A fishing trip for trout and giant northern pike at Hatchet Lake Lodge turns into a moose rodeo with the local guides hoping to fill the freezer.
Jimmy had teeth. Barely. Something was starting to turn black at the base of his incisors, but he grinned constantly nonetheless. Dentists came this far north to fish, but not to work. Jimmy smoked two packs each day and washed down the nicotine with black coffee from his Thermos. At six feet, I guess he weighed 120 pounds. And at $13 for a pack of smokes in the bush, he probably didn’t have much money left to buy food. Besides, he liked caribou and killed 14 or so every year, he said. He didn’t care for moose so much, at least not as much as his brother Harry who spied a young bull swimming in the middle of a bay nearby.
I watched as Harry circled the bull. His technique was news to me. “Oh yeah,” Jimmy said. “Do it all the time.” Jimmy filled me in on rights of First Nations People in Canada. In a nutshell, they can hunt anything, anywhere, any time, with any weapon. More news to me. Harry had gotten a jump on the moose, but the bull’s eyes turned big as baseballs once he realized 18 feet of open-hulled aluminum was bearing down. The bull turned and headed to shore. Harry circled again with his fishing clients holding on to the gunwales with one hand and snapping photos with the other. They cut off the bull, and from my vantage point, it appeared the moose actually stepped into their boat. But the moose had simply found his footing and lunged out of the water. He made it to the bank where he slipped in the mud, four hooves in the air. He righted himself and fled for the muskeg. Jimmy laughed. I didn’t really know what to think. The Hatchet Lake Lodge website offered unparalleled fishing for pike, grayling, walleye and lake trout. It said nothing about moose wrangling. This was an all-expense paid writer’s trip courtesy of Tourism Saskatchewan, and I wasn’t here to make a fuss.
The day after the moose got away, we fished the Fon Du Lac River, which Jimmy said we could take all the way to Nome, Alaska. On the river, Arctic grayling and 5X tippet replaced pike and footlong steel leaders. I gave up on casting after my tippet snapped off for the third time. I slumped back in the chair. Jimmy laughed, took one last drag and tossed his butt overboard. I sat drinking coffee in the sun, breathing the air once Jimmy was done with his smoke. Ed, a writer he claimed, was in our boat. He really wanted to catch a grayling. He asked Jimmy what they were feeding on. “I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “I never asked them.”
Half a Thermos later, Ed hooked a grayling and needed to take photos for potential stories. Writing about this trip was his chance to land in one of the big three outdoor magazines. I could only think of two–and today, they barely exist anymore. He had me fondle, squeeze, and showcase the grayling’s dorsal fin. Blood began to drip from its fading gills. Satisfied with a memory card of photos, he pitched the fish overboard where it floated by on the current. “Don’t worry,” Jimmy said to me. “The river will take care of it.”
After a shore lunch of fried pike, Ed and I fished with Harry. We tossed poppers to the weedbeds and the pike got hot with an approaching storm. Ed needed more photos before it rained. He caught a pike and had me pose. He finally got the hint when I refused to smile and tossed the pike overboard where it settled to the shallow bottom below. We continued to cast to the shore and the boat began leaning hard to port. I looked over and Harry was using a giant treble hook to snag the dead pike off the bottom. I’d cast my top-water popper and reel while watching Harry bump but never snag the fish. As much as he tried, he didn’t eat pike for dinner.
A squall approached, and we tucked tail heading back to the warmth of the lodge. As the waves beat the hull, I sat thinking about that moose. Harry was actually going to loop the rope around the bull’s antlers, punch the motor and drag him out the lake where the flow of water over his mouth and nose would drown him. What’s wrong with just shooting them? I asked him. Turns out bullets are expensive, and Harry wasn’t going to waste a bullet when a rope would do.
As the squall turned into a full-fledged two-day downpour, only Harry and I went out together the next day. The clouds were low and the rain steady. Harry and I trolled for lake trout with shoehorn-sized spoons. With his left hand Harry steered the outboard and fished with the other hand. I fished from the other side of the boat. The rain came in sheets and the trout came in spurts—two for me, one for Harry.
I asked Harry about the moose. “What would you have done with it?” He would have anchored it to shore, and come back for it later. After carving it up, he would have brought it back to camp, and shared it with the other native guides. Everyone would feast. That’s how it worked—not many working chest freezers this far north.
At 55, Harry had been here more than 40 years. He guides only a month or so out of the year, when the permafrost thaws and the road building equipment starts to sink. The rest of the time, he works heavy equipment on road construction. “It’s something to do,” he said. He left home at age 11 to live in the bush. “It’s just what people did.” His brothers had cabins on nearby lakes where they trapped wolf, mink and otter in the winter as the coats are thicker. As a kid, he’d used seven dogs to pull a sled, but now everyone uses a snowmobile. One night he and his brother had a team of dogs staked out while they were in the tent. Their rifles leaned outside against a tree. When they unhooked the dogs the next morning, they found wolf tracks all over camp. A pack had wandered through. The dogs didn’t make a sound. On learning to live in the bush on your own, Harry put it to me like this: If you don’t do it right, you starve, so you learn quickly how to do it right.
As we trolled by islands and dodged slightly submerged rocks, sea gulls swarmed our boat. Harry told me how he’s watched sea gulls group together in the water to swim in circles, creating a whirlpool. When it gets big enough, fish would appear in the bottom of the pool and other gulls would snatch them up. I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or having fun with the tourist. Either way, it made for a fun image.
We averaged a few fish an hour. The day stayed gray. We drank coffee, and Harry laughed when I hooked into a meaty lake trout and jumped with surprise. A good day, I thought as we bounced against the waves back to shore. We walked up the dock together. Harry peeled right to go back to the guide shack. I went left to get a drink at the bar and dry by the fire. After dinner, I took a walk.
Behind the guest quarters, guides and other hired help lived in plywood boxes, music blaring. Half a basketball court with a plastic milk crate hoop passed for entertainment. A spit of land jutted far out into the lake. A red dog sat at the very end. It was watching something in the middle of the lake. A boat approached and the dog began to dance. It motored by with a sole Cree guide. The dog jumped up, tail wagging, and ran to the dock to see its owner.
The next morning, I was back on the porch waiting for our ride off the island. I sat on the porch swatting mosquitoes and pondering the next day when I would start the multi-layered journey home by boat, float plane, prop jet, jet, and four-wheel drive. I wondered what drowned moose tastes like.
Harry sat down. He showed me a half-inch gash in his hand.
“What did you do?”
“You did it,” he said. “Yesterday.”
I didn’t remember stabbing him with a hook, but maybe I did.
“What are you going to do once we leave?” I asked.
“Go back home I guess,” he said. “The boss don’t need us no more. Just wait until highway season.”
I handed him all the cash I had as a tip; I figured that’s why he had stuck around. He opened up the wad of bills and counted it.
“This just for me?”
“No,” I said. “Split it with Jimmy.”
The camp manager told us what we should give, and that’s what I gave him. Harry folded the bills, put them in his front shirt pocket and headed for the lodge, where the others were just finishing breakfast.
As we flew toward Points North Landing, we went the long way around Hatchet Lake. Looking out the window, I saw the spot where we had a shore lunch of fried pike, where we left the piles of fish guts and bones for the birds and seagulls. I settled in for the ride, scanning the open water for Harry’s boat and any unsuspecting moose.