A West Coast steelhead junkie gets his first taste of regal Atlantic salmon in Labrador’s backcountry.
[Article & Photography by Loren Elliott]
AS I STOOD ON A RICKETY WOODEN DOCK waiting for our ﬂoat-plane to arrive, the grim reality that I had forgotten to pack bug spray sank in. A cloud of blackflies swarmed around me, taking advantage of the juiciest meal they’d come across probably in months. As a West Coaster, I was more than accustomed to mosquitoes and knew I could handle them unless they were truly horrific, but blackflies were a foreign and ruthless creature I’d never had the misfortune of crossing paths with until arriving in Labrador.
I swatted my legs in a futile attempt to slow the onslaught of red welts until salvation arrived in the form of a yellow and red de Havilland Beaver. What started as an unlikely dream was finally about to become reality after a short plane ride into the maritime backcountry. Being a passionate steelhead and salmon fisherman from the Paciﬁc Northwest, I had read much about the ancestry of my familiar modern Spey rods, lines, and flies dating back to Atlantic salmon angling of centuries past. I had fantasized about chasing Atlantic salmon before, but never thought about it seriously because I was under the impression that the best runs all returned to far-off European rivers that would leave me broke just trying to get a turn on a small beat of water. Astronomical costs aside, the idea of being relegated to one or two pools for an entire day didn’t appeal to my style of fishing. I am used to working miles of river on any given day in search of steelhead.
I was quick to brush these judgments aside as the misconceptions they were when I got my hands on a copy of 50 More Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, by Chris Santella, and excitedly came across a magical-sounding stream called the Hawke River in Eastern Canada. The Hawke sounded nothing like the tweed-clad associations I had with Atlantic salmon. A remote river in the wilds of the Labrador backcountry, accessed only by a single operation that took a limited number of rods per week to fish the entire system—it sounded like a place I had to visit for myself. I made a number of phone calls and worked all the angles I could, and before long I was booking a plane ticket to the little town of Deer Lake, Newfoundland.
The Deer Lake airport is as close as you’ll get by commercial jet, though I found out before long that “close” is a relative term with this type of remote wilderness, and there was still a long ways to travel by car, ferry, and finally floatplane before I would be standing in the Hawke. But sure enough, almost two full days after leaving Seattle, I was casting a Blue Charm wet ﬂy into its tea-stained waters in hopes of enticing my first Atlantic salmon. I didn’t hook up that first evening I arrived in camp, but I did manage to keep myself distracted from the feasting blackflies that I would soon come to despise more than a pox I would ever wish on anyone.
My home base was the Hawke River Lodge, the only operation in the Hawke River watershed. With no roads to access the area, the only way in is by plane, which lands on the home steady. In this part of the world, a steady is the preferred term for a long run of very slow water that is placid enough to be mistaken for a lake. Though not productive for salmon fishing, the home steady makes for an ideal landing strip. Once at the rustic but homey lodge, anglers access the best stretches of river by boat. Twelve-foot aluminum V-hulls with small outboards are the tool of choice for running from the lodge dock up to where the river has some gradient and the actual runs and rifﬂes begin. The Hawke is really two rivers, as just above the lodge it forks. Each fork extends upstream for many miles of ideal salmon water, providing plenty of room for the adventurous angler to explore. Any fears of being stuck on the side of a single pool, waiting my turn in a rotation of tweed-caps, quickly disappeared. (continued on Page 2)