Labrador’s Trophy Brook Trout

Rasmus Ovesen fishes Igloo Lake in the unspoilt wilds of the easternmost province of Canada.

Shivering cold northern winds have been licking greedily across the nutrient-rich lake ever since we arrived here at Igloo Lake Lodge. Steep waves underneath frothing foam tops have rolled across the shallows and stirred up the water to the point where it has taken on a grainy, peat-coloured shade. I have travelled across the Atlantic to reach this mythical brook trout fishery in the Canadian outback. For years, my dreams have circled around the lake’s massive brook trout. I have envisioned schools of rising fish in shallow bays, hectically feeding on mayflies. I have tied dry flies, nymphs and streamers and have spent numerous hours putting the right equipment together. I have hand-tied leaders and packed everything from small necessities to heavy camera equipment. I have invested considerable amounts of time, energy, and money into the dream of catching a wild, trophy brook trout over the magical 8 lb mark, and while the dream might have been inadvertently naïve, it has definitely been within the realm of reality – up until now, it seems. If this weather continues, we won’t be able to venture out on Igloo Lake and fish its many bays and islets. For the past few days we’ve sought refuge from the weather and fished a short river stretch that drains out of the lake before plummeting blindly into the first of a series of smaller lakes on its route to the Eagle River — the mightiest of all the rivers in Labrador’s green glacial realm. The river isn’t unlike other rivers I have fished, in Swedish Lappland for instance. It meanders through dense forests with anorexically thin pines and birch trees, towering above a forest floor where partially exposed roots are superimposed by almost fluorescent green moss fringes, blueberry thickets and mushrooms in myriads of shapes and colours. Except from the marshy path that leads to all the individual pools in the river, we’re talking about an area practically untouched by man. A wilderness that has been shaped by the seasonal forces of nature and the interplay with local wildlife, which — apart from moose, reindeer, caribou, otters and beavers — includes bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines, and a vast number of bird species including ospreys, bald eagles and loons. It is early September. The river’s steep banks sporadically light up in narcissus-yellow and fiery red colours. A heavy morning mist hovers above its fleeting and slightly peat-coloured water. Here and there, a small brook trout rises and vehemently tears an unsuspecting insect off the surface film. The biggest brook trout lurk along the bottom, in the deepest channels, behind big boulders and below smaller cascades and waterfalls. Clad in golden and violet colours, they’re well-fed and broad-shouldered, and the males are aggressive and territorial. The spawning is, if not imminent, then at least under way. And it won’t take many weeks before the river floor is alive with brightly coloured fish, all of them tending to the same instinctive agenda. At that point in time, Igloo Lake Lodge will be closed down for the season, and the surrounding landscape will crouch under a heavy blanket of snow. The river, too, will slowly succumb to the relentless weight and harshness of winter, under the cover of a darkness that won’t lift for months. When the darkness finally dissipates, new life will emanate from underneath the gravel bars, and small brook trout alevins will find their niche in the river. The miracle of life seems that much greater here, where such a harsh and inhospitable climate has to be continually overcome. We’re at Archie’s Pool, a place where the river dumps headlong into a small lake. Here, a long lie extends into a quiet bay where fish have recently started to pile up. Already, on the first cast, I feel the tug from a fish that aggressively collides with the big black Zonker at the end of my leader. A series of heavy pulls propagate through the fly rod, and after a few ensuing minutes of relentless pressure I see the first orange-red flashes below the surface where the fish is thrashing around. Travis Pinsent, our young and charismatic guide, materialises by my side and it isn’t long until he nets the fish and tows it towards shore. Inside the knotless mesh netting lies a male, about 56 cm in length. With its pronounced kyped jaw and sinister eyes, this fish surely looks like a primitive brawler, but there is also a subtle elegance to it — something stylish and iconic about the blushing strokes of fiery red on its flanks and the many saturated indigo and bright olive spots that have been strewn so generously along them. The fish is a little shy of 7 lb, and after a few quick pictures it cuts through the surface film and glides gracefully back into the fleeting water and settles somewhere along the bottom of the lie. We