It was the early summer of 1988 as I recall. The movie Top Gun had been released a year or so earlier, and I had just reported to a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar in southern California. It was a great time to be in a fighter squadron. We were all posing as some version of Tom Cruise or “Maverick” parading around the country with our F-14 Fighter Jets. It was prior to the first Gulf War and the mood of the military was light and relaxed. Our squadron traveled within the states mainly doing training missions with the aviation Marines, Air Force and performing at “dog and pony” air shows across America. At the time I was in my late twenties, 6 years in the Navy and a family man trying to ride the straight and narrow in a very vast and crooked environment. This was during a time when our fighter pilots would paint a red star by their name on the side of the aircraft. The red star signified that they were a “Mig Killer” or they had shot down a mig fighter jet. They were few and far between but we had one in our squadron and we were all very proud of that red star and our “Mig Killer”.
The Canadian Air Force had just formed their first F/A-18 Hornet fighter squadron and requested that our F-14 Tomcat squadron come up to Canada for a couple weeks to join them for a little ACM (Aircraft Combat Maneuvers) or “dog fighting” in old school military lingo. The Canadians offered us full per diem pay which meant we would be eating Canadian steaks for dinner every night. Our squadron motto was “Work Hard and Play Hard” and for a bunch of us fighter guys this invitation had “Play Hard” written all over it. Believe me when I say we were a bunch to be reckoned with. We lived in search of the adrenalin rush we got from launching fighter jets from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier, in a 35 knot head wind, in the dark, in the rain, and in very foreign places. We all ran wide open 24-7 when we went on the road, chasing that adrenalin rush where ever we went. Among other things, fishing was our gig. There were four of us in the squadron that were avid fishermen so as soon as we got the word that we were headed to Canada the four of us got busy looking for fishing spots in the area and gathering information on bait and tactics.
Our C-9 transport plane touched down in the early summer evening at a small Canadian air base outside of a town called Cold Lake, in the northern province of Alberta. One thing that will always stand out in my mind was the welcome we got from the Canadians as we departed the C-9. As I walked down the ladder departing the plane, at the bottom was no less than 30 Canadian Air Force personnel standing by 4 or 5 big barrels filled with Labatt Blue on ice. Each one of us was greeted with a hand shake, a welcome and an ice cold beer. Now, I’ve had a few great greetings in my life, I’ve had a lei and a kiss in Hawaii, a kiss, a fruity drink in Jamaica, and I even got a tooth knocked out entering a bar in Rosarita, Mexico, but this was jam up here. How many times is a fella greeted with a iced up 55 gallon drum filled to the rim with Labatt. Now this was a welcome!
You know, it’s a funny thing, how fishermen will seek out and gravitate to other fishermen. It didn’t take long before we were all checked in to our quarters and at the bar on the base chatting about walleye and pike with the local Canadians. It took many many beers, several shuffle board games and my personal favorite, playing pool on a snooker table with my personal pool stick, the Sneaky Pete. The Sneaky Pete looked just like a house stick but was very well balanced and straight as an arrow. I soaked those canucks for a lot of cash on the pool table but we finally came away from the nightly festivities with the fishing 411. I’ll say one thing for those Canadians, they can put down some beer. We thought we were heavy hitters when it came to “a casual cocktail or two” but these guys don’t play.
One of the Canadian Air Force guys offered to take my buddy Les out in his boat on Lake Primrose fishing for walleye and pike. We all figured it would be a good way for Les to do a little recon mission and maybe find a good place for us to shore fish on this Lake Primrose. Lake Primrose straddles the border of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The lake was probably an hours drive from the air base and according to the locals, a great lake for pike and walleye. One thing we always liked to do whenever possible was catch enough fish to have a cook out complete with a fish fry. Hopefully we could get enough of those tasty walleye filets to feed the squadron folks. We also wanted to try some pike fishing and maybe cook up a few pike to add to the cookout.
