Great Bear

Great Bear

Lake trout and grayling on Canada's "Inland Sea."

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
Around the Fire

It’s sometime around midday and either Martin or I —I forget who— has just landed the five-pound lake trout that will be our lunch fish. Our guide, Craig Blackie, motors us to shore, digs out a blackened iron grate and props it off the ground on rocks while Martin and I hunt for firewood. We’re at the northern end of Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, above the Arctic Circle and near the northern tree line, so wood is scarce, but we only need enough for a quick twig fire.

By the time Martin and I get back with our meager armloads of willow, Craig has the fish cleaned, slathered in seasoned olive oil and wrapped tightly in tin foil. Two herring gulls are down the shore picking at the guts. The three of us are dressed in wind pants, slickers and hats with earflaps. Craig is wearing fingerless gloves that his mother knitted out of muskox wool. It’s the third week of August.

We stand there talking shop in the way of men who don’t know each other well, but are comfortable together. Martin is a Scot who’s fished extensively in North America and Europe. Craig is studying for a doctoral degree in fisheries biology with a specialty in lake trout and is the most knowledgeable guide I’ve ever met. I contribute what I can.

We’re in a starkly beautiful arctic landscape that not everyone gets to see, but instead of rubbernecking we gaze at steam escaping from the foil-wrapped fish while open cans of pork and beans and stewed tomatoes begin to bubble around the edges. The fishing here is good enough that no one even thought about bringing a backup lunch of sandwiches.

Size can exert a kind of tyranny in fishing. As a lifelong trout fisherman, I refuse to think of our lunch fish as “little” when it’s about to feed three grown men and only half an hour earlier was pulling 8-weight line off a reel. On the other hand, in the hour before lunchtime we’d gone through at least a dozen bigger lake trout looking for one small enough to eat.

My first and biggest fish that day wasn’t exactly an accident, but I can’t say I was ready for it. On the way out to a submerged rock bar to troll, we’d passed a small cove that Craig said could be good for grayling and he asked if we wanted to rig up some lighter rods and try it. I’ve always had a soft spot for grayling and Martin is a past president of the Grayling Society, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

We cast from shore for about 20 minutes without a take when Craig walked over and said, “Let’s give it a few more minutes and then move.” (Grayling are usually easy enough to catch, but they’re not always where they’re supposed to be.) Right about then a large, grayish-green shape swam casually over to my fly and stopped. To Craig’s eternal credit, he didn’t yell, “Set!” but let me do it myself. I was fishing a rig appropriate for grayling of maybe four pounds tops—a 5-weight rod with a size 8 Muddler Minnow on 5X tippet—and this fish looked like it could be a yard long.

Craig said, “I’ll go get the boat.”

Once we were able to follow the fish, the situation didn’t seem quite so desperate, although I never got past wishing I’d hooked this thing on heavier tackle and the end game at the net—where fish are often lost—was especially ticklish. It was a lake trout that weighed just a hair over 17 pounds—almost four times the breaking strength of my tippet. It was handsome and healthy-looking, but it didn’t have the distended gut you sometimes see, meaning he probably hadn’t had his breakfast yet.

That could explain why a fish of that size was interested in my little size 8 streamer, which would normally be too small a fly for lake trout. Craig told me later that one of these fish can eat a quarter of its body weight at a single sitting, so that if the cove had been full of grayling that morning it might have weighed more like 22 pounds. On the other hand, if the fish hadn’t been so hungry, I probably wouldn’t have caught him.

Except for that one, we got all our lake trout that day by trolling. This is the preferred method on these big northern lakes simply because it’s so efficient. It’s not that you couldn’t cast to any of the places you’d troll through—you’re usually fishing at a depth of less than 20 feet—but to cover anything close to the same amount of water by casting and retrieving a big fly on a sinking line, you’d have to put in 18-hour days and ice your elbow every night.

As usual, there’s what we like to think of as a science to it, but the key isn’t so much how or what you troll as where. You’re looking for submerged points, steep drop-offs and open water rock bars that attract smaller organisms—from midge and caddis larvae to ciscoes and sticklebacks to grayling—and the bigger predators that follow them. But of course you’re not looking for those productive places because your guide knows exactly where they are, as well as which ones are fishier than others depending on the conditions. He’s done this for thousands of hours and motors right to them, even the ones that lie in what appears to be featureless open water.

