Of all the ways a boy can learn to fish, nothing beats a father. The teacher, fishing partner and father I received in life has been one of my greatest blessings. My dad is a humble, kind-hearted and selfless man whose primary source of joy is family. And fishing.
Dad introduced me to fishing while I was in diapers, and over the years spent hundreds of hours taking me fishing, first teaching me how to catch bluegills at the local pond, then taking me to his father’s mobile-home turned cabin near Alexandria, Minnesota, then showing me how to canoe, camp and cast for smallmouth bass on the St. Croix River.
When I turned 18, Dad gave me the ultimate high school graduation gift: an introduction to Canada with a week-long, father-son fishing trip. For years I had seen brochures from fishing lodges arrive at our house in the mail, and each winter Dad and I attended the St. Paul Sportsman Show, where we stared wide-eyed at fish-filled photo albums listening to resort owners tell stories of incredible catches. But never did I think we’d take the plunge ourselves.
I’ll always remember that first trip. We bunked in a rundown resort in the woods of Ontario. Wind and rain besieged the camp, and daily thunderstorms forced us off the lake back into our knotty pine cabin, which housed a pair of field mice. In the black of night, a wind gust blew open the cabin door and in our semi-awake state we shoved a dresser in front of the door to prevent it from blowing open again and letting even more rainwater pour in.
I loved every minute of the trip.
Since that stormy initiation, the Canadian wilderness has beckoned us back many times, occasionally with cousins and uncles, often including a tent and canoe, always providing memories. As Dad nears retirement after 40-plus years of work, he mentioned that his days sleeping on rocks were behind him. He loves fishing as much as ever, but the value of a dry roof, warm shower and soft bed after a day on the water are now non-negotiable for him.
When your parents have done as much for you as mine have, there’s no such thing as over-indulging them in the things that bring them joy. So, this past summer I took Dad on a fishing trip for the ages to one the premier fly-in fishing lodge in North America: Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, in Manitoba.
Ironically, Aikens is what is it today — a world-class destination In-Fisherman Editor-in-Chief Doug Stange called “still the finest all-around experience I’ve ever had on a fly-in trip” — largely because another father took his son on a Canadian fishing trip for a high school graduation gift nearly 30 years ago.
Chris Jensen, of Scottsdale, Arizona, fell in love with Aikens as an 18-year-old during that rite-of-passage with his father. Catching a 32-inch walleye was part of the magic, but the entire adventure was intoxicating to Jensen. He became a frequent guest at Aikens, and a decade and a half later when he and his family had the chance to buy into the lodge as majority owners, he pounced on the opportunity.
“You don’t buy a fishing lodge to make money,” said Jensen, a successful entrepreneur with investment dealings in software, agriculture and emerging market companies from Arizona to China. “My objective was to preserve and enhance Aikens. It’s such a special asset and resource, I just want to protect it and make sure it never falls into the wrong hands.”
The Jensen partnership immediately began infusing boatloads of capital to transform Aikens into a luxury, five-star operation. In the dozen years since, Aikens has continued to re-invest to become an anglers’ paradise, as my dad and I discovered when we stepped off the floatplane onto the dock to be greeted by the entire Aikens staff.
From that point on, Dad was in heaven, and I was delighted to give him a much-deserved dream vacation, and also experience it alongside him. Even as a trained writer, my words fail to do the Aikens Experience justice, so permit me to share a few photos and videos from a trip Dad and I will always remember.
It took under 9 hours to drive from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the floatplane base camp (Aikens is only 90 minutes from Winnipeg Airport, so anyone in North America can reach the lodge within a day), but as an Aikens staff member gave us a tour of the lodge, we felt a world away.
Aikens features deluxe handcrafted log cabins and a main lodge, dining room and full-service bar on a pristine sand beach on the northeast shore of Aikens Lake, itself in the midst of a beautiful boreal forest protected as part of Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park.
“You think you’re at a Ritz-Carlton, you seriously get that level of treatment and amenities,” said fellow Aikens guest Steve Andersen, of Lincoln, Nebraska. “I’ve been all over Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and fished across the U.S. in professional walleye tournaments, and Aikens is simply the best gig.”
An energizing aspect of traveling with like-minded people is that you notice and appreciate the same things. My dad and I are both scenery junkies, and as our guide took out us that first afternoon, we simultaneously turned toward each other to comment on all the picturesque islands.
Dozens of islands dot the 11,000-acre lake, but what makes it even more visually stunning are the unique Precambarian rock formations. The surrounding forest seemingly grows on a collection of cliffs that drop into Aikens in dramatic fashion.
Numerous white sand beaches and a waterfall where the Gammon River spills into the lake (video below) enhance Aikens’ overwhelming visual appeal.
