So you’ve finally done it – taken the plunge and booked your trip to Labrador – big land, float planes, big trout.
Like most traveling fly anglers who have Labrador in their sights, you have probably spent many quiet hours day-dreaming about this “land God gave to Cain” – are the rivers pure? can I wade them? are the brookies really that amazing? Fish daydreams can be fun with their haunting visions of slabs of trout rising in freestone rivers (visions inspired, no doubt, by cool drinks on lazy, Sunday afternoons). But such imaginings may not always be that close to reality. One fantasy dreamers seem to have is that in wild places like Labrador there are creel-loads of unsophisticated lunker trout savagely fighting over each drifting fly. Truthfully, such marvels do occasionally happen. But such an anomaly is very unlikely to coincide with your trip. Daydreams typically are and should be overly optimistic. Like night dreams, they can be rehearsal for coming challenges, a big help in preparing for your adventure. At their best, daydreams can get you fired up for the awesome adventure you’re about to take. But at some point, you got to snap out of it! You’ve enjoyed your fantasies, now get to work.
My favorite golfer, Bob Jones, said ” . . . any endeavor worth doing is worth doing well”. Carelessly mixing metaphors, golf’s ‘big boys’ feed first at the prize money trough because they pursue quality instruction and put in endless hours of practice. Casting an artful, true fly is also a life-long aspiration. The right presentation will be there, in the right place at exactly the right moment, only through your patience, practice and persistence. You’ll betray your dreams if you bring less than your best to Labrador or any other intriguing fishy destination. Treat yourself to your best chance by working out your casting kinks. Time spent in back yards, on local ponds and perhaps even at a fly casting school will reward your investment not just with more fish to the net, but with a far better use of your rare and hard-earned fishing time (fewer tangled lines, less fatigue and sore muscles). The most rewarding feeling for any golfer is not so much having his shot on target, but it is that flush crunch of a ball well struck. Whether or not your fly presentation elicits the bite of a big trout, casting a smooth and accurate line effortlessly is in itself a most gratifying reward.
Wasn’t it that famous football coach who said something like ‘success is where preparation meets opportunity’? You’ve chosen Labrador as your opportunity.
Granted, you’ve traveled far and put a significant dent in your savings account. When the travel has ended, your gear stowed in your cabin and you’ve buckled your wading belt, chances are that you’re just squirming to snare your first big brook trout. After all, you’ve earned it, right? The boat ride to that first rattle may seem endless and unless your guide reads your anticipation and snaps you back to reality, you’ll probably step into the river, give it a quick once-over, and then hurriedly cast to the undercut bank on the far side of the run. Odds are that you just stepped over a trophy trout or two lying under the near bank and ‘lined’ several more fish holding in mid-river.
Did you notice? Any flies hatching? Fish rising? See any minnow forage in the shallows?
Point is, catch your breath and observe, then string up your rod. One July morning a few years back, experienced anglers A. K. Best, John Gierach and Jim Babb first wet their boots in the Woods River down at our 5th Rapids outpost camp. They left their freighter canoe and worked their way up the shoreline to a pile of boulders at the confluence of three currents. With rods unstrung, they each found a seat, chatted, and spent the next fifteen minutes looking the water over. In no hurry, A. K. said “So what do you think, John? That little gray dun look good?” John nodded. They got to their feet, rigged their rods, and over the next four hours, netted and released over 225 pounds of Labrador Reds. Those few unhurried moments of relaxation and observation were no doubt an important key to their successes.
Be patient and observe. Succeed and enjoy.
Team Up With Your Guide
During more than one hundred fly fishing shows and in as many presentations to fly angling clubs and conservation groups, I’ve fielded countless questions about Labrador’s angling opportunities. Second only to “How bad are the bugs?”, folks want to know how many brookies a competent fly angler can expect to catch in a day’s fishing. That is a very subjective query and I usually fend it off in a rather smart-assed way answering “Not as many as a beginning angler. You see, the expert knows the answers. The novice will ask his guide.”
Through a guide’s career, he develops a set of skills particular to his location. The rivers, the environment, the clientele and their expectations will, through the years, shape the guide’s profile. A Newfoundland and Labrador guide typically chooses his career because he has a passion for wild places. Though he grew up in a subsistence environment, he soon adapts the vagaries of fly fishing. He has always known innately where the fish are. Once a guide, he learns how to lure them with a fly. These skills coupled with uncanny, inherited proficiency in handling small water craft and observing weather bestow on him the needed pedigree to confidently guide sports through this magnificent but often formidable wilderness. And in such a remote place, his first duty is your safety. But his worth runs much deeper than simply keeping an eye on you.
Before John Gierach came to Labrador, he wrote (a bit tongue-in-cheek, I suspect) that all he expected of his guide was to point to the fish and carry his lunch. Last year, on a flight back to camp from a successful trek to the coast of Labrador, John told me “Robin, I wouldn’t have caught a single one of those fish without my guide. He was on top of it all – the fly, the right drift and the timing.”
Given that your Labrador guide is most concerned with your well-being, rest assured he carries a wealth of valuable fishing information. Partnering with him, teamwork, and congeniality are not only your best hedge against fishless days, they are the sure-fire way to receive and enjoy a rare learning experience.
With no real biology background, I am admittedly guessing (confidently, however) that the species salvelinus fontinalis evolved in water. I know that they live watery lives now. Seeing how they have survived and flourished in lakes and rivers for eons, I’m also going to guess that they see pretty well under water. My personal experiences give credibility to that assumption. I have observed a brook trout travel thirty or forty feet to attack a fly that I obviously cast into the wrong end of the run. (I’ve seen even more hurry off in the opposite direction!) Does it make sense, then, to continue to offer the same fly in pretty much the same way to the same location over and over again? If my assumptions are correct, Mr. Trout saw the first pass. How many refusals does it take before you rethink your strategy?
Of course there are occasions when multiple presentations do make sense, for example, when you’re drifted dun imitation is lost among hundreds of naturals. Or even perhaps when you’re bouncing small nymphs through white water. But when you strip a big streamer in front of an observed trout, and when you’ve given him second, third and fourth chances to bite, it might be time to switch the menu. The first pass may have startled him. The second tweaked his curiosity. But if the third turned out not be the charm, the fourth probably bored him to tears (aka ‘put him down’).
Change your fly. Or at least step up to the next run and fish it there, giving the first pool a rest. Then change flies, maybe even change approach angles, and try the new offering. And when you’re tying on that new fly, run your fingers down your tippet. If you feel even the slightest nick or abrasion, change out your tippet as well.
Labrador is a unique wilderness, distant and unsullied. Its vast waters hold true treasures for fly anglers. Now that you’re finally coming north, bring your best and take home a pile of memories, wrapped, of course, with a renewed reverence for wild places.