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Fish On

Fish On

A beginner’s guide to catching the biggest and most beautiful fish in the world, and stories from those who’ve tried.
By Tim Edwards
Jun 29
2015
From the June 2015 Issue

Alright, we should be upfront: you don’t really need a guidebook to fish in the North. People bend belt buckles into hooks and haul in pike after pike, stand on land and pick char out of the water, or unwittingly attract lake predators to the flash of their wedding rings as they trail their hand through the crisp, cool waters. (Don’t worry—that doesn’t happen too often.) But if you’re coming up to fish, we should at least give you the lay of the land, because each territory offers a different assemblage served in its own special way. Here’s what you need to know, and a few of the wildest fish tales we could find to let you know what you’re in for. 

Fishing in the NWT

More Water Than Land

The fish are big here, and the lakes are innumerable. You can catch northern pike, trout (lake, bull and Dolly Varden), Arctic grayling, inconnu, walleye, whitefish, burbot, and—if you go far enough north—Arctic char. There are several fishing lodges on the big lakes and many more on other fly-in lakes and rivers throughout the territory. Whether you want to fish on the biggest lakes, the country’s longest river, the Arctic coast, or just a small lake with no one else on it, the NWT has it. (It’s just kind of expensive to get around.)

Kakisa’s Amazing Grayling Run

Even if you’ve never fly-fished before, you’ll likely catch one of the North’s most sought-after fish on the spring Kakisa River Arctic grayling run. The river is the first good fishing area to thaw in the Northwest Territories, usually around the beginning of May, and has lots of insect life that attract grayling—which makes them likely to bite the fake fly tied to the end of your line.

“We’ve had many people over the years that we’ve converted from spinning gear to fly fishing gear on that river.”

“They’re not particularly tough fighters but they’re a lot of fun when you’re fly fishing, especially when you’ve caught something on a fly you made yourself,” says Mac Stark, a veteran fly fisher who’s enjoyed the Kakisa run for close to 30 years now. “The male fish, this time of the year with the huge fin, they’re just coloured right up. They’re just gorgeous fish to catch.”

Access to some prime fishing locations throughout the NWT is by floatplane only.

Some people drive 15 hours up from southern Alberta, and now that the Deh Cho bridge is in, Yellowknifers—once stranded on the far side of the Mackenzie River during breakup—now get to enjoy the run they’d heard about for years. Kakisa in the spring is a special place. Says Stark, “We’ve had many people over the years that we’ve converted from spinning gear to fly fishing gear on that river.”
 

“That’s why Great Bear has a historic appeal: the lake with the biggest lake trout on Earth, hands down.” 

The Great Lakes

The NWT is home to Canada’s largest lake, Great Bear, and North America’s deepest, Great Slave. And they’re both in amazing shape. Ichthyologist Paul Vecsei comes off a bit peeved when talking about the loss of some of the world’s most interesting fish habitats. “The Great Lakes [down south] were great but now they’re completely f***ed up and they’re nothing like what they were in their natural state.” Great Slave and Great Bear are snapshots of what happened after the Ice Age  glaciers retreated, he says—and they’re both completely unique

Great Slave has an incredibly diverse population. In Yellowknife Bay alone, you can catch—depending on the time of year—pike, lake trout, whitefish and inconnu. In the lake’s East Arm, you’ll find Arctic grayling and bigger trout, and in the North Arm, you’ll find monster northern pike. (“I dare you to find a better pike fishery resort,” says “Pike Mike” Harrison, who often works part of the summer at the North Arm’s Trout Rock Lodge.) It’s also the territory’s biggest commercial whitefish fishery. But despite the lake’s incredible diversity, record-hunting anglers often set their sights north to Great Bear.

Giant pike are common throughout the NWT but few Northerners appreciate their culinary value - Francois LaRoche

 

“There are no pike really in Great Bear Lake, just in the odd bay here and there,” says Vecsei. “It’s lake trout and lake trout only.” These trout are the lake’s top predator, and they have filled every niche in the lake. There’s everything: from the five to six pounders with huge floppy fins and strange overbites—rarely caught by anglers—that live to be 40 or 50 years old, hovering along the lake bottom slowly chomping up snails, to the huge, sleek silver cruisers with long tapered bodies that end up setting records. “You open up their stomachs and there are two-foot whitefish or another lake trout two-and-a-half feet long in the stomach of a 40- or 55-pound trout—wow, dreams are made of that for anglers,” says Vecsei. “That’s why Great Bear has a historic appeal: the lake with the biggest lake trout on Earth, hands down.” Lloyd Bull caught the current world record-holder there in 1995—72 pounds and nearly 60 inches long—and at least nine other class-specific records have been pulled from the lake.

Great Slave also has its unique kind of trout: the siscowets, morbidly obese versions of their sleek cousins, which have been caught at 550 feet deep at pressure that crushed a net’s floats into raisins. They're neutrally bouyant—so if you were to see them down there in the dark deep, they could just be floating there motionless like some deepwater sentinel. But given the depths, these fish are more for scientists’ enjoyment than anglers... That is, of course, unless you let your lure sink really, really far.

