Tag Archives: Tundra

Terrain

Charring The Bucket List

(Arctic sushi, arctic trekking, arctic plane reservations, arctic wildlife deterrent, and arctic char…)

The outfitter told me there were lake trout, arctic grayling AND arctic char at one of his camps and that sealed the deal.  Most people don’t get the chance to fish for arctic char in their lifetime and the allure of the exotic was overpowering.  So a few months later my Dad and I landed in Rankin Inlet on the shore of Hudson Bay.

The plan was to be helicoptered from there to a plywood shack in polar bear country on the Nunavut tundra.  However, Hudson Bay is a large body of water and Rankin Inlet is very cool in the summer – this combination leads to a lot of fog.  We actually spent two days in Rankin Inlet waiting for the fog to lift.

The outfitter put us up in his own house. For two days, we walked around town, taking pictures of sled dogs in their kennels and watching the locals bomb along the streets on quads.  We also sampled the local cheeseburgers, which were tasty but worth about $12 each due to the fact that all the ingredients arrived by plane.  And we joined in a family dinner where the appetizer was a traditional Inuit food – raw beluga whale. It had a mild taste and a chewy texture.  Being the rookies in the crowd, Dad and I were given plenty of teriyaki sauce and hot sauce as condiments.

Eventually the fog lifted and a15 minute helicopter ride took us to an area known as Corbett’s Inlet.  Up there, the lake trout stay shallow all summer and they like the rivers as much as any lake.  If you can navigate to the base of some rapids, you are pretty much guaranteed lake trout. (For a closer look at this type of fishing look at my  ”Tundra Trout” article elsewhere in this blog.)

The outfitter had pointed out a particularly delectable set of rapids on our map. Being about ten miles from the ocean, these rapids held both lake trout and the sea-run holy grail of this trip – arctic char.  We immediately hopped in the boat and set off.

To get to the rapids, the map said we had to pass through a narrowing of the river; however, this narrowing turned out to be a boiling cauldron of whitewater.  Being self-guided in the middle of nowhere, we turned around and the Arctic char remained unattainable .

That night, by lantern, in the comfort of our plywood shack, we checked the map and noted the rapids were about ten miles away by boat. But they were only 2 miles away by land. In most wilderness on this continent, overland travel means crashing through dense bush with about the same penetrability as a brick wall.

However, we were on the tundra. There would be no bush, only rocks and spongy moss. I think the light bulb went off in Dad’s head first.  ”We can walk it,” he said.  Brilliant!

So the next day we set off. In consideration of my Dad’s seventy years, I carried the tackle, the lunch, and the polar bear repellant – a rifle and three shells supplied by the outfitter.

Sidebar #1: Three shells are not a lot of ammunition but, according to our outfitter, if you are about to fire your fourth round, you are likely polar bear hors d’oeuvres anyway.

Sidebar #2: I later find out the rifle was a .308.  I know next to nothing about guns and hunting, but is that enough artillery for large Arctic predators? I still haven’t brought myself to Google it.

The hike to the rapids was just like the map said – we aimed between the two ponds visible from camp and just kept going. It took about an hour and we did not see any polar bears.

I’d like to say that hyper-aggressive char were stacked below the rapids. We fished hard all day and landed two.  They had beautiful, big white spots and were amazingly chunky.  Their heads, in fact, were tiny compared to the rest of their body – a likely testament to the feeding they did in the ocean. They fought strong and deep. We left the rapids satisfied with our catch.

The rest of the trip was typical tundra fishing for lake trout and arctic grayling. The day we were ready to leave, we piled up our gear and waited for the helicopter. And waited. And waited. And then we remembered that the outfitter had given us a satellite phone.  A quick call told us that our helicopter was down for repair and would pick us tomorrow. Another phone call and we had our outbound flights from Rankin Inlet rearranged. That far north, even the largest airlines become quite flexible and accommodating.  We had previously lost a couple days fishing to the fog and just gained one back!  Instead of sitting around waiting for the helicopter, we hopped in the boat and headed for a grayling hotspot.  Thank God for satellite phones…

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The next day, comfortably on board a commercial jet, flying out of Rankin Inlet, all I could think about was our tundra trek to the arctic char.  I kept replaying that day over and over in my mind. And I kept hatching schemes to somehow catch a few more.  I haven’t yet…  But I will….  :)

Grayling Beached

Tundra Trout

Editors Note: To catch lake trout in the summer, you generally need very deep water and very heavy jigs – maybe even down riggers.  But not necessarily..

Myself, Dad, and our friend Ben squeezed into what used to be a 10 seater Cessna.  Today it was a 5 seater with a lot of gear and supplies.  Even though there was no flight attendant, the food service promised to be superb; a big cooler sat in the middle of the plane – full of sandwiches, chips, cookies, soda pop, and maybe even the odd beer.

We were flying from Thompson, in northern Manitoba, to Keith Sharp’s Arctic Outposts in southern Nunavut.  The word southern is a relative term because the Canadian territory of Nunavut stretches to the north pole.  There were no trees at our destination, just Arctic tundra.  And even though it was mid-August, the water would be frigid and the lake trout would be shallow.  Did I mention that the lakers would also be ravenous? They only enjoy about 3 ice-free months each year.

