Hunting Editor Andrew McKean joins Ducks Unlimited to hunt ducks and fish big lake trout within the First Nations of Canada's remarkable boreal forest. Here are a few photos from the trip.
Would I want to hunt ducks in Canada’s boreal forest? That’s what Chris Jennings of Ducks Unlimited asked me last winter. I couldn’t know when I agreed to go to a village on the eastern end of Great Slave Lake that the trip would be about far more than duck hunting.
We planned for a mid-September trip to the Northwest Territories, timed both to beat an early winter and hopefully to find birds before their flight south. The basis for the trip was to learn more about conservation issues in the boreal, a billion acres of water, woods, and ancient rock that stretches from central Alaska and across northern Canada to Labrador. Some 58 percent of Canada is boreal forest. On the flight from Yellowknife to the First Nations village of Lutsel Ke’ I got an eyeful of the epic scope of the landscape.
Any expectations I had about our destination were challenged the minute we touched down on the gravel airstrip at this village of about 300 people. For starters, power lines connected every house to the diesel generator that provides electricity for the locals. The town is accessible only by air, snowmobile in the winter, motor boat in the summer, or a once-a-year barge that brings in big items like vehicles, housing materials, and fuel. We stayed in the house of one of the village chiefs, and it was as modern and wired as any suburban home on the mainland.
Our first priority was finding ducks—no small feat in a wilderness of water. The big lakes, including Great Slave, were too rough so we searched for smaller lakes with a mix of diver and dabbler habitat. Why ducks? Why here? Because it’s a duck factory larger than the prairie potholes, used as a breeding or migration zone for millions of birds. More than a quarter of North America’s mallards and half of our Canada geese use the boreal to breed or moult. Teal, canvasback, and wigeon use the area, but the most intensive users of the northern forest are diving species, including bufflehead, scaup, goldeneye, and scoters.
Our main host for the week was James Marlowe, one of Lutsel Ke’’s most accomplished hunters. Like most subsistence hunters and fishers of the boreal, Marlowe is worried about the impact on game and habitat from a wave of diamond and uranium mines being built across the Territories. Ice road traffic to a diamond mine about 100 kilometers north of Lutsel Ke’ has disrupted caribou migrations, he says. He and other villagers would rather see more sustainable economic development. Marlowe is eyeing a business as a hunting and fishing outfitter, hoping to guide southerners like me to the region’s giant lake trout, big game, and birds.
We hunted a large lake called Duhamel Lake, which in Marlowe’s Dene language means “Lake on the Other Side” of Great Slave Lake. Here, DU’s Jennings and Larry Innes head out to a rocky point for a day of duck hunting. Innes works on a number of boreal conservation issues and, as a lawyer, represents the Lutsel Ke’ members in negotiations with governments and industries.
We are also joined by Dr. Fritz Reid, DU’s director of boreal conservation, and Gary Stewart, who is equally involved in boreal conservation issues. Reid brought his Lab, appropriately named “Boreal,” to help with retrieving duties.
As expected, we encountered a mix of duck species, mainly bufflehead, but also common mergansers, goldeneye, lesser scaup, a green-winged teal, and even white-winged scoters. The boreal is a prime breeding area for seafaring species like scoters (black, white-winged, and surf) and long-tailed ducks.
Jennings shows off a couple of boreal trophies: a scaup and a white-winged scoter.
Meanwhile, Boreal waits for another flight, and tries her best to ignore the pestilent “no see ‘um” black flies.
Reid waits through a lull in the action on our first day.
Duhamel Lake is located about 10 miles from Lutsel Ke’, over a rough road that amounts to the only vehicle path on the east side of Great Slave. As strange as it was to ride in a vehicle a couple hundred miles from the nearest asphalt, some scenes are universal…
…Such as bagging grouse off the road. Here, Innes attempts to catch a spruce grouse in a fish net.
Meanwhile, Reid prepares to pick up after our second day of duck hunting.
In all, we bagged more than 40 birds, all over decoys and all with Blind Side steel loads. The entire village of Lutsel Ke’ was eager for their share of birds.
In order to prepare them, James spent hours on shore, plucking birds as Boreal retrieved them.
We ate a number of birds singed, then cooked on an open fire. “Country food,” is how James described his camp cooking on a 55-gallon oil drum stoked with wood. Here, Marlowe prepares lake trout, moose ribs, caribou tenderloins, camp coffee, and beans baked in their cans.
Nearly everything is dusted with the all-around seasoning of the Territories: Back Eddy’s, a salt blend mixed on the south shore of Great Slave Lake.
I was as eager to experience the fishing here as I was the hunting. Great Slave Lake is synonymous with giant lake trout and northern pike. It turns out Lutsel Ke’ is located at the place where the Snowdrift River enters the big lake. This is the month for cisco herring to run up the river, and an entire food chain exploits the seasonal abundance—including us. Here, Marlowe shows off a cisco drift rig, basically a cisco run through with a wire leader, a treble hook attached to the end. Notice his pink rod? Jennings and I gave him plenty of flack for such an uninhibited choice. Moments after this photo, Marlowe broke the Pink Lady fighting a fish.
The trick was to dip net the cisco at night as they moved en masse up the river. Here, Jennings waits by a riffle, illuminated by the outrageous Aurora Borealis. We saved the cisco we netted for the following night’s fishing.
Toward twilight, lake trout move up the river from the lake to feed on the cisco. By dead-drifting a hooked cisco down the runs, it was relatively easy to get bites. It was harder to hook the big predators, especially as night fell and the action heated up.
It wasn’t all lake trout, just as it wasn’t all natural bait. Marlowe beached this giant grayling that hit a shallow-diving crankbait.
As the sun set and the Northern Lights started flickering, the lake trout action got progressively hotter.
Jennings’ final fish, landed sometime in the wee hours of our last day in Lutsel Ke’. Will the remote boreal ever heat up as a destination for international sportsmen? The more people find out about it, the more likely that seems.

Hunting ducks and fishing big lake trout in the First Nations of Canada’s remarkable boreal forest.