Thursday, 29 August 2013

A REEL LABRADOR TALE

An osprey vacated Park Lake, the distinct angle of flight confirming its’ signature.  A pair of bald eagles returned to take possession of their domain. A party of loons, moved a safe distance but proceeded to dive for prey displaying, as they always do, their characteristic grace and determination.  

The sky was slightly overcast; the Lake flowed inexorably where it joined the Eagle River before spilling into the Atlantic, touching Cartwright, at the finish. A series of rapids whose names marked their relationship to the Lake: Muskrat, The Honey Hole and Eagle, each confirmed a legacy of challenge understood and enlarged by successive, but not always successful, salmon fishermen; latterly fisherwomen, too.    

Slowly, the fishing guide headed the nearly flat bottomed Gander River Boat cautiously in a north easterly direction, ever mindful that the slowly flowing landscape also comprised an array of boulder reefs and shoals.  They presented a continuing challenge, if not a threat to the output of the engine’s 8 HP. The guide’s name was Ron. 

The guide's name was Ron
He was a weathered sage, whose greying beard was unable to hide a devilish demeanor.  He possessed an unfathomable capacity for humour and, today, feigned ignorance that one of his desk-bound charges might be a freshman, in the art of the cast. 

Ron kept a wary and essential eye on the course the boat had chosen; Airlanes came into view, an area around which an almost oval rock key jutted out from the shore, confirming that the first channel had been entered.

He seemed more relaxed now, displaying the confidence of one whose knowledge of the Lake was encyclopedic.  He ranked among that special group for whom the natural world, at least as far as fish go, possessed little mystery.  His insights about fish behaviour, unpredictability and habitat, and why one fly is superior to another and when, are almost mythical.  They represent all the stuff owned by this gentle, soft-spoken legend of Park Lake. 

If you place a question his way, you had better be careful with the answer; he tends to wrap each reply inside a caveat, one coated with humour or finished with an anecdote.  Yet, his wisdom is unfathomable and any tribute offered him, and there were many, was never rewarded with cockiness or disrespect, never to the fish, anyway.

Ron’s self-assuredness was complete; that he knew where each boulder lay hidden, was absolute.

Uncle Gnarley, and Nav, sat quietly in the boat swallowing up the huge Labrador landscape.  The boreal forest hugged much of the Lake's edge though, occasionally, a run of perfectly placed rocks invited any fisherman an unfettered cast combined with a cloud burst of flies. 

The two noticed a new pair of loons flying in, and expressed uninhibited awe when one of that marvellous species chose a spot, less than fifty feet away, to perform a belly landing; webbed feet acting as balance as much as brakes.  Occasionally, a few boreal chickadees, gray jays and, periodically, flocks of pine grosbeak and white-winged crossbill fluttered among the tree tops or stretched their wings in flight, as if to show off to an infrequent visitor.

The majesty of the place was all encompassing.  Ten miles long and six miles wide, the Lake's array of inlets, bays and islands seemingly conspired to bewilder.   That it was renowned as the most prolific spot, in the whole Province, for speckled trout weighing six pounds or more, fifteen to twenty pound salmon and Northern Pike  in the same class, was perfectly fitting for a place this wild.

Having passed through the second rock barrier, the Lake began to spread out again, though its shallow aspect did not significantly improve, as the three motored on.  Uncle Gnarley pointed in the direction of the “Hilton”, so named more for the comforts it offered, as a grub shack and a place to dry off, than for its ‘high end’ slab-board construction.  Ron and Shont, the latter guiding the second boat, would already have schemed to ‘book’ the Hilton, for lunch, where an iron frying pan and a small ‘brookie’, or two, guaranteed world class cuisine.

Ron raised his arm to signal the presence of a bald eagle perched majestically atop a tall bearded tree. “He nests there”, said Ron, matter-of-factly, the comment barely heard above the steady noise of the outboard motor. 

After a short time, a third boulder-strewn reef presented itself and, again, the Guide carefully commenced a meandering, almost circuitous, path as the speed boat avoided damaging the propeller.  Ron exhibited no change of demeanor, neither an ounce of concern nor a single warning of worried preoccupation.  

