The Life Of A Lake Winnipeg Ice Fishing Guide

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Lee Nolden, hard water guru

Late fall and the ice is starting to form on the waterways of the prairies. Its arrival is anxiously awaited by thousands of anglers who are checking out their hard water equipment, re-spooling reels, purchasing and re-organizing tackle, checking out heaters, tents, sleighs, snowmobiles, quads and anxiously reading reports on local forums to find the first safe ice that signals the start of the ice fishing season. In Manitoba, the waters of the Red River and the south basin of Lake Winnipeg attract particular attention, thanks to the fall arrival of Lake Winnipeg’s signature fish, the greenback – a walleye with emerald green colouring and the potential for massive dimensions pushing well beyond the 30-inch mark in length and football-sized girth.

Deep into the season, the south basin of Lake Winnipeg has usually come alive with ice huts, trucks, quads and snowmobiles, and hundreds of anglers filled with the anticipation of a day on the ice, searching for greenbacks. But there are few who know the lake like the guides who are daily visitors throughout the season.

Guiding is not that hard, it would seem. You can sense the wannabes asking questions on local forums, reaching out to attract some potential clients and dreaming of the day when they would be considered experts on ice conditions, equipment and the location of walleye schools. A few try, and even fewer succeed to any degree. And Lee Nolden can tell you why, because he’s spent years devoted to scouting the lake and getting to know its ways and the habits of its greenback walleye.

Lee’s not the only individual doing some guiding on the lake, but he may be the most familiar to the anglers who haunt the ice fishing scene. This is not only because of a success record that speaks for itself, but also because of a generous spirit that sees him giving advice freely on a local fishing forum, and his rescues of stranded anglers when the harsh conditions of the lake overcome angler equipment.

So what does it take to be a successful guide? I put this question to Lee, and typical of his generous and friendly nature he shared his thoughts on the subject in detail.

First and foremost on the list of musts is a love of fishing that runs deep. Most weekend or holiday anglers don’t get to the point where they would understand how important this is, because guiding for numerous consecutive days with different groups can get downright tiring. So you really have to want to get up day after day, well before dawn, and head out into frigid conditions that frequently threaten to cross the line between uncomfortable and dangerous.

Next on the list comes knowledge of the water being fished and the target species. You don’t get this kind of in-depth understanding by fishing for a few weekends out of the year. For starters, Lee has lived on the lake for 30 years and the resulting frequent fishing outings in all seasons led to an understanding of the basics. Now he is on the lake during the winter, fishing season 80 to 100 times, depending on the ebb and flow of weather, client demand and the like. Every outing is a learning experience – if you’re not learning, you aren’t paying attention, particularly in the learning-what-not-to-do department. Lee’s also been known to cruise the south end of the lake during open-water season, particularly in the fall, paying close attention to the subtle details of lake bottom contours and anomalies that might signal a potential winter destination. This changes every year, as fall storms build and change under water trenches and humps.

Then there’s the business of attracting clients who respect your knowledge and expertise. In Lee’s case, when the Lake Winnipeg conditions began to produce prodigious size and numbers of walleyes, he would send photos to some of his American buddies, whose response was to head north to check things out. When they returned home with stories and photos of the amazing fishing Lee was able to set up, his client base grew until there’s hardly a day in the winter when he’s not on the lake.

Lee ensures that there’s lots of communication with guests before they come, because he knows the anticipation that anglers feel before the outing is all part of the fun, along with hitting the local stores for those last-minute acquisitions. By the time they hit the lake for the first time, Lee feels that they are already friends, and repeat guests are almost like family. Usually he has two or three guests with him on an outing, but every so often there’s a corporate event with up to 80 participants. That calls for lots of help from other experienced angler friends and a lot of co-ordination of timing, equipment and strategy. And all this is accomplished either by word of mouth contact or through Lee’s Facebook page, which sometimes has as many as 1,000 hits per day.

When it comes to equipment, if you’re thinking you can do things on the cheap, you might as well hang up your toque before you start. Lee’s equipment list is impressive, to say the least – starting with items related to safety.

