Gates of the Arctic: Fishing Above the Arctic Circle

When we pulled into camp at Galbraith Lake, mile 275 on the Dalton Highway, we still had a good amount of daylight left in the day. This, of course, is because in the summer Alaska doesn’t get dark until 10pm. We hiked down from the campground about a mile and a half to the actual lake with our fishing poles in tow.

The water was frigid, but we set up our lines and started casting in the lake. I felt relatively safe, because we were far enough up in the Arctic that I didn’t imagine there would be many bears, and if any came by we would be able to see them because of the lack of cover surrounding the lake. Trevor and I fished for about fifteen minutes without having a nibble.

I walked further down the beach towards where a little stream was draining into the lake. As I walked, I passed several bear prints in the sand, wonderful, bear sign while we are fishing. My assumption with my new fishing spot is that any bugs, or things that came down with the stream would be dumped just out in front. I started casting just in front of where the stream entered the lake.

Lure #1: First cast, nothing. Second cast, WHAM! Fish on!  It was a big one, it took out some line and I was without a net, or means to really get the fish out of the water. I yelled for Trevor and Lindsy but they were about a hundred yards away. I slowly backed up the beach and tried to pull the fish onto the beach. SNAP. It broke my line!  

Lure #2: I tied on another lure and made a cast. WHAM. Another big one, with the same ending, snapped line. At this point Trevor and Lindsy were over by me and skeptical that I actually had been getting any bites.

Lure #3: I made eight casts, nothing was hitting. I had to change lures!

Lure #4: First cast, WHAM! Another big one, this time I wasn’t losing it. I flipped my reel and let the fish run with all of the line. It took everything but a couple of yards. My thought was that if I exhausted the fish then I could slowly bring it in and easily get it to shore. I slowly, every so slowly, reeled it in. There was a little bit of play left in the fish but I could tell that it had lost most of it’s spunk when I let it run free at the beginning. I got it close to shore and Trevor went in the water to pick it up and bring it to shore. It was a monster, a 24-inch Lake Trout.

We cooked the entire fish with salt, pepper and lemon. The monster fish provided three of us with five meals and was quite delicious.

One of the things that I noticed was different with this fish compared to the ones in Lake Kontrashibuna in Lake Clark National Park was that when we cut open this one there was absolutely nothing in its stomach. It was completely empty. The ones in Lake Kontrashibuna were absolutely stuffed with bugs; their stomachs were bulging from having so much food. Then I realized something, animals in the Arctic grow incredibly slowly. Due to the fact that there are so few resources they have to become very good at conserving energy. That meant that the fish that I caught was incredibly old. A 24-inch Lake Trout out of Lake Clark would have been much younger due to all of the available food. The fish that I caught must have been ancient to be able to grow to such a size. A majority of the year the lake was frozen over and he had to live off of the reserves of what he could catch when mosquitoes were everywhere.

I started to feel very guilty about not releasing it to the water. Sure, our meals were delicious and it fed three people for five meals, but it was an ancient fish that had survived the harshest of climates in the world and I caught it and killed it in a matter of minutes. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. You get excited; you see this huge fish that you can have for dinner. You salivate at the thought of grilled trout over the fire. I don’t know if the outcome would change if I was to do it again, but it is still personally unsettling. The other side, of course, being that there are tons of fish in Galbraith Lake, because almost no one fishes up there. Its other outcome could have simply been to die of old age, or be eaten by a bear. It had to die someday.

Either way, here's to you Mr. Lake Trout. Thank you for providing us with some great meals!