Ask just about anyone who’s had the opportunity, and they’ll say there’s something magical about stepping into a float plane for a fly-in fishing adventure into the wilds of northern Canada.
Scenery, solitude—imagine having a lake to yourself—and the opportunity to catch fish by the dozens all are part of the attraction. So, too, is the mystique of the planes themselves—flying workhorses with names such as Beaver, Otter and Norseman—aircraft with rich, storied histories.
These “bucket-list” trips don’t have to be one-time events. From full-service “American Plan” lodges that include guides, meals and deluxe accommodations, to rustic outpost camps where visitors are self-guided and do their own cooking, chances are there’s a fly-in trip that fits just about any budget.
All it takes is planning, those in the business say; when it comes to preparing for a fly-in fishing trip, less usually is more.
“You don’t have to bring the kitchen sink,” said Krista Cheeseman, who with her husband, Alan, owns Wilderness North in Thunder Bay, Ont., about eight hours northeast of Grand Forks. With a staff of 40, Wilderness North operates five fly-in lodges and eight outpost camps in northwestern Ontario.
Because Wilderness North offers a variety of fishing packages, Cheeseman says they strive to help visitors plan their trips. That includes packing lists with recommendations on what to bring for clothing, tackle, food and beverages to stay within the weight restrictions for float plane travel.
Weight restrictions can vary from 75 pounds to 125 pounds depending on the flying service. Wilderness North, which also owns its float plane service, has a 50- to 70-pound limitation for American Plan guests and 125 pounds for outpost camps, where visitors also bring in their own food, Cheeseman said.
What to bring
Summertime temperatures in the North can range from 40 degrees to 80 degrees—sometimes from one day to the next—so visitors should pack clothing to dress in layers, depending on the weather. Lightweight rain gear is essential, as is comfortable, water-resistant footwear.
Pack smaller bags and containers, and carry fishing rods in plastic rod tubes during transport. Besides being easier to load onto the plane, the tubes minimize the risk of rods breaking during the flight to camp.
Don’t get carried away with the tackle, Cheeseman says. Jigs and soft plastics are staples for walleyes, while spoons, crankbaits and spinnerbaits will cover the bases for northern pike.
Done right, tackle shouldn’t account for more than about 10 pounds of your allowed weight.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re not going to use that wacky thing you picked up” at the sporting goods store, Cheeseman said. “There’s always a buzz on what’s new. You can go there, but a jig and plastic body is one of the most popular things to use.”
Randy Engen of Tolna, N.D., owns Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Engen says guests to the main lodge have to pack only clothing, tackle and personal belongings.
By comparison, visitors to his two rustic outpost camps have to plan more carefully to stay within the weight limit of 75 pounds per person.
Engen says the biggest mistake people make is bringing too much “stuff.”
“We’re all guilty of that,” he said. “Every time I go on a hunting trip, I do the same thing. You think you might need it, so you take it. You can’t do that (on a fly-in) because of the weight.”
Like Cheeseman, Engen says outpost camp visitors should limit tackle to the basics and plan meals for each day of the trip to avoid packing groceries that won’t be used.
“I like the guys that will sit down and plan their meal days,” Engen said. “You’ve got to allow yourself a little wiggle room, but it really works out. At least it keeps the food (weight) down.”
Beverages should be in cans instead of bottles. Besides weighing less—a case of beer in cans weighs about 20 pounds, compared with nearly twice that much in bottles—cans are safer to transport.
“A lot of outfitters, if they know ahead, they can get some of the stuff in (to camp) when they’re doing other things,” Engen said. “In our case, we can take beer and do things like that, but there are so many variables.
“We just do the best we can and take what we can” ahead of time.
Wilderness North offers a service for food and beverages to be ordered and flown in ahead of time as a convenience to customers, Cheeseman said.
That’s one less thing for them to worry about.
“Literally, they can just show up with their clothes, and we can handle every detail—fishing gear, tackle,” she said. “We can take care of all of that.”
At the border
Even the best-planned trips can unravel in a hurry if problems occur at the border. Drunken driving convictions top the buzz-kill list; anyone with a conviction less than 10 years old is inadmissible to Canada without completing an application process that costs several hundred dollars deeming the offender as criminally rehabilitated.
