Labrador Part 3: “It’s a Big Brookie”

Labrador Part 3: “It’s a Big Brookie”

Day 2 of Fishing

June 28, 2016

Day 2 started out very much like the day before with a great breakfast and getting more familiar with our environment and our fellow guests and hosts.

It was decided that today Tony and I would be in the very capable hands of Simon on his 26th birthday. It was also decided that we would fish First Section of the McKenzie River, mostly the waters immediately below where “Joe Sr.,” “Joe Jr.,” and Walt had fished yesterday. Those three went out on the lake to target pike and lakers.

So again, we took the short boat ride to the river’s outlet, and we started working our way downstream.

Again, it seemed for quite some time that the fishing gods were against us. We saw some hatches, but little in the way of fish activity.

One of the Few Mayflies That Day

One of the Few Mayflies That Day

Finally, we got down to Goudie Pool, and again I hooked up on one of my flies, Grampy’s Copper Flash. Again, it was a pike. It was a nice fish, but again I was disappointed.

Goudie Was a Trapper Who Walked for 30 Days to Trap Here Many Years Ago

Goudie Was a Trapper Who Walked for 30 Days to Trap Here Many Years Ago

The pike’s sharp teeth had decimated my fly, and I noticed my leader was growing short I decided that I needed to tie on a new tippet while standing in the middle of this rushing river.

The Pike that did a Number on My Leader

The Pike that did a Number on My Leader

So there I was, trying to tie a good blood knot with the river gushing at my legs and me too stubborn to put on my glasses for fear of losing them in the river. I tied the knot and tested it as best I could, and it seemed fine. I tied on a smelt pattern that we use back home, and started to cast downstream of where the pike had been.

The Smelt Fly that I Tied

The Smelt Fly that I Tied

Simon had come over to net the pike and remove the fly, and he was just about back to the bank and Tony. About the time that he reached the tree line, I hooked up again. I gave a little yell, but didn’t want to get too excited for fear that it was another pike.

Simon grabbed the net and ran—and I mean *ran*—back towards me, with the river’s water gushing to the top of his waders. I knew that this fish was not a pike, or if it was, it was considerably bigger than any of the others.

Simon barked out, “It’s a laker!” Then he yelled, “No, it’s a pike.” My heart sank. Then again, he said, “It’s a laker.” I felt a little better. The fish started shaking its head violently, and I told an anxious Simon so. Simon said, “It’s a big brookie,” but followed with “Brookie or a laker—I saw a white fin.” Then Simon yelled “Big brookie, *big* brookie!” As you’ll see in the GoPro video, he was as excited as I was. I got nervous now thinking that this is what this trip was all about for us.

Then I remembered the knot! What if I didn’t snug it up, or what if I cut the tag too short? There was a little panic as I inched the fish closer to Simon. “It’s a big brookie,” he chirped again. He yelled to Tony, who was up river, “Bring the camera, it’s a big brookie!” My heart was in my mouth. Now was not the time to panic. I needed to steer the fish at an angle and to keep his head upstream to get him to the net. It worked! Simon gave out a gleeful yell as he got it into the net.

There was a sense of relief and excitement that I can’t describe. Relief that one of the goals of this trip, and in fact one of the goals of my life, had been realized.

Tony felt it too. Many times I said to him over the years, “I’ll die a happier man if I can catch just one 20-inch brookie in my life,” and here it was.

The fish measured 20.5 inches and 4.5 pounds. It was as beautiful as any fish I had caught in my entire life, maybe the most beautiful of all.

My First 20.5-Inch Brook Trout

My First 20.5-Inch Brook Trout

We kept it well rested in the water while we readied the cameras. After a quick photo or two, we made sure that it was well rested and then gleefully watched it swim back to where it came from. High fives all around.

Now it was an all-out effort to get Tony hooked up, but we came up short. Tony caught a couple of average brookies and even a couple of smaller salmon. The water was still cool, and the fish had not yet moved out of the lake and into the rivers in any numbers.

Simon with One of Tony's Small Brook Trout

Simon with One of Tony’s Small Brook Trout

It wasn’t how we wanted to end the day, but for now it was OK. Dad had the biggest brookie of his life, and we knew Tony’s time was coming.

