And So it Begins....
To be precise, the adventure began on July 10 when six of us gathered in Edmonton in preparation for heading off to Yellowknife and then to the main lodge on Great Bear.
Together with yours truly our group consisted of Art Ross, Ken Gold, Derek Ballantyne, Rodney Harback and his nephew Kevin, which gave us a cumulative total of well over 100 years of fishing experience on Great Bear - so there could be no excuses in the event we did not catch a truckload of big fish.
Rodney and Kevin who hail from Harriman, Tennessee came into Edmonton on July 9, and upon their arrival in Canada, were accosted at customs by a “Jerky” sniffing Beagle. While the Beagle’s primary responsibility was to sniff out drugs and other illegal substances, there was no way it was going to let the beef jerky they had stashed away in their luggage get past him. The Jerky was subsequently confiscated, and there is no doubt in my mind that the pooch ate very well that evening, courtesy of the boys from Harriman.
There were going to be a number of changes to contend with this year – many of which came about because the global economy was in the tank, which, at least in part, contributed to Plummer’s experiencing a 40% drop in their overall bookings. As a result we were no longer flying to the lake, directly from Winnipeg and Trophy Lodge – which was our usual base of operations - was not going to be operating in 2009 due to a number of booking cancellations. That left us with a couple of options. The first was to scrub the trip entirely (Plummers did offer us a full refund if we decided to give it a miss this year) or fish out of the main lodge. 3 new guides were going to get stuck with us because the guys we have fished with at Trophy for more years then I care to remember, Robin Stewart, Harvey Anderson and Paul Reynolds, decided not to come up this year. My guess being that it was in large part because Trophy was not operating, and in years past they clearly indicated that they were not interested in guiding out of the main lodge.
We spent the day doing the grand tour of Nisku and Edmonton, visiting several Safeway Stores and a Wal-Mart in search of UV Milk (a key ingredient in making Hush Puppies), Costco for our shore lunch steaks and various electronic stores trying to find an extra battery for Art’s camera and a charger for his GPS. Ironically his GPS ran out of power during our rather prolonged wild goose chase so we had to rely on the tourist map we picked up at our hotel to find an electronics store. As for the GPS, we could not find the right charger, so Rodney just went out and bought a new GPS. You have to like his style.
We concluded our wanderings with dinner at Ruth’s Chris in downtown Edmonton.
Day 1 – Ice for Your Drink?
In past years, once we landed in Winnipeg, Plummers picked up our luggage at the airport, so the next morning we just walked across the street from our hotel to the airport and boarded the north bound charter. This time around our first stop was Edmonton International where we boarded a First Air commercial flight to Yellowknife. Upon arrival we had to claim our baggage, and then check in with First Air yet again. After all that screwing around we then hopped aboard the Plummers charter to Great Bear. Frankly, it was something of a pain - being spoiled as we were - and while First Air did feed us a hot breakfast on the Edmonton/Yellowknife leg and a turkey sandwich on the final one to the lodge, it was a far cry from the Champagne and orange juice, together with steak and eggs that was formerly the trademark of the Plummer’s charters. I believe there was a general consensus that next time around we give Edmonton a miss and go straight on to Yellowknife.
As we approached the lake a heavy mist blocked most of our view of the lake surface. This usually meant only one thing – ice. And right we were! From the bottom of the McTavish Arm, north to the Dease Arm, where the main lodge was located, the ice was pretty much solid. Needless to say our prospects for camping out did not look all that good based on what we could see.
The plan was to camp out for 2 or 3 days because Plummers had flown all of our equipment to the main lodge from Trophy and offered to fly us pretty much anywhere we wanted to set up camp – all at no expense to us.
Upon arrival we took stock our equipment, and other than a couple of missing items, everything was in order.
That evening after meeting our new guides, Chuck, Matt and Drew, we went out for a couple of hours and fished in the general vicinity of the lodge. I caught 1 fish about 12 pounds and both Derek and Kevin caught 1 as well.
Day 2 – Off to the Kogluktualuk
The Kogluktualuk or Tree River is located in Nunavut and flows into the Coronation Gulf of the Arctic Ocean. The area is the ancestral home of several Copper Inuit bands including the Koglukualugmiut (who lived along the rivers shores), the Pingangnaktogmiut (who lived west of the river) and if you wandered east of the river several hundred years ago you would likely have run into the Nagyuktogmiut – better known to their closest friends as the Killinermiut. The Inuit have a subsistence fishery and are employed as guides on the river to this day.
