It didn’t take more than five minutes to catch and release my first fish of the day. The river was barely 60 feet across, yet there seemed to be a hundred hungry mouths stacked in the riffles on either side of me. Every cast, regardless of how delicate or clean a drift, produced at least a nose of interest, if not a full-on attack. It was when one aggressive female, taking me completely by surprise, cleared the surface of the water and arced down upon my fly that I realized fishing for brook trout anywhere else was forever ruined for me.
How can you not be fascinated by the markings of a brook trout? They’re the most beautiful of all fish, in my opinion, even though when you look up close they seem more scraggly than pretty. Perhaps my adoration is more fascination.
I’m lucky enough to have them residing in their native range within an hour’s drive of my home: tiny little guys that would impress you with their spirit. They’ll snatch at a size 8 elk hair caddis, way too large to actually eat, and slap it almost as many times as you slap the monster imposter on the water. And, if one does succeed in getting hooked, well, I’ll be honest enough to admit I’ve had to scramble in the brush behind me to quickly scoop it back home.
Brookies of considerable size exist in their natural habitat of the northern wilderness. From Maine, up through eastern Canada, where water temperatures remain cold throughout the year, the red and blue spotted beauties can grow quite large: up to 10 pounds. Catching one that requires two hands to hold has been a dream of mine that I’d waited too long to pursue.
This past spring, when I was researching this year’s fishing trip options, I was turned onto the idea of going north – way north – to fulfill not one, but two bucket list items: big brook trout caught in rarely fished rivers.
I’ve been through several phases of fishing goals over the last two decades. Catch a ton of fish. Catch a new species of fish. Catch a monster fish (okay, so this one I apparently still harbor). The last, and most recent to develop, has been to fish virgin waters: waters that have not been fished before.
I’ve patiently listened to several friends talk about their adventures in the jungles of Brazil targeting peacock bass or enduring rustic float-camping trips for steelhead in Kamchatka. For Americans, the elusive waters off Cuba have been a recent boon. But my wallet hasn’t been fat enough for these trips, so I realistically slide them down the ladder of dreams.
I learned about Miminiska Lodge from a friend, who had recently discovered it himself. I was told it would be cold and woodsy, which my mind interpreted as campfires and hot toddies. I was informed that it was fly-in only, which equaled the tranquility of unplugging for a few days. To seal the deal, I would fish waters that have forever been free from hordes of anglers.
I Picked out my dates immediately.
In the second week of June, I packed my waders and boots, wool socks and fleece shirts, rain gear, a pair of gloves (just in case), and went north. I made my way to Thunder Bay (the industrious northwestern Ontario shipping town nearly four hours from Duluth), where the lodge’s parent outfitter, Wilderness North, has their headquarters and operations. They had prearranged overnight accommodations for me in a downtown hotel for an easy and early morning pick-up.
Because all passengers and camp supplies (including food, fuel and any equipment) must be flown into camp, Wilderness North arranges all chartered flights and their own planes through Thunder Bay. I was worried that my luggage would exceed the maximum weight requirements. Forty pounds per person is not a lot when you’re hauling fishing gear with you. My wading boots seem to be a quarter of that alone. What would I ditch, if forced? Surely not the bottles of red wine!
Joining me on the journey up to Miminiska was a group of 14 from Wisconsin: grandparents, brothers, wives, cousins, and some family friends, who were excited about the amazing walleye and northern pike fishing the area is well known for. Our plane was too small to transport all of us at once, so we split into two groups. Even though there were storm clouds all around us, the hour long flight was the smoothest I’ve ever had. The touchdown on Miminiska’s grass runway was like landing on a pillow.
I planned to fish for walleye and pike in the waters close to camp the first day, which ended up being a wise decision because there was plenty of rain. I’d only caught one northern in the past and had never seen a walleye that wasn’t breaded and fried on my dinner plate, but I loved their aggressive, predatory nature. Casting long, beefy streamers full of flash and with weighted heads was sloppy, but it didn’t matter. Pike would challenge the fly all the way up to the boat before inhaling it. One of my best lessons was how to hold each species around their razor-sharp gill plates, keeping all five fingers intact.