Shortly after the excitement surrounding the brookie, I found myself in the middle of the river as I looked downstream to Tony and Simon. I headed towards the shore when suddenly my wading staff snapped in two. Thankfully, I dropped to my knees in an effort to keep from falling in. I gave out a call to my companions to let them know that I was in the need of some assistance. Simon and Tony rushed up to help. Simon, again with no staff of his own, was there quickly to grab hold of me. He then walked sideways to the current and instructed me to do the same. We made it to shore without incident, thanks to his skill. He told me that there is a bucket at camp full of expensive wading staffs that became victims of the McKenzie River’s current.

As we stopped for a shore-side lunch, Simon use the hatchet in his pack to create another wading staff for me. He even attached the safety strap to this stick. That would get me through today.

Simon Making Me a New Wading Staff

Simon Making Me a New Wading Staff

For the rest of the week, my wading staff would be an Eddie Bauer special—a hockey stick. The aluminum shaft would serve me well the rest of the week.

The one thing that went Tony’s way while we were fishing was that we heard a floatplane—a rare occurrence in these parts. As we saw it approach the lodge, we knew that it was delivering Tony’s luggage from Montreal. Air Canada footed the $3,500 to fly it there. Losing his bag was an expensive mistake on their part. It was waiting for us inside our cabin when we returned. Tony spent the night returning all of the things that he had borrowed from guides and guests alike since we arrived.

The Most Expensive Bag Air Canada Ever Delivered

The Most Expensive Bag Air Canada Ever Delivered

That night at dinner, we celebrated Simon’s birthday with a nice cake that Andrew made from scratch. At this point, we didn’t feel like we were roughing it out in the middle of nowhere.

JP Serves Simon His Birthday Cake

JP Serves Simon His Birthday Cake

Burt, a master fly tier, let Simon choose a dozen of his flies as his birthday present. The other guides were quite impressed with this.

Simon Choosing a Dozen of Burt's Flies

Simon Choosing a Dozen of Burt’s Flies

As we discussed the day’s fishing, everyone was a little more hopeful that things were beginning to change. Warmer water, more hatches, and it seemed that the pike were moving back into the lake as “Joe Jr.” caught about 20 of them sight casting in the lake with JP.

High hopes for tomorrow.

WLAGS

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Labrador Part 2: The Pike Disappointment

Labrador Part 2: The Pike Disappointment

Day 1 of Fishing

Juin 27

After getting settled in our new home last evening, eating a hearty supper and getting to know our hosts, we settled in for a well-deserved and very early night of rest after the trials and tribulations of our journey.

The next morning came very early, both in terms of daylight (daybreak was around 3:30 AM) and seemingly, not enough sleep. We made our way to the lodge and found Andrew had prepared a huge breakfast. There were eggs, of course, and the mandatory heaping platter of bacon. Bacon and butter are staples of life here. We went through about 10 pounds of each that week.

A Hearty Breakfast

A Hearty Breakfast

We discussed the day’s plans during and after breakfast. Burt, the head guide, thought it would be best for the Joes and Walter to fish the head of the outlet so that they could set up “Joe senior” in the pontoon boat (Burt calls it a pool toy).

The Pontoon Boat

The Pontoon Boat

The other guide would set “Joe Jr.” and Walt up on either bank, and fish from the freighter canoes. The canoes, by the way, were 18-foot- and 20-foot-long spruce and Kevlar, square-stern canoes, powered by 9.9- and 20-horse power four-stroke engines. They were amazing in both their stability and the shallow draft. Both of those attributes would very much come into play later in the week.

One of the Kevlar-Coated Canoes

One of the Kevlar-Coated Canoes

It was decided that Tony and I would go with Burt down to what they call “Second Section;” that is, the second part of the McKenzie River downstream from the lodge.

Artist's Rendering of the McKenzie River Area

Artist’s Rendering of the McKenzie River Area

Only the guides had briefly fished Second Section during their setup time the previous two weeks. (Ice went out on Andre Lake on June 12, just as the guides arrived.)

Our day began by walking behind the lodge to one of the 18-foot canoes. Given that it was in the 60s Fahrenheit, we were stunned to see a large snow bank.

