Labrador Part 5: Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Labrador Part 5: Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Day 4 of Fishing

June 30, 2016

Thursday was a challenge. The weather was gray and windy, and we were headed for the Comeback River. It is more than an hour’s ride north in the biggest canoe with the 20 HP motor at full throttle. Tony and I questioned Burt’s suggestion about making this trip, but he assured us it was a good bet. We could see plainly that the wind was coming out of the south, and we knew getting there would not be much of an issue. We also knew that if the winds did not lie down, coming back could be another matter.

Smooth Sailing With the Wind

Smooth Sailing With the Wind

So we packed our gear and got into the boat with JP as our guide. It was clear to us that the further we went up the lake, the waves were building at our stern. After an hour, we reached Montgomery narrows, and JP turned to us and expressed his doubt about going through the narrows. His fear was that we would be sheltered on the other side and not see the waves building. We agreed.

He suggested that we troll right where we were. We agreed again and tried, but the waves were already too much to handle comfortably. We knew the ride back was going to be longer and wetter than the ride was to get there. After a few tempered attempts to troll, we headed back south towards camp. It was a very slow, wet, and bumpy ride, with JP having to cut across many of the larger waves. Finally, we could see camp, after more than an hour of getting battered to and fro.

Now we took a lunch break, and for one of the few times, we did that at the lodge. After lunch, under drizzly skies, JP suggested that we troll at the mouth of the McKenzie River. As we got about 200 yards from the mouth, in about five feet of water, we could see boulders all around us, and after only a few minutes, my rod doubled over. It was obvious from the first few seconds that this was a very large fish. Then the fish made four runs that put me over 100 yards into my backing.

The Fish Made Four Runs

The Fish Made Four Runs

He or she was towing us. I got most nervous when we found ourselves in only a foot or two of water with boulders everywhere you looked. Finally, after somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes, we had the fish parallel to the boat just inches below us in two feet of water. We all looked in amazement at its size. My first thought was “We’re going to need a bigger net!” Even JP was in awe. He was as excited as we were, for sure. Slowly I guided the fish towards the net, JP slipped the net under the fish, and there was much rejoicing…high fives, cameras flashing, and all of us in awe.

The Biggest Laker Our Guide Had Ever Seen

The Biggest Laker Our Guide Had Ever Seen

We were surprised when JP said it was the biggest laker he had ever seen as well as the biggest fish he had ever heard of being landed at camp. He guessed the laker was 25 or more years old, maybe even 30. JP’s best guess was that it weighed 15 pounds. That beats my previous biggest laker by almost 6 pounds. We measured the fish against my hockey stick-turned-wading staff since we didn’t have a measuring tape in the canoe. When we got back to camp, we measured JP’s mark to see that the fish measured 33 inches. That fish took the sting out of a disappointing morning.

Measuring Against My Bauer "Wading Staff"

Measuring Against My Bauer “Wading Staff”

A few minutes later I hooked a smaller, 19-inch laker, which by comparison felt like a sunfish. I actually had Tony land it for me because my arms were beat from the estimated 20-minute fight with the 33-incher.

19-Inch Lake Trout

19-Inch Lake Trout

I’m here to tell you that anyone that disparages the fighting ability of a lake trout, has never caught one in a few feet of 50-degree water on a fly rod. I can’t imagine that any 15-pound striper has ever given more of a battle than that 15-pound laker did. By the way, I actually caught both of these lakers on a striper fly with a saltwater hook.

My Striper Fly Worked Great on Lakers Too

My Striper Fly Worked Great on Lakers Too

After catching a nice pike while trolling, we decided to stretch our legs by wading and casting for some pike. It was ridiculously easy fishing. You would make a cast, usually with a popper, and if you didn’t get a hit immediately; then all you had to do was make like you were bluefish fishing (that is, strip really fast and erratically) and you would be on. There was literally a pike every 10 feet of shoreline that we waded.

One of Many Two-Foot Northern Pike

One of Many Two-Foot Northern Pike

Most of the pike were about two feet long, a few were bigger, and a rare one was smaller. Almost every one had scars on them where another pike, a lake trout, an eagle, a mink, or an otter tried to eat them.

All of the Pike Had Injuries

All of the Pike Had Injuries

I think I caught about six, and Tony caught more than that in very short order. It was great to see this big, toothy mouth come up behind your popper just a few feet away and engulf it. We missed many because the strikes were so startling, and that threw off your timing of the hook set.

When we got our fill of pike fishing, Tony and JP waded over to the “Jugs” to see whether any fish were hanging out there. The Jugs are a couple of white plastic bottles anchored at the end of the camp’s peninsula to mark the channel leading into the McKenzie River. That day, while we fished in waders at the Jugs, Joe Jr. was with Burt, fishing the mouth of the McKenzie in the pontoon boat.  

