Monday, January 2, 2012

Sutton River Memoies

See previous posts about our trip to Hudson Bay.

Over time long trips into the wilderness evolve in our memories. The moment-by-moment experiences fade into key memorable stories that fix onto the memory of the trip with a number of episodes that become emblems of the whole experience. These are just a few stories that are those emblems.

About a third of the way down river from Hawley Lake to Hudson Bay, the Sutton River starts a pattern that continues until it gains volume from the Aquatuk River, 30 miles before the river enters Hudson Bay. Rolling down gentle glides the Sutton will braid out into rocky shallows with long exposed gravel islands bordered by wide grass and willow covered high benches accented with stunted aspen.

Large bends in the river carve deep rocky turn holes that level out at the tail outs then empty out into deep bank runs opening up down river into a shallow braided channels. This pattern repeated itself for most of way until you encounter the confluence of the Aquatuk River. Though deep turn holes fished well, we found, as we progressed into this middle third of the trip, the long stretches of shallow water got longer and the turn holes held fewer and fewer fish. In this long shallow section we were forced to get out and walk the canoe through.The landscape of the Sutton River can arrest your gaze for minutes at a time. Beyond the spruce stands that lined the river, plains of sphagnum moss, Labrador tea, scrub willow and stunted aspen and spruce spread out to the horizon and beyond, a land of haunting beauty and transfixing solitude.

The volume gained by the addition of the flow from the Aquatuk increased the depth of the river so we didn’t have to get out and drag the boat across miles of shallow gravel runs. The quality fishing increased as well. We were forced to lay over for a day on a mile long section of the river where the main channel of the river flowed deep long the far bank of the river from where we chose our camp. All along this section numerous gravel bars had formed stretching from our side river out into the main channel giving us multiple access points to fish. Our lay over was not something we had planned, but a a change of plans when we woke to a mixture of wind and rain. We had built a lean-to shelter with our tarp quickly in the morning. After breakfast we decided not to move down river until the weather let up.
Charlie retired to his tent, and I sat under the trap to kick back. It soon dawned on me that was I sitting under a trap on the banks for a World-class brook trout fishery with bombproof waders and rain gear sitting out inches from my reach. I’ve fished my home waters of Northwestern Wisconsin in worse weather. Why would I past up the opportunity to fish now?
In short order I was geared up and walking out onto a gravel bar near where we watched a number of fish roll near the surface in the fading light the day before. Fingerless mitts, fleece, stocking cap, hood up and reefed down as not to catch the wind, I wondered whether Charlie had made the better decision of the day. The channel off the gravel bars waded easily and getting into position I wondered how would I make casts in the gusting winds. Looking up river you could see sheets of rain fly down stream on the gusts. Though the wind was sustained, there seemed to be pauses in the intensity that would allow me to try a cast. My back to the wind, which came directly down river, forced me to cast primary across and down. The sink tip line I was using didn’t cast well in the wind, but it was perfect for getting the streamer into the water column.
Waiting for a opening in the wind, I stripped out line and prepared for a short cast. When my opening came, I back cast once and let line out on the first false cast. The next gust flatten my back cast just as I came forward with the rod causing my fly to bounce off my hood with a loud thwack, right next to my ear lobe. The wind carried the line and unfurled it out over the river. I watched the fly settle into the clear water. In the over cast light and broken surface, I could still see the fly scoot along as it swung in the current just above the gravel and rocks.
Immediately three dark forms chased and darted at the fly. As soon as I gave the it a short strip, one of the dark forms struck so hard that the #2 Zoo Cougar set solidly. Turning down stream, the fish pulled the few feet of slack I held loosely against the cork straight through the stripping guide. It was hooked and on the reel taking out line before I could raise the tip. I walked and fought the fish into the calmer warm below the gravel bar. Earlier in the trip, we started using 12-pound test tippets so that we could play the fish quickly and release them.
Very few casts came up empty. I found that using a water haul and immediately punching out line was the most effective cast I could make. Fighting the wind with a 9 ½ foot rod can wear an arm out quickly. Fighting brook trout, both native and sea-run ranging from 2-4 pounds, can add to the fatigue of a casting arm. Every strike was aggressive and the fish chased the fly from great distances, sometimes taking the fly just as I was about to pickup and cast.
As I released fish number 38, Charlie emerged from his tent and shouted, “How many?” He couldn’t hear my reply through the wind. I needed to put on a fresh Zoo Cougar, so I set my rod down on the gravel bar and stood with my hands in the air and flashed him 3 sets of 10 fingers and then held up eight.
I nodded.”
“Jesus!” he shouted and ran for his waders.
While tying the fly on, I realized how fatigued and cold my hands were. I watched my hands move through the tying ritual as though they belonged to someone else, someone much older. Even though it took much more time to tie on a fresh fly than
usual, I still caught two more fish before Charlie reached the end of gravel bar.

The wind and the rain passed and the sun poked through just just as the sun set. We woke the next morning to clear blue skies, warm temperatures and no wind.

River travel sets a rhythm unique to each body of water. The Sutton’s flow a steady sweep down stream established leisurely pace. As with all wilderness trips camp life sets patterns: looking for a camp, setting camp, breaking camp, and travel. When the patterns and the pace feel routine, one should be mindful that all rivers are changing environments. Breaks in the pattern such as sudden change in the weather and the need to adjust the travel routine to meet the changes the river presents keeps the river traveler alert. It is too easy to get lulled into a sense of security when everything is going well.

