Roughing it on Nunavut’s Tree River

Can’t say there is a whole lot of silver lining when it comes to Covid-19 but one thing is certain –I don’t have to worry about Secret Service kicking me out of my fishing hole. International travel to the North has been largely verboten or very difficult arrange for going on two years. If you’re a tourism operator that sucks. For a northern angler though, that means no dog guarding the henhouse.

Which brings me to Nunavut’s Tree River. The Central Arctic river is the big char Mecca of the world, and as such, it is guarded jealously by Plummer’s Arctic Lodges. The company has been running a high-end fishing camp, parked below the river’s first set of rapids, for more than 40 years. Most guests are well-heeled so tolerance for riff-raff rough-fishing bums is very low. Visitors include the late former president, George H. Bush. Presidential Pool, a bouldery lie halfway up the river, was named by the lodge in his honour. Non-lodge visitors are definitely not welcome but it’s not like it is an easy place to get to anyway. Being that tourism has been non-existent the last couple of years, though, if there was ever a time for a group of pork and beaners like us to horn in on the place, this was the year. My friend was organizing a trip so, of course, I had to go.

Anticipating a lot of hiking through hummocky tundra, I packed extremely light. A small tent, sleeping bag, some freeze-dried food and as much fishing gear I felt I could comfortably carry. This included an eight and a half foot heavy-medium spinning rod I thought suitable for long-range casts across the river, an eight weight fly rod, and a lighter, relatively soft spinning rod I intended to use to target non-char species, such as broad whitefish. I’ve been chasing this fish for many years without success. A Youtube video I watched before the trip showed an angler holding a fair-sized one - pushing about four pounds – with a backdrop of swift Tree behind him. I brought an assortment of flies, beads and small lures in hopeful anticipation of knocking off this long sought-after lifelist fish.

A note about the char. These are not Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus). Not really. At least not the trophy fish anglers pursue. DNA analysis conducted about a dozen years ago revealed how this particular population’s genetic ancestry was in fact, almost entirely Dolly Varden (S. malma) with a smidgen – less than 10 per cent – of Arctic Char genes. The lodge nor the IGFA are on board with that just yet. Who wants to drop 7k on a fishing trip for dollies? The world record Arctic Char is still a 32-pounder pulled from the Tree in 1981. I have read there are Arctic Char in the Tree as well but I saw none I recognized as one -- large, creamy spots mid-body (as opposed to smaller, more numerous pinker spots), lighter background, a more forked tail and thinner caudal peduncle. I have caught what I believe were both pure (or at least mostly) Arctic Char (see lifelist photo) and more commensurate Arctic Char-Dolly hybrids at the Coppermine River 80 miles to the west. But char are confusing, especially mid-continent where the Tree spills its brawling, blue guts into the Arctic Ocean’s Coronation Gulf.

We found many tiny fish in puddles and pools at the river's margins. They were all baby char.

Arriving at the river, our Twin Otter pilot performed a quick succession of manoeuvres through a gully so tight to the ground we could see the moose munching on tundra as we zipped past fog-shrouded hillsides. Moose are a new addition to the Central Arctic coastline – driven north by the warming climate – but they have become increasingly common. We counted close to a dozen just from the plane. Wildlife is plentiful in this lush Arctic oasis but only out of shear tenacity. The riverbank would be deep with snow within a couple months, frozen until the Mourning Cloak butterflies show at the end of June.

Walking through the Arctic tundra is deceptively difficult. Most plants don't grow above your waist the hummocky ground can be near impossible to walk on.

The river was everything I imagined it would be. Muddy and slow down where the plane landed but it changed quickly a few hundred yards upstream where the first set of rapids spilled out in front of the lodge. From therein, for about two miles upstream until the angler reaches the last impenetrable waterfall, the river is a relentless bolt of icy tundra water so impossibly clear and blue it was difficult to imagine anything could live in it. That notion was dispelled after reaching the first big pool on my second or third cast. A pre-spawn “Big Red” male char materialized from the pool depths and chomped at my over-sized Wolverine Phantom spoon.

“Woah!” I shouted in surprise, pulling back to set the hook. But there was nothing there.

Another cast brought along another rouged up follower but again, no solid bite.

I don't know who this fellow is but he undoubtedly love visiting the Tree River

A bunch of us worked the pool over pretty good but only after some time did a friend finally land a seven or eight-pound Big Red. I tried some smaller presentations for whitefish, which promptly produced a two-pound Lake Trout but nothing more came after that. I left the others behind, past Presidential Pool and worked my way up to a smaller pool where my friend and fellow roughfish.com member Yk Gordo and another angler had already set up shop. They were killing it! Fish were coming to shore as I walked up to them. I start chucking a Pixie spoon – the perennial char favourite – and before long I had my first Tree River char on the line – a big, green hen. But the fish popped off just as it neared the shore. Yk Gordo caught one more monster Red and then, nothing. The fish in the pool stayed deep after that.