It has been noted, by those who are paid good money to figure these things out, that the Char in this particular river are “notable for lessened genetic variability.” In other words, there are not too many forks in their family tree. From its source on Inulik Lake, the river drops approximately 1,640 ft. before reaching sea level at the Gulf.
The Tree is a classic Arctic river, framed by gently rolling hills covered with an endless variety of tiny wild flowers, high clay banks, fast water and – despite its name - not a tree is to be seen. The water is what I could best describe as teal in colour, which according to our guide has nothing to do with glacial run off, but rather the clay along its banks and on the riverbed leaches into the water explaining it’s very distinctive colour.
Plummers has operated a small camp on the river for going on 50 years now. It’s a very comfortable camp located at the base of the first set of rapids you encounter upstream on the river, and boasts a cookhouse, a number of small guest cabins and even a shower. You usually get there, weather permitting, at about 11am (it’s a 2 hour plus flight from the main lodge in the Turbo Otter), have a bite to eat and you are on the water until the bell rings for dinner at 7:30. After dinner - in our case baked ham with all of the trimmings - it’s more fishing, breakfast the next morning at 7:30 and then you fish until about 11 am.
Unlike the Coppermine River where you can catch 20 plus Char in a single day, you are unlikely to catch large numbers of fish on the Tree, but the ones you do hook up with are going to be very big for the most part. I guess all that inbreeding (see comment above regarding “lessened genetic variability”) tends to produce big fish.
Kevin led all with 9 Char, including a 23 and a rather remarkable 26 pounder. I had 8 fish, my biggest being 17 pounds, with 2 of the 8 being caught on a red and white rabbit hair streamer fly using a 9 wt. fly rod of my own making. The second one on the fly rod, which weighed in at 15 pounds, took over 30 minutes to land. Kenny, who could do nothing but watch because we were fishing a very small run and there was no room for him to cast while my fish was using the run as its own personal race course, stood behind me muttering away, brandishing a pair of line clippers in a menacing fashion throughout most of the fight.
Kenny landed 7 fish, his biggest being 15 pounds. Art had 1 and Derek 2, all in the 12 to 14 pound range. Rodney, who threatened to dunk Kevin in the river on more than 1 occasion if he caught another fish, only got 1, but it was a 20 pounder.
We fished both from shore and in boats. There are names for the various fishing locations along the river including Trophy Island, 3rd fall and the Presidential Pool, which, we were told is a favourite of George Bush seniors. Later in the afternoon I left the fish to Kenny and our guide Craig Blackie, and hiked upstream on the west side of the river along a well worn trail for a mile or so to get some pictures of the river from a higher vantage point.
While it was cool throughout the day (they had snow the previous week) we had bright sunshine and light winds.
Day 3 – More Tree and More Ham!
After a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, Kenny and I headed downstream towards the ocean to have a look at the graves that are located about 2 miles from the river mouth. The mouth of the river was known many years ago as Port Epworth, and featured a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post and a very small RCMP detachment.
The 2 graves are located on a hill with a commanding view of the river in both directions. While it is a beautiful spot in the summer, during the winter months it would be one of the coldest and most desolate locations on the planet. Unlike many the crib and palisade graves I have encountered in this part of the world, these had custom engraved head stones and the occupants were buried in, rather than partially or completely above ground. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to bury these 2 gentlemen, including framing the 2 grave sites with white, vinyl covered chain link. My understanding is that to this day the RCMP visits the graves from time to time to ensure they are in good order.
As the story goes, an HBC employee by the name of Otto Binder, aged 41 (who hailed from Kentucky) and an RCMP Corporal by the name of William Andrew Doak, age 39, were murdered by an Inuit who went by the name of Alikomiak on April 1, 1922. Corporal Doak had recently arrested him, and his accomplice Tatimagana, on suspicion of having murdered 4 Inuit at the Coronation Gulf in August 1921, apparently because of a dispute over a woman. These were the first 2 Inuit condemned and executed (by hanging) under Canadian law.
