Three Rivers

Three Rivers

Brook trout and angling art in Labrador

  • By: John Gierach
It was our last full day in Labrador when Robin Reeve, owner of Three Rivers Lodge where we'd been staying, asked my fishing partner C.D. Clarke and I if we minded doing a little walking to look for brook trout. We said "Of course not," understanding that at some camps "a little walking" means a little walking, while at others it's a euphemism for a death march. It turned out to be fairly easy as walks go. We left the boat at the mouth of a medium-size river and hiked upstream for an hour through open spruce forest.I had it easiest with just my day pack, a fly rod and a gas can. C.D.--a sporting artist of some note--had a larger, heavier pack containing not only his fishing and foul-weather gear, but also his painting supplies, including a small home-made portable easel. Our guide, Jordan Locke, outpaced us both with an outboard motor slung casually over his shoulder. There was no path, but a welter of caribou trails went in roughly the right direction and when the one you were on started to veer off course, you could just cut a few yards over to another, always keeping the faint sound of the river off your left shoulder. In most places the ground was matted with slippery caribou moss, so you wanted to move along quickly to make time, but also watch your footing in the uneven terrain. At one point I glanced back and thought C.D. had taken a fall, but he was just on his hands and knees grazing on low-bush blueberries. Jordan walked right to the fiberglass canoe that was stashed at the outlet of the next lake. (What they call "rivers" here usually consist of chains of lakes strung together by short rapids.) A curious black bear had chewed on the canoe a little to see if it was good to eat, but hadn't done any serious damage. There were only a few small tooth marks below the water line and we figured we could keep up with the leaks using the bailing can--a cut- off plastic milk jug--assuming we could find it. After a short search it turned up 50 yards back in the woods where some playful critter had nibbled on it, but again, there was no serious damage. The paddles had been left out in the weather for far too long and had begun to ridge and crack, but they were still serviceable. Sometimes porcupines will gnaw wooden tool handles and canoe paddles for the salt left by sweaty hands. I once lost a perfectly good ax handle that way. Out on the lake, the outboard started grudgingly after what I'll guess were nearly 40 pulls on the starter cord, only to sputter uncertainly and then cough and quit a hundred yards up the lake. C.D. shrugged and started paddling. I took his lead, grabbed the other paddle and joined him. We knew we had a long way to go and this was our way of saying we didn't necessarily want to turn back because of engine trouble, although of course that decision would ultimately be up to Jordan. The guide always holds the final authority in these matters, in part because he's legally responsible, but also because, left to their own devices, some clients would quickly become a danger to themselves and others. (You assume that category doesn't include you without forgetting that everyone makes the same assumption.) But Jordan just bailed some lake water from the canoe and then went back to work yanking the starter, muttering not quite under his breath. You know, the kind of things you'd say to a heavy machine you'd just carried on your back for an hour and that then didn't work. So we made our way across the lake, roped the canoe through another set of rapids and on across the next lake: alternately sputtering along at half speed and then paddling when the motor stalled and Jordan yanked the starter ferociously and repeatedly. C.D. got it into his head that our paddling humiliated the outboard, causing it to start again after a few minutes out of embarrassment. Given my knowledge of internal combustion engines, that seemed plausible. Labrador is the kind of sprawling northern wilderness where the abundance is often local and seasonal, so it's not at all unusual to go that far looking for brook trout--or anything else, for that matter. Even the migratory woodland caribou are found either in the hundreds or not at all, depending on when and where you look. Back in 1903, an American adventurer named Leonidas Hubbard tried to cross Labrador from west to east, confidently assuming he could live off the land. He died of starvation. C.D. and I had spent most of the week in a fly-in spike camp catching what we both considered to be more than enough big, pretty arctic char. These beautiful fish have always taken a back seat to brook trout here for no reason I can see, although I have to admit that it took me five trips to the province before I could bring myself to fish for them seriously and exclusively. It turned out to be worth the effort. So you could say this trip with Jordan was our last chance at a big brook trout, but that would imply a desperation I don't think either of us was feeling. We were honestly sated with catching fish, so if there turned out to be brook trout in this last place, well and good. If not, it would be one more of those days outside that make you think fishing isn't that bad of a habit as bad habits go. And even if we did find brook trout, we assumed there wouldn't be a lot of them. If you go to the right places at the right time of year under the right conditions, chances are good that you'll land a few anywhere between, say, five and eight pounds, but no honest outfitter can brag about the commercial-grade catches you'll hear about from some other wilderness areas. Brook trout can live unusually long lives this far north, but they're a minority fish to begin with and the largest ones have survived nearly a decade's worth of hardships, including heavy predation from pike and lake trout. In other words, the reason they get so big here is the same reason why there aren't that many of