Words By: Rasmus Ovesen
Photos By: Rasmus Ovesen, Og Klaus and Boberg Pedersen
FROTHING FOREST FIRES rage below us spewing out severe plumes of thick, white smoke into the air. Klaus and I are sitting in a small, chartered propeller plane in the veiled airspace between Yellowknife and the massive Great Bear Lake – a giant body of water that has found its gnarled and uneven bed in Canada’s desolate and harsh Northwest Territory – a mere cast away from the bitterly cold Arctic. The scenery below is both disturbing and irresistibly compelling. It is as if a self-effacing and ill-tempered force in nature has flared up, and there is something disquieting about the way it is trying to conceal its vehement rage by covering everything in thick smoke. The same smoke soon hems in the plane, and for the remainder of the flight the ravaging flames are hidden from our flabbergasted eyes.
Great Bear Lake is also shrouded in thick smoke, and it isn’t until seconds before we hit a rather rudimentary landing strip right on the lake shore that a massive water mirror is revealed below us. When the plane is brought to a stop; we alight and find tentative footing in a vast, intrusive wilderness, where the silence is as deafening as the humming drone of the airplane propellers. Here – in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in an immense and undulating morass of anorectic pines, slight thickets, tufts, heather and moss – lies Plummer’s Great Bear Lodge, the wilderness dwelling we’ll be staying at for the coming week and from which we will head out in search for full-grown lake char.
GREAT BEAR LODGE is booked to the point of bursting this week, because guests – who had otherwise intended to stay at Plummer’s Great Slave Lake Lodge, have been transferred here (the lodge on Great Slave Lake, close to the city of Yellowknife, is in imminent danger of burning down!) Here, unmanageable forest fires are raging too, and – stubbornly incited by a hoarse northern wind, one of them is in the process of hauling its crackling and all-consuming body of licking flames across the lodge property. Fire fighters all the way from Alaska have been summoned to contain the fire, but apparently the situation is grave. And for the coming days, a lot of Great Slave Lake Lodge’s repeat customers will be fishing with a gnawing fear in the back of their minds.
NO LESS THAN AN HOUR AFTER OUR ARRIVAL, we’re sitting on board a spacious Linder alu-boat that is cutting its way with authority across the bitterly cold and slightly rough waters of the Great Bear Lake. Our guide, Matt Dick, is heading for one of the numerous exciting fishing spots on the Dease Arm – a bay comparable to a mid-sized Norwegian fjord, that unbeknownst to us, consists of myriads of smaller bays, inlets, reefs, depth curves, fault lines and towering islands.
The smoky air has shrouded the lake in a kind of illusory mist that the sun is incapable of penetrating, and it isn’t until later in the week, when northern winds finally displace the smoke further to the south, that the lake’s size becomes even remotely comprehensible to us. Until then, the sheer fact that it takes two full tanks of gasoline to ferry us across the Dease Arm and back to the camp will have to suffice as an indication of the lake’s awesome magnitude. It also serves to prove that there is plenty of room for an over-booked lodge with 20 boats and about 40 eager fishing guests.
THE BOAT IS BROUGHT TO A HALT outside a series of reefs that outline a small bay. Here, the bottom drops off quite dramatically, and along the fault line our guide – a young chap, who is set to become a great friend over the coming few days – expects us to find foraging lake char. These fierce fish, which undoubtedly are the undisputed rulers of the watery Arctic realm, are savage and shady predators with insatiable appetites and gory-looking jaws designed to inhale unsuspecting prey of remarkable sizes. Typically, they are targeted in 25-100m of water, but here in July, during midsummer, when the tireless midnight sun bathes the Arctic region in clear and colour-saturated light, the fish are supposedly to be found in relatively shallow water.
WITH OUR FLY RODS IN FIRM, IRON GRIPS, we prepare for the first expectant casts. Soon after, the big, bushy streamers, that we have tied on to our 0.40mm tippets, whistle through the air and land on the water like maimed birds, they find themselves forced irresistibly downward, into the ice-cold water by the weight of our sinking lines. When, seconds later, we hitch up the flies and bring them back towards the boat with long, even retrieves, our heartbeats suddenly begin racing uncontrollably.