Dad is fond of saying, “Any fish is a good fish.” At Aikens, walleyes are king, but Manitoba’s second-deepest lake is one of its very best multi-species fisheries, which was great for us since we liked the variety of catching quite a few strong-fighting pike. During 2017, 41 Master Angler pike (up to 47 inches) were caught at Aikens, to go along with 17 Master Angler lake trout (up to 40.5 inches).
The lodge averaged 20 guests per night from late May thru early September 2017, and guests typically target walleye most of the time, with pike and lakers either a surprise bonus or an afternoon diversion. Burbot (eelpout), whitefish and perch are also part of the equation — and I actually caught two Master Angler burbot on the same day!
Catching a giant lake trout was also a thrill, but the main thing that blew Dad and me away was the quality of the average walleye. Our guides were probably amused to hear us continually say, “Wow, that’s a nice one,” but we couldn’t get over that fact that two out every three walleyes we caught were between 20 and 25 inches.
It’s hard to believe you’re at a remote fly-in lodge when you’re sitting down to gourmet dinners every night. Crazier yet: In ranking our favorite dinners of the trip, Dad and I decided the following came in last place: tomato and watermelon salad with feta cheese and lime vinaigrette, beer braised pork bibs with coleslaw and corn on the cob, and Oreo cheesecake for desert.
Talk about stiff competition! (Steak won first place — it was SO tender.)
Dad and I fished with a different pro-staff guide each day, and they were all extremely personable, hardworking and full of great stories. So, too, were all the staff at Aikens — we especially enjoyed visiting with them each night at Big Molly’s Bar.
Many lodges don’t allow their staff to socialize with guests “after hours,” but Aikens encourages its employees to share a drink with guests, which creates an intimate atmosphere. Everyone knows your name; on the day I caught a big lake trout, multiple staff members approached me at the bar that night to congratulate me.
“It’s amazing how welcoming they are,” said fellow guest Veronica Morabito, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who enjoyed teaming with her sister to beat their guides in shuffleboard one evening at Big Molly’s. “They make you feel a part of it.”
The Aikens Experience
“The Aikens Experience is all about making your time off the water as enjoyable as your time on the water,” said Aikens co-owner and manager Pit Turenne.
He and his wife, Julie, do such a magnificent job with all the extras (wilderness hikes, cliff jumping, volleyball tournaments, karaoke and beachside bonfires contribute to the fun) that many non-anglers consider Aikens a favorite destination.
“My favorite part of this whole thing is doing something special for a guest and seeing their reaction,” said Julie, who’s orchestrated scavenger hunts for kids, arranged surprise candle-light dinners on the beach, and even became certified to officially administer a wedding at Aikens. “I live and breathe this. I pride myself on doing those extra things.”
Dad told me that the single highlight of each day for him was the shore lunch. Dad doesn’t cook much, but he does love making fish, and he’s always the one who leads the fish fries at family gatherings.
At Aikens, the guide does the whole meal for you, but Dad enjoyed helping. He even brought ingredients from home and delighted in showing the guide his special cracker-crumb batter.
Like most men, Dad loves making fires, so he also had way too much fun keeping the fire stoked (Aikens’ shore lunch stations are equipped with rain coverings, picnic tables and propane cookers, so the campfire (above) was our “warming station” for keeping the beans, potatoes and onion rings warm).
Here’s a quick video of one of our shore lunches; everything tastes good in a setting like this.
Quality Time with Dad
The highlight of the trip for me was spending the time with Dad — it’s such a great opportunity to connect. In the evenings, we’d go out fishing on our own (Aikens provides all the gear, plus boats with 30hp Yamaha outboards).
Dad was the captain and ran the motor at night; just like when I was a kid, he let us stay out fishing as late as I wanted. Each evening, we made a point to set our rods down for a few minutes and just soak in the view (video below).
At happy hour each day (complimentary cocktails at Big Molly’s) we visited with another father/son group who similarly valued the bonding time.
Tony Abena, of Edina, Minnesota, brought his sons Parker (20) and Mitchell (17) for their first-ever Aikens visit.
“As a father, when you realize that your kids are growing up fast, and that they are becoming adults and they won’t be around forever, you start to feel more urgency around creating meaningful and memorable experiences together,” Abena said. “Coming to Aikens was all about starting a tradition around doing something we like to do as adults, and get a chance to have fun and catch up on life and all of the ups and downs in a setting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Sitting in the boat together, it was focused time to enjoy each other and talk in a way that can be hard to do when e-mails and all of the other trappings of work constantly intrude.”
An escape from the daily hustle was great for Dad and me, too. We talked about a variety of topics on the water, from fishing to sports to life in general.
We often found ourselves coming back to one particular subject: my 3-year-old son, Joseph, who undoubtedly has me wrapped around his finger.
“Just think, Tony,” my dad said. “Someday you could bring Joe up here with us. He’d have a blast. And he’d probably catch all the fish.”
Leave it to Dad to come up with such a good idea.
After all, of all the ways a boy can learn to fish, nothing beats a father.
Images and videos by Tony Capecchi