Our Man In Canada
August 4th, 2003

The Big Girls of the Territories

By Scott Earl Smith

Standing in the bow of a boat cruising the flats with a ten-weight rod in one hand and a bright nge bucktail in the other, you might think I was sight fishing the Keys or Belize. But quite to the contrary, I was cruising the sandy, flat-bottomed bays of Thekulthili Lake in the Northwest Territories for giant northern pike in early September. These are the voracious carnivores of the north that feed in the depths and then retreat to the shallows to rest and warm their bodies. Northern pike are common virtually throughout North America, but there are some select places in the most northern reaches of Canada where they regularly grow very big. Mostly these are clear-water trout lakes that lack the bass, walleye and perch commonly found in more southern latitudes. In these cold waters pike are king of the shallows and have no other species vying for forage base; hence they grow big and very nasty. I was fortunate enough to tangle with some of these on a trip to Thekulthili Lake in the NWT late last summer.

My trip started out with a knockout punch. On our approach, after a two-hour floatplane trip from Yellowknife, the clear waters of Thekulthili looked like Shangri-La. But it seemed as soon as the plane had left us on the dock and slipped away through the puffy clouds and blue sky, the ceiling dropped to a few hundred feet and turned the day dark and drizzly. Knowing that cold fronts are the "kiss of death" for most kinds of fishing, most of our party kicked around camp, foraging on groceries and looking longingly at the sky for reprieve. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to try out a new imported fly rod that guide Neil Courtice, our guide from Lady Grey Wilderness Outfitters, suggested I cast off the dock. On my third cast I hooked something solid that bolted for the depths. About ten minutes later, Neil tailed the fish for me: a svelte pike of forty inches.

"Great start," announced Neil. And, from there, the trip only got better.

We never did see the sun for the remainder of our four days at Thekulthili (at least not until our plane arrived to shuttle us back to Yellowknife), but we saw lots of big, mean pike with streamers hanging from their lips. The plan of attack was to sleep in, eat a breakfast that would make a cardiologist cringe (or smile, depending on which way you looked at it), and then hit the water. We cast blind over a few deep weed beds on the main lake, but mostly we glided through the many adjoining shallow bays and hunted for resting fish on the sand flats; concentrating on small patches of cabbage when fish were not in plain view. Neil informed that the biggest pike were always the females, and henceforth refers to them as "Big Girls" - with a certain playful but reverent endearment.

Neil's approach was a no-nonsense battle plan that involved drifting or trolling through the shallows with one angler strafing the cover and the other scouring the open sand from the bow. We'd work a bay for a half-hour or so, and if the Big Girls weren't in, we'd fire up the outboard and set sail for the next shallow bay. Neil explained that the biggest pike fed in the depths and competed with huge lake trout for whitefish. Middleweight pike, say up to ten-pounds or so, would only end up in the belly of a big laker if they followed suit. The Big Girls then returned to the shallows for a post-feed rest, but would still take a bright-coloured streamer if the approach was made without error. Neil briefed me on this approach in case we encountered a truly big pike in the shallows: "You don't cast right at them, Scott. If you land a cast on their noses, they'll bolt the other way. You cast about twenty-feet ahead of them as they cruise. If they want your fly - you'll know about it shortly." This, as it turned out, was sage advice.

On our last day we trolled through a huge sand flat nicely nestled between a few small islands - right off the depths of a nearby feeding ground for pike and lakers in the main lake. By this time I had caught so many pike between two- and twenty-pounds that I really didn't care to fool with them anymore. I was holding out for big daddy - or to reflect more appropriate scientific correctness, big momma. I had tied up a handful of streamers the night before under Neil's tutorage. His suggested pattern was simply a bucktail a la Mickey Finn with a gold tinsel body and a few strands of Crystal Flash for added colour on a saltwater hook. The pattern was only about three inches long, but, according to Neil, that was all you really needed. The slate sky, brisk breeze and incessant drizzle made spotting fish a challenging affair - even in these pristine conditions. Nevertheless, I stood like a heron in the front of the boat: stock-still, stoic, patient, and always hopeful. I told myself that many a trophy has been taken on the last day of a good trip, and I had about four hours to make good on that theory.

A short time later I spotted a large, olive-green shape moving quickly from almost directly in front of the bow. With line, rod and fly at the ready, I snapped out a quick double-haul about forty feet straight ahead and about twenty feet in front of the fish as Neil had instructed. I gave the fly two good strips before the shape struck like lighting. As I set the hook, I felt that twisting power that only a big fish can make. The fish surged across the flats for the mouth of the bay. "Good one, Neil. A Big Girl!" I shouted.

Neil started the engine and kept us out of the weeds as I fought the big fish. At one point it swam diagonally towards us and then buried itself in a heavy clump of cabbage. Fortunately, Neil had encouraged me to discard my 15-pound leader in exchange for some 40-pound for exactly this reason. I held my rod firm and let the line cut through the weeds as the fish circled through and headed once again for open water. Eventually, I brought the fish portside where Neil tailed her and hoisted her carefully above the boat. She was an exceptionally thick and healthy fish that likely tipped the scales around 24-pounds. Judging by the bulge in her stomach she had recently consumed a fish of a size that most fly anglers would be quite happy to catch. We snapped a few pictures before watching her cruise away to finish digesting. Although our trip was made at the tail end of seasonable weather in the Territories, our timing coincided with the healthiest time in the pike's annual cycle. They were strong, aggressive and hungry - and tested my tackle like nothing I'd ever experienced.

Equipment

Although an eight or nine weight rod will suffice, my preference is a ten weight saltwater graphite in a three or four-piece travel model. The stiffness of these rods allows you to power fish and cast big flies for great distances - even into the wind. On my trip I had two rods at the ready: one loaded with a floating line and a popper, and the other with a sinking head and a streamer. Because of the conditions, the fish were not responding to surface action, so the sinking system got the call on most occasions. Because the amount of stripping involved in this kind of fishing takes its toll on your fingers (not to mention your casting arm) gloves are a good bet and perhaps a band-aid where the line contacts your index finger on your rod hand.

Unless you're interested in setting some kind of line record, both systems should be terminated with a leader consisting of some forty-pound monofilament and a braided-steel bite leader. (A pike's teeth will make short work of even forty-pound monofilament.) I've tried a lot of steel bite leaders specially designed for fly anglers, but have yet to find one as durable and as functional as a regular steel leader made for conventional fishing. They are readily replaced and changing flies is literally a snap. Titanium leaders are expensive, but do not get kinked by fish like regular steel braid does.

A strong pair of jaw spreaders is a must, along with a pair of long-nose pliers and a tailing glove. Pike bites can be very nasty and the de-hooking equipment is necessary to keep your phalanges intact.

Destinations:

Current Issue

Because of the recent interest in pursuing pike on a fly rod, a number of reputable pike lodges are now catering to fly anglers. This means their boats are equipped with casting platforms - and devoid of all the hooks, ropes and other sundry items that habitually tangle fly lines. More importantly their guides are fly anglers themselves and know how to handle a boat to best suit a fly angler. This means using the wind to your advantage and placing casters in positions that best suit their casting ability and left/right orientation. Although most, if not all, lodges will be happy to take your money, ask a few questions about their familiarity with handling fly angling clients before booking. The owners and guides at Lady Grey Wilderness Outfitters (www.canadianwild.net - phone: 905-856-1400) are fly anglers and employ guides such as Neil Courtice, who is an exceptionally skilled fly fisher. ~ Scott Earl Smith

Credits:

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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