Kenny and I only fished for about 30 minutes the entire morning, and between the 6 of us, Kevin caught the only fish. In addition to visiting the graves, we had a look at an Inuit fishing/hunting camp and just otherwise enjoyed the scenery. As we were approaching the grave site we spotted 3 wolves – 2 of which had white coats, the 3rd being light brown in colour.
We were back in camp by 11, and after a hot bowl of – wait for it – ham and split pea soup we were off to Kugluktuk – formerly known as Coppermine - to top up the fuel tanks and buy eggs for the lodge.
Wildlife seen while at the Tree consisted of:
- Tundra Swans
- “Sic Sic’s”
- Golden Eagle
- Peregrine Falcon
Styling in “Kug”
We had 2 pilots come up to get us in the Otter, one was the guy who flew us to the Tree the day before and the other was there to learn the area as he would be doing the “Tree Run” in the coming weeks.
As a result we got an aerial view, and some excellent pictures of the surrounding area and much of the river that was a lot further upstream than we could have managed to get to within the time we had available to us.
We had a very interesting flight along the Arctic Coast, and until landing in “Kug” or Kugluktuk, we saw very little in the way of open water. “Kug” is a rambling little northern town, and it was chilly and damp when we arrived with intermittent rain just to add to the general dreariness of the place. We were greeted by several of the local Inuit kids who, after introduced themselves and finding out where we hailed from, gave us directions to the towns 2 grocery stores. Groceries and most other things are very expensive in “Kug.” I picked up some milk for my daughter Christine who was in her 3rd season at the main lodge, which surprisingly was not all that much more than you would pay in Edmonton – toilet paper being an entirely different matter as it went for about $2 a roll. At that price it would be wise to use it sparingly.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, several guys approached us with a galvanized pail full of Char and offered to sell them to us at $40 each. In that Derek, Art and Rodney only caught 4 fish between them, which given the price of the Tree River trip ($950 pp), their fish cost them about $55 per pound, so $40 for an entire 10 to 12 pound Char was a pretty good deal – although they did not quite see it that way even after I did the math for them.
We flew back some of the way along the Coppermine River and it was somewhat sad to see ATV tracks scaring the tundra for some distance beyond “Kug.” We flew over Clearwater Bay on the way back to check it out as a potential camping spot, but unfortunately it was completely iced in.
The lodge served us ham and split pea soup as our first course for dinner that evening.
Day 4 - The Ice Man Cometh – Yet Again
The guides had been busy sorting out the gear and stuffing the Otter to the rafters in preparation for flying over to “Shipwreck” and the “Pig Pen” right after breakfast, which consisted of what was fast becoming our very special favourite – ham and eggs!! The plan was to camp out in the Pig Pen for 3 days and 2 nights. Once we managed to get the plane into the air, it was only a 10 to 15 min flight over to the area where we hoped to set up camp.
As was the case with Clearwater – no cigar – both the Pig Pen and Shipwreck Island were iced in, so with a collective sigh we headed back to the lodge.
Once back the guides suggested that we try and break through a relatively small band of ice that was blocking our way to a good looking shallow sandy bay just south of the lodge. Word was that it had not been fished as yet and being first in right after ice out had certainly paid off in past years.
While one boat managed to break through, the rest of us thought better of it and we all retreated to 2nd Bay, which is north east of the lodge. There was not very much in the way of fish but Kenny did manage to catch a 30 and Kevin a 21 pounder. Even getting a lunch fish was proving to be a challenge, but 2 of the boats (ours being one of them) managed to catch a couple, thereby avoiding being “spammed.”
We had a great short lunch in Rich narrows, and even the bugs, which up until then had been thick and relentless, gave us a bit of break. Lunch consisted of Drew’s pan fried Cajun fish nuggets that were finished with some honey that gave them a very nice glaze and hot/sweet taste – fried potatoes and onions finished with a bit on honey – crispy fried fish – a citrus baker – beans – corn and probably the best batch of Hush Puppies that Rodney has ever made. All that work finding the UV milk certainly paid off.
