Ode to an old broke down, beat up urban lake gem

During the late 1990s and throughout the following decade the object as the weekend approached was to reach water as far away as could be managed in the time allowed. My friend and I would spend all week preparing at night just so we could hit the road running when the clock struck five on Friday.

In the early days, we’d portage a canoe through clouds of mosquitoes in search of hidden pike waters and lake trout. Later, we’d follow the midnight sun out of Yellowknife Bay on my motorboat and steam for the heart of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. In either case, we’d make it home in the wee hours Monday, exhilarated but exhausted.

We rarely stopped anywhere long enough to comb the easier pickings close to town. Invariably, the goal was fishing glory at the outer limits of a 54-hour weekend, or 78 hours if it was a long weekend. Fishing near Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, meant sharing water with pork ‘n’ beaners on overtaxed bodies of water. These are mostly oligotrophic lakes that are not stocked and are generally slow to replenish natural fish populations.

The East was definitely the Best and that’s where I spent most of my summer weekends during the latter half of the ‘90s and the Aughts. But then fatherhood came and suddenly, racing 100 miles down Great Slave Lake after work Friday to get the good campsite at Narrow Island didn’t seem like a good idea anymore. Still needed to go fishing but now the trips had to be shorter and not so far away.

These days I’m fishing lots, just closer to the town. This has sharpened my awareness of what waters there are and what they have to offer – and the hidden gems everybody misses blowing $200 bucks on gas going to the East Arm. In a way, my angling pursuits these days have become a more satisfying pastime. They’re generally less stressful, less expensive, less exhausting. I still do the occasional expedition. A couple weeks back, I took the family down to the South Slave portion of the Northwest Territories on a four-day road trip hoping to catch some goldeye, giant burbot and rainbow trout but came home pretty close to skunked. But by and by, the bread and butter fishing these days is within an hour from home.

One hidden gem in particular comes to mind. Kam Lake, less than two miles long and a quarter mile wide is entirely within Yellowknife city limits at its south end. I live less than a half mile from its shores. It is a strange, remarkable lake. A Fisheries Research Board of Canada survey in 1973 found Arctic grayling there – a fairly major anomaly. Grayling are generally known to inhabit only the very largest lakes, such as Great Slave and Great Bear, or at least lakes connected to large rivers. Cold, clear water. Kam is verging on the eutrophic side of things. It is murky, fairly shallow and weedy. A small outlet creek at the south end leads to Great Slave Lake several miles away but it often runs dry in summer. In more species weirdness, I caught several yellow perch in the lake two summers ago. Yellowknife is at the very edge of the yellow perch’s range and they have never been documented in Kam Lake before.

My daughter and I during a Canada Day hike at Kam Lake -- one walleye and a bag of trash.

That there are still fish in the lake is a testimony to nature’s resiliency. Yellowknife’s largest gold mine, Con Mine, now decommissioned, leached arsenic tailings into the lake for most of the city’s existence. For a time, the city used Kam as a sewage lagoon. Two years ago, a sewer pipe broke and leaked approximately two million litres of waste over the lake ice. It was “cleaned up” but the lake shows its scars. The year before, Kam Lake was declared a contamination zone after the territory’s chief medical officer dusted off an old report citing high levels of arsenic.

But for all the torment visited these waters the lake can produce some fish. Last Sunday, I took a paddle in my inflatable kayak with my son Mason. We stopped at an island in the centre of the lake where we proceeded to catch and release 11 walleye and nine pike in less than two hours. We hooked fish just about every cast!

My first ever Kam Lake lake whitefish!

This week’s fishing challenge inspired me to visit Kam Lake again. On Tuesday night, armed with some garbage bags, a friend and I dropped by the island my son and I fished the other day. After cleaning up some trash, we got down to business and fished into the wee hours in 24-hour daylight. We had a magnificent start. I noted in a Roughfish post last week that if I caught a lake whitefish it would be a first for this lake. Drifting in the canoe as we approached the island, I saw a whitefish swim past. I cast a tiny jig I intended to use for yellow perch and was instantly into my first Kam Lake whitefish!

Trashbag pike from Kam Lake

Maybe it was the heat of summer but fish were all around. Saw several more large whitefish breach the surface and just hammered the walleye and pike. Caught 30 of the former and 16 of the latter. A third of the walleye were more than 24 inches long and four pounds in weight. If fishermen in Yellowknife knew we were catching walleye like that, they’d probably forget all about the arsenic but for the most part we had the lake to ourselves. I made a few attempts at yellow perch this week but they don’t seem to be around anymore. The grayling are long gone. I caught one in the creek above the lake when I was nine but haven’t seen one since.

Not a bad walleye for a "dead" lake


My friend Rohan with a midnight sun walleye

On Wednesday, Canada Day, I was still feeling amped about the fishing from the night before. My wife suggested we take the kids there for a walk. I could not refuse! Carrying more garbage bags we picked up litter all the way to the point across from the central island. Alas, it was windy and cold and the bite had dropped off significantly but we still had a blast. Alexie caught her second ever pike by herself.

My son Mason picks up some trash during our Canada Day hike along Kam Lake

Alexie celebrates catching her second-ever pike

The amount of trash we found was not surprising but discouraging nonetheless. Piles of beer cans, lots of Tim Hortons cups and other fast food containers. Why is it we value the waters and trails close to us less than the national parks and other protected areas we pay to enter? Kam Lake has been written off by many in my community. But it’s priceless to me. Close to home, lots of fish. Tuck around an island and you can almost believe you’re not at the edge of a city industrial zone.

Some areshole thought this would be a good place to dump their trash - about 20 feet from the shore of Kam Lake

A salute Roughfish.com and to Corey and Andy for bringing us this contest. This week, around North America and beyond people were cleaning up their own Kam Lakes and catching a few fish to boot. The world can be a better place.

Would love to hear some of your diamond in the rough stories!




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Corey's picture

Thanks for sharing Mike, and thanks for the kind words. I do hope a few messed-up fishing holes are a little bit more beautiful now.