Frothing forest fires rage below us spewing out severe plumes of thick, white smoke into the air. Klaus and I are sitting on a small, chartered propeller plane in the veiled airspace between Yellowknife and the massive Great Bear Lake – a giant body of water that has found its gnarled and uneven bed in Canada’s desolate and harsh Northwest Territory, close to the bitterly cold Arctic. The scenery below is both disturbing and irresistibly compelling. It is as if a self-effacing and ill-tempered force in Nature has flared up, and there is something disquieting about the way, it is trying to conceal its vehement rage – by covering everything in thick smoke. The same smoke soon hems in the plane, and for the remainder of the flight the on-going ravaging of the flames is hidden from our flabbergasted eyes.
Great bear lodge is booked to the point of bursting this week, because guests – who had otherwise intended to stay at Plummer’s Great Slave Lake Lodge, have been transferred here. The lodge on Great Slave Lake, close to the city of Yellowknife, is in imminent danger of burning down. Here, unmanageable forest fires are raging too, and – stubbornly incited by a hoarse northern wind, one of them is in the process of hauling its crackling and all-consuming body of licking flames across the lodge property. Fire fighters all the way from Alaska have been summoned to contain the fire, but apparently the situation is grave. And for the coming days, a lot of Great Slave Lake Lodge’s repeat customers will be fishing with a gnawing fear in their bodies and minds.
No less than an hour after our arrival, we’re sitting on board a spacious Linder aluminium boat, that is cutting its way authoritatively across the bitterly cold and slightly rough waters of the Great Bear Lake. Our guide, Matt Dick, is heading for one of the numerous exciting fishing spots on the Dease Arm – a bay comparable to a mid-sized Norwegian fjord, that – unbeknownst to us, consists of myriads of smaller bays, inlets, reefs, depth curves, fault lines, and towering islands.
The smoke-ridden air has shrouded the lake in a kind of illusory mist that the sun is incapable of piercing through. And it isn’t until later in the week, when northern winds finally displace all the smoke further to the south, that the lake’s size becomes even remotely comprehensible to us. Until then, the sheer fact that it takes two tanks full of gasoline to ferry us across the Dease Arm and back to the camp will have to suffice as an indication of the lake’s magnitude. It also serves to prove that there is plenty of room for an over-booked lodge with 20 boats and about 40 eager fishing guests.
The boat is brough to a halt outside a series of reefs that outline a small bay. Here, the bottom drops off quite dramatically, and along the fault line our guide – a young chap that it set to become a great friend over the coming few days – expects us to find foraging lake char. These fierce fish, which undoubtedly are the undisputed rulers of the Arctic water realm, are savage and shady predators with insatiable appetites and gory-looking jaws designed to inhale unsuspecting prey of remarkable sizes. Typically, they are targeted in 25 – 100 meters of water, but here in July – during midsummer, when the tireless midnight sun bathes the Arctic region in clear and colour-saturated light, the fish are supposedly to be found in relatively shallow water.
With our fly rods in firm iron grips, we prepare for the first expectant casts. Soon after, the big, bushy streamers, that we have tied on to our 0.40mm tippets, whistle through the air, land on the water like maimed birds, and find themselves forced irresistibly downward into the ice-cold water-realm by the sheer weight of our sinking lines. When, seconds later, we hitch up the flies and bring them back towards the boat with long, even retrieves, our heart beats are suddenly racing uncontrollably.
We have no idea what to expect, but we get an indication soon enough. In his third cast, Klaus’ #10 fly rod suddenly bows and scrapes under the weight of a powerful fish thrashing about in the crystal clear water. A few intense minutes later, the fish is thrashing about in the guide’s spacious landing net. Klaus now proceeds to lift an immaculate lake char of about 10lbs out of the water for a quick photo shoot – and then prepares for its release. Immersed into the lake’s chilly water, the fish quickly frees itself from Klaus’ hands and catapults its matte-olive and slightly-marbled body towards the bottom. Above, two relieved Danes and a Canadian guide cheer loudly.
