Great Slave Lake: Canada’s jewel of the North
Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories — We tend to believe in this water-blessed region of North America that we know lakes. After all, this is Michigan, rimmed by one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Most of us have trekked Great Lakes shorelines, not entirely, but with some frequency and with a certain expertise that comes from having dwelled a lifetime amid such splendor.
And then you spend a week fishing on a body of water you’ve long known about, long wished to see, long wished to better understand, given that it is the 15th-largest and second-deepest (2,014 feet) lake in the entire world.
In the span of an hour, traveling in an 18-foot Lund aluminum boat, pushed by a 40-horsepower Mercury engine, and steered by Marshall Forster, a 19-year-old guide of broad skills, you see, in a watery corridor flanked by 300-foot rock bluffs, interspersed by the occasional spruce-spired island, the dramatic geographical and seismological uniqueness to Great Slave Lake.
It’s right there in red numerals displayed on the screen of Forster’s Humminbird depth-and-fish finder.
In the time it takes to motor across a few hundred square yards we go from 37 feet, to 170, then, immediately to 660. And then to experiencing the chill of sitting in a small boat above a staggering 1,362-foot hole.
On the opposite side of rock bluffs that stick finger-like into the lake’s east arm, we are maybe a half-mile from the spot in Christie Bay where the depth plummets to 2,014 feet. It is the deepest place in any lake on Earth apart from Russia’s Lake Baikal, which drops to 5,387.
Catching big fish
But we are not here to chronicle water depths. We are here for fish. Primarily, lake trout, those toothy, attacking, cold-water predators that in this lake 1,200 miles north of the Montana-Canada border can reach 50 or 60 pounds or more.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in early August, eight days ago, when the Territories’ eyeblink of a summer season unveiled itself in heavenly ways. After a relatively slow morning in 80-degree air, fewer than 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, we ate a quick chicken-sandwich lunch while drifting in a lovely, three-sided cliff-and-water amphitheater known as Horseshoe Bay.
My partner was Scott Gardner, an associate editor with Outdoor Canada magazine with whom I’ve fished on earlier trips to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Gardner is deft at every facet of fishing, from using a fly-rod, to tying his own Mardi Gras-flavored pike and lake-trout flies, to knowing a variety of terrific knots. On this afternoon, he rigged swim-baits and lead-headed jigs, attaching Twister tails in alluring white and chartreuse, and, importantly, clasping a trailing “stinger” treble hook to the lure’s body a few inches behind the main 4/0 hook.
It would make it easier to pull in lakers whose hard mouths are super-suited to spitting out hooks. I was using a four-ounce, lead-headed jig with a green bucktail, chartreuse Twister tail, double-teamed with a stinger Gardner had woven into the bait’s soft plastic body. It was a standard saltwater lure perfectly geared for Great Slave’s trout.
At precisely 1:18 p.m. — you take note of these times when a good fish hits — I got slammed somewhere between 60 feet and this particular spot’s 90-foot bottom.
All of 15 seconds later, Gardner, who was dropping a five-ounce Savage Gear Sandeel with a seven-inch, vibrating, chartreuse-and-white paddletail, also got walloped.
Forster could see by the way the rod-tips headed south these were going to be two trophy-grade (20-pound) lakers, fought and reeled in simultaneously.
“Oh, this is going to be a junkshow,” Forster said, although he might have used a syllable different from “junk” as he cut the motor and scrambled for his net.
Reel-drags whined in a big-fish melody until the lakers surrendered. Forster scooped up mine, a 19-pounder, and an instant later added Gardner’s 23-pounder to the net.
Forty-two pounds of lake trout lay in the mesh before they were unhooked and sent tail-wagging back home into some of the world’s purest water. We already were four days into a week-long stay at Plummers Arctic Lodges, which has camps farther north at the even-larger Great Bear Lake. For nearly 80 years, Plummers has had an outpost here, at a rocky, island-strewn spillway known as Taltheilei Narrows, deep in wilderness 93 miles east of Yellowknife, a town of 20,000 that sprouted during the last century when gold was uncovered in these parts and people and businesses converged.
Gardner and I had arrived aboard a Cessna float plane after flights had taken me from Windsor, to Toronto, to Calgary, and then north to Yellowknife, after which the short-hop Cessna ride dropped us into Taltheilei and to our cabin.
The area is staggering in its facets. There are the Narrows, which act as a swirling bottleneck through which passes water from lake-and-river drainages that can flow from the east, or more regularly, from the westerly Mackenzie River. There are no serous rapids here, but the water is active and fueled by warmer flow from McLeod Bay that keeps the Narrows open even when the rest of Great Slave is six-feet thick in ice.
