ROCKY LAKE NEAR THE PAS, Manitoba — Let’s get one thing straight right from the get-go.
The day was windy. Really windy. The kind of windy that might convince sensible anglers to stay indoors and forget about fishing.
It was Saturday, June 8, the third day of a northern Manitoba fishing trip for peace officers and invited friends and family — the 34th annual The Pas Peace Officers Fish Derby — and Jim Stinson, Ron Nies and I were spending the day with Alan McLauchlan on Rocky Lake.
Stinson, of Lockport, Manitoba, spent 30 years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before retiring in 1998 and had invited Nies and I to join him on this northern Manitoba adventure. McLauchlan, who retired from the RCMP in 2001, lives on Rocky Lake and made a date with Stinson to show us around the lake during our trip north in his 24-foot pontoon boat.
Known for smallmouth bass, walleyes and pike, Rocky Lake is about 30 miles north of The Pas.
Despite the gale, there’d be options for fishing the leeward side of Rocky Lake but getting there was going to be a bouncy ride, McLauchlan warned, even in a big pontoon boat that rides the waves better than a V-hull fishing boat.
We wouldn’t set any speed records, but we’d get to the leeward shore, he said.
“Anytime you try to put something together, it’s always weather dependent,” McLauchlan said. “And when I saw the wind, I went, ‘ugh,’ I knew there was going to be some rollers.
“A northwest wind was probably the worst we could have had, but we knew we had good equipment.”
The day unfolds
The plan was to start the day fishing smallmouth bass in a shallow bay that would shield us from the brunt of the wind. After that, we’d bounce our way across the lake to fish walleyes and pike off some of the rocky structure that gives the lake its name.
We’d also visit the “sugar camp” where McLauchlan and his wife, Johanna, tap birch trees for syrup as owners of Rocky Lake Birchworks. One of only a handful of birch syrup producers in Canada, the McLauchlans collect from 500 to 700 gallons of sap per day during the springtime run that lasts from 10 to 21 days.
Typically, it takes about 125 gallons of birch sap to produce a gallon of syrup, McLauchlan says; by comparison, it takes 40 gallons of maple sap for a gallon of maple syrup.
“Johanna is the chief cook — she makes the syrup,” he said. “I am the bush guy and make sure the sap flows.”
A break on shore to visit the syrup-making operation would be a welcome reprieve from the relentless wind, but first there were smallmouths to catch. The scrappy fish stage in the shallows to spawn in early June and had been hitting just about anything thrown at them, McLauchlan said.
Stocked in 1961, smallmouths thrive in Rocky Lake, he said, and it’s not unusual to catch dozens of them this time of year. Whether they’d cooperate on a cold, cloudy, windy day with occasional spits of rain remained to be seen. Calm, clear days offer the best smallmouth action, McLauchlan says, because it’s possible to see the fish cruising the shallows.
That wouldn’t be an option on this day.
Navigating the pontoon through a shallow, rocky channel, McLauchlan soon had us in the smallmouth zone, and we began pitching jigs and soft plastics toward shoreline reeds, rocks and brush.
Any concerns about the smallmouths cooperating under such harsh conditions were quickly dismissed. We couldn’t see them bite, but there was no guessing when the bass hit our jigs. Pitching a black jig and Berkley PowerBait leech, Stinson had the hot rod and was hooked into a bass nearly every cast, at times.
Smallies in the 14- to 16-inch range were numerous, and Stinson landed bragging rights with a 16½-inch smallmouth that also earned him the trophy for biggest smallmouth bass in the Peace Officers Fish Derby.
There’s nothing like a scrappy smallmouth tugging at the end of the line to make an angler forget about fishing in cold and wind.
Next up, it was time to bounce across the waves to chase a few walleyes on the leeward side of the lake. McLauchlan wasn’t exaggerating when he said our ride across Rocky Lake would be bumpy.
The big pontoon was up to the task, though, and it wasn’t long before we were bouncing jigs on the rocky bottom for walleyes in relatively calm waters.
The most memorable walleye encounter of the afternoon was a 23-inch fish Nies landed in about a foot of water while McLauchlan was trying to anchor off the edge of a protected shoreline.
“I had dropped my line in before the boat stopped moving but reeled up because I was right on some rocks, and the fish struck at the bait just before it cleared the water,” Nies said. “I dropped it right back down and the fish immediately bit again — hard.”
There’s nothing like watching a feisty walleye hit a jig to make an angler forget about fishing in cold and wind.
Syrup and sausages
Time passes in a blur when the fish cooperate, but by late afternoon, we’d worked up an appetite. McLauchlan steered the boat to a protected shoreline near his birch syrup camp.
Brats grilled onboard the pontoon were on the menu, but first we wanted to see the camp.
Situated back in “the bush,” the camp is well concealed.
“Normally, people coming off the lake don’t even know it’s here,” McLauchlan said.
Producing and marketing birch syrup is both a retirement venture and a hobby, McLauchlan says, a way to keep busy — especially in April and May, when the sap flows.
His grandfather tapped maple trees for syrup “down east” in Cobourg, Ont., east of Toronto, back in the day, McLauchlan says, so he and his wife in 2004 decided to tap birch trees in northern Manitoba.
“We were looking for something to retire with, and we thought, ‘Let’s try it,’” McLauchlan said. “We’ve got no maples here, and we did some research and found birch.”
They formed Rocky Lake Birchworks in February 2009 and collect sap from about 1,000 birch trees every spring, he says. This year, they collected about 5,000 gallons of sap, and their best year to date was 20,000 gallons, McLauchlan says; the trees produce best during springs with nighttime temperatures of about 30 degrees Fahrenheit and daytime highs of no more than 45 degrees. They market pure birch syrup and a sweetened version to several Canadian retailers and online to customers across North America. Sons Andy, of Regina, Saskatchewan, and Peter, of The Pas, also help with the venture.
“I’m not going to get rich off it, but we enjoy being out in the bush,” McLauchlan said. “My wife and I are out here by ourselves, and our sons come over. We just enjoy being out here and producing a product.”
‘Everything is a new experience’
Enjoying a day outdoors under the adverse conditions we encountered on Rocky Lake is rewarding in itself, but as a bonus, we’d caught walleyes, smallmouth bass, northern pike and learned how birch syrup was made.
Surrounded by wilderness, the brats McLauchlan grilled on his pontoon seemed even tastier than they otherwise might have.
Asked what drew him to the North and keeps him there, McLauchlan doesn’t hesitate.
“This,” he says, looking at his surroundings. “You’re free. Like who bothered us today? Nobody.”
That passion serves him well as a northern Manitoba tourism consultant for Travel Manitoba, helping to promote tourism in the North.
“Everything is a new experience,” he said. “You’ve never seen a birch syrup operation before. You’ve never been on Rocky Lake before. It’s an area that’s really untouched.
“Rocky Lake is a very pretty lake. We didn’t see much of it because of the waves, and it’s one of I don’t know how many lakes we have up in the North. You can go up in a plane at 10,000 feet and throw out a rock and 9 times out of 10, it’s going to hit water.”