After lunch we fished the narrows for another hour or so and went back to 2nd Bay where Kenny and Kevin had caught their fish, but other than 1 small fish, that was it for the afternoon and I don’t think our other boats faired any better. We started to get a bit of rain – it had rained on and off throughout the morning but it did stop long enough for us to enjoy lunch – and then the ice fog rolled in. This was not a particularly good sign as the presence of ice fog usually means the ice is not too far away. That seemed strange in that the main flow was a considerable distance from us when we came out to 2nd Bay, the winds had been very light all day, and in order to get to us, it would have to get itself over a long shoal – something that rarely happens. Once the ice hits shallow water it usually just stacks up.
Once thing about Great Bear is that there really is no “usual.” As we were heading out of 2nd Bay on the way home, we could see that somehow the ice had managed to breach the shoal and was now blocking our way. We bobbed around at the flows edge looking for a possible escape route and there was general agreement that there were enough open leads that we had a shot of breaking through the 100 yards of ice blocking our way to the open water beyond. Drew, with Art and Derek in his boat, lead the way. They were about 30 yards ahead of us, and only about 20 yards from open water when their boat heaved right up on top of a very large, thick pan of ice.
There was nothing that we could do to help out, given our distance from them and the next thing we saw was Drew walking around on the ice trying to push the boat off. To top things off, the ice continued to move, and his boat was in real danger of being crushed as the pans of ice continued to push up against one another. Drew then attempted to spin the boat 180 degrees and push it back into the water. At one point he almost fell in and I have one picture of him hanging on to the bow with both feet in the air. Somehow he managed to push it off and we all retreated to the safety of the open water. Just another day of fishing on the “Bear.”
As we were milling around trying to figure our what to do next, someone came up with the bright idea to call the lodge on Kenny’s satellite phone and order up the Otter to fly us back to the main lodge. There was only one small problem. No one knew the number of the lodge. Art thought he remembered it (as it turned out he did) and gave Kenny 2 possible options – Kenny dialled one of the numbers and from the look on his face I think that he may have been connected to an escort service. He then called his son, David in Toronto, indicating that we were in a bit of trouble and asked him to call information and see if he could come up with the number. David was successful and we managed to get in touch with Shane back at the lodge.
Shane was managing his own crisis at the time; one plane was down with mechanical problems at the Sulky River, 2 guests and their guide were in Hornby Bay and should have been picked up several hours ago but Shane had to use the 2nd Otter to fly to the Sulky to see if the grounded aircraft could be repaired. The long of the short of it was he told us not to hold our breath and call back in an hour, but in the meantime – just in case he could not get to us - make plans to spend the night.
We motored over to Buffalo Island and made preparations to hunker down for the night. As there was barely a stick of firewood to be found, the guides headed over to the mainland and came back with enough wood to build a small cabin. We dutifully waited for 1 hour and upon calling back, Shane informed us that they would pick us up in about an hour and one half at Rich narrows. This was good news indeed as we already had fog, rain and what looked like a small tornado pass through the area, and from the look of things, there was more weather to come.
The Otter picked us up at 10:15 and we just made it back to the lodge before the weather closed in. Just before the plane showed up I managed to catch a small fish, thereby sparing me the embarrassment of being shut out. Upon our return there was a hot meal waiting for us and the wood stove in our cabin was crackling away. It was a nasty night with high winds and a great deal of rain and fog. We were all very happy to be under the covers rather than being pelted with rain while curled up next to a hard, damp rock for the entire night.
Kenny neglected to call his son back after our rescue and give him the all clear, so not hearing from him, David told his mother, who called Art’s wife etc. which resulted in a number of messages being left at the main lodge for Kenny and Art to call home. Kenny figured that his wife Helen was well along the way in making plans to spend the insurance money, so he dutifully called home to give her the bad news that he was alive and well.
Day 5 – Visiting an Old Friend
Given the state of the ice, we huddled with Shane and came to the reluctant conclusion that camping would not be in the cards this week. In lieu of a “camping” fly out, Shane offered each of us 2 additional fly outs at an additional cost of only $100 pp, which in our collective view was more than fair.
The consensus was that we would head over to McGill Bay right after breakfast, and because we would be the first group into McGill that year, we liked our chances. We have all fished McGill in the past and it has produced some very big fish.
Speaking of breakfast, the lodge did not serve ham this particular morning. If I remember correctly it was sausage. So as not to put our streak in mortal peril, Rodney gave the kitchen a chunk of Country Ham the night before, which the staff dutifully served to us along with the sausage the next morning.
