Way up North--to lake trout nirvana
Jul 22, 2018 04:44PM ● Published by Editor
By Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald - July 22, 2018
KAMATSI LAKE, Sask.—We'd been exploring a new part of the lake, catching lake trout with just enough regularity to keep things interesting, when Peter Howard suggested we try a nearby shoreline point at the mouth of a narrows we'd been fishing for the past hour.
Good plan, that. Shoreline points often mean dropoffs into deeper water, and dropoffs often mean lake trout, those spotted, grayish-blue packages of fins and power and beauty that head for the depths when surface water temperatures rise past 50 degrees.
Even in the wilds of northern Saskatchewan, that means depths of 40 to 60 feet in the heat of summer.
Working our way to the mouth of the narrows, Howard and I had just passed the tip of the point when we noticed a long, submerged shoal about 50 yards from shore.
A real "prop eater," the shoal lurked just inches under the water. Between the shoreline point and the shoal was a deep channel perfectly suited for lake trout.
The lake trout apparently thought so, too.
I looked down at the fish finder screen, a Humminbird Helix 5, and saw the bottom of the lake was stacked with marks on top of marks betraying the presence of lake trout some 50 feet below.
To say the fish were thick would be an understatement. We'd stumbled on the lake trout fishing equivalent of nirvana.
"Get ready," I blubbered to Howard, or words to that effect, backing the stern of the boat into the wind to set up a drift as both of us scrambled for our fishing rods. "We've found them."
This was going to be fun. ...
Far North adventure.
It was July 7, the third day of a weeklong fly-in fishing trip to Kamatsi Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Besides Howard, 30, of St. Paul, the crew consisted of his dad, Pete Sr., 60, of Stillwater, Minn.; Tom Laumb, 67, of Berthold, N.D., and his son, Jason, 43, of Grand Forks; and Brad Durick, 43, of Grand Forks.
All of them have shown up in print over the years, thanks to their longtime friendship with a certain outdoors writer, 57.
A big lake accessible only by air, Kamatsi also holds northern pike and walleyes, but we'd made the trek north and west from Grand Forks—the first 950 miles by road and then 40 miles by floatplane—for the lake trout.
We'd spent the first day and a half fishing a spot four of us had found in 2014 during a previous trip to Kamatsi. Dubbed by us as the "honey hole," the spot produced great trout fishing, but with six anglers and three boats, we needed to diversify our options and hunt for new spots.
Judging by the fish finder screen, Howard and I definitely had found one.
Using a drop-and-reel technique called "bombing," we dropped our Buzz Bomb jigging lures into the depths. They didn't even get a chance to hit the bottom before both of us were battling lake trout. Pure mayhem it was, and every drop produced a double, and even the occasional "double-double," when one of us would get our line back in the water before the other was done playing a particularly scrappy lake trout.
Drop and reel.
Drop and "fish on!"
Reel and "fish on!"
Or ... "Good, he got off."
Laughter and slime
We caught lakers up to 34 inches, and every fish meant a line-peeling, drag-testing battle. The point sheltered us from the worst of a stiff southerly wind that would have made less protected trout spots nearly impossible to fish.
Still, trying to keep the boat on course while running the motor and battling a lake trout every drop was a real workout.
The frenzy passed in a blur of "cackling laughter and lake trout slime," as Howard put it.
"All you can do is laugh," he said at one point as a lake trout bulldogged for the depths, peeling line from his reel. "This is the best fishing I've ever had in my life."
We quit counting at 50, and the lakers still were biting when we headed back to the cabin, exhausted but exhilarated from more than an hour of battling wind, waves and lake trout. Using barbless hooks, we released most of the fish without bringing them into the boat.
Howard even caught lake trout with a jig and a twister tail, a combo better suited for walleye fishing.
"Not even when I was a kid catching sunfish with bread have I had fishing as fantastic as that," he said later. "Every time the jig dropped below the surface of the water we had a fish."
That was no exaggeration. And while fishing was good throughout the trip, this was something special.
"I have never experienced a place where I could catch fish at will, but on that day at that spot, the only limit to how many fish I could catch was my will to do so," Howard said. "We could have caught even more but both of us were gassed."
The outpost camp on Kamatsi Lake is operated by Randy Engen of Tolna, N.D.; his son, Phil; and daughter, Mindi. It's one of two outpost camps for the family, which owns Lawrence Bay Lodge on nearby Reindeer Lake.
This year marks Randy Engen's 48th in northern Saskatchewan.
