Northern Brook Trout: Stripping Mice, Repairing Radios, Polar Bears, and Dodging Planes

This all happened way back in the 90’s. For the longest time, I figured it was old news and avoided putting it on paper. But there are some stories that just need to be told and I changed my mind. Content warning: The photographs are scanned and you definitely won’t see the latest gear in them. Can you remember wearing neoprene waders instead of breathables? At least it was on the cool side in Canada’s sub-Arctic.

It had started with a one paragraph blurb in the “Top Trips” section of an InFisherman magazine – not exactly a fly fishing publication – but it mentioned big brook trout and a float trip down a remote river that I’d never heard of before. This was before the Internet, so intel gathering via Google was not possible. I phoned the outfitter and I was sold, not bothering with any references. I was just getting into fly fishing and the idea of large brook trout smacking mouse patterns on top was something I could not pass up.

The next phone call was to my father… “Dad, I know where we’re going fishing next.” I then launched into all the details anybody would want to know if they were spending a few thousand dollars on a foray into remote wilderness… “The Sutton River in northern Ontario. Some guy has cabins on a lake that the river runs out of. You stay in the cabins for a couple days, then one of his guides takes you down the river in a canoe. You camp as you go and wind up on James Bay.”

James Bay is the southernmost incursion of the Arctic Ocean into North America. My dad was always up for an adventure, even a sketchy one. “What do you catch?” he asked. This was about as skeptical as he got whenever I proposed a fishing trip.

“Brook trout. Some big ones. And there are pike and lakers right by the cabins.”

“Hmmm… We’ve never gone after brook trout. Sure, let’s go.” My dad was not a fly fisherman but he loved wilderness. Everybody should have such an agreeable fishing partner.

So that summer, we boarded a Bearskin Airlines flight in Timmins, a small city north of Lake Superior. We were flying to Peawanuck, a small Creek village on the shore of James Bay. We were flying from civilized northern Ontario to remote northern Ontario – from the birthplace of Shania Twain to the birthplace of polar bears. Our prop-powered DC-3 would have been state-of-the art in the sixties. It carried about 50 hardy souls and made several stops along the way, never getting above some very turbulent air. For the first time in my life, that little bag in the seat pocket actually rode on my lap. Thankfully, we got off the plane in Peawanuck before I tested the bag’s integrity.

In Peawanuck, we transferred to a small Cessna floatplane, the taxicab of Canada’s north. The floatplane landed at Hawley Lake, the source of the Sutton River. Albert Chookomolin, who owned the camp on the lake, greeted us. He showed us our cabin and, more importantly, our ride around Hawley Lake for the next couple days – a 20 foot freighter canoe. I was skeptical about a canoe on a large lake but freighters are magical beasts. With a 15 horsepower Johnson hanging off the back, it planed quite nicely. It also had enough beam and stability to run laps around the gunwhales. Well, maybe I didn’t actually do that, but standing up while fishing was not a problem.

Regardless, that canoe got us into some nice lake trout on Hawley Lake. It also gave us sneak peak at the first mile of the Sutton River, which was like a spring creek with lush green weeds waving back and forth in a gentle current. As the canoe floated along – no motor needed – we could see the occasional trout darting among the weeds. The hot spot was a place where the river narrowed and deepened into a rocky run. A fair number of 14 to 16 inch brookies attacked my Montana nymph and also Dad’s spinning lures. I can even remember him switching over to a fly rod for a short while and landing his first and only fly caught fish.

After a couple days of fishing like that, it was time to float the entire 70 miles of the Sutton River. Albert’s brother, Gregory, would guide us. The plan was to spend 5 nights on the river and get picked up by Albert where the river entered James Bay. With his 25 foot boat, Albert would whisk us along the James Bay shoreline back to Peawanuck. It sounded like a grand adventure.

We eagerly loaded our fishing tackle and a couple of waterproof duffels into the freighter canoe that Gregory had waiting. It was filled with food, camping gear, paddles, and spare gas – all supplied by Albert. However, I was horribly disappointed that the motor on the back was a mere 2 horsepower. “Strong current means paddles will be fast enough,” reassured Gregory. “The motor is just for a couple of wide, slow stretches.” My Dad also pointed out that 70 river miles is a long way to listen to an outboard motor.

And so we set off down the river – paddling, fishing, motoring, fishing, paddling, and paddling again. The prime spots – outside bends, rocky runs, weed clumps, riffles, and rapids – were well separated. Whenever one presented itself, we’d pile out of the canoe and start wading. Rising fish were a rarity, so dry flies stayed in my box but solid 14 to 16 inch brookies were all over any nymph I tied on.

Eventually, I started thinking about bigger fish, and tied on a deer hair mouse. The mouse was fun to watch as it chugged across the current. It generated a huge amount of action; the trout loved rising for it but they were incredibly hard to hook. After closely observing many near misses, I realized that most of the fish were actually turning away before taking the mouse. Nevertheless, I persevered and eventually got the 20 inch plus predator I was looking for – as well as a few hyper-aggressive smaller ones.

I admit that mousing up a big trout was a bucket list thing. As soon as it was checked off, I switched tactics. I was looking for the visual action of the mouse but more solid takes. I wound up tying on a unweighted Muddler Minnow with an over-sized deer hair head. It was magic. The Muddler bulged water just beneath the surface and the brookies attacked it confidently in droves – even a couple more 20 inchers.

