The Labrador Effect

When I decided to try Labrador, I found that there weren’t a lot of places to choose from (unlike Alaska, where there’s an outfitter on every corner), and that travel to the region was complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. But I’d also heard from people I believed that it was blissfully uncrowded and that the biggest brook trout in the world lived there, so it seemed worth a shot. I’ve always had a soft spot for brook trout, and up till then the biggest one I’d caught might have weighed a pound if I’d left my thumb on the scale. In Labrador, two- and three-pounders were considered run of the mill, a “nice” fish came in at four or five pounds, and my biggest on that first trip weighed just shy of eight. I guess you could say I saw the light.

So after sniffing around at different lodges for a few seasons, I found a place I liked and settled in to become a regular: that species of fisherman who’s as persistent as a stray cat and for the same reason: because he’s getting what he wants. For the cat, it’s regular meals and a spot on the couch. For the fisherman, the payoff comes partly in fish and partly from bear-hugging the folks you once only shook hands with. It’s important to find people and places far from home that you love. If nothing else, it makes the world seem big and friendly instead of small and mean.

On this last trip a full complement of eight of us flew into camp on a venerable Otter chartered in the nearest town 150 miles to the south. It was a crowded flight with every seat filled, our gear stowed behind cargo netting at the rear of the cabin and the aisle stacked shoulder high with a weeks’ worth of supplies ranging “from whisky to butt-wipe,” as a dockhand put it. In an emergency, we’d have had better luck trying to kick out a window than climbing over that pile of stuff on the way to the door.

Some days you spend almost as much time traveling by float plane or canoe as you do fishing.

We were the usual odd mix of sports—a couple of borderline but still serviceable geezers, the rest fit enough by varying degrees—and we’d each made this pilgrimage to catch the brook trout that are unimaginable in any other part of the world. Some of us already knew that these fish can induce the kind of hysteria that causes a normally self-possessed fly fisher to prematurely yank the fly from the jaws of a hog (a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as the Labrador Effect), and the rest would find out soon enough. On a day when your nerves get the best of you, it’s possible to miss more sheer tonnage of brook trout in Labrador than you’d seen in your life up till then.

If you learned to love the carefree little brookies sipping mayflies in the creeks and beaver ponds back home, these Labrador brook trout seem like a separate species. It’s not just that they’re so much bigger, but that they got that way by eating mice, lemmings, and large sucker minnows. That’s what gives them the broad shoulders and the hair trigger you don’t recognize in the pretty little fish back home. You naturally bring dry flies, and sometimes they work beautifully, but the more dependable patterns are often the largest available deer hair rodents and giant, articulated streamers fished on a nearly slack leader to mimic an injured baitfish.

There’s an enormous amount of water here in the form of large, sprawling lakes, but you only fish the short riverine channels that string them together at wide intervals because that’s where brook trout congregate. Some days you spend almost as much time traveling by float plane or canoe as you do fishing. Once you get where you’re going, the water is often big and fast, and because this is geologically young country, the rocks haven’t yet been worn smooth or shimmed in place with sediment. The bottom is uneven, angular, and teetery, with sudden dark holes. It helps if you’re a strong wader, but sometimes you can make up the difference with heroic casting.

The brook trout here are what biologists call “locally common,” which means they’re either there or they’re not, and they’re known to travel long distances for no apparent reason. A few years ago, a large brook trout was caught and tagged at Fifth Rapids, then was caught the next day 30 miles away, and then a few days later turned up back where he’d started. Why the 60-mile round trip in less than a week? No one knows.

So fish are sometimes absent in what are considered the most dependable places, but the flip side is that any of these riffles can be like a good steelhead run that didn’t produce yesterday, but today is full of fresh, eager fish. And of course sometimes they’re there—stubbornly hugging the bottom—but they refuse to bite. Maybe they fed heavily before you got there and are now full, or maybe they just swam 30 miles and they’re tired.