an endless supply of walleyes.
When Cree guide Don Trout, who has guided on the lake for two decades, motored our boat into a small bay called Little God's, he expected we would catch walleyes in short order.
"One day, we came out here at 9 o'clock and had 62 by 10'clock,'' Trout said. "This bay is a spawning area, and they hang around here through late June."
Jim Lehr and I lowered our jointed Rapalas over the gunwale while Trout trolled around the bay. Other than a few other lodge boats, we were guaranteed peace and quiet. In this part of Manitoba's bush country, we were closer to Hudson's Bay than Winnipeg.
Before long, Lehr's rod bucked and doubled over.
In came a 3-pound walleye.
"It's kind of a small one,'' Lehr said. "They average between 3 and 5 pounds."
In a few minutes, my rod tip began to gyrate. Trout hoisted another walleye over the gunwale. Then another and another and another.
"How many is that?" I said.
"Don't know,'' Lehr said with a chuckle. "I always quit counting."
Trout put four walleyes on the stringer for a traditional shore lunch of fried walleye, potatoes and baked beans. He sat quietly in the stern, turning the boat in large circles and unhooking walleyes. When I suddenly stopped catching fish, while Lehr's rod continued to buck and jolt with striking fish, I asked Trout what was wrong.
"I'm trolling the same lure in the same boat, but Jim's catching all the fish," I complained.
"What am I doing wrong?"
Trout thought for a moment.
"You're probably not holding your mouth correctly,'' he said dryly.
A few moments later, Lehr and Trout burst into laughter.
"Indian guide humor,'' Lehr said.
MIX OF OLD AND NEW
When Lee and Lynn Nolden bought God's Lake Lodge two years ago, they invested in a resort steeped in local history.
The Hudson's Bay Co. established a trading post on the site in 1828 - 30 years before Minnesota became a state - and operated it into the early 1940s. Rough-hewn log walls inside the lodge testify to the building's history as an early-20th-century trading post. Three log cabins were originally Hudson's Bay warehouses built in 1910.
The lake has long been the center of commerce in the region. The God's River provides a direct link to Hudson Bay, which is about a 10-day canoe trip away. As a historic fur-trading route, God's Lake provided access to inland lakes and rivers north and south, including Lake Winnipeg and the Red River.
Brook Trout Fishing at sunset
Brook Trout Fishing at sunset
Because the east end of God's Lake, where the lodge sits, provided such good fishing, many of the local islands are named after Indian clans that gathered there to fish, Nolden said. The nearest Cree village, God's River, is 25 miles away by boat.
Yet, God's Lake Lodge isn't removed from modern comforts.
A generator that powers the lodge runs 24 hours a day, and a staff of 10 fishing guides, two housekeepers, a cook and a cook's assistant keep anglers in fish, food and clean sheets.
Last winter, Nolden built a new guesthouse with electric heat. His guests watched the NBA finals last week on a satellite television. In the dining room, a wireless Internet connection is available through satellite. Food and guests arrive by airplanes that land on a small, dirt airstrip behind the lodge. Winnipeg is only short flight away.
The world, indeed, has gotten smaller.
"The last episode of 'Sopranos' was on last night,'' Don Trout said as we trolled for walleyes. "It's a good show."
"I guess I missed it,'' I said.
LOTS OF MOOSE
Still, conservative fishing regulations and a remote location keep God's Lake a tremendous fishery. God's Lake Lodge guests are allowed to take home only four walleyes; it's catch-and-release fishing for all other species.
Often the lake is still ice-covered in late May, and the camp closes up in early September. June is the best month for fishing walleyes, but July and August provide fast action for northern pike on surface plugs. In the winter, a herd of woodland caribou and a single caretaker are the only residents at the lodge.
Plenty of Moose
Plenty of Moose
On a blustery, cold evening, when full rain suits and down jackets were required attire, Rex "Pee Wee" Ross Jr. took J.D. Lehr and me out for a few hours of walleye fishing. Pee Wee, 23, is Cree and lives in the nearby village of God's River. He wore a hooded sweatshirt with the name of a popular clothing designer.
"What do you do in the winter?" I asked.
"Help my grandpa with his trap line, sometimes. He traps marten, beaver. A few otter."
A half-hour of silence passed. A handful of walleyes were hooked and landed. Finally, the conversation began again. The subject was universal.
"Where would you live, Pee Wee, if you could live anywhere in the world?" I asked.
Pee Wee thought for a moment.
"Edmunds Lake,'' he said.
I expected Winnipeg, maybe Toronto. I asked where Edmunds Lake was.
"About 25 miles from here,'' Pee Wee said. "Nice scenery."
The world may be getting smaller, but the Manitoba bush and remote lake still trumps a city street for a young Cree man.
"Oh, and (Edmunds Lake) has lots of moose,'' Pee Wee said.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5524.
TRIP TIPS: FISHING GOD'S LAKE
Description: God's Lake is huge even by Minnesota standards. It is 65 miles long and 20 miles wide and offers trophy fishing for northern pike, walleye and lake trout. The nearby God's River is lightly fished for brook trout, but rates as one of the finest brook trout rivers in North America. Brookies up to 11 pounds have been caught.
Fishing tackle: Most pike are caught on large spoons (a yellow five of diamonds is popular) or crankbaits. Ditto for walleyes, which are also easily caught on large spoons. Guides often take anglers into shallow bays or rivers for walleyes, and fish 8 pounds and larger are not uncommon. Some anglers have caught up to 100 walleyes in a day. One evening, I caught eight walleyes on eight casts using a small jig with a white plastic twister tail. No live bait is allowed.
Getting there: Direct flights to God's Lake Lodge are available from Winnipeg, which is 365 air miles from the lodge. The lodge maintains its own airstrip nearby that can accommodate small airplanes. New regulations require anyone visiting Canada by air to show a passport upon their return to the United States.
Weather: Summer temperatures can dip into the 30s at night, but soar into the 80s during the day. Clothing should range from light summer shirts and shorts to a down jacket. Rain gear is a necessity.
Lodge information: God's Lake Lodge can accommodate single anglers and groups up to 30. Guided fishing trips begin at 8 a.m., after breakfast, and last until 5 p.m. A traditional shore lunch is included. The lodge has a full-time chef. A new bunkhouse was built last winter. New owners Lee and Lynn Nolden plan additional improvements. Rates and information are available on the Web at www.godslakelodge.com or by phone at 888-463-7525.
Article on Twincities.com, June 17, 2007