Chasing ancient char in wild Greenland

Located right on the Arctic Circle in West Greenland, Sassannguit river had the promise of char fishing in exactly the pristine unspoiled wilderness I was hoping for.

Living where I do in the North of Scotland I am fortunate enough to be able to easily visit and enjoy some of the finest wilderness places on offer in the rugged and beautiful country; from far flung mountains and moors, to glacier formed lakes (lochs) and streams. Wandering these with a fly rod in search of the wild trout, sometimes salmon and very occasionally (rare) opportunities to fish for the age old Arctic Char that are ‘landlocked’ in the deepest of our lakes.

It’s in the wild places of home I grew to appreciate the beauty and wonder that surround us. It ignites a desire to explore and research these lonely places beyond the shores of my home country. I long to visit, explore and experience some of the other northern, rugged, beautiful and pristine places that shared a similar fate in their most recent formation at the hands of the now retreating ice.

The choice is pretty extensive, but one place amongst all others stood out and became somewhere I simply had to visit and experience; Greenland.

And how perfect it was to be that “Visit Greenland” were seeking someone to do just this, visit and promote a new local Greenlandic company by the name of West Greenland Wildlife, owned and operated by Leif Fontaine. He was in the very early process of opening up the small river that lies in his family hunting ground at Sassannguit.

Located right on the Arctic Circle in West Greenland, Sassannguit river had the promise of char fishing in exactly the pristine unspoiled wilderness I was hoping for. But first I had to get there.

Travel to Greenland

Spring weather at Sisimiut Airport in Greenland. Photo by Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

Heading to Greenland is actually very straightforward and very easy, first up you travel to the Danish Capital Copenhagen, then onwards to Greenland’s main airport, Kangerlussuaq in west Greenland. From here it was a short wait and then a hop onto a smaller turbo-prop Dash-8 aircraft. After a half hour flight north to Sisimiut I was greeted by Leif and his lovely wife Agathe.

Sisimiut

Old Church and Whale Jaw Bones. Photo by Allan Liddle

We were not due to depart for Sassannguit until the next morning, so this gave me the opportunity to explore and take in the historical parts of Sisimiut’s old centre as well as be impressed by the modern side of this colourful town.

Sisimiut is Greenland’s second biggest town after the capital Nuuk and I must admit I wasn’t expecting to find such a dynamic place; especially as the largest ‘city’ within the Arctic Circle has only approximately 6,000 inhabitants.

Formerly known by its colonial Dutch name of Holsteinsborg it has been a settlement for circa 4,500 years initially by Inuit people, although the modern population of Greenlanders is a mix of Inuit and Danes who first settled here around the mid 1720’s.  Essentially these early settlers came here to establish whale-hunting centres and Sisimiut was perfect for this given the fact the harbour can be relatively ice free for longer periods than other areas around this part of Greenland.

Adrenalin Rush (Part 1)

Leif owns and operates a medium sized open boat and given the lack of roads in Greenland, it’s typical of the main mode of transport favoured for summer amongst the Greenlandic people. I might add, however, that Leif’s boat has rather large outboards and as such it travels pretty fast.  Couple this with his intimate knowledge of the shoreline and his ability to safely pick out the quickest lines through the myriad of small rocky islands that are strewn along the Greenlandic shore added to ensure I was in for a bit of an exciting trip.

Powering our way through tight gaps in the water felt akin to being part of a high-speed boat section of a James Bond movie, and to do this in such a pristine wilderness under blue sunny Greenlandic summer skies and the ever present dramatic Greenland backdrop simply made the boat journey completely fascinating. It felt like no time had passed when we pulled into the Sassannguit Bay, where Leif could point out his cabin and char fishing grounds that were to be our home for the next three nights.

Peace and Tranquillity

Simplt Perfect, Peace and Tranquility. Photo by Allan Liddle.

