***Note from editor: Thanks to Don Enright for this heartfelt post on fishing in northern Canada – a trip that was generously organized by Travel Manitoba in collaboration with Ford Canada (who did not review or approve this article before publication). Once again Don, we’re happy to have you on our pages!
When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, two things were certain in my family: you drove a Ford and you spent your holidays fishing.
So for my nine-year-old self, paradise was a lake with sandy shores in the north country somewhere in the Canadian prairies – a place where cousins and parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts gathered for a few short weeks each year under the summer sun. A place where kids, unsupervised, were set free to hike and swim and fish and explore.
They say you can’t go home again, but here I am. I’m making my way northeast from Winnipeg with a pack of travel writers in a fancy Ford to a place called Eagle Nest Lodge.
I’m equal parts giddy and nervous at the thought of stirring up old memories. Things change with time. I gave up fishing years ago and I recently gave up my Ford for a Zipcar. But then again, what harm can come of a little fishing trip?
I learn quickly that the people from this part of Manitoba take their fishing seriously. Any thoughts I might have of being a mere observer evaporate as a squadron of guides greets us, motorboats at the ready.
I meet my fishing mate, a South African adventurer named Robin, and we are briefed in the wily ways of our quarry: bass, pike, sauger and walleye. As we set out, I anxiously search my memory for anything to remind me how this is done. But as soon as I pick up the rod and reel (and to my enormous relief), my hands know exactly what to do: check the tension, flip the bail, cast the line and reel it in – the eery rote of muscle memory.
It didn’t take long to settle into life at a Manitoba fishing lodge. Eat. Fish. Repeat. Yup, pretty much as I remembered it.
Jigging for walleye, mind you, was one technique that was new to me. I found it a lot of work. Our guide Nelson, 16, a giant of a young man, was firmly in control: he throttled and backed up and steered through the currents, coaching us as we let out our lines, then jigged the minnows upward.
It was fun, but it required concentration – something I didn’t have much of once I was out on the water. I wanted to relax, to let go, to give in to the images welling up in my mind. Faded Polaroids of childhood summers at the lake.
In those days, we trolled for our fish. I asked Nelson if we could troll for old time’s sake and he was happy to oblige. We cast out and then chugged along as our lures swam behind us. I stared at the passing poplars and spruces on the shoreline. The songs of blackbirds and thrushes lulled me further back into myself.
I’m nine again. I’m sitting in the front seat of a 12-foot aluminum boat, only this time I’m trolling the shorelines of northern Saskatchewan. The smells of spruce and Off, of outboard gas and my uncle’s cigarellos fill the air.
I’m listening absent-mindedly to grown-ups talking. (We were a close family separated by too many miles through the winter.) They’re laughing and gossiping, unguarded, packing as much into these weeks together as they can.
As the adults talk, I’m sitting in my lifejacket and peppering my Uncle Don with questions about birds and trees and muskrats and clouds. He is a man of endless patience, both farmer and teacher, and I soak up his knowledge, committing to memory the shapes and colours of Labrador tea and bunchberry dogwood, of black spruce and jack pine. Fishing, as it turns out, is the furthest thing from my mind.
Fishing is secondary for all of us; the expedition is more about seeing each other, laughing, catching up and being a family.
Suddenly, Nelson announces that it’s time for lunch – pulling me out of my nostalgia.
The roar of outboard motors converges at a pre-appointed location on shore where guides have already started grilling onions and potatoes. We arrive with our catch and they get to work, filleting walleye and pike with the efficiency of journeymen chefs.
There is a certain integrity in catching your own lunch, we decide: in gutting it, preparing it and eating it yourself (or, in our pampered case, watching it done for you by guides.)
Walleye, it turns out, tastes like almost nothing at all. The joy of this fish is in its texture – moist, flakey, impossibly tender. The joy is in the way it comes alive when combined with the most subtle of seasonings.
A dusting of Cajun spices, rosemary and black pepper, or honey dill cream. Each choice we were given proved delicious. Again, the laughter and the conversation flow as the summer rain drizzles down on us and the ravens and gulls circle and call.
After returning to Vancouver, which is where I live now, I want to call Mom and Dad. They would be keen to hear stories of cabins and boats and sunsets and my 33 inch pike and all the lures I lost on the snags. But they’ve both passed on now.
So I pick up the phone and call my Uncle Don in Saskatoon. At 85, he’s the last of his family. Now, it’s his turn to ask the questions: What kind of Ford? What kind of spoon caught that pike? What are the new outboard motors like?
I tell him everything I can and our conversation is lively. But before I hang up, I take a deep breath and say thanks.
Thanks for taking time with me on those summer fishing trips up north, so many years ago.
lorna Crozier commented:
Love this piece, Don. You’re one of my favourite travel writers. I so admire how you make us see and hear and smell the place ( I want a piece of Walleye!) and also give us glimpses into your own life and what you care for. I know what you mean about wanting to phone Mom and Dad but there’s no one there to answer the phone.
Don E commented:
Lorna- thanks so much for the kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece- it was pure joy to write about.
So many of us are getting to that age where we are becoming the elders, with parents passing on or becoming more dependent on us. I wonder if we’ll ever feel ready.
Karla Ramsay commented:
Hello Don – Enjoyed your writing. got teary eyed at the last line – about giving thanks to the folks who introduced you to the sport and the glory of the north. Just solidifies my want to, if I ever win the lottery, to open up ‘Camp Fish’ – taking kids from the inner city to the bush for some fishin. Keep your paddle in the water.. Karla
Don Enright commented:
Karla- Thanks so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. And I really love your idea. You may not need to win the lottery- that idea has win written all over it from a fundraising point of view. And count me in as a volunteer natural history instructor. Canada’s wilderness is transformative, redemptive and somehow ennobling- we just need to get more Canadians in touch with it.
Elaine Calabro commented:
Thank for this beautiful story. What lovely memories. It reminded me of going to a lake with my family, my dads brothers family and a friends family. How much I enjoyed those days. I know the feelings you speak of. Everyone moved and things changed and I missed those days forever.