Yukon

Yukon

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
yuk_1197_fmt_web.jpg                 

Click image for slideshow.

and a sun that never sets.

Two men, one boat, no schedule,

Way Out

in the Yukon

by Greg Thomas

photographs by the author

I started imagining Canada’s Yukon Territory back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of high school and the only thing I wanted to do was hunt the north country for dall sheep, moose, caribou and grizzly bears.

My interest in the territory spiked when, upon the death of my great aunt Bert, we unearthed an unpublished 200-page manuscript written by her father (my great grandfather), William Henry Thomas.

He was a wanderer and an adventure-seeker, and the manuscript detailed his experiences as a prospector and market hunter during the Yukon’s Klondike gold rush, where he went fist-to-fist with the Soapy Smith gang (when he wasn’t taking care of marauding grizzlies or following the caribou herds). I could close my eyes after reading his words and picture myself in the path of a grizzly, or sailing a raft over heaving whitecaps on Lake Labarge, or wandering the streets of Dawson City.

His adventuresome spirit and wanderlust set the groundwork in the family: my cousin, Gary, is a trapper and hunting guide in Idaho; my uncle, Bill, has at times been a trapper, a sailor, a mountain man, a fire fighter, a horse trainer, and has a registered first ascent in Washington’s Olympic Mountains and, now in his 60s, he’s a sea kayaker; my father was a commercial fisherman and seal hunter, he’s an avid high-mountain elk and deer hunter, and he has canvassed most of Alaska by boat or plane and, even more often, with his own boots, while photographing and painting the Northwest’s wildlife and fish; my sister, Kim, has spent much of her life on boats, cruising Alaskan waters, which is where she now serves as the superintendent of a fish-buying and -processing facility with 400 people, mostly highly independent men, working under her; my eldest daughter, who’s eight, is already demonstrating this adventure streak—she wants to be the first nine-year-old to paddle a kayak from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska, and she has informed me that, in time, she will be attending college in Alaska.

Knowing this history is comforting when someone questions my decisions. If they ask, “What are you thinking?” I just raise my brows, lift my shoulders and say, “It’s in the family. It’s in my blood.”

Naturally, I was quick to accept an invitation to visit the Yukon when Jim Kemshed, who works for Tourism Yukon, grabbed my hand at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan last April and said, in his scratchy voice, “You haven’t fished until you’ve fished the Yukon.” Later, we set the trip in stone while tipping back a couple of cold ones at Sir Harry’s. It wasn’t a tough sell—I told Kemshed, “I have family footprints in the Yukon, creeks named after my great grandfather. I want to see what it looks like.”

Two months later, Jeff Wogoman and I were high-fiving as an Otter floatplane set down on Wellesley Lake and then taxied to the dock at Kluane Wilderness Lodge, after a two-hour flight from a base in Whitehorse.

Wellesley Lake, 11 miles long and four wide, is an anomaly: Whereas most northern lakes offer steep banks and little fertile shoreline habitat, Wellesley is ringed by shallow, productive shoals that are prime habitat for numerous aquatic insects, crustaceans and baitfish. That protein base provides building blocks for the lake’s population of native lake trout, which grow to 50 pounds, northern pike that stretch past 40 inches long, and whitefish that range between three and six pounds on average. During the short growing season—the four or five months a year that the Yukon’s lakes aren’t under ice—fish must feed almost constantly. Radishes grow from seed to harvestable in 15 days under 20-some hours of daylight. Fish demonstrate that same urgency; put a fly in front of one and it’s bound to eat.

The lake’s shallow shoals, which range to eight feet deep, and in some places are protected by a sort of barrier-island reef, stretch west from the lodge for five miles. This is beneficial for anglers—those who like to wade-fish can don a pack and take off for the day, sightfishing to big pike, sizable whitefish, and lake trout that range between three and seven pounds. This option is advantageous to all anglers when the wind (albeit rarely) blows hard enough to keep boats off the water. In fact, on “weather days” guests at Kluane can fish right off the dock if they choose, those shallows being some of the most productive water on the lake. During my stay I caught a couple nice whitefish casting from the dock, plus several lake trout, one in front of a floatplane as it taxied in.

