I have been somewhat remiss in keeping up my Great Bear Lake trip journal over the past 2 or 3 years. What follows is my attempt to get back on track, and, create a record of the various experiences and events that take place during our annual sojourn to the land of the midnight sun.
This was my 30th once in a lifetime trip to Great Bear. I had fully intended to make it a 1 time thing many, many years ago, but once the Bear gets its claws into you, it is not always easy to break free. In fairness I have never really tried all that hard to break the cycle – and, but for one year when we decide to give Alaska a try – I’ve never missed a year and hope that my streak will continue.
We have had as many as 24 in our group in years past, but of late our numbers have dwindled. There are a number of reasons why many of the guys have never returned. Some just got too old, a few found other interests and in one case that I know of, his wife found out how much it really does cost to make the trip.
If I recall correctly my first trip cost me $1295 or thereabouts, and with my flight to Edmonton and a few odds and sods at the lodge, I spent about $1600 or so in total. Multiply that by 4 and you will be pretty close to knowing what it will cost you in 2008, particularly if you take a couple of the optional fly outs.
With the price of fuel having gone through the roof, operating costs for the lodge have increased accordingly. In my view it’s still one hell of a bargain when you consider where you are going to be fishing, what is included in your package and what it really does cost to run an operation like Plummer’s Arctic Lodges.
This year we were down to our smallest group ever – 4 people – and it was touch and go for a while if we were even going to have that many. Rodney Harback, who has been going to Great Bear longer than any of us, had to beg off because his dad Ed was ill. Ed missed his first trip in over 30 years last year for health reasons, and this year he has not been doing all that well, so Rodney had to stay close to home.
Art Ross, who has been going as long as I have, was on tender hooks right until the jet left Winnipeg for Great Bear. Art’s youngest daughter was scheduled to give birth to her first child right around the time when we would be heading north. If it was a boy - which it was - then Art would be obligated to be there for the bris.
Fortunately the little guy hung in there until the middle of the week, so Art made it back within the required 7 day timeframe – and everyone – especially Art – is doing fine. Life has a nasty habit of messing around with your fishing trips from time to time.
Derek Ballantyne, who has, or at least has tried to become a regular member of our group, had to cancel at the last minute yet again because of a business matter that came at him out of the blue. I think that this was the 3rd time that factors beyond his control messed up his plans. They say that 3 is a charm, or something like that, so he should be ok from now on. Fortunately we were able to find a last minute replacement in the person of Mike Moffatt. So at the end of the day it was yours truly, Art Ross, Mike and Ken Gold who made the trip.
No trip the Arctic is complete without its share of delay’s and other frustrations, and this year was no exception. “Arctic” time should be declared its own time zone. Just add 2 to 4 hours to anything that is supposed to happen at a particular moment in time, and you will not be disappointed. If you are one of those people who have a fetish about schedules and being on time, do not travel to the Arctic. When you travel from southern Ontario to the Northwest Territories you are supposed to set your watch back 2 hours. My suggestion would be to either leave your watch at home or throw it away, because whatever time it may say it is, once you get on the plane in Winnipeg and head north, it will be the wrong time.
Saturday – July 12
Arctic time kicked in as soon as we were “wheels up” from Winnipeg. While our first stop would normally be Great Slave Lake Lodge, we were advised that this time around we would land in Yellowknife. The Great Bear passengers would deplane and the jet would go on to Slave, drop off the Slave passengers, pick up the ones going home, come back to Yellowknife, drop the Slave passengers off, pick us up and head over to Great Bear and so on – sound confusing? And, by the way, this was all supposed to happen in about 90 minutes. So about 3 hours later they made it back to Yellowknife, and to top it off, as we were literally climbing back into the plane, we were advised to head back to the terminal because we were now on indefinite standby because of some bad weather at Great Bear.
We finally headed off to Great Bear about an hour later. In total we were delayed by approximately 4 hours, which was completely consistent with my earlier explanation of Arctic time.
When we got back on the plane, all the seats in last 15 rows or so had been folded down, and we were advised that to balance the weight on the aircraft, we all had to sit in the forward rows. From what I can gather the reason for this, and not landing at Slave with a full plane, had to do with weight concerns that stemmed from a couple of incidents last year. The first one took place at the Great Slave Lodge strip, where the pilot, when making his turn at the end of the runway after we landed, managed to go wide and got off of the hard packed gravel and buried the front wheel of our 737 almost up to the wheel well. We finally managed to get “unstuck” with the help of a bulldozer and, having all the passengers stand in the tail section and jump up and down while the “dozer” pulled. The same pilot almost pulled a similar stunt when he landed at Great Bear a few hours later, with the result being that in 2008, First Air became extremely fussy about the overall weight and its distribution throughout the aircraft.
