Let’s go on an imaginary journey to a secluded place where mountain lakes are overflowing with rainbow trout as long as your forearm. Picture yourself floating in the middle of this wilderness as eagles soar overhead while moose graze on a distant shoreline. Trout are slapping at the surface of the lake as a rising hatch fills the air. Reaching out one hand, a brown colored caddis lands on the tip your finger. You take a moment to pinch yourself, for this is no dream when you fish for world class trout at Northern Lights Lodge in British Columbia.
Northern Lights Lodge is located shore side on Quesnel Lake, the deepest fresh water fjord in the world, 380 miles northeast of Vancouver. While it is easily accessible by car, commercial flights fly into Williams Lake, B.C., a little over an hour away by motor vehicle. The Lodge accommodates up to twelve fishermen at one time for lake fishing, drift boat fishing, or walk/wade fishing using jet boats to remote locations on some of the most beautiful rivers in North America. Meals are served home style in a common dining room.
The lodge was constructed in 1942 from cedar logs. Smoke drifts from the central fireplace as we prepare our gear for a morning outing on secluded lakes.
This is gold rush country. There is gold in them there hills, and miners still mine for the glittery stuff to this day. The rush for gold first began with a strike on the Horsefly River in 1859 and there are reminders of this rich history almost everywhere you look.
I found the people to be every bit as hard working as they are friendly. Much of this has been learned through necessity and is passed on from generation to generation. The winters can be extreme, and the fishing season is relatively short by most standards. The fishing guides at Northern Lights are a tough breed of experienced fly fishermen who also hunt and trap. My guide, Gordy, spent 34 years as a professional big game outfitter. He hunted moose, mule deer, black and brown bears, caribou, and mountain goats for a living before turning his primary skills to guiding fly fishermen. Guides, Paul and Frank, both taught school in Williams Lake before retiring. They can tell you more than you want to know about the history of the area as well anything imaginable about fly fishing. From the time Paul picked me up at the airport in Williams Lake to the day Sharon dropped me off again to fly out, I never went lacking for conversation. The lodge is everything a fishing lodge should be, and the guides know the rivers and lakes with an intimacy that is born from a lifetime of study.
This is paul, another senior guide at the lodge. I really liked Paul. He is a retired history teacher and track coach. He still coaches women’s rugby in his spare time. If you are fishing wet flies, Paul is your go-to-guide.
The lodge was built from cedar logs in 1942 and initially focused on fishing in Quesnel Lake and also operated as a hunting camp for big game. It ceased operations in the 1980’s, and was reopened in 1997 by Skeed and Sharon Borkowski who made some major renovations. The main lodge has eight rooms with private entrances, a large great room/dining room, and four additional cabins. There is also an adjoining tackle and fly shop where flies and clothing are available. I was there the end of June, 2012, and found the wood fire in the large stone fireplace took the chill off in the mornings. The great room is furnished in overstuffed leather furniture that welcomes you home after a long day on the water. Wine glasses in hand, our group gathered around the fireplace telling jokes and lies while waiting on dinner to be served.
Northern Lights is run by lodge owners Terry ( Skeed) and Sharon Borkowki. Skeed has truly lived the big life, as a logger, saw mill owner, and gold miner before opening the lodge in 1997. Today he and his wife of forty-three years, Sharon, run one of the finest fly fishing lodges on the planet. FlyFushion Magazine named it, “Trout Lodge of the Year,” in 2010. But if repeat customers are any indication (hint, hint), it is easy to see how Northern Lights acquired its stellar reputation. It also does not hurt to be square in the bull’s eye of some of the finest wild rainbow and bull trout fishing in all of Western Canada.
Skeed runs a tight ship at the lodge and is well respected and liked by everyone that he comes in contact with. Like all of the guides at the lodge, Skeed can put you on fish.
Everyone has his own definition of the ultimate man. Back home at the big box store, real men can be measured by their ability to backup their pickups into tight parking spots, wearing their ball caps ass-backwards, while humming a few bars of Toby Keith on the radio. In British Columbia, a man’s man learns to handle his rod and line as easily as he fixes blueberry pancakes before a day’s outing at the lake. Skeed is one of those rare men who flashes his genius in the kitchen as well as he does it on the water. Think about washing down breakfast with hot coffee as black as the ace of spades and a full slab of bacon, accompanied by a whopping plate of eggs, and you have the recipe to kick start a morning of fly fishing at Northern Lights Lodge. The only thing with a bigger appetite than the group of hungry fly fishermen packed around the table is that 20-inch trout still out on the water calling your name.
After fishing hard all day, our energy was pretty well drained. Gathering around large round tables, men of varied ages shared a single thread of common interests as Sharon served up a dinner and desert worth dying for. The group of fishermen and guides around the table came from diverse backgrounds. Rich man. Poor man. Dyed in the wool fisherman. Newby. It did not matter. All were welcome. For four days of fishing we were as one, focused on our shared passion for fly fishing. I am already counting the days until I can do it again next year. Skeed and Sharon have this innate ability to make everyone feel at home. From the minute I set foot into the lodge until the moment I left for home, I was family. It is amazing how quickly we were all on a first name basis and talking to one another like we had been friends all of our lives. And jokes were told, as well as more than a few lies, I feel sure. I laughed so hard at Skeed’s jokes that my sides still hurt.