The wind slowed, a few caddis started hatching, and a few fish began rising in the channel. Tony had his target. After a number of casts, Tony hooked into a huge salmon that jumped and snapped his leader. I told him, “I know you’re excited, but when they jump…” “I have to bow to them,” Tony finished my sentence. “That’s right,” I said.

After missing several more takes on his dry fly, Tony eventually hooked up again. Each time the fish came to the surface, Tony bowed. He had learned his lesson. However, this fish never jumped all the way out of the water. Eventually we decided that this fish was not anything that we had previously encountered. The fish had taken a relatively small dry fly, which ruled out a pike and made it very unlikely to be a laker. Although it was giving Tony what for, it was not shaking its head very much, which ruled out a brook trout.

JP Prepares to Net Tony's Mystery Fish

JP Prepares to Net Tony’s Mystery Fish

As the battle lingered on, it became obvious to JP that it was a whitefish…very much sought after here for their taste for dries and their taste in the frying pan. You have to be careful when playing them or even setting the hook on one, as their mouths are very soft and the hooks will pull out very easily. I knew that this was bigger, by far, than any whitefish that I had ever seen, never mind caught. JP caught the end of the long fight on Tony’s GoPro.

I got a photo or two, and Joe Jr. got some great photos from his seat in the pontoon boat.

One of Joe Jr.'s Great Photos from the Pontoon Boat

One of Joe Jr.’s Great Photos from the Pontoon Boat

When the fish came to the net it was in fact, by my standards, a large lake whitefish at about 20 inches and 4 pounds.

20-Inch, 4-Pound Lake Whitefish

20-Inch, 4-Pound Lake Whitefish

Now Tony was only a salmon and a laker shy of the McKenzie River grand slam.

Tony Releases the Whitefish

Tony Releases the Whitefish

During dinner that night, Tony, JP, Joe, and I, talked about all the salmon and whitefish that were rising to Tony’s fly. This got everyone excited to do some dry fly fishing around sunset…sunset being at 10:50 PM!

JP and Zula Heading Out

JP and Zula Heading Out

After dinner, Tony,  JP, Zula, and even Andrew, and I took a canoe to the top section of the McKenzie to cast some dry flies.

JP, Zula, Andrew, and I in the Canoe

JP, Zula, Andrew, and I in the Canoe

True to form, Simon was already there when we got there. Soon after we arrived, Simon caught a brookie and a salmon. It was such a gorgeous night that Tony was torn between fishing and taking photographs. The lack of wind was a nice change from that morning, but the mosquitoes were awful!

Andrew Fishing a Gorgeous Night on the McKenzie

Andrew Fishing a Gorgeous Night on the McKenzie

We got schooled by the guides that night, but it was a pleasure to watch the guides work their craft. Simon is a fantastic caster. He can cast an entire fly line with relative ease. He muscles his way through the line, and he’s rewarded with lots of fish. Andrew’s cast is like butter. His considerable height gives him an advantage over Simon, but clearly Andrew has worked to perfect his naturally smooth, effortless cast. Andrew came up empty that night though, as did we.

JP outsmarts the fish. He wades far, casts short (though he can no doubt cast as far as he wants), and most importantly, he watches the water and the insects. He caught several caddisflies and inspected them closely. He then matched that hatch. Finally, he watched the water like a hawk to pick up on the patterns of the rising fish. His homework paid big dividends. Despite being distracted by a lifejacket-wearing Zula, JP caught more fish than anyone…brookies, salmon, and even a whitefish.

Zula Visiting JP

Zula Visiting JP

He captured a nice video of his whitefish with Tony’s GoPro.

The canoe ride home made for some beautiful views of the setting sun, which takes a long, long time to set this time of year this far north.

The Beginning of a Long Sunset

The Beginning of a Long Sunset

It was a long day, not the best day by far, but the fish we caught were nice ones, and you just can’t beat the views.

Indescribable Views at Sunset

Indescribable Views at Sunset

WLAGS

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Labrador Part 4: The Best of Days

Labrador Part 4: The Best of Days

Day 3 of Fishing

June 29

Wednesday would prove to be all we hoped for.

After breakfast, we hopped into the freighter canoe with Simon to make the half hour or so ride up the lake to the Quartzite River.

Simon had fished it the week earlier and caught some large ouananiche (landlocked salmon).