Once we landed at Great Bear, we were put on another indefinite hold because of some bad weather in the area of Trophy Lodge, which just happened to be where we were headed. It was not all bad though as I got to visit with my daughter Christine at bit longer, who was now in her 3rd season working at the main lodge. About 1 ½ hours later (we were now about 5 ½ hours behind on our Arctic time schedule) we hopped onto the “Trophy Lodge Beaver”, with Jim at the controls, and were off on the 125 mile trip to Trophy. While we would normally fly along the south shore, we took the northern route over Clearwater Bay, McGill Bay, Katseyedie and Tripod to avoid the storm that was raging just south of us. What we were able to see was that for once there was no ice – other than a few small patches on the main lake – that would impede us from getting back to these areas to fish. Now if the wind would only co-operate as well!
Our plan was to camp at the Katseyedie River for 2 or 3 days, which was where the old Branson’s Lodge outpost camp was once located. The old cook house was still standing and we had heard that Plummers had made a few renovations to the building – so if it was in reasonable shape we would not have to lug our 2 or 3 tons of camping equipment along. Once we arrived at the lodge we were advised by Gunter, the lodge manager, that our plans to camp were on hold as the lodge was critically low on fuel. As a matter of fact, the boats were running on AV gas and, unless the main lodge responded by either delivering some fuel or giving Gunter the green light to buy some from either Deline or Norman Wells, there would be no fuel for anyone by Tuesday. The long and the short of it was he could not spare what we would need to ensure that the boats could get there and back and still enough left over for us to fish with. So we just fumed and unpacked. No fishing for us on Saturday.
Sunday – July 13
Despite numerous emails and calls to the main lodge on the satellite phone – none of which received a response – come Sunday morning, the fuel situation remained unchanged. That gave us no option but to fish around the lodge until it got sorted. Kenny and I decided to head over to the Whitefish River and get warmed up on some Pike. We have always made a point of fishing the Whitefish at least once every week, because in the past we have caught a boat load of fish – 181 during 1- 6 hour period a few years back. We have even come up with the occasional big one, which until this year, consisted of a 25 and 24 pounder. While most of the fish run between 5 and 10 pounds, I hit a 20 pounder on my first cast. This was followed by another 20 a 24, 25 and 32. Kenny chipped in with a 20 and a 25 – amazing. We caught about 50 fish in 4 hours, not all that many compared to years past, but the average size was incredible. Of the 50 there were a number of fish in the mid to high “teens” as well. Our lure of choice was a gold, scale pattern Johnson Silver Minnow type spoon, to which we attached a white grub tail. These lures weighed at least 2 ounces and we think that Kenny bought them at the lodge tackle store a few years back. In any event we are down to our last 2 and we can’t find replacements anywhere – but we intend to keep looking.
Art and Mike concentrated on Lake Trout in Bydand Bay, and although they did not catch anything over 20 pounds, they caught lots of fish. We lunched together on a stretch of beach just south of an area known as Pele Point, with Robyn Steward and Paul Reynolds taking a break from their guiding duties to handle the lunch preparations. The weather was perfect – lots of sun and virtually no wind. Mike and Art after having heard the Pike stories, decided to head over to the Whitefish after lunch. They got a few fish but nothing like Kenny and I. The reality is that Mike and Art are not what you would call enthusiastic Pike fishermen.
After lunch we headed over to the “Airport Reef” to fish Robyn’s “R” spot, as he calls it. The reef itself covers a huge area that runs off of the plateau where the lodge airstrip is located. The water is between 20 to 40 feet deep on top of the reef, and while you rarely catch fish in any numbers, the ones you do catch are invariably trophies. Robyn loves to fish this area for big fish, but we are less inclined to spend the hours required to pull up a fish or 2, having caught more than our share of big fish over the years. In any event, even though the reef is a 3 or 4th week spot, (we were there in the second week of the season) we gave it a shot and it paid off. Kenny attached a 3 oz. sinker to his line so he could get his T60 down to where it needed to be, and I switched over to a “Fire Tiger” Husky Devel. In less than 10 minutes Kenny got a hit and landed a 35 pounder. A few minutes later, Kenny got hung up and while the boat was in neutral, I continued to jig with my spoon and much to my surprise, I got a hit. I think that because we were not trolling at the time and I had a lot of line out, I wasn’t able to get a good hook set, because after a couple of minutes, it spit my lure. We didn’t get a look at the fish, but it certainly had some weight to it.
