Tales From The Lodge
I remember my first week at a fishing lodge vividly. We were one of the last groups of the season and it was very cold, I think we even got some snow one day. As I watched the crew work from sunup to sundown it dawned on me “There’s a lot more work than fishing”. I think (like many avid outdoorsmen) I had always wondered about owning a lodge one day in my retirement. Watching the crew drag boats out, storm proof cabins and prep the camp I started to rethink that plan.
My gut says I am not alone in thinking that owning a lodge would be an awesome and interesting way to spend your life so for this week’s Tale’s from segment I am going to be checking in with a bonafide lodge owner, Gord Bastable, owner of Vermilion Bay Lodge on Eagle Lake.
I was really interested in checking in with Gord, I had always enjoyed his posts on various fishing forums where he provided snippets of info about life as a lodge owner, So without further preamble here is my conversation with Gord.
Gord, thanks so much for taking the time to do help me pull this together. First question – how long have you owned Vermilion Bay Lodge?
We bought the lodge in 1992, so approaching 30 years.
If I may ask – what was the impetus for becoming a lodge owner?
So back in the late 70’s while at the University of Winnipeg I replied to a manpower ad for summer help at a camp on Eagle Lake….specifically North Shore Lodge. This is about a 30 mile boat ride from where I am right now. I was a skinny punk but had a love for fishing so that was enough for me. Of course the job was more cleaning, painting and cutting grass than fishing, but I did eventually get into the guiding part of the business. Shallow 16’ Alumacraft boats with 20 hp. Johnson motors were the standard fleet back “in the day”. Bench seats and often times a large metal cooler of beer (for the guests)…stubbies of course, completed the package. Burlap sacks to keep our catch in, and many, many shore-lunches. Since the boats were small, and the motors prone to stalling if trolled for extended periods, some of the real old guides would use a paddle to back troll. But I digress….
I worked for quite a few summers at North Shore and even went on to do some winter sport shows for them as well as working on a more full time basis…so I did get a good perspective of what the fishing lodge business was all about. So, skip ahead to 1992 after several jobs I was still living on Eagle Lake and was married to Susanne who I met while she (we) were working at North Shore Lodge. I had mentioned to her that there was a camp for sale near the village of Vermilion Bay so one day on our way to Winnipeg we stopped for a look. It wasn’t pretty and had basically been closed for 2 years….seemed perfect at the time! We put in an offer and voila…we are now camp owners. 30 years later the place is looking pretty darn good.
As someone who has frequented a few lodges as a guest I am very interested in a day in the life of a lodge owner. What does a typical day look like for you and your crew Gord? And maybe a contrast between what is going on during the season versus what is happening during the off season?
You started out by saying it might be your dream in “retirement”….that is funny. Here’s the deal: if you want to survive in the camp business you need to be hands on with pretty much everything. Don’t know how plumbing works? You better figure it out quick. Carpentry same thing. Business / accounting…would be nice to have a handle on that (I’m still working on it). People skills would be good to have, if like me, you are somewhat limited then marry a woman who comes with the package. Of course there is the scenario of the “gentleman lodge owner”…who could be retired. Picks up a turnkey operation, hires a manager and lives the “dream” with no need to worry about making a living…..is there anyone out there like this? I would like to meet them!
So realistically, the goal is to work the frantic pace before or after the guests arrive and leave. Preseason you work your butt off getting new projects completed, doing maintenance and getting the camp up and running. During the season it is being there for your guests, keeping up appearances and making sure everything is running smoothly……sometimes this can be done from the screened porch with a beverage. On other occasions you are on the end of a sewer snake, swatting mosquitoes at midnight. In reality though, the longer you perfect the maintenance concept and keep up with the upgrades, the more porch time you have with guests, and the less of the undesirable stuff.
Post season, it’s about putting things to bed and working on those projects that no guest should ever have to see. New sewer line? Now’s the time. Storing boats, motors, draining water lines…..the more you do in the fall, the less you need to do in the spring.
The off season is a good break from being on call 24-7. Getting to sit down with dinner and the television on is luxury at the end of a busy season. Being here year round means we get to enjoy ice fishing, snow shoeing and whatever else we might like to do. The thought of working a regular job with a few weeks of vacation pales in comparison to what I get to do. In the middle of our busy summer sometimes Susanne needs to remind me of that fact.
Bottom line….yes, the lodge business is an adventure. Just make sure that’s the adventure you are looking for. I wouldn’t trade the experience!
I would be remiss to not bring up the fact that the current pandemic and border closures have been extremely challenging for all types of businesses but tourism especially. How has it impacted your business and how are you feeling about the 2021 season?