 

Safety: Knowing that you’re sometimes going to be seven or eight kilometres from shore, and that wind, snow and fog can arrive in a hurry on the Big Lake, safety equipment includes a well-stocked first aid kit, good and reliable electronics (cell phone and charger, compass, GPS), lighters and matches, extra clothing, propane and heaters, heavy duty towing equipment and a vehicle that’s unlikely to get stuck (Lee’s is a 4×4 suburban on tracks.) An effective communication system is a must, as guides on the lake depend on their fellow guides for back up in case of emergency.

 

Fishing equipment: Although some guests arrive fully equipped, Lee’s regular angling equipment list includes 25 to 30 rods, lots of tackle, four or five flashers, tents, heaters, cooking equipment, several augers with extensions, ice scoops, stools, tools for both fishing and repairing equipment and bait – lots of it. Lee scouts for top-quality frozen shiners and buys them by the case, then re-salts and re-packs them so that they’ll last the season.

 

Personal qualities that are needed in abundance include patience, affability, a willingness to go the extra mile, a thorough approach, humility, and above all, a hearty sense of humor. Add to this a broad perspective that provides clarity in seeing the big picture and you’ve got what it takes.

A typical day starts several hours before sunrise, with a meeting with his guests for the day, either at his residence or lakeside where there’s some parking available. With a number of target locations already selected (including the knowledge of where the fish were the day before,) they head out in the pre-dawn darkness, GPS guiding them to a starting point of the eight-hour day.

Typically, Lee will drill holes far enough apart so that the area is fully covered, testing it for active fish. If there isn’t the action that’s expected, it’s time to move to another location, perhaps trying a different depth or finding an ice ridge, a hump or some other underwater structure that might hold fish. Sometimes this happens a dozen times during the day, meaning that 40 or 50 holes are drilled through ice that is over three feet thick. Did I mention that you’d better be in decent shape to do all this? This comes with explanations to the guests about how the search for active fish is accomplished, taking into account all the variables that can affect the bite.

Included in this is the issue of how close is too close – on some days there can be hundreds of anglers on the lake, spread out over a wide area, and it’s not at all uncommon for some of them to seek out the guides and follow them. This never helps much, because all the traffic and drilling can spook the fish. Most of the time Lee is breaking trail, and this can mean taking on the challenge of busting through newly formed drifts, a feat that’s accomplished at speeds topping out at about 80 kilometres an hour!

Then there are the days when winter conditions limit the amount of time that can be spent without shelter, calling for tents to be set up, with heaters fighting back the chill. On these days the moves are less frequent, only because set up time is more of a challenge.

Lee seldom fishes with his guests, preferring instead to carefully monitor their progress, offering subtle suggestions regarding technique or tackle. The challenge in all this is to validate anglers’ experience, while providing enough information about how the fish respond in the Lake Winnipeg winter environment, encouraging them to accept slight changes in approach that could lead to success. Apparently the female guests are typically most successful with making these adaptations, mostly because they’re more open to the suggestions than their male counterparts. Not a huge surprise from this writer’s perspective and experience. And then there are the unexpected events, such as rescuing stuck vehicles operated by inexperienced and sometimes foolish anglers, who underestimate the harsh and unforgiving lake environment.

When the day’s fishing is over and the guests have headed to their overnight accommodations, Lee’s day continues, as equipment is re-organized and checked for faults, vehicle and augers gassed up, weather for the next day checked (Lee rarely cancels because of weather, but he has his limits where safety issues overcome angler motivation), putting together food and water for the next trip, packing things into the truck so as to accommodate the number of guests expected and sometimes checking in with other anglers to get information about ice conditions, fish movements, depths and the like.

From Lee’s perspective, in the final analysis, it’s all about the experience in its entirety, with each aspect adding to what is hoped to be an enjoyable and memorable day – so much more than just a few fish in a pail! Sure, there’s some money to be made – but it’s hard earned and is the result of putting broad smiles on the faces of hundreds of anglers who, with Lee’s help, have found success on the broad expanse of Lake Winnipeg’s south basin.

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