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Skeed Borkowski

The owner of Northern Lights Lodge just wanted to spend a summer in the woods. Now, 52 years later, he’s still offering some of the most unique trout fishing in the world.

By Gil Greenberg

Skeed Borkowski has lived in the British Columbia’s rugged Cariboo region for over 50 years. He’s a man of humor, wit, and endless stories. Along with his wife Sharon, Skeed owns and operates the iconic Northern Lights Lodge, located in the small town of Likely. When he’s not tinkering with machinery or entertaining guests, he can be found drifting down one of the local rivers, casting flies to his favorite quarry—big, yellowbelly rainbow trout.

How did you end up at Northern Lights Lodge? What was your motivation for being in this remote part of the world?
Well, I was going through male menopause . . . . We had gone from logging to building and operating a cedar sawmill with about 50 employees. That mill burnt down. I think our [insurance] policy covered about 900-grand. My partner Rick and I went back to logging for five years and we paid off about a million and a half bucks worth of debt. And then we went gold mining. It definitely was a learning curve ‘cause we had never seen gold before. After about 10 years we were doing well and were approached by a company out of Calgary that wanted to buy our company—sort of a retirement package. We got a decent down payment, and Sharon and I bought the waterfront property. But you know me, I had a tough time staying still.
              That was about 26 years ago, and about that time the Bre-X gold scandal came out. At the time it was the biggest gold scandal ever. Bre-X got caught and our investors couldn’t pay for the property. To make a long story short we got the mining property back, but Sharon and I were already committed down here. We had partners, so we had to leave the mining alone and fix up the lodge. It was pretty run down. Sharon and I spent a couple years completely rebuilding and renovating everything. It was quite the adventure, but I think it paid off. Now we’ve got a pretty awesome lodge here.

What was the fishing like when you first came to the Cariboo region?
Well, the fish were even more dumb than they are now. I mean they had never seen a fly or lure before. But it was rugged and you were alone. I remember when I was in my twenties, I used to go down to the Cariboo (spelling from the gold miners of the 1850s). River fishing for bulls and big rainbow trout. I’d get as far up the river as I could. Most of those spots had never been stepped on by anyone, ever. I’d climb over rocks and log jams with my spin rod in my teeth and not a person in the world knew I was out there. Crazy, isn’t it? That’s just the way it was. And those places still exist. Maybe not as many of them, but we have plenty of those untouched places here.

Was NLL always a fly-fishing focused lodge?
No. Originally the lodge was more focused on conventional fishing. Guys would come up, spend a couple nights, eat some fish and enjoy a few beverages. We started focusing on fly fishing in 1999, when a friend of one of our original partners came up just to see the place. He was from an Orvis fly shop in Colorado and on the first day I took him fishing, he just looked at me and said, “You have no idea what you have here.” Up until that point we really just took it for granted. I mean, you could walk up to the bank, cast a line, and in just about any decent spot, nine out of 10 times you’re going to get a fish. What’s the big deal?

That must be a big draw for anglers. What can you tell me about Likely?
Likely is just such a small, unique sort of community. Its demographics are all over the map. If you see someone, you wave, even if you don’t know them. Most of the time you do—there are only a couple hundred people living here. It’s just such a safe place where people genuinely care about each other. Not all of them may sit down for dinner with you, but you know they’ll all show up if you need a hand.

It’s a good thing too, with no cell phone reception or emergency services in Likely. Get into trouble, you’ll need to count on your neighbors. Being unplugged, disconnected—is that an advantage or disadvantage?
I find it a huge advantage. It would be the most horrid sound in the world if you are fishing on the most beautiful river and your bloody cell phone rings, or there’s a grizzly bear you’re watching and your phone rings. It doesn’t matter what animal—a grizzly or moose or whatever. No animal should know what a cell phone ring sounds like. I have really strong feelings about that. Some things should just be left the hell alone.