When we got back to the lodge the fuel issue had not yet been resolved, but that frustration notwithstanding, we really did have an incredible day.
Monday – July 14
We were greeted by yet another perfect day – no ice and equally important – no wind. The entire lake, as far as the eye could see, was like a sheet of glass. The good news was that we finally got the fuel situation sorted out, thanks in large part to Art having a very frank discussion with Gunter, together with an overdue response from the main lodge, giving him the green light to purchase fuel.
Given the outstanding travelling conditions we estimated that it would take the boats about 3 hours to make it over to the Katseyedie. So we helped load them up and then flew out ahead. The plan was that we would fish until Paul and Robyn arrived, using the boats that they had stored there for those folks the lodge flew in from time to time for a day of fishing. Upon arrival Jim tested both motors, and all seemed to be in working order.
Not 5 minutes after he took off, Kenny and I, after putting the motor in neutral while landing a fish, could no longer get it back into gear. Mike and Art were fishing a couple of hundreds of yards away, and despite waving our paddles and screaming at the top of our lungs, it took them about 10 minutes before they started to head over to where we were tucked up on shore. As it turns out – and I won’t bore you with all the details – Art thought we were doing a Village People imitation and trying to spell out “YMCA” using hand signals – bone heads.
The guides turned up in just over 3 hours as predicted, and we then spent a bit of time setting up camp. Compared to years past, set up was a walk in the park.
The old cook shack was in pretty good shape, and had 2 fairly new bunks built in. Robyn and Paul set up one small tent for themselves and we arranged a small cooking area using an old table that we found lying in the bushes. Once we got organized, it was off to the sand flats. The flats is an early season area that is best fished just after the ice goes out, and because water rarely goes much deeper than 15 feet, it warms up relatively fast. After a 30 minute boat ride, we started fishing at the back end of the flats where we found the water to be a bit warmer than on the outer edges – a balmy 44 degrees. The fishing was steady but not spectacular, although Mike did catch a 28 and Art got a couple of nice fish – one in the 20’s and another in the 30’s. The question then was, were we too early or too late? In any event it was great to get back to the flats, as it had been a number of years since any of us had visited that area.
Tuesday – July 15
While it may be starting to be a bit repetitive – it was another perfect day. Our plan was to take advantage of the incredible travelling conditions and make the 1 ½ hour trip east to McGill Bay. We flew into McGill a couple of times last year and did very well in terms of both numbers, and fish size.
Not unlike last year, I started with and stayed with “old faithful” – which for those of you who don’t know, is a chartreuse or CHT - T60 Flatfish. The water within the bay tends to be a bit cloudy, so this colour seems to really attract the fishes attention. I would estimate that “old faithful” out fished anything that Kenny tried by at least 2 to 1. Kenny, who, when he puts his mind to it, can be as stubborn as they come, would not switch over to the CHT, regardless of how many fish I caught.
The water temperature both inside of and on the outer edges of the bay was cool – mid to low 40’s – but the fishing was steady all day, with plenty of fish in the 12 to 18 pound range. Art caught the biggest of the day – a 38, and Kenny and I caught several fish in the 20’s. By mid afternoon things had slowed down a bit, so we decided to stop in at the sand flats on our way back to camp. Mike caught another 28 – he seemed to be stuck on that number in terms of his big fish – and we all caught a few in the low to mid teens, but nothing to write home about.
Wednesday – July 16
Well, you will be pleased to know that we saw a couple of clouds in the morning, but the lake was still like a sheet of glass. In fact there was some unsettled weather to the north and east of us, but for the time being at least, the high pressure system that seemed to be following us around, kept the nasty stuff at bay. Later in the week we heard that the weather at the main lodge was much more of a mixed bag than we had experienced. That is not all that surprising though. Because of the size of Great Bear, it is not unusual to have several different weather systems hitting the lake at the same time. I have a video that I took just around the corner from Trophy Lodge a few years back that showed 4 distinct weather systems moving around the lake, in our area alone.
So it was time to head west to Tripod Point – or Points – depending on who you ask. Some will say that Tripod is simply one particular point, while others contend that it is a series of 3 points. There is one point that used to have an actual tripod on it, that one being the eastern most of the 3. I really don’t care how many there are, all I know is that if you are lucky enough to get over there at the right time, the fishing in the entire Tripod area can be incredible.
