At first brush, ice fishing near the south shore of Lake Winnipeg in the middle of February during an Environment Canada extreme cold warning may not sound like a high-adrenalin, high-five inducing activity — but it is. When it takes just five minutes to land a big, 63.5-centimetre-long walleye for which the area is famous, your blood gets pumping and you start jonesing for another. Yes, ice fishing is addictive.
My excursion out on the so-called “hardwater” of Lake Winnipeg was the first event in a number of frosty fun outings in Winnipeg and area that had been arranged by Travel Manitoba to give me a sense of how the city and the province embrace winter and the infamously bone-chilling temperatures. If you’re a winter activity enthusiast, however, there are likely few places in Canada, if not the world, that offer such a great range of literally cool attractions.
Ice fishing about four kilometres north of the spit of land separating Lake Winnipeg from Neltey-Libau Marsh, about an hour drive from Winnipeg, may be the coolest. Fortunately for tourists and locals wishing to get a taste of the action, there are a number of guides in the area who’ll take you out on the ice and lead you on your way to fishing for a potential fish of a lifetime.
One of the region’s most well-respected guides is Jason Hamilton. Canadian Geographic art director Javier Frutos, acting as photographer, and I met Hamilton and his fellow guide for the day Paul Conchatre — the president of the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association — in Matlock, Man., on the lake’s southwestern shoreline to make the trek out on the ice on Feb. 17, 2015.
Hamilton headed off for our day’s fishing spot on a snowmobile hauling a sled packed with gear, while Frutos and I hopped in Conchatre’s pickup to drive out on the lake to meet him. During the drive, a slow one, that bounced and bumped along over snow drifts and ice ridges, Conchatre filled us in on the details of how this particular fishing area has emerged as a go-to ice fishing location only in the last few years.
The nearby Red River, which enters the south end of Netley-Libau Marsh, has long been a popular angling hot spot for the area’s “greenback” walleye (so named for their unique colouring). Greenbacks are famed continent-wide for being particularly large, trophy-sized walleye specimens, which can measure more than 60-centimetres long. Over the last three to five years, though, those in the know have been steadily shifting their fishing focus to the south basin of Lake Winnipeg, north of the marsh. It’s here that anglers are hauling in the largest of the area’s greenbacks. And thanks to the lake’s enormous size, it’s actually much more accessible to the average angler in winter, making ice-fishing season the time to visit.
Upon arrival at our fishing spot, Hamilton and Conchatre quickly erected a portable Clam ice-fishing hut — an essential piece of equipment to shield us from the chilly conditions on the lake known as “Big Windy” and where, on this day, the temperature is hovering around -30, without the wind chill). They then drilled holes through the 3.5 feet of ice and set up a portable propane-fueled heater, appropriately named Mr. Heater Big Buddy, which rapidly warmed the hut to a comfortable temperature. We were ready to fish.
In each of the three holes that were drilled, Hamilton set up up Vexilar flashers, a sonar-like device. The flasher unit makes the fishing relatively easy, as the bottom, the lure and any nearby fish, show up graphically —as coloured lines — on the screen. Connecting with the fish is basically as easy as ensuring lure and fish are on the same plane — although in practice, it’s slightly more complicated, of course. You have to jiggle and wiggle the lure just so to get the fish to bite. We fished using an ice rod-and-reel combo tipped with either a Live Target crankbait lure (which looks like a replica baitfish and has a fish-attracting rattle inside) or a fishing spoon with a salted minnow head hooked on for enticement.
In just minutes the four of us were bursting with excitement as that first 63.5-centimetre fish popped through the hole. Over the next six hours, we caught seven walleye, measuring from about 48 centimetres long to a true Lake Manitoba greenback trophy of 73.66 centimetres. As Frutos snapped photos of the monster fish, Hamilton joyously proclaimed, “That’s why people come to Lake Winnipeg. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Indeed, take it from me: Catch one, and you can’t wait for the next.
The ice fishing season on Lake Winnipeg runs from ice up until the end of March annually. Seasons are similar throughout the rest of the province. There are dozens of ice fishing hot spots in Manitoba and numerous guide/outfitting
services. Visit http://huntfishmanitoba.ca/go-fishing and search for ice fishing to see listings of those offering such services. Anglers must purchase a Manitoba fishing licence, and remember to dress for the conditions, in layers. It does get cold out there if you’re not prepared.