There’s a modest fishing lodge on the shores of Black Lake, just outside of Stoney Rapids, Sask., where the lake dumps into the Fond du Lac River. I visited some 16 years ago, right around the summer solstice when the days were long and sunny.
And the black flies. Jesus, the black flies.
But that’s an occupational hazard, right? If you’re going to write about fly fishing in the North Woods, you have to expect everything that comes with the North Woods. Headnets and Deet were a small price to pay for long days in the boat spent chasing giant pike in the dark waters of Black Lake.
And we caught pike. Lots of them. But then … grayling happened.
One evening, after returning from a full day on the lake, I wandered down to where Black Lake picks up some current, just above a gnarly set of rapids that marks its short run through the Fond du Lac River before dumping into the much larger Lake Athabasca.
Fish were rising. I knew what they were, but I wasn’t too terribly impressed – not after boating my first 40-inch pike on a fly earlier that day. That was an event, catching a registered Saskatchewan trophy fish. They write your name down in the lodge book for that.
But with hours of daylight still ahead (the sun would sort of come in for a soft landing around 11:45 or so), I figured I’d make the best of my time at the lodge. Armed with a 4-weight and a box of standard dry flies, I slowly walked the river, heading down into the short canyon above the nearby town. After a few minutes, I came across an eddy, where the river circled back upon itself, scouring out a huge pool in the boreal bedrock. I sat down on a riverside rock and just watched.
Every few seconds, the flat surface of the eddy would dimple, and I’d catch a silvery flash through the tannin-stained water. Grayling were popping on just about anything that hit the water. And I knew that once I started casting to them, I’d start catching them. I also knew that I’d hunt this river for hours and that, at some point, one of the guides or the lodge proprietor would get nervous about the missing client and they’d come clamoring down the river to find me. And they’d find me with a goofy, fish-drunk smile on my face and probably much farther away than I ever intended.
Grayling do that to me. I’ve probably walked more miles for grayling than any other fish. Walk, cast, catch. Smile. Walk, cast, catch. Smile.
Finally, after one particularly large flashy rise, I stood and launched my size 14 Adams into the river atop the eddy. And it didn’t take long. Maybe a full second. The fly hit the water, righted itself, and then disappeared among a violent splash after not one, but three foot-long Arctic grayling erupted beneath it. I grinned. I grinned big.
I released the fish, and then proceeded to spend the next hour working my way down the eddy, which might have been 100 yards long. After a bit, it stopped becoming a mission to catch grayling. After about the fifth 12-incher, I changed things up and went deep, hoping that a larger specimen might show up. And several did, as I high-sticked a size 12 Prince Nymph through the current. A couple of fish pushed 17 inches, a legitimate grayling by any measure.
But I wasn’t satisfied. What started out as a tentative, “do I dare start this never-ending cycle” turned into an honest-to-God trophy hunt. I’d removed my little tape measure from the bowels of my sling pack and had it at the ready for when that really big fish decided to show up.
I switched out the ragged little Prince for a weighted ‘Bugger and was fishing it on the swing. My logic was simple. If any fish in this river could get their mouths around a size 8 Woolly Bugger, they were worth catching.
I worked the eddy for a bit, and the size rate had, indeed, gone up. But I was shocked at how many 14-inch grayling with their lacy fins and delicate mouths would throw caution to the wind and nail the big streamer.
And then, just as I was about to give up on the eddy and wander downstream a bit farther, a real toad hit the ‘Bugger on the swing. The fish thrusted from the water with an appreciable leap, and I knew this was the fish I was after. After splashing back into the river, the big Arctic grayling pushed into the current on the outer edge of the eddy, a move that I hadn’t expected, and one I was ill-equipped to deal with, given the light-weight rod and 18 inches of 4x tippet.
I wasn’t expecting a grayling to peel line from my reel, but with the assistance of the river’s swift current, this fish did exactly that. And in mere seconds, it was gone. The tippet snapped, and off went my grayling of a lifetime, along with my size 8 Woolly Bugger.
That was the moment, I think. That was when I doubled down. In the years to come, I’d cover countless air miles in search of pike, but with a simple caveat: “Are there grayling in the streams around the lodge?” And up north, the answer is usually yes. There are, indeed, grayling. Gobs of them. For pike, grayling is dinner.
Since that fateful visit to Saskatchewan all those years ago, I’ve managed to catch grayling throughout the north, from Manitoba and Alberta to British Columbia and the Yukon. A handful of years ago, I spent the better part of three months in Alaska, including two weeks above the arctic circle chasing grayling in tundra rivers and streams. Just a few years ago, I caught my first Yellowstone National Park grayling in the Gibbon River, about three hours from home — the National Park Service is trying like hell to reintroduce the native fish that once marked the southernmost extent of their range.
And it all kind starts like it did that first time on the Fond du Lac. I hesitate to make that cast. But I know I’ll do it. I know I’ll catch fish. And I know I’ll go from catching grayling, generally at will, to prowling the wild water for bigger fish. And still bigger fish.
And when I snap out of it, I’ll be miles from the lodge or the camper. I’ll be out of water and snack bars and I’ll be sporting that far-off grin that only comes around once in a great while, when I’ve ventured far enough away from everything else and where it’s just me and the grayling.