It is a land frozen in time, an ancient place shrouded in both mystery and legend.
The people of Great Bear Lake - the Sahtu Dene have lived here since the beginning of time as we would perhaps understand it, and through the generations have handed down stories of Na acho - the gigantic mammals and birds that once roamed the earth.
While it is unlikely that you will encounter a T-Rex today, the lake now boasts a new generation of giants - Lake Trout. These fish, which can grow to sizes in excess of 100 pounds, are very old. Because of the extremely cold water (it rarely makes it above fifty five degrees) the growth rate is so slow that a fifty pound trout is estimated to be about 100 years old. This explains why, except for a small "lunch" fish that can be consumed on a daily basis, Great Bear is a catch and release fishery even though the lake - all 12,000 square miles of it - is visited by only a handful of anglers throughout July and August.
As we flew over the lake we noticed that it was enveloped in a thick blanket of fog. This could only mean one thing during the month of July - ice, and lots of it. As it turned out we were right, and the lake had significant ice cover on over fifty percent of its surface area. As we made the 125 mile flight from the main lodge to outpost lodge where we would be fishing, the lake was an endless sea of white with only the occasional small dark strip of open water.
One thing that you learn very quickly when fishing in the far north is to expect the unexpected. Our motto is - we plan - we worry - we arrive and then we adapt. Our group- together with our "motto" - were going to be tested this week.
Fortunately the water around the lodge was open but we were not at all sure if we were going to be able to fish the shallow sand flats located to the east of the lodge. The sand flat areas can be very productive if you hit them just after ice out as they are the first to warm and usually attract bait fish which are then followed by the big trout who, for the most part have been fasting for the better part of ten months.
Well, the only way to find out for sure is to get out there, so after putting our tackle together and grabbing a quick bite, we were on our way.
Unfortunately the main area of the flats was completely jammed with ice, so we didn't have too many options in terms of where to fish. We took water temperature readings both along the flows edge and about 100 yards out. The difference was about five degrees Fahrenheit with the warmer water - a balmy thirty nine degrees - being along the flows edge.
Deciding to fish the "warmer" water our choice paid off. Trolling a metallic green T60 Flatfish I saw a silver -grey blur shoot out from under the ice and moments later I got a bone jarring strike. The fish ran out over 100 yards of line - yes 100 yards. Forget everything that you may know or have heard about the fighting qualities of lake trout - Great Bear trout take no prisoners. Luckily for me it headed out into open water because if it had ducked back under the ice, my line would have been in shreds. Twenty minutes later there was thirty two pounds of silver/ blue lake trout making one hell of a fuss in the net, and this was only the beginning.
Less than five minutes later another fish was on and after a similar battle we landed a thirty four pounder. The fishing remained extremely hot and after about three hours of non stop action we simply stopped counting. We followed the same pattern for the remainder of the week resulting in our group catching and releasing 106 trout that were twenty pounds and over. This total included fish weighing fifty - fifty two - fifty three - fifty five - fifty six and fifty seven pounds - the Great Bear versions of "Troutzilla"!
While the lake trout fishing was exceptional the Grayling and Pike fishing exceeded our expectations. We caught the majority of the Grayling by positioning the boat just off the edge of the flow and flipping a small spinner onto the ice and then dragging it into the water. As it spiraled down the Grayling would shoot out from under the ice frantically trying to grab the spinner.
After three hours of Pike fishing one afternoon my partner and me landed just over fifty Pike with the largest being twenty pounds. I would be remiss if I did not mention the "Rodney Dangerfield" of Great Bear - the Whitefish, and, unlike Rodney, they definitely deserve your respect. They have a tendency to be rather spooky and very particular about the type of lure you throw, and how it is presented. As for size, it is not uncommon to catch fish that are ten pounds or better.
Your best chances to catch them is by cruising the shallows, and once you spot some fish, lead them with either a very small grub or a fly. It's not unlike fishing for bonefish on the flats down south. They are exceptional fighters and having ten pounds of Whitefish go airborne on your ultra-lite or a six-weight fly rod is an experience that you will not soon forget.
Last and certainly not least there are fly - outs available for what is hands down the worlds best Arctic Char fishing. You can fish either the Coppermine or Tree Rivers and both offer tremendous fast water fishing, beautiful scenery and in the case of the Tree, it boasts the current world record Char at thirty two pounds nine ounces.
If you love river fishing for steelhead or salmon then you have got to give this a try.
A trip to Great Bear is not for everyone. You can run into ice, wind and all manner of nasty weather that the Arctic can throw at you in a moments notice. You will have bad days and extra ordinary days- and it's not cheap. That said the fishery and the total experience on the "Bear" is in my opinion second to none.
So, the next time someone expresses an opinion that the fishing is not what it used to be, you can tell them that you know of a place where "used to be" is now - and if we are very careful, will always remain so.