The Dahlberg Diver landed with a plop a couple of feet from the edge of a large promising weed bed. The first strip of line made the fly do exactly what it was supposed to, submerge with an audible "GLORP" and then resurface. The wake from the direction of the weed bed started my adrenalin pumping. As soon as I started the second strip the water near the fly exploded! I reared back on the rod and the Diver came at me at about a hundred miles an hour. Moving my head at the last second I avoided what could have been a painful experience. The fly landed on the water behind me while the fly line lay in the water and at my feet. Casually our guide Charlie said "Put it back on top of him". I regrouped and fired the fly back to the area where the strike occurred. The fly had barely landed when it disappeared into a huge boil. This time the pike was hooked and the battle was on. He made a couple of short runs, rolled and twisted on the surface several times, making me appreciate the wire leaders we were using. Soon the battle was won and the big Northern was at the side of the boat, where Charlie expertly reached down, and with a quick twist of the pliers, the pike was on his way.
Canada's north is a vast and ruggedly beautiful land whose seldom explored fishing opportunities are the stuff dreams are made of. In spite of living only 575 miles to the south for most of my life, this was my first visit. To say that I was awe struck is an understatement. It's a land where phrases like "a ways", "quite- a ways" and "pretty deep" take on new meaning. On Great Slave Lake, when the guide tells you the south shore is over there "a ways", he means 90 miles. When camp operator Greg Robertson (no relation) tells you that the other end of the lake is down there "quite-a ways", he means 300 miles. When you ask how deep the lake is and they reply "pretty deep", they mean over 2,000 feet in places.
During a telephone conversation with our host, Greg Robertson, it was decided that his spring camp would be the best choice for us. Camps are moved during the course of the season to coincide with the best locations for the current fishing conditions. As our main priorities were Northern Pike and Arctic Grayling on fly rods, the spring camp would be our best bet. Booking the trip from June 26-29 would put us on the lake just a week or two after ice-out, the perfect time to find big Pike lurking in the shallow back bays and Grayling feeding on the surface out in the main lake. The lake trout might even be shallow enough to get a little fly rod action.
Some serious fly tying sessions involving generous amounts of deer hair, tinsel, thread, flash-a-bou, lead and lots of Flexament were soon transformed into a large fly box full of brightly coloured deceptions. Flies for the grayling were not of any great concern as our supply of trout flies would be adequate, although we added a few extra bugs tied in dark colours due to the grayling's reputation for liking black.
After what seemed to be an eternity our departure date finally arrived. An uneventful one hour and forty minute flight put us over Great Slave Lake, ready to make our descent into Yellowknife. It was the 24th of June yet large chunks of ice still floated in the main body of the lake! It looked like our timing was perfect. We spent the night in a comfortable Bed & Breakfast where we met three anglers from Quebec who would be sharing our camp. They were there for a week of Lake trout fishing. They looked at us sceptically when we told them we were mainly interested in pike and grayling and would be fishing exclusively with fly rods. Fly-fishing for anything but trout is still viewed as a bit odd in some places even though fly fishermen now catch everything from panfish to Blue marlin on fly rods. After a fitful night's sleep, with dreams of slashing pike and free rising grayling, the morning finally arrived. Two 22 foot crestliners with 120 hp mercs awaited us at the dock. With the gear quickly stored in one and fishermen in the other, we were off for a two-hour ride to our home for the next four days.
