July 28 2010
John James Audubon, the greatest painter of America’s birds, once described Labrador as “the most extensive and dreariest wilderness I have ever beheld”. My friend Steen Larsen snorted when I told him this. “Obviously, he wasn’t a fisherman.”
Flying in a Beaver floatplane out of Goose Bay, you can see what Audubon meant: low hills covered with black spruce, bald areas of muskeg bog, dark wind-streaked lakes – 110,000sq miles of not a lot. It took a fisherman to show the outside world what a magical place it really is. Lee Wulff was an innovator, a pilot and an Alaskan. He wrote and lectured widely about the fishing opportunities in Canada’s north-east, and as a part of those lectures, he began to make films. He is credited with the first programme about fishing to have been broadcast on American television; we were heading to the place where it had been shot.
In the 1950s, Wulff had been engaged to scout the rivers and lakes of Labrador. With so much water to fly over, he quickly developed a rule of thumb for whether it was worth putting down to fish. Water that was very dark tended to hold only stunted fish, he discovered, while very clear water tended to be too acidic. Water the colour of strong tea, such as that over which we were making our landing approach, he found to be rich in insects and to harbour large stocks of big fish. In the Minipi System – comprising Minipi, Little Minipi, Minonipi and Anne Marie Lakes, to name the biggest – Wulff had discovered one of the world’s best brook trout fisheries. Of the seven fly-fishing world-record categories, five are filled by trout caught here.
In truth, the brook trout is not a proper trout at all. It is a char and, though Salvelinus fontinalis may be shaped like a brown trout, its colouring is darker and gaudier. Its back is camouflaged with a pattern that can only be called vermiculate. Its flanks are dotted with red and yellow spots – the red ones haloed with blue. Its belly flushes vermilion in autumn. It has been described as the most beautiful of all salmonids – and, for the anglers staying at Anne Marie Lodge, of that there was no doubt.
One of them, Ken Washburn, has visited Anne Marie Lake 37 times, but it was the first time he’d stayed in the new lodge – as spacious and watertight as the old bunkhouse was cramped and leaky. The old log cabin, built by one of the guides who worked with Wulff, was still there and Ken gazed at it wistfully as we sat down to an early supper. “My, there was a lot of flavour in that old place.” “And bats,” said Steve Meyer, a veteran of 13 summers, and talk turned to the night they’d gone after them with a shotgun.
It seemed that many Anne Marie regulars had gravitated towards this week, the second in July, and once we were out on the water after supper, we had a glimpse of the reason. Ralph, our guide, took us up the lake to one of its most productive spots, Lover Boy. “Why’s it called Lover Boy?” I asked. Ralph made like he’d never heard the question before. “Well, there was this sport came down with his son, and the son kept moaning about how he missed his girlfriend, till everyone got so tired of listening they put him out on that rock there in the middle of the channel. Came back a couple of hours later, he’d caught 14 trout, big ones. Didn’t mention that girl again.”
We too forgot her soon enough as we drifted across a vast, Luminist canvas. Dragonflies the size of sparrows chased their reflections, and the occasional rising trout spread rings over the water. But these were single rises; we needed to find fish that were feeding more consistently, and for that there needed to be more flies on the water. “You should see the trout when there’s a hatch of green drakes,” said Ralph. “They look like porpoises. There should be at least a couple of good hatches while you’re here.” Things looked promising in the northern twilight.
Steen and I were here to make a film too and we’d been studying the three that Wulff made at Minipi. The most famous sequence shows him fishing a river section. He has three flies on his cast and hooks a brookie on each. Somehow he fits two into his landing net and takes the third by hand: 17lb of brook trout. On our first morning we headed for a river section below Anne Marie Lake, dreaming vaguely of a repeat.
Steen put mikes on Ralph and me and we tried making interesting conversation while I failed to catch a fish. Finally, I tried a mouse imitation, skated over the surface of the water. My efforts elicited no response, beyond Steen’s (unfavourable) comments about my casting. The afternoon did produce one brook trout, a hand’s span in length. I took it as a good omen. I was wrong.
Day two: bright sun, wind, white caps on the lake. We took shelter in shallow North Bay where pike lurk among the lily pads and lunge at lures. It was exciting, but it wasn’t pretty. Day three: I had a chance, just one. We saw a fish rise in the Little Narrows – an event in itself – and I managed to put the fly in the right place first cast. The fish rose, but did not take, and did not rise again. Ralph then took us on to a surefire spot – Idiot Point – but all we caught were pike. Most of day four and day five I have consigned to oblivion. There was an evening we saw some rises at Lily Pads, which came to nothing. There was an afternoon at Little Char Cove when it looked as though a big hatch of drakes was about to start, but it didn’t. Our frustration was becoming ill-concealed. We were in the best place in the world, in the season’s best week, with a guide who knew the water as well as anyone, and we couldn’t catch a thing.
But neither could anyone else. Ken had never seen anything like it. Ron Miller, another regular, from Pennsylvania, complained that he could only catch “water-wolves”, by which he meant pike. Only Bob, a first-time interloper from California, was catching anything – one day he even took two brook trout in The Narrows – but he was casting blind, not at rising fish. On the sixth morning, we got to The Narrows before he did.
I wondered what it was that brought these anglers, predominantly from New England, back here time and again, and asking round, it seemed that for those who had started fishing as kids, a small brookie, without guile or irony, had been the first fish they had ever caught. Every angler remembers their first fish. But the brook trout also has a symbolic charge for New Englanders, an image of the Eden that was America before the Fall. The brook trout was special also to Native Americans. A legend tells how, on a long journey, the Great Spirit grew hungry and stopped by a pond full of dark trout. He reached in and caught the largest but, seeing it was so beautiful, he decided to put it back rather than eat it. Ever since, the brook trout has borne the marks of His touch and the people of the Iroquois Nations have not eaten them.
Ralph told us this story as we manoeuvred into position in The Narrows. I was only half listening; we had seen a fish rise twice in the same spot. It seemed to be taking the small caddis flies we could see on the water. I tied on the closest imitation I had in my box, and cast. The trout came up to have a look, but did not take. The trout kept rising though, and when in frustration I dragged a large Stimulator over its lie, it took with aggression. I could hardly believe it, and I certainly couldn’t believe it would stay on all the way to the landing net, but it did, and I found myself holding a fat, 6lb brook trout and staring at the Great Spirit’s fingerprints on its back. Steen was filming as I let it go, but we both knew already that our film was a busted flush. We had to let it go too.