A relaxed and steady countenance was all he ever displayed; he had navigated the route hundreds of times.  Though the Lake changed, from Spring to Fall, as the melted snow and rain raced toward the Eagle, his mental map was as firmly fixed and unalterable as the Mealy Mountains that lay in the distance.

Slowing again, now, for the last pass-through, the little craft crawled inch by inch, for a minute or two, as the fibreglass bottom complained and competed with the Guide’s weather beaten skin, for whose palate could boast more etchings.   ‘Kevin’s Rock’ came into view, on the right, the well-worn hang-out of a frequent angler. Suddenly, the boat’s release found confirmation, less perhaps in the sound of the motor’s abrupt power surge, than in the modest grin evident on the face of the careful master.

We had arrived at the famed ‘Honey Hole’.

Cutting the motor, Ron quickly dropped anchor positioning the boat just above the wide, low rapid.  “We’ll fish from the boat”, the Guide stated flatly, choosing not to offer democratic choice.

Uncle Gnarley lost no time choosing a fly; a ‘Pass Lake’ will make a good start, he said, to no one in particular.  It was one of Adam’s favourites.  Adam was a Park Lake Guide who had passed, too young.  Gnarley had used it to win more than a few grudging victories in the face-off with an Atlantic salmon.  The fly comprised a complicated construction of black, white and green fibres; its imposing look matched Uncle Gnarley’s own redoubtable confidence.  Nav chose a brown muddler.

Within minutes Uncle Gnarley started to cast, his leader extending its reach with every movement. Did you see that, he asked rhetorically, as a salmon chose the moment to breach, showing its full girth and eagerness to play.  Gnarley shifted his position, in the boat, just slightly and ripped off another forty or fifty feet of line. 

The look of determination on the old man’s face confirmed that the heavy scaled warrior had been foolish to expose itself to one so capable in the pugilistic arts.  Though respectful of his quarry, Uncle Gnarley seemed unmindful that the salmon had already swum 120 miles inland and still possessed the energy to run many more, though ‘home’ was only a short distance away.   

The fly sped through the air on the back cast; within a split second the soft swish of recoil could be heard.  The action was repeated until at least 150 ft. of line had been stripped, which now seemed to hang in the morning air, confirming the perfect narrow loop of an expert.  Though the artistic form of the extended leader belied a more sinister intent, the entire package had just been given a certain trajectory and was now accelerating towards its target. 

As if for a single moment before descending, the fly, suspended on an 8 pound test, hovered in mid-air before it landed within inches of Uncle Gnarley’s quarry. The salmon jumped in pursuit of the tethered snack.  Uncle Gnarley raised the tip of his rod; the hook had set perfectly.   

Nav struggled with the Muddler; Ron watched him omit finishing the tie repeatedly, as he failed each time to extend the end of the leader up through the second loop, at which point he needed to pull hard and secure the knot.     

Ron spoke, “let me show you how it’s done”, as an instructor might who had already warmed to his student. He accepted the fishing rod from Nav’s hand, with a slight nod and a look that suggested certain things were not imparted intuitively.  “Playing it safe are you, Nav”, commented Ron, in a way that seemed less a question than an affirmation of the obvious. “The Muddler; it’s a good fly; no one has ever been disappointed with a ‘Muddler’ b’y, he added, handing him back the rod, the fly now tied securely.  

Nav grinned in a way that, at once, said thanks and acknowledged that he was not as expert as his old friend.

Mere feet away, the battle raging between the enraged salmon and Uncle Gnarley continued; the intensity of the moment was evident as the old man seemed to wear a little, his quarry unwilling to countenance capitulation.  Gnarley stood in the bow of the boat and, each time the salmon leapt in an effort to escape, he stiffened as the line could be heard ripping from the reel.

Winding again and again, Uncle Gnarley stayed focussed on the challenger as it continued to bring to bear all its determination to escape.  Slowly now, the vast effort, that had brought it so close to its spawning ground, showed signs of waning. Following each effort to find an exit, Gnarley continued to bring the salmon closer to Ron’s extended arm, as he readied the dip net. 

The Guide reached over the boat, tentatively, as the aquatic wrestler raced in the wrong direction; a slight arm movement and suddenly the salmon was at the mercy of one of the craftiest old anglers that had ever graced Park Lake. 

