Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Labrador Atlantic's

This past week found me in Labrador chasing Atlantic salmon for the first time as I filmed an episode of The New Fly Fisher.  I have caught all five species of Pacific salmon and steelhead on the fly.  The chance to exchange blows with Atlantic salmon was too good to pass up.  Landing one would complete my list of anadromous salmonids on the fly.

The view downstream from the spectacular Forteau Falls

During my week long visit I stayed at the Labrador Salmon and Lucky Strike lodges courtesy of new owner Paul-Amie Joncas.  We began filming at the Labrador Salmon Lodge fishing the Forteau River.  Labrador Salmon Lodge is a very comfortable facility with a traditional cozy feel to it.  The food was fantastic and provided much need fuel for our treks up and down the banks of the Forteau River.  The scallop savichy was perhaps my favorite.  Served on the half shell they just melted in my mouth!

 
From left to right; Armand, James, myself, George, Dawn and Herman

James, my cameraman and I were joined by four other fly fishers, Armand (Paul Aime’s brother) his friend Herman, George and Dawn.  Together we hit it off immediately and our trip was filled with good hearted banter, laughter and new found friendship.  James and I managed to defend our ‘mainlanders’ honor over a five game crib tourney with Newfoundlanders George and Dawn.  I am fortunate to have made five new friends from my Labrador experience.

Our trip for both lodges was at the tail end of the season, peak season on most Atlantic salmon rivers in Labrador and Newfoundland.  Atlantic's were still in the river but they had lost some of their aggressive tendencies and were beginning to focus on their primary reason for being there, reproduction.  July apparently was one of the most memorable on record with numerous reports of high catch rates and some large fish. 

During my two and half days on the Forteau I managed to hook five fish.  All on dead drifted dry flies, a favorite method for many, myself included!  Of the fish I hooked, including a chrome bullet we estimated well over 10 pounds on the first morning.  Unfortunately I was not able to land any salmon.  Three where lost right at my boot laces.  The common practice is to use a glove to tail the fish to minimize any risk of injury from a traditional knotted landing net.  While I understand some of the reasoning behind this practice I know that if we had a good quality catch and release net we would have landed all three fish.  Successfully tailing a large spirited Atlantic requires delicate fish fighting to tire the fish enough to grab them.  I personally believe that using a proper catch and release net would result in less stress to the fish as the fighting time would be less.


The Blue Charm hair wing, a Labrador favorite

While on the Forteau my guide Cecil provide comprehensive lessons on how to properly swing wet flies using a riffle hitch.  The riffle hitch places two half hitches behind and under the hook eye at the rear of the fly’s head.  The hitches cause the fly to plane and wake at the surface when swung under tension.  It is heart stopping to watch the wake of a large Atlantic salmon pursue the fly as it swings across a run.  I had a few ‘chasers’ but none resulted in hook ups.

Half way through our week long trip we drove up the Labrador coast to the Lucky Strike Lodge based a short drive from the Pinware River.  As with Labrador Salmon Lodge the accommodations at Lucky Strike were very comfortable and a welcome sight at the end of a day’s fishing.


The Pinware River, big rugged water

The Pinware is a completely different river to the smaller gentler Forteau River.  Rugged and fast, the boulder strewn Pinware is home to some huge salmon.  Humping camera gear up and down its steep banks along its rocky shorelines burned more than a few calories.  A good thing as our fantastic cuisine followed us as well.    Gorging on fresh Atlantic lobster is a treat I seldom pass up. We went up and down one stretch affectionately called ‘Heart Attack Hill’.  A fact I didn’t learn until the trip was complete.


James works Chute Pool

The Pinware is home to the legendary Chute Pool, a huge expanse of water beneath a large waterfall that holds large numbers of Atlantic salmon.  As with the Forteau, dead drifting dry flies such as spun deer hair Bombers and Bugs and hitching hair wing wet flies was standard practice.  I was amazed that Atlantic salmon would rise up from the depths of Chute Pool to pluck dry flies floating amongst the foam the falls produced.  The rise of a large Atlantic is as delicate as a trout rise and is easily confused with the large numbers of aggressive parr that are maturing in the river.  I soon learned to strike at anything as I missed some large fish during my first hours on the Forteau earlier in the week passing them off as tiny salmon parr not worth setting on.  Another lesson involved knowing where Atlantic salmon prefer to hold, in front of large boulders protected by the hydro-dynamic cushion the flow creates as it splits around a rock.