We had a weeks worth of work ahead of us before we could get to the lake. This is where the “Work Hard” part of our motto starts. They say it takes 72 maintenance man hours for a F-14 Tomcat to fly one flight hour. We worked around the clock with twelve on twelve off shifts and as an electrician on the F-14, it was greasiest nastiest never ending nightmare that would re-emerge day after day. The Tomcat was like a box of chocolates. A box of chocolates that leaked gas, oil and hydraulic fluid by the gallon and caught fire on occasion. On a positive note, it was the most bad ass fighter jet in the sky. During the week we changed engines, repaired wiring and changed parts day in and day out. The pilots would chat about teasing the Russians into getting into little aerial skirmishes designed to test and observe their tactical capabilities. Believe it or not, we used to paint a Russian phrase on the side of our aircraft that when translated read “watch your ass” or “check you six”. This was all unofficial of course; after all we were still in a cold war.
Friday finally arrived and Les and his fishing host left out for the lake as soon as Les was relieved from his night shift duties. I was on the day shift and worked through the day wondering how the fishing was going. When I got back to the barracks Friday evening Les was already back from his fishing trip sitting outside smiling from ear to ear. He said “your not going to believe the fishing today”. Now he had me smiling. Les explained how they had launched and within 10 minutes they were hauling in walleye on bait in a pocket off of the main lake. They were done by noon and had boated 3 limits of walleye for our cookout. They had also caught a couple of nice pike and gave Les instructions on exactly where we could fish from the shore and get a few walleye and some nice pike. Les told us how to get our temporary fishing licenses for Alberta and he also borrowed us a full array of tackle for our trip. Our new found fishing friends had set us up good for our fishing trip. They recommended that we fish the afternoon and evening bite explaining that the larger pike would move in to the shallows in the evening, pushing bait towards the shallow rocky shore. Since the lake was on the provincial border and we were fishing from shore, we were warned not to cross into Saskatchewan along the shoreline road access. The authorities across the border didn’t take to kindly to foreigners poaching on their lake. We made plans to procure a ride to the lake from one of our little storekeepers who was given the keys to a Canadian van. Everything was coming together. Our plan was to leave out around lunch time and pick up our licenses on the way out of town. We would be on the water by mid afternoon and back out at dusk.
After a quiet Friday night on the town with 30-40 of our closest friends from the squadron, we got a good nights sleep and woke up refreshed and ready to go fishing. Yea right! Anyway, we all survived the night and after a couple hours sleep, several cups of coffee and a few aspirin or “fighter mints” as we preferred to call them, we were on our way. It was a nice sunny day and after getting our license we arrived at the dump off point. The lake was surrounded by trees. Trees everywhere between the road and the lake. We unloaded the gear and gave our driver specific orders to be back to our rendezvous point at dusk. It was I and Les, my old room mate Frank and another close friend Steve. Les was my boss and probably the most responsible of our group. Frank was the youngest, a lanky kid from New York and Steve, from California, was the muscle of our group. He was always the finisher if there was trouble. The four of us carried our gear down the hill and through the trees to a small clearing at the rocky waters edge.
I was using a heavy spinning rig with heavy mono and a old Red Devil spoon tied to a steel leader. Les and Frank used similar tackle with spoons and Steve was using a big top water plug. It was hard to spread out and cast due to the Aspen and Birch branches that hung over the waters edge. We had to wade into the lake and stand in knee high water to make a cast. After an hour of casting, looking and wondering where the fish were Les told us about a big rocky clearing he had seen up lake about a half mile. He thought the guys in the boat had mentioned that it was in Saskatchewan, but it was a perfect looking spot. We had seen a few fish boil but they were way out of casting range and things were looking bleak as we stood in the cold water up to our knees. Since this was our only shot at fishing this lake we were getting desperate and we decided to head up the road to see if we could find that clearing Les had seen on his fishing trip on Friday. The road was a wide gravel road with huge Aspen, Pine and Birch trees lining both sides of the road. We were in the sticks to say the least. At some points along the road the lake would leave our view as the big line of timber was thick and the shore line was a good ways from the road. As we rounded a curve in the road a big sign came in to view. The giant sign stood out like a sore thumb. It was the size of a billboard, weathered and hand painted with bears and fish and other wildlife from the area. The top line read “Welcome to Saskatchewan” and the small letters below read “You are now leaving Alberta”. We stopped along an imaginary line in the road at the border and weighed the risk vs reward of going any further. We were in a foreign country, in the US military and getting ready to break a foreign law. We took a vote and as usual, the odd man out was Les. Myself, Frank and Steve were ok with rolling the dice but Les tried his best to talk us out of it. Les was the type of guy who used logic make his decisions but would reluctantly go along with majority vote even if it went against his grain.
