Coming "Full" Circle
Written by Harold
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It’s been many years since I’ve fished the McTavish Arm, so this trip to Arctic Circle Lodge was going to be something of a homecoming for both me, and fishing partner Kenny Gold.
While fishing out of Branson’s Lodge during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, I became very familiar with the south-western portion of the arm, but had never ventured north of Workman Island, into what was then considered Arctic Circle Lodge territory.
For the past several years, Plummer’s has been offering a “self guided” option out Arctic Circle Lodge. With a reasonable price point, a limit of 12 guests, and a vast expanse of water to explore that has seen very little pressure over the past 20 years, it’s the perfect opportunity to fish the Bear on your own terms, and perhaps save a few bucks in the process.
We talked to a few guys who had tried it a couple of years ago, and given their glowing reports, particularly about the fishing – btw: it’s arguably the most beautiful part of the lake, featuring towering cliffs, and deep, crystal clear water – Kenny and I decided to stay at Bear for a 2nd week, and fish what for us, would be entirely new water.
Our hosts, chefs, mechanics, camp managers and all around nice people, were June and Dean, a couple from Ontario who decided it was time to try something new and a bit more “out there,” so when the opportunity presented itself to run Arctic Circle for the season, they were all over it.
They were extremely welcoming, and we never had to worry about our boats being gassed up in the morning, having fresh batteries for our sonars, our lunches being packed and ready to go, or being served delicious home cooked meals, including having a bowl of hot soup waiting for us every day when we came off the water – which given the weather we had throughout the week - was a true godsend.
Heavy fog is a weird guide!
If you go on a journey with him, it takes you from nowhere and leaves you at nowhere!
Mehmet Murat ildan
Truer words have rarely been spoken, and Mr. Fog did indeed play a staring, albeit frustrating role on our first day.
At Plummer’s Great Bear Lodge, given how close the cabins and the main lodge building are to the lake, if you can’t see the water through the fog, it’s likely of a consistency that renders thick pea soup virtually transparent by comparison.
And that was the scene that greeted us as we looked out of our cabin window on Saturday morning.
Needless to say, there were not going to be any planes coming or going as long as that stuff hung about, therefore we settled in for a hurry up and wait type of morning.
So after settling our accounts, putting down our deposits for next year, covering our bags with a tarp because it started to rain, and making sure they were festooned with “Arctic Circle” identification tape so they wouldn’t inadvertently make the trip back to YK, we played a few games of cribbage while anxiously peering out of the lodge picture windows, hoping to get a glimpse of some open sky.
The skies finally cleared around 11, meaning that Chummy’s “deal with the Devil” when it came to change over day was fortunately still in tact, and the charter, which was on hold in YK, got the green light to lift off, arriving on the strip at approximately 12:30pm.
We then hooked up with our fellow Arctic “Circlites,” Derek Ballantyne, Gordon Chu, Rick Silvestrini, Greg Bruetsch, George “Skip” Heckler, Mark Fluharty, Barry Gold, Eric and Robert Olson and Rohan Brown.
Once they obtained their fishing licences, and had a bite of lunch, we winged it over to Circle, where we were warmly welcomed by the aforementioned June and Dean.
The lodge is an interesting old place, located in a beautiful bay surrounded on 3 sides by tall cliffs, interspersed with splashes of colourful mineralization.
It is built “motel” style, much like Trophy Lodge, and features 2 wings of guest rooms, both of which have screened in walkways running for their entire length, that run horizontally off of the centrally located lounge/dinning/kitchen area.
The wings are decorated with all manner of interesting mineral samples that likely came from the area, in that much of the early mining activity on Great Bear, including the Eldorado Mine at Port Radium, was centred in and around the McTavish Arm.
Most of the guys were anxious to get out on the water after getting settled in, but Kenny and I were in no particular hurry, and hung back until dinner was served, which consisted of a delicious Sheppard’s Pie, tossed green salad, and warm, freshly baked cookies and cupcakes.
