So Much More Than Brook Trout

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Photos by Jason Tucker

Photos by Jason Tucker

By Jason Tucker

Twilight. The sun, setting under clear skies has turned everything into blue mercury.

We have parked the boat on a gravel bar where ripping current meets still water. Fish are rising on the soft side of the seam that trails off the tip of the bar. We are so far north that dusk will last for hours. We are fishing in Labrador with Riverkeep Lodge on the Atikonak River.

Dave is after one large fish that keeps working the seam, rising repeatedly about sixty feet out. It’s too far to cast, but they’re taking skated caddis anyway, and so he has dumped a bunch of line, hoping to reach the fish, or get it to hit his Goddard caddis as he retrieves it back up the seam, a tactic that has worked numerous times.

IMG_6181Suddenly the fish rises forty feet away on the right side of the boat. Realizing that Dave doesn’t have time to pick up all that line and cast across the boat in time, I fire a quick cast to the rise form. The fish turns on a dime, and comes up on the surface as I throw a mend to twitch the fly. The fish rises with head, back, dorsal and tail fins all breaking the surface and it closes on my fly, mouth open, like a submarine on the surface. It takes an eternity for my fly to disappear and the mouth to close, but when I finally set the hook, the fish rolls and sounds, swims straight at us, and as I frantically strip line it jumps clear out of the water a few feet away at chest height. I find myself staring it in the eye, like some Warner Brothers cartoon character come to chastise me. Then it takes off on a blazing run that takes most of my fly line with it. It weighed over five pounds

And that was just one evening at Riverkeep Lodge. Don’t worry about Dave, he caught plenty of fish.

As long as I can remember I have been reading about Labrador and its legendary brook trout. As brook trout became an increasing obsession of mine, it became a lifelong dream to go. So when I got an invitation to go to Riverkeep Lodge with Dave Karczynski, it was impossible for me to say no.

IMG_6538We decided to make a road trip out of it, and when the time came I left my home in Northeast Georgia, drove to Ann Arbor, Michigan to pick up Dave, then we turned it east for the long trek across Ontario and Quebec. The drive itself was quite memorable, especially the long bush road from Baie Comeau to Labrador City, about 375 miles of gravel, pavement, and road construction with one gas station in the middle and not much else in the way of civilization. That story will have to wait for later.

The next day we took a float plane 120 miles into the Labrador bush to fish with Riverkeep Lodge on the Atikonak River. It is run by the Murray family, and their guides Keir and Eric were waiting for us, ready to show off what they have up there. Here’s what we found.

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The absurdity of it all— the 4,300 mile drive to a place as far north as Hudson Bay, driving from the sweltering heat and humidity of Georgia, to the coolness of Labrador that required a fleece, of driving through a large French-speaking country plopped right in the middle of English-speaking North America.


 

Land Locked Salmon

IMG_5590Land locked Atlantic salmon were the revelation of the whole trip. They feed voraciously and will hit both streamers and dry flies with abandon. Because they live in the system as opposed to running from the ocean, they are actively feeding on insects. When they eat your fly it is in order to feed. You can sight fish to actively rising fish, or you can blind cast and get them to rise, and we caught a number of them that way. They may rise in the same spot or vicinity for half an hour, or they may actively cruise up a bubble line picking off insects as they go. We caught Atlantics to six pounds, but ten- to twelve-pound fish are there. We lost a couple pushing that size.

Riverkeep Lodge was worth going to for the Atlantics alone. Imagine a fish that hits both streamers and dry flies, weighs several pounds, runs like a steelhead, and jumps like a tarpon. All the Labrador lodges are advertising brook trout, but only a couple have landlocked Atlantic salmon right out the front door, and Riverkeep is one of them.

Pike

It was lunchtime, and so we had hauled out at the Lunch Bar, a gravel bar with a picnic table and fire pit we used each day. It has a nice view and a ripping current out front with a deep drop off and still water in the lee of the point. While lunch was cooking I grabbed my streamer rod and tossed a Great Lakes Deceiver into the still water. I stripped it back until I could see it in the tea-colored water about fifteen feet off my rod tip. I paused it, and in that moment, a green lightning bolt as thick as my leg shot in from the left and engulfed the fly, and then the fight was on. It shot straight out for the deep water, came back in only to race back up the shoreline, taking most of my fly line with it. After several minutes of this, our guide Keir was able to net it. It weighed 13 pounds and was a touch over 36 inches long. Another guest caught an 18-pounder later that afternoon.