them. It couldn't possibly be any other way. I knew C.D. would paint because he had painted every day the weather allowed and some when I'd have said it didn't. (I have a clear memory of him hunkered in a canoe in the rain at Varzina Rapids on our first afternoon at the lodge, painting under the shelter of the only umbrella I've ever seen in the back country.) He seemed to be equally skillful and passionate about both fishing and painting and if he secretly preferred one over the other I don't know how you'd be able to tell. The day we got back from char camp, he spent several hours painting a lovely portrait of the DeHavilland Beaver we'd just flown in on and then he painted the head and shoulders of a large brook trout on the plane's cowling as a favor to the pilot. All this while I was taking a nap. I don't remember now if we were running under power or paddling when we rounded a point and saw the rapids we'd been heading for, but Jordan beamed as if he'd just pulled a rabbit out of his hat. It was typical of Labrador to have traveled several hours by foot and canoe to reach less than two hundred yards of fast water, a third of it a stair-step cascade that was too steep and fast to fish. These rapids were known as Rick's Surprise, named for the guide who discovered them by accident. They were known to hold large brook trout on a somewhat unpredictable basis. We spread out along the riffly channel below the cascade and immediately started catching lake trout: nice 8- to 12-pounders that were as likely as not to take you into the backing in the fast water. There may have been some mild disappointment all around when the first few fish turned out not to be brook trout, but catching one kind of big fish instead of another is not the worst thing that can happen on a fishing trip and it's hard to pout convincingly when you're running downstream with backing screaming off your reel. After a while C.D. walked back to the canoe, traded his fly rod for his painting stuff and set up to work. I'd gotten used to this drill over the past week and had idly wondered what the trigger was. Had the light suddenly gotten just right? Had a composition finally suggested itself? Or had he just caught enough fish to let him feel comfortable putting the rod away for a while? It had become an earmark of this trip to leave C.D. alone while he was working (not counting the odd surreptitious glance) and then to look at the finished paintings later. All I can say by way of a critique is that I liked them. They were as scenic as you'd expect, but not cloyingly romantic, and there was a plain-spoken quality that said, This is it; I don't have to make it any prettier than it already is. When you're a lifelong fisherman, sporting art can eventually become so ubiquitous that most if it dissolves into the background clutter like elevator music, and it takes a singular intelligence and sensibility to break the trance. I own a precious handful of paintings and lithographs that did just that: work by Robert K. Abbet, Russell Chatham, Betzy Ekstam, Bob White and a few others. The only things they have in common is that when I saw them I realized I wanted to look at them every day instead of just that once. Which is to say, I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. So C.D. painted, balanced a little too precariously above the roughest stretch of rapids, and I kept fishing. I don't know how many lake trout I landed, but they finally began to fizzle out after I got one that Jordan guessed at 14 pounds. Then Jordan took me above the rapids where I swung a Bomber through the outlet slick of the next lake and caught two nice brook trout in the three-pound class. They were undeniably sweet fish, but not the elusive monsters we were hoping for. Back down below the cascade I started flipping my weighted streamer upstream into a small, deep slick at the edge of the white water and hooked a fish that hit harder and ran faster than anything I'd caught so far. I was balanced unsteadily on a rock for the extra reach and the fish peeled past me heading downstream, looping yards of slack on the water. There was a moment of confusion while I regained control of my line, but by the time I did the fish had wrapped me around a midstream rock and as we came up tight on each other my leader snapped with an audible pop. Jordan said, "That acted like a big brook trout." He didn't say it to be mean. It was just an observation. I immediately began replaying the whole thing to see if there was anything I could have done differently. (I've done this hundreds of times with hundreds of lost fish and have never come to any firm conclusions.) The fact is, I've fished all my life, my understanding of the fundamentals is instinctive and my reflexes are reliable, if not actually cat-like, but none of that has kept things from periodically going right in the crapper--and it never will. Not long after that, C.D. finished working, started fishing again and immediately caught a great, big brook trout. Once the fish was in the net there was some discussion about its probable weight. The standard formula using length and girth called it at a little over eight pounds, but the fish was inordinately fat and chunky, built more like a largemouth bass than a normal brook trout, and Jordan wanted to call it at nine pounds. C. D. said, "I don't need it to be nine pounds if it really isn't," but Jordan stuck to his educated guess and it didn't take all that much arm twisting to bring C.D. around. As for me, I was simultaneously happy for my friend and so sick with envy I almost blew lunch. You know how it is. Back at the lodge that night as we packed up for the early flight out the next morning, I got a look at the painting C.D. did that day. It had never occurred to me that I'd be in it, but there I was, in the precise spot where I'd stood for almost an hour catching one lake trout after another, now immortalized as an anonymous figure in a brown hat, dwarfed by the landscape.