We poked around in the general vicinity of the lodge after dinner, but didn’t manage to scare up any fish. The other members of our group caught a few, including a 12 pounder for Barry Gold, but there were to be no trophies that first day.
Let Me Introduce You to Sloan
The Sloan River that is.
One thing I can always count on experiencing at Bear are a variety of “firsts.” I caught my first Lake Trout, including my first over 20, 30, 40 and 50 pounds, saw my first Caribou and Muskox, caught my first Grayling, saw the midnight sun for the first time, and the list goes on and on.
This year would be my “first” time guiding on the big lake, and I have to admit that both Kenny and I were not entirely sure how it would all play out, particularly when it came to handling all of those monster Lake Trout we were planning on catching, all by our lonesome.
Perhaps we should have kidnapped “Jelly” and stuffed him into one of our bags!
Fortunately it all came together, and after handling our first couple of big fish, covering over 80 miles – yes miles – in a single day, and safely navigating through some rough water, our confidence level was much improved.
One thing we found very helpful, was that by using single, barbless hooks (or in some cases pinching the barb down) for the most part, it made releasing the fish, either while still in the water, or when we had to bring them into the boat, so much easier than would have been the case if we had been using barbed trebles or singles.
It rained pretty hard throughout the night, and the temperature dropped like a stone – not that it was all that warm the previous day – but when morning broke, and while there were still some scattered showers to contend with, the winds were fortunately light.
After pouring over my topo maps the previous evening, we thought about making a run through the MacAlpine Channel to the Sloan River, which is tucked away in the bottom of Hunter Bay, and while I had no idea if the area held any Lake Trout, there was a relatively large bay just off the river, where a couple of guys had filmed a show featuring Pike, several years back.
As many of you know, dangling the prospect of catching Pike in front of Kenny, is akin to plunking a Mongoose down in front of a Cobra, so there was no debate as to where we would be heading right after breakfast.
We had a smooth 50 - minute run to the river, and en route noted several promising looking places that we would eventually try later in the week.
When approaching the river, I throttled right down, not knowing what we had to deal with in terms of either depth or structure, and as we got closer to the mouth, spotted a number of fish rising, taking insects off the surface.
Kenny picked up his Pike rod and began flipping his Vibrex spinner in the general direction of the rises, and caught 3 Lakers in the 10 to 12 pound range.
Hmmm… We’d be back!
We fished our way into, and around the “Pike” bay, but other than a couple of Swans who decided to keep us company, unfortunately there were not many fish to be had, and certainly no big ones - not today at least.
Exiting the bay, and travelling further up river, there was clear evidence that some sort of activity had taken place in the area some years ago, be it mining, trapping or otherwise, because together with a dilapidated old wooden boat we spotted in the “Pike” bay, there were the remains of a timeworn cabin and cache, along with and some rusty old fuel barrels visible on the river bank.
If not for the fact we would have likely been eaten alive, Kenny and I thought about landing and giving the cabin/cache site a closer look, but because we were fishermen not archaeologists, and weren’t particularly fond of bugs either, I turned the boat around, and once we reached the river mouth, switched over to small Half Waves, and eventually CHT T60’s, and by doing so hit the mother load.
My first fish, caught just as we exited the river was a 25, and we continued to fish the long sand bar and drop offs in close proximity to the river, and caught over 40, many of which were in the teens, together with a 21, 21, 22, 25, 26 and Kenny’s 34.
I guess you could say there were a few Lake Trout swimming around in the vicinity of the Sloan (lol), which I would suggest had a lot to do with the 52-degree water being pushed out by the river.
While we were away, Chummy had flown in with some groceries, a couple of spare sonar’s, and between him and Dean, managed to get the furnace working, thereby ensuring the lodge was nice and toasty when we returned.
Once back at the lodge, June had a hot bowl of soup waiting for us, and for dinner served up an outstanding chicken fricassee with broccoli, a mixed green salad and crispy hash browns.
