A belly full of fresh pike, a comfortable folding chair and the relatively warm sun on my face had my eyelids more than a little droopy. Before any snoring could erupt, Kurt hollered “Flag up! To the south! Get ‘em!” My impromptu plan for a brief nap was quickly forgotten as I hustled to the distant ice hole. We all knew our chances were excellent that a huge northern pike was making the flag dance and line peel from the tip-up’s spool. This was Saskatchewan’s famous Tobin Lake and the pike bite was on!
Kurt Stein operates Big Strike Outfitters and is a self-professed pike junkie. Fall and winter find him doing battle with the trophies that reside near his waterfront home on Tobin Lake. This amazing fishery was created in the early 1960s by the damming of the North Saskatchewan River for power generating projects. A successful management strategy that includes slot-size limits has turned Tobin Lake into one of the world’s premiere giant pike destinations. The provincial record pike was caught from its fertile waters and weighed over 38-pounds!
Kurt is adamant that all trophies are returned unharmed after some quick photos. His regard for the resource is quickly apparent when you spend a memorable day on the ice with him. His ever-present “bucket o’ tools” contains some customized gear that makes unhooking these toothy denizens remarkably easy. When you heft an incredibly fat, shiny and colorful late-winter pike from Tobin’s waters, you’ll understand how a fish widely regarded as ugly can be quite beautiful.
Folks also quickly learn that a sport often maligned as boring can provide wicked adrenaline rushes. No rods here, you fight ‘em with your hands! It’s one thing to catch big pike on rod and reel, but when you fight them by hand it’s quite a thrilling endeavor. When the pike runs, you let the plastic-coated ice fishing line slip through your fingers and retrieve it hand-over-hand during a battle that can last quite some time.
The best pike fishing on Tobin occurs in late February and March, when the giants stage at a large area of the lake known as The Flats. This shallow region has several river channels from inflowing creeks that provide excellent spawning habitat. I was invited to join Kurt for several days in late-March, but I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled about spending time on the hardwater, although I was about to find out that ice fishing wasn’t just cold, boring and painful after all.
From Kurt’s lakeside home, it’s about a 20-minute journey by truck and snowmobile out to The Flats. He positions his tip-ups in a semi-circle around his shack so they can be observed at all time. To ensure that cruising pike are not disturbed by any noise and activity going on, it’s best to place the ice holes a fair distance from the shack. It is however a great place to warm up, socialize and snack during a typical 10-hour day on the ice.
My first day was a real eye-opener, as I discovered that ice fishing could indeed be a great way to spend a winter day. By law, each person is allowed to have two lines in the water and Stein’s homemade bait rigs tipped with large frozen sardines attracted plenty of attention from cruising pike. The morning was a little slow, but produced a couple of “eaters” that Kurt expertly cleaned and cooked. This was the lunch mentioned earlier that nearly put me to sleep. As it turned out, the pike that disturbed my nap was not a monster, but a respectable 17-pounds. Before the day was over I got more exercise than I would have ever thought possible, running to each tip-up flag to get photos of the action. The biggest pike of the day would tip the scales at 25-pounds, while an additional three fish over 20-pounds were also released.
The next two days provided more of the same amazing action. The biggest fish I caught was only a few ounces shy of 30-pounds! I’ve gone from a guy who wouldn’t go ice fishing to someone who is now thinking of selling my boat and building an ice shack.
Saskatoon is Saskatchewan’s largest city. International flights arrive and depart daily, including Air Canada (aircanada.com) and American Airlines (aa.com). Tobin Lake is an easy three and a half hour drive northeast of Saskatoon and rental vehicles are available at the airport. Excellent hotels in Saskatoon cater to traveling sportsmen and are well equipped with luxurious amenities. Delta Bessborough is a historic castle-like hotel located in downtown Saskatoon with excellent views of the Saskatchewan River. The Saskatoon Inn, a premier full service hotel and conference center is also very popular.