There are no small fish here. At least none that I saw in a week of fishing. Only big fish.
Fish that were big enough to bend a good rod double, fill a net, and then some, and make a fisherman promise to live a better life if only "this one" could be landed.Legend says the fish were put in the lake full-grown, which is easier to believe than biologists' theory that they naturally grew.
When all the fish caught in a day were larger than a man's arm and thicker than his thigh, and considering the fact that fish grow very slowly here, six times slower than in Utah (which would put some of these fish as eggs long before the automobile was invented), legends become easier to swallow.
Great Slave Lake is a giant in a land of lakes. Thousands spot the surface and leave little room for solid ground. One report claims that two-thirds of the world's fresh water is settled in the region. Great Slave Lake, second only in size to Great Bear, is 125 miles wide and 350 miles long. Its water is some of the clearest and purest found anywhere.
No one has ever guessed how many of these lakes hold fish. Indian guides shrug their shoulders and simply say, "enough." Their only concern is what's within reach of hooks at the moment.
Holding tight at four colors (25 feet) were long lines on the sonar screen, indications of large fish. Nowhere were there signs of smaller fish.
Steve Densley of Salt Lake City, was the first to hook-up . . . an 18-pound lake trout that took 15 minutes to bring up. Jim Lavender, another Salt Laker, followed with two catches, both over 15 pounds. Over the next five hours the two men caught more than a dozen fish. Densley hooked the smallest, a 10-pound laker taken on a surface fly and fly rod in an unlikely looking spot in open water. Pete Enzoe, the Chipewyan (meaning pointed head) Indian guide, suggested the spot, the fly and the direction Densley should cast. Lavender caught the largest fish, a 25-pound Mackinaw that snapped his pole on one of its runs.
Never, during this fishing time, was the screen on the "fish finder" ever clear of large lines, nor were the guides far from sleep. This was, to them, commonplace.
Fishing from Warren Witherspoon's Frontier Lodge, where the Stark River empties into Great Slave and within sight of the Indian settlement of Snowdrift, population 300, involved four species - Macks, or lake trout, northern pike, grayling and whitefish.
Daytime fishing was reserved for pike and trout. Evenings, after the guides had eaten and returned home, the river grayling became the target of black flies and gold spinners tossed where the water was deepest and swiftest. Occasionally, when signs were right, said the guides, whitefish would move from the lake to the river. In early August last year, whitefish, a favorite of the Indians, were moving upstream.
Guides showed up at 8 a.m. each morning with boats loaded with gas, a large tub for fish and a lunch box with spices, matches, foil, a grill and a few cans of emergency rations - beans. Shoreline lunches represented the morning catch. Enzoe, a guide for the lodge for the past five years, said he's never had to resort to a canned lunch. Clients have always caught their meal . . . filleted and cooked over an open fire.
Following tradition, after morning cordialities, fishermen picked their fish. Guides then weigh weather conditions against experience and head out there without explanation.
"There are," said Enzoe, nodding toward open water, "Fish everywhere. Some places have bigger fish." His favorites were Wildbread Bay, Stark Lake, Pearson Point and Redcliff Island for lake trout; McLean Bay, Regina Bay and Murky Lake for northerns. The river was always good for grayling.
Enzoe said he likes going after lake trout best. Probably, he added, because of the way people react to catching big fish . . . "Some are almost in tears."
Partly, too, said Jerry Bricker, who after nearly 30 years recently turned ownership of the lodge over to Witherspoon, because the Indians don't like pike. "They call them `Jack' fish," he pointed out. "They'll eat other fish, but not pike. I really can't tell you why."
Enzoe explained, too, that lakers were generally harder to catch "because they hit only when they're hungry." The aggressive northerns, he said, will hit anything. Most of the larger pike were nicked and scarred from attacks by their kin. Anything the least bit attractive to them was worth two or three stinging attacks, occasionally as the lure was being pulled from the water.
On the third day out, Enzoe eased the boat away from a grassy shoreline where 3- and 4-pound pike were hitting white bucktail streamers and black/white weedless Daredevel, and out to a dense patch of underwater vegetation. When questioned he shrugged his shoulders, pitched the anchor overboard and pointed to deeper water. "Fish that way," came the command.
First out of the water was a 17-pound northern - long, sleek, and with a mouth that could engulf a football and teeth that would cut it to ribbons. Next up on a fly rod was a 10-pound pike brought in by Densley. He also brought in the last catch, a 20-pound pike caught on spinning gear, noticeably bigger than the first. After the fish was unhooked and released, the boat moved. Twenty minutes was enough time said Enzoe, and besides he wasn't anxious for other guides to find the spot . . . "We all have them," he offered, "we just don't tell."
Besides, there were other shorelines nearby where pike would be hitting moving lures, and it was a good time to catch lunch.
On the river, after dinner, the flaying and whipping of fishing rods continued long after the setting of the midnight sun for grayling and whitefish. Occasionally a pike or lake trout would show up on the end of the line.
A few years back, Charles Woodbury, who once owned a fishing camp on the shores of Strawberry, hooked into a 50-pound lake trout while fishing with light tackle on the river. He recalled that it hit around 8 p.m. and that it wasn't until after midnight that he finished the fight and returned to camp. He's caught a lot of big fish in his time, he said, but this one gave him his "ultimate high."
This is not a summer camp or fishing trip, but a fishing experience. Guests fish here sunup to sundown, with only brief breaks to eat. It's a place where most fishermen will catch their biggest, and most likely the most fish ever for one adventure.
Utahns, said Bricker, were among his most ardent guests, and some of the most frequent visitors.
"Some of my first guests, back in 1961, were from Utah. They'd been working in Alaska and had heard about the fishing here. Since then, I'll bet a quarter of all the people who come here are from Utah," he added.
The flight from Salt Lake City stopped in Edmonton, British Columbia, then flew on to Yellowknife, an early mining town on the banks of the lake. From there it was a one-hour flight by float plane to the lodge.
After a standard lunch of fresh fish chowder, the fishing began. For seven days it stopped only when the light gave out, shoulder muscles stiffened and eyelids drooped.
The largest fish caught during this week was a 35-pound lake trout by Rose Manno of Dogpatch, Ark. The largest ever were a 60-pound lake trout, 30-pound pike, 5-pound grayling and 13-pound white fish.
Fish this trip broke only individual records, including mine - 22-pound laker, 17-pound pike, 31/2-pound grayling and 6-pound whitefish . . .
All big fish, all full-grown - as legend says.