It all started when I was about 10 years old. Early each Saturday morning, my dad would take me fishing for smallmouth bass on Georgian Bay, in midwestern Ontario. He would cast a fancy lure, and I’d drop a line—baited with a worm my father applied—over the side of the boat. As soon as one of us landed a breakfast-sized fish (usually measuring about 14 inches in length and often weighing less than two pounds), we’d head for shore and enjoy fresh, barbecued bass. It was the only fish I would eat.
Fast-forward 20 years and I’m living in the Northwest Territories, where my palate certainly evolved. Home to record-breaking lake trout, monster northern pike, and teeming with Arctic grayling, Arctic char, pickerel, whitefish and more, I was shocked to learn you rarely went more than a few minutes without a solid bite or landed a fish less than two pounds. They grow them big and they grow them feisty in the North, I realized. I quickly became obsessed with seeing each of these species up close.
Despite squeezing in quite a few fishing trips over the past four decades here, I have yet to complete my personal grand slam of Northern fishing. This checklist includes lake trout, northern pike, pickerel (walleye), Arctic grayling, whitefish and Arctic char. (I’m still missing the Arctic Char.)
Through this grand slam quest, I’ve learned a bit about where to find and land different species.
And I’ve also discovered what it is I like best about fishing: clearing all other thoughts from your head except the vision of what might lurk below; the soothing sounds of nature; the slightly fishy smell of the air; the comforting bobbing of a boat on the water; and then the excitement of the tug, the landing of the big one, and, seconds later, the release of the big one to the water.
I’m no expert by any means, but like many Northerners, I do enjoy swapping stories about reeling in a monster fish—or lamenting the one that got away. What follows is my own personal Northern grand slam quest (mainly within the Northwest Territories), ordered by the most common species to the most elusive.
Northern pike are seemingly everywhere and easy to lure. In fact, I caught my first pike by accident. I dangled my line in some shallow water at the edge of a rocky shore and suddenly, without even trying, there was a hungry pike nipping at my trusty red devil barbless lure. Since that first catch, I’ve learned pike (or jackfish, depending on who you’re fishing with) can put up a mighty battle, cause damage to fingers if not handled carefully, and can be great to eat if properly de-boned. Over the years, I must have landed and released hundreds of pike in lakes all over the North. Most were in the five- to 15-pound range, but I did land one 20-pounder in Duncan Lake, northeast of Yellowknife, and several more along the rocky inside channels of Great Slave Lake.
Pickerel or walleye are easy to catch, if your timing is right. I added pickerel to my grand slam list many years ago, while working at Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake) in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories. We had some time to kill, so we decided to test our luck at the river flowing into the big lake. We expected we might land a trout or two. Instead, we were attracting pickerel with every cast, using a standard red devil or five of diamonds lure. Since pickerel are one of the best-tasting fish in the North, we decided to each keep one for dinner, and good thing we did—the expected supply plane missed delivering our food order that day.
Lake trout are another abundant species in the NWT. They can be found in many small and large lakes, lurking in fairly deep, cold water. Even a smaller five- to ten-pound lake trout can put up quite a fight. The first one I ever caught was at Ryan Lake near Yellowknife, under the direction of two seasoned Northern women: Barb Bromley and Mabel Braaethen. I was so excited about catching a trout (even if it was a small one) that I accidentally dropped it back in the water before I could get the coveted photo. (Was this the quickest catch-and-release in NWT history?) Some years later, on the storied East Arm of Great Slave Lake, trolling at about two knots in the small cruise ship Norweta, at least six of us had lines out from the lower stern deck. These waters, famous for lake trout in prodigious numbers, did not disappoint—and my ten-pounder was certainly not the biggest of the day.
The largest number of whitefish I have ever seen in one place was at Watta Lake, about 45 minutes by air from Yellowknife. On a midday visit to the waterfall at one end of the lake, we encountered a frothing mass of whitefish at the base of the falls. Catching one would have been easy (but totally illegal) with a net or a basket, so we instead persisted with rod and reel until each of us had landed one. Then it was time to get down to business—and some serious trout fishing.
Adding an Arctic grayling to my list was not so easy. I received a fishing day-trip on Great Slave Lake as a birthday gift, and the guide’s instructions were to find Arctic grayling.
We spent hours casting and trolling along the rocky inner channels and islands of Yellowknife Bay, landing Northern pike after Northern pike. But no grayling. Finally, in the early evening, we found that elusive, iridescent fish. After taking the mandatory photograph, holding up its fanning fin, I was able to add Arctic grayling to my grand slam list.
So now, that leaves just the Arctic char to complete the slam. There are few places in the Northwest Territories to catch a char, so I’ve turned to Nunavut (unsuccessfully to date) for this final species. My first attempt was at a river outside Cambridge Bay, where I was assured I’d land a char. It turns out I was about a week early for their annual run up the river. I’ve also tried jigging for char with locals on the Meliadine River outside Rankin Inlet. This approach requires a lot of patience and after peering through a hole in the ice for a few hours, I gave up.
Although I haven’t totally given up on reeling in an Arctic char and achieving my personal fishing grand slam, I have been considering another option. Maybe I’ll replace Arctic char with Dolly Varden? It’s another challenge to be sure, but I hear the population of Dolly Varden is expanding in the upper Mackenzie region.
Or maybe I just go for a larger pike?