The other guys certainly caught fish, with one boat landing a total of 23 between Domex Bay and the Sloan, but I don’t believe that anyone other than us broke the 20 pound mark.
But that was about to change in a big way, because as they say, what a difference a day can make.
“Chu” On This For a While
I’ll fill in the what, where and by who as we go along, but in keeping with the theme, that a day can make all the difference, decided to start things off with the day’s totals.
- Kenny and I: 21, 23, 23, 24, 25, 25, 29 and 31.
- Derek and Gordon: 20, 20, 22, 24, 25, 25, 28 and 30
- Barry and Rohan: 21, 23, 24 and 30.
This off course does not include any additional fish over 20 caught by others in our group that I was unaware of, and the many, many other fish ranging from 8 to 19 pounds.
Our day began rather chilly – 42 degrees chilly to be exact – and remained that way throughout the rest of the day.
When asked where we had caught our big fish, I wasn’t about to pretend I didn’t understand the question, because most of us were completely unfamiliar with the area, and were all hoping to get on some trophies, so why not share the wealth?
As a result, it got a bit crowed around the mouth of the Sloan, with 5 boats pounding the area at one point, and while we all caught, other than Kenny and I who got there first, I don’t think anyone got anything over 20, and it all but shut down by late morning.
Even though the fishing was a bit slow, we were kept busy making a couple of “house calls” to Derek and Gordon’s boat. The first was to remove a hook from Derek’ s hand, and another to detach the fishing line that had somehow gotten tangled around their prop.
Those bolt cutters Kenny brought along came in very handy, and we would recommend that if you decide to try the self guided thing, bring along a quality set.
Once things slowed down, Kenny and I decided to make a run upstream to the falls, and stopped en route to do a little fishing in the Harrison River, just upstream from where it spills into the Sloan. Interestingly, the surface temperature at the mouth of the river was 52.7 degrees, and essentially remained the same all the way upstream to the falls.
Skip and his buddy had gone up to the falls earlier that morning, and by the time we arrived had caught about 20 Pike, missing one that would have clearly exceeded 40 inches.
The Pike were hanging primarily on the edges of the fast water, and while we managed to catch a couple of small ones, we had better luck on the way back right at the confluence of the Harrison and Sloan, landing 3, including one about 35 inches.
Barry and Rohan caught their bigger fish along a random stretch of shoreline just outside of Hunter Bay, while Derek and Gordon hit the jackpot along a small, unnamed island just south of the entrance to Norrie Bay.
Derek said the place just looked kind of “fishy,” and decided to give it a shot. It certainly didn’t disappoint, as Gordon caught a 30, 28, 25 and 5 more over 20, leading all fisherman for the day.
Derek was justifiably proud of the fact that his hunch paid off, although I suspect he would have liked to have some of Gordon’s action, not only because he guided him there in the first place, but also because he had to land and weigh all of those fish, while Gordon just sat back having the time of his life, landing big fish after big fish.
They were kind enough to share the location of their “honey hole,” or “Chu Island” as we subsequently christened it, so Kenny and I headed on over and promptly caught 3 over 20, a 31 (Kenny got that one), and several more in the teens.
The fish were feeding aggressively regardless of where anyone chose to wet a line, so much so that one guy had his rod pulled right out of the rod holder while lighting a cigar, and if I recall correctly, he not only managed to recover the rod, but caught the fish as well!
Once back at the lodge, and following the obligatory bowl of hot soup, June and Dean served up a very tasty lasagne dinner.
Not surprisingly, given the day everyone just had, there were a lot of smiling faces, and animated discussion around the dinner table that evening.
If At First You Don’t Succeed – Go Elsewhere
The day was going to be another of those wear everything you own kind of days, but fortunately, while it was cold, and the sun was nothing more than a distant memory, the winds remained relatively calm, meaning that we didn’t have any difficulty moving from place to place.