As soon as the engine was cut and we moored at the camp, the peace and the tranquillity of this place became instantly obvious. All hands were required to help unload the boat of supplies, unpack and settle in before a fly could be cast, but this was in no way a chore or something that needed to be endured. It was just added to the adventure and the anticipation I felt about making my first casts at this ancient gamefish.

Home for me was to be a large ‘bell-tent’ complete with camp bed and furs if I wanted them. There was a small paraffin heater to ensure I didn’t get cold and more than enough room for me to spread all my equipment and even be able to dry out waders and jackets if needed. I will say that sleeping here in early August under a sky that simply didn’t go any darker than the evening light, in complete silence and pure air, rates amongst some of the most enjoyable and relaxing nights I’ve ever enjoyed.

Adrenalin Rush (Part2)

But I was here to hunt and chase the Arctic Char of the Sassannguit River and it was with hand-trembling excitement that I headed to the closest pools and char holding areas with Leif. To say that I was very keen to try for these fish that shone through the crystal clear waters is something of an understatement.

A few ‘casts’ in, and the water in front ‘exploded’ in a torrent of spray and foam as a stunning, and large angry Arctic Char tore off attached to my fly into the fast white water of the river, reel screaming as it tore line with me in as best pursuit as I could muster.  This is what I came for, adrenalin rush part two, heart thumping action that was testing both my nerve and my fishing equipment in search of what really was a powerful and somewhat angry fish. It was determined to show me that I was in his world and he was in charge.

But after a few heart stopping moments and several minutes the fish came to hand, silver belly and overall silver sheen, olive coloured back and light pink spots, fresh from the sea and totally perfect in every way.  Yes there were many other fish that day, yes there were bigger ones, yes the fishing was simply fantastic, but I will always remember this one most, my first Sassannguit fish and my first ‘proper’ Greenlandic Arctic Char.

Exploration

Day two at the camp was another glorious sunny day and it was also the one we had chosen to head upstream towards the first of the two large lakes found a few kilometres from the camp and where Leif wanted to show me what he feels is amongst the best of the fishing.

Continues further down the pages…

Package Tours

Arctic Umiaq Line: Discover Greenland from the sea

Arctic Umiaq Line

Discover Greenland from the sea

The coastal ship Sarfaq Ittuk sails from southern Greenland up along Greenland’s west coast to Disko Bay.

Disko Line: Disko Bay from South to North

Disko Line

Disko Bay from South to North

A trip to Greenland where nature goes hand in hand with culture under the midnight sun.

Greenland Tours: Best of the West

Greenland Tours

Best of the West

8 days exploring Disko Bay incl. Disko Island and visit to the Greenland Ice Cap

Icelandic Mountain guides: Unplugged Wilderness

Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides

Unplugged Wilderness

A 12 day boat assisted trek in East Greenland. Trekking in dramatic alpine landscape with stunning views of icebergs and glaciers.

Sassannguit River

Sassannguit River is around 15km long so it’s by no means a long or big river. It is mostly around 6-8 meters wide, but it is full of character and attraction for the angler, tumbling and rushing its way through the wilderness towards the estuary. I have to admit it was difficult to walk past so much fishing opportunity on the hike to the lakes. That said, the hike was pretty easy walking with dry and firm underfoot (way unlike the often soggy, boggy tramps I’m used to at home) and the backdrop scenery stunning.

The light was perfect and the flies were playing it cool. OK, the slight breeze was keeping them mostly at bay but you still needed the mosquito net as these guys, as well as the numerous non-biting black flies soon descended in search of some part of unexposed skin when you stopped walking, or when the breeze subsided.

Wild camp and wilder fish

Powerful and Wild. Photo by Allan Liddle

We soon descended towards the first lake and I could feel my excitement bubbling as I  spotted many dark shapes of fish of all sizes in the river leading directly out of the lake. Leif is keen to form a smaller ‘wild camp’ at the head of the lakes where anyone interested visiting West Greenland Wildlife excursions can stay overnight, away from the main camp. One could further explore three lakes and the upper sections of the river above this, and I must say I’d love to return and do this.  The ‘top’ lake is right amongst the bottom of the mountains and the headwaters above run well into these uplands: what lies there for the angler to explore?

