Canadian Wilderness Fishing

The Kazan River
By John Gierach
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Kazan River

The Kazan River in Canada's Northwest Territories is a strange one, as rivers go. It rises in the interior at sprawling Snowbird Lake and eventually empties into Hudson Bay some 900 miles to the east, but up near the headwaters it's nothing more than a series of channels draining one lake into another. What is cavalierly referred to as "The River" is, in this area at least, largely a figment in the imagination of some cartographer. Its course, if you can call it that, is difficult to locate on a map and downright incomprehensible from a boat. It's worth finding, however, because these little stretches of river—some no more than a few hundred yards long and separated by hours on a hard boat seat—hold some world-class Arctic grayling.

There are grayling in most of the lakes too, usually in the shallow bays and coves and around points of land, but the largest ones in this particular part of the Northwest Territories are typically found in the stretches of fast water known collectively as the Kazan River. According to the guides, the grayling stay out of the deep water to avoid the enormous lake trout, and they shun the weedy backwaters for fear of the northern pike, or "jacks," as they're called.

Now that's a homespun theory attributing more thought to the fish than they're capable of, but I still like it, and the larger fish (those weighing in at between 2 and 3 pounds) are in the river. In fact, two fly-rod world-record grayling came from the Kazan. Both weighed just a hair over 3 pounds when caught and an ounce or two under by the time they were officially weighed. For comparison, the all-tackle world-record grayling—the largest specimen ever recorded—weighed in the neighborhood of 5 pounds, about the same as the world-record bluegill.

I was working out of a fishing camp on Snowbird Lake in the company of Wally Allen and, typical of both of us I suppose, we were clearly doing things backwards. The main attraction for most anglers in this remote area (130 miles by float plane from the nearest settlement, 275 miles from the nearest road) is the lake trout, or mackinaws. They're not called macks up there, though, probably because it rhymes with jacks and would cause a lot of confusion.

Whatever you call them, fish in the 30-pound class aren't uncommon, and that's what most people come for. The grayling aren't exactly looked down upon, but they tend to be viewed as something to amuse the sports when the lake trout are off or when they've become jaded from taking too many huge fish on 3/4-ounce jigs and T-60 Flatfish. My friend and I, however, had come loaded with fly tackle mainly in pursuit of grayling and so were considered by the camp staff and guides to be harmless, though definitely odd.

The Kazan rises near the southern end of the 70-mile-long lake, about a 20-minute boat ride from the camp. There's a half mile of brawling, marginally navigable river before you come to the next lake, which remains nameless on the best local map. This is the only part of the Kazan that anyone from the camp had ever felt moved to fish, and it's a fine piece of water with pools, glides, pocket water, riffles, and one set of genuine standing-wave rapids. It's just like a real river except that it begins and ends too abruptly.

This is the stretch we fished for the first few days, heading out across Dehoux Bay towards the river while the other guides and sports—some flashing us puzzled expressions—motored out to fish the submerged glacial eskers for the Big Fish. We had it to ourselves for a few days, but it wasn't long before we began to pick up some company.

During the inevitable talk over supper at the camp, it came out that we were taking some grayling that nudged current records. (In my limited experience with guides, I've found that you can bribe or beg them into just about anything except keeping quiet about the big fish they've put their clients onto which, after all, is fair enough—it's like asking a painter not to sign his work.) An International Game Fish Association record book magically appeared and was studied carefully by some of our colleagues, who admitted that the lake-trout fishing had been a bit slow. As Colorado fly-fishermen and, more recently, grayling specialists, our mildly oddball status was revised to the tune of several lukewarm Labatt's beers, and we were summarily pumped for details.

© Article copyright John Gierach. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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