The best rivers for North America's most remote gamefish
Barren tundra, waves of meandering caribou, icy tempests, and nature's pyrotechnics—the aurora borealis—are well-known symbols of the Arctic. Another icon—migratory Arctic char—grows large here, surviving on uncanny opportunism in a supernatural environment.
Their vibrant colors—blues, forest greens, and fiery crimsons—fighting ability, sheer numbers, backcountry inaccessibility, and propensity to take swung flies—much like wild steelhead—make Arctic char exciting targets.
Unlike steelhead, a species in decline, char swim relatively unscathed and survive in good numbers in their native range. They spend part of their lives in fresh water, part in salt water, and average 6 to 8 pounds along the length of the Arctic coast. They push double-digit weights on river systems with prolific forage fish and longer ice-free seasons. The standing world record is a 32-pound, 9-ounce tank from Nunavut's Tree River, caught in 1981.
In addition to the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, anadromous char populate areas of Alaska, around the Bering Sea; the Arctic coast, as far north as Baffin Island; and several Quebec and Labrador drainages.
Payne River, Quebec
At 60 degrees north latitude Quebec's Payne River drains into the western side of Ungava Bay—a gaping 110-mile-wide, Arctic Ocean mixing bowl. Fresh water from the river collides with the salt at Payne Bay, where 40-foot tides, some of the largest in North America, usher in tens of thousands of anadromous Arctic char each spring.
The Ungava Bay season begins in early July after the thick Arctic ice dissipates, draining from lakes and tributaries feeding the Payne's tidal estuary. This annual ice-off triggers the movement of lake- and river-wintering Arctic char into the Payne fjord and Ungava Bay, where they gorge on shrimp, krill, and capelin during the brief Arctic summer.
Fishing the Payne River fjord is more like fishing in the ocean than in a typical river, making tides important. Ungava Bay's substantial tides fill and drain the Payne fjord twice daily. Guides work according to this cycle and know where fish stack and how the river shapes at different water levels. Low tide depths range from 20 to 35 feet, rising to 50 to 75 feet at the peak.
Most of the fishing is from 24-foot freighter canoes, but there are limited walk-and-wade opportunities at lower tides. Fly fishers visiting the region at the right time of year can expect to catch 20 to 40 fish daily.
The average Payne River fish weighs more than 5 pounds, and char between 6 and 12 pounds are common. The Payne River Fishing Camp light-tackle Arctic char record is 18 pounds.
Inuit guides are not expert fly fishers and speak only marginal English (Inuktitut is their native tongue). They anchor canoes in likely holding spots: near drop-offs, deep buckets, rock outcrops, islands, and underwater structure where char cruise, station, and feed.
The canoes are not typical fly-fishing crafts, but their design excels on big, unforgiving Arctic waters like the Payne. They have good stability and high gunwales, but no casting platforms. You stand in the bottom of the boat and cast to either your left or right. Bring a stripping basket for unimpeded line shooting.
The best fishing on the Payne coincides with good weather—calm and warm. Storms mean rough seas. Dropping anchor and getting the canoe to hold is challenging in a 3- to 6-foot chop. In poor weather you might have to pick up fish by trolling flies behind the boat. Survival suits are provided at camp. Wear them. They keep you warm, dry, and alive in a man-overboard situation.
Canoes typically carry two anglers and a guide, with the casters positioned at the bow and stern. Guides point the canoes into the current, dropping anchor from the bow and giving the fly fisher at the stern a distinct advantage for swinging flies into the wake created behind the boat. This fishery does not demand rocketing 80-foot casts to bull's-eye targets. But these skills help, especially when squalls require wind-piercing loops.
Under normal conditions, 40- to 60-foot casts suffice and produce. Experiment with casting slightly upstream, directly across, and downstream and across, using up- and downstream mends to vary the speed of your swing and the depth of your presentation.
The retrieve. The water on the Payne is clear, allowing you to see fish rising to, following, and eating your flies. Many "eats" come on the swing, but your retrieve is important. With your rod tip pointed at the water, vary your stripping speed, length, and cadence until you get the timing right. On the Payne, packs of three, four, or six fish often compete for your fly. Resist the urge to set prematurely or lift the rod when char chase your fly; you risk spooking the fish and moving the fly out of the strike zone. Instead, use a strip-strip-pause-strip rhythm, and hesitate long enough for the lead fish to connect. Takes are evident when your all-white or half-and-half Clouser or Zonker patterns turn black, then disappear in a pull of line. If the fish misses, keep at it. Arctic char often follow flies to within a few feet of the boat.
Gear. Use 7- and 8-weight rods and carry lines from weight-forward floating to shooting heads (120- and 200-grain integrated heads) and intermediate- and full-sinking setups. Dry lines serve for most of your Payne River fishing. Leaders should be from 3 to 6 feet tapered down to 0X to 2X tippets. Loop knots, such as the nonslip loop knot (see flyfisherman.com/skills/jb4knots/) provide the most natural action for streamer fishing.
Flies. Payne River char receive little pressure and are relatively indiscriminate. They feed on food items such as shrimp, sand eels, and capelin. Capelin are the Payne's predominant baitfish and are easily imitated with Clouser Minnows, Double Bunnies, Zonkers, Grey Ghosts, Woolly Buggers, Muddler Minnows, and Magog Smelts. Tie flies in the 3- to 4-inch range on stout saltwater #2/0 to #6 hooks. Arctic char have sharp teeth, which destroy well-tied flies. Load your boxes with backups. The camp also sells high-quality imitations specific to the fishery.
The Payne River Camp sits on the 60th parallel, 1,100 miles north of Montreal, Quebec. Guests travel from Kuujjuaq aboard a Twin Otter and land on the camp's 1,100-foot airstrip.
Besides fishing the main bay adjacent to camp, one-day upriver excursions, about two hours by boat, can be arranged. The scenery—ghostly Inuit outposts, wildlife such as bear, caribou, and Arctic fox—and shots at a trophy brook or lake trout are enticing, but the fishing is better downstream, where char are concentrated in higher numbers.
All-inclusive, six-night stays, including two overnights in Montreal, cost $5,950 (USD).
For more information on the Payne River and other specialty Arctic Adventures offerings, such as trophy brook trout fishing on the Lagrève River, see arcticadventures.ca.
Geoff Mueller is the managing editor of Fly Fisherman.