When we arrived at the landing spot where the river enters the lake, I knew today was going to be different. Simon said we would do better to try this spot later, as he was sure that we disturbed any fish here with our arrival. So we grabbed our gear and proceeded to take a 15-minute hike through the woods to get to Juniper Pool.

The Hike to Juniper Pool

The Hike to Juniper Pool

When we arrived there, I had an even stronger feeling that this day would be special. It was a beautiful spot.

Arriving at Juniper Pool

Arriving at Juniper Pool

Simon guided Tony to a spot on the far side, and it wasn’t long before Tony hooked into the biggest salmon I have ever seen. The fish had taken a dry on the far side riffle. The fish was airborne immediately; it was an immense salmon. I was in awe. On its second jump, Tony’s line went limp. The fish had broken the leader, not at the tippet, but at the butt! Apparently, the leader was old, and that’s all it took for that salmon to make his escape.

At that point, I realized that I had left my rod with the floating line at the canoe. Simon offered to recover it, as we were sure it was going to be very important today. We had no idea how much so. I felt terrible about my forgetfulness, but Simon dropped his pack and headed back to the canoe. While he was gone, I made due with my sink tip line, first casting one of my Grampy’s Copper flash fly. On my first cast, a pike engulfed it, and he and it were gone.

Next, because there was a number of large caddis hatching, I put on a Casual Dress Nymph. About my third cast, I watched as a large, 4- to 5-pound brookie rolled on it about 20 feet out in front of me. We were off to a promising start, but had little to show for it.

Simon returned with my rod about 25 minutes after he left, which was much quicker than I could have done it for sure. We packed up at that point and headed upstream.

After another 15-minute walk, we decided to break for lunch at the base of the water that Simon was anxious to fish.

As we sat there eating our fresh chicken and ham salad sandwiches on baguettes that Andrew had baked, we saw and heard fish taking the caddisflies, which were growing more numerous.

After the break, we walked upstream only a short distance before Simon spotted a big brookie rising. I took the first cast, actually the first three casts, and I got the fish to take on all three casts, but came up empty. Simon asked to look at the fly after the third cast, and much to our surprise, my leader was tangled in the fly so it was riding backwards!

At that point, I turned to Tony and said, “It’s your turn.” I’m not sure right now if it was his first cast or his second, but I watched intently as the big fish rose and let Tony’s Spruce Moth fly filter into its open mouth. Tony set the (barbless) hook perfectly, and the battle was on.

Tony's Spruce Moth Fly, Purchased in Montana, Of Course

Tony’s Spruce Moth Fly, Purchased in Montana, Of Course

The trout first rushed to the far side of this no name pool, and then up stream while shaking its head vigorously. Then she turned downstream, using the strong current to great advantage. Simon started shouting both directions and encouragement in a very excited voice with his French Canadian accent coming through in spades. The fight lingered on until the trout rushed for the near bank and all its brush. Simon knew that we were running out of options. The trout had the advantage of the brush and the current, and it had the option of running further downstream, which would test the dry fly hook for sure.

So Simon did what few guides, if any, would do and literally jumped in. Not as dramatically as Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” but almost.

A few four-letter words later and the fish, a beautiful 21-inch female that was pushing 5 pounds, was in the net. Luckily, Simon captured the whole fight on Tony’s GoPro, which was mounted on Simon’s landing net.

It was easily the biggest brookie of Tony’s life. Simon estimated the fish’s age at 15 years! This is due to the short “growing season” that these fish have here. Much rejoicing and hand shaking went around. A carefully taken care of trout was rested, photographed, and then gently released.

21-Inch, 5-Pound Female Brook Trout

21-Inch, 5-Pound Female Brook Trout

Now it was my turn. During Tony’s battle with his brookie we saw other trout scatter. Now the question was did they settle down enough to be “fishable.” Our question was quickly answered on my first cast, I think, as we watched another large trout rise to my Stimulator.

Again, the fish rose seemingly in slow motion and just let my fly flow into his mouth. He expended so little energy. A lift of the rod, and he was on. We knew almost immediately it was a male as we saw more red and orange as he rolled. A tremendous rush on his part told me this was a heavy and strong fish, and I knew I was going to have my skills and tackle tested. He then made a run down stream, heading for the same place that Tony’s fish ended up. I knew we couldn’t get that lucky twice, pulling a fish out of the brush and current so I applied all the pressure that I thought the rod and leader could take and maybe even a little more to turn him out from the bank and headed at least cross current.

The Strong Fish Making the Run Downstream

The Strong Fish Making the Run Downstream

It worked. He slugged it out with me for what seemed like eternity, before making a run straight away to some very shallow water that was just above a small island in the middle of the river.