The Narrows, like the lake, are loaded with fish: big lakers, and in the rocky, churning water in front of the cabin, Arctic grayling with their miniature sailfish-like dorsal fins. Eagles, loons, and gulls fly and fish here. Moose often chomp on water plants along the Narrows’ opposite shoreline. Lynx and wolves have homes here. Caribou, too, migrate along these rocky, cedar-and-birch thoroughfares. And not very far away, even shaggy musk oxen traipse in an area at just under 63 degrees latitude where in the winter, particularly, that spellbinding phenomenon known as the Northern Lights dance in dazzling color and drama.
The lake itself is a huge tract filled with some of the oldest rock formations on earth — 2.6 billion years. Glaciation didn’t begin gouging its corridors and lake beds until 2 million years ago and finished only about 5,000 years ago after the last of the ice shield melted.
“It’s difficult to say that any geological formation is not unique, because all are different,” said Lou Covello, a geologist from Yellowknife who knows the Great Slave Lake area intimately. “What separates this region is it’s visual impact on the human eye. And, in that respect, in terms of uniqueness, it certainly is. It’s visually pleasing.”
Covello says only one of the Great Lakes, awesome Superior, in the Thunder Bay region, shares Great Slave’s geological traits. No surprise Superior is also the deepest of the Great Lakes (1,332 feet) and is closest to Great Slave in its architecture, with the Pictured Rocks something of a corollary to bluffs and cliffs that can rise 500 feet above the water below.
Our fishing plan for Great Slave was fairly consistent: Dardevle spoons were trolled in shallower lake water (40 feet or less) and in the Narrows. In deeper columns up to 100 feet we dropped jigs from the boat and let them tumble to the bottom. Rather than jigging in a vertical, drop-down fashion familiar to those who hunt Detroit River walleye, we learned it was better to let the jig hit the lake’s floor and then follow with a simple, steady retrieve when lakers often were suspended at different depths.
The morning after Gardner and I hit our lake-trout double, we were back at Horseshoe Bay dropping the same heavy jigs. Forster could see on his Humminbird fish were stacked nearly from top to bottom. Nothing, though, was biting even as he could see on the screen fish chasing my big-headed jig with its bucktail and Twister touches.
It was decided, on a lark, to try an old, not terribly imaginative, trick. On the retrieve I put a twitch into the jig as I cranked my Shimano spin reel.
This was a slam more than a hit. Forster liked the way the rod tip was contorting and I liked not only the feel of a good fish but also the sound of that Shimano drag screeching as the laker tore a few yards of 40-pound braided line from the reel.
Five or so minutes later Forster had it in the net: 22 pounds, thick and a lovely steel-gray with reddish fins and probably a gut filled with ciscoes that tend to be the lakers’ daily entrees here.
The show wasn’t over. All of 15 minutes passed before another hog, this one 23 pounds, spilled into Forster’s net.
Restoring the lake
As with all of the nearly 300 fish caught in our boat over seven days, the big boy was returned to Great Slave to swim and spawn and gorge on ciscoes. This is a catch-and-release lodge and has been for at least the past three decades. It was the policy at one time for guests to keep fish 30 pounds or bigger. But conservationists’ and their data finally won.
Fish in these parts grow, at most, a half-pound a year. The bigger the fish the better the genetics and the better a rich fishery sustains itself. The mission is aided by barbless hooks that are gentler on gills and mouths and keep fish mortality at a minimum.
It is why you can catch fish in Great Slave all day long and still keep one for shore lunch, which was our happy fate on at least four days. The routine is known to anyone who fishes in Canada’s wilds.
Catch a fish of four or five pounds that has enough filets for three hungry guys in a boat. At noon, slip the boat onto a rocky or sandy shore. Build a quick fire as the guide puts his knife to the laker (or walleye, or northern pike, or whatever, at other locales), which might an hour earlier have still been swimming. The guide gently strips out bones, then backs his knife along the fish, skin-side down, until he has a platter full of perfect filets.
Next, cube some potatoes and peel an onion. Throw a can of baked beans on the grill resting over a crackling fire. Heat some oil in a pair of iron frying pans and toss in the filets and potatoes/onions.
Now, pop a beverage, find a rock (or bring a collapsible chair) to sit upon, and with sun and blue sky and cold, crystal-blue water combining for a heavenly ambience, dig into the freshest of all feasts.
Then, in an hour, resume fishing.
We were joined for shore lunch on our last day of fishing by a pair of lodge guests, Buzz Grant and Bob Thiessen, businessmen and lifelong friends from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who along with their guide, Jim Paulson, brought fish and some delectable fish chowder that turned our mid-day break into more of a picnic.
