Fish of a Lifetime: A Muskie Mission on Ontario’s Pipestone Lake

It was only a matter of time before someone hooked into a monster. That someone happened to be my uncle. While leisurely patrolling patches of weeds sprouting inside a shallow bay, he saw a fish — a BIG fish — swimming away from the boat. Without saying a word, he picked up a rod and cast a swimbait a few yards off this leviathan’s nose. The fish stopped, turned, and slowly began making its way toward his lure. We were all eyes.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” my uncle said.

As the fish closed the distance, my uncle sped up his retrieve to mimic a baitfish that’s afraid and fleeing. Barely a rod length away from the boat, the muskie pounced, wrapped its teeth around the lure, and flared 180 degrees. When it felt the sting of three laser-sharpened, carbon-steel points grab hold, all hell broke loose. Now we all wished we had a bigger boat.

We are here. GPS is essential for navigating the shallow waters where muskies lurk. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Ask any freshwater angler worth their salt, and they’ll tell you catching an Esox masquinongy or muskellunge or just plain “muskie” is a hard-earned accomplishment. The muskie is affectionately known as the fish of 10,000 casts, and you can chase them for hours — or days or weeks or a lifetime — and come out of it with zeros. Muskies have the same slender, torpedo shape and toothy overbite as a northern pike, and they ambush prey in a similar fashion, but they are by nature far more cautious. Muskies are wise.

My great-grandfather caught a muskie once, one of the largest fish of his life, by accident in the early 1960s, and our family has spent years chasing a fish as large, sometimes using his old boat, which I inherited. For decades, Grandpa and Grandpa alone was the only one in the family to land the mighty Esox masquinongy. Despite our best efforts to ply muskie waters in the Northeast, Canada, and Minnesota, my father, uncle, cousin, and I had never brought a ’ski to hand. But we’ve never given up either. 

So, when my father turned 60 years old, we decided there was no better way to celebrate than by organizing another late June excursion — this time to Pipestone Lake in southern Ontario.

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High school daze. The author, second from right, with his cousins on a family fishing trip. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Riding the Rails

We’ve had rendezvous like this for years. When my cousin Jeff and I were in high school, our families descended on some location for a few days of fishing, food, fun, and a little good-natured competition. At a deer camp in Michigan, my uncle once bet me he could hit an empty 12-pack box out of the sky with an arrow from his longbow if I tossed it high enough. I pitched the box about 15 feet high, and he drilled it on the first shot. One night a year later, at a fishing camp in Ohio, Jeff and I bet my brother and another cousin we could catch more bullfrogs in an hour than they could. Jeff and I scored a giant croaker right out of the gate and spent the next 55 minutes harassing my brother’s canoe and slapping the water with our paddles to scare any bullfrog in sight. We won, 1-0.

Our first night in Ontario, we were too excited to sleep. It felt just like those old family trips as kids. Arriving at the marina, we found Joe, our boat shuttle driver, waiting for us. We loaded up our equipment, and Joe kicked the jet-drive motor into high gear. We raced across Burditt Lake toward its junction with Pipestone. But to complete the journey, we needed to portage the boat. Now, you might ask, how do you portage an eight-person jet boat in the middle of nowhere? With a powered cart mounted on railroad tracks, that’s how.

Planning the trip, I learned one of the reasons Pipestone remains a muskie stronghold is because of the relatively light fishing pressure compared with other lakes in the region. There are only two ways in and out — fly in on a floatplane or motor your boat to the end of Burditt Lake, cradle your watercraft on a makeshift rickshaw, and let it carry it, you, and everything on board over a hill and into another system. But when we pulled up, there was no operator at the helm, and nobody appeared from the neighboring house, despite Joe’s itchy horn finger.

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The rail-operated boat lift to Pipestone Lake. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

“I swear, sometimes it takes him forever to get down here to run this thing,” Joe said. It’s not exactly what you want to hear while making a complicated portage, but when the rail “conductor” appeared, he was holding a cup of coffee and in no particular hurry to get to his station. When he did arrive, he seemed a little out of sorts, as if he were looking for a set of keys to start a diesel engine that was already running.