We must have found the fish, because less than 10 minutes after Klaus releases the first fish of the trip, a heavy tug on my fly line announces that yet another lake char has been fooled by one of our deceiving streamers. This fish, too, manages to send loomingly deep convulsions through the carbon fibres of the 10-weight rod. It moves about like a mythological creature from the seven seas – deep, unyielding and heavy – and every turn on the fly reel is laden with excitement. A single surge into the backing and a stint of ill-tempered tug-of-war later, the shadow of a fish appears in the water. Shortly after, another Great Bear lake char finds itself reluctantly embraced by mesh and netting.
The magnificent and broad-shouldered 14lb-fish is duly photographed, and upon its release it heads straight for the gloomy solace of the depths below. It hasn’t gotten very far, though, before our treacherous, white streamers whistle through the air yet again. Our hearts are still racing, but our souls are suddenly infused with a newfound quietude and calm.
The next few days, we stubbornly patrol edges, drop offs, reefs, islands and fault lines – and there are surprisingly few dull moments in the boat. We consistently find fish where the water temperatures are the highest; typically in wind-exposed bays with water depths between 15 and 45feet. There are loads of them. They are reckless, aggressive and powerful. And their average size is rather impressive – probably around a solid 10lbs with the occasional 20lb’er thrown in.
The thick, clingy smoke, that’s been veiling the lake for the past couple of days, has finally lifted, and with a deep-blue sky and a flickering sun above us, it seems as if the lake has been brought back to life.
The monsters of great bear lake also show a bit of interest in our flies during the week. For instance, I still have nightmares about a massive lake trout that almost pulled the line out my hands when striking. It then proceeded to disappear irresistibly into the abysmal depths dragging more than 150feet of fiery-orange backing behind it. It must have stalked an 8lb fish Klaus was in the middle of fighting – probably in order to steal away the prey, because it hit my fly with resolute determination, when – at one point during the fight – my fly ended up right behind Klaus’ fish. In the end, however, the massive fish ended up spitting the fly, and the anticipative link to a hauntingly big dream fish was abruptly disconnected.
Luckily for the calm and serenity of my thinly worn soul, I land another Great Bear Lake Monster. It clams its staunch jaws around my streamer outside a big gravel bar, immediately heads for deeper water and quickly proves heavier and more stubborn than the other fish, I have hooked up until this point. I lean back on the fish until the fibres of my 10-weight fly rod creaks, but the fish won’t readily budge.
The next 10 minutes is a battle of fairly even will powers. The guide circles around the fish, and I do my very best to keep my nerves calm and utilise all the power reserves in the fly rod’s carbon fibre blank. In the end, the heavy-handed treatment proves too much for the fish. I gain on it little by little, and when it finally appears along the boat side, I can see how massive it actually is. Now my whole focus narrows – I fall back into myself, and all that’s left is the gravity of the task ahead: bringing the fish close to the boat and safely netting it. When that finally happens, I re-emerge with a loud and redeeming roar!
We quickly drive the boat to the shore, dragging the fish behind us in the net. I then jump in the water, and Klaus shoots a barrage of images with the camera, while I gently lift the 30lb fish briefly out of the water. Afterwards, I take a self-conscious minute to enjoy the sight of this old, broad-shouldered monster from the depths. As it rests in the shallows by my side with its big sail-like fins, soulful eyes and inverted dots like scintillating stars in a dark sky, I suddenly understand and appreciate, why we have travelled all the way to the Northwest Territories and Great Bear Lake. And when the fish liberates itself from my grasp with a couple of defiant fin strokes and catapults itself into deeper water, the feeling intensifies.
BY RASMUS OVESEN
PHOTOS: RASMUS OVESEN OG KLAUS BOBERG PEDERSEN
Contents NEW ZEALANDSOUTH ISLANDFEBRUARY 2012WEST OTAGO NEW ZEALAND New Zealand’s South Island is practically uninhabited; today, in an overpopulated
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