Talking about grizzlies, word on the street is you have a lot of bears up here. Any good stories?
You know, when we encounter the bears, they have so much food with the salmon in the water and wild berries in the woods . . . they really aren’t interested in you. Sows here tend to keep their cubs real close because the boars will kill her cubs to put her back in heat. All they think about are food and women. Not so different from a couple guys I know. But anyway, we haven’t had any situations. If clients want to see bears, typically we’ll stop for lunch where we can have a look and take pictures. The most I’ve seen in one day is 19 different grizzly bears. We saw two sows with triplets, so that was eight bears right there. Many days I’ve seen over a dozen different grizzly bears. Never an issue as these are wild animals and not used to humans . . . they take their salmon and head back to the forest to enjoy their feast.

Without giving away spots, can you tell me a little about the area you fish, and why it’s unique?
We basically fish three main rivers in the summer, and five later in the season as more water becomes fishable when water levels drop. Some of the more remote systems, we take the cabin-cruiser, along with a jet boat. We’ll spend the day working our way up as far as we can in the jet boat then turn around and drift down and wade-fish some of the better spots on the way back. Other rivers we drive to and launch driftboats or inflatable rafts. Some of the best spots are just a spot we’ve marked with a broken limb on an old, deserted logging road. Then we drop down over the bank to a beautiful pool, only known to a few old-timers.
      We are talking with some whitewater rafters who get to some spots that we’d like to fish. It would be a cool sort of adventure that we could add to our program

I know firsthand how busy you are during the season. Do you still get out fishing?
I’m a dry-fly guy. I love river fishing, just targeting a fish. It’s like hunting. I can look at a run and know there’s a fish there and I just have to catch it. I will say, though, recently I have been exploring our backcountry lakes and there are some really big fish there. Some of the stocked trophy lakes have the yellowbelly Horsefly strain and they are so much fun. They are just the most aggressive, hard fighting rainbow trout you will find in the world.

I can definitely attest to that. I remember the last time we fished together. The fish preferred skating and stripped flies opposed to dead-drifted presentations.
I know, especially with the dry fly. You can drift it, drift it, and drift it, then right when it starts to swing bam!

What happens when the salmon first come into the river? Do the trout react right away?
Oh yea, they’ll spend the summer looking up, feeding on the surface. But right before the salmon arrive the trout start looking down. The transition takes a couple days but you can feel it. They’ll slow down with the dries, but egg patterns soon get inhaled, and by big fish, too. It almost feels like cheating. You don’t even have to cast far. The fish are often two feet from shore, in less than a foot of water. If you can find salmon beds, you always find trout five or 10 yards behind.

How big are these fish? What’s a good sized fall rainbow trout?
This time of year [late fall] 20-to 24 inches is a good fish for the river. Remember, these are wild, native rainbows that have likely never been caught before. Very aggressive, as there is so much competition below the surface. We have seen fish over 35 inches landed, but not many. We do get fish over 10 pounds quite often in our trophy lakes. They do turn a driftboat around.
              What’s nice about our river fishing is that a good angler can land 30 or 40 fish in a day. A complete beginner can land 10 to 20, no problem. Our rivers are 100 percent catch-and-release, barbless hooks fisheries. Kudos to our fish and wildlife department to have the foresight to recognize and protect this unique species of trout.

