A one-of-a-kind catch in a one-of-a-kind place
Salvelinus namaycush. Tyrant of the lakes.
At the time, it was my nemesis. My fly fishing Ark of the Covenant. My angling El Dorado. As I stood on the banks of the Otherside River lining up the photo of the big fish, I felt a noticeable weight lift off my shoulders. The rain, for just a few minutes, stopped. A beam of sunshine poked through the low ceiling of clouds and I felt as though I’d just accomplished something nobody else on earth had ever done.
Truth be told, I probably did. But that’s for later in this tale.
I’d tried for five days to catch a lake trout on a fly. I’d been denied each time.
The second day of our trip at Blackmur’s Athabasca Lodge in the far northwest corner of Saskatchewan, we were informed of one of Lake Athabasca’s oddities — an early spawning run of lake trout that actually swim like salmon or steelhead into the rivers that enter the enormous lake. They get so thick, we were told, that during the peak of the run they’re an “every cast” proposition at the mouth of the Otherside River situated conveniently within eyesight of the lodge.
The peak of the run?
“Any minute now,” said Cliff Blackmur, the namesake of the lodge that put up with us for a week. “They’re late, so we’re expecting them while you’re here.”
But, even a decade ago, Cliff could tell things were changing. Weather patterns were different in the north country these days. This time of year, he said, things should be dry and sunny during the day, and temperatures should be tickling the 32-degree mark overnight. Instead, on the second day at Blackmur’s the wind whipped up out of the west, blowing in a front that brought with it four straight days of unsettled weather that included frequent rain (heavy at times), powerful gusts of wind and breakers on the lake that rivaled any I’ve experienced at sea. Nighttime temps dipped only into the 40s thanks to constant cloud cover.
It’s the cold, Cliff explained, that brings this unique run of lakers — small by Mackinaw standards, weighing in between four and 12 pounds — into the river mouth and eventually up into the rapids and runs of the river to spawn. Without the cold, there’s no telling when the fish will show up.
But things were looking up. That very morning, our guide, Louie Isadore, motored us into the mouth of the river, and my fishing partner, Kirk Deeter, proceeded to stick a nice 10-pound laker on a purple bunny leach. It was a sign of good things to come.
But over the next several days, reports of lakers entering the river were spotty at best. We’d try each morning before heading out to face the wind and the rain on the big lake, and more often than not, we’d come up empty.
Louie had the most logical explanation.
“The fish are not here,” said the native Canadian and a member of the Black Lake First Nation. “Let’s try somewhere else.” And off we’d go, to chase northern pike with fly rods, a thrill to be sure. But the trout … their absence at the end of my fly line haunted me for days.
Then, as reports of lakers in the river mouth became more prominent (“We got four in 20 minutes!” … that sort of thing) from fellow guests at the lodge, my inability to hook into one of the big fish was beginning to get under my skin. Finally, I came to grips with the likely reality — it wasn’t meant to be. The lakers wouldn’t be had, at least not by me, and not on this trip.
So, I took an afternoon toward the end of our week in the north country, hijacked Louie, and marched him up the Otherside River a mile or two to catch the lowly whitefish. The Athabasca whitefish is actually considered a worthy catch here in Saskatchewan. Louie, over the course of the week, raved about the whitefish’s fighting ability, and I’m certain the fish has found its way to the table of many a First Nation family over the years.
I figured, since the lakers weren’t cooperating, I could at least add the whitefish to my trip’s small list of conquests.
We arrived at the river, and Louie pointed to the water, where sizable fish were actually rising, presumably to some unseen insect. I figured the catching would be rather simple — where I come from, whitefish don’t require too much thought to connect with, and they have saved many a trout trip from utter disaster. “Whities” will often take a fly when a rainbow or brown will remain stubbornly tight-lipped.
So when I tied a size 12 Adams to the tippet of my four-weight rod, I expected to make a couple of casts and latch into a whitefish. It wasn’t to be. In fact, as I stood hip-deep in the cold waters of this Athabascan river an hour later, trimming back a size 18 micro-caddis to little more than a bare hook so that it might, just possibly, resemble the emerger that these fish were obviously eating, I wondered to myself, “Could whitefish possibly be this selective? And could they possibly be this selective … here? In the middle of nowhere?”