Salmon bounty

The federal government wants your salmon. Once rare in the NWT, their numbers are growing, and researcher Karen Dunmall is trying to find out why. If you catch one, freeze it and turn it into a local resource officer, you'll get a Northern Store gift certificate for either $50 (for a full fish) or $25 (for just the head). More info at arcticsalmon.ca.

The one that got away

Plummer’s, Great Slave Lake: As told by Chummy Plummer, the owner of Plummer’s Arctic Lodges: “I did see one monster fish one time. It was out at Great Slave, in a sandbar in early July, so you’re fishing in water where you could see the bottom.  ... So I’m fishing there and of course when you’re just trolling and fishing, you can have the fish swimming along tied to [the boat, to keep them alive and fresh]. And I had two guests and one guy had a nice fish, maybe 20 pounds, and we’re playing it. Another guy gets a fish and his fish is maybe 30 pounds. And we had a 35-pounder tied up on the rope on the front of the boat, he was just swimming around.

Anglers show off a hefty lake trout on a calm day in the Northwest  Territories.

“I could see the fish [the guests had on], and a great big fish comes swimming right up beside the 35-pounder, and he’s definitely twice as big. Holy, holy smokes. So I took a fishing rod and I threw it out, and the fish took it and he just turned around and swam away. But you can’t chase him because you can’t go fast because you’ve got a fish tied up already and then these other guests still have fish on, and now I had this other one on a light tackle and he just took all the line and kept on going. Never did stop. [Laughs.] I can see that as if it were yesterday... [He shrugs.] We turn ‘em loose anyway.”

Fishing in Nunavut

Ice floes and fighting fish

Nunavut is expensive and difficult to get to, but until you fish here, someone will always be able to one-up your stories about “fishing in the North.” While every one of Nunavut’s communities is on the coast (except Baker Lake, which is, yes, on a lake), we’ve honed in on two communities so fishing-obsessed that they’re actually named after fish. Sometimes you won’t catch a thing, and sometimes you’ll look at the waters and see nothing but dorsal and belly fins rolling around in a frenzy. There’s nothing like it. So grab your jigging stick and head North.

The West

Fishing around Cambridge Bay

“The most fun I ever had was jigging on the saltwater ice when it was all broken up,” says Doug Stern, a Canadian Ranger, guide, local historian, and longtime resident of Cambridge Bay. “And you’re jumping from pan to pan—but you’re making sure that there’s an on-shore wind, because as soon as the wind lets up or it’s an offshore wind, all the ice starts breaking up and you’re jumping like crazy to get back to shore.” Cambridge Bay's traditional name, Iqaluktuttiaq, means “good fishing place.” Take that literally.

Cambridge Bay's traditional name, Iqaluktuttiaq, means “good fishing place.” Take that literally. 

When I ask Stern what time’s best to come up fishing, he’s puzzled by the question. “For what fish and which way do you want to catch them? If I want to go netting it’s in October and if I want to go jigging on the sea ice it's July.” Then, in the peak summer months, you can use a rod and reel. Stern says he’s had good years catching Arctic grayling in the Queen Maud Gulf. And when we spoke in April, he said people were then going out to a nearby lake on Victoria Island to fish at a pressure ridge in the ice, pulling out fish after fish.

...all of a sudden a fish would bite the hook and your reel would zzzzzzt, go out, and then [the line] would just snap

Basically, it doesn’t matter a whole lot when you come—there’s fishing to be had somehow, somewhere, although it’s probably best to come sometime between spring and the end of fall, because the winters are cold. (And if you’re coming to jig, bring up a hockey stick—the traditional rod is made from antlers, but hockey sticks are popular because they’re sturdy enough to bop your fish on the head once you catch it.)

There’s more opportunity to the south as well, on the mainland. You might see some strange sights. “I was with a group ... going down the Hood River in 1994, and we stopped at this one place and we camped for a couple days and people would fish, and all of a sudden a fish would bite the hook and your reel would zzzzzzt, go out, and then [the line] would just snap. This happened quite a few times, when the fish would literally take all the line out and break it. And this is in the river where the fish aren’t supposed to be that big. It turns out they were lake trout, but the interesting part is when I opened them up, they had lemmings in their stomachs. So I wondered if it was the extra protein. These lake trout were not acting like lake trout. They were jumping in the air, they were running downstream, running upstream. They pulled so hard that they could take the clutchline out and then just snap the line. But when we finally did land the three of them, every single one of them had lemmings in their stomach, so we always thought that was a special area, where they were feisty.”

The East

A place called “fishes”

Iqaluit’s also a great place to fish, and relatively simple to get to with direct flights from Ottawa (oh, and it’s name means “fishes”). Local fisher Martha Nowdlak says she prefers jigging in ice holes in nearby inland lakes to using a rod and reel off the coast. “With ice fishing you just peek in the hole and watch a few chars swim across or go after your lure while you are jigging.” 

