Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it
I have a confession to make. This is hard, because it's very "un-Yukon." But it
has to be said - I'm not a big fan of fishing!
Don't get me wrong - if there's a fish that really wants to get out of that
cold clear water into a nice warm frying pan, I enjoy helping. What I don't like is waiting for
them to decide whether I have "the right stuff" on the end of my line. Luckily, the Arctic
grayling fishing 300 feet from my front door is very good so I don't have to wait very often.
The fishing in the Yukon is legendary, though, and I've always wondered what it
would be like to do it properly - to learn proper techniques of both catching and releasing,
to haul in big fish of different species, and to get the complete experience that created those
legends about the Yukon. So last fall, on October 2, 2003, I headed out with professional fishing guide Rob Hewer of Spirit of the North Guides.
The day dawned crisp and clear - a perfect day to head out on Lake Laberge. The
lake, 31 miles long, is basically a widening of the Yukon River, with clear, very cold water that's
well known for its fishing quality. There's a wide variety of fish habitat types, from shallow bays
that warm up fairly well, to a hole 944 feet deep.
I met Rob at his home high above the lake (that's his view to the left!) and we discussed the plans
for the day. He's used to working with people like me as well as with fishing experts, and it was
immediately clear that I didn't need to be embarrassed about my lack of experience.
We drove a few miles through the forest along the lake to his dock at Deep
Creek where a well-equipped 21-foot Carolina Skiff was waiting. In a few minutes we had all the
gear loaded and were off into the sunshine, with just a slight chop on the water.
I wanted to catch all three species that are native to these waters - Lake
trout, Northern pike and Arctic grayling. This was to be primarily a catch-and-release day,
keeping only enough fish for one meal during the day and one more at home. Many people assume
that because the fishing is so good the lakes must be a very productive habitat. However, it's
only the lack of fishing pressure on the lakes that aren't accessible by road that keeps the
fishing good. By carefuly releasing most of the fish we caught, our "footprint" on the lake
would be negligible.
We began what I thought was the search for Lake trout a few miles down the lake,
close to steep cliffs that indicated the deep water preferred by that species. I say "I thought"
it was a search because the trout appeared within 10 minutes - Rob wasn't searching, merely going
to where he knows they feed. The boat's electronic fish-finder confirmed that all we needed to
do was attach the right lures.
The next hour or so was spent in a fisherman's dreamland - trolling back and
forth along those cliffs, trout between five and nine pounds were hooked every few minutes. In the
crystal clear water, the bright fish could be seen at great depths as they fought to get off the
line. A couple of times, Rob and I were both playing fish at the same time. Keeping our
lines from tangling added to both the challenge and the fun. Photos similar to the pair below
could have been taken a dozen times! The six-pounder I'm holding on the left was saved for the
dinner grill, while Rob gently released the eight-pounder in the net to breed again.
Rob and I always have our dogs with us, and by mutual prior agreement this trip
was no exception. My husky Kayla and Rob's yellow Lab Cassie added greatly to our enjoyment of
the day, and as you can see in the photo above, Kayla in particular was very much intrigued by
what was going on as well.
As we cruised or waited for the next strike, Rob shared stories about the area
and information about the fish we were after. He says, for example, that many people make the
mistake of trying to set the hook when they first feel something on the line, but both Lake
trout and Northern pike play with the lure or bait before striking hard.
We next turned our focus to Northern pike. A few miles further up the lake is a
shallow reedy bay that seemed perfect, where the fish like to sun themselves as they feed.
Although Rob has seen as many as 28 pike in that bay on a single trip, twenty minutes of
trolling there produced no strikes, so (being thoroughly spoiled by now) we headed for the
Thirty Mile River and its Arctic grayling.
Knowing of my passion for Yukon history, Rob beached the boat at the north end of
Lake Laberge and we went for a walk to explore Lower Laberge village, abandoned some 50 years ago
when the sternwheelers quit running on the Yukon River. The last time I had been to the village
was in 1997 when my son Steve and I canoed to Dawson (click
here to read that story), and I was very curious to see if there had been any changes.