Even then, border guards have the discretion of denying tourists entry into Canada.
“There seems to be an increasing issue with DUIs, getting those things resolved,” Cheeseman said. “Unfortunately, that’s a weakness of our border system. I’ve had this discussion many times; you can fill out the paperwork to be criminally rehabilitated, but you get to the border … and they turn you away. It’s still at their discretion.”
Cheeseman says Wilderness North has had customers fly into Thunder Bay only to be denied entry at the airport, transported by guard to a hotel and put on a plane back to the U.S. the next morning.
At the border, she recommends answering questions directly, removing sunglasses, looking officers in the eye, being polite and turning off the radio.
“Don’t give them any reason to say, ‘please pull over,’ ” Cheeseman said. “If you try to joke around, that never turns out well.”
Paul Turenne, executive director of the Manitoba Lodge and Outfitters Association, which represents some 100 hunting and fishing camps across the province, said the tourism industry nationwide is working to ease Canada’s DUI restrictions, but for now, the regulation remains in place.
Besides DUI convictions, Turenne says, visitors need to be aware of guidelines for traveling with minors, pet requirements, bringing firearms into the country and restrictions on various food items. The group has a page on its website, MLOA.com, with information for visitors planning to enter Canada.
Not too late
The upcoming tourist season is looking good, operators say, but Americans planning last-minute trips still should be able to find a wilderness adventure to suit their needs.
“They just about always have capacity, and I wouldn’t worry about availability, but it sounds like the (lodges) are busy booking trips,” Turenne said.
Cheeseman said booking trips on shorter notice has been a trend in recent years.
“I think we’re seeing that more and more,” she said. “People are not able to decide a year out like they used to do, and with the number of facilities we have, I have the ability to accommodate pretty much most things.
“Prime dates are full, but we have enough properties I can find something.”
Cheeseman says the tourism industry is competitive, and that’s good for consumers. Creature comforts such as solar electricity and wi-fi are becoming industry standards at fly-in fishing destinations, and customer service is essential.
“Our demographic is aging—they’re not as interested in roughing it anymore,” Cheeseman said. “The lodges are more in demand because people don’t want to cook and clean for eight people.”
Bottom line, the options for a fly-in fishing vacation never have been better.
“The fishing is always good; that never seems to be an issue,” Turenne of the Manitoba Lodge and Outfitters Association said.
“Come on up,” he added. “We love you guys up here.”
• On the Web:
Wilderness North: wildernessnorth.com.
Lawrence Bay Lodge: lawrencebaylodge.com.
Manitoba Lodge and Outfitters Association: mloa.com.
U.S.-Canada exchange rate has minimal impact on fly-in costs
The current value of the Canadian dollar offers potential for U.S. tourists to save money on hotels, restaurant meals and other travel necessities, but the impact on fishing and hunting vacations is minimal because most Canadian establishments charge in U.S. dollars.
A U.S. dollar Friday was worth $1.30 Canadian.
Randy Engen of Tolna, N.D., who owns Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan, said the lodge sets its rates in U.S. funds, and the current exchange rate doesn’t have much of an impact on his operation.
“To be honest with you, most of the clientele, it isn’t a big factor whether they save 15 cents or whatever it is,” Engen said. “I think we’ve had one guy bring that up this year that I know of. He said, ‘Are we going to get a break?’ I said no, we didn’t get a break when (the exchange rate) was the other way. We didn’t charge extra when it was the other way, and we’re not giving any breaks now.”
Krista Cheeseman, who owns Wilderness North in Thunder Bay, Ont., with husband, Alan, said a few operators in other parts of northwestern Ontario charge in Canadian funds. That could mean substantial savings for tourists who visit camps that haven’t adjusted their pricing to reflect the exchange rate.
“There is that exchange difference going on, but we do provide a superior level of customer service,” Cheeseman said. “We haven’t raised our rates in probably five years.”
The biggest impact occurs for operators who now have to spend more to market in the U.S., whether at trade shows or through media advertising.