Fishing the first opening in the ice. Andrew Cremata

Breakup time in the Yukon


When spring is late, and the cold of winter seems to linger, the angler’s mind turns to thoughts of ice. While most May months begin with a virtual guarantee of fish in the Yukon, this year things have been drastically different. The ice that covers the lakes holding trout and grayling acts as an impenetrable boundary, closing off access to the promise that warmer winds will keep.

But the Earth is reliable, and its relentless trajectory though space guarantees the sun will climb the sky. The heat strains the fortification of ice, causing it to yawn and fracture until nothing is left except fragments and shards with little resistance to the forces of wind and current. When the structure finally fails it’s called breakup, and the release of that binding constitution offers freedom to explore.

Until this spring, I had always found trout at some of my favorite haunts no later than the first week of May. Even if the lakes were still mostly frozen there has always been a spot or two where a stream alive with liquid water, snow melt from the warming mountain slopes, would create a chink in the icy armor. A place where fish would gather to feast on insects caught up in the resurrected flow.

Still, there are never any guarantees, and no truth can hold onto its integrity under the scrutiny of time.

Last week I tested my most reliable May fishing hole, but the situation was grim. With little water flowing from the stream, the area to fish was inadequate to realistically target fish. However, the sun was finally making an appearance and the warmth that fell upon my bare arms was also certainly having an effect on the ice.

There was assurance in that rising heat, and it came with the knowledge that boundaries and confinement are nothing but illusions. No matter how bad a situation may be, there is always a release.

One week later I was back. The snow on the mountains had thinned, and the familiar waterfalls that border the highway were flowing with determination.

It was late morning as I approached the lake from a narrow trail that descended though a dense thicket. A few raindrops were falling and I stopped for a moment to zip my jacket up to the collar. There was still ice on the lake but it had become uneven, creating a large enough area to fish just beyond the stream’s delta.

The air was cold, and the rain began to fall with resolve as I made a few casts. The first trout of the season is always a welcome surprise, and when I first felt the tap I was sure my lure had merely bounced on the bottom. Then the rod bent against my will and I knew that things were looking up.

Over the next 30 minutes, amidst a Noah-like deluge, I was able to land three nice trout. When the fishing slowed, the cold became more pronounced, signaling it was time to move back to the truck and try another spot. Walking back to the trail I noticed the wind had started to blow and was pushing the loose groupings of ice. In perhaps an hour the wind would surely drive that ice further along the lake, revealing even more area to discover angles on fish. I made a mental note.

At the second spot of the day, the water was clear and alive. While I prepared my rig I could see fish jumping under the dull light of the cloudy sky. The rain still fell, but it was starting to slow. The wind was taking up where it left off.

The first cast yielded a nice male grayling, purple and blue along its flanks, its sail-like dorsal fin adorned with teal and pink spots.

It took fifteen minutes to limit out, and by the time the fish were cleaned the rain had stopped completely. My thoughts turned back to ice, or maybe it was trout, but the spark of that notion was clear and it was all about freedom.

From the highway I could see much of the ice had shifted in the two hours I’d been gone. On the trail I could hear the wind moving through the leafless trees. There was another sound on the periphery, a resonance like glass wind chimes, random and without composition. At the beach it became clear that it was the sound of breakup, clean and pure – the last of the ice soon to be forgotten in a place where change is constant and inescapable.

No longer confined by an icy edge, I was free to work the shoreline. I cast and retrieved while walking the rocky strand, confident in the fact that trout would eventually reveal their position. The first hit was merely a soft tap. I stopped reeling and the fish came back around for a more determined attack. It was a hard-fighting trout that jumped completely out of water where ice had been only minutes before.

Four more casts yielded two more trout, and I reached that point of familiar satisfaction that can only come when the vow of winter is broken by powers even greater.

As I packed up my gear I noticed two ducks feeding in a spot newly free of ice. Their backsides bobbed up as they dunked their heads into the water, and for a moment I thought I saw them wag their feathered tails.

This is just the start of something big. Throughout this late spring, and on into summer and fall, the lake itself will be unbound and thriving with activity and life. No matter whether person or body of water, there is nothing so grand as being free.