Brookies Under the Northern Lights

Brookies Under the Northern Lights

All die-hard brook trout lovers should make a trip to Labrador...

Tim and I feel relieved when our guide, Cliff Randell, finally finds the big pod of brookies lying along the bottom at the very center of the main river channel. This is a spot that normally can be reached only by boat, but because of a localized drought here in Labrador's Woods River system, Cliff has been able to wade from the bank where we have been fishing all the way across to the center and beyond, until he spots all those glowing red bellies and creamy-white fin fringes. The freakin' mother lode.We've been catching fish up to this point-at least, Tim has-but because of the unusually low water, we haven't been finding them in either the numbers or the size we've expected.

But now here they are, and when Cliff calls, I am the first one to stumble and slip my way out to where he's standing. When I reach him I am breathing hard not from the exertion of the relatively short wade, but from the almost unbearable anticipation of attaining my personal concept of nirvana: floating a huge dry fly over two dozen or more really big brook trout. "Right there," says Cliff, and I land a size 6 Royal Wulff about 30 feet beyond his fingertip. A second later, a huge head with a gaping maw pushes vertically from the water, and the big, white-winged fly drops from sight like a golf ball tumbling into a cup. Yet the head still continues to rise into the air, lazy and leviathan-like, and the mouth remains open for several frozen moments.

Really big trout of any species make me lose my marbles. In spite of myself, I flash back to another time and another river where the trout-a number of big rainbows, on that occasion-kept taking my fly in this same slow, open-mouth fashion. And every single time I experienced one of those unnerving slo-mo takes, some spastic reflex made me lift my rod, popping the fly right back out again. My guide on this earlier occasion-an unusually excitable young guy-finally couldn't take it any longer; he began waving his arms in the air as if fending off a swarm of hornets, shrieked a startling profanity, and then stomped away upriver. As the brook trout of my dreams continues to gargle my fly, I am able to stifle the impulse for a premature hook-set. Instead, I hold my breath and wait for that mouth to close, telling myself don'tscrewitup, don'tscrewitup, don'tscrewitup… Then the mouth closes, the hook strikes home, and the fish plunges and bulls its way downriver.

Ten minutes later, seven pounds, more or less, of sleek, beautiful brookie slides into Cliff's big, rubber-mesh net. What makes us different, we diehard brook trout anglers? We are deeply infected with an illness to which many, if not most, other fly fishers seem entirely immune. We sweat and suffer palpitations at the prospect of catching a fish that others (mistakenly) disdain as both feeble and feeble-minded, and barely worth catching in spite of all the pretty spots. I think this disease has a couple of different contributing causes. One of the main vectors seems to be an Eastern or upper Midwestern upbringing. For those of us who grew up fishing in the Northeast and along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, the infection has always been right there in the water along with the fish. A father or uncle led us off into the damp woods when we were kids, literally getting our feet wet while at the same time getting us into a bunch of aggressive little brookies.

After that, we had the bug for good, and no vaccine could cure us. But that's not the entire answer, since many Eastern anglers turn their backs on the brook trout in search of (usually) bigger, more acrobatic or more selective species. There has to be one or two other traits that make up the passionate brook trout angler. One of these, I think, is an extraordinarily acute appreciation of beauty. If you've ever held in the palm of your hand a male brook trout arrayed in his full spawning colors, you need no further explanation. Sometimes you'll catch one that is so brilliant he reminds you of a sunset in miniature… Yet another characteristic of the brook trout fisherman is a love of nature, and of things that are completely natural. A passion for purity, you might go so far as to say. It's no secret that most of the fish we catch are not native to our local waters.

Rainbow trout truly "belong" only on the West Coast; throughout most of the Rocky Mountains, where they are revered, they have displaced the native cutthroat trout. And brown trout, as much in awe of them as we sometimes are, were brought here from an entirely different continent.

