In August of 2019, I received a voicemail: “Hello Jamie, I know this is a shot in the dark, but we’ve got a last minute cancellation on a trip to McKenzie River Lodge.…”
The voicemail was from Carroll Ware of Fins and Furs Adventures, the booking agent for McKenzie River Lodge. The day after that phone call, I was talking on the phone to a stranger to ask where I would be meeting up with their van for the 1,000-mile drive from southern Maine to Labrador. I had been mentally preoccupied by brook trout thousands of times; this would be akin to being physically abducted.
Eight years of plotting and planning for my first trip with my wife marked my first trip to Labrador (blog link). This one would involve two weeks of hurried packing to accompany total strangers. Once this trip started, I felt as if my domestic persona had been left back in MA; there were suddenly no family obligations, no wife, no kids, no one I even knew.
Chasing trophy brook trout feels like a fine line between dedication and madness, but I felt a little more sane each time another wide-eyed angler loaded their gear into the van as we wound our way north. We started with authentic conversations about our backgrounds and our lives, which eventually gave way to alternating naps and talk about brook trout for the latter 800 miles or so.
Gary, Steve, and Kate were McKenzie lodge veterans. They had recruited friends Mike and Kathryn to round out their crew.
Once at the lodge, I ended up paired with Mike for the week. He seemed to be a fine gentleman but also a great grandfather. Privately, I was a bit nervous about the arrangement. I knew from experience that the physical demands of the walking, wading, and the long days would not discriminate by age.
We’d be guided by Sam, a very capable young guide who was more comfortable speaking French than English. He would hesitate after some of our jokes to make sure it was okay to laugh before breaking into a wide smile.
As far as the fishing, there were many battles, crazy fish tales, and stories from the week. Mike could not have ended up being a better fishing partner. Where I was fast, he was slow. Where Sam and I would be scrambling all over searching for the best water, Mike would stand in the gentle currents and holler when he inevitably had a fish on. I eventually noticed that his fly was in the water a lot longer than mine.
Labrador is not easily defined. The vast wilderness at times seems nearly empty (I did not see a mammal all week), but the harsh climate also produces large brilliantly-colored brook trout and feisty leaping salmon. Each day in these surroundings is unique and special. I’ll share two encounters to provide some examples of Labrador experiences that have moved to the top of my angling tales.
The third fishing day found Mike, Sam and me on the Quartzite River, a medium-sized river in an intimate setting. We had motored 30 minutes from the lodge in a bullet-proof wooden Nor-West Canots Canoe, and then hiked upstream a mile or so along a faint trail. Bears had scratched the only trail markers, and I had to lift my chin a bit to view them nervously.
The Quartzite is akin to the ultimate brook trout stream: a mostly wade-able, brawling flow with brook trout and salmon of all sizes stacked up in the pocket water jockeying for food.
Sam had me creep up, giving me first shot at what he referred to as “The G Spot.” Here, huge mid-river boulders tame a rapid and split the river into a deep slow pool on one side and a deep fast pool on the other. We stayed low, and I made a long cast with a small dry fly.
After a few casts, a wide head engulfed the fly. I set the hook and it did not stick. It turned out that my hook bent upon setting the hook and popped out of the trout’s mouth. After that, there were no more takers on top. Sam had Mike move upstream into position with a large stonefly nymph, and he hauled out a beautiful brookie on his first drift through the hole.
Turning around, Mike then began to work the faster pool behind him. His drift stopped dead and what he thought was a rock made a sudden sprint, neatly breaking off the top half of his 7 weight rod. Sam’s whoop momentarily turned to a gaping stare, before he sprinted off with the net to get below the fish. For Mike’s part, he steadfastly yanked on the fish with his suddenly stout four-foot rod; his rod tip floundering along the fly line.
This was one of multiple fish that Sam managed to land for us and ones we thought were destined to escape. I took some photos of two sets of white teeth showing above the red flank and blue spots of a big male trout. I was very happy for Mike, as he earned the fish, but I must confess I was also a tad jealous. He had just landed the largest brook trout I had ever seen in my life! How could I compete with that?
I turned my attention to the brookies on the slower side that had initially rebuffed my dry flies. I “sat on” two fish, concentrating on perfecting my drift by systematically adjusting weight to present small nymphs.
Eventually I dialed in, and after what seemed like hundreds of drifts I saw the tell-tale white “wink” of the trout’s mouth. I set, and I was tight to a beast that rolled and tore downstream. I gave chase and Sam came to my rescue when, after a few tricky situations, he slid the net under the fish. We were all in for a surprise… We recognized it as the same huge male Mike had landed!
I set up my camera on a rock, and Sam proudly held the trophy between the two beaming anglers.