The conductor pulled a lever, and a cart began to surface in the water underneath the boat. As it rose, it made contact with the hull and slowly but surely lifted us out of the water and forward over land. It was a slow-and-steady process, but a smooth ride. Passing the operator, Joe passed a fistful of cash over the side, and the boat crested the hill and dropped into the water as smooth as it would have from a boat ramp. It was the coolest shuttle I’d ever seen. We were finally in Pipestone.

Cast, Retrieve, Catch Fish, Repeat

One of the things I enjoy most about fishing relatively unpressured water is watching how fish react to different offerings. In some channels and sloughs where the water seemed clearer than the humid, muggy air above us, we saw fish after fish turn on a dime and jet to our flies. Northern pike torpedoed between weed patches to clamp down on minnow imitations like a great white shark surprising a seal, and we were even able to coax walleyes and lake trout — two species known to prefer deep water and reluctant to feed on the surface — to attack topwater imitations. 

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A northern that took the fly. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

But it was the bass, the naive and wild smallmouth bass, that made this place something special. Pound for pound, bronzebacks are one of the hardest-fighting freshwater fish, with a population in Pipestone that is beyond healthy — they’re off the charts. What’s more, their food base is proportionate — giant bugs, frogs, and baitfish schools keep these fish fat and happy.

Muskie was the name of our game, but between our fruitless cast-retrieve-repeat sessions, we gave our arms a break and twitched streamers around sunken logs and boulders and scooted poppers and sliders through the tall weeds and pads for smallmouths. While we weren’t rewarded with a fish on every cast, it certainly felt that way at times, and I caught myself paraphrasing the words of one of the great fishing personalities, Al Linder, in my best Minnesotan accent.

“If you want to find big fish, folks, I’ve got two words for you … Struct Chure.” 

Structure. 

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You know the fishing is good when you don’t have a free hand for lunch. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

The action was so intense at times that I didn’t want to break for lunch, so I shoved a whole sandwich in my mouth to keep my hands free. But playing the numbers game could hold our attention only for so long, and pretty soon we were trophy hunting. 

One day we coaxed a few hefty smallies to the surface, but we lost them during the fight. So we vowed to return the next day on the off chance they settled back into the same haunts. I ran the electric trolling motor, gently nudging the boat into position while Jeff stood on deck first. Jeff made a few false casts and dropped a Crease Fly on his mark. After the rings from the wake dissipated, he began his retrieve, stopping for brief moments between line strips. Pop, and then rest, two, three, four. Pop, and then rest, two, three, four. Pop, and then rest two, three, four. The third pop wasn’t the charm, but the fourth one was, and his foam-and-steel fake minnow disappeared in a cluster of whitewater and froth. But when Jeff set the hook, there was nothing on the end of the line. He missed.

Almost instinctively, he cast at the same mark again, and just as fast as it had happened the first time, he missed the striking fish once more. Rushing through his motions, he put the fly back in the zone, again and again, but the fish never reappeared.

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A typical Ontario smallmouth — little, but full of fight. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Now, you have to understand that Jeff, who is a pastor for a fairly large church in Billings, Montana, can have a booming voice when he needs to reach the back row, but I’ve never heard him swear, not even when we were kids. That afternoon, as I listened to him yell, hoot, and holler in frustration, I never did hear him curse. But damn if he didn’t come close.

“Watch the Buoy!”

Most mornings, the only thing on our minds was how fast we could get to our boats and start fishing. Weeks earlier, I spent an afternoon glossing over satellite images of the area and marked waypoints for what appeared to be fishy-looking water so we could spend less time searching and more time fishing. All I had to do was sit in the bow and point while Jeff manned the outboard.

Leaving the small bay behind our cabin, Jeff turned a corner, pointed the boat northwest, and opened up the engine. We were on plane in mere seconds, scooting around islands and through channels. It was terrific fun because Pipestone is such a sprawling maze of rocky outcrops, sloughs, and bottleneck openings to other lakes. At one point, the water was crystal clear, and the next, you couldn’t see down 2 feet thanks to an influx of tannin-stained H2O from another system, so we proceeded with caution.

