As our DHC-3 Otter cruised over the expansive gap between Labrador City and the Atikonak River, I couldn't help continually saying to myself "I have never seen so much water inland in my life." Lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, and rivers seemed to scatter towards the horizon like a splatter painting. Some would connect while others stood isolated, but from above it all appeared like one huge checker board in the water which we were 'jumping' over. The pilot turned us 270 degrees to the south in preparation for our landing in front of the Riverkeep Lodge.
The lodge owners and guides greeted us and we all unloaded our gear and provisions for the upcoming week. In transition on their way out was an older couple in their 80's. "An 8lb salmon and she got a 4.5lb brookie" the husband explained as we made small talk before they boarded for their flight back to Labrador City. We had little question about what flies they used as he had them all organized deliberately on his hat, mostly streamers. I nodded to myself in confidence as I do a lot of streamer fishing here in Maine.
We were shown to our respective cabins, made friends with our beds for the next week, and then headed to the main cabin to get an orientation of what to expect for our fishing until the following Saturday. I had heard before we left that ice-out at various other locations/lodges in Labrador was quite late this spring, so it was not surprising when we were told that the water was cranking for that time of year. "We usually wade this river" Steve Murray, the owner, explained "but we will be fishing out of boats this week as the water is still quite high...this is the highest I've seen it in over a decade." Some lodges had even cancelled their first weeks of anglers because of the delayed spring with ice and snow covering cabins well into late June. So it did not surprise me that we would also be dealing with the repercussions of a long winter. "Hence all the streamers in the previous guest's hat" I thought to myself...
But I was ready! Prepared with various sinking lines and boxes of weighted and unweighted baitfish and sculpin imitations, I came with a full arsenal of gear and it proved to be well worth it. This did not mean however that there was nothing hatching. A giant salmonfly stumbled around the main lodge during orientation, and the first afternoon we went out, a thick line of caddis flowed along the bank of a section they called "the Aquarium." I had never seen this amount of concentrated caddis floating on the water. While looking at this sight of thick caddis along the edge, my guide for that day, Eric, said "that's nothing, you should see it when it's really thick." The rest of the week was similar in the insect life, with sporadic caddis hatches and juicy stoneflies/salmonflies.
Our week's routine was fueled by hearty meals prepared by the family which allowed us to fish from sun-up to sundown. Lunches were taken on the river at their "lunch bar" to keep lines in the water longer. The lunch spot even provided good fishing opportunities. Daylight started at around 5am and lasted until 10pm, so these were long days, especially if you wanted to fish after dinner. But, the guides working at Riverkeep are tireless and very willing, seemingly anxious, to bring clients out on the river even after a belt-loosening dinner and desert. I can not say enough about the friendliness and willing attitude of the guides.
This tenacity of the guides was certainly put to the test as well. With the high water and unusual condition of the river for that time of year, there was no cruise-control set with these guys. They were constantly moving around, trying spots even unlikely for that time of year, and always wanting to get their sports into their desired fish. If something didn't go as planned, you'd hear them say something along the lines of "you have no idea how badly I wanted you to get into a fish there." It was with that attitude which gave us a big mixture of fish. Fish were spread throughout the river but willing to take flies. Bigger streamers and buggers indeed proved to be the best bet and with simple color changes brought us every fish the Atikonak River provides for anglers. Brook Trout, Landlocked Salmon, Lake Trout, Whitefish, and Pike all held inside the pine tree lined river. Of them all, the salmon fishing was the most consistent and productive. Out-fighting a pike 3-times it's weight, the landlocks were willing to take streamers and seemed to specifically like some white articulated ones I packed.
One of the most memorable fish of the trip was caught in that "Aquarium" section. We had seen some fish, including Brook Trout, Landlocked Salmon, and Whitefish rising for caddis falling out of the Black Spruces nearby. As they floated and danced their way down river, the caddis would be interrupted by splashes and then taken down under. After a couple of missed fish on dry flies, I switched to a streamer on a sinking line. Cast in the tail section of this run in the slower moving water, I came tight to a fish that made my Galvan reel scream with a couple of strong runs. After a lengthy fight with a very strong fish my guide netted this Landlocked Salmon which was exploding with color. A very clean fish. It was dark with deep blue cheeks.
The Brook Trout had not fully arrived in the river yet. They were absolutely around, but not how they would have been in normal conditions. I have a suspicion that if I were to go back in a week or two that it would be lights out brookie fishing! I've heard reports and seen the pictures. They're there in the Atikonak for sure... The first to arrive in the system are the Lake Trout and Landlocked Salmon, then shortly after that the Brook Trout make their way into the party. But regardless we certainly found some at the end of our line. My largest came during one of the evening outings. With a stomach overloaded from dinner, my guide and I came up to a section they called the "Boulder Field." With a black woolly bugger, I cast upstream, stripped three times and instantly felt myself hooked-up. Almost as soon as the line came tight, a fat male brookie came (unusually) jumping out of the water and tail danced a couple times up river. It was a quick fight as I got it along the boat in short order, but lost it right as the net was about to plunge underneath the fish to bring it to hand. I caught some other nice brookies, but the one that night lingers.
We made our way though the week catching the Antikonak's offerings with regularity. It was the health and size of the fish that was most remarkable. For a fish the same length you might see here in Maine, the Atikonak's version was significantly fatter. Well fed fish, with plenty of food resources that saw little fishing pressure, gained weight by the pound. With this in mind, our guides were quick to tell everyone on the first day to "get the fish on the reel as soon as you can." There are a lot of trout anglers who fish at Riverkeep that are not used to the size of trout found here, so many anglers would lose fish while trying to strip them in. With the use of strong leaders and tippet, but making sure fish were properly fought helped to ensure more were landed successfully.
(Only the strong survive in Labrador. This landlocked salmon looks to have successfully escaped a recent tussle with a Pike)
What Gear I Used
- RODS - 5wt TFO Axiom II (for dry flies), 6wt TFO BVK + 7wt TFO Axiom II setup with sinking/sinking-tip lines for streamer fishing.
- LINES - The 5wt had InTouch Rio Perception - 6wt had Scientific Anglers SONAR Titan WF6S (triple density) - 7wt had Rio InTouch StreamerTip WF7F/S6
- REELS - Galvan Rush Light R5 and Galvan Torque T6 + T8
- LEADERS/TIPPET - Dry flies: Rio Powerflex 9' 3x / Streamers: a straight section of 3-5ft of Rio Fluoroflex Plus 2X-0X tippet (Depending on weight of fly).
- FLIES - This list could be never-ending, but (short list) for dries - Goddard Caddis, Hornberg, Elk Hair Caddis, and Stimulators. Streamers - various colored buggers, Golden Retriever, Grey Ghost, articulated streamers in Galloup style, and deceivers. Don't be afraid to tie things larger than you normally would. These fish have a lot of food, gotta get their attention!