Later in the week, we were back on the larger McKenzie River proper as we approached an epic lie called “Warren’s Rock.” I had high hopes for this spot, as my wife and I had turned our luck around here on our previous trip, and it had already yielded some nice catches this week for the other groups. Sam helped me approach on foot to stealthily probe the run with a dry fly, which proved fruitless for me, as were Mike’s subsequent drifts with a nymph rig.
We crept up to the actual rock that gives the pool its name, and we could see a handful of fish, one of which was a scarred giant male. Seeing the white lined fins of giant brook trout waving in the current is a hallmark of the Labrador fishing experience. I wondered if that same fish had been at this spot when I was here in 2017.
We rested the fish and ate lunch on shore on the green grass, plowing through sandwiches while chatting under a crystal blue sky and white puffy clouds. After the break, Sam positioned us in the canoe to hit the prime lie by the rock from a different angle. The fish we could spot seemed to be sulking, and they couldn’t be persuaded to take anything.
Mike and Sam stayed at it, letting out anchor line to work the area. I eventually got a bit bored in the front of the canoe, mentally ready to move on to a less famous but fresher location. Grabbing my four-weight Sage LL rod owned by Lefty Kreh (previous blog post here) rigged with a tandem of small dry flies, I amused myself by testing if I could cast all the way to the shallow margin of the river. I wondered if I hooked a salmon parr if it might get attacked on the way to the boat (which is kind of a “thing” in Labrador).
My eyes bugged out as a two-foot long brook trout materialized in the shallow water when it tipped slightly to intercept my little fly. My line went tight, my mouth went dry, and the fish went ballistic. I made my first curse of the week a quality one, shouting “F! Brook trout!,” startling my fishing companions.
After several runs, the fish eventually sulked mid-river in the fastest current, well downstream of the anchored canoe. I could not move the fish. I tapped the rod to annoy it, I pulled, I tried any angle I could. The rod, which weighs less than three ounces, arched in a cringe-worthy hoop, as I tried to keep just on the good side of its breaking point.
I became resigned to the tippet or the rod breaking. In addition to feeling helpless, there was an undercurrent of feeling foolish for ending up in such an over-matched position. Sam, Mike and I discussed and discarded potential approaches in turn. If I thought there was a chance it would have worked, I would have jumped out of the canoe.
Eventually, Sam decided to started pulling us upstream on the anchor rope, delicately inching us forward at a snail’s pace. I would let out a funny noise any time he went too fast. Lefty must have been helping us, as after what seemed an eternity Sam recovered the 50 feet of anchor line, one inch at a time. Once the line was in, Sam was able to angle the boat out of the main channel and into shallower water so I could hop out.
Once on familiar footing, I was able to use side pressure and move around. Sam moved below me, and we all whooped when he scooped the fish into the net. I seemed unable to comprehend the outcome of the battle. The fish was a stunning specimen. We marveled at the rich colors of the trout, framed as it lay in the water by the unbroken bright-yellow rod.
On the last day, Mike and I got to spend a day with guide Jean-Phillipe, whom I had met during my previous trip. JP, as everyone calls him, is a free spirit who walks the fine line between carefree wandering and gainful employment better than anyone I know.
He took us down to the lowest section of the McKenzie River, hanging off the bow of the canoe drifting along in the river and pushing off with his feet when they could reach bottom to line us up for the best salmon holes. The salmon were quite fussy, showing interest in our mice but never committing.
I did manage to land one ounaniche (a landlocked salmon) on a streamer from the last pool before the reservoir out of the appropriately named “Final Chute” section. We took some pictures, and JP offered that I could add a third rock to the mid-river rock cairn to signify the number of salmon landed from this furthest pool from the lodge.
We took a break on the river bank and sampled ripe bakeapples, a delicious orange berry that tastes like a creamy mix of raspberries and apricots. In true northern fashion, each plant only grows one berry.
A week-long fishing trip can generate an amazing amount of great stories. Spending time with fun and adventurous people in wild environs makes a recipe for a great trip that will leave you thinking back to shared events and chuckling. Some of their stories become your stories; they will will emerge with your own spin when the fish don’t show up or when gathered around a campfire. Post-trip reflections can be packed away and taken out to relieve anxiety and help you get through tough times.
Sam, Mike and I had a ball together. Near the end of our longest and most adventurous day, I looked back to see Sam getting drenched by the bow spray, his hand on the motor and a big grin on his face. We still had an hour to go, so I gave him the best wilderness compliment I could think of at the time and passed him my flask, waving him off when he went to return it.
Mike’s slower pace and positive outlook led me to enjoy each day more thoroughly than I would have otherwise. It seemed any time I was worried about how he was hanging in there, he’d say something like “It’s a great day to be alive, James,” which was a great reminder to take a fresh appreciation of that day’s blessings.