The surroundings, the fishing, the pristine river and stunning wild fish would add up to make this experience truly amazing. Add to that the fact that this river has hardly been fished by fly anglers, it opens up a whole dimension of opportunity and exploration in Sassannguit.

The char up here were bigger, earlier runners from the sea and in that stunning, very deep, dark olive back with bright deep red spots and ‘hot’ orange belly spawning attire, very different from the silver coloured fish that were fresh from the sea. They were every bit as powerful, though, with a mindset of wanting to pull your arm from its socket and not to ever be underestimated.

The fish in the lakes were also pretty eager to take the fly and, although I had limited time to try for them, I was satisfied enough to feel that utilising a boat, or working with ‘stillwater’ tactics instead of river ones will bring a totally different dimension to chasing these fish. This adds yet more variety to the visiting angler’s trip.

Colourful in Spawning Attire. Photo by Allan Liddle.
Fresh off the Tide and Perfect. Photo by Allan Liddle.
Sassannguit Native, the Inquisitive Reindeer. Photo by Allan Liddle.

On the return walk back to the camp we encountered a rather inquisitive reindeer who followed us part of the way before deciding that the opposite direction was more interesting. Leif also pointed out wild blueberries that were growing in patches throughout all of the area. A tasty treat for us both and something I picked regularly during my fishing forays.

A Little Bit of Char Background

Despite the fact these fish are known as sea-run they actually spend most of their lives in freshwater often overwintering in the lakes. The reason for this is interesting in itself.  Salt water generally freezes below 32 degrees and char simply can’t survive in temperatures that low, due to the fact that the water within their make-up is fresh water. 

This means that the fish would simply freeze even if the surrounding water is still liquid. Other fish in this cold marine environment can produce “anti-freeze” chemicals which prevent this, but char cannot, hence the need to overwinter back in fresh water again.

Greenland Char then head into the sea in spring, where they feed voraciously, gaining weight and condition before returning to the rivers and head upstream again in readiness for spawning time. When caught in the salt water or when they first enter the rivers they are a beautiful silver colour with pale pink spots. This changes dramatically with the fish then altering colour to the stunning and more characteristic orange, red and olive spawning attire. The most striking of these are certainly the males.

Another interesting fact is that despite what we might consider a “drawback” in the time they can spend in salt water, they are in fact the dominant species throughout this cold, pristine environment with the ability to successfully colonise and dominate entire river systems. 

All of this results in an abundant, voracious, aggressive, and very strong quarry, perfect for the fly angler and at times so hard fighting it’s like a “salmonid on steroids”.

Sustainable Harvesting

Harvested, Cleaned and Drying for the Table. Photo by Allan Liddle.

Sea-run Arctic Char (Salvelinus Alpinus) are numerous around Greenland and form an important and very valuable part of the Greenlandic diet. Known locally as “Eqaluk” these fish are harvested from July 15th until August 15th and Leif does this in the traditional manner utilising a trap at the river mouth and occasionally a shore fixed net.  

Sustainability is high on the agenda as the trap only collects fish at times when the tide covers the entrance. The rest of the time the fish swim freely. The net is set along a small section of the estuary meaning most of the returning fish by-pass it and are also free to head into the river.

All the fish caught are processed in the time honoured way, cleaned, salted, hung out to dry and smoked and are simply delicious. Not only is Leif passionate about sustainability with the char, but with all forms of native hunting in Greenland as well as tourism. This is why West Greenland Wildlife operates sustainable tourism in a vulnerable environment. Visiting parties to Sassannguit are small (max of 8) and have exclusive access to the whole river and immediate surroundings.  The river might not be big but it does stretch more than 15km into the wilderness, way more than enough for even the most ardent of exploring visitors to cover.

