Chasing pike in the Yukon Territory
Dan caught the only inconnu. Let’s get that out of the way. “Dan” is Dan Armstrong, a well-traveled, Bozeman-based photographer who occasionally gets invited on spectacular fishing trips with the tacit understanding that his job is to record the heroics of the writer and keep his hands off the rod. But it was our last day in the Yukon and we had yet to try for inconnu—AKA sheefish, AKA “connie,” AKA an overgrown whitefish that has somehow managed to parlay rareness and mediocre fighting ability into a Sasquatch-like mystique and the hyperbolic nickname: “tarpon of the north.”
This species-rebranding effort was clearly not lost on our hosts for the week, as Inconnu Lodge has featured its namesake fish, along with lake trout, northern pike, bull trout, and a robust population of arctic grayling, on its “five targeted species” list since first opening in 1987.
The word “inconnu,” from Old French, literally means “unknown,” because when French trappers first came across one, they had no idea what it was. Inconnu aren’t abundant, and they are not, despite their Northern Canada tarpon moniker, known as great fighters. But they do get big. The Alaskan sport-caught record is 53 pounds, taken from northwestern Alaska’s Pah River, a tributary to the Kobuk. More than 30,000 inconnu spawn annually in the Kobuk and Selawik river drainages, where they average almost 30 pounds. So how could we stay at the Inconnu Lodge and not spend at least half a morning trying to catch one?
As I remember it, our outboard died halfway across the lake. So I spent the next 40 minutes helping our guide, fishing manager Ken Richardson, vigorously row into a strong arctic wind, while Armstrong sat in the bottom of the boat studying his GoPro manual. Upon finally reaching the inlet on the other side, Armstrong grabbed my rod, made one lucky cast, and “got us our inconnu.” Not that I cared anyway, because I was there for pike.
The original focus at Inconnu Lodge was neither sheefish nor pike; it was lake trout. “We started as a trolling lodge,” says Richardson. “People came here for lakers. But when we started getting flyfishermen—though you can certainly flyfish for lakers—they were way more interested in pike.”
Massive Virginia Falls, on the South Nahanni river.
Pike aren’t often named when someone describes the species that “first got them into flyfishing”—an honor generally attributed to more kid-friendly fish like bluegill or brook trout. But many people come to the sport later in life, either as a formerly disinterested spouse just along for the ride, or as a lifelong spin-fisherman figuring that six days at a lodge offers the perfect opportunity to try something new. Richardson has seen plenty of both. “A lot of people will tell us, either on the phone or at a consumer show, that they’ve flyfished,” he says. “Then they get up here and you can tell that they haven’t had much experience, so we start them on the grayling creek and go from there. But a pike will follow a fly right to your shoes, so if someone can cast 15 feet with an 8-weight, there’s a decent chance they’re gonna get one on a fly—which is a kick in the ass, especially if you’ve never done it. So by the time these people leave, they’re saying ‘Oh, this is the way to do it.’ Then they get home, go into the local fly shop, and pretty soon they have a rod strung-up above their door.”
There are dozens of lodges like Inconnu scattered across Canada—not really “flyfishing” destinations, per se, but fishing destinations, with a unique opportunity to introduce hundreds of people to the fly side of the sport. All that is necessary is grayling, the high North’s equivalent of farm-pond panfish, to understand how much more fun it is to fight a fish on a fly rod rather than a broomstick.
Head guide and pike ninja Ken Richardson, motorboating us across McEvoy lake.
We, too, started on the grayling creek, a beautiful boreal stream a short boat ride across McEvoy Lake from the lodge. Beginning with the relative ease of grayling and progressing up the species ladder throughout the week not only helps Inconnu guests stay within their comfort zone, like skiers working from green bunny-slopes up to black-diamond steeps, it also allows Richardson and the other guides a chance to advise on technique while satisfying “numbers people”—those occasional guests that just want to experience a 50-fish day.
Dan and I didn’t need 50 grayling, but we weren’t satisfied with just a couple of them, either. These were the biggest grayling (“sailfish of the north!”) I’d ever seen. Even if they aren’t the hardest-fighting species, does a person ever really get tired of having a 14-inch fish annihilate a dry on a beautiful backcountry creek?
A colored-up lake trout that fell for a crawfish pattern.
Though we landed a couple smallish pike in front of the lodge on our first evening, Dan and I didn’t want to skip the second rung on the species ladder, so we focused on lake trout the following morning—a member of the char family that I hadn’t fished for in nearly a decade. My notion of mackinaw, if I thought of them at all, was of a deep-dweller, rarely a target on the fly unless they were up in the shallows preparing to spawn. But these were unlike other lakers. These were Yukon lakers; stronger, shallower, and much more char-like and colorful than others I’d caught. We didn’t land any big ones, but we also didn’t have to use full-sinking lines to reach them, which is a tradeoff I’ll take.
The diversity of species is a big draw at Inconnu, giving the lodge an almost saltwater type of feel in terms of variety. But that is not the main reason to visit this corner of the Yukon. It’s the solitude.
Most maps of the United States show only a small southern slice of eight Canadian provinces. Moving west to east, viewers see the bottom of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The two provinces that aren’t usually visible are Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador (one province). If you’re a typical American, you can maybe name half of these ten, but what really stumps Lower 48ers is what exists above the provinces. North Pole? Sarah Palin’s house? Bob and Doug McKenzie?
Inconnu lodge owner and uber-pilot Warren LaFave.
Canada’s three territories—the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nanavut—combine to form a land-mass more than twice the size of Alaska, yet they remain a mystery to many Americans. “Even though most of our guests are from the Western U.S., a lot of them don’t know where the Yukon is,” Richardson says. “We have to tell them it’s next to Alaska.”
The population of Northern Canada remains incredibly sparse, with 120,000 people (three percent of Canada’s population) scattered across the territories’ nearly 1.4 million square miles (40 percent of Canada’s land). The Yukon alone is larger than California, at more than 180,000 square miles, yet it has less than 36,000 residents. Every person living in the Yukon could take in the same game at Fenway and still leave more than 1,000 empty seats.
This scarcity of competition is, for many anglers, the most highly coveted goal of a fishing trip. We want to get away from others, and it’s getting harder and harder to accomplish. But you can do it at Inconnu. The lodge sits 180 miles northeast of Whitehorse, and there isn’t another outfitter sitting just over the hill. This means you can sit and enjoy your breakfast because you’re not in a rush to get to the lake. I love steelheading in British Columbia as much as any kind of fishing on earth, but no matter how much you paid for your lodge visit to the Bulkley, Morice, or Kispiox, if you’re not on your favorite run by first light, then you can bet two 20-something trout guides from Washington or Montana will be climbing out of their inflatables when you get there.
A golden eagle watching over her fishing hole.
One-person inflatables aren’t an option for accessing fish at Inconnu, but just about everything else is: heli-hike, rafting, jetboat, or lake boats. Lake boats are by far the most popular option, but since most of the lakes aren’t connected, Inconnu has had to acquire a substantial collection of dinghy-type boats over the years. “Early on, we had many inventive employees and guests who were willing to explore,” says lodge owner Warren LaFave. “They knew that if they scored in one out of five lakes, they were doing pretty well. But every time we found a good lake, the guides would say, ‘let’s leave a boat here.’ I have 38 boats now and need 12 more. And 50 boats is a lot for a dozen guests.”
The first limiting factor for selecting a lake is whether LaFave or any of his pilots can land a floatplane on it. But also, any lake that is too small will probably freeze in the winter. Another consideration is weed-growth and outflow. Weeds ferment in the fall and winter, producing a methane gas that can be lethal to pike and other fish, so any lake without a good outflow is unlikely to hold any.
The mysterious and mythical inconnu, little-known below the 60th Parallel, landed by the photographer.
Luckily, Dan and I didn’t need to worry about any of that, because we had Richardson, who not only knew which lakes held pike, but which lakes held the biggest ones. He also knew where they lived and what they were most likely to eat, guiding us into back-to-back days of plentiful 30-something-inchers, with a few of our largest maybe surpassing the 40-inch mark—generally considered the threshold for “big pike” status.
In the Lower 48, the tendency for many young outdoorsy-types is to dream of moving west—from Boston to Boulder or Montana to Alaska. In Canada, that youthful pull of adventure often comes from the north, and Richardson was no exception. “I always thought the Yukon looked so wild,” he says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Originally from Alberta, Richardson began his guiding career in 1989, chasing rainbows along British Columbia’s Blackwater River, a trib to the Fraser. He left the Blackwater for Inconnu Lodge in 1996, thinking it would be his “last summer of fish guiding.” He’s been there ever since. “From the beginning, I would always take out the flyfishers, and Warren would take the trollers,” he says. “The diversity of the fishing is what’s kept me around. If I find something more fun to do in life, then I’d leave here and go do it. But that hasn’t happened.”
A double pike hookup. While the fights don’t often last long, the bite and initial resistance of a hooked pike is anything but gentle, especially if that attack occurs on the surface.
This was good news for Dan and me, as neither of us had much pike or lake trout experience before arriving. Not only was Richardson dialed in on each species at each lake, but he showed as much genuine excitement as we did every time we hooked a fish—a nice attribute for a guide. He also had the calm Canadian demeanor so helpful for those slow times on a lake. We didn’t experience many slow moments, but pike lakes, like largemouth lakes and other warmwater venues, just have a way of occasionally “turning off.” The batteries on your bluetooth speaker won’t last long, so you eventually just start staring at the surrounding mountains, drinking Canadian beer, and asking questions…
Similar to Australia’s territories and states, the difference between a Canadian territory and a Canadian province is largely political; provinces have their own constitutional powers and territories do not. This used to mean that territories were basically run by the feds in Ottawa, but much of that power has transferred to the territories over the years, so each of the three now has many province-like powers.
Some of these powers allowed for the leasing of land to people like LaFave: adventure entrepreneurs looking to build fishing and hunting lodges in the 1980s and ’90s, when the Yukon government lent money to would-be builders through its Business Development Fund.
In June 1987, LaFave borrowed almost a quarter of a million dollars from this fund to start building Inconnu. And though it took awhile for him to pay it back, LaFave persevered, partly because lodge ownership was in his blood. His father had built three of them, the first in 1933, near Kamloops. “But there were four boys, and we couldn’t live at that resort with four boys and dad,” LaFave tells me after dinner one night. So, in 1952, his dad started developing a small property the family had at Johnson Lake, which is only about four miles long. “We’d stocked it with rainbows, carrying them to the lake in milk cans,” LaFave says. “By the third year, we had seven-pound rainbows, and by the fifth year, they weighed 12 to 18.”
LaFave first built his own resort, Kalani Wildernesss Lodge, on the western side of the Yukon, the opposite side as Inconnu. His dad had started building it on Wellseley Lake, and they worked on it together until 1981, when it burned down. Pops didn’t want to rebuild. “He was fed up,” LaFave says, so he re-built it himself. “It had nice lake trout, but that’s all it had, and I just got bored. I wanted rivers and flyfishing and mountains and hiking, so I started looking around. I started coming over here in ’79, looking for property, and in ’84 I found it. Three years later, I started building.”
With a limited summer season, LaFave supplements his income from fishing clients in a variety of ways, but mostly by flying guests with other interests into the remote reaches of the Yukon and Northwest territories. Some of these people are hunters or surveyors or resource-extraction types from the mining and oil industry. But he’s also flown many climbers into the remote and famous Cirque of the Unclimbables, a stunning collection of granite peaks and big walls a short flight northeast from the lodge, inside the Northwest Territories and Nahanni National Park. Just beyond this climber’s mecca, but also inside the park, is one of the largest and most powerful waterfalls on the planet—Virginia Falls, on the South Nahanni River. Inconnu offers day flights to the falls for those interested in taking a break from fishing, or when conditions around the lodge don’t lend themselves to local flights.
Like so many fish species, pike love to hammer dark-colored flies. The difference is you better have a super-beefy leader.
Normally, I wouldn’t pass up a day of fishing in exchange for any other activity. But over the years this mindset has cost me everything from scuba dives in Cuba to horseback rides in Patagonia—and I’ve missed out on these secondary activities for what often turned out to be a marginal day of fishing. With sketchy weather on our fourth day, Armstrong and I jointly opted for the flight to the falls, and we weren’t disappointed, taking in the sights and sounds of one of the largest waterfalls by volume on earth, with almost twice the vertical drop of Niagara.
We were, of course, back to fishing the following morning, and the target was again pike, a fish that Richardson says can draw a unique set of anglers. “Pike have a funny way of attracting both sexes,” he says. “Maybe it’s because so many northern women fish, but there seems to be much more balance between males and females than with other kinds of fish. We’ve had a few wives bring their non-angling spouse. She’ll call up and say, ‘Hey, can you keep my husband busy up there? Because I really just want to fish and he’s not that into it.'”
Catch-and-release is always a good conservation policy, but it means everything this far north. Lake trout are slow growers to begin with, averaging maybe a half-pound a year. But they’re even slower growing up here, where some of the lakes will freeze over by late September. So if you catch a 25-pound laker, that fish has been swimming around since the Beatles were playing at Candlestick.
“I’d worked in a camp where I saw everybody keep everything, and I knew I wanted to go a different route,” LaFave says. “Us, and the guys at Molten Lake in Manitoba really started catch-and-release in Canada. We both suffered for it in the beginning. At that time, many people felt that if they couldn’t bring a fish home, they weren’t coming. Plus, we were competing with the B.C. coast and Alaska, where they sold it by the pound. But when I came over here, I made up my mind that—other than the occasional shore lunch—we would kill nothing. And that’s the way we’ve operated for 28 years. We’re on 30 lakes and 10 rivers, and I think our fishery is as good now as it’s ever been. We rotate lakes a lot, not only throughout a week, but we might give a lake an entire season off.”
There is no shortage of wildlife in the Yukon. Here, a rubber-nosed swamp donkey sprints across a shallow pike lake.
After Dan’s heroics with the inconnu, and with warmer weather than we’d seen all week, the three of us decided to spend our last afternoon focusing on something different: pike on the surface. The clarity of the water in the lakes we’d fished meant that we’d seen most of the pike we’d cast to, but we didn’t see them for long. Like tarpon and other sneaky species, pike will use their swim bladder to move vertically in the water column, making full use of plentiful plant life to hide in the weeds. They use these same weeds for offensive purposes when ambushing prey, but they can also disappear for hours when a boat is nearby. So Richardson suggested we fly to a shallower lake than we’d been fishing, increasing the chance that poppers might draw some pike to the surface.
His plan worked beautifully, not once but three times, providing me with by far the most memorable images of our trip. These weren’t huge pike, so the fights weren’t as long or exciting as some of the battles earlier in the week, but the visuals…
Anyone even remotely following flyfishing films in recent years has seen countless clips of pike eating a fly on the surface. But these scenes are routinely decelerated and drawn-out by ultra slo-mo, highlighting the frame-by-frame annihilation, so viewers rarely get to see how fast it actually happens. But I got to watch it in real-time, and it is forever burned in my brain: A 30-incher blasting so far, so fast, to hammer my Gurgler-ish popper, that it appeared to move across the water instead of through it. I’m not sure what the distance was, maybe 15 to 20 feet, but the fish moved from right to left, half out of the water, just a flash of torpedo-shaped green, waking and fully visible the entire time. I remember thinking: “How fitting that pike are named after a medieval weapon, because if that fly were an actual living anything, it would have no chance whatsoever.”
Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.