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Cousin Jeff running the bow-mounted trolling motor and looking for rocks. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Exiting one of the channels, I could plainly see a large, white, plastic bleach bottle mottled with hunter-orange paint bobbing in the water. I knew it meant caution, so I flagged Jeff to slow down. We passed close and saw just the small tip of an otherwise gigantic rock sticking out of the water. If it weren’t for the buoy, we would’ve ran right over it.

A hundred yards from the rock, something occurred to me. What if my dad and uncle don’t see it? Jeff and I stopped and looked back just in time to see our fathers’ boat exit the channel, making a beeline for the rock — my father, sitting in the front with his back to the bow while he tended line and tackle. He wasn’t even looking. My uncle, throttling up to full speed, couldn’t see around my dad.

I grabbed the two-way radio, pressed transmit, and screamed into the microphone, “Watch the buoy!” and waited. They didn’t react, so I yelled louder into the radio. “Watch the buoy!” but to no avail. I tried one last time and didn’t stop yelling. “WATCH THE BUOY! WATCH THE BUOY! WATCH THE —”

Uncle Craig hit the pyramid point of that rock full speed. In one fluid motion, the boat pitched 20 degrees high and cleared the water from bow to stern — full airborne. Jeff and I saw the entire underbelly of the vessel before it glided back on plane, without a pitch or roll, and gently coasted to a stop. They didn’t wreck or sink. But my dad and Craig were gone, the boat floating captainless like a ghost ship on the fish-rich Canadian waters.

muskie fishing, canada, free range amerian
Cousin Jeff with a smallmouth on the fly. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Jeff steered our boat in their direction. Just before he cut the engine, Craig’s head poked up above the gunwale, dazed and confused. Moments later, Dad’s noggin sprung up like a prairie dog on the high plains. As if choreographed, both men started screaming at each other. Fortunately, neither had a bump, scrape, or bruise, and other than a quarter-sized chip in the rudder, the boat seemed okay.

Stuck in a deep parent-child role reversal, Jeff shrugged his shoulders and sighed at his dad. “Should we punish them by taking their boat away?” Jeff asked. 

“I think so,” I said. 

“You need to pay more attention,” Jeff scolded them. 

They promised to behave. They were now on double-secret probation, and “Watch the buoy!” was permanently etched in family history.

Go Big or Go Home

If you’ve ever fished for muskie, you know success can be either feast or famine. These toothy predators are known for having large appetites but are wary of anglers and wise to bait setups and lifelike lures. And while you might not catch a fish six days out of a week, manna can seemingly fall from heaven on the seventh. Muskie fishing can be a crapshoot, plain and simple. 

And that’s if you’re fishing with conventional tackle. If you’re chasing muskies with long rods and flies like Jeff and I were, well, be ready to break out the ice bags and Aspercreme for your arm and shoulder at the end of a fishless day. But still, we pushed on, because like playing the lottery, it only takes one.

My father and uncle, on the other hand, felt better about stacking the odds in their favor and slung treble-hooked bucktail spinners, stickbaits the size of a toddler’s foot, and all manner of offbeat, albeit impressive, tackle attached to wire leaders, braided lines, stout casting rods, and reels with drags turned all the way up to 11.

For nearly the first two days, Jeff and I couldn’t move a fish. The only glimmer of hope came in the late afternoon of the second day when a hefty fish followed my fly all the way to the boat, then rejected it, and slowly submerged out of sight. I tried to coax it back by figure-eighting my imitation — a technique where you hold your rod vertical, plunge the tip in the water, and make rapid, sweeping figure-eight motions with the fly near the tip — but it was gone. My dad and uncle, however, fared much better. Like us, they didn’t catch a muskie for the first few days, but they certainly saw more fish than we did.

And while I hate to admit it, they were clearly on top of their game. Most muskie anglers will tell you a big fish like my uncle hooked would be more likely to follow the lure to the boat and disappear, not hammer down on it like a wrestler flying off the top rope.

Muskies aren’t known for being endurance fighters. They will dart, dive, and splash early in the game but eventually tire and try to bulldog their way to freedom by applying a fairly even but strong degree of resistance, which makes them tough to get close enough to a boat for your wingman to help close the deal.

My uncle’s fish was no different. 

