By Daniel Kiazyk
Well it had been years that I had heard about the place. B.A Robinson, an old time sports writer had even written about it in his little jewel of a book, “Rather Fish Than Eat”. I had even spoken to colleagues who made the trek up there every May long weekend to spend some time fraternizing and maybe catching a few walleye. Finally, don’t forget the engrained Manitoban expression of the “Waterhen Special”. The Waterhen special of course is just another name for a spinner rig. Given this kind of background and my proclivity to fish every nook and cranny of this province my visit to this area was a natural.
The Waterhen river is a very interesting little corner of our Province. It is composed of two sections and a larger lake that rests in between. The river system is by its very physical nature prime walleye territory. Some of the components that make this prime real estate for ol’ Marble eyes is that the water is constantly moving and that it is relatively clear (as filtered by the limestone present throughout this area). Finally the water has an abundance of baitfish, in particular perch, upon which this area’s walleye grow to considerable proportions. Important to keep in mind is this is the locale where the second and third largest lakes in this province link up. Water flows out of Lake Winnipegosis into lake Manitoba.
In terms of the health of the lake systems involved we are dealing with two very different bodies of water. Lake Manitoba as a fishery has shown a certain amount of stability over the past twenty years. Enormous stocking programs have been undertaken over many years for this lake. Engaged in this process has been the lake’s commercial fisherman who have realized that the lakes sustainability (given their harvest) necessitates a regime of stocking. The number of larger fish seen in spring trapping weirs hasn’t really changed all that much. Commercial fishermen have had relatively steady catches of walleye. Lake Winnipegosis however is a different story. Many factors have intermingled to create the conditions for a fishery that is truly in peril. One 300 page report that I read recently on this lake has suggested a whole number of reasons for the failure of fish stocks in this lake. The actual reasons for the depletion of fish stocks are far more complex than an article such as this one can even hope to handle. Suffice it to say that a great deal more has to be done to resurrect this collapsed fishery. Gone are the days of the incredible goldeye bite on the Red Deer River, the very good walleye bite on both the Mossy and the Overflowing rivers. Too bad that there was such short sightedness on the part of all stake holders but as I’ve said that the stuff of another story.
I was also interested to learn about the area’s hunting history. At the inlet of the river from Lake Winnipegosis there is a hunting lodge which is privately owned. The lodge which has been in existence since the 40’s was the play place of many famous actors and other notable sportsmen over the years. Clarke Gable is rumored to have been a regular guest of the lodge as was the second world war US air force General James Dolittle. The room where he stayed when visiting has apparently been preserved in his memory. Whitetail deer in the area grow to be larger than what is commonly seen in the south and black bear and moose tags are also available through the local lodges and outfitters.
My first visit was to the area was by myself but since that time I’ll go up to visit with a local friend who had been a part of the area’s local charm for a considerable period of time. Most of the locals will fish the west river but the east river also has a considerable population of walleye at particular times of the year. On the east river you’ll notice that the launch is maintained by the local lodge and payment is required by fishermen who want to launch their boats at this site. The west river too has a good launch that can be accessed via local farmers lane.
Travel on both the east and west river can be somewhat precarious. The east river is very shallow from the launch to the estuary area where a large part of the fishing for walleye takes place. The local outfitter has placed tamarack poles set in a concrete base to aid navigation of the river. It is necessary for boaters to follow the posts very closely so as to avoid the larger kettle stones that are present here and there throughout the river. On my first visit to the east river I was nearly petrified when I saw the previously mentioned large stone. I thought ooh doggonit I’m going to lose my prop or lower unit…. Well, if you stick to the posts (only later by a local) that you shouldn’t have too much difficulty. Water levels, of course, can vary on the rivers year by year or even week by week. On low water years the rivers can be treacherous and on some years travel is very limited.
The number of walleye present some years in the east river in the early fall is truly remarkable. I was amazed at the number of large walleye that I connected with in such a short period of time. The means to get at these fish really hasn’t changed much over the years. I put on a larger bottom bouncer and a spinner rig (aka. a “waterhen special”) and attached a live minnow. We found that working into the current was far better than going with it. Moving with the current would cause our rigs to collapse and snag up when we weren’t especially careful. As for bait as I’ve mentioned we used minnows. However local anglers have proved to me that beef heart is also an excellent choice of bait. I found the bite of the walleye in this river to be somewhat unique. It was hard and definite. It was that way probably because fish only have a short time to decide to eat or miss a meal (remember that the river is moving in high water years at 6-8 knots)
The actual possibility to effectively fish this river over the years changes quite dramatically. Some years the water is so low that navigation is nearly impossible. More importantly on those years where the water level is lower the run of walleye into the river is drastically diminished. In effect if the water is low it’s not really worth the trip. Those years however when there’s a good flow it really makes a difference for the number of fish that will be moving in the river and the ability to get at them by boat. Fish, according to locals who have fished the system for years, seem to come in waves of year classes. During the summer fish are smaller but when fall comes around a lot larger fish begin to appear at the end of anglers lines. A master angler fish in the fall is not at all a difficult proposition. Size, however seems to be limited to the 10# range. Very rarely will there be fish in the 12-14# range.
The walleye of the area have a familiar look of emerald green much related to the limestone based water and the multitudinous perch that ply both lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis. I only got a glimpse of how many perch there are in the system when I visited a Friend who has a cottage up in the area and saw his kids catch a load of perch from their short dock.
What about where to stay if you want to head out there for a weekend stay. Dauphin has some nice accommodations. Agassiz Outfitters has small cabins right out there. There is also a local campground just before you get to the launch and they have a cottage or two available. Manipogo provincial park, with campgrounds is about 25 minutes south. The main seasons are spring and fall but don’t ignore summer angling some years.
There’s a lot more to reflect on about this area. What I’ve written here is only a glimpse of what can be accessed in terms of walleye fishing in the area. Certainly the west river and Waterhen lake also present a whole other set of possibilities…..and once again that’s the stuff for a whole other story.
Without a doubt the area is replete with history and is veritably a sportsman’s paradise. The angling and hunting opportunities available in the area are numerous. I too can see why this particular corner of our great province is perhaps a little better a fishery than many will let on ---- it is far enough from larger populations centers to make it not a got to get there destination (especially with gas in the 1.20 range!). But really, who wants to share a honey hole like the waterhen is with everyone.
BTW I am a registered guide for the river and can put you on to a walleye or two should you need some help ;-)