Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pickerel paradise

An American journalist relates experience of fishing Manitoba's Crowduck Lake

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Brad Dokken is the Outdoors editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He recently visited Manitoba and went fishing for pickerel -- he calls them walleye -- on Crowduck Lake in the Whiteshell. This, in part, is what he told his readers when he got back to Grand Forks...

CROWDUCK LAKE, Man. -- Anywhere else, a fishing report on three anglers catching 350 walleyes in a single day might be shrugged off as so much hot air.

But on Crowduck Lake, where the dockhands at Crowduck Lake Camp ushered in this sunny Monday morning with a report that seemed to fall straight from walleye heaven, it only fuelled our anticipation to hit the water.

Three anglers, 350 walleyes. Three anglers, 350 walleyes. The words flowed through our brains like a mantra.

We'd come here, five of us, to this gin-clear lake in the heart of Manitoba's Whiteshell Provincial Park to sample some of the fastest walleye fishing imaginable without investing the time and expense of a remote fly-in trip. Crowduck isn't accessible by road, but the staff at Crowduck Lake Camp runs a seamless boat-rental operation that includes pickup and return transportation from Big Whiteshell Lake and across the three-kilometre portage into camp.

That's when the "reel" fun begins.

I first got wind of Crowduck Lake about five years ago after seeing an episode of Winnipeg Free Press fishing columnist Don Lamont's Complete Angler show on television. The program caught my attention because Lamont's guest was Mitch Dorge, the drummer for the Crash Test Dummies.

The pair pulled in one walleye after another. The lake has been on my radar screen since.

Even before we'd dropped our lines on the first walleye of the morning, all the signs pointed to a good day. After meeting our driver, Mike Mustag of Winnipeg, for the boat ride across Big Whiteshell Lake and unloading our gear into a pickup for the portage into Crowduck Lake, we walked up to the dock to find our two rental boats waiting and the 25-horse Honda four-strokes purring.

After a crash course in operating the motors -- electric start, no less -- the dockhands furnished us with marked maps pointing to the walleye hotspots and sent us on our way. And as we quickly discovered, the fishing reports weren't hot air.

Crowduck Lake isn't your typical walleye water. Unlike the bog-stained waters that characterize most walleye lakes among the rocks and pines of the Canadian Shield, crystal clear Crowduck appears more suited to trout.

Oh yeah, one more thing, there's a catch to this kind of action: anglers fishing Crowduck have to release every walleye they catch.

According to Carl Wall, sport fishing program manager for Manitoba Conservation in Winnipeg, Crowduck Lake is the only catch-and-release walleye fishery in the province. Up until 1985, when the agency launched a grand stocking experiment to see if the species would take, Crowduck was known as a pike and smallmouth bass lake that didn't even have walleyes. Between 1985 and 1989, Wall said, fisheries crews stocked six million walleye fry into the big lake.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"It's a very unique situation there, because we put walleyes into a vacant environment," Wall said. "They are a top predator, and they just ballooned. When you put them into a vacant environment like that, they're going to have tremendous growth rates. Everything is right for them."

Wall said Manitoba Conservation implemented the zero-walleye limit in 1993, about the time the population really started to blossom. There's been discussion about letting anglers keep a fish or two for eating, he said, but the proposal has met surprising resistance.

"We had strong reaction from anglers to leave it as it is," Wall said. "We still get people who want a limit, but people look at Crowduck as an affordable way to experience walleye fishing you'd experience at a far northern lodge or some remote place. It's a unique experience, so from that perspective, it's been popular."

The zero-walleye limit certainly hasn't been bad for business at Crowduck Lake Camp, the only resort on the lake. Nick Kolansky, 76, who owns the camp with his son, Bill, says the resort's seven cabins are full from the season opener in May until the end of September. Trying to get a reservation is about as easy as catching a walleye with a pin and a piece of string.

"Somebody usually has to either retire from fishing or pass away" before a cabin is available, Kolansky said. "The place is filled all the time, and we don't do any advertising because we've got nothing to advertise. We're filled to capacity."

The good fishing is at least part of what keeps them coming back. And for the masses not lucky enough to have a cabin reservation, Crowduck Lake Camp offers boat rentals for visitors who just want to fish the lake for the day.

"It's probably one of the greatest walleye lakes on the North American continent, and it shows that catch-and-release is working," Kolansky said. "You don't need a guide because there's really no reason for it."

While catch-and-release regulations have created a booming walleye population on Crowduck, the sailing hasn't all been smooth. Wall of Manitoba Conservation said anglers five or six years ago could expect to catch half a dozen Master Angler walleyes -- fish 70 centimetres or longer -- in a day. Now, the walleyes are smaller, on average -- 45 to 55 centimetres, with the occasional 62.5 or 65-centimetre fish.

Wall says he attributes some of the decline to hooking mortality, especially during the late summer and fall when walleyes go deeper. Also, he said, the walleyes became so abundant they cropped off forage species such as minnows and tullibees. (Barbless hooks are the rule in Manitoba waters - Ed.)

"Then, we started to see a decline in prey populations, and the walleyes started to get skinny," Wall said. "Their main food source was being hammered on."

Now, Wall says, that trend appears to be changing. Manitoba Conservation hasn't stocked walleyes since 1989; and while there's some natural reproduction, he said attrition appears to be lowering overall abundance.

So why not establish a strict limit to help the cause? Wall says that could impact the quality of the fishing.

"People say it would be nice if they could have one for shore lunch, and that would be fine," Wall said. "But with the pressure they get in there, even with one or two walleyes per angler, there would be a significant harvest. The lodge operator there does a heck of a business, and it's provided a great service for our local anglers to enjoy a really different day of walleye fishing."

Meantime, Wall said, Manitoba Conservation continues to monitor the lake and its forage base. There's no doubt, he said, that the walleye boom has lowered the quality of smallmouth bass and pike fishing. Part of that results from walleyes preying on the other two species; the other part, he said, is anglers keeping bass and pike to compensate for the zero-walleye limit.

"When we did this in 1985, there was great discussion around the table among fisheries managers about whether we should" stock walleyes, Wall said. "Even though they're a native Manitoba species, we were introducing them to a body of water that didn't have them.

"Hindsight is a great planner. Would we do it again? I don't know. It's a great success story, but we changed the lake. There's no doubt about that."

Nor is there any doubt about the pace of the walleye fishing. Even though it took an hour or so to really "find" the walleyes that first day, the five of us quickly lost count of how many fish we landed. Drifting with a jig and a twister tail in five to seven metres of water off a small island, we'd sometimes release 15 to 20 fish a pass.

So much for the theory that walleyes in clear water are difficult to catch on hot, sunny days.

"I've fished Canadian waters where we caught numbers comparable to Crowduck," said Peter Howard Sr., of Stillwater, Minn. "Yet none of those lakes provided larger walleyes than we caught here. We easily pulled in over 300 fish among our party of five. Possibly over 400."

I hardly dare say it, but at times, we almost got bored with catching walleyes. If that's possible.

"I thought Crowduck was on par with the best outpost lakes we've fished in years past, but without all the effort and expense of driving a long distance and then flying to a remote lake miles from civilization," said Ron Nies of Minneapolis, a Canada trip regular since 1994.

"For those who might not have the time or the inclination to take a fly-in trip, it's an excellent way to experience what fly-in fishing can be like -- beautiful scenery, plentiful fish and minimal competition from other anglers."

It's the kind of fishing that's difficult to comprehend. And like that dockhand's report, that's no fish tale.

bdokken@gfherald.com

PHOTOS BY BRAD DOKKEN/GRAND FORKS HEARLD

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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