By Paul Jackson
"Fish camp doesn't
just happen Jackson..."
Those were the oft spoken words of my late friend, Mark Schmokel, as we would gather in the hangar for a happy hour fish camp planning meeting on a summer evening. A fishing trip to Canada with a group of guys takes some planning. It takes some real planning if your group is flying to Canada themselves.
Our flying group with a fishing problem started with Wipaire employees who loved to use the products they produce: floats for aircraft. St. Paul's Fleming airport is the home of Wipaire (which is the largest manufacturer of aircraft floats in the world) so it seems only natural that the original group's core would be made up of current and former Wipaire employees.
I met the group in the mid 90's at the invitation of a friend who owned a float plane and was planning a trip north. I am not a diehard fisherman and roughing it isn't exactly my thing either. I left on that first trip with an eye on adventure and no idea where this trip would take me. Our transportation was a ragtag group of Cessna's, Piper's, and DeHavilland's out of St. Paul, headed to southern Ontario to a remote camp. I played navigator in my friend's Beaver. In the days before GPS, I looked for roads to follow until we got too far north and then played the game of match the shape of the lake to the picture on the map to find our way. Through luck (and my superior pilotage skills) we found the intended camp, or one that looked a lot like it, on one of the many rectangular lakes with an outlet on the northwest corner.
To be clear, this is not Babe Winkleman and Ron Schara level fishing that we practice. Most of us bring a handful of yellow and white jigs and the biggest decision is whether to hook a leech or minnow to them. Our portable cigar humidor and martini kit are far more important items than our tackle boxes. As I was told early on, "We don't fish in Canada, we catch."
After one trip I was hooked, literally. In short order, I added a float rating to my pilot's license and I went all in and bought my first float plane. With that purchase my world went from flying from airport to airport to having every lake as a potential runway. At the aforementioned fish camp planning meetings, I went from a passenger and a problem, to a pilot and solution.
I became an active participant in fish camp planning now that I had some status. One of my assigned tasks was grocery shopping for the group. We kept a weathered yellow legal piece of paper with our shopping list on it. It had a sliding scale of how much of an item (such as cooking oil and eggs) was needed for the number of guys and days of our trip. It was the Holy Grail of fish camp planning. We then set to packing the planes and figuring out who gets which seat. Weight and space is a constant fight in a float plane and we always have to edit the green horn who brings too much gear and a huge tackle box to the airport.
Our airplanes all fly at varied speeds and most of us can't leave at the same time anyways, so our gaggle never looks much like a military formation heading north. We pre-clear Canada customs and then verify by phone on arrival at point of entry and most of the time are cleared without physical inspection. From there we head to town to buy some additional grocery items and the bulk of our wobbly pops and bait. With weight and space constraints, that means we sometimes have to make a few trips into fish camp to ferry supplies and bodies in. Darn it, more float flying.
The camps themselves vary. Sometimes we call around to outfitters last minute to see if they have an open camp. If they do, we get the latitude and longitude for the camp and enter it in our GPS. The days of solely relying on my pilotage skills have thankfully passed. Other times we have invites from private folks who have remote camps and invite us to come up and use their camp or join them for a weekend. As a last resort we stay at an accessible cabin or base camp and fly out to remote lakes with cached boats to use for the day's fishing. I will admit a hot tub, sauna, and a comfy bed are a welcome sight, even if it feels like you're cheating a little.
Regardless of the venue, most days at fish camp are the same. We fish from the crack of noon to early evening with a nice break for a shore lunch. Catching fish is not all that hard and even with my limited skills, I can max out almost every day. The day closes with a debate about who will clean the catch while happy hour beckons. The stories in our camps aren't just about fishing. They center on flying and the cast of characters we have collected on these trips. As the sun finally starts to take a bow, I make the usual mistake of asking about dinner and am chastised for threatening happy hour.
If it's a good trip, we arrive Thursday and "fish" for a couple of days. Inevitably though, we run out of three things at every fish camp; beer, eggs, and bait. That means a trip back to town and a chance to put on an air show for the fisherman out in the boats on our return. Did I already say, "Darn more float flying!"?
All good things do come to an end and we usually break camp early Sunday. Packing is a bit easier with all the food and spirits consumed and we launch and head for customs on the U.S. side at a point of entry. From there we usually fight the typical Sunday headwind and bumpy summer ride and make it back to our home airports. Freshly caught wallet fillets are our peace offerings to our loved ones when we get home. We smile convincingly when they say, "Let's have it for dinner." Oh boy, fish again.
That's how we do fish camp. The names and faces and airplanes have changed over the years and on the many trips. No journey north in a float plane is ever quite like the last. I have gathered more than just memories on these trips. I have met some of the best people with whom I could ever have the pleasure of spending a day. "That doesn't just happen," as Mark would say.