Thiessen settled against his folding chair, a plate of lake trout, potatoes and beans resting on his lap.
“Man, this is beautiful — this is unreal,” he said, as Grant gave a thumbs-up. “How fortunate we are to experience this.”
We had savored another slice of Eden a couple of days earlier when Gardner and I traveled 75 minutes down Great Slave to fish a string of bays named “Goldmine” and “Snakepit.”
We had put the lake trout on hold for a day to chase two favorites: northern pike and Arctic grayling. And we scored big-time. Grayling have been a personal addiction since I caught my first in Manitoba in 1987.
They are a marvel, these fish, which are about the size of brook trout. The tall dorsal fin is their sartorial calling card. These grayling flashed in their dorsals a hue of translucent blue made radiant when the fish surfaced, the fin spread, and caught the high sun’s rays.
They have a gray-lavender cast to their bodies and are sprinkled with charcoal dots on their flanks as well as periwinkle splotches you more often see in brook trout.
I caught at least 20 grayling as we slid past shoreline rocks and submerged boulders in 8-to-10 feet of water. Gardner landed a batch more with his fly rod, as he had earlier at Snakepit when he took a 34-inch pike on a gaudy red-and-black Monster Magic fly. Later in the day I got 36- and 37-inch pike on my spinning outfit, thanks to a weedless Johnson Silver Minnow spoon accented by white-and-green Twister tails.
Gardner’s fly rod was magic, too, on lake trout, especially during our last hours Friday, fishing the Narrows. He was tossing one of his homemade beauties, a blue-and-green articulated (jointed) honey of a fly that coaxed lakers from the Narrows current and eddies.
It led, a few hours later, to the trip’s grand finale. We were on the lodge’s deck sipping post-dinner Scotch or whisky or whatever, an interchanging group of 10 or so who were fishing Plummers last week.
It was 9:40 and, at a place where two months ago the sun would still have been high, twilight spilled across the Narrows. Just off the shoreline, two bald eagles sped east in a fly-by. Five minutes later, one of the eagles reversed flight plans and soared by with a lake trout maybe 18 inches hanging from its talons.
The eagle landed on a big boulder to the lodge’s west. And there it tore into dinner, in the setting sun’s candlelight, perhaps as contented, as gratified, as blessed as was at least one man who from this place and night never wanted to leave.
If you’re going to Great Slave Lake ...
Location: Plummers Arctic Lodge at Great Slave Lake is about 93 miles east of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, on Taltheilei Narrows. Yellowknife is about 1,200 miles north of the Montana-Canada border. Plummers is accessible by float plane, or more commonly, by light passenger aircraft that can land and take off from a long gravel airstrip behind the lodge.
Season: Ice is out at Great Slave at the end of June or in the early days of July. Fishing trips extend from early July through August. Weather during this time can range from 40 degrees to 80. Prepare for anything. Layers are wise. And be sure to bring sunscreen. Mosquitoes the week we were there were no problem.
Flight info: A typical flight from Metro Detroit or elsewhere in Michigan mandates getting to Yellowknife. Connecting flights can reach Yellowknife from Calgary or other western Canada towns. My flight originated in Windsor, with connections in Toronto, Calgary, and Yellowknife ahead of the final charter flight to Plummers.
Cost: Let’s face it, for most people, these trips are expensive. But with some planning and budgeting they’re achievable. Trips spanning three to seven days range in price from $2,495 to $4,295. Flights to Yellowknife are not included and run in the $600 range. Camp gratuities, lodge store and bar — plan on a few hundred dollars extra. One overnight stay will be required in Yellowknife. The Explorer Hotel is a comfortable, affordable, upscale haven.
Equipment: You can bring your own tackle, although it isn’t necessary. The lodge has excellent Shimano rods and reels. Lures, yes, are wise to bring and are far more affordable domestically than buying them at the lodge store. Spoons and heavy jigs are the tickets here. We stuck with Huskie Devle and Junior Devle spoons, with Fire Tiger an excellent color choice, as well as copper creased by an orange stripe. We also used 30-pound monofilament for our leaders. Fly-fishing is possible for three species: lake trout, Arctic grayling, and northern pike.
Accomodations: The lodge is beautiful, with full dining service, bar, fireplace, etc. Breakfasts and dinners are robust.
Contact: Plummers Artic Lodges’ website can be found at plummerslodges.com. Email information can be accessed at email@example.com.
Phone numbers: 204-774-5775, or toll free: 800-665-0240. Another good contact is Northwest Territories Tourism at spectacularNWT.com.