Triumph From Adversity

Flowers River Lodge -Labrador

by Justin Maxwell Stuart

Destination: Eastern Canada

Holiday: Flowers River Lodge

2023 has not been a kind year to salmon fisherman.  The world seems to have been wracked by unusually or depending which side of the climate debate you sit on, predictably unseasonal weather conditions.  Rivers which should have been running high, cold and heavy in June have been flowing at mid-summer levels, wherever I have been!  Thanks to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the removal of the Kola Peninsula from my fishing itinerary, I have sought ever more diverse locations in the hope of finding somewhere remotely comparable. 

The exceptional wilderness of Labrador with its myriad lakes and rivers

Even a brief glance at Labrador on google earth in Northern Canada will give more than a hint at the myriad opportunities that must lie amidst its network of rivers and lakes along its ragged and superbly remote coastline.  Amongst these is Flowers River with its well-appointed lodge, accessible only by a 160-mile flight in a float plane.  One of its former owners was the sadly recently departed but truly legendary salmon angler, Mike Crosby.  Amongst his many attributes including catching multiple thousands of Atlantic Salmon was a simply enormous fish he landed on the Restigouche River.  The story however is his to tell and you can hear all about it on the video link below.  A story that will make the hairs on the nape of your neck tingle just a little bit! (Mike Crosby Restigouche Monster Salmon).  I wagered that if Mike had chosen Flowers River, then it was about as good a place to start my adventures in Labrador as any!

Now I have travelled to enough fishing lodges to read the tell-tale signs when things are not quite right, and despite the outwardly positive proclamations that things were getting started, it was very obvious from the departing group of anglers, who had fished the first week of the season, that they had had a tougher than expected week.   Although it would have been normal for the surrounding hill tops to have a liberal if not a blanket covering of snow in mid-July there was a complete absence of the white stuff.  The Flowers River is wide and for the most part relatively shallow.  Over the previous week temperatures had peaked at the high 20’s and similar was in store for us for the bulk of our week.  Without meltwater to cool the river the river temperature had shot up and was well above 20C.

The smoke haze from the numerous wildfires burning make this mid-morning drone shot look dawn

Whilst I did not need final confirmation as to the current river conditions and indeed those we would expect over the week given the forecast we were given a rather too physical reminder as we headed upriver in our canoe for our first day’s fishing on arrival.  Whist I did not doubt for a moment the ability of the guides to read the water, the number of times we skidded along the bottom or scraped a layer of paint off the bottom of the boat was all the indication we needed as to the water height.   Indeed, all the guides were quick to confirm it was the lowest they had ever experienced for this time of the year.  The prospects looked bleak.

Hideko finds the one deep hole on the river ;-)

The problem was not a lack of fish.  The salmon waiting to run the river, all shoaled up at the mouth were faced with the prospect of bath warm water flushing into the sea, and that was hardly going to be conducive to salmon running the river in any numbers.   That said, there were fish in the river.   In three specific pools salmon were congregating, large fish of over 20lbs as well as grilse.   They were also clearly still on the move, although it appeared as if most of the activity was happening at night, when the air temperature dropped to around 15C with the water temperature following suit.   The pools that were holding fish were invariably ones that benefitted from cold water streams, the water being sourcing from underground.

Mike playing an acrobatic rise at Long Beach Pool

Over the first few days our pair of rods did not enjoy any luck despite fishing some very interesting pools, with good water-flow, well oxygenated and deep holding water.  All the sort of places I would have imagined the salmon would have sought refuge, but with hindsight, now it seems they would not hold in these areas, sensibly continuing their journey until they found cooler, safer water.   Our guides did their best to keep our spirits up with tales of 20 fish in a day and of assorted battles with BIG fish from the last season.   Despite this, and whilst nobody was having a field day, fish were being caught in specific pools.

The lowest pool fished from then lodge has lots of interesting boulders and streamy runs. Irl with a very fresh grilse after having lost a monster!

It was not until mid-week when we fished out first cold-water pool, long beach, partnered with Mike who despite his 82 years of age had no intent of hanging up his rod.  Fishing with the ubiquitous size 8 or 10 ‘bee’ bomber, a favourite on the Flowers, he caught two bright silver grilse within the first hour or so of fishing.  Both of these fish were incredibly acrobatic, both leaping on multiple occasions, and fighting as hard as any salmon, again testament I expect to the influx of cold water from the stream at the head of the pool.  Both of these fish took within yards of the beach we were fishing from, no wading being required and easily seen.  

My wife, Hideko had the chance to cast repeatedly over a fish that was unquestionably in the 20lb range, dwarfing the other pockets of grilse that were in close proximity.   Although she could not illicit much of a response it was both fantastic to both see a good number of salmon and know that all was not lost for our remaining days.   Mike naturally was delighted and although he had hinted this might have to be his final outing to the Flowers, received the suitable adrenalin boost from his success and then went on to catch a fantastic salmon of 14lbs on his final day which emptied the better part of 100yds of line from his reel.

