Well, in the interest of full disclosure I’ll just put it out there right off the bat – fishing in the Northwest Territories this summer, for the most part, really sucked, comparatively if not literally, and that’s a bit of a drag when you don’t get that many chances to get out and do it.
On at least three outings this year I came back home without catching one single, solitary fartknocker. A couple times that’s all I caught. One evening back in June I boated out to the main whitefish spot by myself and fruitlessly drifted beads all night long without a single hit. Finally the float went under after I was ready to call it a night. Back to the boat came the most pathetic looking pike I’ve ever seen. Not even a fartknocker, just a lame ass scraunch of a fish, all fins and head, probably not even a pound in weight.
The struggle resumed after my epic summer fishing sortie to southern Ontario. I had nonetheless suggested to the Roughfish brain trust that Roughie should come north and visit. Maybe his presence would improve my luck, or least give me reason to find a way change it.
Every couple years my wife and I like to head to the High Arctic for a few days. This year we planned to tour the Beaufort region. This was an undiscovered country for me, with potential for some really hard to get northern lifelisters, including broad whitefish – one of the few standard size species I have yet to catch in the Northwest Territories. I was greatly looking forward to this trip, confident of the rewards that waited, relishing the chance of placing Roughfish’s faithful stuffed mascot in camera frame of an obscure Arctic coregonid.
Before heading North, Yk Gordo and I went on a little pre-excursion to Gros Cap, where the North and East arms of Great Slave Lake meet and buttress the open expanse of the greater lake basin. When we last made this early August run a couple years ago we put an absolute beating on the lake trout trolling crankbaits along the barren shore. Alas, three hours of back in forth in building seas proved entirely fruitless. The only fish boated was a slightly larger than fartknocker sized pike each. We didn’t bother taking any photos. We tried pressing on a little further east, pushing deeper into the swell when Gord uttered an alarmed query.
“Hey man, does your boat usually take on that much water?” He asked, pointing to a rising tide of flotsam floating around at stern halfway up the haul.
I immediately flipped on the bilge pump and upped the throttle, pointing the bow toward the nearest shore. Our days’ fishing was over. I would be happy to get us back to town. Springing a leak 60 miles from Yk off one of the remotest shores on Earth is hardly a peace of mind-inducing experience. We made it back OK but it was not an enjoyable ride.
Three days later, my wife and I were off to Inuvik, the largest community in the Beaufort Delta – the final terminus of the Mackenzie River before it empties into the Arctic Ocean. We had hoped to visit one of the Western Arctic communities on the ocean but some last minute hassles meant we would be limited to Inuvik and the surrounding area. I booked a boat trip with a local charter company with the expressed desire of catching broad whitefish.
“Never seen that done before but we’ll give it a try,” came the response.
The trip was off to an ignominious start. The airline decided my wife’s luggage wasn’t important enough to bring onto the plane so we arrived with no rubber boots or warm clothes for our Arctic river boat tour. I guess it could’ve been worse. They could’ve left my fishing gear behind. More frustration would come.
Roughie gets sworn into the Arctic Circle Explorers Club in Inuvik, having successfully crossed the Arctic Circle.
Fortunately, as we were above the Arctic Circle in summer and the hour of day matter little as far daylight was concerned, our trip wasn’t until the following evening so we still had time for the luggage to arrive and get the crucial clothing. In meantime, as my employer had a bureau in Inuvik, I arranged to borrow a company vehicle and see what angling opportunities could be found on the Dempster Highway. The first was a location I had long been eyeing on Google Earth – a stream crossing the highway into a fairly large body of water called Campbell Lake. Our outfitter had told me broad whitefish – at least at one point – migrated up this stream to a culvert under the bridge. It appeared promising at first glance. The water, though dark with tannins, was clear unlike the muddy Mackenzie River of the Beaufort Delta. I could see small fish breaching periodically.
I tried the whitefish beads – nothing. Small spinners – nada. Out came the frozen shrimp I purchased in Yellowknife. That’s gonna work, right? Nope. Red worms from my composter? Frozen minnows? No, exnea, forget about. I didn’t catch a damn thing. I did see an impressively large northern pike lazily work its way up the culvert but it had no interest in what I had to offer. Even the stupid minnows I saw breaching earlier wouldn’t co-operate. I had some micro gear but they just shied away when I tried putting anything close to them.
Roughie mojo wasn't working here
By the airport, we tried the aptly named Airport Lake. The sign on the access road heading in said “no trespassing” but as this was the Arctic we thought it prudent to ignore it. The water here was clear as well. And wouldn’t you know it …
First Beaufort Delta fish, of course, just had to be a fartknocker.
I think I may have caught another similarly sized pike afterwards but that was about it until our boat trip that night. Our luggage arrived with no time spare as our guide Jimmy came to meet us. After getting some gas we drove down to the boat launch where we embarked into a maze of interweaving streams and channels carved across an immense plain reaching toward the sea. Jimmy took us way out into the middle of the Delta, with the Mackenzie Mountains in sight to our west.
Through the Beaufort maze. Reminded me of the inland delta of Cano Negro in Costa. My guide's name there was Jimmy too.
It was an exhilarating experience but I seriously doubted my prospects of finding a broad whitefish out there. Jimmy’s strategy was to find to park the boat in front of a creek mouth and cast into the current. But even in these places the water had the consistency of chocolate milk. Jimmy hooked a couple Beaufort-Delta inconnu. I, however, didn’t get a single bite.
It was decided we would try again the next day. Jimmy told me he and has buddies were accustomed to catching some enormous loche (burbot) through the ice in winter, one of which weighed 60 lbs. It was an incredible weight so I told him I’d bring some frozen ciscoes I had brought up from Yellowknife with me the next day and try my luck.
