Dave Zoby is a freelance writer out of Casper, Wyoming.
I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. At first, I thought they were forest fires. Skeins of smoke curled off the treetops on Upper Toobally Lake, which is located in the Yukon’s southeast corner. Here and there, puffs of mustard-colored dust rose up and spread, creating a sort of yellow haze. It was beautiful in the same vein as the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt.
I sat in a red 12-foot Lund well off the beachfront. I was close enough to the lodge to hear the distant thump of the generator. The guides, David and James O’Farrell, were off with other clients. David, the owner of Grizzly Creek Lodge, told me to fish the reefs, areas, where the lake suddenly shallowed. It was early June, and David said the lake trout would congregate on the ledges. If I could locate these drop-offs, the fish would let me know. But I didn’t have a fish finder, and even if I did, I never learned how to use one. I was outfitted with a well-used Lund, oak oars, a sawed-in-half oil can for bailing water, a lifejacket, and a 15-horsepower Johnson outboard that harkened back to another era.
We began our adventure at Grizzly Creek’s huge lower lodge, where we had Wi-Fi, cold drinks, and luxuries associated with the modern world. But we had left that lodge and gone upriver to a second camp—the outpost camp—a more remote and exotic place where fish numbers were stronger. I suppose we wanted a real sense of being away. We’d spend three nights at the upper camp, then travel back to the main lodge to wrap things up.
Many people don’t think of lake trout as a fish you can take on a fly. However, in early summer, in lakes throughout the Yukon, these fish are up in the water column and aggressively take flies. The preferred method of catching them is to troll a streamer over various fingers and underwater structure until you find fish. You vary your depth by the amount of fly line peeled off, and how fast you troll. I had most of my fly line out, and the motor in grandma gear. Once you located trout, I was told, they would be stacked up in great numbers. You mark the spot, stand up, and make big casts. It sounded like a good plan, but the puffs of yellow smoke were disconcerting. And I wasn’t comfortable yet in the boat. I envisioned the headlines: "Beloved English Professor Lost in Remote Lake." There were devastating fires here in 2019. Firefighters, by setting up sprinkler systems and building a backfire, were able to save Grizzly Creek’s structures on the upper and the lower lakes. The O’Farrells had to cancel their 2020-2021 seasons due to the pandemic. Another disaster would be crushing.
As I passed over a reef, my line jolted once and then again. I lifted the rod and felt the weight of a good fish. The laker ran line, sulked below the boat, then swam at me. Every time I thought I had him whipped, he enlivened and sounded. This went on for a while. Finally, a string of telltale bubbles rose and the fish drifted up into view. This was my first lake trout in 20 years; I caught a small one by accident in Wyoming once. But I don’t have any real experience with these fish. They remain anomalies to me. This one ran about 28 inches or so.
A member of the char family, lake trout have a deeply forked tail and white tips on their fins. Some are silver and mottled green, while others have orange and red tints reminiscent of brook trout. Here, in the Yukon, they call the colorful ones “redfins”. The mouth was formidable, toothy, not like a rainbow trout, but suggestive of a predator. I admired the trout and it sounded a final time. Then I noticed that the lake was covered in a scrim of yellow pollen. It suddenly occurred to me that those puffs of smoke were not fires—they were loads of pollen casting off the acres and acres of white spruce.
I was relieved to know that we would not have to evacuate. I could now fully concentrate on the fishing. But during my battle with the trout I failed to pinpoint my location. With enormously high water from record snowpack, and with the layer of pollen on the water, there was no way to see the bottom of the lake. I had a hard time lining the boat up with landmarks on the shore—it all looked the same: birch trees and white spruce, points and coves. Here was the moment when I was supposed to stand in the little skiff and cast as if I were somewhere in the Bahamas. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it; I was afraid of falling overboard. I went back to trolling. Ironically, when I could hear the lodge’s generator, I fell into fish. When I was out of earshot, I didn’t catch a thing. So, I used the sound of the generator to gauge where to fish. And soon enough, I had caught and released a handful a lake trout.
I had asked James if it was safe to stand in the Lund and cast. “Yeah, I do it all of the time,” he said. He is a stocky, bearded young person who seems to have sprung up from the forest. He grew up here and began guiding at age 15. This was my first day in camp, and I come to every new location with a healthy fear of cold water and unfamiliar locations. If I need to be brave, I can always summon courage late in the trip. Try as I might, I never felt right standing on the bench seat of the aluminum boat and casting away. My detractors will seize this opportunity to say that trolling a fly isn’t fly fishing. Go ahead, detract. I was a guest in a foreign country and I wasn’t about to buck local folkways. Besides, trolling worked extremely well. Slowly, I was beginning to get a feel for these fish. Often, my rod tip dove and submerged in the surface. The drag sang. After a run or two, the fish tended to wrap themselves in the leader. They shook their heads violently when I only wanted to set them free. In many ways, they fight like German browns, the nasty ones you encounter when you throw big streamers.
