Literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- By: John Gierach
- Illustrations by: Bob White
“I have fished for them,” I answered, carefully not claiming to be the consultant who could properly evaluate this fishery from a business perspective, but not exactly denying it, either.
The camp was out on the coast, roughly 360 miles round trip from the lodge and well out of range of the de Havilland Beaver floatplane crammed with gear and provisions. Bush pilots calculate fuel by figuring the distance to be traveled, eyeballing the load and then adding something like a half hour’s worth of slop in either direction to allow for headwinds, detours around weather and such. Half an hour each way cuts it close for my taste. Once, while driving across Wyoming, I inadvertently ran my tank down to fumes and got pretty nervous, but even if the worst had happened my pickup wouldn’t have plummeted out of the sky.
With the most generous estimate, a full tank in the Beaver would only get us there and halfway back. So a week or two earlier, when the plane could be spared from the usual daily fly-outs from the lodge, Robin and the pilot, Gilles, had flown out halfway and stashed a load of aviation gas on the shore of a handy lake for a refueling stop. This was a time-consuming and expensive errand—like everything else in this country—but Robin really wanted to get out to the Adlatok.
The flight to the river was long, but uneventful as these things go. The gas was where it had been left in five-gallon jerry cans, so we topped off the tank and took the rest with us, cracking the windows to vent the fumes. At one point Gilles put us right on the deck to duck under a squall rather than waste fuel flying around it, and then near the mouth of the river there was a moment of confusion as we circled looking for the camp. The roofs of some wilderness camps are painted red or orange so they can be spotted easily from the air, but not this one. But then there it was, more or less where it was supposed to be. After a pass upriver to make sure the water was deep enough and there were no obstructions, Gilles landed and taxied to the beach.
There had once been a dock, but after a decade of neglect there was nothing left but the pilings, so we waded ashore and tied the plane off to a sturdy alder. The camp was in no better shape. Bears had torn up two of the four plywood cabins foraging for food; a third was doorless, windowless and ankle deep in dead bats; the storage shed stood open to the weather with the door hanging by one hinge. We stashed our gear in the one cabin that was still more or less intact, and while Robin and Gilles swept up dead flies and mouse turds and otherwise tried to make the place livable, I headed for the pools with Jordan.
The camp’s fiberglass canoe was still serviceable, but the outboard had been left with gas in the tank that after 10 years had turned the consistency of asphalt. We managed to locate some old paddles that weren’t too badly dry rotted and paddled downstream through a mile of frog water to the head of the first rapids. From there it was nearly another mile to the pools over rock ledges, thick spruce woods and alder thickets humming with blackflies. The owner had told Robin it was an easy 15-minute stroll from the camp to the pools. Maybe he remembered it wrong.
When we got back that first evening, Robin and Gilles had spruced up the cabin nicely. It was still in borderline ruin, but the worst of the crap had been shoveled out, sleeping bags and pads had been placed on the floor between the stains where the roof had leaked, and they’d managed to get the propane stove going so there was coffee on. Some of the screens were still in the windows, but a missing chunk of wall off the kitchen big enough to drive a truck through made that a moot point. So several mosquito coils were smoldering to keep the bugs at bay. All in all, it was real homey.
The next morning I tried the bottom pool. I’d seen salmon roll down there the day before, but what I really liked about it was its open space for a backcast. Standing in front of the granite face at the Presidential Pool, I could manage an adequate cast with the 13 ½-foot Spey rod, but I was paranoid about ticking my fly on that rock. Ted Leeson once said hooking a salmon “borders on a religious experience and happens about as often” so if you missed a take only to learn that you’d been fishing with a hookless fly, shooting yourself would be your only real option.
In the course of three passes with three different flies—a Green Machine, a Black Bear Green Butt and a Green Highlander—I decided I didn’t like this run after all. It had looked good from a distance, but up close the current seemed too fast and there was nothing I could bring myself to believe in as holding water. The fish I’d seen rolling may have just been moving through, and it’s an article of faith that traveling fish won’t take. Still, I fished out all three passes, fussing over the drift and following the best advice I ever got on anadromous fish by starting higher in the pool than I thought I should and swinging farther into the tail than I thought necessary.
Jordan had stayed upstream with Robin, leaving me to tie my own knots. This was either a vote of confidence or the realization that he couldn’t be in two places at once.
Back at the Presidential Pool a salmon refused my Black Bear Green Butt. The fly rose on a transparent bulge with a silvery fish shape visible inside. I was staring at this heartbreakingly empty hole in the water as the fly swung into the lip of the rapids, where another salmon rolled on it heading downstream and came tight. Since he was facing into the whitewater anyway, he continued in that direction. I’d been afraid of this. The rapids went 80 yards into the next run and the bank was a jumble of furniture-size boulders that it had taken me 15 minutes to pick my way through when I went down there earlier.
It all speeds up from there. The salmon ran down the rapids, tearing line off the reel. I had the regulation 250 yards of braided Dacron behind my Spey line, but once a fish is out of the pool and into the backing, every turn of the reel increases the likelihood of disaster. I could feel the weight of the current and the oceanic strength of the salmon through the long rod, and it all seemed hopeless. But then the fish ducked into an eddy behind a rock along the near bank. I was stumbling downstream as fast as possible, focused on the salmon and my unsure footing, so I only caught a peripheral image of Jordan bouncing across those boulders the way you’d skip a flat rock across a pond, landing in the eddy with a splash and coming up with a goofy grin and a silver torpedo. I wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened, but my fly was in the salmon’s jaw and the salmon was in the net, which is all that counts in the end.
Robin didn’t buy the camp. He wasn’t bothered by the condition of the place—for the few weeks a year he’d need it he could tear down the cabins and pitch wall tents—and he didn’t care that the stuff on the inventory he’d been given was either trashed or missing. It was more a matter of daunting logistics. Floatplanes are hideously expensive to operate in the best of circumstances, and the extra flight out and back to stash fuel for each trip would push the cost over the top.
You’d want to keep the plane with you at the salmon camp anyway. It would be too expensive to shuttle it back and forth, and you’d need it there in case the weather abruptly turned snarky on the coast and you had to make a quick getaway. Otherwise you could have a party of fishermen stranded out there for weeks. But then it would also be needed for regular fly-outs back at the lodge, so your only alternative would be to lease a second plane and hire another pilot for the short salmon season, piling that expense onto the already staggering fuel cost. It’s true that people sometimes pay obscene amounts of money to fish for Atlantic salmon, but there’s still a practical limit.
The dearth of fishable water was another drawback. There was really just the Presidential Pool, and although it was a cosmic honey hole, a certain kind of client would quickly tire of fishing that one spot.
We did wonder if there was more good water in the hundred river miles upstream, but we didn’t have enough fuel to go exploring and if anyone knew anything they were keeping it quiet. Later, when I asked an outfitter out of Schefferville if there was any salmon fishing on the Adlatok inland from the coast, he gave the kind of concisely laconic answer you get used to in Labrador: “Some says yes; some says no. Me? I thinks no.”
We’d seen some good-looking pools from the air on the way in, but Gilles said they’d be death-traps to get in and out of in a fixed-wing aircraft and a full helicopter expedition—complete with fuel and provision drops along the way—would take weeks and cost more than a college education.
We hadn’t talked about this for more than a few minutes when I realized that none of us would ever see this river again.
John Gierach has written FR&R’s Spor-ting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.