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Angling Abroad: Yukon Territory

6/1/2006

I couldn't help but chuckle at the first words out of Fred Novy's mouth as I shook his hand, my neck bowed against a chilly breeze sifting across the tarmac at the airport in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

"First time here?" Novy asked. "Oh, you're going to bleeping love it. Bleeping love it!"

The "it" that Novy was raving about was the lake trout, Northern pike, Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling fishing in the deep wilderness of the Yukon, the northwestern most of Canada's territories.

Over the course of the next four days, the garrulous Chicagoan would prove to be equally, colorfully, comically candid at the breakfast and dinner table of the Inconnu Lodge, riffing on everything from "those bleeping Cubs" to "that bleeping Jane Fonda."

But I kept his first words in the back of my mind as my fishing partner Chris Shaffer and I climbed aboard a Dehavilland for the one-hour, 185-mile flight into the wilds.

I had first considered a fishing trip to the Yukon Territory several years earlier, after stumbling across a booth for the Inconnu Lodge at a sportsmen's show in California.

There, in poster-sized glory, hung photos of a 50-pound lake trout, a 15-pound pike and a 10-pound Dolly Varden, all caught by clients of the Inconnu, one only four licensed outfitters operating in the 300,000-square mile expanse of unsettled territory between British Columbia and Alaska.

Subsequent research and conversations with Inconnu manager Roy Clark — who showed me stack after stack of photographs of enormous, fly-caught Yukon lakers, pike, Dollies and grayling — convinced me that a week in the Yukon was worth a look.

So there Shaffer and I were — two dudes whose extensive lake trout fishing experience involved downriggers and 300-foot-deep waters — arriving in the September tailout of the Yukon fishing season, deplaning, checking in at the luxurious 6,500-square-foot lodge and hopping in a 16-foot boat with Inconnu guide Colin Foley for a quick "creek tour" of McEvoy Lake, the lodge's home fishery.

"Lake trout are moving to the inlets to spawn, so we'll just fish creek mouths today," Foley said as we beached the boat and fanned out across the mouth of tiny Caribou Creek, which tumbled over a gravelly 10-foot ledge into the east side of the lake.

I tossed a perch-colored Blue Fox spinner out over the ledge, let it drop to the bottom, and started a jig/drop, jig/drop, jig/drop retrieve. Halfway in, I felt a tug, set the hook … and raised my eyebrows in surprise as the 4-pound test started zzzzzttt, zzzzzttt, zzzzzttting off the ultralight spinning reel.

"First fish on the ultralight, and it looks like a good one," Foley said.

Ten minutes later, I gently tailed a 9-pound, deeply colored red, yellow and orange pre-spawn lake trout back over the ledge and out into McEvoy's diamond-clear waters, one thought whispering in the back of my head: "Oh, I'm going to bleeping love this."

Striking new gold

Canada's Yukon became the stuff of North American fable in 1898, when massive veins of gold and copper drew more than 25,000 fortune seekers over the Chilkoot and White Pass trails to the mining camp at Dawson City.

A yearlong mineral rush on nearby Eldorado Creek alone produced $30 million in gold and captured the world's imagination long enough to nourish the legend of the Klondike as the rough-and-tumble capitol of precious metal in the Western Hemisphere.

Recently discovered emerald beds have brought miners back to the Yukon in the early 21st century.

But the only colors anglers should be interested in "mining" are the emerald-green of Northern pike and the burnished gold of lake trout in their fall spawning colors.
With a human population of 31,000 in the territory — 26,000 of whom reside in the capitol city of Whitehorse — to say that the fishing in the Yukon is "remote" is a titanic understatement.

With the majority of the territory's lakes and rivers reachable only by float plane, and access controlled by strictly enforced concessions divided among First Nation tribes and the territory's outfitters, most of the Yukon's biomass of lake trout, pike, Dolly Varden, grayling, sheefish, burbot and salmon never see a lure or fly in their lives.

"There's nobody out here but us," said Clark, who has managed the fishing operations at the Inconnu since it opened in 1991. "There are 30,000 people in an area three times the size of California. Once we drop you off at a lake to fish, I guarantee you won't see another person.

"You combine the remoteness, the opportunity to use several different styles of fishing, and the quality of the fish, and there's nothing like this in the world."

As seasons go

The Yukon's fly-in fishing season starts the first week of June — after the mountain lakes and streams lose their snow and ice blankets — and lasts until the onset of winter (usually in early October).

