I Have Died and Gone to Fishing Heaven - blog post by Tony Capecchi, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Sep. 06, 2013
I Have Died and Gone to Fishing Heaven
Posted by: Tony Capecchi on Minneapolis Star Tribune website - August 31, 2013
I have died and gone to fishing heaven. Past the pearly gates at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge lies a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in Manitoba’s remote wilderness; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.
If that sounds like hyperbole, let me put it another way: I’ve been lucky enough to fish at elite destinations ranging from Florida to California, from Ontario to Alaska, from Ireland to Scotland, but I’ve never been anywhere that combines world-class fishing with world-class accommodations like Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
My comrade for this adventure was none other than my dad, the perfect fishing partner for any trip, but especially for one of this magnitude. Baseball fanatics memorize batting averages and on-base-percentages. Med-school students study diseases and medications. My dad researches Canadian fishing lodges.
Walk around a sportsman show with Dad and you’ll hear him comment on just about every lodge. “Got a brochure on that one. Big pike.” “Saw that lodge on TV. It’s way up in Saskatchewan.” “Read about this one in Midwest Outdoors.”
So Dad knew full-well what we were getting into last week as we sped north on North Dakota’s Interstate 29. What he didn’t expect was getting stopped at the Canadian border and sent to immigration, where an officer grilled him about any past criminal record. After repeatedly being asked if he had any run-ins with the law, Dad finally came clean: “Well, about 15 years ago I got a speeding ticket.”
“That’s OK,” the officer said. “We have lots of speeders here, too.” With those words, we were free and clear to pass through purgatory and continue our ascension into Aikens.
We would soon discover why In-Fisherman Editor Doug Stange declared Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge “still the finest all-around experience I’ve ever had on a fly-in trip.”
The lodge, which opened in 1949, is idyllically set on Aikens Lake near the inlet to the Gammon River in Manitoba’s Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park. Our morning flight in at 1,500 feet altitude was beautiful and surprisingly smooth. When we landed the entire staff was lined up on the dock to welcome us to Aikens. It seemed everyone knew who we were––a touch of personal service made a bit easier, I suppose, by the fact that only 600 guests a year come to Aikens.
In 2012, the camp averaged 18.8 guests per night over the full season, from late-May to late-September. With over 20 full-time staff, the incredible reality is that Aikens has more workers taking care of guests than, well, guests themselves.
We never touched our bags after dropping them off to be loaded onto the plane back at the float base. One of the crew took our bags to our cabin, while another staff member gave us a private tour of the grounds, including the “Tackle, Bait and Bullshit Shack” and “Big Molly’s Bar.” The camp’s fully-stocked bar buzzes daily with activity during happy hour (free drinks) and then again late into the night.
We began to realize it is the staff itself––as much as the amazing fishing and fancy cabins––that makes Aikens stand out. You likely won’t find a younger lodge manager than Pit Turenne, 35, whose parents bought the place back in 1988 and began transforming it from a more traditional, rustic resort to the world-renowned destination it has become.
In 2005, Pit’s parents retired (though they still live at camp and play the part of grandparent-babysitters) and investor Chris Jensen got on board as a partner, agreeing to infuse boatloads of capital to further upgrade Aikens under one critical condition: Pit and his wife, Julie, continue the family tradition of managing the lodge.
I don't think Pit could have imagined life any other way. He and Julie pull out all the stops to do anything possible to make their guests happy. Yet as hard as the Turennes work to accomodate guests, when you watch them it really doesn't seem like work because they genuinely enjoy it.
You can’t fake authentic people skills––a genuine interest in others is an innate trait that can’t be taught. Pit, whose first dream was the common Canadian calling to star in the NHL, has clearly found his perfect career. The math-wizard born on Christmas Day talks easily with guests from all walks of life. He quickly establishes rapport and employs his natural wit and laid-back personality to connect with people in a way you rarely witness. It’s his nature, likely cultivated while growing up at the lodge and making conversation with people every day since age 10.
The Turenne’s willingness to accommodate guests’ requests can include unusual circumstances. Earlier this summer, two guests got married at Aikens. “I applied to the province and received certification to preside at the wedding,” Julie said. “We did the wedding in Big Molly’s Bar, and it went really well.”
The couple actually went walleye fishing on their wedding day. “That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt guiding,” said Tyler, the guide who took them out that day. “Fortunately, we had good fishing and they had a blast.”