On the way over to McGill we noticed that all the wind the night before had blown the ice out of Clearwater and the Haldane River area – so that might be a possibility the next day.
While the day started out foggy and cold, a high-pressure system moved in and we finally had some sun. But, and there is always a but, together with the sun we got some high, cool winds and as a result fished in 4 to 6 foot swells for most of the day. The weather notwithstanding the fishing was great.
Kenny and I boated 5 fish between 20 and 28 pounds. Art and Derek led the way with 8 between 20 and 42 pounds – the 42 being Derek’s. Rodney and Kevin had 1 about 20 and 20 other fish, mostly in the teens. In total our group caught about 70 fish (14 or 20% were 20 pounds or better) in approx. 9 hours of fishing – not bad at all.
As for wildlife, Kevin and Rodney spotted a lone caribou and I saw, of all things, a Robin at the pick up spot.
The next day was going to be a bit of a question mark for us. Clearwater was now open, but as we knew, the ice can move back in rather quickly. Hornby Bay was a possibility and we also wanted to see if the wind had moved the ice away from Shipwreck and out of the Pig Pen. All of this was going to depend on the deployment and scheduling of the aircraft, in that a “rescue mission” was in the planning stages to extricate the Pope group, who were ice bound in Neiland Bay.
Tonight was PIZZA night! Thanks to Christine, the chef, together with the lodge pastry chef who contributed the crust, cooked us up several pizzas, and as an added treat some home made sausage rolls. There were “Greek” and “Meat” style pizzas, both were excellent and together with Christine, we enjoyed them with some cold beer and red wine. It was a perfect ending to a fantastic day.
Day 6 – Who the Hell was Mr. McGill Anyway
First off a word about breakfast. The mornings offering was described as a “Plummers McMuffin.” It consisted of a home made role, slice of cheese, a fired egg and a slice of ……yes indeed – ham!! It was really very good, but more importantly, we were now batting 6 for 6 in the ham department.
We thought that we would have to wait around before they flew us out, but fog prevented the Otter from completing the rescue mission to Neiland. Pope’s bad luck was our good fortune that day and we were off to have a look at the ice conditions at Shipwreck/Pig Pen as soon as we downed our “Plummers McMuffins.”
The ice was still jammed into the Pig Pen, and because the lodge did not want to take a chance on the ice moving back into Clearwater, we decided to head back to McGill. While Hornby Bay was initially on our list of possibilities, it had been hit pretty hard all week, and given our previous day’s experience, decided to give the nod to McGill.
There is an unwritten rule in fishing that going back to the scene of your previous conquests the very next day is rarely a good idea. While we started off with a bang – Art just put his line in the water and came up with a 40 – it sort of went down hill from there. I caught a 34 in fairly short order, and although the fish did not completely shut down, they were somewhat fewer and far between than was the case the previous day. Rodney and Kevin moved further east in the bay to the mouth of Omstead Creek, but there was not much doing there either.
As for the weather, if you didn’t like what was happening 1 moment, all you had to do was wait 20 minutes and it would change. We had wind, rain, sun, a bit of warmth and freezing cold at various times throughout the day. It was still a good day of fishing and while there were only a couple of fish over 20 pounds, the overall numbers were relatively close to those of the previous day.
Upon returning to the lodge we were advised that someone had caught a 52 pounder in 2nd Bay while fishing right next to the ice, but other than that particular fish, there was not much action. We were reunited with the Pope group that evening. The ice had restricted them to fishing a very small area in front of the lodge. As one member of their group described it, they fished in single file and if the lead boat caught a fish they would throw it behind them so the next boat in line would have a shot at catching it. The ice notwithstanding, they all appeared to have a good time.
Day 7 – No Runs, No Hits, No Walks and No Errors
Our day began in a somewhat unusual fashion in that our waitress brought us platter of bacon. We were not entirely sure what to do with it and before digging, we scanned the dinning room carefully just in case it was a trap or a cruel trick, and they just wanted to buy some time until the ham was ready. It was all on the up and up because no one tried to spirit our bacon away – which would have been something of an impossible task in any event once Rodney got his hands on the platter.
There were not going to be any fly outs today, so the plan was to fish around the lodge and see if we could best the previous days 52 pounder. The weather was crappy and the ice was moving all over the various bays to the north east of the lodge. Taking all of this into consideration we chose not to go too far a field, with the result that my plan to visit the site of old Fort Confidence on the Dease River was unfortunately scrubbed. Next time.
