Archive for November, 2008

BOREALIS CHAR

It was my first trip to the Ungava peninsula and we were determined to accomplish what nobody with any fishing sense thought possible – catch an Artic char on a dry fly! As guests of a local hunting outfitter who had invited us to evaluate the fly-fishing potential of his territory, we flew in from Montreal on Air Inuit and landed in Kujuuak, formerly known as Fort Chimo. And while it was a mere two hour flight that separated our daily existences, it was like landing in another world altogether.

As the plane came in for its final descent, the arctic landscape came into view where the boreal forest sharply ended and the tundra began, a rich tapestry of greens and blues, thousands of rivers and lakes as far as the eye could see. It was hard to tell if there was more land or water. As we circled the airstrip, the dirt roads and shacks of the settlement could be seen clearly from the air and there seemed to be no movement on the ground. The mighty Koksoak river, influenced by the tidal waters of Ungava Bay, was at low tide and had left several fishing boats stranded on its sandy banks. A few lay broken and bare on the shoreline, like giant whales that had beached themselves, dead corpses in an advanced state of decomposition, their broken backs and ribs exposed like skeletons in an open grave. Like all of nature in this desolate place, the river imposes its rythm on the inhabitants and their way of life and forces them to adapt their activities to it’s incessant ebb and flow.

We were met at the airport by one of the men working for the outfitter who, upon our request, dropped us off in town to pick up some last minute supplies at the Hudson’s bay Store, instructing us to meet him at the smaller air field at the outskirts of town once we were done. His sentence barely complete, half in English and French, the wheels of the Ford pick-up began spinning and we were left in a cloud of dust on the side of the road. The weather was unusually warm, with the mercury rising above a hundred fahrenheit and nothing stirred save for a mangy brown dog that crossed the dusty road and dissappeared behind a corrugated structure that looked like a warehouse. The village was like a deserted ghost town. The general supply store was one of the oldest fur trading posts in the country, and as we walked through aisles overstocked with canned goods, ammunition, fishing tackle, and clothing, the wood flooring creaked beneath our footsteps and an age-old musty smell of trading history emanated from the floors and brought us back a hundred years to the era of fur-trading. We commented to each other, that strangely, we had not seen another person other than our driver since our arrival. The Inuit were not active in this weather confirmed the non-native cashier at the general store when asked about the whereabouts of the villagers. They were waiting for the weather to turn, she said, as she handed over my receipt and change.

We would be fishing for landlocked char in some inland lakes located northwest of Kujuuak, far above the treeline on the tundra, a vast and lonely landscape bejeweled with millions of lakes and rivers created by the receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. Our base camp, one of eight satellite bases set up along some of the known caribou migration routes of the George River herd, was on Lake Rougemont, a large oligotrophic lake that was home to Artic char, lake, and brook trout.

It was late August and the char were preparing to spawn, staging at the mouth’s of rivers and creeks that flowed into the main lake. These were not sea-run fish and we had assumed that they would display characteristics similar to all trout everywhere and would inherently feel the age old genetic imperative to rise to an insect on the surface. If they weren’t like trout, we reasoned, then maybe they were somewhat like the often enigmatic Atlantic salmon. After all, if the king of finicky fish would, nevertheless, and with uncertain irregularity, smack the bejesus out of a floating fly, the same hopefulness could perhaps exist for the char. After all, we were convinced enough to spend a few thousand dollars on the flight just to test the theory and possibly shed some light on the mystery. This had been the subject that animated many late night fishing discussions for two years until Johnny May, the most famous of all bush pilots in Arctic Quebec, gently alit the pontoons of the Beaver float plane upon the crystalline surface of the lake.

On our first day, under the advisement of Clifford, the camp manager and chief hunting guide, we headed out onto the main lake and began to fish near every trickle of water that discharged into the lake, no matter how small. As we discovered even the smallest flows – literally drops of water falling from three hundred foot rock precipices – would hold fish. Near the first creek we located, we saw huge schools of ghostlike char that mysteriously appeared as shadows and then vanished into the turbulent water, leaving no clue as to their whereabouts. At first we though they were hallucinations. We were so excited that our hands trembled as we tied our flies to the ends of our tippets. This was the moment we had dreamed of for many years, travelling thousands of miles to the top of the world, above the fifty- eighth parrallel in the land of the midnight sun, Eskimos, polar bears, igloos – and now we were about to realize our finest hour.