I began to spazz out. I needed to catch one of these fish! It occurred to me just then that there was a lot of anglers in our group – 10 – and not many pools to fish in. The three of us made our way up to the final pool, a lake really, at the head of which sits one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Yk Gordo immediately began to catch more char. I struck out entirely. We later surmised his longer 9.5-foot rod allowed him to reach some busy water that was just out of reach of reach of my eight-footer. In any event, it was an utter disaster for me at that point. I hooked another small lake trout while poking around for whitefish once more but time and options for catching a large, spawning run char were slipping away fast. We had two days to fish this section of river, and most of the first day was already done.

Dolly Varden appeared to dominnate the upper river but there were also small lake trout present
 At the tail end of the big pool, though, on our way back down the river, I took a cast into some dark water before it spilled over into some Class 5 rapids that ended in a waterfall. Suddenly, a solid bite after a few cranks on the retrieve. I could see it was a large hen char undulating and head-shaking in the current. I fought her precariously over the last ebb of calm water before it spilled into rapids. By and by I managed to pull her by my side as another member of our party scooped her into a waiting net. Tree River char at last!

A Big Red is lost at the net

We fished the smaller pool on our way down but there no fish to be had after a full day of pressure. I made up my mind right then and there to get up early the next morning and bee-line back to the pool after giving the char a rest for the night. I woke up next morning at 4 a.m. with two other guys. After a quick bite we hiked right back to the river where people had the most success and found we had the place to ourselves. One fellow hooked and lost a Big Red after two or three casts and then caught another. I too hooked another fish – a well-spotted, 30-inch hen!

My first Tree River char - a large hen Dolly Varden

My second Tree River char -- a 30-inch apparently post-spawn hen

Other than one more huge Big Red snagged by the dorsal, that was the last char caught among us out of that pool. In fact, very few char were caught the second day, including by Yk Gordo who caught at least 10 the previous day. I did hook a smaller, non-spawning char while floating a bead egg leant to me by a fly fisherman among our party but it popped off before I could land it. Out of the ten people in our party, only half of them caught any char and only a few caught more than two or three. This has more or less been my experience after three attempts at catching “Arctic” char in rivers. They seem willing biters at first but spook quickly once they encounter any kind of fishing pressure. Having seven guys chucking big spoons into a 100-yard wide pool will definitely produced varied results. They seem less guarded in the sea but also less concentrated. It would’ve been nice to have landed a Big Red on this trip but I’m happy to have caught two nice hens. Yk Gordo has pictures of some amazing char, including some heavily kyped males over three feet in length and 20 lbs in weight. Perhaps he will share those here.

A sea-run Lake Trout caught in front of the Plummer's camp. It had been gorging on Arcrtic Cod.

Partially digested cod from inside the Lake Trout's stomach.

One final note. I hooked into a nice eight-pound lake trout, right across the Plummer’s camp, just as we were preparing to leave. I decided to keep it and quickly went about gutting the trout where I found it had been feeding heavily on Arctic cod. A sea-run Lake Trout! Very rare, according to my copy of Marine Fishes of Arctic Canada. Unlike other char, Lake Trout only head to the ocean in a few locations – all in the High Arctic, and only a few from each specific population. All I can say, is it was delicious baked in lemon juice and mayonnaise.

Presumably, Plummer’s will be back to regular operations before long. Covid really sucks but I’m glad I got to experience the river unbridled as it were. Fishing was tough, and yet again, no success with the Broad Whitefish but definitely an experience of a lifetime!

Comments

BradleyR's picture

Amazing stuff man! Thanks for sharing these stories from all the hard-to-get places!

TonyS's picture

Man that looks cool!

Peeling Line's picture

Incredible catches.  Does the cod count for the lifelist?  I wonder what people pay to go up there to fish.  

Mike B's picture

Under roughfish.com rules, I would think not! (cod count). I wrote the fish I pulled out of laker's belly were Arctic Cod. Likely but could also be saffron cod, which are on my lifelist. They were pretty digested so I can't be certain. Here's the link for Plummer's https://www.plummerslodges.com/lodges/tree-river/. $7300 a week, which actually seems pretty reasonable all things considered. We paid $1800 Cdn each for our plane seats and only stayed one night so no such thing as a cheap trip to the Tree River.

mike b

Peeling Line's picture

I was just kidding about the cod.  That actually seems reasonable (but probably not to my wife).  When I worked in Northern BC and Alaska they would put us up in lodges for moose hunting and they usually cost around 10 grand a week.  That was a decade ago so I would expect them to be more now.

andy's picture

Wow what a cool place.  Those big ass dollys are something else, and today I learned about sea-run lake trout.

Thanks for sharing Mike B!

drawer.bli's picture

Amazing stuff; once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip! That sea run laker is way cool

Goldenfishberg's picture

Hey nothing wrong with being a pork and bean feller! Heck we have more fun than the rich folks do, at least that's what I tell myself. Excellent report, those dollies are something most can only dream about! My mouth is watering just thinking about that sea run lake trout with the lemon and Mayo. But I have to ask the obiquitous question - what brand of Mayo???

Ya just Can't catch um from the couch.