Our camp, located on an island in a shallow bay, consisted of six tents pitched on as near to level surfaces as could be found. The island was one huge rock, typical of the landscape present at this portion of the lake. A large cooking and eating tent was front and centre with hot coffee and cookies awaiting our arrival. We were shown to our tents and, after unpacking and a quick lunch, it was time to get down to business. The Quebec anglers headed out into the main lake for some large lakers. Charlie Kudlak, our Inuit guide, loaded us into a 14-foot aluminium boat to prowl some of the shallow back bays in search of monster pike. The bay right at camp seemed barren so after a fishless hour we headed down the lake. Pulling into a bay formed by a river inlet, we cut the motor and glided to within 30 feet of the large weed bed that opened this story. Bob, my fishing partner on this trip, finished rigging up while witnessing the commotion of my first fish, and fired a cast towards a small indentation in the weed bed. Once more a wake followed the fly as it was retrieved. The fly was almost back to the boat and Bob was coming unglued. "Come on!, Hit it! Hit it!". And hit it the pike did. The pike continued in his direction of travel, straight towards the boat, as Bob frantically stripped line in an effort to keep up. He hadn't really had the opportunity to set the hook yet, and the fish was now under the boat, but it seemed to be solidly hooked. Bob finally caught up to the fish and put a little pressure on him. At this point I think the fish sensed for the first time that something was wrong. He turned around 180 degrees and headed back towards the weeds, but being no match for the graphite fly rod, the 9lb. pike was quickly played to the side of the boat. Charlie once again reached down and expertly repeated the procedure with his needle nose pliers that he would repeat hundreds of times over the next several days. Unlike trout, which dart away once released, pike just sort of drift back into the depths and disappear, with an air of contempt. The fishing continued at break neck pace for the next few hours. Many of the pike nailed the fly as soon as it landed on the water, while others needed some coaxing with a few strips of the line. The most exciting were the ones that followed the fly right up to the side of the boat and just lay there suspended. Although many of these would turn and swim away, the odd one would take the fly just as you would ran out of line to strip in. These strikes often resulted in impromptu showers for us. The pike were averaging in the 7 – 12 pound range and we were after something a little larger so we tried a different tactic. Switching to some streamer patterns we had tied with lead eyes to help make them sink, our strategy was to see if the big boys were hanging out near the bottom. We caught several more fish this way of about the same size, with a couple of fish nudging ten pounds. I went back to the exciting action of the diver while Bob kept up his search for the Big Kahuna. His perseverance paid off as about fifteen minutes later a 19 lb. fish attacked his streamer. The battle waged back and forth. The pike would take some line and Bob would regain it and then some. Even in this cold water the pike were not tremendous fighters and Bob soon had the battle won. The pike was revived and released to fight another day. We headed back for supper at the suggestion of Charlie, who, after releasing over fifty pike for us in the last couple of hours, was probably getting a little sick of it. Camp was a welcome sight and the smell of supper cooking made our mouths water. Everybody was in a good mood as the fishing for the lake trout was also hot and the Quebec boys had cleaned up. A couple of the lakers were being prepared for supper and Charlie was working at getting one of our pike ready for an appetizer. Contrary to popular belief, Northern Pike taken from cold water and filleted by someone who knows how to get all the bones out is a delicacy. The dining table was set on top of a large flat rock providing a 360-degree view of some of the most gorgeous country I've ever seen. Supper was a gourmet dining experience with fresh lake trout, Caribou ribs like something out of the Flintstones, fresh bread, salads and an ample supply of wine. Conversation alternated back and forth between the lake trout and northern pike fishing, punctuated frequently with a chorus of "mmmm is that ever tasty".
After the dinner dishes were cleaned up Charlie suggested we take a run out into the main lake and try for some grayling along a certain shoreline, which he knew to be productive. The grayling provided us with a very pleasant evening of dry fly fishing. Watching them come from 15 feet down in the gin clear water to quickly grab your fly was almost as exciting as the pike fishing. We are lucky in Alberta to still have good populations of Arctic grayling and rivers like the Little Smoky provide us with chances at some nice sized fish, but nothing like this. A sixteen-inch grayling is a good one in Alberta. On Great Slave Lake we rarely caught any that small! The 20-22 inch males were spectacular fish; very purple in colour with the trademark long flowing dorsal fin. With nearly 24 hours of daylight at our disposal we could have stayed there all night but as the day was catching up to us we headed back to camp where fresh Bannock and tea awaited, providing the perfect end to a prefect day.
I awoke with a start, sunlight flooding the tent and a loon laughing somewhere out on the lake. Sleepily I slipped into my jeans and running shoes and stepped into a spectacular morning. Camp was strangely quiet and a quick look at my watch revealed the reason, 3:55 A.M. These 24 hours of daylight were going to take some getting used to. With 4 more hours until coffee and breakfast I retreated for a little more shuteye.
The last three days were pretty much like the first. A few hours with the pike, refreshments at camp, a few hours with the grayling, fishing and eating to our hearts desire. On the final day we decided to alter that routine and try for some lake trout. The others were finding fish as shallow as ten feet and getting good numbers at fifteen feet. Armed with sinking lines and some big streamers we headed for the most productive bay. Anchoring at several different spots, we managed to connect with three lakers. Bob caught a six and an eight pounder while I picked up a six pounder. Bob's larger fish put up a battle royal heading straight for the bottom as soon as he was hooked. At one point Bob was standing there, rod bent almost double, line headed straight to the bottom. Stalemate. Finally the fish tired and inch-by-inch Bob regained his fly line and the battle was won. We wondered aloud what it would be like to hook a forty-pounder.
When the time came, it was tough to board the Beaver floatplane for the return trip to Yellowknife. Three other fly fishermen had come in on the plane for three days of fishing. After quickly showing them the patterns that had been working for us, we left contented, but already planning a return visit to this strange and wonderful land.