Wogoman and I started our trip by trolling along the deep edge of these shoals, picking off lakers while scoping out the area for weedy backwater bays where northern pike might lay. We caught a few four- or five-pound lake trout on olive leeches, but trolling flies behind by a 15-horse outboard wasn’t exactly what we’d envisioned. Still, these were the prettiest lake trout I’d ever seen, a mix of brilliant orange and yellow on their bellies, wrapping around to cover the lower half of their sides. The upper half of these fish mixed olive and brown, dappled with beige dots and worm-track patterns that stretched to the tips of their tails and the tops of their dorsals. Their pectoral, pelvic and anal fins were deep orange, the leading edges punctuated with a bright-white stripe. Put these fish on the end of a line in eastern Canada, or south of there in Maine, and you might have thought you’d hooked the brook trout of a lifetime.

After a couple days we figured out a pattern with the lake trout. We spent the late mornings and early afternoons anchoring 20 yards offshore, with the sun at our backs, where we could see fish cruising through holes and, especially, over white marl pockets that stood out from the rest of the bottom, which was covered in dark vegetation. Strangely, it reminded me of the Florida Keys. The lakers would set up at one end of the sand and hold there, like trout finning in a pocket of a river. They’d wait until a chironomid or a scud moved across the sand, then burst forward with a few hard waves of their tails, suddenly stop and open and quickly close their mouths. Then they turned around, finned nonchalantly back to their station, and waited for the next unsuspecting bug.

Lake trout feeding on chironomids and scuds? Lake trout holding to a pattern? Lake trout acting like browns and rainbows? I’d never heard of it or seen it, but here it was, and Wogoman and I were having a ball casting our scuds over the marl, allowing them to sink to the bottom, then giving them a quick twitch or two, which sent those lakers into high gear. When we saw a white flash, showing the fish’s gums, we knew it had eaten and we set the hook.

It wasn’t always easy, and we changed patterns and colors at each location. And there were times when the wind and waves made things dicey, instances where we had one quick shot at the fish before the waves blew us off course or obscured the trout. At those times I ran the outboard and cruised slowly along the shallows; Wogoman stood in the bow, ready to cast, scanning for orange; when he or I spotted a fish, I’d throw the motor in neutral and say, “Orange. Cast right. Strip, strip.” When we saw the white flash, Wogoman would set the hook, feel the rod bend and say, “Yea!” I remember one day, bouncing in the waves and casting to the shallows, when we may have repeated that 10 times in a half-hour.

Some evenings we concentrated on the lake’s larger trout, with mixed results. The lake produces hogs, and lodge owner Brian Dack said that over the years they’ve caught and tagged 800 fish that weighed more than 20 pounds. Lakers of 25 to 40 pounds are regularly taken—but not by fly fishers. To catch those beasts Dack takes clients to the center of the lake, in 40 to 60 feet of water, and either trolls or bounces rubbery jigs just off the bottom (a fishfinder is involved). During our visit he seemed to have every client into one of the behemoths.

He also has plenty of stories to tell, mostly based around a premise that it’s just hard to make it in the Yukon. He regaled us with stories about his extensive trapline in northern British Columbia, where he snares beaver, mink, martin, wolves and wolverines. He told us about a plane that had been dumped into Wellesley during World War II that remains unfound, despite two expeditions that have searched for it. He told us about shooting a moose that had a 70-inch antler spread. Mostly, he talked about Wellesley and its fishing and how much he loved the place, which is exactly what you want to hear from a lodge owner.

I loved the place, too, partly because all fishing is unguided, which allowed us to cast for as many hours in the day as we chose, something that many lodges don’t offer, especially operations where guides say, “Oh, that’s eight hours. Got to get you back to the lodge for hors d’oeuvres.”

“Hors d’oeuvres?” I might say. “The fish are just turning on!”

At Wellesley Wogoman and I started our fishing after breakfast, ate lunch in the boat or, twice, on shore when Dack and his friendly and efficient three-person staff fried pike and lake trout for the crew. We always hit the lodge at 6:00 p.m. for dinner, and then we were back out there, hucking at pike or sight-fishing to those lake trout until midnight or 1:00 a.m. Believe me, during Wellesley’s short season—which begins in June and runs into September—you don’t fly away saying, “I wish we’d been able to fish more.”

