King of Fishes: Fly-fishing for Salmon in Labrador
by STEVE BLY AS TOLD TO PETER ROSE
It's fast, sneaky, powerful, and springs high into the air. It is reputed to be the perfect gamefish--wilier than tarpon, more skittish than brown trout, a greater challenge than walleyes, bonefish, permit and muskellunge.
Add in the fact that adults are not the least disposed towards taking your fly in fresh water, and you'll understand why the Atlantic salmon often called "The King of Fishes." So with great anticipation for the challenge, I flew to a lodge called The Rifflin' Hitch on the Eagle River in Labrador, Canada, to see if I could catch a few of these Houdini-like escape artists.
Odd name, The Rifflin' Hitch? Not if you're a fly fisherman. The term applies to a special method of tying a double half hitch with the leader tippet just behind the head of the fly, causing it to float on the water's surface and make a V-wake. When done this way, the fly has the best chance of attracting the silvery blue Atlantic salmon.
Unlike other species of salmon, the Atlantic don't die after they spawn. Nor do the adults normally eat in fresh water, instead fasting until they return to the ocean. You have to appeal to their instincts to catch them. Some say they bite for the same reason you kick a stone while walking down the street. Others say they remember when they were parr and smolt, baby and young fish feeding in fresh water. But even when they're not hooked, they're impressive, weighing up to 24 pounds--a huge salmon to land on a fly line.
My destination, Labrador, is part of the Canadian maritime province of Newfoundland, located on the jut of land northeast of Quebec City and Montreal. It is a wild region dotted with lakes, threaded by rivers, and carpeted with fir and spruce. Sheer cliffs rise from the sea, northern lights dance in the evening sky, and Iceberg Alley runs down the coast.
Although Labrador contains 112,000 square miles of land (about the size of Arizona), it is home to only 30,000 people. What you will find a lot of is caribou: the largest herd in the world, more than 650,000 strong, lives here.
My Air Canada flight landed in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 11,500 located in south-central Labrador, where I transferred to a Twin Otter float plane for the 50-minute flight to the lodge. Views were spectacular as we flew over the rugged fiords of the Mealy Mountains, waterfalls, canyons, virgin forests and tundra. Our landing "runway" was the dark blue and coppery Eagle River, 20 miles in from Sandwich Bay on the coast.
Gudrin Hutchings, known to everybody as Gudie, built the lodge here five years ago. "There has been a moratorium on any commercial outfitting development since the '70s, but a license had been turned in, and the provincial government wanted to see if higher-end markets could be attracted to Labrador," Gudie told me.
Gudie and her people set up tents and cleared about 3.5 acres of land. They choppered in all materials for the 7,000-square-foot spruce, pine and juniper structure that has no road access. Gudie, who as a girl was her dad's fishing buddy and has been angling all her life, designed the building "as a combination of all the things I liked or missed from other lodges I had been in all over the place."
Threading through tundra and forest. the quarter-mile-long boardwalk into the lodge from our landing spot provided a tremendous introduction to the remote and striking location. Once at the lodge, I immediately felt that I'd come to right place for my Atlantic salmon adventure. Everything conveyed luxurious boondocks comfort: the hardwood floors, high-beamed ceilings, and especially the circular wall of windows overlooking the river.
With seven bedrooms, the lodge can accommodate up to 14 guests, and of course, everybody was talking about the fishing. I was drawn immediately to the fly-tying table, where my friends hang out, a roster of flies with swaggering, incantatory names: green highlander, black bear, green butt, blue charm, undertaker, thunder and lightning, green machine, crossabooms and muddlers, as well as bugs and bombers, wulffs and royal coachmans. If you don't have your own, or want to experiment, there is a fantastic collection of flies for sale at the lodge tied by Rob Solo and Smokey Ball, who are legends in this part of the salmon world.
I swapped fishing tales with other guests in the two screened-in porches that keep out the black flies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums. When going outside you slather on bug repellent, the good stuff. If you forget to put it all over your exposed skin--even eyelids, for instance--you will get bitten.
The first night I was there, Bobbi O'Connell, who was visiting with her husband Desmond from New Jersey, caused plenty of excitement in the dining room by bringing in a big jack Atlantic salmon. It was poached by the cook and tasted delicious. You get to keep one fish during your stay at the lodge, while the rest go back into the river to stymie other anglers, and to migrate to the coast of Greenland.
The schedule is simple: You fish morning, afternoon, and evening, about seven hours each day. During your remaining waking hours, you can stuff yourself with homemade delicacies such as baked cheese strata, creamy carrot and ginger soup, and phyllo-baked brie with blueberry port chutney, or devour the likes of Atlantic lobster, caribou stew and Cornish game hen.
If a venturesome spirit moves you, you can also explore by boat, seeking out sand bars, old trappers' cabins, or beaver dams. The area abounds in wildlife, including otters, eagles, moose, caribou, wolves, and porcupines.
The lodge has seven fishing guides, or a guide for every two guests, and each knows a certain part of the river. Every day, you rotate to a new guide, so that your position and fishing insights constantly change.
Along its 125 miles, the Eagle River widens to thousands of feet in some places, while other spots are narrow enough that you can cast across. Fast, white-water stretches turn into peaceful pools and then to rocks and rapids. There is a constant roar of water up or down stream, and a wide variety of river play within the 15-mile area where guests fish from The Rifflin' Hitch.
You angle in waders or from a long, maneuverable, fairly narrow boat with a shallow draft that is powered by a Mercury outboard. Using a 9.5-foot rod with a #9 floating line and 250 yards of backing, I looked for slick water where the fish lay in front or behind big rocks, sucking up oxygen between the rapids.
My first morning out, in waders, I hooked an Atlantic salmon that made a powerful run into the middle of the river, toyed with me for a while, jumped high into the air and spit out the hook. Bobbi, fishing nearby, found with astonishment that her hook had been straightened by a big one.
On the third evening, after much persistent scheming, I had a solid hit. The Atlantic salmon leaped into the air and swam straight at me, making my line go slack. Back-and forth, over-and-under, in-and-out... it was quite a battle. I tried to keep my rod and line as taut as possible and the fish did its best to make me look like a fool.
After 20 minutes I finally brought the rascal in. My guide said "You played him just right," which made me feel good. I admired him and released him, with plenty of respect for his tenacious and imaginative fighting ability.
That wonderful moment, and the great food, terrific lodge and friendly staff were the highlights of my stay.
The Rifflin' Hitch Lodge is open from mid-June to mid-September. The best months for fishing are July and August. The cost per week (Saturday to Saturday), is $4,400 per person, double occupancy. Daily and group rates are also available. The price includes transportation to and from the lodge from Goose Bay, meals, accommodations, guiding services, fishing licenses, beer, wines and liquor. For information: Tel. 877-433-5461 or 709-634-2000; E-mail: email@example.com; Website www.rifflinhitchlodge.nf.ca
Focus on Labrador
The Vikings arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador 1000 years ago, under the leadership of Leif Erickson. They landed at L'Anse aux Meadows, the first European settlement in North America.
Labrador aboriginal tribes are the Innu and Inuit, who comprise 30 percent of the population of Labrador. Many still continue their traditional ways of hunting and trapping.
Voisey Bay has the largest nickel discovery in North America. Inco, the world's largest nickel company, is negotiating with the province and aboriginal groups to develop it.
Made from caribou and seal skins and colorfully clothed, Inuit tea dolls were carried by children as the nomadic tribe traveled about. They were stuffed with tea, which the family used.