Brent joined our group of fishermen a day late after his baggage missed his flight out of Denver. He made up for lost time by fishing harder than any of us. That is Frank, another guide, to the left of Brent. Frank spent much of his time rowing back and forth to check on all of us.
This was the end of June and the water was still too high from the spring runoff to fish the Quesnel River coming out of the lake. Heavy rains had gathered in the lake along with the melting snow. The Horsefly River did not open to fishing until July. So, we fished the remote lakes surrounded by the dark, forested hills of the Cariboo region. On one occasion Skeed used a chain saw to clear the path ahead of us. Our group packed in our single man pontoon boats and gear through bogs laced with skunk cabbage and peat moss. This was hard work but well worth the effort. These more remote lakes offer up some of the finest fishing, but taking along plenty of mosquito repellant is a rule not to be ignored. It was on one of these hidden lakes that members of our group caught bows in excess of 24 inches in length. A fish grabbed my dry fly and snapped my leader as easily as if it were made of thread. Another simply broke the hook in half leaving me the attached eye and part of the shank still tied to my line. If you choose to fish the more remote lakes, most likely your group will have the water to themselves. It is unlikely in the middle of the week that you will encounter any other fishermen.
I chose to cast dries most often, but others in our group found that drifting nymphs offered up great success. Prince nymphs and black leach patterns worked well with either sinking or floating line. I used a variety of dry fly patterns on the lakes including stimulator patterns, royal coachmen, and caddis flies. My most successful fly was a Tom Thumb with a red body underside. This is a fly that seems to be quite popular at the lodge. The fish are not hook shy, and larger size flies work just fine. I had good strikes on mouse patterns but failed to hook up on a mouse. It is around the first of July that the stonefly hatch begins to show its face. I saw good evidence of stonefly hatches on the Quesnel River coming out of the lake near the end of my stay. I should think that little brown stones, yellow Sallies and salmon fly patterns would do well in the faster water along with caddis patterns as the season progresses.
This is a picture of Skeed lending a helping hand (and eyes) to tie on a new fly for a member of our group.
While still-water fishing, many in our group concentrated on fishing closer to shore and casting in toward the banks. The occasional heavy fish would bite, but most often the nursery fish got there first. There was no shortage of babies willing to take most any sized fly in the tea colored water. I chose to fish my dries out in bigger water far away from shore. This proved quite successful for tying into larger fish. Don’t be lulled into thinking that they aren’t out there, because they are. They do not bite quite as often but don’t take your eye off of your fly. On 5 weight tackle these fish can put up quite a battle, taking your small pontoon along for the ride.
I am a catch and release fisherman by nature. While the trophy producing rivers are catch and release only, some of our group did take a few lake fish back to the lodge for grilling each evening. We fished with barbless single hook flies. On one occasion while extracting a fly, I accidently injured the gill on a medium sized rainbow. For a fraction of a second the fish floated belly side up. Before I had time to react, an adult bald eagle dove in front of me, scooping the fish out of the water so close to me that I could have almost reached out and touched his wing tip. I have the feeling that this particular eagle is very experienced at robbing unsuspecting fishermen.
I stayed for two additional days at the lodge after saying goodbye to my new-found friends. The guides went home to their wives and the lodge let down its hair, looking to catch up in between organized trips. The last day of my stay, Skeed and I went to Trio Lake for a morning of fishing followed by a short look at the Quesnel River that afternoon. The water was still pouring out of the Quesnel Lake at a pretty good clip, but Skeed wanted to give the river a try. I am glad that we did.
While I had chosen to use 5X leaders and tippet on the lakes, this proved to be far too light for use on the river. Skeed took me by jet boat for a quick tour of what he called the “honey hole”, not far down stream from where the lake gives birth to the Quesnel River. The honey hole is a rather large back eddy that spins around over good structure and along banks where overhanging brush provides good cover for fish. It was here that I hooked into a series of smaller to medium sized bows in very short order. But it was the larger football shaped Quesnel trout that we were there for. I finally hooked into a bigger fish and he snapped my leader in quick fashion. Skeed admonished me for fishing on the river with my 5X leader. I had not changed leaders from our still-water fishing earlier in the day. I promised myself not to make the same mistake again.
Wild Flowers. Okay, guys will be guys, but there is always room for a woman’s touch. That much was not lost on any of us. Our hats go off to Sharon, Kori, and Nicki for taking such good care of all of us.
A few days earlier Skeed had walked into the lodge, reached out a closed fist, and dropped three large gold nuggets into my open hand. Not ever having panned or mined for gold, I had never seen anything quite like it. The next few days I questioned Skeed about how he came by the gold nuggets. He told me about his mining days, but never gave me the specifics on the large gold nuggets. Because I make my living as a professional artist, I was able to take away much more from my trip than a world class fishing experience. For the six days and nights I was totally engrossed in a patchwork of the forested hills, water, and skies of the Cariboo region in British Columbia. Skeed asked me how all of this will translate into future paintings. I did not have a simple answer. I told Skeed that I just know that something good will come of it. Skeed drew a quick parallel. He told me that him asking me about my paintings and how I go about making art, is a little like me asking him about the gold nuggets and how he found them. Well, I guess we all have our gifts and maybe a few secrets. Whatever else comes from my stay at Northern Lights Lodge, I will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime experience and plan on making it two very soon.