Regarding those big lake trout in deep water: I’d arrived thoroughly prepared to battle with one, with a setup that included an eight-inches-per-second sinking line and some rubber fish imitations that harbored recessed jigheads. I didn’t reach bottom as quickly as the gear guys, but I did reach it, and at least twice I think I missed grabs, the strike being diluted by five feet of tippet and 80 feet of heavy fly line before making its way to my rod tip.

This wasn’t fast and furious fishing, to say the least, and it was driving Wogoman insane. I wanted just one “picture fish,” but he couldn’t take it. “Thomas, this is ridiculous,” he said one evening. “What am I to say when people ask me how the Yukon was? ‘Oh, it was great. We trolled five-pound rubber whitefish imitations for lake trout and never got a bite.’ Or do I just tell them, ‘The Yuk was great. I saw a pretty double rainbow and a moose with 65-inch antlers and I caught up on my sleep in the middle of a lake?’

“Or do I tell them the truth? ‘Thomas just wanted to troll, but he couldn’t even figure out how to use the fishfinder, and it sucked?’”

I put up with this barrage for a while and then finally, as men may do when mostly confined to a 14-foot boat for 18 hours a day for seven straight days, I said, “You are the most impatient person I’ve ever met . . . except for myself.” Then I said, “Reel in. You’re right. Let’s get out of here.”

We cut the motor. It was midnight, and as bright as it would have been in the afternoon. A double rainbow really did stretch over us, touching land in a haze on either side, completely defined by dark, ominous clouds behind. Once we’d reeled in I was going to start the motor and run to a bay for pike, but I caught myself and said, “Jeff, listen.” And he said, “Wow.” The wind had died, and there wasn’t a ripple on the lake. A few chironomids buzzed over our heads, but the only sound I heard was the ringing in my ears; this was the quietest place on earth. When a couple of swans took off, six miles down the lake, it sounded like a floatplane had arrived; when a common loon belted out its famous tune, I started to really understand the spell of the Yukon. “There are strange things done ’neath the midnight sun,” I said to Wogs, who right then lost his balance, and fell hard against the gunwale and a rod. If anyone was awake they would have heard the snap of that rod’s third section in Alaska, 100 miles away. I shook my head, paused, looked him square in the eye and said, “You didn’t have to do that. I said we were leaving.”

“Sorry,” he said, as nonchalantly as if it weren’t an $850 8-weight that he’d borrowed from me. “I had my ears suctioned out last week and I’m still trying to find my balance.”

I wanted to say, “Good luck, you’ve been searching for balance for 40-some years now,” but two guys duking it out in a 14-foot boat in the middle of Wellesley Lake, under that midnight sun, would have only proven Robert Service to be perfectly accurate. I’m sure it would have made William Henry Thomas laugh.

Ah, William Henry Thomas. I thought of him many times during our week-long stay at Wellesley, recalling passages from his Klondike journal. He’d left San Francisco on March 9, 1898 and arrived in Skagway, Alaska on March 19, packing nearly a ton of gear in his outfit, including dozens of flies and hooks, and a bamboo fly rod; he made 44 trips to the top of Chilkoot Pass, then chopped 300 pounds of firewood before Canada’s duty officer allowed him passage toward the Klondike; during his four years in the Yukon he caught and sold giant lake trout and lots of grayling, the latter all taken on his cane rod and supply of flies; in Dawson City his tent neighbor was Jack London; along the trail one time he and six of his friends fist-fought five members of Soapy Smith’s notorious gang and beat them down; he shot scads of moose, caribou and bears with nothing stronger than a lever-action .25/.35 that fired a 117-grain bullet; as an adventure he once caught a bear cub along the Chandler River and dragged it back to Dawson and named it Durant (he said Durant was a good tent-mate, except when he tried to crawl into his sleeping bag at night); a local Indian chief, King David, called my great grandfather “a good hunter” and asked him to marry his daughter, Ellen, and added to the prize a team of six dogs, a birch-bark canoe and lots of steel traps. Ellen said, “I wash good, snare rabbits and can fish like hell.” They seemed disappointed when my great grandfather told them he was married and had two “papooses.” King David said, “Maybe so next time.”

