Chasing Unicorns In The Land Of The Midnight Sun

John Cleveland Written by  John Cleveland

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The ‘unicorn’ of the Arctic, a 37-inch behemoth char caught by Jim Craig. His guide Scotty Orr is doing the heavy lifting. The ‘unicorn’ of the Arctic, a 37-inch behemoth char caught by Jim Craig. His guide Scotty Orr is doing the heavy lifting.

The Tree and Horton rivers in the Canadian Arctic are magical places for reasons beyond their legendary trout. Story and photos by John Cleveland

The Canadian Arctic is an exotic universe of endless geological history shaped by the rivers of ice that were its architect. Evidence of our planet's ancient formation is still lying on the surface of this land as glacial scars and burnished moraine beautifully integrated into the canvas of this vast barren wilderness. The undisturbed elemental energy of the Arctic has made it one of my favorite places to iron out the wrinkles in my soul and reconnect with the wisdom and wonder of the natural world.

Plummers Great Bear Lodge is remote and as far away as you want to be.


Amazing journeys begin with a dream, and I have been drawn to the dream of fishing in wild places for wild fish ever since I can remember. I have been lucky enough to fish in the Canadian Arctic several times so when I was invited to visit Plummers Arctic Lodge on Great Bear Lake this past August for their annual fly fishing week I was able to add another journey to my list of memorable trips there. Introducing friends to the Far North is always a special treat for me and as luck would have it my friend Jim Craig was almost done packing for the trip by the time I had finished asking if he was interested. Jim, a trout fishing guide and head instructor at the Michigan's Trout Unlimited fly fishing school, is a practical down to earth outdoorsman. The goals he envisioned for our trip reflected that elemental simplicity. He wanted to catch a lake trout, an Arctic char, and a grayling on his fly rod, while simply enjoying whatever adventure took place each day we were in the Arctic. Included in our trip would be a two-day fly out to the Tree River which is one of the premier Arctic char fisheries in the world; a fly out to the Horton River to fish for grayling; and four days of hunting for trophy lake trout at Great Bear Lake, one of the top lake trout fly fishing destinations for lake trout.

As Jim and I stepped from the chartered plane onto the gravel tarmac of Plummer's Great Bear Lake Lodge's runway it was as if we had been beamed through a portal to another world. The hollow voice of the Arctic wind tasted like an exotic elixir seasoned with the flavors of lichen, caribou moss, and Arctic willow hinting of the adventures about to unfold this coming week.

Plummers Great Bear Lodge is situated as a warren of white cabins with red tin roofs perched on a pear-shaped spit of glacial moraine offering panoramic views of the lake from every cabin. Our guide this week would be Scotty Orr whom I have fished with several times on Great Bear and Great Slave lakes. I knew Scotty would be a great companion to share the week with as he is a talented storyteller, and a master guide with 14 years of experience fishing in the Arctic.

After getting our gear stowed in our cabin, we spent the afternoon pulling big steamer flies attached to heavy sink lines behind the boat. It didn't take Jim long to discover how powerfully strong a lake trout can be when stuck with a sharp hook. Jim hooked a half dozen trout in the 5-to-10-pound range that gave him a hint of how deep the "fight or flight" instinct is integrated into a northern lake trout's DNA. They are tough, stubborn and love to sound for the bottom, making them very capable of turning a 10-weight fly rod into graphite dust.

That evening after dinner the lodge manager Chuk Colter told us we would be in the first group tomorrow to fly to the Tree River camp for a two day overnight to fish for Arctic char. With high expectations we barely slept a wink. As it turned out, our expectations were met and exceeded.

The Tree River

The De Havilland Otter took off from the main lodge at 8:30am for the hour and a half flight to the famed Tree River in Nunavut. To the avid char fisherman, the Tree River is considered "Holy Water." It appears against the barren landscape as a lightning bolt of opalescent water that percolates out of glacially stocked aquifers deep in the Arctic soil and tumbles six miles down a jagged cut of Precambrian granite to its end at the coastline of the Arctic Ocean. Its pools and runs are renowned for holding the largest and most powerfully spirited Arctic char in the world.