The Snowbank Behind the Lodge...On June 27

The Snowbank Behind the Lodge…On June 27

As we walked down a narrow caribou trail, Burt cleared his throat loudly and yelled, “I am not a bear!” This was simultaneously amusing and unnerving, but it worked. We didn’t see any bears.

We were full of optimism, but the walk was a little grueling after a short boat ride to the head of the outlet. It was warm, buggy—very buggy, and with the showers from the night before, very muddy as well. We each had two fly rods, our vests, wading staff, a backpack with cameras and other essentials, and we were wearing waders, of course. Not exactly your typical hiking outfit. To top it off, we were over-dressed for a hike. We were wearing turtlenecks and long underwear in anticipation of the 50-degree Fahrenheit river water.

As we approached our first spot to fish, Burt said, “Young fellers,” and he shook his head disapprovingly. One of the younger guides had left a jacket hanging in a tree when they were clearing this old caribou trail in the previous week.

The Bugs Were Getting to Tony

The Bugs Were Getting to Tony

As we fished one pool or riffle after another, we took Burt’s suggestion to fish close first, then fish further out, and change flies often. We started out at the Mouse Pool, where Tony had to try a mouse fly. Where else can you catch a brookie on a mouse fly? Unfortunately, he didn’t have a sniff. What’s worse, he learned what Burt calls “The McKenzie Two-Step,” which is to say that Tony fell in the river. Luckily his rain gear and waders kept him mostly dry, except for the fleece liner for his raincoat.

We had no success for an hour or more when I finally hooked up on a fly tied in N.H., the Jackass.

Jackass

Jackass

It was the only time in my life I was disappointed to catch a pike. We quickly released him after a fair fight. Just a few casts later produced a nice 25-inch, 6-pound laker.

My First Labrador Lake Trout (25 Inches and 6 Pounds)

My First Labrador Lake Trout (25 Inches and 6 Pounds)

Burt got some decent underwater video of the lake trout using Tony’s GoPro mounted on the landing net.

It was nice, but not what we came for. Burt was a little dismayed to see pike and lakers here. He thought if they were here, the brookies would not be. He was right.

We stopped for a nice shore lunch and fire, including some “Canadian bush tea,” according to Burt, which was very good. We hung Tony’s wet fleece liner, still soaking after his “dip” in the river, by the fire to dry it out.

Shore Lunch, Complete with a Fire and Canadian Bush Tea

Shore Lunch, Complete with a Fire and Canadian Bush Tea

As we sat by the river eating the lunches Andrew had prepared for us, I realized that my wading staff was only half there. I had lost the bottom half of it along the trail; probably in one of the mud holes that we navigated. Burt took a walk back up the trail to try to find it, but he came up empty. Tony lent me his wading staff for the rest of the day.

We worked our way down to the end of Second Section, where we trolled briefly in a large pool where they kept another canoe. I managed another laker that measured 26 inches and weighed 6 pounds, 4 ounces.

26-Inch Lake Trout, Weighing 6 Pounds, 4 Ounces

26-Inch Lake Trout, Weighing 6 Pounds, 4 Ounces

Two more pike were all that I could manage that day, and Tony was fishless. We stopped by the lunch spot to pick up Tony’s fleece that we hung out to dry. Unfortunately, we had two short downpours and some drizzle in the interim. His fleece liner for his raincoat was even wetter than when he’d “taken a swim” in the river.

As we continued our hike back, Burt found the bottom of my wading staff stuck in a mud hole in the trail.

I must be honest, and say that I was disappointed. We were tired, warm, and sick of fighting off bugs. I’m not sure how far we walked, but at the end of the day Tony’s Fitbit said we had walked 10 miles and took 22,000 steps. We know that that number is inflated because his Fitbit counts reeling as steps, but we didn’t do very much reeling today. That’s still a lot of walking even under the best conditions.

We Walked 10 Miles (Give or Take 5 Miles)

We Walked 10 Miles (Give or Take 5 Miles)

We made our way back to the lodge about 5 PM, with the sun seemingly in the high-noon position.

At supper, we learned that the Joes and Walt did very well at the outlet. That gave us hope for tomorrow. They had caught a couple of big brookies and hooked at least some salmon.