The second-deepest lake in Manitoba with depths plummeting to 290 feet, Aikens is a nutrient-dense body of water with massive populations of ciscos and shiners. The Gammon River flows through the lake, which is also connected to Lost Lake and St. Bonaventure Lake. While the lake system offers the chance for big lake trout and pike, it’s most famous for its incredible population of trophy walleyes (the lake record is 33.5 inches).
The rare combination of quantity and quality of walleyes at Aikens inspired Pit and Julie to create an award known as The Century Club. To earn the privileged entry into this group, a guest must individually catch four walleyes between 8am and 5pm that total 100 inches in length.
The reward? A presentation that night at dinner including a glossy 8 x 10 photo of the recipient’s biggest fish, a photo added to The Century Club board inside the tackle shop and, best of all, one entry into a drawing to win a free trip back to Aikens.
“The idea for The Century Club first came up late one night at Big Molly’s Bar,” Julie admitted. “Big Molly’s is the source of inspiration for many ideas, good and bad.”
Pit and Julie post each day’s Century Club winners and Master Angler catches on the lodge’s Facebook page, which my dad and I had been checking routinely for months prior to our trip, so we knew what we were gunning for. On our first Monday at Aikens we kicked off our day with breakfast before hitting the water. We saw the menu and promptly began ordering like starving men who may not eat again for several days.
After devouring hash browns, sausage, bacon, a breakfast sandwich (with more of said sausage and bacon), and the best French toast I’ve ever tasted, we started fishing at 8am.
The action began immediately with two small fish: a 17-incher followed by a dink we didn’t bother to measure that looked no more than two-thirds the size of the first. And then, like the flip of a switch, the big ones started biting. I caught a 23-incher at the same time my dad landed a 25. A moment later, I set the hook on a barely-perceptible twitch and immediately saw my rod double over. A 26-incher that fought like hell on my light-action rod and 8-pound monofilament.
I took a quick photo, released the fish and replaced my frozen minnow (no live minnows on Aikens Lake), and jigged for no more than 5 minutes before hooking into another 25-inch ’eye.
Dad couldn’t believe the bevy of broad-shouldered walleyes we were hauling in left and right, and we quit measuring or counting fish that at quick glance appeared less than 24 inches. Another 25 and a thick 26-incher later, and next thing I knew I was in The Century Club with 102 inches. And it was only 9:15 in the morning!
As an angler, you spend your whole life praying that a paradise like Aikens really does exist––and that, by the grace of God, the past fishing lies you’ve told are forgiven and you’re deemed worthy to enter into such a haven. When you then catch four walleyes over 25 inches in your first 75 minutes fishing on Monday morning you realize your faith has been justified and, incredibly, such salvation is real.
During the rest of our day, and throughout our four days at Aikens, we caught an amazing number of walleyes in the mid- to upper 20-inch range. We also got lucky with the apex predators of the lake, boating a number of big pike from the mid-30 to low 40-inch range. We caught some trolling big cranks (6-inch Jakes worked best), but the pike that landed us a Master Angler award (the Manitoba minimum for a Master Angler pike is 41 inches) was caught moments before a rainstorm while jigging for walleyes with a light-action rod, 8-pound monofilament line and no leader.
That pike was actually caught twice. It took me a full 5 minutes to wrestle it up to the boat the first time we landed it, but then, by fluke, it jumped out of the net as we were reaching to unhook it. Fortune was on our side. I had already flipped the bail to loosen the line and relaxed my grip on the rod, but the fish stayed hooked as it dove back to the depths of the lake, so I picked up my rod and fought it a second time to secure it for good.
Surprisingly, that Master Angler pike was not the most thrilling fish of the trip. The next afternoon, we naturally went back to the same reef and started catching more walleyes. A few minutes after releasing a 22-inch walleye, I set the hook on something I immediately knew was not a walleye. This fish was powerful. I couldn’t budge it at all; reduced instead to the role of bystander as the angry creature stripped line at an alarming pace, diving deeper and deeper.
A breeze kicked up, so we had to run the motor to hold us over the fish so it didn’t get too far out and create a bad angle for the line. “I hope we get to see this thing,” my dad muttered after 7 or 8 exciting minutes. Finally, I started making progress and eventually we netted the beast, a monstrous 32-inch lake trout.
Our first-ever lake trout! We had never before fished for lakers, and rarely if ever even fished in lakes that possessed the famed fighters. But a number of times in the past couple years Dad and I discussed how awesome it would be to someday catch one of these deep-water submarines. Now (thanks to luck we didn’t deserve and may well be working off for the better part of a decade), we had not only caught a lake trout––in the midst of spectacular walleye action––but we had landed a monster.