The fishing left much to be desired and but for 1 lunch fish that Kenny caught, I don’t recall anyone else catching a fish that morning. Kenny and I decided to try for some Grayling in a small river that empties into 2nd Bay, but the bugs were so bad we didn’t stay for more than a couple of minutes. To add to the fun, several thousand of them hitched a ride with us and we had to fight them off for the next hour or so.
We agreed to meet on Buffalo Island for lunch, because we had left plenty of wood there a couple of days earlier. Upon arrival, the wind picked up, it began to rain and the ice started to close in around the island. Discretion being the better part of valour it took no more than a nano second to agree that cooking lunch back at the lodge would make a lot more sense under the circumstances.
Once back at the lodge we cooked up our steaks, and Rodney, employing a “pickle” theme, made up some deep fried battered dill pickles, fish with a dill pickle potato chip crumb coating and of course, hush puppies. It was a very good lunch.
While at lunch, the weather cleared, the wind died right down and we found ourselves enjoying a beautiful warm sunny day. Derek and I went out and fished “home” bay and while there was nothing doing in the way of fish, just being out in the warm sun was all we could have asked for at that point. Rodney and Kevin went out after lunch as well, but managed only 1 small fish.
After dinner, Christine, Mat and I went over to 2nd Bay to do a little fishing. The evening was perfect and “red fin” trout by the 100’s were rising just about everywhere you looked. We would have much preferred to see them biting rather than just rising, although when reeling in as we prepared to head back to the lodge, Christine caught a very nice 10 -12 pound red fin on the half wave she had been dragging around for the past couple of hours.
If I recall correctly, this was only the second time in my 30 years of fishing Great Bear that I pitched a shut out. In fact it was a perfect game – no runs, no hits, no walks and no errors.
Time to head home, and in keeping with Chummy’s deal he made with the devil many years ago, which in essence is that no matter what the weather was like throughout the week it would be perfect for travelling on change over day, the conditions could not have been better. As we headed south around 12pm, I could see that the ice had completely moved out of the Pig Pen and from around Shipwreck. Given the rate of dissipation, it likely wouldn’t be long before all of the ice was gone and, upon returning home I reviewed the NOAA satellite images and confirmed that ¾ of the lake was now ice free.
By the way, just in case you were wondering, we had ham and eggs for breakfast.
So how did this trip stack up against the others? Everyone will have their own opinion because not all of us have the same expectations or head up to Great Bear for the same reasons.
Personally, I thought it was an excellent trip.
All of the staff at the lodge, and Shane in particular, were very accommodating and ensured that our camping equipment was ready and waiting for us, by flying it over from Trophy at their expense. We were assigned an excellent group of guides and they worked with us and made every reasonable effort to get us out camping.
We were fortunate to fish the Tree, and there are very few places that I have seen in that part of the world or any other for that matter that can compete with it for shear natural beauty. We all caught some of the biggest Char in the world, and I found out that I could make a fly rod that can stand up to fast water and big Char.
We paid a visit to “Kug” and saw a place, not unlike the Tree, that few have the opportunity to visit.
Experienced some excellent Lake Trout fishing, and McGill Bay, as it rarely does, did not disappoint.
Was it a perfect trip? No. There were, as always, a few “misses.” Unlike 2008 we did not camp thanks to the ice, Kenny and I did not get the opportunity to do any Pike or Grayling fishing. Art did not get a single piece of pie for desert – as I mentioned we all go for different reasons - and we could have done without all the extra travelling – but considering where we had to get to, it was not all the unexpected or much of a hardship when it came right down to it
When all was said and done we caught some very big fish, travelled to and fished new water, had a couple of great shore lunches, saw spectacular scenery and wildlife, came home each night to a warm fire, hot shower and a cold drink, proved beyond doubt that cribbage should be made an Olympic sport and had the privilege and good fortune to fish the “Bear” yet again.
Last, but certainly not least, for the ham lovers among us, we essentially died and went to heaven.
By the way that's my daughter Christine in the picture above who has been working at the lodge for several years now. We managed to get out and do a little fishing one night after dinner along with my guide Mat, and as you can see I got out fished yet again.