Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The International

The first signs of fall in the Athabascan woods.
As we set off through the Athabascan woods on way to the rocky reaches of the Grease River in search of the trophy Arctic grayling that swim there, we broke into a whistling verse of the River Kwai March.

Our guide from Blackmur's Athabasca Fishing Lodges, Louie Isadore, made one simple comment as we set foot out of the boat and began our mile-long trek into the northern Saskatchewan backcountry: "Hey Chris. Watch fer da bear."

Then it started raining. Awesome.

With my friend Kirk Deeter leading the way, and Louie bringing up the rear, we were an odd mix of characters wandering off through the wilds of the Land of the Living Skies to catch the sailfish of the north–two pudgy American fly fishers and one native Canadian (Louie's a member of the Black Lake First Nation) armed with Japanese Tenkara fly rods whistling a British military march.

It was an international effort, to be sure.

And, as the rain continued to fall, we pushed our way through head-high brush, following a soggy trail that promised some amazing fishing at its end. Louie's ominous warning about "da bear" was enough to keep us all chatting or whistling. For a few minutes there, we each recounted some of our more harrowing experiences with ursus americanus, but the stories proved too unnerving in the thick cover we were traversing. We went back to whistling.

The Grease River.
We arrived at the Grease River unscathed, and within minutes of stretching our Tenkara rods to their full length and pulling the level line tight to remove its memory, both Deeter and I were into fish that hit dry flies without a care in the world.

The Tenkara method might be the best way to chase unwary Arctic grayling. These fish live largely unmolested (and, frankly, under appreciated) in the Grease River and scores of other waterways throughout the Canadian north. Cousins to trout and salmon, these fish, armed with their stunning dorsal fin and an aggressive disposition common among the fishy critters up here, grayling don't hesitate when chasing a fly. They seize the opportunity with gusto more fitting a fish much bigger and much toothier.

Success on Tenkara.
With the Tenkara method, the angler can virtually eliminate the notion of drag altogether, and actually manipulate the dry fly on the surface of the river to suit his or her needs. I like to make a rather traditional dry fly cast upstream, but just as my fly might start to drag downstream, I can lift all the level line off the water and follow the fly downstream, giving myself another dozen feet of natural drift, and present my fly naturally to all the fish holding beneath it.

I've said this before: Tenkara is so simple that it looks like a handicap thrust willingly upon its devotees out purism, but, in truth, it's an ideal moving-water weapon, at least for the cast and presentation. Granted, it has some limitations when it comes to actually battling fish, but I've found that wise use of the supple rod can make the Tenkara every bit as effective as a traditional fly rod in most circumstances. The more you use it, the better you become–just as with anything else. The challenge, of course, is forcing yourself to use the rod, to have confidence in it.

Deeter with a Tenkara grayling.
We overcame that challenge without difficulty this day, as we pulled dozens of trophy Arctic grayling from the Grease River, our grins stretching from ear to ear as each stunning fish came to hand.

There, on the banks of Canadian river, two giggling Americans and their First Nation guide put a Japanese method to use catching grayling. On the walk out, the River Kwai March rang through the woods, a celebratory tune after a morning of some of the finest river fishing we could remember.


  1. Ya don't gotta outrun da bear. Just outrun da other guys.

  2. Sigh... I've been so good lately on the gear-purchasing front. But I think I'm just going to have to break down and get me one of them tenkara sticks. At least I can tell my wife I don't have to get a reel too this time.

  3. That's what I told Louie... I told I thought I was at least faster than him. Not sure he thought that was very funny.

    And Mike ... be careful. If you get one, you might use it TOO much.

  4. Lucky suckers. Put up some more close up shots of the arctic graylings will ya? I had one on the line in YNP July 05 but it got away from me. They are very aggressive would you say? Easier to catch than a brookie?

  5. Mark ... they ARE agressive, and here, where they don't get much pressure (we're at the lodge with a couple of great guys who asked me, "Why would ever want to catch a grayling?"), so they are pretty easy to catch. But they fight like hell, and they don't stop, even when you bring them to hand, they keep on twitching and tugging and snaking ... the best way to describe them is that they yearn to swim free. Romantic? Yes. But true.

    I will put more pics up... I've got so many I don't know what to do with them. Stay tuned.