I trolled back to the lodge and beached the Lund; the other guests were still out. I stowed my 9-weight in my cabin. I strolled about the compound, a tidy encampment of hand-crafted log cabins, a spacious main lodge, a shower house, and an outhouse. I examined the two Lowe jetboats in which we had come up the Smith River to reach the lodge. I photographed the buildings, the swirls of pollen on the lake surface, and the red Lund that would be my boat for the next few days. I was fascinated with the shape of the little boat and its deep bow. Dave said something like, James will set you up with your own boat and you can do your own thing. It was as simple as that. I had to think hard about the last time someone gave me this kind of freedom. Down in the Lower 48 I’m always hamstrung by administrators, assessors, and various government organizations; no one lends me a fishing boat without waivers, a background check, and various forms. Perhaps they are protecting me from myself. But here, on Upper Toobally, with a $20 weekly license in my pocket I was free to do as I wanted, at least for the next several days.
But that’s not quite true. David O’Farrell is protective of these fish. He only brings 30 anglers in per year. I recognized how lucky I was to be in this place with these people and these fish. The O’Farrells keep the angling pressure feather-light to protect the fishing, to keep it as exceptional as it was when they first started here 33 years ago. People who come this far to fish remotes lakes expect to find something special. David asked me to pinch down my barbs, to use long-handled pliers when removing hooks from pike and lake trout, to release them immediately, and to not kill any fish. We had a shore lunch planned for one of the days, but this was mostly a catch-and-release operation. Discovering one of my streamers tied to my leader in the tackle-room, Dave didn’t think I had adequately pinched the barb, and he told me so.
“Use the flat part of your pliers and make sure there’s no barb whatsoever,” he said.
Grizzly Creek Lodge has a long backstory. Doug Skanse, an American, was an avid fisherman, so much so that David said people often worried about him. He’d fish hours and hours on both lakes. Sometimes they had to go out and find him in the wee hours of the evening; they have a rule here that the guides do not go to bed until all the boats are back on the beach. These are huge bodies of water, hundreds of feet deep, and many people told me that storms can make the waters dangerous in a split second. But Doug enjoyed the Toobally Lakes so much that he wanted to bring friends. David, who still works part of the season as a trapper and hunting guide, became a jack of all trades at the lodge. He maintained the boats, built cabins, guided Doug’s many friends, and grew the operation over the years. Eventually, Dave became the owner of the lodge. He and his son James are the sole guides. His wife, Reggie, cooks amazing homemade meals, drives boats, runs off curious bears, and handles the business from the lower lake while David and James are guiding at the upper lake. James’ wife, Marilyn, works at the lodge and frequently travels with James on his trapline. Their son William runs freely about the lodge, greeting guests as they arrive via floatplane from Watson Lake. Several Karelian bear dogs (KBDs from now on) patrol the property. They’re cute and one wants you to scratch its ears, but you are reminded that they are working dogs, capable of waylaying black and grizzly bears that wander into camp. David said one of his previous dogs, a poodle, was killed by a black bear several years ago.
“I heard her yelp. Then I heard something else. It was the sound of the bear eating my dog,” he said. “These dogs (the KBDs) know how to dodge in and attack. They are really good at frustrating a bear.” David said they know when a bear is near way before he does.
Bears and bear lore aside, it was fun to listen to the many stories that have formed around the lodge and the people who have come over the years. At dinner we laughed and traded stories. I drive the Alcan Highway each summer, and that gave us plenty to talk about. Bud and Janet Gale were celebrating their 51st anniversary at the lodge where we dined on steaks and mac-n-cheese. The Gale’s had been up in 2019, just one week after the fires swept through. Bud told about going up the Smith River in a jetboat to fish for grayling. James carried a Stihl chainsaw in the bow of the boat. Frequently, he had to leap out of the boat to remove huge, charred sweepers that had fallen into the river.
Stories flew around the table as pine logs crackled in the stove. We discussed moose and moose hunters. We talked about the Canadian cultural philosopher Jordan Peterson. (“He’s a national treasure,” said David.) We discussed the loss of bull trout in the Teslin area, and how so many fisheries we knew are not what they used to be. Here it is different.
Many of the stories returned to Doug, the original owner who started it all. “He was one of those guys who just liked hiring people and giving them a chance,” said David. Doug, it seemed, brought integrity and honesty to all his pursuits, and David wanted to keep that going. I was delighted when David said the 12-foot Lund I was puttering around in was the boat that Doug used back in the old days.
“I’ll take you out tomorrow and show you some good pike spots,” said James as I made my exit for the night.