On the East Coast, however, when you're fishing for brook trout you are angling for the fish that fits its environment in just the way nature intended, the trout that finned in the closest stream to Plymouth Rock at the time of the Pilgrims' arrival. And although it's true that most of the native brookies we catch these days are tiny, this is not because brook trout are some sort of dwarf salmonid, as many brown-trout aficionados seem to think. Rather, it is because throughout most of their native range they've been driven into marginal water by the combined forces of pollution, deforestation, over-fishing and alien competition. As a result, we anglers suffering from the brook trout sickness end up fishing for them in isolated ponds and headwater streams, and most of the ones we catch are small, and while we are catching them we all dream of one day landing a really big brook trout, a humpbacked monster like the ones that were common back before the turn of the last century. We know it isn't likely but, as with all fishing, the dreams are what keep us in the game. That's where Labrador comes in.

Labrador is both the ancestral home and the final untouched refuge of the brook trout, the place where brookies evolved during the millennia prior to the last ice age. Brook trout grow big there-big, and stronger, pound for pound, than most brown trout ever get-because they are in an environment for which they were perfectly designed, and because neither people nor competing species of fish have yet arrived in large-enough numbers to drive them out. If you're not crazy about brook trout, then you won't be crazy about Canada's Labrador, either. The landscape is boggy and relatively flat, its beauty subtle compared to the blatant majesty of the Rocky Mountains and the Alaskan Coast. The summer is short, the weather is often rainy, and the mosquitoes and blackflies attack in voracious, whining clouds.

Even if you don't like DEET, you'll learn to love it there. But to a wild-eyed brook trout angler, Labrador is Mecca. In fact, I think that everyone who has a thing for brookies should make a pilgrimage there at least once in his lifetime. I've been lucky enough to travel there twice, and each time I leave I feel sad that it will be far too long, if ever, before I get there again. ust before pushing the Beaver's throttle to the firewall and taking off from the lake just beyond the floatplane dock in Labrador City, Joclyn, the pilot, smiles at me and says, "Have a nice flight." At first I think this a little strange, since I know we'll be in the cockpit together for well over an hour as we head out over wilderness to the headwaters of the Woods River and Three Rivers Lodge, the place I'll be fishing from. Then I realize that the drone of the floatplane's engine will preclude all conversation until we arrive in camp, and I settle back to survey the landscape. Below us passes tundra, expanses of black spruce, and swaths of yellow moss through which the caribou have stamped a maze of trails. There's also water everywhere I look: Lakes, ponds, and the occasional flowing thoroughfare in which I can see whitewater dancing. I can't help but wonder which of those waters have big brook trout in them. A lot of them, probably. And most of those brookies probably get big, grow old and die without a fisherman stepping within five miles of them. This is Labrador, and while it may change one day, for the time being the brook trout and the caribou still own the place. Of course, there are sport-fishing camps scattered across the vast landscape close to some of the choicest brook trout waters.

My fishing partner, Tim Moody, and I chose Three Rivers because, unlike most Labrador brook trout lodges, which concentrate on stillwater angling, all the big brookies at Three Rivers Lodge are taken from moving water, including the three small Woods system tributary rivers-the Eagle, the Victoria and Rick's Run-for which the lodge is named. Both Tim and I find river fishing much more interesting than dredging streamers through a lake. Also, my friends John Gierach and A.K. Best, both of whom have the brook trout sickness as bad as anyone, strongly recommended Three Rivers to us. "That's the place you want to go," A.K. advised me when I told him I was thinking of heading to Labrador. A.K.'s second piece of advice: "8-weight rods. You won't want to use anything else." "For brook trout?" I asked. On my previous trip to Labrador, a couple of 5-weights had done the job just fine. "Trust me," he said. "They're that big, and that strong." And it turned out he was right. o, finally I'm in brook trout camp-I've arrived here two days late because of an unanticipated family obligation-and all I want is to go fishing. I'm almost ill, in fact, with the urgency of it. But I quickly learn that there is no one around to take me; all the guides and all the boats are currently at the service of Three Rivers' other clients, including Tim who, unlike me, got here when he was supposed to. Frances Barry, who co-manages the lodge with her husband, Kevin, tries to cheer me up.