On my first day on the Pinware I had a couple of rises that I missed and I hooked two fish riffle hitching a #8 Blue Charm.  As with the Forteau, I lost another fish in the shallows as it came unbuttoned while we attempted to tail the fish.  I was beginning to wonder if we would be able to land a fish for the camera.  We had some great takes on both rivers along with cart wheeling salmon but we needed something in our hands to provide closure.  We were down to our last day.


A Humpback sounds
In the summer months whale sightings along the Labrador coast are common

As we ate dinner James and I discussed the plans for the next day.  Paul-Aime told us that whales were close to shore and he had made plans for us to do a little whale watching.  Large humpbacks and bottlenose dolphins worked as a team herding capelin, a small smelt-like fish.  It was an impressive sight as humpbacks in excess of 40 feet passed with yards of our boat.  The dolphins zoomed past us in groups of 5-10.  We estimated that there were five humpbacks and well over 20 dolphins working around us.  Humpbacks are great to film as they dive elegantly, bodies arched and huge tail flukes almost waving good bye.  It was an awesome humbling experience.


Bombers and Bugs, a must for any Atlantic salmon fly box

The next morning we scrambled over the large boulders and rock edges up to Chute Pool to try our luck once again.  I chose my 10 foot seven weight Sage SLT as it was already strung up with a large #6 orange Bomber.  My guide Dennis positioned me so I could cover the large boulder that the water leaving Chute Pool rushed over.  I had made probably half a dozen casts when I had a rise to the fly.  I was too quick and missed the hook up.  Thankfully I didn’t stick the fish.  I knew if I placed the fly back in harms way the salmon would probably return.  A few casts later the fish rose.  Once again I was premature.  It is common for an interested fish to rise repeatedly, Atlantic salmon are that aggressive.  I continued casting and as the fly approached the leading edge of the boulder the fish rose again.  This time I delayed my response, I managed to drive the orange Bomber home.  The fish surged upstream, hidden beneath the surface.  As it started to run I realized that I had the drag on my Islander locked down.  I had to back off the drag fast or I was going to break the fish off before the fight started.  In my excitement gave the drag knob such a hard twist I now had hardly any drag at all.  My reel overran and I had to put my head down, hold the fish tight by pinching the line against the cork handle and get my reel ready for the fight.  During this time the fish jumped.  I did not see it as I was preoccupied with getting my line under control.  All I heard Dennis say, “That’s a big fish!”


Chute Pool is a vast expanse of water
With the reel now under control I gathered the loose line, and got the fish onto the reel as fast as I could.  The power of the fish was incredible and it became obvious that I would not be able to contain this fish within Chute Pool.  Within seconds the fish shot downstream through the chute at the end of pool and into a large run known as the ‘Black Hole’.  Line and backing pealed off in short order.  Rod held high to avoid the midstream boulders I jumped and hopped across boulders the size of cars and trucks I had cautiously navigated minutes before as I scrambled into position.  Now in position on a huge boulder at the head of Black Hole Dennis directed me to hold my ground and stop the fish from running, easier said than done.  The long rod proved its worth as I was able to keep the line high and avoid catching the line or sawing the leader on the ragged edge of a boulder.  The salmon and I began an exhaustive tug of war.  It ran into my backing three times, cart wheeled at least 3-4 times and ran across the run at least twice.  My forearms were on fire, I felt for sure I would never see this fish.  But as the battle wore on I began to gain the upper hand.  Dennis had jumped down into a calm stretch of the pool and after a few anxious moments tailed the fish.  I passed the rod onto the other members of my group who had gathered to watch the fight and jumped down to my waiting prize.

What a fish!

It was a magnificent fish, silver bright with a pearlescent blue iridescent stripe running along its sides that I will never forget.  As I held it in my hands we measured the fish, 34 inches and an estimated 15 pounds.  My heart was beating like a hamster.  My first Atlantic on the fly and it was a prize.  James my cameraman followed the battle throughout hopping about the rocks with the camera.  He recorded it all, in his words it was, “Epic!”  I can’t wait to see the footage.  It gave the show the explosive closure we needed.  What a fish!

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