After many years of planning, the stars and planets were finally in their proper alignment, and I was about to make my first trip to the legendary Tree, or Kogluktualuk River in Nunavut, to fish for what are arguably the worlds biggest Arctic Char.
Following the two-hour flight across the Arctic Barren Lands, our Turbo Otter glided onto the river just below the Plummers Lodges Tree River Camp. After pulling up to the small wooden dock, waiting for us at the door of the cookhouse, was our cook, Sandi Bennett. After exchanging greetings, she served each of us a steaming bowl of homemade stew, together with a plate of warm cheese biscuits that were so light, if not for the towel draped over them, would have likely floated out of the window.
This was the quintessential outpost cookhouse, featuring long wooden tables, bench seats, and the standard cluster of condiments including ketchup, Heinz 57 Sauce, HP Sauce, Tabasco and of course, a container of toothpicks.
There were plastic jugs filled with water and some type of juice, together with heavy white mugs that would eventually be filled with hot coffee or tea, to help wash down the cookies that Sandi had just taken out of the oven. There is something about starting a trip off in the cookhouse, enjoying the aromas, food and conversation that gets your blood flowing in anticipation of the adventure to come.
The cookhouse is one of several small white buildings, clustered at the base of the rivers’ first set of rapids that make up Plummers’ Tree River Camp. There are also guest cabins, privies, showers and the famous, although infrequently visited, Kogluktualuk Store. When you first see the cluster of buildings from the air, they look more like a small flock of white sheep than an outpost camp.
Together with being a place of great natural beauty, and some very big fish, the Tree River area is rich in Inuit history, and was the scene of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery back in 1922. As the story goes, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee by the name of Otto Binder, and RCMP Corporal, Andrew Doak, were murdered by an Inuit named Alikomiak, on April 1,1922 at the small RCMP Station located at the mouth of the Tree - or as they called it then - Port Epworth. Corporal Doak had just recently arrested Alikomiak, and his accomplice Tatimagana on suspicion of having murdered four Inuit at the Coronation Gulf in August 1921, apparently because of a dispute over a woman. These men were the first Inuit tried, condemned, and executed by hanging, under Canadian Law.
OK, enough about history and biscuits, lets move on to the fishing. As mentioned, the Tree is noted for producing huge Arctic Char. The people who are paid good money to study things of this nature, have commented that the Char in this river “are notable for lessened genetic variability.” In other words, the fact they don’t have too many forks in their family tree, explains at least in part, why they are so big.
Four of our six- person group headed upstream from camp, and after being shuttled across the river in two beat up old aluminum boats, my partner and I started fishing from shore, just above the first rapid. After catching several fish, we hopped back into the boat and moved into the main river channel, establishing a drift from the base of the second rapid, to just above the first set.
The drift proved to be very productive, and by the time the dinner bell rang, the four of us had caught and released twenty-one Char, ranging in size from fifteen pounds, up to a rather remarkable twenty-six pounder. Our colleagues, who chose to fish down stream from camp, caught two char in the twelve to fifteen pound range.
Our fish were caught using a ⅞ ounce Pixie, with a fluorescent red insert. The most productive pattern was to cast upstream, and allow the Pixie to sink and tumble along the bottom, while being propelled by the current. As our guide pointed out, if we didn’t get hung up on every third or fourth cast, we were not fishing deep enough.
After dinner, together with my guide, we walked down stream a short distance from camp, to try our luck in small stream that feeds into the main river. I decided to switch over to a fly rod, and tied on a red and white rabbit hair streamer. While my first cast became firmly embedded in a trophy size scrub willow, my second offering was hammered by a twelve-pound char.
We then moved upstream to fish a small narrow run embedded within the second set of rapids. On my second cast, using the same red and white streamer, another fish was on, and after an incredible, and somewhat exhausting battle that lasted more than twenty minutes; we landed and released a beautiful fifteen pounder.
Handing the rod to my guide so I could give my arms a bit of a rest, he caught a twelve pounder on his first cast.
The next day we decided to take a break from fishing, and headed downstream to do a bit of sightseeing. We dipped our feet in the Arctic Ocean, visited the gravesites of Otto Binder and Corporal Doak, floated past an Inuit fishing camp, and just otherwise enjoyed the scenery and being on the river. The others fished above the first rapid, and managed to catch two more fish, bringing our overall total to twenty-seven char, none of which weighed less than ten pounds.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Tree River, I would encourage you to take advantage of what the entire experience has to offer.
Your trip to and from the river will take you across the magnificent Barren Lands with all its rugged beauty, and the scenery along the river, is stunning in its own right. We saw Wolves, Muskoxen, Tundra Swans, Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and millions of bright, colourful tundra flowers.
The walk up river, to what the guides call the third falls, is worth the price of admission alone, and if you do take the hike, be prepared to wear out the shutter button on your camera.
You will catch the biggest Arctic Char in the world, and last, but certainly not least, don’t forget to stuff your face with those amazing biscuits!