The Labrador Effect

There are noticeable differences between spring, summer, and fall, but on any given day throughout the short season the weather can be warm and sunny, cool and cloudy, cold and breezy, drizzly, rainy, or so windy it blows your hat off and makes casting in any direction but one impossible. Or, worse yet, grounds the float plane and keeps the boats at the dock. Now and then a front rolls through from the North Atlantic pushing low clouds that look like the undersides of battleships, and you know your ambitious plans for tomorrow are about to be dry-gulched by weather.

On warm, calm days in mid-summer it’s a good idea to wear a bug shirt, a kind of hazmat suit for biting insects with tightly cinched cuffs and a hood with a mesh face mask. There are blackflies and no-see-ums, countless mosquitoes, an assortment of generic deer flies, and the giant caribou flies known locally as “Cockwallopers.” Cockwallopers are like the zombies in all those horror movies: they’re slow, dim-witted, and easy enough to kill, but they keep coming, and there are so many of them that they’ll eventually get you.

Robin Reeve, the lodge owner, likes to say that Labrador is “inhospitable in every possible way,” but he says it with the affectionate smile you’d reserve for a big, lovable puppy.

It’s all worth it for the big brook trout, but even then it’s not for everyone. The odd number-cruncher can land four or five brook trout of a lifetime every day for a week and go home disappointed that there weren’t more. And there’s the headhunter who begins his week in ecstasy over a five-pound fish, but then later finds himself inexplicably dissatisfied with the eight-pound slab he managed to land. Over dinner one evening, he asks—as if it just that moment occurred to him—if bigger brook trout are ever caught. He’s told that once in a great while something in the nine-pound range turns up, and that there are persistent rumors of double-digit fish. For the rest of his time on this incomparable fishery, he acts like a man with an itch he can’t quite reach.

It’s all worth it for the big brook trout, but even then it’s not for everyone.

That first day in camp, after a big, late breakfast, a couple of us motored down to Vezina Narrows with Anthony, a guide whose thick Newfie accent I’ve learned to decipher as long as he’s not shouting over the noise of the outboard. I landed a couple of brook trout on a dry fly that were on the small side for Labrador—but still three times bigger than anything back home—and an eight-pound lake trout on a deer-hair mouse. It was a good half-day shakedown, and I rode back to the lodge in the canoe watching the endless stunted forest of spruce and tamarack, thinking about the bone-deep rightness of running water and looking forward to the meal Francis would be cooking right about then. Unlike some camp cooks who aim for a rustic version of haute cuisine and usually miss, Francis dishes up the kind of plain good food you want to eat when you’re actually hungry.

In the following days we fished some of the usual places with the mixed results you come to expect. At Third Rapids three big brook trout in a row ate my size-10 Parachute Wulff, even though they hadn’t been rising and the biggest bug on the water was a size 18. Then at Fifth Rapids we couldn’t buy a take, even in the fishiest water, and ended up dolefully staring at several large brook trout tucked behind a big rock, agreeing that we were out of options. But then, right around the corner at Little Fifth, I hooked and landed a six-and-a-half pound fish on a big olive streamer. I thought this was a heartbreaker when it took me into the backing in white water, but then the fish wallowed in a big pool until Michel and I managed to stumble down through the willows and loose rocks to net it.

I spent several days fishing with Michel, who describes himself mysteriously as a “French-speaking Spaniard” from a long line of guides and explorers. I even bandaged his thumb one day when he sliced it to the bone on a razor-sharp hatchet while building a fire at lunchtime. It was a bad cut, but with an antiseptic pad, gauze, and adhesive tape, I got the bleeding stopped. By way of thanks he said, “You’re like a father to me.”

At first glance Michel could be anywhere between a weather-beaten 40 and a well-preserved 60, but it’s impossible to guess the age of someone who’s worked outside in harsh conditions for decades. Many of these guys start guiding in their teens, and that ageless leathery squint develops early and lasts for the duration. He did tell me that this was his 37th straight year of guiding fishermen in the summer, hunters in the fall, and snowmobilers in the winter. He said he’s home so seldom that when he does drop by he opens the front door, tosses his hat inside, and waits on the porch to see if his wife throws it back out again. “If she does,” he said, “I try again the next day.”

One afternoon a fisherman had a banana in his lunch, and I off-handedly mentioned to Michel that where I come from, a banana in the boat is considered bad luck. Apparently this superstition hadn’t yet made it that far north, and he reasonably asked “Why?”