On we went into Saskatchewan watching up and down the road and through the trees for any sign of the lake and the law. After a half mile hike up the road we finally found what we were looking for. A beautiful clearing along the shore of the lake with a rocky shore and plenty of room to move around. It was secluded from the road and we were glad the area was hidden behind the cover of the trees. We spread out and started fan casting around our new found area. Les was the first to catch a pike. It wasn’t very big and we all gathered around the fish to check it out. It was the first time I had seen a pike. My first impression of the toothy fish was that crazy looking flat snout and some very mean looking eyes. We dug an old nylon stringer out of the borrowed tackle box and strung the small pike up at the waters edge. It wasn’t very long after catching the first pike we started noticing more and more boils and swirls about a hundred yards off shore and moving closer by the minute. They were well out of casting range but since we were already wet from wading at the last spot we all started wading out to greet the fish as they moved closer to us. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of casting, something grabbed my spoon and moved it to the right at a high rate of speed. It took me a minute to realize that a fish had the spoon and was headed back to Alberta. Quickly I thought this may be my only shot at a pike and I loaded up to drive those trebles deep into his boney snout. I set the hook and the fight was on. I could tell right away this fish was bigger than the one we had on the stringer. It didn’t give an inch for the first couple of minutes. I waded a little further out in the lake while fighting the fish and found myself up to the crotch in lake water. After the pike pulled for a while he tried making a run straight at me. I cranked as fast as I could to keep up with the fish and keep pressure on those hooks. As the fish came straight at me I realized a few things, first was that this fish was close to 3 feet in length and just below the surface with his evil eyes and sharp teeth. Another thing that came to mind was that I was up to my crotch in cold lake water and the only thing that separated my nads from the water was a thin layer of material from my jogging shorts. When all of this new information was processed, the charging evil toothy pike beast and I were in a race to see who could reach the shore first. I wasn’t going to let go of the rod, but I was determined to get my boys out of the water. I held the rod in the air in my outstretched hand and ran at mach speed to ankle deep water. I could feel the fish pulling and when I turned around the fish was in some kind of death roll wrapping the line around him as he rolled. I finally dragged the fish up on the rocks and Les came over to help. About the easiest way to handle a pike is to stick your thumb and index finger in the fish’s eye sockets and carry him like a six pack. Les picked the fish up and held him high as we marveled at the size, color and contour. We slipped him on the stringer and went back to fishing. Frank and Steve both hooked up with respectable pike and before long it was wide open. The pike seemed to be everywhere. We would bring one in and two more would be following the hooked fish. They were everywhere around us, swirling and chasing bait. Steve’s top water plug seemed to work for the bigger pike while the spoons were great bait for the smaller pike and the occasional walleye. We had caught 3 or 4 pike a piece and a couple of nice walleye mixed in when someone ask about the limit on the pike. None of us thought we would get into so many pike and none of us knew the legal limit for illegally poached fish in a foreign country while fishing without a license. All we knew is that we were having a blast catching these pike and walleye.
We loaded up a whole stringer of pike and walleye and we dug back into the box and found a length of twine to make into a second stringer. For another hour we were bringing in fish in waves. We could see the sun setting and we knew that we had a long walk up the road to the van in Alberta. None of us wanted to leave. The fishing was just too good. Finally, after loading up a second stringer, Les made the call and we decided it was time to head back. Actually it was past time to head back. We calculated that it would take around 45 minutes to get back to the rendezvous and the sun was sinking behind the trees around us. We knew we would be late and Steve said that he hoped the young storekeeper wouldn’t leave us if we were awol from the pickup point at the prescribed time. He was probably task with taking pilots into town for the evening and wouldn’t stay and wait if we didn’t show. After we chewed on the thought of being left out in the sticks we suddenly had a little extra giddy-up in our step.