I thought the cooler stuffed full of food would be the highlight of the flight but it turned out to be the caribou.  Shortly after crossing the treeline, the pilot was scheduled to land at an old air strip at an abandoned fishing lodge.  There was a fuel cache there; he needed to top up and maintain his emergency reserve.

However, a herd of caribou was lounging on the gravel air strip.  “No problem,” said the pilot.  He had obviously dealt with this before.  “We’ll just give’em a bit of a buzz.”  He lowered the plane to about one hundred feet and roared past.  Lazily, the caribou ignored us.

With the next pass, I’m pretty sure I heard an antler the plane’s underbelly.  The caribou bolted onto the tundra and the pilot landed.  He filled up the plane and the rest of us cracked open a beer and toasted the caribou.

Caribou SwimmingWe also got our first look at the tundra. The bareness of the landscape actually shocked me.  Pictures and video didn’t prepare me for the reality of all that nothingness.  As far as the eye could see, there were no trees – not even shrubs.  Nothing, except for the odd boulder  – and that herd of lazy caribou – was higher than your ankle.

In another hour, we landed on a gravel air strip built by Keith Sharp, our outfitter for the trip. Again, there was nothing higher than your ankle all the way out to the horizon.  The air strip serviced his main facility, Ferguson Lake Lodge.  Although Ferguson Lake had top notch fishing, we transferred our gear over to a float plane destined for a much smaller outpost on the Kazan River near Yathkyed Lake

After twenty minutes in the air, the plane drifted into the dock at our home base for the next 6 days.  It looked like a big, ugly plywood box but it held bunks, a fridge, and a propane stove.  Most importantly, it was right on the Kazan River and there was a boat with an outboard parked at the dock.

The fishing for the next six days was amazing.   The Kazan River at that particular place is more like a narrow lake.  Our box – or cabin – sat right on a severely necked down portion, where the current quickened and swirled.  A few miles downstream, there was a large set of rapids.  We didn’t have a guide; there was absolutely no need.  The rapids held fish, and so did the eddies and riffles beside the cabin.   Both lake trout and arctic grayling…

Lake trout smashed streamers at the base of the rapids and in the deeper eddies beside the cabin.  As long as it was at least 5 inches long, the lakers liked it.  My favourite patterns were purple or grey Deceivers.  I liked to think that purple imitated a grayling and grey imitated a sucker but the lakers were likely more starving than cerebral.  A floating line was all that was needed.

Since three guys in a fishing boat can be a bit of a disaster, we generally just waded.  And there was no bush to crash through alongside the river!  The boat was mostly for transportation.

Regardless, we put on neoprene waders right after breakfast and didn’t take’em off until supper.   There was a good reason for the lakers being so shallow, and a layer of neoprene felt good in the water and out.   Forget about breathability! When it rained, out came the old-fashioned yellow rubber rain suits.

Wading along the shallow riffles beside the cabin, or beside glides and pockets within the rapids, was prime for Arctic grayling. They gobbled down any dry fly or nymph.

A few lakers terrorized these spots and several unfortunate grayling linked angler and trout in tugs-of-war.  Sometimes the trout won; sometimes they didn’t.

The trout that lost these tugs-of-war were not good losers. They were definitely fired up; we learned pretty quick to have a big streamer handy so they could vent their frustration.

The sheer size of the lake trout made them fun to catch.   Most were 6 to 10 pounds but a few heavyweights were closer to 20.   All of them put a saltwater size bend in a beefy 10 weight and a few even exposed the backing. They were thugs that smashed your fly and brawled among the boulders on the bottom. They definitely didn’t like skinny water; just before landing they invariably flew into a thrashing, twisting rage.

The grayling were just as fun to catch, but for different reasons. Although most topped out 14 to 18 inches, their big dorsal fin, purple hue, and aerial tendency made them consummate entertainers on the end of a 6 weight.

In many ways the tundra is fly fishing utopia; there are no backcast-hungry trees, for example.  But the wind tends to howl with no respite from it.  Truth be told, we sometimes used conventional gear to cut through the wind and reach juicy holding water far from the bank.   Any thigh-high boulder became prime real estate during lunch breaks, and all three of us would try to tuck in behind it.

The wildlife was another reason to brave the wind. We saw cranes, geese, article fox, caribou – even a muskox and a grizzly. The caribou were pretty camera friendly but the muskox and grizzly looked way too grumpy to stalk with a camera.

If you’re looking for a technical, match-the-hatch experience, the tundra might not be your place. But the fun factor is huge and so is the adventure quotient.  It’s the kind of place that makes you think you’re first person to walk on it. I think it should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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Note:  This article is based on a trip to the Yathkyed Lake camp of Keith Sharpe’s Arctic Outposts. However, in the accompanying photos, there are shots from different trips to Keith’s Kaminuriak South and Corbett Inlet camps.  Unfortunately, Keith is no longer in the fishing trip business but a quick search of the web yielded one lodge which would likely offer a similar experience:  Tukto Lodge (www.arcticfishing.com).   There are also outfitters who offer guided wilderness canoe trips down the Kazan River.  One of these is Wanapitei Canoe (www.wanapiteicanoe.com/trips.asp?ID=19).