It’s quarter past 8 in the morning and we’re already out of cell range as Pemberton Fish Finder Brad Knowles turns his truck up a snowy mountain road and kicks it into four-wheel drive. Around the same time the first chairlifts start loading in Whistler we’re walking out onto a silent and isolated patch of frozen wilderness surrounded by dense forest. The old saying about early birds and worms applies to ice fishing too, apparently.
Out on a frozen lake in fresh falling snow, it quickly becomes apparent that ice fishing is one of those classic Canadian experiences that seems simple at first—cut a hole in a frozen lake and giv’r – but the sport actually requires finesse, knowledge, luck and the ability to remain cool under pressure while keeping warm in sub-freezing temperatures.
Luckily, Brad Knowles is a born-and-raised local fishing savant, and head guide Scot Leboldus is a life-long fisherman with over a decade of guiding experience. “Let’s start in the shallows,” Scott suggests and Brad uses to a motorized auger to drill perfect circles in the snow-covered ice. Game on.
Where you fish is important, so are the lures, bait and jigging technique. But the most important thing in ice fishing is a good seat. The Pemberton Fish Finder crew prefers upside down construction buckets with foam cushions (this way the seats are stackable and double as gear carrying devices). Within minutes of arriving on the ice my fishing partner Michelle and I are sitting perched over holes gently flicking our wrists upward and visualizing how appealing it all looks down at the lake bottom.
“Sit with your backs to the wind,” Brad advises as the snow bounces off our ski jackets. “Make sure your bucket is far enough away from the hole that it’s comfortable.” While Scotty puts a warming hut up over some deep-water holes, Brad snags the first rainbow trout of the day. “The smell of sweet success!” he cries while removing the hook.
While the Pemberton Fish Finder is predominantly a catch-and-release operation, for full day tours on government-stocked lakes like this one Scott will sometimes cook fresh fish for lunch, providing the clients catch their fair share.
Michelle lands one before me, the trick is setting the hook at the right time: too soon and you yank it right out the fish’s mouth, too late and well… it’s too late. By lunch time we’ve each managed to reel in a few fish. Some are released, including a slabby 16-inch Rainbow Brad hooked while we fished from the warming hut (which has an internal heater and can truly save the day for underdressed ice fishers).
After lunch the real adventure begins. We stack the seats and drive off to another lake to go after the much larger bull trout. The ice here is thick and black, the lake much larger and surrounded by steep mountains. It’s beautifully desolate. “We’re a long ways from anywhere out here,” Brad admits. “Which is why the fish are so big.”
Michelle gets into one first, her rod bowed down over the hole while the rest of us scramble over to watch the action. A big bull trout can easily be 24 inches long or more and keeping it on the line is only half the battle, you still have to figure out how to get it up through an eight-inch hole in the ice.
Brad makes it happen though, and it’s not long before Michelle pulls another lunker up from the deeps. I hook into one while watching a raven play on the afternoon winds but it quickly spits the hook and slips away, punishing me for not giving all my attention to the slushy, icy hole. “That’s part of the game.” Brad shrugs. Even so, it’s easy to appreciate why ice fishing is one of Whistler’s fastest growing adventure tours. The calm and isolation is thick enough to stop time and deep into his busiest winter ever, Brad seems to be having more fun than anyone.
“We started bringing people out on the ice back in 2010 during the Olympics,” He explains. “We took the NBC Morning Show crew out and things have been picking up from there. People love catching fish any time of the year.”
As more clients starting calling for fishing tours Brad convinced his wife Melissa to lend a hand and has seen his business boom with the new brains of the operation. “He needed me,” Melissa says. “It’s hard to run the business side of things when you are fishing outside of cell service from dawn to dusk 300 days a year.”
Currently into their busiest ice fishing season ever, Pemberton Fish Finder has also teamed up with The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Resort to offer a unique fishing package only available in Whistler. Guests can spend a day fishing with Brad, Scott or one of the other top guides and at the end of it all the Fairmont chefs will prepare the day’s catch into a customized gourmet dinner back at the hotel.
Any day fishing is a good day, Brad Knowles is living proof of that. But to end it with a hot tub while a world-class kitchen prepares your catch? That’s uniquely Whistler.
“Just make sure you hit the hay early in those nice hotel beds,” Brad says. “We’re fishing early tomorrow.”