Kluane’s main lodge is a classic north-country camp, spacious with big windows and a little corner tackle shop, two comfy couches, a help-yourself (but mark it down) bar, and a wood-burning stove that’s the size of a Caterpillar tractor. Mountain caribou and dall sheep heads, and pike and lake-trout mounts, the size that made all of us say, “Man, I hope we get one like that,” grace the walls. Each day we sipped coffee and ate breakfast with other guests, trading stories and tactics. One morning a few of the guys were all fired up because they’d trolled, all day, the previous day and landed 103 lake trout. Wogoman isn’t into numbers. Hates them, in fact. So, being bold and outspoken, he said, “We don’t troll. We fish. I don’t know how many we caught yesterday, but we stayed in the shallows and cast specifically to each one. That’s the challenge—you spot the fish, you make a good cast, and you fight the fish carefully, with a fly rod on light tippet, and you land it. Anyone can troll.”

Five people took five big bites of hashbrowns at the same time and the table fell silent. Wogs looked at me with a grin and whispered, “What? Did I say something?”

We finished our breakfasts quickly and headed to our little cabin, which had two beds, a little wood-burning stove, a sink, a mirror and a shower. Its picture window opened to a gorgeous view of the lake. It was the kind of place I’d like to hole up in and write for two or three months straight. We gathered our gear and made the 11-mile run to the southwest end of the lake, to a shallow but expansive cove with a main inlet stream. This was a place we called Pike Central, and a place where Wogoman claims he developed pike stripitis, after his hand curled up like a T. rex claw.

Wellesley’s northern pike are abundant, and some are big. During our stay, Wogoman and I caught pike that stretched just past 40 inches, but we didn’t see any close to the magic 50-inch mark. Still, this was some of the most fun fishing I’ve found, casting poppers toward the banks or logs, and even into nondescript water. The popper would land, I’d strip, a boil would occur six yards away from the fly, and a few seconds later a pike would rip at the fly, trying to kill whatever it thought that popper might be. A fish? A bird? A mouse? I wouldn’t have been surprised if these things would have ganged up and taken down a beaver. They were that aggressive. In fact, one time Wogoman hooked up on a young pike (we called them “hammerhandles”) and while he was stripping that fish in, a giant chomped down on its cousin’s midsection. When it finally let go Wogoman brought the smaller fish in. On release, that fish acted like nothing had happened. Many of the pike we landed were scarred, victims of similar events, I’m sure. Wogoman said, accurately, “Man, if I were a small fish, I’d hate this lake.”

This was the first time we’d fished northerns and we were dreadfully underprepared. Yes, we had a variety of big flies in gaudy colors. Yes, we had wire leaders and 8-weight rods. Yes, we had Rio’s Pike/Musky line and Orvis’ Bass Hydros line, key tools for loading stiff rods and turning over wire leaders and big flies. What we lacked were spreaders and long-neck pliers. Spreaders separate the jaws of pike so anglers can reach in with pliers and extricate flies from far down a pike’s maw. Without either there was a 50/50 chance of being bitten during each release. Because we were catching 20 to 30 pike a day (even when we yanked the fly away from smaller fish and focused only on the big ones) our hands took a beating. We bought spreaders from Dack on the fourth day and got by with our Hatch pliers, which worked well but weren’t quite long enough when a big pike took a fly deep.

Nearing the end of our week on Wellesley, most of our flies were torn to shreds or the hooks had broken, and we arranged these neatly in a pile at the transom and called it our pike-fly graveyard.

Sometime during the trip I’d lost track of the days, but it felt like time to go. There was business back in Montana, and both Wogoman and I were beaten up from those pike. We’d fished 17 or 18 hours a day for six days straight, and we were nearly out of flies. And, maybe most important, if I stayed much longer there was a possibility I might not leave. I could see myself in that little cabin writing, with snow falling, the woodstove blazing and the aurora playing out overhead. William Henry Thomas went to the Yukon to earn a quick fortune in gold and ended up staying four years. He accurately wrote, “There was no darkness this time of year, just a few hours of twilight. Time passed unnoticed.”

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana.