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This past August I fished for sea-run Arctic char several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle in what many consider one of the finest char rivers in the world. The Ekaluk River drains Ferguson Lake to the Arctic Ocean and hosts an annual run of approximately 80,000 fish. B & J Outfitters operates the sole camp on the river as a fly-fishing-only operation. This camp is difficult to book, as the season is very short and most anglers re-book year after year. Our group waited several years to get a week here.
The trip to Cambridge Bay, the closest town, is long. We flew to Edmonton, spent a night, then caught a Canadian North flight early the next morning. After stops in Yellowknife and Copper River, it finally arrived in Cambridge Bay about six hours later. This flight was like stepping back into the 1970’s, with actual food served by smiling flight attendants.
My angling buddies and I were met at the airport, driven to the floatplane dock and shuttled 35 miles in a DeHavilland Beaver. During the short flight, we saw muskox, and we got our first view of treeless tundra stretching below us as far as you could see in every direction. The final leg of our trip was by jetboat. It took us to the camp, which consists of four three-man guest cabins, guide cabins and a cook tent, all huddled on a bluff overlooking the river. On that final leg of our trip, we again saw muskox, plus arctic foxes and a wide variety of bird species. It was light nearly 24 hours a day even in late August.
At a brief welcome/orientation, outfitters Jack Elofsson and Bill Lyall told us that as of August 23 the fish had not shown. Camp records (kept since 1969) showed the earliest arrival as August 7 and the latest arrival as August 27, we were told. After that bit of bad news, we returned to our cabins to prepare our gear and enjoy a subdued “Happy Hour.” Cambridge Bay and the camp are officially dry, but guests may discreetly bring their own alcohol. This is not a place for parties.
The Ekaluk River is short, stretching not more than three miles from lake to camp, with pools, riffles and runs. Jack gave us a walking tour and pointed out productive areas and how to best fish them. The beats are easily recognized. No one was assigned a particular beat, but we were asked to be mature and polite, and to share the water. This system worked out fairly well for us, but I think could prove difficult with a less cohesive group.
The fishing here is strictly for the self-sufficient. If requested, a guide will accompany you, but during my visit, Jack simply walked the river during the day to help anyone with any real difficulties or just to talk a bit. The current is heavy in many stretches, and wading can get dicey. Fortunately, these fish are shore-huggers, so deep wading and long casts aren’t necessary.
Unfortunately, the fish took their own sweet time coming into the freshwater. They spawn in Ferguson Lake and head to sea at ice-out (around July 4), where they spend approximately two months fattening up on shrimp and baitfish in the estuary. As noted, the latest the run had begun in the previous 40 years was August 27. This past year, it did not start in earnest until August 30 – the day we left! We all hooked and landed fish but they were difficult to find early on, with success growing increasingly easy each day. By the final day I had landed five char, plus a lake trout. Our group averaged about eight fish landed per angler for the week.
The fish, when you could find them, were amazing. The average char here runs around six to eight pounds and is silver-bright, as they spend only one day in the river prior to reaching the lake. Everyone hooked fish over 30 inches (10 to 12 pounds). The largest of the week was a 35-inch 20-pounder. Char are incredibly strong and while not as fast or acrobatic as steelhead, they had no difficulty making us run downstream for several hundred yards. Once hooked, the smaller fish would immediately run downstream, while the larger ones would shake their heads a few times and proceed upstream before running out into the current and then downstream. The combination of a strong fish and fast current made landing the big ones very difficult. The fishing is not particularly technical. Casts are quartering downstream then swinging the fly. We all used sink-tip lines and heavy flies. Spey rods were not required but were a great advantage in mending line and fighting fish. A single-handed rod was difficult to use in the wind (always moderately strong), but my eight-weight got the fly out far enough. The real difficulty was mending the line with this light a rod and then fighting the larger fish. I definitely felt “outgunned.” I went zero for four on big fish (above 30 inches) until I finally managed to land one on the last day. If I were going again, I would absolutely bring a Spey rod. Since there are no trees to catch your backcast, a two-hander could be used here without fear, almost as a conventional rod.
Fly selection was not critical. Bright streamers in fluorescent-yellow, pink, orange and chartreuse were the ticket. Red streamers were not as productive. Weight was more important than color. I was low on heavy flies, so I combined an un-weighted pink streamer with a weighted green tube fly to produce an awful-looking thing that provoked eight char into hitting. As for tippets, the fish were not leader-shy, so we used short, 20-pound-test tippets.
The fish would come off the bottom, often moving several feet to grab the fly. In the beginning of the week, the fish would often tap the fly several times before taking. If you repeatedly swung the fly through the same spot, you could often get a strike. As the week progressed, the takes became more solid and more frequent.
The camp was pleasant. The cabins were weather-tight and sufficiently large. The food was good, featuring fresh char and lake trout, along with muskox and caribou. Jack Elofsson is a great storyteller in “Swenglish” (Swedish mixed with English). Bill Lyall, an Inuit from Cambridge Bay who owns the camps with his wife, Jessie, was incredibly knowledgeable about Inuit culture, the local wildlife and life in the North. The entire crew made all of us feel welcome and comfortable.
The weather was unseasonably warm (perhaps that’s why the char were so late?). We had 65-degree, blue-sky days and 40-degree nights. Several of us actually washed off in the river even though there was a hot shower available. Our good weather notwithstanding, you should come here prepared for rain, cold and wind.
The cost of this trip is about $4,500, not including airfare to Cambridge Bay. We were a bit disappointed by the number of fish in the river, but we all agreed this place would be amazing if the fish were in the river. Almost all of us would return in a minute.