Two friends. A week in the Arctic. And memories to last a lifetime. Below, unloading the float plane preparing to fish the Tree River

The floats of the Otter settled in like a butterfly with sore feet on the blue waters of the river a quarter mile below the camp. The Tree River camp consists of a small semi-circle with a half dozen white and red cabins, and a small dining hall perched next to the river's edge. It would be our base of operations for the next two days. After a brief orientation we stowed our gear in a cabin and prepared our equipment for the days hunt for trophy char.

Chasing the Unicorn

With fly rods in hand, Jim and I eagerly followed Scotty upriver hoping not only to catch trophy char, but also to enjoy the invigoration of the rivers powerfully wild course through the land. We hiked the rocky ankle twisting trail paralleling the river and fished all likely holding water as we traversed the river's flanks. We couldn't help but stop often to take in the breathtaking vistas of this Tolkienesque river as it cascaded down the steep granite strewn valley, its thundering blue waters smashing towards the sea. Jim had several bumps, and short strikes from during the morning, and managed to land two respectable lake trout, which was a surprise as they are an anomaly in the river. Lake trout typically cannot tolerate saltwater, and no one seems to know how they managed to migrate to a closed system like the Tree River and establish themselves in a glacially fed river that runs to the sea. Jim didn't seem fers deep in the Arctic soil and tumbles six miles down a jagged cut of Precambrian granite to its end at the coastline of the Arctic Ocean. Its pools and runs are renowned for holding the largest and most powerfully spirited Arctic char in Two friends. A week in the Arctic. And memories to last a lifetime. Below, unloading the float plane preparing to fish the Tree River. 28 that attracted migrating fish and was perfect for swinging a fly. There were two majestic eagles playing with the lift of the morning thermals above us as we beached the boat downstream and hiked up to the run. The conditions were near perfect as the sun was still low on the horizon and we could see active fish jumping throughout the run.

A hungry lake trout with amouthful of feathers

Jim was wading just off the point and had swung his Purple People Eater Intruder through the run without effect for almost an hour and when it happened. His line came tight, his 9-weight arced towards the center of the pool and a big char lunged into the air in protest at being stuck by his fly. The situation went from zero to infinity in one quick strip set. Scotty immediately stepped up and readied his net, while encouraging Jim in slow measured confidences as the big male plowed its way up and down the river for 10 or 15 minutes looking for a route of escape. Jim eventually moved the big fish towards the shallows and Scotty made the scoop de gras. It was high fives, and a loud whoop of joy from Jim as we realized just how big his fish was. The 37-inch molten silver flanks speckled with subtle hues of red and blue and generously rotund orange belly made an opulent treat for our eyes. After a short photo session, Jim's fish took one powerful swing of its tail the joined his friends to mind.

After a couple hours of soaking our flies in every good looking pool we could find, Scotty had led us to a pool named the "Relay Pool." I was first up in the casting queue and was about to learn how the pool earned its name. I swung my beaded purple and black streamer across the small pool next to the shoreline, and a big kype jawed male crushed it in mid swing. The next 10 minutes were a blur of kinetic action as the fish turned into the adjacent Class 4 rapids and made a run for it, melting the backing off my reel as it bolted down the foaming wrath of rapids with Scotty and I in tow. Scrambling over the steep ruble strewn shoulders of the river, Scotty led the way with the net trying to keep the rocks from cutting my fly line by holding it up with the tip of the net. It had eaten close to 100 yards backing crashing through the torrent of angry white water by the time it stopped running and hunkered down in the middle of a rock infested rapids and would not yield to my efforts. Then just as quickly as it had begun it was over as the fly popped out of its mouth and landed on the rock faced shore. This had been for me one of the coolest moments ever of wild pandemonium as a near 70-year-old guy chasing a wild fish through a mad minute sprint across a hillside of boulders in the Arctic. The magic of the Tree River had again lived up to its mystique by adding a very special event to my pool of memories. When the adrenalin rush ended I could only marvel.

