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Time on Manitoba lake passes in a blur . . . of angling success

The morning starts out with a predictability that soon becomes easy to take for granted.

First cast. Walleye.

Second cast. Walleye.

Third cast. Walleye.

The fourth cast offers a reprieve, a chance to catch a breath and soak in our subarctic surroundings, dominated here by the stilt-like black spruce trees and bushy willows that surround the shallow bay.

Smoke from a nearby forest fire hangs thick in the air and penetrates the nostrils.

There's little time to think about that now, though. One cast later, and another walleye is tugging at the end of the line; the 20-inch chunk of blackish-gold beauty acts more like a northern pike as it races up and hits a Mepps spoon next to the boat.

We soon give up on counting fish and settle in to the routine of catching walleyes seemingly at will. Some, we'll toss in the bucket to savor for our daily shore lunch; many others are too big to keep.

So begins another day at Big Sand Lake Lodge.

Ernie Moose had said it would be this way. The senior guide at Big Sand Lake Lodge, Moose, 49, has been plying the waters of this massive wide spot on the South Seal River system since the lodge opened in 1987.

Accessible only by air, Big Sand Lake Lodge is located 525 miles northwest of Winnipeg. Big Sand itself spans about 70 miles from north to south and covers more than 60,000 acres.

We're north of the 57th Parallel, much closer to Hudson Bay than to Winnipeg, about as far north as walleyes swim.

Big Sand Lake is named for the giant sand formations, called eskers, which dominate the landscape. The huge sand ridges formed in the wake of retreating glaciers tens of thousands of years ago and tower above the shorelines in several areas of the lake.

The lodge itself, a 5,000-square-foot wilderness palace, sits atop an esker. So does the gravel runway that allows large airplanes carrying upwards of 30 people to land right in camp.

In winter, the eskers serve as migration routes for caribou.

The Cree Indian community of South Indian Lake, Man., about 140 miles to the south, owns Big Sand Lake Lodge. From guides to cooks to maintenance staff, all of the 35 employees who work here are Cree with ties to South Indian Lake, with the exception of manager Rick Bohna, who's from Winnipeg.

Applicants far exceed jobs at the lodge, built to mitigate the economic impact of a hydro dam. Constructed in the 1970s, the dam raised the levels of South Indian Lake and devastated the fishing and trapping livelihoods of the Cree people who lived there.

"Our economy was caribou and fishing," Moose said. "The whole cultural structure was changed" by the dam.

Of the camp's 19 guides, only Moose can say he was here that very first year. Savvy in the ways of the wilderness - or "bush," as they call it in the North - he helps teach a four-week guiding course for new guides. His guiding clients include former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Roslynn Carter, who visited the lodge in 1993.

A large framed photo of Moose helping President Carter measure a trophy northern pike hangs prominently next to the fireplace in the lodge.

Our group - seven North Dakota anglers and one from East Grand Forks - is four days into a five-day trip when our guides steer us into Cox Bay on the lake's southeast corner. The location is no coincidence. Early July finds walleyes congregating in shallow bays, Moose says, especially those with cabbage weeds that offer hiding places to ambush minnows - or in our case, jigs and spoons.

Most years, the same bays are loaded with big pike, as well, and it's trophy northerns that draw many visitors to Big Sand Lake.

This year is an anomaly because big pike aren't congregating in the bays. Moose, our guide, blames cold weather that persisted most of June and hampered weed growth.

Still, a 44-inch northern was where it was supposed to be the previous morning, when I put a Mepps Cyclops spoon in front of its snout during a day trip to neighboring Kitimew Lake, another option for Big Sand visitors.

The pike lands me a coveted spot on the lodge's Trophy Board, where two in our group already had earned a place: Matt Thom of Neche, N.D., with a 28½-inch walleye and Dave Wells of Larimore, N.D., with a 35½-inch lake trout. Both fish squeaked in a half-inch above the minimum for Manitoba's Master Angler program, which recognizes anglers who catch big fish.

Time passes in a blur on fishing trips, and the day that begins with a walleye frenzy quickly turns into supper back at the lodge.

Days are long in the North, and there's time to catch more walleyes that night after supper. That's fine for some of us, but Matt Thom, the youngest in our crew, is on a mission:

Forget walleyes and northerns: He wants that Master Angler lake trout.

There certainly is cause for optimism. Big Sand offers anglers the "triple-header" combo of pike, walleyes and lake trout within relatively close proximity, and four anglers from Winnipeg who spent the week targeting lakers are lighting up the Trophy Board.

They've landed 20 lake trout up to 44 inches, a size that likely would surpass 40 pounds.

The trout, they say, are hitting 2-ounce squid-tail tube jigs, stuffed with salted shiner minnows, in 42 to 55 feet of water in a part of the lake called Mistay Narrows, a popular trout hole on Big Sand.

That's where Matt, his dad, Bruce Thom, and their guide, Clarence Bonner, head after supper, and that's where Matt catches his first-ever lake trout while jigging.

Michael Findlay was part of the Winnipeg crew fishing nearby when patience paid off and Matt hooked the fish.

Before long, he had a cheering section.

"We took our lines out and went over to watch him," Findlay said. "It was so much fun. I'd rather see young guys catch them than catch them myself."

Matt's lake trout measures 36½ inches, big enough not only for the lodge's Trophy Board, but Manitoba's Master Angler trophy book.

The rest of us fishing elsewhere have to settle for the fish story.

"At first, it felt like reeling in a dead tree," Matt said later. "But as soon as it saw the boat, it shot straight back down to the bottom of the lake."

A bit understated, perhaps, but the smile on his face tells the real story.

So ends another day at Big Sand Lake Lodge.

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