The golden, sweeping light caused by the midnight sun striking billions of grains of airborne pollen didn’t last. The wind came up, and with it a soaking rain that lasted two days. Bierstadt’s airy canvasses were supplanted by Winslow Homer’s wetted landscapes. Heavy clouds scudded across the ridges. James said our shore lunch would likely take place at the lodge, not on an exposed beach where we had planned—the beaches were submerged. The rain came in sheets. The lake’s pair of swans tucked in near shore and squabbled. But we fished on. I put on layers of thermal shirts. I wore my best waterproof jacket. But for rain pants I only had a pair of $20 cheapies of unrecognizable brand. The amount of coffee we needed to brave the rain was truly astounding. There was a doctor and his son from New Mexico who were also fly fishing. They were decked out in high-end raingear. I said to the son, “Young man, if I can offer you any advice it is this: don’t scrimp on raingear.” Waves crashed ashore and the path to the beached Lunds became sodden.
“I’ve been here 33 years and I’ve never seen the lake this high,” David said as he peered out the window. It was refreshing to see someone who lives in such a starkly beautiful place retain his ability to be astonished. When he spoke of wild animals and wild places he was categorically unsentimental. He is, after all, a trapper and a hunting guide. When he told stories about quirky people he had encountered in the Yukon, he tried to get it just right. I noticed that he worked hard for us to see some of the things he saw by living in such a remote area.
Pike were going to be harder to come by. Highly sensitive to temperature changes, the northerns should have been up in the shallow bays preparing to spawn. “Pike prefer warmer water than lake trout, so they’re going to be back in further, in some cases, unreachable areas,” said David. Of the three species they target at Grizzly Creek—lake trout, Arctic grayling, and northern pike—one is always red hot. Grayling were off the menu, as the Smith River was out of its banks and unfishable. But pike were still possible; I dumbed into a few while trolling. Thankfully, the lake trout fishing was ridiculously good.
I developed a method to combat the conditions, wherein I’d fish for three hours, head back to the lodge to warm up, pound some coffee, and then go back to trolling. I kept my stove going and was able to dry my gear between sessions. Swilling coffee and flipping through fly-fishing magazines by the stove, I timed my fishing efforts between heavy rain and squalls. Though I never was able to be sure of it, I began to form a mental map of the lake and where the reefs might be. By studying the contours of the shoreline, I tried to imagine how the topography of the lake worked. It reminded me of the East Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Some traveling Hindus bring an elephant into a secluded village and several blind men try to fathom it by feeling it. But each man touches a different part. Some feel the trunk; others feel the ears. Afterwards they have completely different ideas about what an elephant is. That’s how I feel about Upper Toobally Lake. My experience was vague and impressionistic. But real, nonetheless. Eventually, the soaking rain moved on.
On our last night we were treated to a brilliantly calm evening. The loons commenced their singing and the swans seemed to have solved their dispute. I followed the doctor and his son out to an area where they had caught a mixed bag of trout and pike. Whitefish rose to large, winged midges and roiled the surface. Where there are whitefish, there are often trout and pike, I was told. So we focused on a tiny island a hundred yards offshore. By standing and casting toward the island, we were able to catch and release dozens of lake trout and pike. I finally came to terms with the concept of standing in a Lund and casting; like James said, it wasn’t unstable at all, and I could see why fishermen leave the lodge and stay out all night. I used a pink Man-Bear-Pig on a 2/0 hook. This fly, ridiculed openly at the lodge, became dear to me as fish after fish engulfed it. I had luck with various Clousers, and a white and a green Fish-Skull streamer I bought on impulse one winter while cruising the internet and dreaming of summer in Canada. I watched big lake trout zoom up after my fly, often taking it just yards from the boat. The drag gave up its pleasant, familiar tune, and my rod tip submerged into the surface.
Before we could head out the next morning—back to Wi-Fi, mini-fridges, and the 24-hour protection of KBDs—James and David had some chores to do. They needed to stock each cabin with kindling and firewood for the next group. They needed to top off the gas tanks on the fleet of Lunds, tidy up the kitchen, and change the bedding. David asked me if I’d go out in the boat with the Gales for a few hours. I’d be honored, I said.
I took the couple to the place where we had done so well. The fish were there. My only regret is that I failed to grab David’s tackle box. The Gale’s, who spin fished, had the right spoons—large, wobbling, ostentatious metal that drove the trout nuts. But during the chaos of a double hook-up, Bud’s fish swam under the boat and tangled in the prop. As I was releasing Janet’s fish, I saw Bud’s line go slack. He groaned, then laughed. They had been married 51 years, and sharing a single rod during the last half-hour of our trip was a small sacrifice for a couple who raised six children and fished all over the world. We got back into the fish, and swung around to troll over that invisible, indeterminate place where the lake bed rose up from the depths and created a ledge. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there.
James motored up and told us that as soon as we landed our last fish, we should come to the lodge for coffee and a quick lunch. We set the last trout free, a beautiful 30 incher, and followed in James’ wake.