Arctic Array

The perpetual summer sun beamed down as we boated across this immense body of water known as Great Bear Lake. The far shoreline could barely be seen in the distance, yet we were only fishing one of five of the massive arms of what could be considered a freshwater ocean. It’s truly amazing how much can happen in the span of a few days.


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Photo: Craig Blackie

My whirlwind tour had begun just a few days prior as I left a sweltering 90-degree heat wave. Now I was 3,000-miles north, about 70-miles above the Arctic Circle. In stark contrast to the weather at home, the early July weather was more reminiscent of spring. Snow was still abundant in the surrounding hills and the ice had left Great Bear Lake only a week prior. The giant lake trout that this body of water is world famous for would be in the shallows having spent nearly 10-months under the ice. With any luck, they would be hungry.

If you are not already convinced that Canada’s Northwest Territories is worth a visit, you really don’t know what you’re missing!

The advantages to this early season fishery are suitable water temperature and depth. Finding warm water is important in the spring. Warm is, of course, relative with balmy 44 to 50-degree water usually being confined to the back bays. As for depth, most of the big fish come from less than 10-feet of water. This seems strange for a species that is usually fished in water over 100-feet deep, but then again, this is the Arctic.

When deciding on any distant fishing trip, it can seem daunting with a plethora of outfitters offering exciting angling adventures from all corners of the globe. One of the best ways to assess the quality of a trip is how long a company has been operating. In this case, Plummer’s Arctic Fishing Lodges has been in business for more than 50-years! They haven’t been around for this long by leaving customers with a bad taste in their mouth. The huge percentage of repeat customers should provide all the convincing needed. Add to this that Plummer’s is the only lodge and outfitter that operates on fisheries that unquestionably produce the world’s largest lake trout, char and grayling, and I was hooked!

One of Plummer’s outpost camps is located along the banks of Tree River just a short distance from the Arctic Ocean and about an hour and a half flight from Great Bear Lake. Despite holding the biggest Arctic char in the world, it was advised to me that just seeing the place was worth the price of admission.

There are many ways to catch char on the Tree River. Many anglers prefer to pitch small spoons such as Blue Fox Pixies, but in my opinion the best way to catch them is on fly. Traditionally, 8 to 10-weight rods were used but more recently, spey rods have been utilized to fish previously inaccessible water. In either case, short fast-sinking tips are needed to present the fly to the fish. Tree River char generally behave like winter steelhead in that they will not move too much for a fly. Baitfish patterns such as Clousers and Zonkers are effective given these char feed heavily on capelin while in the ocean.

Upon arrival at Tree River, it was clear that the water levels were still elevated from spring runoff. The river was a turquoise green color and raging. This would prove to be the perfect time to intercept fresh silver char on their way back from the ocean. While anglers love the thought of catching a male char in the full brilliance of spawning color, the reality is that silver fish are more willing takers. As with any sea run salmonid, it is the chromers that take and fight the best.

I laid out a cumbersome, yet effective double spey cast to a large sweeping run in the lower river and was rewarded mid-swing. My white Zonker had proceeded through three quarters of its swing when it was violently interrupted by a fresh char. The worthy opponent made a quick jump and then proceeded in an attempt to empty my reel. After a series of shenanigans, the 18-pound trophy was safely in the net. “That’s not a bad fish.” Remarked the Inuit guide.

Was he out of his mind? This char was huge! It turns out that I was the mistaken one. In a given week at the Tree, a handful of char over 20-pounds are caught, but I didn’t care. My meagre 18-pounder’ was a true trophy and indeed worthy of my record books.

Once back at the main lodge on Great Bear, it was time to get back to the task at hand. I still needed to catch trophy grayling, pike and some more of those giant lake trout. What followed during the rest of the week was a bit of a reality check. I came back from Tree River on my high horse after catching a big char plus two big lakers. The rest of the week proved to be a sobering, yet enlightening experience.

The last three and a half days of the trip involved some triumphs, but some disappointments at the same time. I didn’t catch another big lake trout. While a serious trophy hunter may have been upset, I realized that this is fishing and even in the best lake trout fishery in the world, the fish have the final say. What ended up being a lot of fun was catching smaller trout on light tackle. With the right gear an angler targeting small to medium trout can easily catch 40 or 50 in a day. The icing on the cake was that sight fishing was the name of the game.

The decision not to be so hell-bent on catching big trout made the rest of the week more relaxed. We would cast and troll for trout and after catching five or 10, we would leave and chase pike in the weedy river mouths. It seemed that in any given area of the lake there was a pike hole within close reach. Most of the pike were in the four to six-pound class, but we did manage to catch a few in the 12 to 15-pound range. On Great Bear, pike are measured in pounds not inches because they lack the girth of southern pike. Many 40-inch plus pike are caught every year but they weigh much less than their counterparts at lower latitudes. All posturing aside, these smaller pike were great fun on topwater jerkbaits and spinnerbaits.

On the last day, we took a short flight to a nearby river to catch grayling. Using both ultra-light spinning gear and 4-weight fly rods, we had a wonderful day catching 15 to 20-inch grayling. I have no idea what the tally was at the end of the day but a conservative estimate was well over a hundred.

If you are not already convinced that Canada’s Northwest Territories is worth a visit, you really don’t know what you’re missing!

Where To Toss The Bags

Plummer’s Great Bear Lake lodge is located 70-miles above the Arctic Circle and approximately 400-miles north of Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. One would have the impression that travel logistics to such a remote area would be very complicated, but in fact it is quite easy. With a 5,600-foot private airstrip at the lodge, the ability to accommodate large aircraft has made it easy to fly in fishermen and supplies. Trips are offered out of Yellowknife and anglers have several flight options to get there.

On a given week, between 30 and 40 guests visit the lodge during their short two month season (July and August). Out of a week long trip, anglers typically spend six and a half days on the water, for an average of 10-hours a day. The accommodations are not luxurious but then again this is the remote Arctic. The cabins are very clean, warm and comfortable and the meals are delicious. However, it’s the staff that really makes this place. The guides know their stuff and utilize high-tech equipment to maximize your odds of catching that fish of a lifetime.

Plummer’s Arctic Lodges

Other Notes Of Interest About Northwest Territories

  • Capital: Yellowknife
  • Area: 519,734 sq. miles
  • Population: 42,514
  • Language: English along with several aboriginal tongues
  • Currency: Canadian Dollar