The fishing guides at Aikens are experienced, friendly and focused on the client. Dave Smith, our guide for the trip, is in many ways the embodiment of the stereotypical, classic Canuck: he sports a scruffy beard, hunts anything that’s legal to shoot, guides all days then fishes for fun at night, bites his fishing line rather than cutting it with a clippers, chews tobacco and smokes cigarettes while complaining about the $20-per-pack price. He was also a hockey player, and one afternoon described to us in blow-by-blow version every hockey fight he ever got in (Cliffs Notes version: Dave didn’t lose many fights).
But in other ways, Dave is anything but your typical bush-man. He’s into anthropology and archeology, with a passion for European history. He philosophizes about Chrenobyl’s nuclear disaster, knows more about U.S. politics than most Americans and speaks at length about travelling in Italy and marveling over Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
“My favorite thing about guiding here is getting to know people from all walks of life,” said Smith, who averages 800 hours per season on the water. “By spending 8 or 9 hours a day in a boat with people, three or four days in a row, I have a chance to really get to know them and develop a friendship with the people who come to Aikens.”
Smith unquestionably made our trip more enjoyable––not only because he put us on big fish but also because it’s a pleasure to spend a day on the water with him. He dates the sous chef at Aikens, and definitely gives her a run for her money when it comes to preparing fish. Our daily shore lunch was a relaxing break for Dad and me, but Smith was hard at work, intently focused on every minor detail as he fried four different styles of fish for us throughout the week.
The moment that stood out for me was Smith dropping a dollop of beer batter into the frying pan to gauge the temperature of the oil. “You want the batter to sink to the bottom of the pan, float back up, and then bubble,” he said while adding new oil and removing the pan from the flame to cool the oil to the perfect temperature. “Otherwise this beer batter doesn’t have quite the right viscosity.”
His attention to detail produced the best beer batter fish I’ve ever tasted.
If Aikens has a cult following, it’s a very welcoming cult. You have to give the Turennes credit for creating an atmosphere that fosters fellowship. The camaraderie at Big Molly’s Bar was great (and at the risk of damaging friendships we made, I must mention Dad and I beat everyone we played in shuffleboard).
Ernie Bessant, of Brandon, Manitoba, brought his fiancée Donna, who promptly showed up the guys by making The Century Club on her second day at Aikens. “This is quite a special place,” Bessant told me over complimentary happy hour drinks. “It really competes with anywhere in the world in terms of service.”
Need proof? One night at the bar, Bessant casually mentioned that he and Donna had just recently gotten engaged a month or two ago. This was news to the Turennes. When the Bessants got back to their cabin a couple hours later, their bed was covered with rose petals, and a bottle of champagne awaited them.
Aikens attracts a variety of anglers. In addition to the love-birds, we enjoyed visiting with a family with two young children, a father-son duo and the expected bachelor groups of fishing buddies.
Jesse Bleeman, of Toronto, Ontario, came with six fishing buddies who cherish this annual rite of passage. “The fishing here is amazing, and the accommodations and staff are world-class,” said Bleeman, owner of lure company LunkerHunt. “We look forward to this trip all year long. As soon as we get home, we start counting down the days to next year’s trip.”
Another member of Bleeman’s group, who I shall keep anonymous for the sake of marital harmony, told me more bluntly how important the annual Aikens trip is to him. “We plan our wives’ pregnancies around this trip,” he said. “The last thing you want is your wife to be due on September 1 when you’re supposed to go to Aikens in mid-August, cause then you can’t go on the trip!”
My dad is a man of few words, but when he does offer an observation it is almost always insightful. Such was the case on our last day at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge. "You know, Tony," he said while watching the waves crash against the rocks as we ate fresh fish. "You can watch the Aikens videos and read the website about all the fancy cabins, and the food, and how great the fishing and the service is, but the one thing you can't really appreciate until you're here is how beautiful it all is."
Dad was right. The photos don't do it justice. You can't capture the magnitude or the power of this stunning landscape in a 5 x 7. With that disclaimer, here's a small glimpse of the scenery at Aikens.
The website for Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge is www.aikenslake.com. For more information, call 800.565.2595 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Since age 18, Tony Capecchi has been chronicling his worldwide travel and outdoor adventures for national magazines, including In-Fisherman and North American Hunter. He has co-hosted “Live Outdoors” on CBS Radio, produced television for NBC and worked on The History Channel’s hit series “MonsterQuest.”