Of course, my first fish of the day was becoming a familiar sight. You know I'm getting desperate when I start photographing these.
We later were parked at a log choked creek mouth flowing into the main stem of the Mackenzie River. It was surprisingly deep – perhaps 60 feet – but all I hooked in that churning abyss were some submerged tree branches. Frustrated, having failed to find whitefish or giant pout I tied on a spinner to target Jimmy’s fish of choice, the inconnu. Ten years ago, hooking into one here would have been a dream come true. I am truly spoiled now though. Conies just don't do it for me as much as they once did. Still, I was happy when a 15-pounder finally took the hook – a little leaner and greyer than the ones I’m accustomed to catching around Great Slave Lake. It was duly noted that in order to catch a predator fish in this pea soup the lure had be skittered along the surface of the water. They couldn’t see it otherwise.
Jimmy gets one. He got his on a rubber pike.
Jimmy helps me net my second coney while Roughie watches.
My wife enjoying the boat ride
Anyway, fish landed in Inuvik over three days totaled three scraunchy pike and two decent conies. Not the best result alas. The tour operator owner told me the stomachs of broad whitefish pulled out of nets are typically stuffed with snail shells. It’s obvious to me this species will remain a work in process for some time. I didn’t see any on the Coppermine River in Nunavut too when I was there four years ago, and that river is relatively clear. According to the IGFA, the world record was caught Pixie spoon so I don’t know, that’s about the only information I’ve found concerning tactics to catch one. There must be a time and place when they are catchable. In any event I didn’t find it in Inuvik, so I may have to chalk this species up as a long term project. I don’t mind Inuvik but next time I head to the High Arctic I’m going to make sure the ocean is nearby.
Having failed to show Roughie many fish in Inuvik I decided to try old faithful at the Yellowknife River for a whitefish I have caught before, lake whitefish. As I wrote earlier, I did poorly there earlier in the year. This time the floats were dancing. I’ve made three trips there over the past five weeks and caught double digits every time. Water has been lower than I’ve seen it in the north this summer, which I presume contributed greatly to the sucky fishing during the summer months but now that it has cooled off some, the lake whitefish at least, are back.
Roughie invites some friends over for dinner.
Of course, if one really wants to get the monkey off one’s back it’s hard to beat the Pike Jam north of the North Arm of Great Slave Lake. If you got the right gear it’s really more catching than fishing at this place and the trip Yk Gordo and I did a few weeks back was no different. I hadn’t caught any large pike this year until doing this trip. It was nice to get a serious bend in the rod again. Oh ya, and inconnu. None of this 1,000 casts and two coney crap either. This was 40 seven to 20 lbs fish chasing down your lure every single cast.
My first biggish pike of the year
Gord, of course, got another dandy -- 120 cm Gijs
And now for some conies. So many there.
Oh no! Good thing the teeth aren't sharp on this old battler.
Of course, we had visitors again
Fall has settled into the North quickly and soon it will be time to put the long rods away for winter. Before sending Roughie south to warmer weather I figured one last fishing trip for the season to Stark River at the extreme east end of Great Slave Lake. This is where I caught a massive 19.5 inch round whitefish on the fly last fall. I was salivating at the prospect this time and came well prepared … Or at least I thought.
Again, the more exotic coregonids proved tough to catch. Unlike last year, I had some hip waders and spent almost the entire day mid-river in water waste deep. I started the day with few spectacularly hued fall spawning lake trout that stripped out a hundred feet of line in a second and quickly wrapped themselves around the angler standing next to me. I’ve never caught an adult river salmon before but I imagine the fight is much like it is with these.
Spawning male laker of about eight pounds
Fish were splashing all around me and it wasn’t long before I saw a more enticing quarry – round whitefish! And tons of them. Massive fish up to two feet long. At one point I had a dozen of them resting in the current break made by legs, close enough I could see every loosened scale. I could’ve reached out and touched these fish if they didn’t immediately spook as soon as I started to move. If I stayed still a bunch would be back within a couple minutes.
‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘I bet they would go for some eggs.’ Slosh, slosh, slosh back to shore where I pulled out a jar of chinook salmon eggs and skewered a couple on a tiny egg hook with a few split shot a foot up the line. Slosh, Slosh, slosh – ‘oops, current got me there and now I got freezing cold Arctic water going down my pants.’ Slosh, slosh, slosh. ‘Oh, there, they are.’
Well, I tell ya. I fished these fish as hard as I’ve fished any. The eggs did nothing at all. I was literally, and gently dropping them at the end of their noses and THEY DID ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! “Well, thank God I brought some red worms.’ I knew at least the mountain whitefish will eat them, and they are practically kissing cousins to round whitefish. So, again I made the 100 yard river dash back to shore to tie on a more appropriate hook and again made my perilous return in the raging river water. Sure enough, the profile of a round flashed within seconds of me dropping in a worm but the fish came off almost immediately. Thirty minutes later, absolutely nothing. Again I was practically hand feeding the rounds, and again they showed absolutely no interest. They would gather in little holes facing upstream in the current but every time the worm slid toward them they would just drift away. I’m beginning to wonder if I had snagged the first fish.
The worms did catch, however, 1,000 billion Arctic grayling, many of them real trophies but the round whitefish wouldn’t touch them again.
Worm eating grayling. I gave this fish to the women who took my picture.
I spent the rest of the day pulling out every trick in the book. I cast tons of flies: egg patterns (piles more grayling), a variety of nymphs (more grayling), and whitefish beads (yet more grayling). I can’t believe I’m complaining about catching grayling but what can I say … I’m whitefish obsessed.
A beautiful river but big and hard to fish
Anyway, Roughie is on his way back home, having been washed and groomed of coney slime. I hope he had a good time. Maybe someday he will be back to watch me get my broad.