"Tim said he might come back in at lunch time to pick you up." Might? I think. Fat chance. If they're on fish, I'm not going anywhere today… Frances also gives me the disappointing news about the unusually low water. Even the finest fishery is subject to natural conditions, and she does not sugar-coat her report: "The boys have been picking up some fish, but not as many as we usually expect this time of year." Frances tries to mitigate my disappointment with a homemade cookie-she and her fellow lodge cook, Darlene Cusick, do some serious, and seriously delicious, home cooking-and then she gives me the nickel tour. Three Rivers is a sub-arctic oasis, as luxurious a place as you could hope to find this far out in the middle of absolute nowhere.

Most of it is quite recently constructed; the individual, pine-paneled cabins are large, glowingly clean and extremely comfortable, and the dining lodge is spacious and both well-furnished and well-decorated-a fine place to hang out when you're not fishing. And, that's what I do-hang out-until Tim and the lodge's other clients come back in for supper. The fishing reports they all give are similar to the earlier one from Frances: Everyone is getting fish, but fewer of them than is usually the case, and no incredibly big ones yet. Tim tells me he lost a couple that might have run six pounds or better but, aside from that, all the ones he's landed so far have been around four pounds or so. At this point, four-pound brookies sound just fine to me, but even then I've got no choice but to wait until the next day.

The following morning, Tim and I decide to take one of the two floatplane "fly-outs" that the lodge provides to each of its guests during their week-long stay. Along with our guide, Cliff, we head out for an overnight visit to the lodge's comfortable outpost camp on the Fifth Rapids of the Woods River. We quickly settle into the cabin and then set out to find the fish in a motorized, square-stern canoe. The Fifth Rapids area itself produces nothing for us, so we motor up to the next set of rapids-called Fourth, of course-and here Tim catches a half-dozen nice ones of up to about five and a half pounds right along the alder-shrouded bank, all on dry flies. But it's not until we reach Third Rapids and Cliff finds the mother lode that my luck shows up. After that first, beautiful brook trout, I settle down a bit and catch one that Cliff estimates at eight pounds, a couple of others that fall somewhere between seven and eight pounds, and a half-dozen more that are in the five- to six-pound range.

Third Rapids quickly turns into that every-other-cast event all anglers fantasize about. I catch all of them on the same size 6 Royal Wulff tied to a 2X tippet. Tim of course is catching them as well-I suspect he may have even gone ahead of me in numbers when I was fighting that really big one-and between the two of us, we keep Cliff extremely busy wading with his big net from one to the other of us. When it's finally over and we are heading back to Fifth Rapids Outpost Camp, Tim and I agree that, no matter what else happens, the trip has already been worthwhile. Of course, we did a lot more fishing during the rest of the week, in a lot of different places; Three Rivers Lodge can boast of an almost embarrassing variety of waters to put anglers on. My most memorable fish of the trip was a perfect angel of six or so pounds who sucked in the dry fly I'd landed on her nose at the end of a long reach cast across a complex set of currents. Our best day by far was the one we spent at Third Rapids-but how many days like that could a couple of mortals stand, anyway? And, owing to the conditions, the fishing did get surprisingly challenging at times. For instance, there were a couple of days when the fish were few and far between, and the ones we did find sulked on the bottom and seemed indifferent to most of our offerings.

Tim worked these tough ones like Beaverhead rainbows and danced tiny nymphs right past them at the end of a short line-a teasing technique to which most of them eventually surrendered. A special treat during our last night in camp was an early appearance of the aurora borealis, that dancing nighttime curtain of ghostly-greenish light. As Tim and I were staring up at it, open mouthed, the cook, Darlene, passed by us on the boardwalk. "You should sing to them," she said. "Sing to them?" we said. Darlene laughed and said, "When we were kids back in Newfoundland, we used to lie in the snow and watch the northern lights. And people used to tell us, 'sing to them, and they'll get brighter.'" I might have sung then, too, if I hadn't been busy wondering which was the more sublime creation: the northern lights or that last, perfect Labrador brookie I'd caught. And to tell you the truth, I still haven't made up my mind.

For further information on Three Rivers Lodge, visit the lodge's Web site at www.trophylabrador.com, or call the owner, Robin Reeve, at 781-246-2527.