IMG_6021We fished for pike a couple of times when things had slowed and we needed a diversion. They averaged six to eight pounds, with ten-pounders being common. I have a feeling that if someone were to dedicate some time and tactics to pike that it would be easy to catch 20- to 25-pound fish.

Pike were found anywhere there was slack water, sometimes in pockets the size of a dinner table. There were certain places they congregated in, and it was possible to catch 20 to 30 from a seemingly small area. And it was never dull— these fish would explode on a fly, coming out of the water on a regular basis on the eat. They were some of the hardest fighting pike I have ever come across, hissing our line through the water as it threw a rooster tail, with fish jumping on occasion, and a couple nearly going into our backing on some of the fastest runs I have ever seen in fresh water. It’s a shame that people DON’T go to Labrador for the pike. Their pike are as large and numerous as any other destination. The Atikonak and Lake Joseph system are enormous and virtually unfished. There are giant pike out there, somewhere, waiting.

Brook Trout

Dave casts laser beams, some of the tightest, prettiest loops I’ve seen in a while, but this fish is putting him to the test. He has waded out as far as he can, and the fish is feeding at the limit of his casting range with a dry fly. It is feeding on a current seam, picking off caddis along the edge of some tag alders. Dave has been after this fish for half an hour now, but it is feeding infrequently, and the wind is pushing Dave’s cast around. Right when we are all at maximum frustration, Dave lands a perfect cast in the bucket-sized pocket the fish is feeding in. Just like that, a nose breaks the surface, his fly disappears, and Dave is into his first big Labrador brook trout of the trip. It is a gorgeous hen, about three pounds and 20 inches long. We take a few photos and let her go.

IMG_6241It took us a couple days to break the brook trout code. During our time there the water was abnormally high and the fish had not settled into their summer pattern yet. They tend to stay down in the rocks, out of the fast current, but in enough current to discourage the ever present pike. When the water is that high it is hard to get a fly into a zone where they will actually hit. Once we got out of the boat and started working shoreline more methodically we started picking up fish. The high water also limited the amount of shoreline we could safely wade. We caught several fish to four pounds, and they have brook trout up to ten pounds there. I got a beautiful humpbacked male that was about four pounds on a streamer, and we caught several more nice fish on dry flies. The other guests that week hooked up on a couple of five-pound fish all on dries.

All the big brook trout we caught were classic Labrador fish, with vibrant colors and thick slab bodies. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to go to this place and catch such amazing fish.

I was blown away by the whole trip. From the outside looking in, Labrador seems to have so much of its reputation staked on brook trout and to a lesser extent sea-run Atlantic salmon, that the true beauty and breadth of its fishery gets overshadowed. Labrador is so much more than brook trout. The landlocked Atlantic salmon fishery alone is worth the travel and lodge experience. When you add in the pike, lake trout, whitefish and yes, the brook trout, Labrador is a world-class fishing experience on a par with any other.

IMG_6466We stayed at the Riverkeep Lodge on the Atikonak River. It is a huge brawling river half a mile wide that drains the enormous Atikonak Lake and Lake Joseph systems. Most of the water is unfished. The Murrays overfed us hearty, home-cooked meals daily, and their guides Keir and Eric expertly and safely got us onto fish from the moment we got there until last light of the last day of fishing. Riverkeep policy is that if guests want to fish after dinner the guides will take you out. They did this every day of our trip. There was one night that the weather was rough and we decided not to go out, but as we marched to our cabin, there was Eric, ready to go out if we wanted. I’m sure he appreciated a night off.

On our last night of the trip we went out and hit some of our hotspots from previous days, but high winds made it tough. Dave had made it a mission to catch a good brookie on a mouse, so I tied one on, too. I fished down past the boat, and when I turned to make my way back up the shore I made one more cast. My mouse disappeared in a slurp, and the way it went down I thought it was a pike. But no, it was just a fifteen inch brook trout, a nice fish at home, but a baby here. I unhooked him gently and sent him back into the Atikonak to get bigger. Much bigger.

 

Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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One thought on “So Much More Than Brook Trout

  1. Sign me up! I have a thing for anything in the char family. Beautiful, voracious and hard fighting…what more could a fly fisherman desire? I’m leaving in a couple of weeks for some fishing in Idaho. My partner is psyched about trophy-sized trout in the well known big rivers. I’ve been day dreaming about the bull trout in a certain little creek way back in the hills. To each his own I guess.

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