On the way over, Paul suggested that we try an unnamed area just east of the 1st point where he had some success in the past. Because the area was not all that big, he told us we would find out very quickly if the big fish were in residence. Once we stopped, both boats landed several “red fins” in a matter of minutes.
As I brought one to the side of the boat, the fish spit the hook, and my T60 came flying out of the water, with the result that one of the hooks on the rear treble, imbedded itself into my nose. So there I was, out in the middle of nowhere with a dangling nose ornament that would have done any punk rocker proud.
Much concern for my well being was expressed by my ship mates, and from the rather pained expression on their faces, I concluded – although not being able to see it – that is was well buried into my schonz. Well, it had been at least 5 years since I had been able to make it over to Tripod, and I was not going to let a little thing like my newly acquired nose ornament screw things up. After all what were my alternatives? The lodge was about a 30 to 40 mile boat ride away, and the nearest clinic was at least 3 times that distance. So I just yanked it out. There was a bit of blood, but overall not too much, and Kenny even had a tube of Polysporin that I was able to dab onto the cut, which would kill some of the germs that were no doubt all over the hook.
After all the excitement we continued on and started to fish the most easterly of the Tripod Points. We all picked up a few small fish – and although that was not a particularly good omen – fortunately they were not all “red fins” – which tend to be the smaller Great Bear trout. A few of them were what are referred to as “blue backs” – the larger of the 2 seemingly distinct species of trout in the lake. Mike and Art headed east from the point and Kenny and I headed west. We continued to catch the occasional small fish, but there was really not much doing. Kenny and I started to talk about heading back to camp and fishing the Katseyedie River for some pike, and whatever else we could find if things did not pick up. At that point Robyn suggested we continue a bit further, to the mouth of a small stream that emptied into the lake several hundred yards west of the first point. It was the best suggestion he made all week.
Just as we were abeam the mouth of the stream, I caught a 20 pounder. We then continued to work the area between the mouth of the stream and the next point west and, as it turned out, that is where the big ones had been hiding out. I caught about 7 over 20 including a 41, and Kenny chipped in with 2 or 3 big ones, including what turned out to be the big fish of the week – a 44. While all this was going on, the high pressure system that had been protecting us all week took a breather, and we got a bit of rain, although it did not last more than 5 or 10 minutes. Mike and Art, who were about 2 miles east of us didn’t get a drop. In any event once the rain started, the fishing slowed down and given the time of day, we had to head back and pack up, because the plane was scheduled to pick us up at about 4:30 – Arctic time.
We found Mike and Art working the same area where they had started, and although they only got 1 or 2 fish over 20, they caught over 70 fish, most of which were in the 12 to 18 pound range. Mike said that his arms were pretty sore by the time they finished. So we headed on back, and the plane was right on schedule – I think it showed up around 6.
Thursday – July 17
We were supposed to head up to the Coppermine River for some char fishing, but Gunter in his wisdom, scheduled another fly out which would have meant that we would not get to the Coppermine until mid day at the earliest. The place you fish on the Coppermine, for whatever reason, tends to be best in the morning ,so we decided to put it off until Friday, but we not all that happy about the screw up because we had booked our Thursday trip on Sunday, and the other fly out didn’t get booked until Wednesday evening.
It was yet another one of those perfect days, so Kenny and I decided to head back to the Whitefish River to see if we could find more big pike. Mike and Art headed east, with the intention to fish the areas known as the “Rock Pile” and “Bobby Hull Bay.” Both of those areas are fairly shallow and can produce some good fish just after ice out. We went right back to the place in the river where we had started earlier in the week, and there was not a fish to be found. We worked both the east and west shores of the river, but only managed to scare up a few small fish. We thought that once word had got out how well be did, the place may have been hit pretty hard over the past few days, but as we found out later, that was not the case. Fortunately for us the vast majority of fishermen who go to Great Bear just cringe (as do most of the guides) at the thought of going pike fishing. How someone can pass up the opportunity to catch hundreds of fish, some of them as big as any you are likely to find throughout North America is beyond me – but if they want to leave them all for Kenny and I, we won’t complain.
So where did the damn things get to? Because not much was doing in the river itself, we decided to fish the weed beds on either side of the river channel, just outside of the mouth, and that was where they were hiding.
Not the big fish we had caught earlier, but lots in the 5 to 10 pound range, although we did see a couple that may have gone 18 to 20 pounds. In total we caught about 50 or 60 – still a good morning’s work. We moved out into the bay and jigged up a trout for lunch, and had a very nice shore lunch just south of Pele Point. Afterwards we headed back to the “R” spot, but the fish were not biting. It was really hot, and there had been at hatch of some small, non - biting – but no less annoying – bugs that you got a mouth full of every time you took a breath – so at around 2:30 we headed back in.