After dinner, two guides, Jean-Philip (“JP” for short) and Simon invited Tony to go trolling on Andre Lake that night. JP caught a nice 26” pike out on the lake with spinning gear and a spoon.

JP's Pike and Zula

JP’s Pike and Zula

It is legal to do that on the lake, whereas the rivers are restricted to barbless flies, and all trout and salmon are released.

We were optimistic about tomorrow.

WLAGS

 

Labrador: The Journey Begins

Labrador: The Journey Begins

Every journey has a beginning, and this one did not have a very auspicious start. It stumbled because of today’s technology, but it was saved by human concern and effort.

We changed planes four times and made five stops on our way to McKenzie River Fly Fishing Lodge.

Each plane was smaller than the previous one. As we approached Sept-Iles, Quebec (pronounced “set EEL”), our third stop and second plane change, I noticed we were going to be late for our connecting flight to Wabush Airport, which serves Labrador City. I asked the flight attendant about this, and she assured me that the flight to Wabush would wait for us. When I saw the airfield (you could not call it an airport) I understood why. The buildings were no more than 80’x60’, I would guess.

Sure enough, our flight to Wabush was sitting there, engines running (propelers, of course, as were all of the flights after our arrival in Montreal), waiting for us and a few other passengers.

Our Prop Plane from Sept-Iles to Wabush

Our Prop Plane from Sept-Iles to Wabush

We took our carry-ons off one plane, right on to the next, and boarded. We had an almost full plane with about 12 passengers. The previous flight was about half-full with 17 people. They seated Tony and I right behind the pilots’ open-door cockpit. We were on our way for the last of today’s flights.

Cockpit View

Cockpit View

When we arrived at Wabush Airport, which had even smaller buildings, we found that our luggage did not make the trip. We rushed to the Air Canada counter (about 40’ away from the sole luggage carousel) just as Faith and Jackie, Air Canada employees, were locking up for the night. They were more than concerned and very accustomed to dealing with fishermen and well aware of what was at stake here.

They were reassuring and said that they would follow through from home that night with people that they knew. Sure enough, at 10: 30 that night, the phone rang in our hotel room. It was Faith. She found out that our luggage had never left Montreal, even though we had a four-hour layover there. She assured us that it would be in Wabush early the next afternoon. We were relieved but had other issues to face.

Immediately after our first discussion with Faith and Jackie at the airport, Pascale, the Native American (or “First Nations,” as they say in Canada) lady that runs the float plane/charter service brought us from the airport to the Two Seasons Hotel in Labrador City. They had no record of our reservation. Tony would have to put the hotel room on his credit card even though it was part of our package with the lodge. Pascale called the lodge to straighten things out. Luckily, the Two Seasons had plenty of available rooms. They assured us that it would be straightened out by the time we returned from dinner.

The Aptly-Named, Two Seasons Inn

The Aptly-Named, Two Seasons Inn

Then the Two Seasons employee gave us more bad news. Labrador City, if you can call it a city given it has just 9,000 inhabitants, has to shut down all power every quarter to refuel the generators that run the entire town. As it happens, we arrived at just that time. Power would go off at 4:00 AM and go on again at noon. So far, today, Tony’s birthday of all days, was not going as we had hoped. Thanks to the pending power outage, we had to do everything we needed to do that night, including: shower, eat, and make calls from the hotel phone (no cell phone service, of course). We ate at one of the three open restaurants, had a nice home-style meal of ribs, and called home, the owner of the lodge, and the booking agent to let them know about our difficulties.

The next morning, daybreak was before 4:00 AM, all was quiet. No restaurants were open. In fact, the only place that was open was Jubber’s, a convenience store that had its own generator.

The Oddly-Named Jubber's

The Oddly-Named Jubber’s

Jubber’s was crowded when we entered. We grabbed some fruit bars, water, and a Snapple for breakfast. Tony had a head cold, and he was hoping to buy some NyQuil too, but they didn’t have anything like that. It was a nice morning, if not a little hot in fact, and we enjoyed our “breakfast” outside in a shady park next to the town clock, which was stuck at 4:00 AM due to the power outage.