The spring and early summer ice-off fishery is the time to go for the best topwater fishing for pike; you'll be tossing Zara Spooks or Woodchoppers, or casting and stripping deceivers, mouse patterns, deer-hair poppers and various other big, furry flies on full-floating line for pre-spawn Northerns, which typically run 28 to 36 inches and can tip the scales at a gnarly 25 pounds.

You'll also have a shot at lake trout in the shallows, throwing woolly buggers, Clousers and sculpin patterns, or casting and retrieving No. 2 or 3 Panther Martins, Blue Foxes or Mepps spinners or similar-sized spoons to ravenous post-ice fish.

The lake trout bite moves progressively deeper through July and August, and you'll spend a lot of time trolling with DareDevle and Canadian Wonder spoons carried to the bottom by 2 ounces of lead.

However, it's a totally different drill than at western U.S. lake trout fisheries like Idaho's Priest Lake, Washington's Lake Chelan or California's Lake Tahoe, where deep trolling with downriggers is the standard technique.

"The deepest we fish here is 45 feet," Clark said. "You're actually holding the rod in your hands as you troll, so you feel the fish when they bite."

Pike are still aggressive in mid- to late summer, but it becomes a game of casting and retrieving spoons and spinners across weedy flats, or stripping big flies on sink tips, with the occasional topwater bite in the morning and evening.

That same July-through-August time frame also is peak time for river-rat flyrodders, who can wade or float the territory's river systems for ungodly numbers of grayling, which mindlessly hit tiny gnats, elk-hare caddis (size Nos. 16 to 18), stoneflies, ants and hoppers.

You'll also score on lake trout and Dolly Varden, tossing everything from Lefty's deceivers, woolly buggers, egg-sucking leeches, sculpin patterns and Clousers, to stimulators and Tom Thumbs.

"From July on, it's not uncommon to catch 50 lakers in a day on a fly, and you can hook grayling in the 8-inch to 1-pound class on every cast," Clark said. "The Dolly fishing is pretty amazing, too. If you've fished them before, you know that the best pattern for Dollies is a flesh pattern — they want meat.

"But this is the one place in the world I know of where you have trophy sized Dollies hitting deceivers on full floating line."

Fall windfall

Every bit of Clark's Dolly data played out on our second day out of the Inconnu, when Shaffer, Foley, Chip and Karen Lauckhardt, guide Dano Heighes and I strapped ourselves into the lodge's yellow Dehavilland Beaver float plane for a 25-minute flight to Middle Whitefish Lake, the second of a series of three lakes in the Whitefish River chain.

After Inconnu owner Warren LeFabve dropped us off on the east shore, we paddled canoes to the outlet on the west end of the lake and Shaffer and I cast small spinners into the riffles as the Lauckhardts plied the opposite side of the outlet with dry flies.

The lakers attacked the hardware: Shaffer and I landed 20 cookie-cutter fish in the 2-pound range in two hours, all with vibrant yellow, orange and black coloration that marked them as pre-spawners.

From there, we paddled back up to the river inlet and began to wade upstream, drifting dry flies for grayling. After 33 fish on 33 casts — and two hookups that came as I let my fly dangle in the water at my feet — we ditched the 3-weights in favor of 6-weights with 175-grain sink tips, and tied on red-and-white Deceivers to go on a Dolly hunt.

Several more incidental grayling and a half-hour of wading brought us to a spot that Foley and Heighes referred to as the Dolly Pool — a wide, deep stretch of water that pushed hard against a cut bank on the opposite side of the river.

After two quick hookups with Dollies in the 2-pound range, the first big fish came out to play — a massive Dolly that exploded from under the cut bank to bulldog a grayling that Shaffer was bringing in after incidentally hooking it at the head of the hole.

The big Dolly held onto the grayling for five minutes, never letting Shaffer pull it out of the current edge before finally spitting the battered grayling and snuggling back up under the cut bank.

"I guess they do like meat," Shaffer said, examining the tooth-scarred grayling carcass.

We wandered further upstream, hooking and releasing another half-dozen 1- to 2-pound Dollies before we found ourselves back down at the Dolly Pool, where Shaffer's deceiver was quickly obliterated by another big fish.

This time we got a closer look at the kind of Dolly that exists in only a handful of systems worldwide — a 7-pounder that Shaffer fought for 15 minutes before he could unhook and release it.

The count for the day: 20 lake trout, uncountable grayling and a dozen fly-caught dollies in the 2- to 7-pound range.

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