At least two dozen grayling were suspended in the water column just below the Carcross railway bridge. One particularly large fish hovered behind a thick steel piling that blocked the swift current flowing through the narrows. The grayling’s pectoral fins made subtle movements that were barely perceptible, yet just enough to keep him in position. Spots adorning his impressive dorsal sail glowed pink and turquoise under a shaft of blue-filtered sunlight.
A submerged insect caught in the current floated toward the piling. With one quick snap of the tail, the grayling darted out and collected the morsel with his tiny mouth. Moments later, he was back in his lair and ready to strike again.
I watched from above, my legs straddling an open space between two railroad ties. Targeting any grayling other than the big boy would have been easy, but even considering that option would call into question my angling credentials.
Presenting a fly to this fish was only possible from shore, so I walked off the trestle and tried to find a suitable angle. One spot seemed particularly promising, but a power line adorned with an assortment of hooks and lures told a story of past frustration and failure.
Were the victims of the power line also targeting this same trophy grayling?
An old fishing adage echoed in my head, “Big fish are big for a reason.”
I made a precision sidearm cast, sending the fly just under the power line and beneath the railway bridge up current from the piling behind which the grayling hid. It was quickly caught up by the current and began to sink. The grayling noticed the fly right away, and as it approached the piling he made his move. I lowered my rod and prepared to strike.
Only a fraction of an inch from the fly, the grayling stopped. When it passed, the grayling followed close behind, but refused to give it a taste. I lost sight of the fly, but saw the graying turn and swim back to its hideout.
Ready to make another attempt, I began to reel in my fly. The line went taught and for a moment I thought I’d hooked one of the smaller grayling. In truth, I was snagged on some underwater obstruction that ended up claiming the fly and my expensive leader.
While trying to work the fly loose, I peered into the water hoping to see what obstruction caused the snag. What I saw was a massive ship’s bow covered with enough sediment that it was virtually invisible.
Getting your lure hung up on the bottom is one of fishing’s unavoidable annoyances. Often the best fishing spots pose a high risk of snags because structure attracts fish and the bigger fish that eat them. When fishing these spots, anglers only find success if they’re willing to work that precarious edge and risk sacrificing six bucks to the underwater lure gods.
The sunken vessel that claimed my fly in Carcross (and numerous other lures in the years since) was called The Australian. It’s still visible from the trestle when the water is low and the air is still. She was a 115-foot iron sternwheeler, built in 1899, and lost in the narrows in 1970 when her pumps failed and she went down under for good.
During the Gold Rush and post-Gold Rush era, before the railroad extended from Skagway to Bennett and eventually through Carcross into Whitehorse, hundreds of boats worked the many lakes and rivers that connected northern communities throughout British Columbia and the Yukon. More than 350 sternwheelers hauled equipment, ore and men from the southern shorelines of Windy Arm and Bennett Lake, all the way north to the Klondike Gold Fields. During those days the grinding gears that turned the stern wheels filled the air with industrial sound. Today, many lay silent on soft lake bottoms where large lake trout glide among their skeletons in search of a tasty meal.
Another long-lost sternwheeler was called The Gleaner. On July 6, 1899, The Australian and The Gleaner transported 200 Klondike miners to Bennett for the spike-driving ceremony while hauling a half million dollars in gold. The final railroad spike was driven in Carcross a year later, where a newly constructed swing-truss railway bridge could rotate into an open position, allowing the big sternwheelers to exit Lake Bennett through the narrows.
The swinging railway bridge was used only a few times to let steamers out of Bennett Lake and has never been opened since. The railroad made sternwheelers obsolete in Lake Bennett, and it’s also why Bennett itself became a ghost town.
The Gleaner serviced the Windy Arm mining district for a half dozen years after the Gold Rush, and was scuttled in Nares Lake in 1936, less than half a mile from where the sunken remains of The Australian lie today. In the spring, its remains lay exposed until melting snow fills the lake and it becomes yet another underwater obstruction where unlucky lures go to die.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts at enticing the big grayling with my fly, I switched to conventional spinning gear and tried just about every lure in my tackle box. Mr. Grayling wasn’t even feigning interest at this point. During this fruitless endeavor, I even managed to add a five dollar Mepps spinner to the Carcross power line collection, and yet another to the bow of The Australian.
Meanwhile, the grayling devoured half of the insects living in the Yukon and presumably got so full that he swam away to take a long nap. I worked along the shoreline of the narrows and managed to land my limit of grayling, even though none of them qualified as a challenge.
Since that day, I’ve been snagged on just about every underwater obstruction in the Carcross Narrows – the underwater cable, the 1905 wagon bridge supports and the many bits of flotsam and jetsam that have collected there throughout its storied history.
A few years back, I got stuck on the bottom while casting off the walking bridge. After a couple of hard yanks I was able to gain ground, but something of considerable size was being dragged along. It was too heavy to land from the bridge, so I walked down to the shore and hauled it up onto the beach.
It was a three-foot long water-logged board that could have come from an old boat or some other structure. Eight different lures in various states of decay were stuck in the wood or wrapped around it in some way.
A wild cluster of monofilament line enveloped the plank, and I had to cut it away to remove the lures one-by-one before putting them in my tackle box.
I took a closer look at the board. Even through the thick glaze of time that covered the plank’s exposed wood-grain, I could make out a hint of stamped lettering. No longer legible, at one time it undoubtedly revealed something relevant about its history. I ran my fingers over the depression and tossed it back into the water.
There are a million untold stories lying on silty lake bottoms in the Yukon. Most will never be told, but on any given cast you may just find yourself tethered to some forgotten northern tale.