We have no idea what to expect, but we get an indication soon enough. In his third cast, Klaus’ #10 fly rod suddenly bows and scrapes under the weight of a powerful fish thrashing about in the crystal-clear water. A few intense minutes later, the fish is thrashing about in the guide’s spacious landing net. Klaus now proceeds to lift an immaculate lake char of about 10lb out of the water for a quick photo shoot, and then prepares for its release. Immersed into the lake’s chilly water, the fish quickly frees itself from Klaus’ hands and catapults its matte-olive and slightly-marbled body towards the bottom of the abyss. Above it, two relieved Danes and a Canadian guide cheer loudly.
WE MUST HAVE FOUND THE FISH, because less than 10 minutes after Klaus releases the first fish of the trip, a heavy tug on my fly line announces that yet another lake char has been fooled by one of our deceiving streamers. This fish, too, manages to send jagged convulsions through the carbon fibres of the 10-weight rod. It moves about like a mythological creature from the seven seas – deep, unyielding and heavy – and every turn on the fly reel is laden with excitement. A single surge into the back to the depths and an ill-tempered stint of tug-of-war later, the shadow of a fish appears in the water. Shortly after, another Great Bear lake char finds itself reluctantly embraced by mesh and netting.
The magnificent and broad-shouldered 14lb fish is duly photographed, and upon its release, heads straight for the gloomy solace of the depths below. It hasn’t gotten very far though, before our treacherous, white streamers whistle through the air yet again. Our hearts are still racing, but our souls are suddenly infused with a newfound quietude and calm.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS, we continually prowl edges, drop offs, reefs, islands and fault lines – and there are surprisingly few dull moments in the boat. We consistently find fish where the water temperatures are the highest; typically in wind-exposed bays with water depths between 15 and 45ft. There are loads of them – reckless, aggressive and powerful. Most with impressive average size of around a solid 10lb, with the occasional 20lb’er thrown in.
The thick, clingy smoke, that’s been shrouding the lake for the past couple of days, has finally lifted, and with a deep-blue sky and a flickering sun above us, it seems as if the lake has been brought back to life. The icy water suddenly assumes an absorbingly deep cobalt-blue colour, the wave crests sparkle among the distorted cliff fragments of the reefs, and the dramatic drop offs are more defined and spectacularly saturated than before. At the same time, news reaches us that the Great Slave Lake Lodge has been rescued from the flames and at dinner later that day there is an atmosphere of relief and gratitude. Additionally, the good news coincides with some rather impressive Great Bear Lake trolling catches – including a massive 45lb fish, and for the next few days, we fish with intensified ambitions and expectations.
THE DAYS THAT FOLLOW offer several unforgettable moments and episodes. At one point, for instance, we find ourselves in a small, shallow bay where a school of solid lake char are on the prowl. With the sun perched at its highest peak and dead-calm water above them, these agitated fish reveal themselves clearly against the sandy bottom, and as a result, we can handpick individual fish to cast at.
On the very first cast, one of them resolutely sets in motion and pursues my fly. A handful of quick retrieves later and I pause for a short bit. The fish stops immediately – trembling with excitement – and when shortly after the fly makes a subtle but tempting forward motion, it is suddenly gone. Hidden between the jagged jaws of the fish, which has scooped up its prey in one lightning-quick and impulsive manoeuvre.
The fight is on, and the fish is all over the place. It thrashes about with such uncontrollable ferocity that at one point – in an explosion of water and foam – it regurgitates a half digested prey fish. One of the other fish in the school sees this. It shoots forward in the water and sucks in the frayed, white meal with the great self-satisfaction. Shortly after, it spots another frayed, white prey object in the water. However, when it clamps its jaws around it, a piercingly sharp hook anchors up in its bony mouth, and its freedom of movement is suddenly overcome by a weird, unyielding pull.
Klaus is now into a decent fish too, and for the next few minutes looming chaos reigns in the boat, as we perform a simultaneous fight with two big and uncooperative 10lb+ lake char.
GREAT BEAR LAKE is a big lake, so big it generates its own weather, and the weather can be quite unpredictable and unsettled. We get a taste of this on the penultimate day, where the lake is in turmoil and crackling flashes of lightning rapture the charcoal firmament of the sky.
We had found provisional shelter from the wind between two islands, when the wind suddenly dies down, the sun peaks through the dark cloud ceiling, and the lake becomes one big recumbent mirror. Bewildered grey-brown caddis flies now swirl across the water, and suddenly the water surface is breached here, there and everywhere, by hungry lake char.