land an additional four fish within a relatively short time frame. After that, the activity decreases — dramatically. We experience the same thing at most of the river’s pools, and the tendency only seems to be getting more and more pronounced as the week progresses — a clear symptom that we’re a total of eight fly fishermen at the lodge taking turns and working our way through a limited number of pools with limited numbers of fish. The river is both technically challenging and exciting to fish. It’s a real pocket water fishery where presentation is of the utmost importance; where you need to read the water thoroughly, and where your approach should be both careful and stealthy. Every fish landed feels both deserved and meritorious. We land several incredibly beautiful brook trout in the vicinity of 7 lb in the river, but we can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on something. It is as if the whole trip is somewhat unredeemed: as if our gravitation towards the lake’s wide blue expanse only continues to grow stronger as the week progresses. And even though, compared to other brook trout destinations across the globe, we have had spectacularly good fishing again today, it is with a burning sensation of heartbreak that we wrap things up and head back to the lodge. Fluorescent green Northern Lights dance enticingly across the pitch-black night sky later that day. My trusty fishing buddy, Martin, is there silently by my side. His gaze, too, wanders leisurely up and down, alternating between the starlit ceiling above us and the lake’s lightly-twinkling and drowsily resting oil-like surface below. The winds have died down during the evening. We’ve both noticed the change. And even though none of us dare say it out loud, there is now hope that, tomorrow, the conditions will be favourable. Perhaps we’ll finally be able to head out in one of the fibreglass canoes moored at the lodge and explore the many bays, drop-offs and islets on Igloo Lake? The next morning all of our hopes are finally honoured. The winds have lost their breath, Igloo Lake is like a big mirror, and the following two days we experience some of the fishing that we dreamed about before arriving here. It’s still cold — cold to the point that the mayfly hatches on the lake are minimal, and we only see a sporadic few fish rise in the turbid water. It doesn’t matter though. We have absolutely no scruples casting big streamers. Now is the time to hunt for that fabled 8 lb fish. Two days after the dramatic weather change, we’re fishing Burton’s Pond — an atmospheric lake northwest of Igloo Lake’s northern shoreline. Here, we hook up with several fish in sublime condition and, by the end of the day, we’ve boated and released an awe-inspiring 20 brook trout with an average weight of 5 lb. Best of all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the day, immensely relieved in knowing that my objective of catching a fish over 8 lb is already under the belt. The day before, on Igloo Lake, it finally happened! We had driven the canoe to Beaver Pond, a small bay in the western corner of the lake where a little feeder stream comes in. We saw the fish rolling as soon as we arrived. It porpoised at the very back of the lie, and the wakes left very little to the imagination regarding its size. I slowly worked my way down the lie, and when I was in the right spot and the big, pulsating streamer swung cross-current in front of the fish, it burst onto the fly and inhaled it without any reflection or hesitation. The fight was intense and hectic, and it wasn’t until our guide shot the net under the fish that I realised, with great relief, how much tension and nervousness had built up in my body during the whole ordeal. It was cathartic! And, at the same time, a huge privilege to bear witness to such a magnificent and pristine old warrior of a brook trout. The measuring tape had to be stretched out to a little more than 60 centimetres to fathom the full length of the fish, and with its broad back, distended belly and robust frame, neither the guide nor I had any doubts that it was comfortably breaking the 8 lb mark. The fact that it had the most beautiful white fin strokes, refined marbled patterns along the back and dorsal fin, and a colour span along the flanks that went from olive, through purple to violet nuances only made the fish more memorable. There wasn’t a single scar or misplaced scale on the fish. It was well worth the arduous trip across the Atlantic, and it was a stark and poignant reminder of what certain bodies of water are capable of producing, when they are set in places and surroundings that are as good as devoid of human activity and influence. Divinely beautiful fish in sizes that, otherwise, belong to a distant — but hopefully not completely lost — past. Igloo Lake Lodge also offers seasonal fly-outs for Atlantic salmon and arctic char.

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