Now I had to turn him again. If he made it onto the shallows, he would certainly cut the leader on the rocks, and worse yet, if I gave him any slack to avoid getting cut off, he would easily make it to the opposite side, which was all riffles. Then he would turn downstream and put the island and all its brush between us, and be gone for sure.

So again, I put more pressure on him to turn him up current and towards us. It worked again. I can’t tell you how much doubt I had been feeling about that #10 barbless hook holding firm under the pressure.

Once I got him back into our no name pool, I was confident we would win this battle. If that hook did not pull out under all that pressure, then it surely was secure in his jaw.

A few more runs, and then I got his head up and pressured him again towards Simon and the waiting net.

Simon Chasing This Brute to the Middle of the River

Simon Chasing This Brute to the Middle of the River

He was in! What a beautiful fish! Even more beautiful than yesterday’s. It was a male, measuring 21 inches and about 5 pounds, according to Simon.

21-Inch, 5-Pound Male Brook Trout

21-Inch, 5-Pound Male Brook Trout

We again rested him as we got the cameras ready. We took several pictures and then had the great pleasure in watching him swim back to the calmer waters in the bottom of the pool. Simon used Tony’s waterproof camera to capture the serenity of the moment.

The Battle-Weary Brookie Resting

The Battle-Weary Brookie Resting

It was surely one of, if not *the* very best fish of my life. I have tried to think of other fish as memorable as this one, and only a few come to mind:

  • My first trout ever
  • My first trout caught on a dry fly
  • My first bonito on a fly rod
  • My biggest striper on a fly from the beach on Chappaquiddick

This fish was up there, and right now (a month later), I still think he might take #1. Once the glow of that moment wears off, maybe that could change, but at this moment, I doubt it. We caught the end of the fight on the GoPro.

The day continued, and I will readily admit that much of it is blur. The thrill of those first two trout was giving me a hangover effect. I was on such a high that my mind became a little fuzzy. Then and even now, I find the next hour a little out of focus. I don’t remember the details of almost any fish that followed those first two.

I do remember that shortly after we released my fish, Tony stepped up to the plate and with seemingly little time having passed, was into another 20-inch brookie.

Tony's 20-Inch Brookie

Tony’s 20-Inch Brookie

I remember none of that fight or that of another 20-inch brook trout that I caught after that. It seems almost sad to say that, but it is true. Each of them were great fish in their own right, and although they were greatly appreciated, it was not the same as those first two. It was like they were the fourth martini; just not the same effect as the first few.

It became more dramatic as we caught more nice trout. I think Tony’s next one was a 19-inch beauty and mine a 17-inch brookie.

Tony's 19-Inch Brook Trout

Tony’s 19-Inch Brook Trout

Those two fish alone would have been cause for great celebration at any time in my previous fishing life. Then and now, they are a footnote in my memory.

We closed out the day with a few normal sized 10- to 15-inch brook trout and even a salmon, and after the emotional hour or so on the no name pool and Tony pulling one of the bigger fish out of “The Shute” (as Simon called it), we were ready to head back to camp.

This Salmon Was One of the Few Normal-Sized Fish of the Day

This Salmon Was One of the Few Normal-Sized Fish of the Day

I said to Tony and Simon as we prepared for the hike back to the canoe that this day was my best day of fishing ever and my best hour of fishing ever. Tony was stunned to hear me say that, but agreed that it was definitely *his* best day of fishing ever.

Now, some weeks later, I am still contemplating those words. There is no question that I had experienced the finest day of trout fishing in my life. It is also true that I had experienced the finest day of dry fly fishing in my life, and that both of those things represent my two favorite forms of fishing for the fish I most admire, native brook trout. Then there is the fact that I did all this with my son and favorite fishing partner. So now, I have looked back at other fish and people and places that I have enjoyed over the past almost 70 years of fishing. A few come to mind:

I’d have to say that my struggle, a very pleasant one I might add, is the memory of Tony and I fishing with several great friends, especially Bobby, on Chappy catching stripers, bonito, false albacore, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel from the surf on light spinning and fly gear. It was three days of fantastic fishing and a ton of laughs—a great trip with great friends and a lifetime of memories.

So for now, I think it is safe to say that the day in Labrador was my finest day ever. That leaves the Chappy trip as the finest trip ever.

Tony's Text to His Wife via Satellite Phone About Our Day

Tony’s Text to His Wife via Satellite Phone About Our Day

As a fisherman, I have been very blessed. Even to have to consider these things, I sometimes have to marvel at my good fortune, and to do these things with so many wonderful people, friends, family, my wife, children, and grandchildren, but especially my son, I have been blessed with many memorable days in my life.

WLAGS