This was clearly our intention but nobody had told the char.

We drifted every fly in our boxes over their noses without a rise and then every so often, as if to get a rise out of us, a fish would surface near our flies, giving us the hopeful impression that they were rising to something, despite the absence of any visible hatch. As the day drew on without a fish, and the golden sun dropped over the flat horizon, we were both silent as we motored back to base camp. Maybe the naysayers were right and it was an impossible feat.

Unable to sleep that night, frustrated with the first day’s activities, I wandered out my tent to relieve myself in the middle of the night and was met with the most incredible sight of my life – the aurora borealis. The sky was lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors – reds, violets, purples, and pinks – that kept moving and shifting across the horizon, like a colorful curtain, hanging across the sky. For an hour or so, I watched this spectacular light show in complete awe and wondered about how the first Inuit to witness this interpreted this mysterious natural phenomena in their oral mythology.

The next two days were spent flagellating the water with similar results, our psyches becoming increasingly unhinged in the process as at night, under the influence of strong libation, we engaged in wild conjectures about char conspiraces within the Theodore Gordon Society, the mating habits of Arctic muskox, and whether or not Lee Wulff or Roderick Haigh-Brown was the greatest fly fisherman that ever lived.

At the end of each day, as we returned empty-handed, Clifford would would come running to meet us on the beach and upon hearing of our results would proclaim that he had the solution to our problems in his shirt pocket. His sharp blue eyes, hardened by years of living on the tundra, glittered with childlike amusement as he would then proceed to pull out several white curly tail jigs heads, waving them teasingly in front of our faces.

In order to maintain our faith in the feather and maintain what little sanity remained, in between our unsuccessful outings for char we took our frustrations out on the many brook trout in the creeks adjoining the various smaller lakes on the territory. At least these trout were willing to hit a dry fly. One particular fly, a black gnat, was very effective and had caught hundreds of fish before we ran out of the pattern. In complete contrast to the char, the trout fishing was so easy it was almost shameful.

On our last day, when failure was almost a certainty, we decided to hike across the tundra and fish another lake a few miles away. The Artic landscape spread before us like another planet and merely walking on the and greenish-grey colored lichen of the tundra was a strange experience, like walking on an uneven sponge and there is always the expectation of falling through its soft carpeting. It is an unforgiving land, and there are signs of it all around us. A sun-bleached, ivory white rack of caribou antlers stands alone on the ground and points skyward in supplication. The remaining bones of the animal are scattered around on the ground, like runes, telling a story about a injured leg or a final struggle with a wolf or bear. One can sense the loneliness of the land, the delicate balance between survival and death, the daily struggle to survive in this hostile environment.

Within minutes after arriving at the lake, my companion managed to get a small char on a streamer and as he fought it, confessed to me how he had stayed up late the night before and switched to a fast-sinking line, hoping I did not mind the breach of mission protocol. It was a beautiful fish, the first Arctic char that either of us had ever seen, other than from photos in fishing magazines. He caught several more fish like this while I continued to drift dries, again using every pattern in the fly box.

At one point, after switching over to a small brown Bomber pattern that had caught some smallmouth bass a few weeks earlier on my home waters and casting out in the current, I placed the rod on a rock and turned around to relieve myself on the tundra. No sooner than my pants were down below my knees there was a terrific splash and my companion began yelling at me. I turned slowly, thinking that he had another fish on but then saw my fly rod bouncing across the rocks towards the water. Leaping forward, I managed to grab the rod before is disappeared into the lake and when I reeled in the slack line I felt the weight of a good fish. The first run took me into my backing and I fought in for a good ten minutes before it finally lay exhausted at my feet.