Last year was an odd one, but it was for everyone else as well. Let’s just say we were on a roll in terms of bookings and interest for US travellers coming to NW Ontario…it was going to be a banner year for most folk in the biz. The gradual rollout of border closure….month to month…was like finger nails on the chalk board. When to inform your guests that their trip was cancelled…in the meantime turning away potential bookings from domestic travellers. I spent a fair bit of time last year rescheduling guests to later in the year and then finally to pushing them into 2021. We did have Canadian guests that kept us feeling like we were still in business, but overall we did about 10% of our usual revenue.
For 2021 I feel like we are in somewhat of the same situation. The reservation book is FULL from last year’s guests…….and here I must give a shout out to our guests who overwhelmingly pushed their reservations forward, and did not demand a refund on their deposits. I have already started moving guests to 2022…I’m beginning to feel like my new job title is “Scheduler”. On a more positive note I feel there is an increased interest in Canadians to travel and maybe try the fishing lodge experience. We’ll have to wait and see…there are still too many unknowns to really figure out what 2022 will bring.
I have to say that we are one of the lucky ones. Being in business so long we don’t have the financial obligations that many would, plus we have other revenue streams. I feel for many other operators who may not make it through another season. The good part is our customer base is anxious to get back up here…that is the solution.
A quick one – favorite part of being a lodge owner and least favorite part
I suppose the best part of owning this lodge, and I admit I am partial to THIS lodge, is the location and scenery. I have a million dollar view 365 days of the year. Lakes, rocks and trees. If I wanted to disappear in the wilderness I could easily do so. We actually have 4 seasons here, which is good.
As far as the lodge itself two things come to mind. There is the satisfaction of making improvements to what you have. When we bought the camp it was held together with silicone and duct tape. We didn’t have a big budget and its taken 30 years but I feel we’ve accomplished something. The other thing is our guests. Now I admit I’m not a real people person, but I’ve made progress. The nice thing about our guests is that they are all on vacation, and in most cases people on vacation are fun to be around. We’ve met a lot of interesting folk over the years and it’s been a blast.
The least favorite part: The buck stops with you. Tree blows down in the middle of the night on a cabin…guess what…get out the chainsaw. Someone wakes you up out of a sleep and says they broke the sink off the wall in their bathroom (and water is pouring in)…you are “the guy”, you can’t escape. I guess it’s a good character builder, but you can’t be a quitter.
When I was googling Vermillion Bay Lodge I noticed “The Electric Beaver” popped into the search results. Explain the name and what that section of your website is for.
Well, the blog is an offshoot of our annual Christmas newsletter which I mail out, called “The Beaver”. I stole the name from the Hudson Bay Company who used to publish a magazine by the same name……full of interesting historical stuff that I had a subscription to. When we morphed into the internet age and a blog was the thing to do I thought an electronic version of the newsletter was appropriate…..hence “the Electric Beaver”. Basically it is a means of connecting with guests and letting them know what’s going on during the season, and off season as well. I don’t take it too seriously. We run a few contests like an “Ice out contest” and post fish pictures and the such. I’m surprised and pleased though with the number of comments I get from non-guests, or guests from other lodges that read my blog. Bottom line it was supposed to be a marketing approach, but I do enjoy doing it and poking some fun at people along the way. Check it out!
As someone who has not yet had the pleasure of visiting Vermillion Bay Lodge can you give me an overview?
An overview of the lodge needs some background for those that aren’t that savvy about the concept. Lodges / fishing camps/ resorts are as diverse as there are customers. You can fly to them, boat to them or drive to them. You might be the only people there, or there may be multiple lodges on the same lake. Criteria number one…we are in NW Ontario. For those of you in Ontario, it is not like any other part of Ontario…it is better…. Yes, that’s a big claim, but I’m confident in making it. Our American customers have known that for 40 years and hence the large percentage of the NW Ontario clientele is from the US. That fact is suddenly apparent when the border closes.
So, an overview of Vermilion Bay Lodge. We are a small camp…eight cabins, main lodge, fish house, safe docking area, some great decks overlooking the lake and close to the village of Vermilion Bay, just off Highway 17. Our motto is “Fish, Relax, Unwind” . Fishing is a big part of our draw, but not the only. Just being on the lake, taking out a kayak, evenings in a screened porch…..it’s the simple things that are important. In terms of fishing, Eagle Lake is 68,000 acres and has trophy musky, walleye, pike, lake trout and bass……it’s a great fishery. It has become a home for our regular guests.