Unlike Lawrence Bay Lodge, which is fully guided with meals included, the outposts on Kamatsi Lake and adjacent Pagato Lake are do-it-yourself ventures. No guides, no schedules, just miles of wilderness water, three 14-foot boats with 9.9-horse Yamaha motors and a fully equipped lakefront cabin that provided a roof over our heads and kept us dry—more or less—during the occasional thunderstorms and showers that hit during our stay.
Nothing fancy, in other words, and that was fine by us.
As the best adventures so often are, the seeds for this trip had been planted several months earlier around a northern Minnesota campfire. All but the youngest Howard had been to Kamatsi Lake before, and we knew the kind of lake trout fishing that awaited us.
Considering the two-day drive—including 120 miles of bumpy gravel on the last stretch of road beginning south of the Churchill River bridge and north to the floatplane base in Southend, Sask.—the fishing had to be good for us to come back.
Getting there is part of the adventure.
Do-it-yourself outpost camps aren't for everyone, and it takes the right combination of people to make a trip work.
Everyone brought different skills to the table during the Kamatsi trip.
Peter Howard is a culinary whiz who planned and prepared a menu of evening meals that included Beef Bacon Stew, Grilled Lake Trout with Mustard Butter Sauce, Ecuadorian-style Red Beans and Rice and Spicy Japanese Sugar Trout with sauteed veggies. Jason Laumb was his kitchen sidekick, among other duties, serving as grillmaster and making breakfast every day.
Their planning and attention to detail resulted in a grocery bill of $37 per person for the seven-day trip, a total especially impressive considering the diversity of the main courses.
Fish, of course figured prominently on the menu.
Spicy Japanese Sugar Trout prepared on the grill was the main course Wednesday, July 11, on the final day of a weeklong fly-in fishing trip to Kamatsi Lake in northern Saskatchewan. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Howard Sr. is a retired electrical engineer and jack-of-all-trades who supplied the solar electricity system we used to keep the fish finder batteries charged. Durick cleaned fish, kept the fish finders humming and drove every long, bumpy mile of the trip.
Tom Laumb piloted the second vehicle, made sure the cabin's water tank was filled and did more than his share of dishes during the week.
Besides being hard fighters, lake trout inhabit beautiful places, and Kamatsi Lake is no exception. We spent our days surrounded by miles of rocky, rugged shoreline covered with spindly spruce trees, birch and aspen. Interrupting the sounds of splashing lake trout and cries of "fish on" were the sweet calls of white-throated sparrows and loons, along with the occasional whistling trills of Bohemian waxwings near the southern edge of their breeding range.
For seven glorious days, life revolved around lake trout and the occasional walleye. No cellphones. No Internet. Just fishing, friendship and laughs, served up with fantastic meals and washed down with the occasional favorite beverage.
The morning of July 12, our last day in camp, we had a few hours to kill before the floatplane was scheduled to arrive, so Peter Howard, Durick and I decided to give the lake trout one last shot.
We dropped our jigs into the water a short boat ride from camp—and immediately had a triple.
In the next hour, the three of us would land 20 lake trout, the last of more than 300 our crew released during the week.
Reluctantly, we headed back to camp and called it a week well-spent.
IF YOU GO
• Kamatsi Lake is located about 40 miles east of Southend, Sask., a small town about 950 miles from Grand Forks on the southern shore of Reindeer Lake. The Kamatsi outpost camp is about a half-hour floatplane ride from Southend and not far from the Manitoba border.
• Plan on a two-day drive to reach Southend and be prepared for 120 miles of bumpy gravel on the final leg of the trip. Two members of our crew who live in St. Paul and Stillwater, Minn., flew from the Twin Cities to Minot, where they joined the rest of us for the long drive.
• Crossing the border at Portal, N.D., our route took us through Estevan, Regina and Prince Albert, Sask. We spent the first night of our trip July 4 in La Ronge, Sask., finishing up the last 3½ hours to Southend the next morning. We stayed in Prince Albert, Sask., on the return trip July 12, crossing back into North Dakota at Portal the next day.
• The Kamatsi outpost cabin, which has hot and cold running water, a shower and indoor toilet, sleeps six people comfortably with beds for as many as eight.
• Fishing was spectacular for lake trout, the targeted species on our trip to Kamatsi, but the lake also has northern pike and walleyes.
• Depth finders are an absolute essential for locating lake trout in deep, midsummer haunts and a solar electricity panel kept the depthfinder batteries charged.
• The Kamatsi cabin is owned by Randy Engen of Tolna, N.D., along with his son, Phil, and daughter, Mindi, and is an outpost to their main establishment, Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake. A second outpost on nearby Pagato Lake is known for its walleye and pike fishing.
• More info: lawrencebaylodge.com.
-- Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University.