I was using an 8-weight rod and a line with interchangeable sink-tips that allow you to vary your depth. I’d pay out almost the entire fly line and take up a short shock loop held as lightly as possible between the reel and the index finger of my rod hand. The idea here is that the fish pulls the loop straight when he hits, giving him time to turn and take the hook in the corner of his jaw. A fish that hits while you’re trolling can feel like it’s hooked itself, but there’s a lot of stretch in all that line, so you want to reef hard on the set to make sure. Of course every fish you hook takes you into the backing, but when you only have four turns of line left on your arbor that’s not always as impressive as it sounds.

I did well with simple, three- or four-inch-long rabbit fur streamers tied on 3/0 salmon hooks or as tube flies. Good colors were pink and white, blue and white and all white with a flash of red. Some lake-trout fishermen apply the big-fish-big -fly theory and use tandem-hook trolling streamers that can be a foot long. These are fine for dragging behind a boat, but they’re ungainly for any other use, although in a pinch they are castable in a clunky, duck-on-the-forward-cast kind of way.

There are those of us who love this kind of esoteric tackle, fiddling for the illusion of mastery it gives us. We can go on about it long enough to bore even another fisherman; but the truth is, trolling isn’t rocket science. Some fly fishers say they don’t care for it for just that reason: because it seems too haphazard and, God forbid, unskilled. Maybe it is, but only in the way of any other style of fly-fishing designed to systematically cover fishy-looking water. I don’t really see a tactical difference between trolling for lake trout and methodically swinging a wet fly down a likely looking pool that may or may not hold an Atlantic salmon. Both have the same hypnotic quality that allows your mind to wander, only to be periodically wrenched back to the present in no uncertain terms. If I were one to offer advice on trolling to other fly fishers, I’d say the same thing their mothers said about spinach: At least try it before you say you don’t like it.

For that matter, I’ve met any number of fly fishermen who can’t get excited about catching lake trout, although it isn’t clear why. I’ve heard it said that they don’t fight well; but in my experience, at much past eight or 10 pounds they’re a real handful on a fly rod. Lake trout are the largest of the char—the same family that includes the beloved brook trout. They readily take flies and under the right conditions they can grow as big as tarpon. At six feet and 160 pounds, I would fit in any of the big nets the Great Bear Lake guides carry.

That night at dinner I located my nametag and sat down with some guys from Winnipeg who’d had a good day trolling with spoons. They do put name-tags on the dinner tables, which struck me as quaintly formal, and I couldn’t help wondering how they decided who should sit with whom. My best guess is that since there were both fly and gear fishermen in camp—not to mention the odd switch-hitter—this was simply an attempt to keep us from huddling with our own kind out of habit.

These dinners were crowded and boisterous and could be disorienting after a quiet day on the water. There were 25 fishermen in camp that week and that many people eating and bragging at once can raise the decibel level. And this against a backdrop of nearly that many more waitresses, cooks, guides, pilots, mechanics and others who seemed constantly busy, even though you couldn’t always guess at their job descriptions. One especially cold, wet day when we were fishing close to camp, we came in to get warm and have lunch out of the rain. A man down at the dock told me, “If you go in the back door of the kitchen, the woman there will give you a big, wet kiss and a hot lunch, or, if you’re lucky, just lunch.” On his tax return, this guy’s occupation would be listed as “camp comedian.”

But even with all those fishermen in camp, it was rare to see another boat on the water and when you did it wasn’t much more than a speck passing in the distance. That was no accident. Great Bear Lake is an inland sea covering just over 12,000 square miles, and although you can only reach a corner of it by boat from the lodge, there’s still a lot of water to spread out in. The guides are also fully aware that no one wants to fly all that way into the Canadian wilderness only to fish in a crowd, so every evening they divvy up first, second and third choices so no one gets in anyone else’s hair. These meetings are best held in private and that’s one reason why the guides don’t sit down to dinner with the clients. Another is that, however charming we might be, after eight or 10 hours with us, they could stand a break.