On the beach and half in the river is the fast-disappearing wreckage of the
steamer Casca (the first of three Yukon River steamers by that name). She had an
extremely varied career as a passenger and freight boat, but following
an accident on the Thirty Mile River in 1910, her machinery was removed and the hull was
converted to a barge before eventually being left here to rot.
The only buildings that remain at Lower Laberge now are a cabin near the beach and
the telegraph office set far back in the forest. The truck seen to the right would have been
used to haul fuelwood down to the beach for the sternwheelers.
From what remains, it's hard to visualize
how important this post was a century ago, supplying travellers and people living in the area
with virtually anything they needed, fueling steamboats and maintaining the wire that kept
Dawson City in touch with the rest of the world. From the number of boats we had seen so far
(a total of none), it was also hard to imagine hundreds of vessels of all sizes on the
lake, jockeying for position to enter the narrow and fast Thirty Mile River at this point.
No words can fully prepare you for the beauty of the Thirty Mile, which is just a
thirty-mile-long section of the Yukon River. Among canoeists around the world it is spoken of
in awe, and in 1991 the Canadian government designated it a
Canadian Heritage River to acknowledge
the scenic and historic significance. The photo to the left shows it about a mile downstream from
Lake Laberge - just around the corner in the distance it narrows considerably.
I love Arctic grayling. To me they are a particularly beautiful rainbow trout -
their large dorsal fin making them very distinctive. As a sport fish they're great fighters and
extremely good eating. I especially enjoy frying a couple of small ones for breakfast at my cabin. Late
September is when they start to leave the Thirty Mile and go into Lake Laberge for the winter,
so we were now after the stragglers.
In the Thirty Mile you get the first look at just how clear this water is - the
boulders on the bottom are clearly visible at depths of 15 feet or more. And between the boulders
and the boat we could clearly see the grayling!
It was getting well into the afternoon, however, so the grayling were fished
very lightly (the one seen to the left was released a few seconds later). With the sun dipping
below the higher banks along the river, it was unfortunately time to start planning how to end
As much fun as catching fish on a pristine wilderness lake is, having dinner on
a remote river bank is even better - at least it is when those very fresh fish are the main course.
Rob swung the boat into an eddy on a particularly scenic stretch of the
Thirty Mile, and once we got the camp set up and the fire going, Rob cooked dinner while I
took care of the difficult job of entertaining the dogs while drinking a cold beer on the sunny
Kayla provided us with some entertainment for a while while we were getting things
set up. Although she doesn't eat fish, she apparently thinks that she might some day, because
she sure turned on her "Wolf Mode" to protect some fish guts from Cassie!
As well as the grayling and trout we caught, Rob had brought a couple of
steaks, and in a very short time he had put together a meal fit for a king. Perfect weather,
great food, amiable company and spectacular surroundings - does it get any better than that?
Towards the end of dinner, I had a sinking feeling. The day was almost over.
Why didn't I book two days?! I still savour the thought of being able to set up a tent on that
beach - what a spot to wake up to. But I didn't, so we slowly re-packed the boat and shoved off
into the swift waters and started back up to the lake. Rob may do this for a living, but he was
no more anxious for this day to end than I was. After listening to the soft purr of the engine
for much of the day, it was rather a shock to hear the 90hp Yamaha outboard working against the
current to get us home.
The trip back to Deep Creek was beautiful beyond words. The lake had settled
down so the ride was smooth, and when the moon rose in a sky that remained cloudless, we just
had to stop for a few photos. Yes, it was getting dark, but some things just have to be done.
The picture to the right shows the view to the north at 7:50 p.m.
Just when we thought that we had been given every gift the Yukon had to offer,
another one appeared. For the Northern Lights to put on a show this time of year isn't a surprise,
but the high level of activity of this show, magnified by the mirror effect of the lake, certainly
was. Again I wished that I had made different plans - this time, to have stayed at Rob's guest
cabin overlooking the lake so the auroral show would continue.
As I drove back towards the lights of Whitehorse, the magic of the Northern Lights
gradually got overpowered by the artifical variety. The magic of the entire day, though, will be
with me for a long time to come.