"Now you know why we call it the Relay Pool" - Scotty said.

We fished our way back to camp and I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot by landing a beautiful char that had just begun to blush into her opulent spawning colors at the Nieland Bay pool. It had been an exhilarating day to be alive in the Arctic.

Catching the Unicorn

On day two the buttery Arctic sun rose slowly like a hot air balloon above the hills surrounding the river. It was tacitly understood that Jim would get the first shot at a char this morning. Scotty took us downriver a quarter mile to a pool named Amsterdam. It ran around a gravel strewn point creating a seam traveling angler 29 over 12,000 square miles. Fishing on Great Bear is about the hunt, the chase and challenge of big trophy fish on big water, and we would hunt hard. Trolling on Great Bear Lake with a fly rod is a little like riding on a magic carpet of charged water. When a big trout stops that fly, it's like the jolt of being grounded to a 220-volt circuit. They smash it and head for the bottom of the lake with the authority of an apex predator. There is an elemental spirit of deep energy that I have found in just about every fish I have had the opportunity to catch in the Arctic that seems proprietary to their nature.

As we left the dock the wind was howling, and the temperatures hovered in the high forties with a cold scudding rain that would pelt our Gortex rain jackets all day, making it a challenge to stay focused on fishing. At noon Scotty beached the boat in a protected cove so we could start a fire and warm up while eating sandwiches. It was freezing and Scotty's deployment of a thermos of hot coffee was a welcome relief to the wet chilled air. We ended up with 15 beautiful lake trout hooked by day's end despite the weather. It was a relief to feel the push of warm air as we opened our cabin door from the oil-fired stove the lodge staff had thoughtfully lit while we fished. Part of the thrill of fishing in powerful weather is the satisfaction of just being in the azure waters on the Tree River once more. I couldn't help but appreciate the thrill I had chasing that wild char down the river yesterday, and now the privilege of watching my friend catching a once in a lifetime trophy that turned out to be a catch and release line class world record and the largest registered in the fly rod category at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Big fish are a gift and we were blessed by the best.

Hunting for Lake Trout

After returning from the Tree River, we spent the next two days trolling large steamers with our fly rods for lake trout. Great Bear Lake is the fourth largest lake in North America covering an area of Grayling on full display in the hands of Jake, one of the guides at Plummers. A hungry lake trout with a mouthful of feathers. 30 the mystical envelope of energy of the Arctic and the creatures that live there. At the end of the day there is always something special to be thankful for such as the passing exotic landscape that scrolls by like a silent movie as we troll our streamers across the reefs, the beautiful golden-finned trout we caught, or the rainbow that appeared at the end of day that gave us hope we might just be able to fly out tomorrow for a grayling adventure on the last day of the trip.

The Horton River

Grayling are an enchanting fish that embody the spirit of undiluted wild places in the far north. These little unicorns sport beautifully colored neon blue and pink dorsal fins that wave in the water column like gossamer wings. They sip dry flies with an innocence born of their remote home, and like some people they are easy to fool, giving confidence to even a novice fly fisherman.

Grayling on full display in the hands of Jake, one of the guides at Plummers

The float plane taxied to a gravel beach 200 yards from the mouth of the Horton River. I looked at my watch: 9:30 a.m. We quickly deplaned and confirmed a 5:30 p.m. pick up time with the pilot before he disappeared over the horizon. We would be fishing with our new friends from Munich, Germany: Dieter and his 17-year-old son Killian. We unpacked our gear and set up our fly rods on a rocky spit of shoreline next to the river. Our guides Scotty and Jake mentioned that there was a deep trough that lake trout use to ambush unsuspectpart of and surviving the power of the day in a wild place on the planet. The next day there were white caps on the lake and the temperature was in the low fifties with partly cloudy skies. We hooked up with some nice trout in the mid-teens, and I brought one big laker to the boat that weighed 20 pounds. Regardless of size, all the lakers we caught gave us a spirited fight with good runs and lots of sounding to the bottom of the reefs where it felt like they used their pectoral fins as suction cups on the bottom of the lake as we tried to wrestle them to the surface. They were not big by Great Bear standards; regardless, they were great sport and a blast to catch on a fly rod.