Plummer’s Great Bear Lake Lodge is one of three established camps and several other fly-outs run by the same outfit. It was founded by Chummy Plummer (the grandfather and namesake of the present owner) and his son Warren in the early 1950s—when life and fishing were both simpler—and by now it sprawls all over a narrow peninsula in Great Bear Lake like the improvised village it is. The place isn’t at all junky, but it was built for function instead of fanciness and does show the inevitable signs of hard human use and nearly 60 brutal arctic winters. This is more of a comfortably lived-in outpost than a resort: a place where people come to fish seriously. Beyond that, all they need or want is a warm, dry place to sleep, three meals a day, a good guide and good fishing, all of which they get. I felt supremely at home here, with no worries about using the wrong fork at dinner. I started fishing in the Midwest at about the same time this camp was established and it still startles me to think that any kind of fishing is considered upscale.

I got my shot at grayling a few days later when I did a fly-out to the source of the Horton River with an Australian named Frank. It seems that Frank had gotten it into his head to try for a world-record lake trout on two-pound tippet and this was a good place for the attempt. In the fall—and August is fall here—hundreds of grayling work up-river toward the outlet at Horton Lake to feed, while lake trout prowl down into the gathering current to ambush them. It was understood that Frank and our guide, Mike, would make a serious try for a big lake trout on light tackle at the outlet while I’d have a seat on the float plane and an entire arctic grayling river all to myself.

The Horton is a typical tundra river: cold, clear, broad and shallow with placid, but braided currents and a view to the horizon without a tree in sight. When five big bull caribou wandered over to the river to drink, I could see them coming for a thousand yards: just their antlers at first, which at that distance looked like bentwood rockers bobbing in the middle distance.

The outlet was wide, smooth, dish-shaped and pewter-colored under a low overcast. The current was nearly imperceptible, but now and then there’d be a large, violent boil followed instantaneously by 20 or 30 smaller boils as a good-sized lake trout lunged into a pod of grayling. Before the day was out, a 10-pound lake trout would be landed with the tail of a two-pound grayling still sticking out of his mouth. When his face was pointed at the camera for a photo, he swallowed defiantly, as if you say, “You got me, but you’re not gettin’ my lunch.”

A philosophical discussion ensued over whether this was 10 pounds of one fish and two pounds of another, or one 12-pound lake trout. Mike, using flawless guide logic, declared, “The fish weighs what the scale says it does.”

I watched Frank for a few minutes, trying to figure out how he was getting a passably pretty cast out of a rod, line and leader far too light for the big fly he was using. Then I strolled down the river. There were no rises, so I tied on a size 14 soft hackle as a search pattern and got a 21⁄2 pound grayling on my first swing. It jumped once, made a decent run—scattering the wakes of other fish—and jumped again before it started to tire.

The next three or four grayling were all around two pounds, and then I hooked a fat male with an outlandish dorsal fin that was closer to three. He ran farther and scattered more wakes. I hadn’t yet taken a step or made a cast longer than 20 feet.

If I had to guess how many grayling I landed over the next few hours, I’d say it was around 50 with a combined weight of something like 125 pounds and the phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” had stuck in my mind like an annoying song. So I stopped. I wasn’t bored, but there’s a point—different for everyone, I suppose—where you have simply caught too many fish too easily and are in danger of not only missing the point, but also of pissing on the very thing you claim to love and came so far to see. I’ve been fishing long enough to have a few memories of big, easy hauls that are tinged with shame. I didn’t want this to be one of them.

I found Mike a few hundred yards upstream squatting on the bank cleaning a five-pound lake trout. “You want a grayling to go with this?” he asked, pointing at the lake trout with his fillet knife. I said, “Sure,” stepped back into the river and had a two-pound female on my first cast. In this part of the world, backcountry travelers refer to grayling as “river hotdogs.” If there’s nothing else to eat, they say, you can always catch a grayling.

Frank hadn’t landed his record fish. He’d hooked a large lake trout on two-pound tippet that would have done it, but after playing it for more than an hour it threw the hook. He seemed more amused than disappointed. A record-book fish would have been fun, but he wasn’t about to let it ruin even a single morning, let alone the whole trip. He looked around and said, “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”

After lunch I offered to go back down-river to stay out of his way. I thought I’d explore a little, look for more wildlife and maybe see if I could get a grayling to take a dry fly. But Frank said he’d taken his shot and now he was just fishing. “String up your 8-weight and catch some of these lake trout,” he said. So I did.

John Gierach is the author of Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing and other best-selling books.