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Jun 12 , 2016

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Grayling Fishing in Canada's Northwest Territories

by Frank Ross
Grayling Fishing in Canada's Northwest Territories

After battling 50-pound lake trout, stalking the diminutive Arctic grayling might seem like a real yawner, but with a 4-wt fly rod it was a challenge that left me wanting more.


I grew up in Florida, where fly-fishing meant panfish or bass. Making the transition to trout in the western states has been, at times, disappointing. Small fish just don't float my boat unless they have a real attitude. Prior to my departure for Canada's Northwest Territories, I'd been told that the Arctic grayling there were big and scrappy. I was anxious to find out for myself, so I slipped a 4-weight fly rod and reel into my gun case.


The main purpose of my trip to Aylmer Lake was caribou and lake trout, and grayling were mentioned almost as an "oh, by the way" diversion.


When I arrived with a party of five other sportsmen, our outfitter Alan Rebane gave us the lowdown on caribou and lake trout. When he was through I asked about grayling. "We've got a good number of grayling. My oldest son, Greg will be your guide for the week. If you're interested in walking, or taking a canoe, he can get you back up into an area that hasn't been fished in two years. You should be able to catch some nice fish up there," he said.


I asked him what he considered "nice" and the explanation got all of my attention. "Our average grayling would make the record book in Alaska, but up here it takes a lot bigger fish to make the record book. Don't hold me to it, but I think the record is somewhere around 28 inches. You'll catch 18- to 22-inch fish easily, and some pretty big trout in that area as well," he said.


During a sumptuous dinner, with portions fit for a field hand, our group got acquainted. Harry Heersema, a retired engineer from Illinois, was strictly interested in fishing and was an avid fly-fisherman. Prior to this trip he was fishing in Ontario, but the fishing had been poor and he was looking forward to going after lake trout the following day. Two father-son teams made up the rest of our group, and we were all going after caribou, followed by lake trout. Grayling was slated for the end of the week, after the tougher assignments were completed.

By Wednesday we had all bagged our caribou and a number of fat lake trout and the long awaited walk was scheduled for the following morning. Harry, his buddy Al Gray and son Greg decided to try a river that flowed into the main lake. Steve Bratu and his son Marcus, who had made the trip from Michigan, opted to take the hike with me instead of paddling a canoe up the swift river, but an event that evening caused me to question my decision.

Four full-grown grizzlies traveling and feeding together is unusual and a hair-raising experience up close.

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing our next adventure when our outfitter ran by the window jacking shells into a shotgun. "What's up with that?" someone asked. "Bears," came the cry from the kitchen, and we all grabbed cameras and headed outside. During my caribou hunt we'd seen a group of four full-grown male grizzlies about 20 miles from the lodge. I learned that they had visited the previous week and been run off with an ATV, but the smell of fresh caribou meat hanging in the meat locker was too tempting for them.


All four bears were back again, making their way along the eastern shoreline. As the scent grew stronger their pace quickened. We huddled behind two cabins and watched as they drew closer. "All right, everyone needs to stay out of sight and be quiet. I want them to come close so I can hit them hard with this 12-gauge load of rubber buckshot or we're going to have continued problems with them," Rebane whispered. He explained that rubber buckshot was the preferred method to discourage bear visits, recommended by local game officials. Bears are a protected species in this area, as well as wolves, and the only way to avoid problems is to make them fear man.


In only a few minutes the bears covered the last 100 yards up a steep embankment. As the lead bear topped the crest Rebane released a barrage of rubber pellets. The huge bruin stood up and stared at him unimpressed with the shot's impact. About the time I was thinking that this wasn't a good plan he fired again and the bear wheeled and started running. The fleeing foursome reached the beach below and picked up their pace as two more rounds boomed over their heads. I watched intently as they made their way up the far slope and breathed a sigh of relief as they headed away from tomorrow's intended grayling hole. Regardless of my concern, it was an awesome sight seeing four huge grizzlies.


The next morning, after "fueling up" for the two and a half-mile hike, with a hearty breakfast of eggs, pancakes and sausage, I stepped out of the lodge to gather my gear and was insulted by a very cranky Richardson ground squirrel known locally as a siksik. These brazen beggars scurry around the lodge's porch looking for handouts. Its hands were full and it wanted more. After looking at its fat little belly, I advised it to go on a diet and headed to the launch with my gear.


Siksik are pretty pushy when it comes to ownership of handouts.

Since I was carrying a fly rod and taking along a back up spinning rig, I opted to wear my waders instead of carrying them. Our plan was to run across Rocknest Bay by boat and cut off as much foot travel as possible, but it was going to be quite a walk in waders. The morning sky was a little overcast and a brisk wind made the temperature feel colder than the reported 42 degrees.

