Tree River Arctic Char
July 20, 2014
Nunavut's Tree River
While char have proven to be highly adaptable, and populate remote and inhospitable waters, they grow to world-record proportions only under the right conditions. The International Game Fish Association all-tackle Arctic char record (32 pounds, 9 ounces) came from a place now synonymous with supersize char — the Tree River in Canada's Nunavut Territory.
The Tree River system is a relatively short stretch of water with a steep gradient. Its whitewater presents a fearsome journey for char returning to spawn or winter over in fresh water. Their journey terminates barely 6 miles from the salt water of Coronation Bay, at the impassable Third Falls.
Arctic summers are brief and intense. For char anglers, the end of runoff until the closing of the only camp on the river spans just six to eight weeks — usually from mid-July until the end of August.
You may take some consolation in the fact that long days provide around-the-clock fishing; but seasonally, opportunities remain short.
Theories on why the fish here consistently reach the high teens and twenties vary. Guide and biologist Craig Blackie speculates that one factor is the abundance of offshore capelin — a small fish of the smelt family — near the mouth of the Tree, providing these char with a significant food source and contributing to their growth.
The river itself offers another clue: With a gauntlet of Class IV and V rapids, the Tree, over time, genetically rewards the biggest and strongest fish, as smaller fish find it difficult to pass the rapids and find suitable spawning partners.
Nature of a River
The nature of the Tree River creates a challenging fishery, one that calls for a variety of tactics. In the middle to lower sections, it has some long, gradual stretches with classic-looking runs where you can use traditional wet-fly swing tactics. In this water, getting deep with large patterns yields the best results.
Farther upstream, the river narrows and the gradient increases dramatically.
A series of rapids and small waterfalls create imposing obstacles for char as they leapfrog upriver, seeking shelter where they can.
This succession of miniature pools, small runs, bank deflections, rock ledges, and gravel bars also contains massive boulders that create giant holding pockets.
Approach these pockets the same way you would a small run. Cast to the far edge of the pocket — just inside the rapids on the other side — and mend and even high-stick to lift the line off the currents for a smooth, deep swing through the run.
In the upper river, the fish sometimes rest in shallow water away from the relentless current. Scout these places carefully. It is possible to spot the char and sight-fish to them.
Controlling swing speed and mastering your fly depth are crucial on the Tree. Bring a variety of sinking-tip lines (10- to 15-foot interchangeable tips, or spools with various integrated heads) from intermediate to fast-sinking. Change sinking-tips and vary your line mends to get down to the right depth. In situations where the water is clear, smaller patterns catch more fish. With less clarity, use larger patterns.
On large remote rivers like the Tree, you face all kinds of conditions and water levels, so come prepared. In the upper river, use 8- or 9-weights. Longer single-handed rods allow you to mend and easily manipulate the presentation. This is critical when fishing midstream boulder pockets.
Spey rods (7- and 8-weights), are also effective because they make it easy to mend and manipulate line. They make it easier to throw longer and heavier sinking-tip lines and bigger flies, and open up places where there isn't room for backcasts.
Char take traditional Spey flies, Zonkers, Bunny Leeches, and even sculpin imitations, as well as many other flies. We prefer #2/0 to #6 white, pink and purple, and olive patterns.
The Tree River is a special destination. Its remoteness, short season, and limited access keep it pristine and protect this incredible fishery's record-size char. Should you have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to fish it, be prepared to constantly review your tactics and adapt to the variety of water types.
A thoughtful approach to finding places where fish hold, and then adjusting your presentation accordingly, reaps the most rewards.
Getting there. Plummer's Tree River tent camp has served for years as an outpost fly-in destination for guests staying at the larger Great Bear Lake Lodge, about 90 minutes away by float plane. You can either fish the Tree as an overnight, two-day fly-out from Great Bear Lake Lodge, or inquire about a rustic, one-week fly-fishing package exclusively at the Tree. A seven-night stay at Great Bear Lake Lodge is US$4,995. Add $750 for an additional overnight stay on the Tree River.
Chris Seipio, and filmmaking partners Andrew Eddy and Dave Imbach, filmed their time on the Tree River as part of a unreleased DVD project. See doublehaulproductions.com for more photos and video from the Tree.