We hooked up with Mike an Art over dinner, and while they did not catch all that many fish, or any big ones for that matter, they had a good day and saw a caribou and got fairly up close and personal with the herd of Musk-oxen that have made their home in the vicinity of the Crockeche River.
That evening we went grayling fishing at the base of the cliffs just off of airport reef. There were hundreds of grayling and small trout rising for the bugs that were on the water, and we managed to catch some very nice fish. It had been several years since I have seen grayling in that area, and it was good to see them back, because it gives you a very good grayling spot no more than a 15 minute boat ride from the lodge.
Friday – July 18
It was off to the Coppermine River to fish for char. We were going to, be fishing the “Big Bend,” which is where the river comes closest to Great Bear and the guests from Trophy usually do their char fishing. The main lodge also offers char fishing on the Coppermine, and they fish an area south of the “Big Bend” where the Sloan River empties into the Coppermine.
We were supposed to be on our way by about 6am, but Arctic time intervened again, as it was closer to 6:45 by the time we headed off for the main lodge. The plan was to stop there and pick up a motor to take along with us, to the Coppermine. Once we took off we ran into a wicked head wind with the result that a trip that normally took about 1 hour and 20 minutes, took us about 3 hours, and used up most of our fuel. If I recall correctly, we barely managed to get above 80 mph during the entire trip.
Once we got to the main lodge we had another delay of about 1 hour while we waited for the weather to the east of us to clear. So if you are counting, we were now 2 hours and 40 minutes behind schedule – about par for the course – and it was still early.
The first leg of the journey from the main lodge was fine, except for the nasty head wind that continued to dog us, but as we got nearer to the river, the weather started to close in again. Jim took us up to about 3500 feet – which was a good idea because the Coppermine Mountains are about 3000 feet in height - so we had a little room to play with. Even from that height the only thing that we could see were very low clouds and fog.
Jim started to probe a little when we both noticed 1 very slight opening in the clouds. A moment later Jim came on the intercom and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but that hole in the sky is just over our landing area.” So our good luck with the weather continued. We landed on the river and got the old boat that had been pulled up on shore into the water, hooked up the motor and began the 2 mile trip to the area we would fish. The reason for not landing closer is that the river is much too shallow at that point.
So we finally got to where we needed to go and started to fish around noon – which was when we likely would have started if we went on Thursday – go figure. It was not long before Mike and I had a fish on, and for at least the 2 of us, it was a very good afternoon. Mike got at least 12 and I was at 20 plus. Kenny caught about 10 and let’s just say that it cost Art about $200 a fish – unfortunately he did not have a very good day. The fish ranged from about 5 to 15 pounds and varied in colour from bright silver to medium/dark red.
Mike crossed the small stream that comes into the river just south of where we landed the boat, and pulled about 6 fish out of that particular spot. I found that the trick to fishing that area is to keep moving. Stop along the bank make 5 or 6 casts and if you catch a fish or not – just keep moving.
Art, Kenny, Mike and Robyn decided to cross the river and try there luck after lunch, as things had really slowed down on the west side. They got over there easily enough, but when they tried to return – not having caught any fish – the motor would not start. Robyn must have pulled it 50 times, but there was no way it would start. I yelled over and told them there was both good news and bad news. The good news was that they were on the same side of the river as the Beaver – so all they had to do was float the 2 miles down to where it was tied up. The bad news was that the pilot was with me. So they pulled out the paddles and managed to make it back across without being swept down the river. Once back, after more pulling and cursing, Jim got it going and we left it idling while we continued to fish. Just before we left at around 5:30 I caught another 4 fish – so it would seem that after a mid afternoon siesta, they start to turn on again.
We made exceptional time on the way home because this time we had a massive tail wind. Whereas on the way over we barely made 80 mph – on the return trip we hit speeds of up to 140.
Saturday – July 19
Other than the problems we had getting fuel, and the bad experience with the motor, (Pat and Judy Hogan – who were at Trophy celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary also had motor problems when they flew out to Ekka Island) it was an exceptional trip by any definition. There is no substitute for good weather when you are fishing on a body of water the size of Great Bear – and for us, it was virtually perfect.
As it turned out Arctic time was not quite finished with us, because when we got to the main lodge we were informed that there was going to be about a 4 hour delay in leaving because of the air show that was going on in Yellowknife.
By the way – our luggage never made it back to Winnipeg – what the hell – nothings perfect.