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Nicely written trip journal by Great Bear Lodge guest Phil Allen*, describing his Great Bear Lake adventure that we believe took place in the late '60's or early '70's.
I first remember seeing Great Bear Lake on a map as a boy. Straddling the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories like some landlocked ocean. I sensed then that someday I would visit her and become part of the magic and mystery that today makes Great Bear Lake the greatest freshwater fishing experience in North America.
Well, I’m finally here, arriving by floatplane early this afternoon. And the lake has kept her promise. She is bold, beautiful and overwhelming…larger than Lake Ontario or lake Erie, I understand.
Yet, she is also powerfully serene and peaceful, the perfect backdrop for summer’s soft midnight sun.
I was greeted by the cordial, professional staff of Great Bear Lake Lodge, and a buffet as big as the Northwest Territories itself. Well, almost.
They say the Territories, about one-third of all Canada, is an adventure still being discovered. This is exactly the feeling I have now, a boyhood dream finally coming true.
I’m here at Great Bear Lake, and I’m anxious to wet a line!
“Fish on” I yelled as my guide quickly cut the engine. I had been trolling less than 10 minutes when I had my first strike.
The anticipation of fishing these waters is absolutely incredible; from the moment you grab that first lure from your tackle box.
The power of the Lake Trout at the end of my line was unmistakable, only stronger. My rod tip doubled over, I battled the fish for several minutes before there was much movement. Then the fish went deep, pulling line from my reel like it was kite string.
The whining of the drag both exited and worried me. What if I run out of line? Will it break? Is this fish ever going to wear out?
A flash of white from the clear blue/green depths, then the fish casually swam by the boat, looking at me eye to eye. Then another run, and another, before I eventually got my adversary close enough to be netted by my guide and hauled into the boat.
“Nice fish,” said the guide. “22 maybe 24 pounds.” He was right, just under 24 pounds. A couple of pictures later, we released it to fight another day.
“Whew…!” I said, sitting down, my hands still shaking from the excitement. “Not bad,” said the guide. “Now let’s go catch a big one.”
While catching (and releasing) lunker Lake Trout is perhaps the reason I came to Great Bear Lake Lodge, the pursuit of other noted freshwater game fish is just as enjoyable.
Arctic Grayling, a true northern fish, is especially fun to catch, with its exaggerated dorsal fin, dark blue and purple/gray colouring. Using small spinners and wet or dry flies (with a fly rod), I was able to catch a delicious shore lunch today. A couple of these aerial acrobats exceeded four pounds!
I also spent some time fishing the weedy inlets for Northern Pike, the scourge of the local guides, but memorable nonetheless. These fish average about 10 pounds, but are extremely challenging on light tackle.
This kind of world-class fishing if available because of the Territories’ catch-and-release policy. Barbless hooks are also encouraged.
My guide told me that a 38 - pound Lake Trout I caught is 50 years old! That’s because fish grow very slowly in the Arctic waters. He said a two-pound, 20-inch trout in Great Bear Lake would be a 12-pound, 32-inch fish in a central United States lake.
That’s quite a difference, and the reason why I’m releasing all my fish this week (except shore lunch). Someday, I want my grandson to have the same experience here.
As unbelievable as it sounds, there is more to do than fish at Great Bear Lake Lodge.
Today, I decided to take a side trip to a local village. The arts and crafts of these native Dene (Indians) and Inuit (Eskimos) reflect the diversity of their land, and their “oneness” with it.
These resourceful people have been working with the same materials for literally thousands of years, yet their pride and skill combine to make each piece an individual expression.
I saw incredibly creative work with beads, antler and soapstone, with quills of porcupine and goose, with moose and caribou hair – even strips of sealskin.
The people are friendly and eager to share their unique lifestyle with you.
My guide at Great Bear Lake Lodge is a native Dene who is a professional trapper on Great Bear Lake during the winter. He is keenly observant, a man proud of his ancestry but savvy to modern ways, a man who has revealed much more than where the fish are. He has become a friend.
I never caught an Arctic Char before my visit here.
Now I have. And what an experience!
I took a side trip by floatplane to a nearby costal river. On the way up, we saw moose and caribou; we even soared with a Bald Eagle who briefly allowed us to join its air space.
The Char can only be found in a few rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean. It’s said that this powerful yet graceful fish fights like an Atlantic Salmon.
They’re right. And what trophies, with they’re silver and pink colouring that gives way to fiery red in the fall. The largest caught weighted over 20 pounds, and 15-pounders are common in these waters.
I took one back to the lodge, where the chef prepared a delicacy that drew many an envious glance from fellow fishermen.
It’s hard to believe I only have a couple of days left…I must take advantage of every moment.
Today, I decided to take another side trip to nearby Hottah Lake, an 800 square mile lake that would seem large if it weren’t for the 12,000 square miles of Great Bear Lake to compare it to.
I wasn’t disappointed. The Lake Trout were spectacular, often with a strike as soon as I could get my line the water.
And those Northern Pike – up to 30 pounders!
A half - hour by floatplane, Hottah Lake is one of several outposts of Great Bear Lake Lodge available by the day or longer, with facilities for 10 fishermen.
This lake was recently opened to the lodge through the cooperation of the local Dene settlement at Rae Lake. The virgin fishing is incredible!
I wouldn’t admit this to anyone, but I’m actually tired of fishing.
I have to leave tomorrow, so today I went sight seeing.
My guide took me to see an Arctic Fox and her cubs. Along the way, we stopped to watch a mother eagle feed her young. She let us know when we got too close.
The fox den was accessible from a water inlet and … there they were! Mother was apparently foraging for food, so the three youngsters romped and played in the warm afternoon sun. We were spellbound for hours… hundreds of miles from civilization.
I’ll never forget the moment.
I’m waiting for the return flight home, and I don’t want to leave.
It’s the best fishing trip I’ve ever had, and the best lodge. The food was superb, including gourmet meals featuring steak, prime rib, turkey, ham, chicken and even caribou (delicious).
There were also homemade soups, breads and pastries, along with fresh vegetables and fruit. The bar and tackle shop were well stocked. Evening card games were readily available, along with plenty of interesting conversation of a fish tale or two.
Great Bear Lake Lodge is the kind of place you want to take your best friend (that includes your wife), son or daughter or important business associate.
I was reading a book in the lodge on Great Bear Lake’s early days.
On the search for gold and silver, of adventure and fishing.
It’s still true what was said more than 50 years ago about Great Bear Lake.
“The midnight sun was now below the horizon but there was still a strong, pearly light and, on the windless lake, you could see the bottom…
…Far below, the lakers, some of them 40-pounders or better, drifted lazily and gracefully, the occupants of an oversized aquarium.”
I’ll be back!
*Phil Allen is president of his own business communications company, Allen & Company, in Denver, Colorado. He is a frequent visitor to the NWT.
This story came to GBLO courtesy of Phil Allen & Lyn Hancock.