"Trying to sneak some greens?” asks Gord Ellis, on catching me with the refrigerator open, shoving forkfuls of coleslaw into my mouth. We’ve just returned from a monumental fish fry at Sioux Lookout’s Winoga Lodge after a day on the ice. It was a savage feeding session centred solely on fish. No plates, no cutlery, no salad, no beans -- just chunks of walleye, pike, and whitefish fresh from the deep fryer.
We had arrived the previous night, and owner Dick Mansfield had shown us to our cabin -- a voluminous cedar log structure that could easily sleep 10. It has a full kitchen and bathroom with hot water and baseboard heating, backed up by a wood stove. “I put a fire on for you. . .OK?” queries the fit, 6 foot 3 Mansfield. “It’s a little cramped for 2 of us,” I joke, as I survey the vast living room, dining room, dual bedrooms, and loft.
Winoga in Winter
Mansfield’s home sits amidst a cluster of cabins along the shore of Abram Lake just outside Sioux Lookout and serves as a base of operations for their winter guests. There’s an island in front of the house where a log lodge and a collection of picturesque cabins built in the 1920s accommodate guests through summer. Mansfield and his wife, Kim, also have several outpost camps towards Wabakimi Provincial Park, as well as an outpost on Lake St. Joseph.
He’s one of those exceptional lodge owners who actually fishes a lot, about 160 days a year. In fact, he and his son, Troy, guide practically all of their ice fishing clients. In an area where there’s really more water than land, the Mansfields like to keep their clients away from the dangerous ice of narrows and current areas, and put them on fish.
Our connection to Winoga came from OOD writer and Sioux Lookout fishing guide, Ben Beattie.
It’s obvious the Mansfields are serious. In fact, 66 year old Mansfield has already left with a group of guests for a large lake along Highway 72. Ellis, Beattie, Troy, and I are not far behind.
Quest for a Cover Shot
One of my goals for this trip is to shoot a picture of a large whitefish for the cover of this issue. Beattie assures me there are big whitefish, as well as lake trout, and pike. When we pull up to a mid-lake shoal, we decide to give it a shot and start punching holes.
We land a lake trout, and after an hour head a few kilometres down the lake and set up in a small bay. I lower a green airplane jig and get a hard strike. I set and miss, pulling up a jig point adorned with large silvery scales. “Whitefish,” says Beattie. Moments later, Ellis confirms the species, sinking the hook into a beautiful 5-pounder. “Here’s my cover shot,” I say, but Beattie shrugs. “They get a lot bigger than that, James.”
While I photograph, Troy pulls up another, Ellis counters with an even larger fish, and Beattie follows suit, hoisting a well-shouldered whitey that would probably go 7 pounds. I get my cover shot and land a gorgeous 38 inch pike but the whitefish elude me.
We assemble in the large heated garage where Troy fillets, while Beattie and Mansfield Sr. coat and deep fry. Ellis and I stay out of the way, electing to drink beer, chat with other guests, and make plans for the next day.
Between mouthfuls of hot fish, Mansfield points to a remote lake on a wall map “I’m going to take my group there for walleye.” Beattie has a closer destination in mind. And, after a cozy night, we’re back in the saddle, snowmobiling toward a trail linking Abram Lake to Minnitaki.
As we sink holes over a rocky shoal, I take in the expanse of Minnitaki. Rocky islands are topped with windswept pines and long arms and bays seem to stretch endlessly in every direction. It’s no accident that this large and productive lake, so close to the highway and community of Sioux Lookout, is only accessible by boat via Abram Rapids or through one of several commercial fishing lodges on the lake. Limited access means the fishing in Minnitaki is comparable to remote fly-in destinations.
Ellis strikes first, catching a 17 inch walleye on a black tube jig. Troy and I follow with several fish and one smack in the middle of the 18 to 21 inch slot size. After a few hours, we relocate to a narrows where all the traffic of the lake is funnelled. We’re passed by Mansfield, returning from a successful trip to the distant walleye lake, and heading towards an evening destination.
By the time we meet up with them, the wind is up and wet snow is slanting sharply.
I’ve never been averse to foul weather and, knowing that a half-hour snowmobile ride will deliver us to the warmth and hospitality of Winoga Lodge, I’m quite content to turn up my collar and angle into the blackening evening.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that the action is nonstop, plucking whitefish, pike, and walleye from shallow water. Another full day on the ice passes all too quickly.