The Labrador Effect

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why is it bad luck to walk under a ladder?”

“Is it?” he said

By dinnertime that evening the news had swept the camp like an airborne
virus, and I was sorry I’d brought it up. Several of the guides asked me about it, not exactly buying into it but willing to keep an open mind, and Francis asked, “What about my banana bread?” She was clearly worried that her fabulous baked goods could be queering anyone’s luck. I seem to remember her actually wringing her hands, but she might just have been drying them on a dish towel.

From my new-found position as an authority on the supernatural properties of fruit, I took a flier and pronounced, “It’s only whole bananas. Once they’re peeled, mashed, and baked into bread, the curse is broken.”

One day we flew out to Indian rapids with Kevin. He’s the camp manager, but still takes days off to guide, especially in the places he knows so well that you’d be at a real disadvantage if he weren’t with you. At Indian Rapids he’ll lead you to a spot that looks like every other place in this wide, nearly featureless channel, and then stand there leaning on his long-handled net. Like the others here, Kev guides in the hands-off style that some don’t recognize as a professional paying you the compliment of assuming you know what you’re doing. This is especially puzzling to those who are used to the American model, where the guide all but hooks the fish for you and then hands you the already pulsing rod.

If you ask Kev about a fly he likes, he’ll say, “Yes, that’s fine.” To one he likes less he’ll say, “Well, it could work.” In this way you end up catching fish on flies you appear to have chosen yourself.

Kev is short, lean, wiry, and pushing 70, but he regularly out-hikes much younger sports while carrying a large, heavy pack and wades heavy water as if he were strolling across a paved parking lot. He and Francis have been married for years, and as a mature couple they now exude the quiet dependability of a surrogate mom and dad, but it’s said that when he was younger Kev was fond of drinking and brawling. You’d believe that the old angry scars on his neck were the result of a bear attack or a chain saw accident, but I’m told they’re from a broken bottle in a bar in Halifax, and you should see the other guy.

It’s a testament to the amount of water here that after six trips, some longer than the regulation week, there were still places I hadn’t seen. One of those was a small, fast, rocky creek that reminded me of the mountain streams in Colorado where a 10-inch brook trout will make your day, except that this one held some really impressive fish.

I tried a dead-drifted dry fly and got nothing. Then I skated a thumb-sized Bomber and got flashes but no takes. I asked Michel about putting the two tactics together and he shrugged. (As I said, at least until proven otherwise, these guys are willing to believe that your guess is as good as theirs.) So I tried a size-10 Stimulator on a down and across-current swing.

That did it for a couple of nice ones, including a hook-jawed seven-and-a-half pound male that took in slow motion off the rocks against the far bank. He was heavy enough to have run me down the creek and into the lake, but he chose to fight it out in the pool, where I steered him around boulders and deadfalls with my heart in my throat until Michel got the net under him. He was a big double handful with an orange belly and white-bordered fins wearing the universal dumbstruck expression of a caught fish. I told myself that brook trout like this will always be here and maybe they will, but the physical sensation of setting up on something big, heavy and vividly alive was already fading as I slipped this one back into the creek.

John Gierach lives and writes in northern Colorado, where the brook trout are smaller than in Labrador, but the winters are milder. His most recent book is All Fishermen are Liars.

Illustration: High Lakes Brook Trout, by Josh Udesen