There it finally was, salvelinus alpinus, glistening in the sun like marvelous piece of museum artwork, sporting the colorations of the aurora borealis along its flanks, the object of a lengthy and noble quest, yet something didn’t feel quite right. Cold wind was blowing through my legs and I had an eerie sensation of being surrounded and watched by an unseen presence. I looked down and realized my pants were still around my ankles. As I stooped down to pull up my pants I suddenly wheeled around to face the tundra and was stunned by the sight that met my eyes. A thousand or so caribou had momentarily slowed down their migration, some at a standtill while others slowly trotted, apparently to stare at the odd human on the tundra, all the while snorting their indifference in the cold Arctic wind. – www.thefishinglife.com

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[youtube]http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=4U8RE64oSiU[/youtube]

the last day

It was the middle of December, and although the possibility of the lake being frozen over was on both our minds, it was not discussed openly during the long drive to the lake. The days were getting shorter and the shadows longer and we both silently knew that it would be one of the last days of the year to catch a musky, and that we would have to wait another six months before the new season opened next summer. As we approached our usual put-in spot we realized that we were already too late, and that a thin layer of ice had already formed on the lake’s surface, stretching out for miles in all directions. Our hearts sank in unison and we both muttered a few imprecatory words before resigning ourselves to the vagaries of winter fishing. It was always risky at this time of year and we were never certain of the success or failure of these winter musky expeditions. This is always hard fishing, the weather is cold and unforgivable, equipment seizes up and becomes prone to failure, the body stiffens and becomes brittle, refusing to move, and the mind plays games on itself. It is not for the faint of heart, only for those whose desire to catch a fish is is matched only by their willingness and ability to suffer. These are not days for your normal fisherman.

We slowly drove down the lakeshore road, searching for any open water that we could find, but to no avail. At one point, probably because the temperature had climbed a degree or two since the early morning, we found a small bay that still had open water, not much, but enough to put the Zodiac in and satisfy our desire to fish. We had caught fish here before, in summer, but it had now been reduced to but a few square acres of open water extending out near a deep weedline. Slowly, we donned our floater suits, hats, gloves, boots, and pumped up the boat. My companion studied his camera and realized that the shutter was unresponsive in the cold, nor would the flash keep a charge. A photo session would not be part of the equation today. Another setback before the day even began.

We loaded all our gear in the inflatable and slid it like a toboggan down the snow covered hill to the water’s edge. Ice had already formed against the rocks on the shoreline and glittered like diamonds in the morning sun. The water was flat and calm, gunmetal blue, the color of cold steel. It looked promising and we pushed off confident that we would see some, albeit limited, action.

Within seconds we rigged up our quick-strike rigs with the largest minnows in the bucket and let the lines trail off behind us on both sides of the boat. We ran one line about fifteen feet back, drifting the minnow in the propwash while another ran sixty or so feet off the port side, right about where the weed line ends and the drop-off begins. Once settled in, we poured hot coffee into ourselves to stay warm and ate peanut butter sandwiches, checking our free-spools every so often to assure that they had not frozen up, as well.

An hour or so after we put in, we had covered all the open water available and were making a last weedline pass when my friend’s clicker suddenly began to sound like a race car engine. Fish on! The hook was set and the fish began moving off under the ice. The fight was sluggish and although the rod was bent to the handle, the fish was a thumper and not a runner, strong but easily manageable. The water was way too cold for running and jumping. The battle would be fought at close quarters, under and around the boat, for several minutes. When we first caught a glimpse of the fish it was a large female, mint colored, and fat with weeks of heavy Fall feeding on protein-rich mooneyes. It came to the boat twice before we were able to hand land it without any struggle on her behalf. For a few seconds, we admired her awesome beauty and marvelled at its hybrid markings. It was a tiger musky, with beautifully patterned stripes of green and ivory that so perfectly mimicked the undulating weedbeds where they live and ambush prey. As we slipped the circle hook out of her mouth and held her in the water, we looked around us and noticed that the ice had starting forming in the bay and that our access to shoreline was now blocked by a translucent sheet of bluish ice. We watched as the fish slowly swam away into the dark and frigid depths. Without a word we both knew it was now the time to leave this place and as the inflatable cut a path through the thin veneer of ice towards the shoreline, we both silently acknowledged that this was our last musky of the year. – ARI VINEBERG