Our Man In Canada
July 7th, 2003

Ungava's Arctic Char
By Kenneth Coupland

The words arctic char bring to mind a river - swift, cold, rock-strewn - a background of 15' (4.5-m) black spruce, and beyond, a range of low mountain. This is what John and I encountered when we arrived at Kanniq (Helen's Falls) on the famous George River, intent on fishing for Atlantic salmon.

Like most fly-ins, our starting point was Kuujjaq (formerly Fort Chimo). [Northern Quebec] The flight eastward, 60 miles (97 km) or so, terminated on a small landing strip near the camp. We were thankful our pilot knew what he was looking for, as the terrain all looked the same to us.

Weather in the Far North is always a consideration, especially in the last part of the season. Fishing trips to these types of camps are usually of seven day's duration, which allows for weather changes and variations in fishing conditions. Caribou are migrating as the salmon and char fishing draws to a chose, so it is common to find hunters and anglers in the camp at the same time. If so inclined, you can book a combination trip, fishing and hunting on alternate days. In fact, when you arrive back in Kuujjuaq, it's common to see large piles of caribou antlers sitting on the tarmac, waiting to be loaded along with the hunters and anglers.

In our case, the weather was cooperative, and after the river had yielded some fine salmon, we decided to spend one day on our own to try for arctic char. They are something of a mystery. Of the same family as brook trout and lake trout, arctic char have the same need for pure, cold water, but unlike their relatives seem to be found mostly in rivers. Anglers often become frustrated with them, especially when nothing seems to work - which can probably be attributed to the fact that we seldom devote much time to them, preferring to pursue Atlantic salmon, which after all, is what attracts us up there in the first place.

Excellent fishing for char of 8-10 lb (4-5 kg) is found in many rivers flowing north into Ungava Bay. Commercial camps located on rivers like the Payne, Tumulik and George usually concentrate on salmon throughout the short summer. However, some also offer char fishing and in a few cases brookies and lake trout.

Initially, our quest proved easier said than done, for the char were definitely not where our guides had said they should be - about 2 miles (3 km) downstream from camp. Puzzled, we pressed on.

Our perseverance paid off, for 1 mile (1.6 km) farther downstream we found the hot spot. It lay right in the main river - a fairly fast, even flow, roughly 3' (90 cm) deep over a gravel bottom.

At our guide's insistence we had taken spinning tackle, which is legal there for char, but the heavy lures produced frequent hang-ups. It was obvious that fly tackle would be more effective, so we switched to our light salmon outfits - a prudent move that led to a memorable day of fishing.

I have heard that arctic char on some rivers may make extended runs, perhaps right into the backing, even punctuating them occasionally with a jump when the run ends. I have never seen this on the George River. Unlike salmon, which dissipate their strength with long runs and repeated jumps, a char's fight is more remindful of a large, dogged, brook trout. I suppose it's possible that this particular strain is unable to jump, for except when they are on their spawning run, we tend to find them in calmer stretches of the river and never below the falls or rapids where salmon congregate.

Medium-weight tackle is recommended. My favorite char rod is a 10' 7/8 weight that easily throws large No. 8-2 streamers. Almost invariably you will find yourself in situations that call for casting a fair distance into a strong wind, which is, of course, probably what you were doing all along while salmon fishing.

Char have no experience with fly hatches; consequently, until they run upstream their only food will have been creatures like capelin and shrimp. Flies are usually bright and flashy - red and white or blue and white - with a silver tinsel body. I originally decided on using a blue and white streamer since it resembled a Blue Fox spoon that the Inuit were using successfully with their spinning tackle.

Fly Fishing Canada

After John and I tired of fishing, we poked around and eventually found ourselves looking down a 10 char busily performing all the gyrations associated with spawning. We were dangling a large fly just over their heads, unsuccessfully, when they all disappeared in a flash. As we wondered what had happened, a lake trout, fully five feet long, cruised slowly through the pool. It wouldn't take our fly, either. However, it was a good note on which to end our day and walk back to camp.

Incidentally, if you intend to save some char to take home, we found the plainly hued ones were the best choice. Those in full spawning regalia were quite soft and unsuitable for the table. ~ Ken Robins

Credits: From Fly Fishing Canada, From Coast to Coast to Coast, By Outdoor Writers of Canada, Published by Johnson Gorman Publishers. We appreciate use permission!

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