The Clock in Labrador City

The Clock in Labrador City

At noon, Pascale brought us to her “airport” to weigh us, our luggage and gear (minus my and Tony’s lost bags, of course), along with some of the goods necessary to stock the camp for a week or more.

It was here that we met up with the other guys that were going to the lodge with us: Joe, his son Joe, and Walt. You will hear more about these great guys later. It was also here that we met Burt, the head guide. He would be flying with us to the lodge. He also got on the scale with his gear, some fly tying supplies, and some shelving for the guides’ cabin.

Weighing Our Gear and Burt

Pascale said that Air Canada would have our luggage to her plane by 2:00 PM. She’d delay our originally scheduled 8:00 AM flight until 2:00 to accommodate us. Until then, she let us borrow the McKenzie River van, a “well-used,” red monstrosity with flies stuck in the fabric above the driver’s seat. The younger Joe took the wheel, and Burt let us follow him to the 250,000-square foot Labrador Mall.

The "Well-Used" McKenzie River Van

The “Well-Used” McKenzie River Van

We had noticed that Pascale had trouble starting the van when she picked us up at the Two Seasons Inn. When we arrived at the mall, we debated whether to turn off the van or leave it running. Joe decided to tempt fate and turn it off.

This Wal-Mart was like no Wal-Mart you have ever seen! It was small, dark, and the prices were incredibly high even taking into account the exchange rate ($1 CAD = $0.70 USD that day), but it was what we needed and where we needed it. We also stopped at Canadian Tire, which is like a combination of Home Depot, Tire Warehouse, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and a farm store. Great place.

While eating “breakfast,” I had noticed that almost every pickup truck we saw had a bright orange flag sticking up 4 to 6 feet in the bed. I asked the young man at the register at Canadian Tire what the flags were all about, having speculated to Tony earlier that it was because of the snow banks being so high, and the employee confirmed my suspicion. He said a single storm of 50” of snow was common.

The five of us returned to the floatplane site to find that only my bag had arrived. Tony would have to borrow what he needed for the next two-plus days. The guides would lend him waders, tackle, and boots, and I had enough of whatever else he needed to get by along with some clothes from our new friends next door. The pilot said, “Hurry up. There’s a thunder storm brewing. We need to get off the ground now.”

Joe the Elder Boards Our Floatplane

Joe the Elder Boards Our Floatplane

The flight was reminiscent of our bush flights over Alaska 26 years earlier. There was water everywhere—and some patches of snow, despite it being June 26—and raindrops were starting to hit the windshield.

The View from the Floatplane

The View from the Floatplane

There were hundreds of lakes as far as you could see in any direction, and Tony had the best seat of all. He was in the copilot’s seat, out of necessity.

Tony as "Copilot"

Tony as “Copilot”

Finally, our destination was in sight. A speck of four small buildings on a carpet of evergreens surrounded by water.

Flying Over McKenzie River Flyfishing Lodge

Flying Over McKenzie River Flyfishing Lodge

The pilot pulled the Beaver to within inches of the dock. We were greeted by our hosts and guides and a dog named Zula, on a typical Labrador-like day—gray and drizzly.

Zula Greets Us

Zula Greets Us

We helped our new friend, the older Joe Jr. (who we usually called “Joe Sr.”), an 86 year-old Air Force veteran from Texas onto the dock, along with his son (also named Joe) from Florida, and their friend, 75 year-old Walt, also from Texas.

We had arrived.

WLAGS

 

 

Lodge Rating: Gray Ghost Camps 2016

 

We here at WLAGS want to give you what we deem an honest evaluation of lodges, camps, and other places we have been. Today, we’re giving you our opinion of Gray Ghost Camps, and sharing some of our photos of our stay there.

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Cabin #9: Fool’s Gold

Cabin #9: Fool's Gold

Cabin #9: Fool’s Gold

Location: 10

Service: 10

Check-out time (10:00): 9

 

* Cabin overall: 9

Water pressure: 9

Water temperature: 10

Beds: 10

Cabin location: 8

Cabin view: 8

Cabin temperature: 8

Cabin structure: 9

Good Cabin Structure

Good Cabin Structure

Boating facilities: 10

Great Boating Facilities and Fishing Access

Great Boating Facilities and Fishing Access

Fishing potential: 10

Fishing access: 10