The setting sun cast shadows across the road from left to right. Every once in a while we would get a glimpse of the sun setting across the lake through the Aspens. We wanted to get back to Alberta as quickly as possible. We walked up the road and laughed and chatted about the fishing. We would be heroes when we got back to the barracks with this load of fish. We took turns carrying the heavy stringers of fish. As we walked on we started noticing noises beyond the tree lines. It sounded like something large moving as we moved, crunching brush and snapping timbers. We strained our eyes to find the source of the noise but it seemed to be just out of view. The noises would stop as we would stop and listen. Every once in a while we would hear what sounded like moaning from the trees and it didn’t take long for us to realize we were being followed or worse yet, stalked by a bear. We thought that even though we were carrying a nice meal for the bear, we didn’t think the bear would clear the tree line onto the road to challenge us. We continue on watching and listening as we went. The bear continued to follow and we decided that if the bear cleared the tree line into the road we would offer the bear a stringer of fish just before we hauled ass up the road at breakneck speed. Steve, being the protector of the group, finally had enough. He turned a snatched up a handful of rocks and threw them into the trees screaming obscenities and waving his arms. We listened and watched the line of trees. We thought we were rid of the beast and continued on. Within a few minutes the bear returned, only this time he had friends. Louder crashing and grunting came from the trees. I knew we could probably hold our own with one bear but taking on multiple bears wasn’t something I wanted to experience. Our situation was getting serious and we started getting serious about our options as we walked on. There were now at least 2 bears, following on both sides of the road, and for all we knew a pack of Timber wolves may have been mixed in the hungry group. We thought about leaving Frank tied up in the road as a sacrifice but he was too boney and would probably just make them mad. We thought of possibly leaving a few fish in the road, but why give them a teaser. We decided to keep moving, briskly I might add, and hope they didn’t decide to test us. The noise was getting louder as the bears were slowing moving closer to the tree line. We could see the outline of at least 3 good sized Black bears and possibly a cub or two. We reached the Provincial line and hoped the bears would keep their asses in Saskatchewan, but we soon found out that hungry bears have no boundaries. It was getting darker by the minute and we knew it would be long till four crazy sailors and a gang of hungry bears would be very possibly be doing battle over a couple dozen dead fish. If they wanted the fish they were welcome to a few but they were gonna have to come and get em. One stringer was all they were getting, one stringer and no more. We were not going back to the base squawking about catching a bunch of fish only to have a gang of hungry bears steal them from us. That kind of story had BS written all over it.
Two of the bears began fighting in the trees by the lake and we could clearly see one of the bears standing on two legs in a dual with another bear crouched below. The cubs were squalling and bouncing around clear of the bigger bears. We thought it was our chance for a quick exit. I told Frank to drop his stringer of fish because this was getting ready to get ugly. It was only a matter of minutes before their anger turned to us. Steve hollered out as we heard an engine and gravel crunching as a van came over the hill just up the road in front of us. The little storekeeper laid on the horn, gravel flying as he came. He had no idea what was going on in the trees but those horn honks couldn’t have come at a better time. Les pointed in the bears direction and I caught a quick glimpse of a gang of fleeing bears. Luckily the storekeeper knew enough to come on up the road when we didn’t show at the drop off point. He was our hero.
We chunked the fish in the back of the van and headed to a little country store a few miles up the road to clean the fish and grab a beer or two. We needed it after our ordeal. When we got back to the base, we turned the bags of fish filets over to the Canadians and the next afternoon we had a big cookout complete with those Canadian steaks and our catch of pike and walleye, fried, grilled and baked. We were the heroes of the weekend. A few people had a little trouble believing the story about the bear stalking, but the four of us had found that adrenalin rush we were looking for, while walking up the road with our bears in tow. That’s all that mattered. I made a couple of trips back to the air base at Cold Lake over the years and had the awesome pleasure of experiencing the sight of the Northern Lights for the first time in my life on a cold winter night. The northern province of Alberta is a vast open area of wilderness full of lakes teaming with walleye, lake trout and those evil looking northern Pike. I don’t think I’ll ever make it back to that area but the memories we made will never be forgotten.
Picture time: You can click on the photo to enlarge
Frank with his first Pike
Steve and Frank loading up the stringer
Great Story Man. You have a way with words.
Thanks for the kind words Jason. Glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out another good one soon. My Dr. has me on bed rest for a while. I have a lung infection and Bronchitis.
Ouch….Take care of yourself. A
Appreciation for this infmroation is over 9000thank you!