|History, Tradition & Royalty|
By Mo Tidemanis, Reporter at Large
I have long yearned to cast a fly to both chrome bright Atlantic salmon and brightly colored eastern brook trout. Locals also call the eastern brook trout the speckled trout. An August, 2001 trip to Big River Camps, a unique fishing operation located on the Big River in northern Labrador, Canada, provided me with a shot a both. The main lodge of Big River Camps is located on a site overlooking a major bend in the Big River, only 5 miles from the North Sea (Atlantic Ocean). Access is via floatplane, which takes visiting anglers the 120 miles north of the last traces of civilization at Goose Bay.
Despite the short 5-6 week season, the owner, Bob Skinner, has successfully developed a comfortable lodge for his angling clients. Sea run Atlantic salmon, speckled (brook) trout, and char run up Big River right past the lodge. The waters in this area are mostly dark tannic in color, the result of runoff filtered through the acidic soil of surrounding coniferous forests. Five miles further up the river from the main lodge, at the base of a long rattle (rapids) known as the Great White Way, Bob has built a second lodge.
Native Innuit designed Gander Bay boats (long square stern canoes) carry visiting anglers not only upstream all the way to the second lodge, but also downstream to Rattling Brook. Here a set of waterfalls creates excellent plunge pools in which both Atlantic salmon and sea run brook trout gather. Nearby waters also hold lake trout and sea run arctic char.
The history of this great land is intriguing. The great forces of nature, including glacial action, erosion and internal upheaval have created a rugged landscape that looks much like that found in many parts of Alaska. Countless rivers and streams connect myriad of lakes. The indigenous Innu and Innuit people can be traced back almost 9,000 years. The oldest funeral monument in North America at LíAnse-Armour dates back 7,500 years. The initial European discovery of this area was by 16th century Basque whalers, followed by Moravian missionaries, who arrived in the 1770's.
Until Goose Bay began to be used as an important stop for transatlantic air routes in World War II, Labrador was virtually unknown to the outside world. Today Goose Bay is an international training center for NATO warplanes. More than 30 years ago, Bob Skinner caught his first Big River salmon returning the following year to build the lodge.
I soon learned from this trip that the tradition involved in Atlantic salmon fishing is perhaps greater than that associated with any other type of flyfishing that I have been able to experience. The fishing for these magnificent fish is done with 7 or 8 weight rods, floating lines, and classic, full dressed Atlantic salmon flies. These flies include such traditional names as the green highlander, which was can be traced back to the Scottish Highlands (and Highlanders) of many generations ago.
Casting is done quartering downstream and swinging the fly on a floating line, as we on the West Coast of the USA would do for steelhead. The reward of methodically covering promising stretches of water is seeing these silver bullets rise to attack the small v-wake created by your brightly colored fly. The often splashy surface takes and strong wild jumps can be addictive.
Nearby, the Goose River has one of the largest remaining runs of bright Atlantic salmon that keeps happy anglers coming back year after year. The allure of wild Atlantic salmon up to 15 pounds can do that to you. Several flyfishers departing the lodge when we arrived had been coming up each year for more than 15 years. The grandfather of one of our guides, Wade, helped build the lodge. Wade is now the third generation of his family to fish these waters. Thatís tradition.
Many of waters in Labrador were first explored by such "royalty" in flyfishing circles as Joe Brooks and Lee Wulff. Baseball slugger Ted Williams also fell in love with this country and returned year after year. Thereís an added thrill to exploring new waters that youíve read about in the works of flyfishing writers of this stature.
Our group also benefited from bringing along traditional brightly colored flies tied in a session with a more recent Atlantic salmon expert, Dick Talleur. Dickís passion for Atlantic salmon has driven him to also pioneer some of the best remaining waters on earth for these fish, the Kola Peninsula of Russia. As in all flyfishing for salmon and sea trout that enter rivers to spawn only when conditions are right, timing is essential to success. A good friend had advised me that pursuing Atlantic salmon "can often be 20% skill and luck, and 80% timing". Conditions vary from year to year. There was a much smaller run of Atlantic salmon in 2001, due primarily to very low water, and resulting warmer water temperatures.
Despite the tough conditions and fishing the last week of the season, when most of the fish had already completed their run up the river, we were fortunate enough to land our first Atlantic salmon. Although they were grilse (young Atlantic salmon up to 4-5 pounds), the takes were spectacular. These chrome bright fish were very spirited jumpers and fighters. We had landed our first "fish of 1,000 casts", but would have to return again at a better time of the season to try for a dance with the adult Atlantic salmon.
After our best efforts to catch adult Atlantic salmon were unsuccessful, we turned our attention to sea run brook trout. One afternoon I ventured down river to Rattling Brook, where I quickly landed a couple of dozen of these beautiful fish on dry flies in a couple of hours. Later in the week I alternated headed upstream on all terrain vehicle over a very rugged course to the Bathtub Pool. One afternoon there I landed 23 scrappy sea run brook trout (all 2-4 pounds) on dry flies (including mice) in less than two hours. Suffice it to say that once we shifted our focus to the sea run brook trout, we enjoyed absolutely world class flyfishing, with 20-40 fish landed per day by each of us. Does it get any more fun than taking eager "specks" on the surface with mouse patterns?
Many waters in this area of Labrador, accessible only by float plane from a small number of lodges, are world famous for eastern brook trout that routinely reach the 8 to 10 pound range. Lodges such as Cooperís Minipi Camps and Park Lake Lodge can put you in these locations for surprisingly affordable rates. This beautiful orange bellied, white fin tipped brookies will very readily rise to size 8-12 caddis flies, humpies, and Royal Wulffs. They will also pounce eagerly on pheasant tails, muddler minnows, and wooly buggers.
My group experienced great flyfishing and saw ruggedly beautiful nature. Virtually any major rapids in the river where sea run fish found an obstruction to their upstream migration was full of fish. We all agreed that we had learned much from this trip. As for me, I learned that when you take a remote and beautiful country with bright wild sea run fish, and add equal parts of history, tradition and royalty, you will quickly gain a much deeper appreciation of each.