Old habits die hard as they say, so our first stop was “Chu Island,” where we put up a big zero, followed by the Sloan, where we managed to come up with one “double header,” both ends of which being nothing to write home about.
I should mention that we may have put a few more in the boat, so to speak that is, if Kenny hadn’t picked up where he left off the previous day, by missing more fish than he landed. Hey, it happens to all of us from time to time, but I was glad it was his turn, and not mine!
Well enough of this same old, same old crap, so we reeled in and headed north, through the Western Channel and past Norrie Bay, to try some new water, and maybe, just maybe, stumble across another, or perhaps a couple more, “Chu Island” like places.
Together with Derek and Gordon, we set out in search of new horizons, and more importantly warmer water.
The shoreline to the west of Norrie is punctuated by several large bays, and while the structure looked promising, and we did pick up a few fish, it was tough to find water in excess of 38 degrees.
Kenny and I finally found some 43-degree water in a narrow channel that ran between a relatively small island and the shore, and it was packed with fish. We caught about 30, with the biggest being Kenny’s 21, but after about an hour and one half, it slowed right down, so we headed off in search of greener, or more particularly, warmer pastures.
We bumped into Derek and Gordon, who were working a main lake shoal, and while it looked encouraging, the only thing they found was 34 degree water, and while no doubt refreshing if your were in the mood for a drink, the fact is no self respecting Laker would be caught dead anywhere near the place.
They were going to head back to Norrie, while Kenny and I decided to head west, and give Broadway and Achook Islands a shot. It was a beautiful area, with great looking water, structure and decent water temperatures in the mid 40’s, but unfortunately no one told the fish, and while we gave it a good going over, ended up pitching a no hitter.
Derek and Gordon faired better in Norrie, catching a number of fish, including 3 in the mid 20’s.
Not only that, Gordon, hereinafter to be referred to as “Chef” Chu, brought in one about 15 pounds, that he would ultimately transform into some incredible tasting Gravlax.
June had the soup kettle bubbling away, and being pretty much chilled to the bone, I let the steam rising from my bowl wash over my hands and face before tucking in. Dinner this evening consisted of steamed rice, and an enjoyable pork stir-fry.
Everyone in our posse caught fish, including Greg, who got the better of one in the mid 30’s.
As we had given the area around Hunter and Norrie Bay’s a good going over, the burning question was – where to next?
Once the dishes had been cleared away, and after dinner drinks poured, we huddled around the topo maps, and after discussing a variety of possible options, Kenny, myself, Derek, Gordon, Barry and Rohan, decided that next morning, weather permitting, we would make the 40 - mile run to Hornby Bay.
One last thing before I close off things for the day, the sun did finally put in an appearance, about 5 minutes after Kenny and I pulled up to the dock…
Although it remained chilly, the next morning, the sun – that big, round yellow warm thing, or so I’ve been told – was out on full display, and the winds were light.
It was a smooth trip to Hornby, and we passed numerous small islands that were surround by great looking structure, including one that appeared to be made out of giant Lego blocks. To this day I’m still kicking myself for not stopping to take a picture. Next time for sure.
About ¾ of the way to Hornby, Kenny and I decided to stop and fish a rather large island, which not unlike Broadway and Achook looked very promising, with a massive sand bar surrounding it, and decent water temperatures in the mid 40’s up on the sand.
As we all know, looks can be deceiving, because other than a couple of small fish, it really sucked.
Having had enough of washing lures, I pointed the bow north, and we joined the rest of the guys who had wisely given “no fish” island a miss, and instead headed straight to Hornby.
By the time we arrived, both boats had already caught a mess of fish, both in the narrows as you come into the back part of the bay, and along the north shore, from the narrows to where Plummer’s caches their fly out boats.
It was a pleasant change to fish under a sunny sky, and with water temperatures running from 47 to 49 degrees throughout the area, it was not surprising that the fish were shallow, with Rohan getting one over 30 in 7 feet, while Kenny and I caught a 22 and 23 in barely 5 feet of water.