But after a day of catching dozens of these fish, losing track of how many by the time my stomach was growling for dinner, I knew my arm would be tired and I wanted to be fresh for the next day. Brook trout.
After a hearty breakfast in the morning of eggs, salty sausage, toast, and fruit, I was fueled and filled with nervous energy. When was the morning’s transportation to the tributary headwaters going to arrive? I kept stealing glances into the sky over the lake from the communal dining room window.
Doing a brook trout float out of Miminiska requires a different kind of shuttle service – float plane style. Wilderness North sends a plane to pick you up at the lodge. You load it with all your gear for the day, strap a canoe onto one of the plane’s pontoons, and fly to the top of one of the rivers that wind their way back to camp. A 10 minute jaunt as the crow flies takes 8 to 12 hours to float and fish back. You best be prepared and have everything you need, because there is truly nothing and nobody else around.
I heard the drone of the plane before I spotted it. It circled the lake making its gradual descent, landing with a small splash, then taxiing to the dock. The pilot opened the back doors and started unloading camp provisions for the staff: everything from tanks of gasoline, to pallets of Snapple, and a wooden door (one of the cabins on the property was being renovated and needed a new door). Once the cargo was removed, the fishing gear and fishermen were loaded in. I put the noise-protecting headphones on and settled in for a bird’s eye view of the northern wilderness.
It wasn’t more than a half hour to the catch and release of my first brookie of the day.
With each fish landed, I was in awe of how pure they were. There wasn’t a fish smaller than 14 inches and most were in the two-pound range. Measuring a brookie by weight instead of length is amazing. Their spots were slightly duller than the tiny brook trout of my home mountain range, the Shenandoah, but their orange underbellies were blazing, almost as if they were in autumn spawn.
My guide, Mark, expertly navigated our canoe through some tough terrain as we made our way down river, reinforcing just how wild and unpopulated this area is. The only people who float these waters are lodge guests and the native people: the Ojibwe, the second largest First Nation indigenous peoples in Canada, who have inhabited this beautiful land for centuries. Wilderness North has a longstanding relationship with the tribe to use the resource in a responsible and respectful way.
Mark explained that most guests at camp come here to target walleye and pike in the Albany River system, which the lodge is situated on. Not many people know that the tributary rivers feeding into the larger Albany hold brook trout. Or, more to the point, they don’t care. I thought back to the previous day getting to know the family who was also staying at camp and had to nod my head. When I told them I was there to fish for brookies, and on a fly, they paused, eyes squinting. The thought running through their minds seemed to be, “Who is this crazy woman who came all the way up here to fish for trout? This is walleye country!”
At the end of the day, seeing the pictures of the magnificent fish I caught in the smaller streams, they seemed to get it. And, when the lodge manager said he thought I was the first woman to ever catch a brook trout on fly in those waters, the realization of how I had just spent my day was soulfully satisfying.
5 or 6 weight rods are sufficient. Bring a
sinking line on a separate reel or spool if you want to target pike or walleye.
Large terrestrials that float high are best. Rubber-legged hoppers and Chernobyl ants in cream and yellow worked well.
Miminiska offers full service with three meals a day, plus a cocktail hour before dinner, in the main lodge. The individual cabins along the lake sleep small or large groups – perfect for a ladies’ trip. Ask for one of the newly renovated cabins, which are decorated in a fun, 1950s retro-cabin-chic style and have modern bathrooms.
The staff goes above and beyond to take care of guests, including stopping by your cabin at first light to deliver coffee and stoke the wood-burning stove.
Guides are available for all types of fishing. It’s required for brook trout, but not for fishing in the Albany River for walleye or pike. They have boats available for all guests, but if you don’t feel comfortable driving one they’ll take care of you.