We now find ourselves in a major rush. With overly eager hands and reckless haste, our dry fly rods are mounted, fly lines and leaders are threaded through guides, and bulky caddis imitations are tied onto tippets. For the next half an hour or so, we carefully cast at more 8-12lb trout, than most fly fishermen see in their entire lives. We even manage to hook a couple before the winds pick up again and the lake turns nasty, however, landing double-digit trout on #4 fly rods and 4lb tippets prove an altogether different ballgame.
THE MONSTERS OF GREAT BEAR LAKE also show a bit of interest in our flies during the week. For instance, I still have nightmares about a massive lake trout that almost pulled the line out my hands when striking. It then proceeded to disappear irresistibly into the abysmal depths dragging more than 150ft of fiery-orange backing behind it. It must have stalked an 8lb fish Klaus was in the middle of fighting – probably in order to steal away the prey, because it hit my fly with resolute determination, when – at one point during the fight – my fly ended up right behind Klaus’ fish. In the end, however, the massive fish ended up spitting the fly, and the anticipative link to a hauntingly big dream fish was abruptly disconnected.
Luckily for the calm and serenity of my thinly worn soul, I land another Great Bear Lake Monster. It clams its staunch jaws around my streamer outside a big gravel bar, immediately heads for deeper water and quickly proves heavier and more stubborn than the other fish, I have hooked up until this point. I lean back on the fish until the fibres of my 10-weight fly rod creaks, but the fish won’t readily budge.
The next 10 minutes is a battle of fairly even will powers. The guide circles around the fish, and I do my very best to keep my nerves calm and utilise all the power reserves in the fly rod’s carbon fibre blank. In the end, the heavy-handed treatment proves too much for the fish. I gain on it little by little, and when it finally appears along the boat side, I can see how massive it actually is. Now my whole focus narrows – I fall back into myself, and all that’s left is the gravity of the task ahead: bringing the fish close to the boat and safely netting it. When that finally happens, I re-emerge with a loud and redeeming roar!
We quickly drive the boat to the shore, dragging the fish behind us in the net. I then jump in the water, and Klaus shoots a barrage of images with the camera, while I gently lift the 30lb fish briefly out of the water. Afterwards, I take a self-conscious minute to enjoy the sight of this old, broad-shouldered monster from the depths. As it rests in the shallows by my side with its big sail-like fins, soulful eyes and inverted dots like scintillating stars in a dark sky, I suddenly understand and appreciate, why we have travelled all the way to the Northwest Territories and Great Bear Lake. And when the fish liberates itself from my grasp with a couple of defiant fin strokes and catapults itself into deeper water, the feeling intensifies.
GREAT BEAR LAKE is the world’s fourth biggest lake – a massive freshwater reservoir with a water table of 31.153sq km and water depths of up to 446m. It is situated in the central part of Canada’s vast Northwest Territories, which borders on the Arctic Ocean to the North. Fifteen different species of fish inhabit the lake including lake char, grayling, pike and whitefish.
Plummer’s Arctic Lodges manage the fishing on the lake, which, throughout the years, has produced one record-breaking lake char after the other; among them the standing world record of 72lbs. In total, there are three lodges on Great Bear Lake (Trophy, Great Bear, and Arctic Circle) which are all run by the Plummer’s staff and offer a variety of different fishing options. For more information, please visit the following link: www.plummerslodges.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAKE CHAR (Salvelinus Namaycush) belong to the char family, which also counts brook trout, arctic char and bull trout. To thrive, it requires clean, cool and well-oxygenated water in combination with a solid prey biomass. When these conditions are met, it can grow up to 100 years old.
In terms of geographic distribution, the lake char is endemically distributed across the north-eastern parts of USA and across all of Canada.
In Great Bear Lake there are three distinct lake char sub-species: silverbacks, red fins and butterfly red fins. Silverbacks are pelagic lake char with a silvery grey gleam and a relatively big head and mouth. They primarily live off of prey fish such as grayling, whitefish, pike and even relatives. As a result of their piscivorous inclinations, they tend to grow big – and they have been known to reach weights up to 100lb.
Red fins display saturated olive-green flanks and bright red fins. They don’t grow as big as the silverbacks – probably not bigger than 30lb, and they primarily live off of small baitfish, gammarus, caddis and other aquatic insects. In terms of colourations, the butterfly red fins are quite similar to ordinary red fins, but they differ physiologically. They display oversized fins, a notable overbite and plump lips. These fish rarely exceed 15lb, and they are typically found in relatively shallow water, where they specialise in insect-based bottom feeding.