The fishing remained steady throughout the day, but around 3:30 the sun took a powder (what a surprise), the wind started to pick up, and because we had at least a 2 hour trip ahead of us, with most of it over open water, we all agreed it was time to head towards home.
While the first part was a little bumpy, it was nothing anyone couldn’t handle, and we arrived back at the lodge safe and sound, albeit a little chilled just after 6, and I’m sure you will all be thrilled to know, that in true Pavlovian fashion, as soon as we ditched our gear, we made a beeline for the soup kettle.
June and Dean pulled out all the stops for dinner this evening, serving grilled, bone-in beef tenderloin, complimented by sauté mushrooms, baked potatoes and sliced tomatoes.
All the other hombres had a good day, with several over 20 and one over 30 being caught in addition to any number of smaller fish. Greg also came up with a 46” Pike that he and Rick managed to coral in a small bay just south of the Sloan.
Of concern to all was that it was now going on 10pm, and there was no sign of Skip and his buddy. I had overheard them talking over breakfast about perhaps making the long run to Seagull, but in terms of where they actually wound up, no one was certain.
Fortunately our wayward travellers arrived safe, cold and hungry around 10:30pm, and after getting some warm food into them, explained that they started off at Seagull where they caught a boat load of fish, including one over 30 and several in the 20’s, then headed over to Hornby (we may have just missed them), where the action remained hot.
In total they estimated catching well over 100 fish.
It Clips Right Along Once You Untie It
I woke up at one point, and could see bright sunlight shining through a crack in the blinds covering our bedroom window. Thinking it was time to get up, and being stupid enough to believe that we were in for back-to-back sunny days, I consulted my watch, only to find it was 4am.
Back under the covers I went, waking up 3 hours later to a cloudy sky, brisk winds, and the thermometer registering a rather bracing 42 degrees. Perhaps we had this all wrong, and should have fished all-night and slept during the day, because it seemed as though we had our best weather AFTER we had packed it in for the day.
The first batch of Chef Chu’s Gravlax was now ready for consumption, and the rather large plate he put out for breakfast, together with his homemade honey/mustard, disappeared in a hurry.
Although Hunter and Norrie continued to produce, it was time to give another part of our fiefdom a look see, and after a brief survey of the map, headed off in a southerly direction.
Derek and Gordon were going to tag along with us, but were having some motor problems, so we hung back until Dean got things sorted for them. Once all systems were apparently go, when attempting to pull away from the dock, every time Derek throttled up, the motor kicked out of the water.
After a couple more attempts, and checking to see that the motor was locked into place, a suggestion was made – I forget by whom – that if they untied the bowline, it just might solve the problem, and we could all be on our way. Nuff said me thinks.
Heading straight out from the lodge, we fished along the eastern shore, south of Domex Bay, stopping at various shoals and small islands without even so much as a bite.
Rounding the first significant point of land we encountered, we found ourselves in a large bay that ran in a northerly direction, and while there were a few fish to be had along the western shore and at the back end, our luck took a turn for the better when we started working a wind blown point on the east side, just north of what we affectionately dubbed “Middle Finger Bay.”
Trolling across the tip of the point we caught over 20 fish, including a 23 and 25. Once it slowed down, we moved into “Middle Finger,” where the surface temperatures ranged from 44 degrees at the mouth, to 55 at the back.
The sun even put in a brief appearance, and we boated another 30 fish, with the biggest being about 15 pounds.
Barry caught a 32 somewhere in the vicinity of Chu Island, and the others also did well in terms of numbers, including several more over 20.
Following our hot soup, and more of Chef Chu’s Gravlax, we enjoyed a mixed green salad together with heaping plates of pasta, topped with a very rich, and robust meat sauce.
To add to my list of Great Bear “firsts,” Mark Fluharty was kind enough to share some of his 40 year – yup, that would be a big four oh – Glenfarclas Single Malt Scotch with Derek and I.
