Home Away from Home

Searching for the answers to life’s mysteries, not to mention elephantine brook trout.
by James R. Babb

Any time a professional fish writer complains about his job, the world is rightfully licensed to kick his butt until he shuts up and realizes he isn’t exactly leading a life of quiet desperation out there on the Deschutes or the Tay or the Golfo Duce.

You may not get rich fish writing, but you do acquire a wealth of pleasant experiences. Except one: Although you get to visit incredible places, you rarely get to re-visit incredible places. To keep fish writing fresh you must constantly pursue new horizons.

Good anglers don’t do this. If they find a good spot, they go back. If they find a great spot, they go back again and again. And if they find a spot that in mysterious ways defines who they are, they try to figure out ways to make it their home, or at least their home away from home. Page through the guest book of a great lodge and you’ll read countless variations of “Our tenth trip back, and we’re already booked for next year.”

May 2005 begins my tenth year as Gray’s resident fish writer, and in that brief decade I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool fishing, from flirting with albatross and battling giant trevally on Midway Island to fishing Atlantic salmon like a proper toff on Scotland’s Royal Dee.

And then there’s Three Rivers Lodge on the Woods River in central Labrador. I fished there with my fish-writer friends John and A. K. back in 2001, and in an article in the 2002 Expeditions Annual called “As Good as it Gets,” I wrote that not only had we enjoyed our best-ever trout fishing but that we’d also enjoyed our bestever lodge experience—we felt less like guests than like family home for the holidays. Of all the places I’ve been, Three Rivers is the one that most calls me back.

Which, in the climatologically challenged summer of 2004, it did. The same cold and rainy weather that had decimated Bar Harbor hotel bookings had also generated waves of vacancies in northeastern fishing lodges. And because fish writers fill vacancies the way matter fills a vacuum, mid-August found me heading up Route 201 toward the Quebec City airport and the late flight to Wabush, stopping en route to collect a properly scheduled guest at Three Rivers called Bob.

Among other things I learned about Bob on the long drive was that he’d recently beaten an especially unpleasant breed of cancer and now meant to live to the fullest the life he’d almost lost, starting with a budget-busting first-ever trip to a Labrador lodge where he’d read three fish writers had enjoyed their best-ever trout fishing.

Now that I think of it, another minor drawback to fish writing is a nagging feeling of responsibility. After all, you’re always recommending readers try fishing some new way or with some new rod or in some new place. But what if you’re wrong?

So as I drove along the route of Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary War assault on Quebec, I worried a bit that this particular expedition that began with such great expectations might end in a similarly disappointing fashion.

The next day, after its 158-mile flight from Wabush loaded with two caribou hunters, two fishermen and enough food to feed Arnold’s starving army, the familiar old Beaver blatted its way alongside the Three Rivers dock and I crawled out into a familiar and welcoming world: Frances hugging me like a mother and saying “right on” every three sentences and issuing orders to freely raid the refrigerator “just like you was to-home,” and Kevin still ruggedly woodsmanlike and philosophically patriarchal and quietly hilarious, and the young guides from Newfoundland eager and efficient and genuinely glad to see us.

The only thing that seemed different was the angle of the dock to the shore, which Frances explained by showing snapshots of the eight feet of snow that still covered the cabins when they flew in on June 18 to open up. “The river’s dropped three feet since then,” Kevin said, “but it’s still up a good two feet over normal.”

The Woods River runs out of Quebec and into Labrador at around 55 degrees north in a great sprawling arc of seeps and ponds and horizonbending lakes toward immense Smallwood Reservoir. Here and there the lakes pinch in to drop through geological stepping stones, and it’s in these rapids that the brook trout congregate—partly to feed and partly for protection from the huge pike that prowl the lakes. I was thinking that with the water so high the fishing in these rapids might be very different this year than in the dry and magical summer of 2001. But I didn’t say anything to Bob, figuring that a fish writer who’s created unrealistic expectations ought to keep his misgivings to himself.

Sure enough, the first few days of fishing were slow, with miserable, rainy, windy weather. What few good trout we caught were so stuffed with sucker minnows they could barely move, and the pike were marauding throughout the swollen rapids and were, unlike the trout, hungry. I caught a three-pound trout with fresh bite marks that looked about right for a Kodiak bear, and when I slipped out the hook she swam away with forlorn resignation at her certain fate.

I’ve fished the north enough to understand that bad weather is more the rule than the exception, but after a few days of slogging through 30-knot winds and lashing rains to cast heavy flies toward trout that were more scared than hungry, Bob became weighted down by his own sense of forlorn resignation, very visibly feeling that once again elements beyond his control were about to rob him of an enjoyable life.

That was the last I saw of Bob for four days, because owing to another cancellation I found myself heading north for a different adventure I’ll write about another time.

When I got back the sun was out and the birds were singing and Bob was all smiles and laughter, a man no longer weighted down by unrealized expectations but buoyed aloft by joy. Because while I’d been gallivanting around the cold soggy north with Marco and Kevin Junior in the Beaver, Bob had been enjoying great weather and great fishing at the lodge, catching among dozens of other braggable fish a brook trout that taped 26½ inches long and 18 inches around, which the Provincial fish charts calculate to weigh 10.73 pounds—the trophy of a lifetime by any measure.

Our last day we fished the appropriately named Rick’s Surprise, a tiny finger running between two arms of the river and resembling in every way every 10-foot-wide trout brook every one of us has ever fished: tea-colored water, bathtubsize plunge pools connected by bouncy little runs and skittering riffles, undercut banks guarded by tangles of willows and a thick forest of spruce and tamarack.

In a morning’s fishing I caught close to a hundred brook trout in the six- to eight-inch range, about what I might expect on a similar stream in the backwoods of Maine. But I also caught a couple of two pounders, a three pounder, a four pounder and an honest six pounder that led me on a drag-ripping, rock-hopping dash a hundred yards downstream before Cliff the guide finally got a net under him.

As we released him a howl floated down on the wind, and we splashed our way upstream to find Bob kneeling in the tiny creek and cradling a seven pounder, a great snapping monster with bristling fins and pumpkin flanks. An ear-to-ear smile split Bob’s face, beatifically lit from within like a Rembrandt portrait.

The last night, with the boats and the Beaver double-moored in the camp’s lee against a glancing blow from Hurricane Charley, we gathered together in the lodge and, with the winds howling and the rain lashing, had a serious northwoods party.

After supper, young Jordan appeared with three beers in one hand and a guitar in the other, and he sat down and launched right into “Tight-fittin’ Jeans” and “Saltwater Cowboys” and rapid-fire stories involving Newfoundlanders who find the answer to life’s mysteries by shoehorning a 454 Chevy into their Ski-Doo, with Hurricane Charley howling accompaniment at the windows and the assemblage of guides and guests and staff and friends finding their own answers to life’s mysteries by singing along and stomping their feet to the old Newfie favorite, “Are You Happy?”.

I looked around the table, and if anyone on earth has ever been happy it was Bob, a man who had been looking for his own answers to life’s mysteries and for a home away from home, and now he had found both.

I hear he’s already booked for next year.

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James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from Amazon.com.

 
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