As a big fan of Musky Hunter I do know Eagle is considered a famous lake for trophy musky – what else can you tell us about Eagle as a destination lake
You are correct on the draw Eagle Lake has for the trophy musky hunter. It’s the only lake in Ontario that has twice held the world record for fish over 60 pounds. The fact is though, most of our guests just like to fish, walleye is a key species for many of them. I have guests who target lake trout….others smallmouth bass. Some of my favorite clients are the ones just starting out. They are excited about catching anything. I try my best to give them some simple tactics they can use to “catch fish”. Everyone has their own skill set in terms of fishing…I think it’s important to not assume everyone is a master angler that comes to your resort. If someone’s 3 pound pike is their big fish then I think they need to feel good about it. For others their goal is a 60 pounder!
This is a tough one but I will ask it anyway. What would be your elevator sales pitch to entice someone to spend a week at Vermilion Bay Lodge?
My sales pitch would first be to determine the person’s goals or expectations. Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t be everything to everybody. For example we are not a fly in and if someone was looking for a truly remote experience I would not try and convince them otherwise. You want guests who will be happy with what you have to offer.
So short and sweet. We have some unique fishing experiences to offer, from the diversity of species on Eagle Lake, to the adventure of portaging into a number of smaller lakes where I have boats. The quality of the fishing is a major draw for my regular guests but so is the atmosphere here at the lodge. We are a small camp with eight comfortable cabins…..we say they have “rustic charm” which may make us a bit old school, but that seems to be appealing for many people who just want something different. We do have a laid back atmosphere, but we still strive to offer the services people need. Cabins that are fully equipped, and spotless…..boats that are clean and ready to go when you are…advice when you need it….and when the bite is on we clean your fish for you.
As a guy who lives in the greater Toronto area – what would be the fastest or easiest way to get to Vermilion Bay? How do most of your guests travel to the lodge?
The trip to the lodge from a destination such as Southern Ontario would probably be based on how much time you had. The quickest solution would be to fly to either Thunder Bay or Winnipeg….both are about equidistant to the lodge in terms of driving. Rent a vehicle and in 4 hours you are at our doorstep. Alternatively, it’s a fair drive from the deep south….20 hours. The bonus to this is the trip around the north shore of Lake Superior…..a stellar drive that should not be missed. Exploring Ontario and its north should be part of any trip to NW Ontario. For the most part our regular guests drive to the lodge…many have their own boats they bring with them.
In closing a few rapid fire questions:
1) Favorite Species to fish for?
Gord: I’ve gone through the gamut…..at one time musky. After I discovered I wasn’t so obsessed with them then smallmouth bass were on. Then trolling for walleye on crankbaits. Perhaps it’s time to go back to musky. Each species has their own challenges, and it is fun to take them on, whether you win or lose.
2) Favorite Spot on Eagle Lake?
Gord: The view from my screened porch in the lodge overlooking Vermilion Bay would be one of them. Probably a close second would be having a “backwoods adventure” on one of the portage lakes…
3) Favorite Musky Lure?
Gord: Maybe a Mepp’s buck tail. I’m old school and don’t want to believe the hype on all the new baits…..plus most are too tiring to use.
4) Sunrise or Sunset?
Gord: I do enjoy a sunrise down at the docks when nobody is up yet…..but lately it’s been harder to get up myself!
5) Horseshoes or Cards?
Gord: Cribbage (when I win.)
6) Most memorable experiences lodge related?
Gord: Meeting some interesting people. Back in the North Shore Lodge days, getting to fish with Red Fischer and his guest Roger Maris. Lately, having the River Monster crew at VBL and meeting Jeremy Wade. We also had Bob Izumi at the lodge for a few days!
Gord – thanks so much for taking the time do this. I will certainly include links to the lodge but can you provide the contact information for the Northern Jacks crew?
No problem, thanks for inviting me onto your forum. Our main contact information can be found on our website, www.vermilionbaylodge.com, where you can also check out what we offer, our rates and of course our blog, the “Electric Beaver”.
Since this border closure will likely keep many of our regular guests from making it to the lodge this year, for at least part of the season, I would invite your Canadian readers to check out some of lodges that are in NW Ontario. Take an adventure this summer and explore Sunset Country! Here’s a link to our travel association that will show you all the options: https://visitsunsetcountry.com/
If any of your Canadian readers are interested in VBL they can contact us and mention “Northern Jacks” to get 10% off a trip this season, based on any vacancies due to the border closure. Right now I’m anticipating this will be the case for May / June…both of which are prime months. Thanks Andrew!
That's awesome Gord -I really appreciate the time and the offer for Northern Jacks readers.