Arctic Dreams
We didn’t see Lopez’s white wolves, but two bucket list items got crossed off our lists, and the Arctic char were left rubbing their chins.
By Gil Greenberg
Images By Jay Siemens

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always wanted to experience an Arctic summer. I’ve had this preconceived notion that the Canadian summer becomes more beautiful the farther north you go, the tradeoff being you have a smaller window to enjoy it. Summer comes late to the Arctic and fall is never far off, but you get your licks in while you can, enjoying 24 hours of daylight while fishing and exploring each day for as many hours as you can last. In addition, catching and cooking an Arctic char has been at the top of my dad’s bucket list. With climate change becoming more severe, and Covid limiting Canadian operations to domestic clients only, it was hard to argue that there would ever be a better time for my father and I to visit the high Arctic. So I pulled the trigger and signed up for the trip of a lifetime. My father, step-sister, girlfriend and I, were joined by the talented videographer Jay Siemens for eight days of fishing and exploring in one of the most remote, wild and spectacular places on earth. Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge is located in Nunavut, Canada, 800 miles kilometers north of the Arctic Circle at the northern tip of Somerset Island and Cunningham Inlet.

Day 1

There are certain flights that you don’t want to sleep through, and the route from Yellowknife to Cunningham Inlet is one of them. The sheer size of the pack-ice you’ll see out the window is astounding. The way it stands in contrast to the dark blue, nearly black ocean is stunningly beautiful in an abstract sort of way.

Located 74 degrees north in Nunavut, Canada, Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge—the most northern ecolodge on the planet—was our home for eight days. Originally built as a beluga whale viewing operation, Arctic Watch has diversified and agreed to work with Gil’s Fly Fishing International, offering customized Arctic char fishing itineraries where you’ll never see another angler and the fish will have a seen their first fly only when yours passes by their nose. Owned and operated by world renown explorer Richard Weber and his family, Arctic Watch can host 26 guests and is routinely booked by National Geographic and the BBC.

After a delicious five-course dinner, we packed up our camera gear and walked to the Cunningham estuary where a few thousand beluga whales congregate each year to socialize, play and—yes, you guessed it—mate.

Day 2

While the Arctic has a reputation for nasty weather, our first full day was a stunner—blue skies and a comfortable 8 degrees Celsius. After a quick orientation on ATV and side-by-side safety, we embarked on a scenic drive overlooking the Northwest Passage that included a stop at the Thule archaeological site (Thule’s are descendants of modern Inuit, who traded with Vikings and Russians in the 11th century). We saw 10,000 year old bowhead whale skeletons, and got stuck in muck that seemed as bottomless as quicksand. While the ground appeared solid, under a thin layer of crust was nearly liquid mud. Fortunately, the permafrost kept us from sinking deeper. While the ATVs weren’t too hard to dig or winch out, the side-by-side required all three ATVs and some heavy shovel work to extricate.

Day 3

After breakfast we got the heads-up that we would fly to Cresswell Bay, in the middle of Somerset Island, known as a hotspot for narwhal, Arctic char and, unfortunately, heavy winds. The Weber’s have a special agreement with traditional landowners to take clients to Cresswell.

While we didn’t see any narwhal, we did find plenty of char and that predicted wind. With a sustained blow of 50 miles per hour, these were definitely the toughest condition I’ve fished in. Just holding a spey rod perpendicular was a challenge.

After getting set up, dad and the girls worked the shoreline next to the main river mouth as Jay and I made our way upriver to fish the pools. We spotted two massive concentrations of char in the main pool along with the odd char cruising solo.

The fishing started out rough. This wasn’t because we couldn’t see fish—they were schooled up right in front of us—but, instead, because we couldn’t get them to eat. However, when the tide changed the fish became aggressive. Suddenly, fish after fish would break from the school and smash our flies. Eventually, the school broke off into small hunting parties of two-to five fish and patrolled a shallow flat right above the delta. While it wasn’t pretty, and I’m not sure you can call it casting, between Jay and I we must have caught nearly a dozen fish before lunch. The largest weighed between eight and 10 pounds, but we saw fish twice that size. Unfortunately, the wind picked up to dangerous levels that afternoon and we couldn’t fish. Needless to say, we were keen to get back there.

Too windy to get the stove started? Guess what we’re eating, dad? Sashimi! Checkmark on the bucket list. Actually, this meal was closer to a Japanese version of ceviche. I suspected it was prepared by chef Justin with soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, sake, onions and dashi.

Day 4

Bad weather rolled in, which meant we wouldn’t be able to fly back to Cresswell for at least a couple days. Instead, our group split up with my step-sister taking a 30 km e-bike rip over the tundra, and the rest of us hiking to a nearby waterfall. Not only were the falls beautiful, I was lucky to find and examine a number of interesting coral and trilobite fossils. Later that night we made a plan to explore some of the inland lakes and target landlocked char. Apparently, these char became isolated from their sea-run cousins around 5,000 years ago and have, remarkably, formed self-sustaining sub-populations. The average size fish in most of these lakes would be around 12 inches, but a couple lakes hold fish to 10 pounds. To prepare for our adventure we joined other lodge guests for a hearty meal featuring bison fillets and deviled eggs.

