Bunker and Hunker
Winter in Yellowknife can be a foreboding experience to the uninitiated, however our frosted little city nestled on the shores of Great Slave Lake boasts many opportunities that an adventurous soul can take advantage of. The lake is a legendary spot, known for its world class lake trout and northern pike fishing in the summertime. During the open water season, the lake is an angler's paradise, bays bristling with pike and lake trout easily accessible from the deep clear waters. The winter is a different story, anglers haunted by the successes of the open water season eagerly drill holes through 4 plus feet of ice in hopes of connecting with a Great Slave giant, however the big lake doesn't give it up its bounty so easily during the 8 months that ice covers its depths.
Fishing for giant lake trout through the ice on Great Slave is the ice fishing equivalent of musky fishing. An ice road built to access a rare earth mine on the north shore of the East Arm provides over 100kms of drop offs, islands, bays, cliff faces and points. Each piece of structure holds the potential for a 20 plus pound lake trout. For the tech savvy fisherman finding fish is not usually the issue, sonars will mark fish all day, anglers will stare mesmerized at their screens watching as dark red marks flick in and out. The main challenge is that these trout, for all their veracity in the summer, seem to come down with a seasonal case of lake trout lock jaw. The hunt for active feeding fish is usually hindered by temperatures ranging from -20 on a warm January day to -50 on a cold one. This means finding a drop off, setting up your pop- up hut, cranking the heater to high and hoping for the best. There is no running and gunning, its bunker and hunker time. Looking inside any one of these huts through the clouds of condensing air, you will find the musing of a frustrated fisherman. Bait, lures and rods are scattered on the ice as everything but the kitchen sink is dropped down the hole.
As destitute of a picture the above paragraph paints, there are reasons to keep trying your luck for these trout through the ice when compared to exploring some of the more productive smaller lake trout lakes. First and foremost the scenery makes every trip worth the drive, the sheer vastness of Great Slave, the ruggedness of the Canadian shield and some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets you will see anywhere. Second, if you stare down that hole long enough you will catch a big lake trout. A six hour trip will only lead to a handful of bites and fish, but each one of those can easily turn into a personal best. The average size of the trout is usually around 8-12 pounds, making the “small” fish well worth the drive and frostbite. The odd inconnu and northern pike make for bonus species as well. If you put in the time, you will connect with a fish that will make you jump out of your propane fueled daze and rethink every knot you tied to your hook. As the drag starts to peel, you hold your breath and debate whether you should have invested in that 10 inch auger. If the fishing gods are smiling your fishing buddies will have reeled up their lines to avoid tangles, giving you a clear field of battle. These fish will test your gear, you instantly regret not buying that extra heavy rod as the fish laughs off any attempt to raise it from the depths. Beads of sweat will grace your brow as it approaches the bottom of the hole, water pulsing as the beast from below displaces volumes. If all goes well you will avoid the sharp unforgiving edges of the bottom of the ice and a big gray head will breach the surface. Snap a picture, take a measurement, thank the fish for gracing you with its presence, release it back to the depths, take a deep breath, give a toast to the fish gods and settle into staring back into the depths…..
Dan Coombs, the co-owner of Coombs & Co. Specialty Fry Batters spends all his spare time exploring the backcountry surrounding Yellowknife. He has had great success in finding giant lake trout, northern pike, burbot, inconnu, arctic char, grayling and walleye in the Northwest Territories. His Northern Bites: Adventures North of 60 blog showcases his unique writing style paired with his amazing adventures in the land of the midnight sun.