Camping along the river was interesting. Our tent looked like it had originally seen action during the Klondike gold rush. It was a huge, heavy canvas thing without poles. Gregory provided the poles every time my Dad and I set it up by chopping down a few saplings. Although it kept us dry through some rain squalls, I was incredibly glad that I had my own sleeping bag. The food was not gourmet caliber. Gregory cooked his own meals over an open fire; every night he boiled some potatoes and a small trout. My Dad and l cooked our meals on a Coleman stove, heating canned provisions. Breakfast was always instant porridge and I can’t remember what we had for lunch. Nevertheless, the food situation could not have been too bad because I cannot recall ever being hungry.

Our last day on the river produced dramatic changes. The evergreen forest on the riverbank quickly grew sparser and smaller as we approached the take-out point in the tundra along James Bay. The fishing spots that last day were also few and far between. The paddling to fishing ratio soared.

Eventually, we reached our destination. We couldn’t see the open water of James Bay but trees had completely surrendered to tundra. The Sutton River had also changed into the delta at its mouth. Gregory decisively picked our way through the multitude of braids to an old trappers cabin. Although in rough shape, cold and rainy weather made it and its wood-burning stove seem like a virtual palace. We eagerly settled in for the night. There was no evening fishing. It was one of those times when curling up with a book – and a fire – in camp was by far the best option. All this happened on a Thursday; the plan was for Albert to pick us up mid-morning with his boat the next day. We would cruise along James Bay and arrive in Peawanuck around supper time on Friday. This would set us up for a good night’s rest in a real bed before catching the noon flight on Saturday back to Timmons.

Friday dawned bright and crisp. We were up early exploring the delta’s channels with our rods. Although brookies had seemed rare on the river the day before, they were abundant amongst the Sutton’s braids near James Bay. They were likely sea-run trout that ranged between the river and the bay’s saltwater. Instead of displaying the pronounced colors of their upriver siblings, they were pale and silvery. We kept our eyes peeled for Albert’s approaching boat as we fished.

At about 1 PM, our eyes were still peeled for Albert. He was definitely overdue and we unanimously declared a low-level state of emergency. The flights out of Peawanuck were infrequent and both my Dad and I were weighing the quality of the fishing against being AWOL from work. Gregory pulled out a radio that was packed specifically for such situations. It had the power to reach Albert’s home radio in Peawanuck, which a family member always monitored.

Up went the antenna and even though the battery showed good power, our broadcast was met with nothing but static. My Dad, a Physics teacher by trade, suggested lengthening the antenna with about 30 feet of wire that was lying around the trapper’s cabin. So we ran that wire from the radio up to the top of a nearby dwarf spruce. To our relief, Albert answered us with a brief, faint message: “Sorry. Motor trouble. Will send float plane tomorrow morning.”

Fanastic! Both my Dad and were secretly pleased that we just gained an extra half day of chasing sea-run brookies. Early the next morning, we saw a float plane land on a slow, wide channel a ways from our cabin. We threw everything in the canoe and paddled over. Amazingly, as we got there, two fishermen climbed off the pontoons with an inflatable raft and some camping gear. They were there to fish the delta and the pilot had no knowledge of us. Ouch! We unloaded our gear and sat down on the tundra. It was 9 AM; our plane out of Peawanuck was due to leave in three hours.

At about 10:30 AM, my Dad and I were starting to wonder how to kill off a few days in Peawanuck, when we heard the buzz of another float plane. It landed right in front of us and we waded out with our gear. Yes, this was indeed our ride. Gregory was going to stay back with the canoe and catch a ride in with Albert and his boat later. How much later is something I still wonder about today…On board the plane, the pilot introduced himself and said, “This is my first time landing here. You guys wouldn’t know where the rocks are, would you?” Yikes! Not something you want to hear.

Soon after though, the floats skimmed along the water, any visible rocks stayed two or three feet below the surface, and we were airborne. The immensity of James Bay made itself visible off our right wing tip. It was beautiful. And then the plane banked and started losing altitude at an alarming rate. “Polar bear!” yelled the pilot. He spiraled down to within a couple hundred feet of where the beast stalked across a tidal flat. Although we had a plane to catch, something like that was definitely worth it. The remaining flight to Peawanuck went smoothly.

At the float base, Albert and his son greeted us with a couple of quads. We squeezed onto the back of one quad and our gear got piled on the other. It was 11:45 and we were both still on our waders. The most direct route between the float plane base and the ground terminal was the airport’s only runway; we were soon speeding down the middle. About halfway there, I glanced back and saw the plane we wanted to catch coming in for a landing. It was only about 50 feet off the ground and it looked huge. It’s amazing how large a DC-3 can look when bearing directly toward you at high speed. What followed was some violent pounding on our quad driver’s shoulder and some very loud yelling in his ear. And some grossly exaggerated gesturing towards the other quad. Thankfully, the commotion convinced the quad drivers to pull off to the side of the runway. We got a closer-than-recommended-view of the aircraft landing and then followed it to the terminal.

As other passengers filed on, my Dad and I peeled off our waders. The whole week had been a epic adventure. Generally, adventures seem to wind down near the end. This one had actually ramped up as time went