Mike & guide Perry with his 14lb salmon from Long Beach Pool

At this point, for anglers who have not fished in Labrador or Newfoundland before it is worth discussing some of the rather archaic rules and regulations.  Specifically, your choice of flies is restricted to single hook salmon flies, without any added weight, and that includes coneheads of all shapes, makes and sizes.  Having spent a good deal of time in Iceland, my assorted fly boxes are full of nifty little secret weapons, ranging from size 14-18 micro trebles as well as a whole host of similarly sized micro-coneheads.   In short, all the secret weapons to conjure up a degree of success when the water was as low, clear and warm as it was, frustratingly confined to the touch-line.

Quite simply these rules have been introduced to stop the snagging of salmon, an activity which I have absolutely no doubt would be furthest on the minds of anyone who has both paid good money to fish a river as remote and inaccessible as the Flowers.  It would probably be worth stressing that on a more normal year, with good numbers of fish in the river and regular water conditions such special tactics would not have been necessary, as with a combination of small single, the use of a hitch and dry flies, you could catch all that you wanted to within the rule book.  That is not to say  I had come completely unprepared.  I had received a wonderful fly box from the Gaspe Fly Company with all the correct patterns, but just not enough in the very very small sizes that were proving to be most effective.  I had also failed to bring some small single hooks for my collection of micro and hitch plastic tubes, so my fault for incorrect preparation but a lesson learnt all the same.

To finish off the tackle list for the trip, single-handed rods will do the job almost everywhere but a small switch rod of up to 12ft will allow you to cover all eventualities and wind conditions.  For leader, with the river offering relatively few obstructions or entanglements, anything over 12lbs would be considered excessive and you could go as low as 6lbs in most of the main pools on the Flowers.  Although as a rule I am not a big fan of fluorocarbon, as I still feel that a wind knot can easily result in a broken off fish, its thinner diameter will offer an advantage in very low water and bright conditions.

Mike and Perry ensuring this salmon went back with lots of oomph left in the tank

By Friday our last day, both Hideko’s and my score card had yet to have a notch on it.  But we were fishing Top Pool, which had unquestionably been the banker and from which everyone had varying degrees of success. Specifically, this year it was due to the large cold-water brook that entered at the top of what is a relatively fast flowing and rocky run.  On a normal year the salmon hold at the top of the pool, in smooth water, but this year they were all lined up, around every suitable stone or possible pocket down the approx. 100 m length of the run, following the near bank which benefitted most from the cold water.  There were plenty of grilse but in the better lies there were big salmon, again in the 15-20lb+ range.

Top Pool on the Flowers River with its fast streamy run

What followed was one of the most enjoyable days salmon fishing I have had in a long time.   We fished with bombers and an assortment of mainly sparsely tied small black flies, always with a hitch. My small fly collection having been expended, I resorted to attaching some quite large low-water willie gunn singles which I attacked with my clippers to remove as much as 60% of the fibres.   It became my go to fly for most of the afternoon and was very effective. Between 9 o clock and 6 pm when we left, we had landed 11 salmon, lost after a reasonable fight another 4, on offs from another 3 and courtesy of the hitch, had raised another 30+.  

Although all the fish that were landed were grilse, they almost all fought with devilish determination, making very good use of the fast water to take us from the top of the run to the bottom on a number of occasions.  The big fish that we hooked did not make it to the net and although it would have been fantastic to finish up with a monster, the action we had with the grilse was a bountiful compensation.

The cold water brook can be seen just above on the LHS which made Top Pool the 'top' pool of the week

Salmon fishing can be frustrating.  I would not normally take great pleasure in having 5 blank days and then a veritable feast on one day, but you cannot fight the draw that nature provides but rather have to humbly live with it, riding the wave of ups and downs.   As it turned out almost everybody had a degree of action on our final day.   The weather was no cooler but maybe the weight of fish at the river mouth had just built up to such an extent that some were making the leap of faith to head for their spawning grounds.  What was amazing was that given what were unquestionably disastrous conditions, by any stretch of the imagination, was the fact that salmon were caught and landed on every day, a testament to the numbers of fish that run the river.   I can also confidently say that over the course of a week I have never caught as many parr as I/we did.  Small flies have a part to play but it undeniably goes to show what a healthy stock of fish the river holds.

Hideko and guide Corey having landed one which did not get away!

I did not expect to enjoy the Flowers River as much as I did.  I typically prefer some ‘up to my neck’ wading, to ‘earn’ my fish, but on occasion it is nice to take it easy.   Both the upper and lowest sections of the river fished from the lodge have plenty of structure and fast flowing sections, so it is not all smooth going.  For those who would like more of an adventure there is a spacious tent camp at Top Pool which allows pairs to spend a night away from the camp, as well as allowing them late and early night access to one of the most scenic stretches fished at Flowers Lodge. 

Fishing with dry flies and hitching is enormously exciting.  With so many opportunities to spot salmon, the river is ideal for a dry fly but the repeated swirls at a hitched fly probably makes it my favourite method.  We did not see a fraction of the fish that would normally be seen or caught on a week at the Flowers, even over this, which was traditionally the first week of the season, but tricky conditions are becoming ever more frequent and to still have a chance of catching both very good numbers of salmon as well as a host of chances at some really good sized MSW fish makes it a trip I would happily do as often as spaces are available.

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