Saltwater Fishing Opportunities

Whilst the char fishing was fantastic it wasn’t the only fishing  opportunity in the area and Leif was also keen to take me out on the boat and seek out the abundant cod fishing that is found in the bay and surrounding sea / rocky shorelines.

To say I was astounded by the sheer number of fish showing on the ‘echosounder’ was an understatement. It wasn’t long before we were catching these regularly on the ‘long-line’ set up Leif had mounted on his boat. Leif also informed that halibut are also present and is considering the option of having some sea fishing rod equipment available to guests for future trips; the opportunities for saltwater sport fishing are obvious and certainly abundant.

That said I’m a fly angler and the amount of opportunity in the fish numbers wasn’t lost to me from a fly approach perspective.  I know that the cod here can be particularly fond of flies and in the right tide (high tide) and times (evening best) sight fishing for them can be found when they enter into the shallower bays and come close to the rocky shorelines to feed. It adds another dimension to the overall adventure and one I’d love to return and explore in more detail.

Throw in the rock strewn estuary itself and the opportunities to seek out, sight and hunt char here also, especially in low tide when the fish can be found in the pools and small tidal streams; it means that there is more diversity to this experience.

The Trip Back

Sadly, all too soon the adventure was over, and it was with a heavy heart I waved goodbye to Sassannguit as we sped our way back towards Sisimiut in the usual, fast paced fashion. As we were closer into shore, due to the outer seas being a little ‘choppy’ sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to see any whales. However, we did chance upon two feeding pods of seals numbering in excess of fifty animals in each. It’s a sight I will remember for a long time. Soon Sisimiut harbour came into view, civilisation beckoned with another overnight in the luxury of the Hotel Sisimiut awaited before my scheduled flights home the following day.

I loved Greenland, I loved the peacefulness, the pace of life, the way of life and most of all the Fontaine family who welcomed me completely and who have become friends forever. It is a place I will never forget, I will certainly return to and I can’t recommend this adventure highly enough to any fly angler seeking a true wilderness expedition way up here on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Suggested Fishing Equipment

Breathable waders and good wading boots (I used Korkers interchangeable boots which I wore on the plane over to keep weight down), Breathable Jacket (wading jacket), waterproof backpack to carry items during hikes, waistcoat (optional), pliers, tape measure, packable net (optional, I didn’t take my net last time and just accepted that I’d lose some fish as a result, but helped keep items and weight down for travel / hikes), camera (essential, and if digital you’ll need a spare back up portable power supply to keep it charged out at camp), fluorocarbon (I used GrandMax 14lb which was excellent for all requirements).  And of course flies (see separate list), rod (9’ or 10’ #6 or #7 rod which is easily transportable and I’d also consider a spare), Reel (just needs to be robust and carries a good amount of backing), Lines (floating was all I used with a few varying sink rate polyleaders, although an intermediate and perhaps a sunk line for salt water might also be useful).

Flies

The million-dollar question everyone asks on any fishing trip, what flies will we need? There’s plenty information already available regarding flies that are good for migratory sea-run char and red, orange and pink often feature as the most prominent colours amongst them for both in fresh and salt water. However it wouldn’t be a full article if I didn’t at least include the ones that were most successful for me on my visit, so here’s are the dressings for the four most successful flies I used and the ones that will form a ‘starting point’ for my next trip to the Sassannguit:

Author

Allan Liddle Circle

Allan Liddle

As an angler, guide, instructor, angling journalist and fly tying demonstrator, he is based in his homeland of Scotland. He regularly contributes to Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine both with main-stream features and a regular blog section on their website.

Editor

Tanny Por

As Content Manager, Tanny curates and tells stories about living, travelling (and sometimes surviving!) in Greenland. She also supports and develops Visit Greenland’s strategic initiatives across its different media and social platforms.