“We both just started laughing as we must’ve been looking so funny going after the fish,” 

You can get around on a snowmobile in the spring months when the days are relatively warm but the lakes are still icy. Her favourite spot is the Bay of Two Rivers (Nunngarut in Inuktitut), about 22 kilometres from the city. When we spoke in April, she’d just returned from fishing there with a friend and had pulled a char out of her fishing hole with a gloved hand. “We both just started laughing as we must’ve been looking so funny going after the fish,” says Nowdlak.

Rivers on the tundra are home to a great many fish other than just char.

The inland lake fish fight a bit less than the ocean-dwellers, and you can catch them once you get comfortable in the chilly weather and into your rhythms. “I don’t have any tricks to fishing but my tip is do not expect to catch one as they will come to you. Clear your mind and patiently jig, no matter what kind of lure you use they will still bite if they are hungry and if you catch their attention with the way you’re jigging.”

If you’re coming to Iqaluit in the summertime, there’s a spot you can drive to right beside the city. The Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park’s namesake river is beautiful, accessible and filled with pink char. 

The Cannibal Cod of Ogac Lake

Down the shore from Iqaluit on Frobisher Bay is a lake full of monsters. Human-sized cod lurk in its murky bottoms, snatching up their younger brothers and sisters and anything else that comes by—they’ve been found with loons in their stomachs. They’re the cannibal cod of Ogac Lake.

Despite their fearsome appearance, they’re not that hard to reel in, says Paul Irngaut, director of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s wildlife and environment department, which monitors them. “We were catching them with a rod and then what we did was we took the head of the small cod, put a hook on it with a line, and we just threw the line into the water where it went to the deep end and it went to the bottom. Then you wait and when you catch one, you can feel how big they are from the tug of the line.” And in five to 10 minutes, they reel in cod as big as five feet long. “They’re much bigger than a baby seal.”

A fine specimen of Ogac Lake cod stands more than half as tall as the man holding it.
Ogac Lake is only tenuously separated from the ocean, which helps the cod survive. High tides bring in salt (the lake being fresh at the top and salty at the bottom), as well as more food to complement their diets. The fish have also been found at Qasigialiminiq Lake, in the Cumberland Sound near Pangnirtung and at Tariujarusiq Lake, also in the Cumberland Sound. 

They’re considered a species at risk, so only Inuit can harvest them, but if you get a chance to see one reeled in, it’s worth it—Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings, a fisheries scientist at Dalhousie who studied the fish about a decade ago, says the experience stands out strikingly in his mind to this day. “I would call [the cod] one of the biodiversity gems of Nunavut, without question.” 

But maybe don't go swimming.

 

Fishing in the YUKON

The beatific arena

by Eva Holland

The Yukon is the North’s most accessible, and most classically beautiful territory—and the fishing’s not bad either. From small stocked lakes within easy walking distance of central Whitehorse to luxury lodges reachable only by floatplane, the Yukon has fishing for every budget, timeline, and skill level.

“Those are incredible fish to eat. And they actually give quite a battle on a fly rod, too.”

There are 10 main species anglers seek out in the territory: lake trout, Arctic grayling, northern pike, whitefish, Dolly Varden, bull trout, rainbow trout, burbot, inconnu, and salmon. Lake and rainbow trout are both popular options, both here and across North America, but for something uniquely northern, Gord Zealand, executive director of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, recommends fishing for pike or grayling. The Arctic grayling, in particular, is a Yukon classic that’s found in nearly every lake and stream in the territory. Though it inhabits waterways throughout the North, nowhere else is it as ubiquitous and easy to access off the road system as it is in the Yukon. If you’re a fly fisher who’s already been spoiled rotten with grayling runs, Zealand suggests a bigger challenge: try catching an inconnu. “Those are incredible fish to eat. And they actually give quite a battle on a fly rod, too.”

Both anglers and bears vie for fish from the Yukon's waterways, so take care not to leave any scraps around from your shorelunch, as it might attract unwanted attention. Photo, Peter Mather

Unfortunately, the Yukon’s most iconic fish isn’t doing that well. Salmon populations have been under pressure in the Yukon for many years now. These days most Yukoners, looking to fill their freezers with the big pink fish, head for Haines, Alaska, just over the Yukon border. If you want to catch them, you’ll have to do the same. Head to the Chilkat or Chilkoot river systems in the early fall for the coho run—that’s the silver salmon run in Alaskan terminology. Canadian Thanksgiving is a popular weekend to head across the border.

“If you hit them at the right time, and especially if you’re into fly fishing, they’re great places to try out the rainbows.”

For perhaps some of the most interesting arrays of fish, look to the Yukon’s stocked lakes. Environment Yukon and the Fish and Game Association work together to maintain more than a dozen pothole lakes stocked with rainbow trout, Arctic char, kokanee salmon or bull trout, and Zealand recommends them for a different challenge. “I know that a person from Alberta spent about five weeks here in the Yukon doing nothing but fishing the stocked lakes,” he says. “If you hit them at the right time, and especially if you’re into fly fishing, they’re great places to try out the rainbows.”

photo, Cathie Archbould

The best part is that these are very easy to get to. The stocked lakes are mainly clustered near Whitehorse and a few of the territory’s smaller communities. They can be a great option for a self-guided excursion: they’re generally easily accessible from the road network, sometimes via a short hiking trail.