Susan Abernethy was kicking back in her dinghy one summer evening when her fishing rod started to pull. She sat up and reeled in her line, but instead of pulling in a fish, it was tugging her further away from Trophy Lodge NWT and out into McLeod Bay.
“I started getting worried,” she says. “So I put my motor back on, with its two horsepower, and I’d back up, holding onto the fishing rod and holding onto the boat motor.”
Eventually, Abernethy managed to pull the trout she had snagged out of the water — at least enough to see its size, which she guessed was about 25 to 28 pounds. “I pulled just the head up over the side of the dinghy to get my hook out and its head was a foot across.”
It was likely the biggest fish she’d ever caught, but that’s not uncommon on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake — waters that an abundance of record-size fish call home. Making sure the waters stay that way, that this unspoiled wilderness isn’t fished to oblivion, is something the local guides and lodges care deeply about.
The fishing opportunities are a major draw for visitors coming to the East Arm, as they can easily catch monster lake trout, Arctic grayling and northern pike. And because the water is cold year-round, fish are usually less than 20 feet below the surface, meaning the fight to pull one up is a lot simpler than in warmer waters.
“There’re lots of big fish everywhere here,” says Ronald Desjarlais. “You have a 110 per cent chance of catching a fish.”
Desjarlais is the founder of Red Cliff Boat Tour, based out of Lutselk’e. Through his tourism company, Desjarlais takes visitors on his motorboat about half an hour out of town to Red Cliff Island for a four-hour scenic boat tour. As he shares his knowledge of the land’s history and culture, visitors get the chance to go fishing and then have a traditional shore lunch or dinner with what they caught.
Now an Elder, Desjarlais grew up in the region. His personal connection to the land is what drives him to protect it. As such, he limits each trip to catching and keeping one fish, and ensures the others are released.
The same can be said for the more than 60-year-old Frontier Lodge, which is under the ownership of Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. The fly-in lodge takes people out on fishing trips, but also has a catch and release policy.
“There’s the imposed government regulation on sport fishing, but we take it a step further and allow one lake trout per person and it’s typically smoked on site,” says the lodge’s general manager, Corey Myers.
Frontier Lodge even has incentives for the angler who catches the largest lake trout and returns it to the waters, offering free trips with the outfitter or a replica mount of their trophy. The tour company also mandates the use of barbless hooks.
Catch-and-release is a standard practice with sport fishers because it allows fish to remain in the water and reproduce, but it’s particularly important here in the NWT’s pristine East Arm in order to ensure this remains a thriving ecosystem and an unforgettable fishing experience.
With such a close connection to the nearby community, Myers stresses the importance of leaving the water and the land better than he found it.
“Because of how special it is, why would you ever want to ruin it?” Myers asks. “Why would you want to do something that changes the reason everyone loves [the East Arm] so much?”