In anticipation of this day I brought along a pair of Cabela's Dry-Plus waders with the boot foot option. I chose these waders because of the rocky terrain that I would be fishing, as well as their light weight. As we climbed up the first precipice I was happy to have them. Everything in this area is covered with slippery moss and lichen. Others were slipping, but the felt soles provided sure footing and since I'd laced up the boots tightly, the ankle support was excellent. In a matter of minutes my anxiety about slipping and falling on a rod was eased and the walk was quite enjoyable.


After about an hour of hiking we stopped on a high promontory where my guide pointed out the river of our desire far below. The sun broke through the cloud cover briefly and glistened on the water where I imagined brutish grayling lurking in eddies just beneath its surface. "What are we waiting for," I said, and we pushed onward.


As we made our way down the other side of the peninsula, descending to the river's lower elevation, a wide area of thick brush lay ahead. I was concerned about snagging my waders and ruining my day's fishing, but decided that their reputation for rugged construction was going to be tested to the extreme and forged ahead. Tall bushes in the tundra are only about knee high, but the thicket we had to traverse was very dense and made up of stubby limbs that grabbed at the fabric of my waders as I pushed my way down the 100-yard slope.


Fly-fishing for grayling in a pristine river.

We made it to the river at just under two hours and I immediately tied on a Wiley Worm and moved down the slippery bank. Our group fanned out around a bend in the river where a swift current was creating a large eddy. By the time I'd stepped into the water, Marcus and Steve were both fighting fish on their spinning rigs.


I had boldly declined to take dry clothes, and moved cautiously, not wanting to take a dip so far from the lodge. My caution proved to be misplaced as the felt footed boots easily gained surefooted purchase wherever I stepped. I was relieved to find that my brush busting hadn't caused any leaks or tears in my waders. Feeling more confident, I moved further downstream and laid my line out in passable fashion. Stripping line slowly, I felt for the delicate bite with anxious fingers. The area we were in was protected enough from the wind that casting was easy, and I quickly laid out my line again, reaching toward a large rock that was creating an eddy on the edge of the river.


The swift current grabbed my line and carried it toward the eddy. As soon as it dropped into the quite water I felt that familiar bump that raises the heart rate. Raising my rod smartly, I felt it bend to the weight of a scrappy contestant and we began our battle of wills. I wanted to see the fish and take a picture, but the fish apparently wasn't into show and tell. My will proved to be dominate this time, as a beautiful 17-inch grayling displayed its blue hues against moss covered rocks.


Another fat graying with striking purple hues.

With a quick series of false casts I extended my reach and laid the fly onto the far edge of current that swirled in a wide arc. As soon as the line hit the water I began stripping to keep up with the current. Suddenly my line grew taught. As I drew back, the bend in my rod indicated an exceptional fish. Wow, I thought, this could be a record grayling. When the fish leaped out of the water it became apparent that I wasn't fighting a record grayling, but a fat trout that had found its way upstream from the lake.


For a four-piece rod, the action was excellent, but this fish was testing its flexibility to new levels. I played the fish gingerly, letting the rod take the stress off the four-pound leader and negotiated it toward the shore. When I had subdued the trout we admired its beautiful coloration, took a few photos and turned it back to the swift current. I returned to the large eddy and took several more grayling then moved further downstream where the rest of our party had walked.


On a 4-wt. fly rod, grayling are a real hoot.

Everywhere I fished grayling and trout were lying in wait, anxious to fill their bellies for the winter months. I switched to my spinning rig and had great success throwing small marabou jigs with a black body and red tail. All too soon the day was consumed and we gathered our gear for the return hike.


The massive granite rocks create formidable obstacles for climbing but are beautiful to look at, and the walk back went quickly, interspersed with talk about our successful day. We made it back to the boat, thankfully without seeing the group of bears from the previous evening and headed back across the bay.


At the lodge we found the rest of our group smiling from their day's angling. Harry Heersema and the Grays had caught 76 grayling between them. Harry accounted for 28 on his fly rod, so he was very happy. We compared notes on our separate excursions and contemplated the next day's adventure, our last.


I spent the following morning catching lake trout, and added a 39 pounder to my tally but by noon the call of the grayling drew us back to the river. This time we worked the area where it spilled into the main lake and I gave my spinning rig a heavy workout. I brought along a one-piece Fish Eagle II GS 663-1 rod, designed for 1/8 to 5/8-ounce lures. It has an extra fast action that really worked well for casting light jigs. I matched it with a FE tournament II plus TP-1000 reel that was probably overkill. This combination simply kicked butt too quickly. Its ultra smooth drag and 9 ball bearing construction was just too much for even the biggest grayling. If I had it to do over again, I'd opt for the TP850, just to make it a little more interesting. I like to let the fish think its going to win, if only for a few minutes. The TP-1000 never gave them a glimmer of hope.


We returned to the lodge, as the sun was dropping low on the horizon. There would be time after dinner for a short outing, but instead I sat on the deck and watched the sun as it set fire to the water. My stay had been idyllic but it was over. Now all that was left to do was come back, as soon as possible!