It is always invigorating to be within The author wiwth a hefty laker that couldn't resist the color pink. traveling angler 31 a buffet of graying as they frantically fled its jaws.

Dieter and his guide Jake took that as their que to set up their 9-weight rods and waded out to the edge of the trough and proceeded to land three or four lake trout ranging from 15 to 20 pounds using large baitfish patterns. Later that afternoon I waded out to the drop off and launched a flashy pink and purple articulated streamer into the deep trench near the mouth of the river. My streamer came to a dead stop as a lake trout smashed the fly and spun 70 yards of backing off my reel in a classic bulldog battle that lasted 10 minutes before the 17-pound lake trout with beautifully colored gold-plated pectoral fins came to hand.

After a six-hour blur of non-stop catching, I joined Scotty who had started a small willow fueled fire and cooked a couple of tasty grayling for us to snack on during the afternoon. I had brought along a couple of chocolate chip cookies saved from the day before as we sipped hot coffee and ate like kings of the north while sitting in Mother Nature's kitchen.

What had taken place over the past eight hours was nothing short of spectacular as each of us caught no less than 100 trophy grayling on dry flies. It was unrestrained euphoria, as time and space took on a new dimension and we were caught up in a magical Shangri la moment. When Scotty and Jake announced last cast at 5 p.m. all of us were amazed at how quickly the day had passed. It was as if we had been under a spell for the past eight hours. Satisfyingly exhausted we boarded the float plane for the flight back to the lodge with a special appreciation for the time we had spent enjoying a truly delicious day in the Arctic. I could not think of a better way to spend our last day in the Arctic than the adventure that had unfolded before us today.

In the end it's the company you keep, and the memories you share that make a journey special. We had an incredible alchemy of experiences during our week fishing in the Arctic. We had smelled the wildness of the wind, felt the chilled spray of Arctic waters in our faces, and had the opportunity to see and play with some of Mother Nature's most beautifully wild creatures in the land of the Midnight Sun. ing grayling in the lower river, and it would be worth exploring later in the day with big streamers. As we stepped into the river there were hundreds of sleek silver shadows swarming in the gin clear current like a school of wild guppies. The surface of the river was rippling with feeding activity as dimples and splashy rises appeared across the entire 100-yard expanse.

I watched in anticipation as Jim made his first cast with an Adams dry fly and I smiled as three or four grayling rushed to take it. He was instantly connected to his dream of catching one of his bucket-list fish. After a scrappy fight with a couple of feisty air born jumps the 19-inch silver flanked beauty was bouncing in his net and we were taking pictures of a man with a look of joy as he held his first grayling towards the lens. The huge smile on Jim's face needed no interpretation.

I was now ready to try something a little different to start off my day. I felt this would be the perfect place to try a mouse fly. I'd read somewhere that large grayling have been known to eat mice if given the opportunity, so I put on a foam mouse pattern to test the theory. It didn't travel a foot before being T-boned by a big fat grayling which I quickly landed and released. After watching my first grayling of the day slip through my fingers and melt into the river's current, I had a feeling this would be a special day in the land of the Midnight Sun. As I cast again and swam the mouse across the surface, a swarm of grayling wrestled to become the first to eat my mouse fly. I netted over a dozen fish on mouse patterns and can now tell you with confidence that grayling will eat mice. Throughout the day we received an enthusiastic reception from the grayling as our group threw just about every dry fly pattern imaginable.

We were not the only ones fishing for grayling that day. Later that morning there was a frantic cacophony of splashing water in the lower section of the river as a big green backed lake trout plowed down the river slashing his way through He came. He saw. He lived.

The author with a trophy char from the Tree River.

Last modified onMonday, 25 March 2024 09:30
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