We all wished for a bigger boat. We also figured we’d need a bigger net. The old muskie’s first, second, and third runs were magnificent — complete with splashy takeoffs and a singing reel drag. It was everything you’d want to happen after hooking the fish of a lifetime. Even as my uncle pulled it closer to the boat, it showed no signs of giving up and dodged my old man’s dunk-and-scoop netting efforts.

In one final surge, my uncle and dad found their timing, swung the head of the fish into the net, corralled the tail of the fish in the netting, and lifted it out of the water — just in the nick of time, too. Lifting it over the boat’s gunwale induced slack in the line, and the lure dropped out of the muskie’s mouth.

The two men — shocked and overcome with emotion — stared at the monster in disbelief. They had accomplished a goal that was years in the making with a fish even a seasoned muskie angler would be proud to hoist for a picture. And that’s exactly what they did. Knowing the fish was exhausted, and the ill effects that can come from keeping it out of the water, my uncle hoisted it a single time, my dad snapped a picture, and they slid it back into the water. It’s our one and only image of this singular lifetime moment.

muskie fishing, canada, free range amerian
Uncle Craig’s muskie. Photo courtesy of Ben Romans.

Homeward Bound

You can sum up the great self-guided fishing in Canada with two words: American plan. For a reasonable flat rate there are lodges and sprawling fish camps that will provide foreign anglers with a dry cabin and comfortable bed, three meals a day, and, most importantly, 16-foot Lund boats with 30- to 50-horsepower tillers and electric trolling motors and all the gasoline you need. All you need to worry about is eating, sleeping, and fishing — the way life should be.

It wasn’t until the last evening of our trip, while plying the waters around our island cabins the night before our departure, that dad popped his muskie cherry. While the fish certainly wasn’t as large as his brother’s, the timing, backdrop, effort, anticipation, and just the sheer giddiness of the moment made it a trophy.

At the end of the week, we were fat, happy, smelling like jackfish, comparing bass thumbs, and settling up poker debts and side bets. It turns out my cousin wasn’t as honest as you’d expect a preacher to be at a card table, and I lost my shirt to him and my uncle, who was also cheating — every single night. But I made up a small portion of my losses by catching the largest smallmouth and lake trout. Jeff caught the largest walleye, which attacked a surface plug of all things. Dad not only caught the largest pike, but he caught more than anyone else. But the grand prize of a trophy muskie, and newfound fame as the last family member to catch a trophy one at that, went to my uncle.

When people hear about our trip, they often ask similar questions. “Are muskies really that hard to catch?” Yes, they are, but the effort is worth the reward. “Didn’t you worry about getting lost in that maze of islands and channels?” Nope; I put my faith in GPS and the pastor running the tiller. “Do you wish you would’ve done anything different?” Yes. I wish I had caught a muskie.

How To Do This Trip:

  • Cedar Island Lodge is situated in the heart of the Pipestone system. What’s more, they’ve positioned boats and motors at various “outpost” lakes. They’ll provide you with a tank of gas. You simply park your boat, hike into a lake, fire up the motor, and enjoy countless acres of water, without another soul in sight. Get the American plan ($1,095 to $1,645). It includes lodging, three (excellent) meals a day, boat, motor, gas, and a shuttle to and from Sportsman’s Landing in Emo, Ontario.
  • You can fly into International Falls, Minnesota, rent a car, and drive to Emo, or drive and cross at the same town, but be ready to pass through customs. That said, if you enjoy a cocktail after fishing, purchase your provisions in the US before crossing the border and pay the taxes. It’s less expensive than purchasing liquor in Canada.
  • Tackle: If you plan to fly fish, bring a 7-weight rod for smallmouth bass, and a 9- or 10-weight for muskies. You don’t need a superstrong or long leader for bass, but you do for muskies, as well as wire bite tippet. If you’re casting lures and plugs, use braided lines and large bucktail spinners or lifelike swimbaits for muskies, and lighter rods, reels, lines, and lures for bass. Rapalas, Jitterbugs, spinnerbaits, and buzzbaits will fool the bronzebacks (and the occasional pike).
  • Bring bug spray for the mosquitoes, and take it from someone that suffered through an alien living in his belly button — perform daily tick checks to make sure you’re parasite free.

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