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A Yukon Fish Story

by Murray Lundberg

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it

Lake trout and Arctic grayling ready for the grill. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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 view over Lake Laberge from Spirit of the North's vacation home. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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.

Rob Hewer fishing for lake trout on Lake Laberge. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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.

Murray with a Lake Laberge trout. Photo by Rob Hewer. Rob unhooking a big lake trout. Photo by Murray Lundberg.

    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.

The wreckage of the Yukon River sternwheeler Casca. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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.

An old truck at Lower Laberge village. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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.

Starting down the Thirty Mile River. Photo by Murray Lundberg.     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.

Murray with an Arctic grayling on the Thirty Mile River. Photo by Rob Hewer.     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 the day.

Rob cleaning a Yukon lake trout. Photo by Murray Lundberg.

Rob cooking a trout-and-grayling dinner. Photo by Murray Lundberg.

Murray taking care of the dog while Rob cooks.

Evening on Lake Laberge. Photo by Murray Lundberg.

    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 beach.

    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.