Have you had any days on the water that were really memorable?
We had three guys up from Denver, Colorado. We anchored the driftboat just up from a chinook red and we were pulling trout after trout out of this hole. Probably over a hundred in a few hours. Ridiculous fishing. Anyway, there was one big bull trout in there and he kept ramming the chinook, knocking the eggs out of their bellies. We tried to get him on egg patterns, as well as beads, but he wouldn’t take. Then we tried swinging a streamer and wham, he nailed it. The fish ran downstream. We had to pull up both anchors and chase him. After about 45 minutes we finally landed this thing. And I kid you not, it was 42 inches long. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Grinning just thinking about it.
              There have been so many big rainbows, I just lose track. Actually I hooked into a good one stillwater fishing a little while ago. He must have been around 28 inches and heavy. These lakes just have so much food. A lot of freshwater shrimp. What I really remember about this fish is he tailed three times and then an eagle swooped right over my head and nailed it. But the eagle couldn’t lift the fish out of the water. It sort of just got stuck, and face-planted. Anyway, the eagle paddled into shore and it took about a half-hour to eat the belly off the fish before it flew away with the rest of it. This all happened right in front of me.
              I could keep going and going, but I’ll stop after this one. We had a father and son from Chicago, and they wanted to see one of our rivers that has a big sockeye run. But it was too early in the season to really fish it and the water was very high. I took them to the far side of the lake and we went up the river as far as we could go.
              We made a couple casts. Didn’t catch anything, and headed back. Anyway, the mouth of this river opens up into a big bay and there were fish rising everywhere. I passed the lad his rod. He must have been 14 or so. I said, “Hit those rises.” First cast he lands a 20-inch rainbow. I set them up wading 50 feet apart, just off the shoreline, towards a drop-off, and spent the next four hours running back and forth taking fish off their lines. They must have landed 30 fish, all big, probably not a fish under 20 inches. Five or six in the 28-inch range. All wild fish. There are no stocked fish in Lake Quesnel. That was cool. Big golden stonefly hatch and we hit it just right.

As a lodge owner, is there anything that has really surprised you over the years?
We have guests that are just amazing. We have couples that have been coming up 15 to 20 years consecutively. Even with covid last summer, we had guests come up and stay with us multiple times. I feel fortunate to have shared this area with people. It really makes Sharon and I feel so fortunate to have made so many truly great friends in a business venture that has put the word “business” on the back shelf.
              A lot of our longtime guests have sort of got a little too old, or have health issues, and can’t make it here anymore. I still talk to a lot of these folks every couple months. They ask how we’re doing and how the fishing is going. It’s really special to make these kinds of connections with people.

Do you notice a change in your guests from the time they arrive to the time they leave?
Oh, big-time. Big-time. You can tell when they just arrive, they’re just so excited. You know the first couple days you see them miss so many strikes, and it’s not because they are not good anglers. It just takes them a couple days to slow down and get that rush-hour traffic off their minds. Once they take a deep breath they begin to fish so much better, and I think find a deeper appreciation for this place. It’s just so fresh here. You won’t see a single jet stream in the sky and rarely another angler during their entire five-day trip. It really is a forgotten piece of the world.

Can you talk to me about the guides you employ, and what it takes to be a guide up here?
Well, most of our guides have been working with us for 15 to 20 years. Gordy has been with us about 25 years, but he’s been guiding and outfitting in the area since he was 16. He’s the most skilled jet boat operator I’ve ever seen. He just knows so much about everything there is up here. The animals, the history, everything. We’ve got Tate and Curtis—both of them are completely fishing obsessed. And we’ve got Rob, our second most senior guide—he’s probably on a first-name basis with most of the fish in our rivers.
              Bobby and Brian, at different times and on their own terms, sorta just ended up here and decided they never wanted to leave. It was the fishing that made them want to stay, but I think it’s the lifestyle that keeps them here.
              Most of our guides are local and live here year-round, so this isn’t just a seasonal thing. It really is a way of life. There’s something about the peace and tranquility here. There’s no pressure as to when you have to be here or when you have to be there. Look, Sharon and I came here 52 years ago to spend a year in the woods and we just didn’t want to leave. I don’t think it’s something that can really be explained. Just stand in the water and look around. Oh, I missed a strike . . . oh well.

Before we wrap this up, what flies would you recommend tying up before coming up to NLL?
The Turks Tarantula is our number one fly. The Tom Thumb is my favorite, though. Prince Nymphs work well if you’re going under. Mouse patterns are fun to skate, and the strikes are crazy aggressive. If you are coming in the fall, egg patterns are a must. Beads are great if you are ok with fishing them. They are a little easier on the fish.

Gil Greenberg

Gil Greenberg

Gil eats, sleeps and breathes fly fishing. He is the founder of Gil's Fly Fishing International and holds a degree in marine biology. Before getting into the fly fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.