We had traveled the river for nine days and where close to where the river transitioned from the Hudson Bay Lowlands to the Barrens of Hudson Bay, a region before you get to tidal flats of the Bay that is considered tundra. Tundra below the Artic Circle is rare. Seeing this unique corner of the world was a primary reason for our trip. Stopping on a rock bar at the end of a wide turn of the Sutton, we broke out the lunch bag and made sandwiches. The bank of the river was about waist high. With the cutting board set in the grass, we cut bread, cheese, and hard smoked sausages. Fishing had been fairly slow for most of the morning and so we were in no hurry to fish the tail out of the turn after lunch.

Across river a caribou came out of the tree line and moved cautiously out onto the bench. Winnowing the air and slowly grazing, it moved down river towards us. Moments later it broken into a run down river. Something must have caught its attention.

We had seen one other caribou a day before. As we watched the caribou disappear around the bend in the river, we both remarked about how few larger animals we had seen on the trip. Shore birds, ducks, eagles and ospreys were common throughout the trip. Returning to the cutting board to cut a an energy bar in half, I was immediately distracted by a snort from the brush forty feet up the high water mark near the tree line.

The sight of a polar bear sticking its head through the trees does not register immediately in one’s brain as a threat. I think we are all conditioned to believe that polar bears live on the pack ice, the frozen tundra, generally places where they look like they belong. White animals on green backgrounds generally doens’t usually give one the impression that they “belong.”

Charlie and I were both slow on the up take, which is not a good reaction to the situation we found ourselves. The largest land predator in North America, one that can run full speed carrying a seal the size of a NFL linebacker in its mouth, should get the warning siren screaming in your brain. But it didn’t. The only thing running through my brain was that we needed to get this bear away from us or we needed to be prepared to kill it. The third possibility was not an option a far as we were both concerned.

We had brought a 12 gauge shotgun, an air horn, and flares all in the event that we would encounter a polar bear. The gun was the only thing we had readily available.
Fortunately, the polar bear didn’t charge immediately. This gave us the time to get to the canoe and uncase the shotgun. Moving closer to us, the bear nosed the air as he approached. I told Charlie to shoot over the bear’s head. The first two loads in the gun where buck shot. Shots three through five, slugs.

“Before I shoot, take a picture,” Charlie said handing me his camera. Point and shoot digital cameras work great in these situations because you can literally, one-handed, point and shoot. While stuffing the camera into Charlie’s jacket pocket, Charlie aimed and shot over the bear’s head. It had little effect on the bear’s progress. Jumping up and down, waving my arms, and shouting profanity had worked on a curious black bear once, but had little effect on the polar bear as it continued to approach. I hurled rocks and continued to hurl insults as well. Most of the rocks fell short of the mark because their size made them far heftier than my ability to pitch them.

The second shot had no more effect on the progress of the bear than the first. I continued to throw rocks as fast as I could find them and heave them. At about thirty feet, a softball size rock hit the bear between the eyes. The lucky toss sounded like a rock bouncing off a coconut. The bear wheeled around and ran into the trees. We wasted little time getting the canoe off the rock bar and down river.

We didn’t stop paddling until we were miles down stream. Even though we put miles between us and the bear, we both where constantly glancing back up stream checking for a white form on a green background. For the rest of the trip, our awareness that we were a part of the food chain sat a little farther forward in our attention.

Close to its mouth the Sutton gains even more volume from its tributaries. We encountered massive turn holes and long deep straights. Some of the turns were lined by huge eskers, evidence of the massive power of the Sutton during its spring ice out. The scars on the trees along the tree line throughout the trip were further evidence that this gentle river when in spring flood sheds a massive amount of water and with monstrous chunks of ice.

The Sutton widens out as it flows through an area referred to as the Barrens—tundra below the Arctic Circle--an almost treeless landscape of mesmerizing beauty. With two days on the river remaining, we picked a camp on a long wide section that had a commanding view both upstream and down.

Throughout our trip we used various mice patterns to fish to rising trout. The most effective pattern for us was the Morrish Mouse. Fishing the mouse dead drift was far more effective than waking the mouse through the surface film. Waking the fly usually got the fish to follow the fly; letting the fly float and drift down stream brought on the most aggressive strikes.

Fishing to rising brook trout has to be one of the stream fishers greatest joys. Fishing to brook trout 18 inches and larger, with dead drifted mice, indescribably delightful. Charlie and I spent our last evening on the river catching brook trout on the surface well past sunset. We truly lost track of time.

We cooked our last dinner on the river in the dark sharing the last of our bourbon and rerunning the incredible sight of brook trout heads rising out of the water to scoop in mice. Sleep came easily that night. I no longer dreamed the dreams of the other dreamers.

Last day on the river

See the previous post about the trip to Hudson Bay.

Keep a tight line,

Steve Therrien


  1. Great post, Steve! Thanks for sharing that amazing trip.

  2. Great story; I had been anxiously awaiting the trip details!

  3. I've been looking at the Sutton for about five years now. What time of the season did you do that trip? I live about 150 miles from Superior, Big Lake,MN. Maybe I bump into you sometime on the Brule, White, Iron or Blackhoof and I'll be able to ask you more about it.

  4. We are planning a trip in 2017. I have been advised a shotgun might only anger a PB. A hunter in Alaska said you have to penetrate 5-7 inches of flesh, blubber and bone before hitting the vitals. However, I was also told a flare gun is great defense against a PB. Curious if you had issues at night with wolves or other scavengers?