I don’t think either of us had ever consumed a scotch this old, and not only was it very much appreciated, it was incredibly smooth with hints of honey, orange, raspberry and milk chocolate on the pallet.
Holy shit does not even begin to describe how good this stuff was.
I was up yet again at the crack of 4am, and was greeted by a ray of sunlight streaming through the same crack in our blinds. And like yesterday, after confirming the time, crawled back under the covers, and when 7am finally did roll around, got up and dressed, opened the door to our room, and was greeted by an overcast sky, blustery winds and a temperature reading of 42 degrees.
I was beginning to think the damn thermometer was either broken, or simply frozen in place.
Because this was our last day in camp, and pick up time was scheduled for 4pm, we didn’t want to venture too far afield, so decided to make a return visit to “Middle Finger.” One thing I will say is that while the fish were all relatively small, 8 to 12 pounds tops, they hit like freight trains, and fought like cornered Tigers.
It really was a crappy day, and after catching about a dozen, decided to head back to the lodge, pack up our gear, slurp down some soup, and then relax until the taxi arrived.
The rest of the crew caught fish as well, but I don’t recall anyone getting any over 20. A couple of intrepid souls walked into Achook Lake, a rumoured Pike hot spot, but because of the wind, and only paddles to work with, they didn’t stay long, but did manage to catch a couple of small Pike nevertheless.
Our ride arrived at 4 on the button, so me, Derek, Gordon, Kenny, Greg and Rick piled in, with the rest following on the 5pm flight.
Once back, following a couple of cocktails and a very good dinner – which also started off with a bowl of hot soup - Kenny and Derek continued the Cribbage match they had started last week, with Kenny taking the title by winning 2 out 3 falls.
Well, Th-th-th-th-th-That's all, Folks!
I must say that these past 2 weeks simply flew by.
Both were fantastic in their own right, and Kenny and I had such a good time, we’re going to do it all over again next year, albeit a week later in hopes of getting some good weather that does not feature large pans of ice.
As mentioned, June and Dean were fantastic, as were our fellow Arctic “Circlites,” and thanks to all for making this past week so enjoyable.
According to my notes, as a group we caught well north of 1500 fish, including more than 50 that topped 20, and in some cases 30 pounds, and while the 40’s and 50’s proved to be illusive, which is not uncommon, it was in my opinion a damn fine week of fishing, particularly when you throw in some very nice Grayling and a few Pike to round things off.
Chummy’s change over day “deal with the Devil” (everyone always gets in or out on change over day) would be put to the test yet again this Saturday, because just after breakfast Chuk announced that our flight was indefinitely delayed, because someone, or some thing, had severed the fibre optical cable in YK that provided both cellular and internet service to the entire area.
The reason why this was problematic, is that the folks at Summit Air could not file their flight plan with Transport Canada, meaning they were not going any place soon.
Oh well, if nothing else it gave Derek the opportunity to get even with Kenny by playing a few more games of cribbage.
Our charter finally did turn up, giving Derek and Gordon enough time to catch their flight to Calgary, and make their connection on the red eye to Toronto - but unfortunately their luggage was not on the same plane.
I guess Chummy’s change over day “deal” doesn’t cover luggage once you leave Great Bear Lake…
Finally, the guys who came into Circle after us were kind enough to share some of their pictures, many of which were somewhat washed out because of all the bright sunlight they had to contend with. Grrrr.
Take a moment and check out the gallery below, featuring some additional images the guys were kind enough to share.
- And the Gangs All Here! - Arctic Circle Lodge - July 9 through 16, 2022
- We're Back! Plummer's Great Bear Lodge - July 2 through 9, 2022
- Cameron Bay, Great Bear Lake - The Story of the Northwest Territories’ First Boom Town by Ryan Silke
- Great Bear Lake: A Paradise for Both Anglers and Birders Alike
- How We Almost Lost the Tree River