Day 5

After a quick breakfast and briefing, we packed up and headed out to a lake located approximately 50 km east of the lodge. We took the scenic route, an eventful ride that included multiple river crossings, steep muddy hills and the traversing of mogul covered badlands. We encountered a small group of muskox, several bunnies and lemmings. Arctic wolves, foxes, owls and polar bears are often seen on this drive, but we didn’t encounter them.

After a four-hour drive, we finally reached the lake. It was breathtaking, and gave me the sensation of having discovered water on Mars. We got our lines in the water as quickly as possible, hooking up almost immediately. After landing a few char, the largest measuring 27 inches, I wondered what sort of food organisms could sustain such a population of healthy fish. I didn’t have a stomach pump, nor did I want to harm any of these beautiful fish, as recruitment in these isolated lakes is very low with the average fish being over 35 years old. So I decided to walk the shoreline. I turned over rocks and dug in the mud, finding a few nymphs and larval insects. As I made my way around to the floating ice, I noticed a ton of small crustaceans—that looked like krill—swimming aimlessly around a small depression. I figured that’s what kept these fish going.

After lunch the wind picked up, and our group of mostly inexperienced fly fishers struggled to get their flies where they needed to be. Cold rain streamed down so we decided to say goodbye to those fish and head for camp.

Day 6

The wind and rain had completely died off, but a low, heavy fog blanketed the inlet. After a quick discussion over breakfast, the group decided that we would turn in our fishing rods for paddles and join the belugas on their home turf. Now, if you would have told me five years ago that I would one day be kayaking the Arctic Ocean with a pod of beluga whales I probably would have laughed. But here I was, putting on a drysuit, preparing to paddle in water that is colder than ice.

Being on the water with thousands of whales was a truly humbling experience. Belugas are very curious and social animals. When we remained still and quiet they came right up to us. It was a remarkable experience and with calm conditions and the acoustics of the inlet, we were surrounded by the sounds of singing and breathing whales. The highlight of the paddle, however, was when our guide actually drifted into a sleeping fur seal. I didn’t know this at the time, but seals will sleep in the water, hovering vertically with only their noses breaking the surface.

Day 7

This was our last full day, and another group was flying out, so the chances of getting a flight back to Cresswell was looking slim. In all honesty, I wasn’t too disappointed. We were having a fantastic time, and I really wanted to go back to the lake and target those landlocked char. Dad and Jay didn’t need any convincing. But the girls chose a raft trip down one of the area’s major rivers to explore the badlands where two 10,000-year-old bowhead whale skeletons protrude from the tundra, over 50 kilometers from the ocean.

While I’m sure they had a great time (and they did report a pretty spectacular hatch and a ton of small char rising in the river), so did we. Taking a shortcut to the lake cut down on travel time by over two hours, which meant more time on the water for us. Once there we spotted a monster bright-red char hanging in the river mouth. Foolishly, I rushed my rigging—I hooked the fish, but it broke my tippet. Fortunately there were plenty of hungry fish that day. After landing nearly two-dozen fish in an hour on streamers, we decided to see how many different techniques we could successfully employ.

An hour before lunch, a thick midge hatch ascended from the cold lake, and rafts of those bugs collected around the edges of floating ice. Every so often we would see a char rise, breach, and swallow a wad of these small bugs. We had already caught char on streamers, naked stripped nymphs, nymphs under an indicator, emergers, and even bonefish flies jigged off the bottom. Now it was time for a true dry. I didn’t have my usual dry fly box with me, just a handful of patterns attached to my drying patch. I roughed up a small ant pattern with some velcro on my jacket and gave it a go. Nothing. I cycled through every dry fly on my patch . . . . Nothing. I even resorted to an on-the-spot trim job. No dice. As dad continued to catch fish on standard patterns he started teasing me. I reluctantly switched back to my yellow-over-white Clouser and tried, unsuccessfully, to regain my lead. After five hours of nearly non-stop action, we decided to leave the poor fish alone and called it a day. If I had to guess, we probably landed 200 beautiful char between the three of us and our two guides.

Day 8

We woke up to beautiful conditions and, with cheery smiles, managed to convince our hosts to fly us to Cresswell Bay. Unfortunately, when we reached Cresswell the ceiling had dropped and that made landing too risky. Instead, we flew over several large masses of pack ice that drifted into the bay. I’m pretty sure I spotted a family of three polar bears, which really just looked like yellow smudges slowly moving over the white ice.

We got back to the lodge with just enough time to strip down and perform a polar dip at 74 degree’s north—not something I really wanted to do. But sometimes you gotta say F’ it, I’m going. While not the glorious finish we hoped for, it was still a fantastic way to end a lifetime experience. Looking back, I guess it really is true, the farther north you go, the more beautiful a Canadian summer becomes.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.