Ron ran his thumb and forefinger slowly down the line until he was able to grasp the barbless hook, its removal more gentle than a pin prick. 

Uncle Gnarly had his first win of the day. The salmon had already won its freedom.

The old economist wasted no time preparing to do battle again; not even a celebratory sip from the mickey, carefully filled before departure, could interrupt the old man’s renewed mission.

Nav did not fail to note that an old bull moose had joined them; his large antlers giving confirmation to his noble status in a herd, likely not far away.  A light breeze could be felt and with that, the animal moved to the security of the trees.

Nav cast again, the muddler entangling with something unseen.

Uncle Gnarley continued to exhibit a casting skill that seemed to impress even Ron, his tell-tale smirk enlarged as another of the scaly wonders leaped high into the air in surprise; the old man girded, again, for fight.

Before long he had landed another and was wasting no time as he changed flies, thinking it time to offer the lake “something new”.

Ron nudged Nav to warn him a salmon was showing his fly some interest….”you have to always keep an eye to your line, Nav; you need to be ready to set the hook, otherwise he’ll just spit it out.”

Nav nodded gratefully and cast again, though his attention seemed diverted.  He kept watching the uncertain flight of one of the Bald Eagles as it trolled for dinner along the shoreline.  He experienced astonishment as trout breached from the deep pools, buzzing flies having earned their attention.

Today, worries over Muskrat Falls and of a Government trying its best to be unwise held no room in his or Uncle Gnarley’s preoccupations; saving the Province from pedestrian minds would have to wait while they drank in, as Ray Guy might say, Park Lake’s “beneficial vapors”.

Nav’s attention was again distracted, as Uncle Gnarley expelled audibly, the exhaustion of the morning, coupled with the demands of a sixth and possibly the heaviest salmon of all, wearing on the always likable but often cantankerous old master.    

Suddenly, Nav’s luck took an abrupt turn.

Uncle Gnarley’s salmon had just been landed when Ron could be heard ordering Nav to raise the tip of his rod.  His line went taut and in an instant, tension in the boat, shifted.

Uncle Gnarley placed his rod securely out of the way of Nav’s field of action and sat back to watch his younger friend handle his first encounter with a resident of the Lake. Like Ron, Gnarley knew immediately that Nav’s quarry was not a salmon, though they both prayed to the Lake Gods, for something large.  Anyway, early action suggested the ‘brookie’ might just surprise.

Ron was careful not to become too engaged in Nav’s personal battle; he liked it when his charges were able to take all the credit, though he knew when the occasional subtle suggestion might alter an otherwise disappointing outcome.

“Excellent Nav, let the fish run with the line if he wants to, let the reel do the work for you; just keep the line tight, just not too tight”, counselled Ron.  

Suddenly, the reel could be heard ripping off more nylon as the trout made an attempt at getaway. When that didn’t work, its displeasure was expressed more visibly, forcefully breaching the water’s surface, its mid-air hijinks evidence of a determination to be freed.

Uncle Gnarley spoke in the direction of the Guide:  “Jeepers, Ron that fish must be at least two full pounds. “Certainly, Sir”, Ron replied, adding: “I don’t think I would add more than an ounce to your well-considered estimation.”

Nav ignored the two and rose to a standing position, in the boat.  His face expressed determination that he would commit no error now, certain was he that he would join the august group of anglers whose stories got retold and embellished, with each retelling, by Ron and the other Guides.

The trout’s energy began depleting fast, lacking as it does the muscular form as well as the fiery disposition of its salmonid kin. 

The fish broke the surface of the water, this time within inches of the boat, giving sanction to any suggestion that this was no ordinary ‘brookie’.  Over eight, Ron declared solemnly, as Uncle Gnarley, too, glanced at the fish, seemingly surprised, though he nodded confirmation of Ron’s reappraisal. 

Nav’s reel could be heard ripping line as the trout found new energy.  Again, the fish became airborne, its deep brown speckled skin and pink underbelly now in full view, its lungs exploding as it gasped and struggled to get free.

“You are wrong, my friend; fifteen pounds, at least”, offered Uncle Gnarley. “And that’s, again, from your conservative side, isn’t it?” Ron suggested.

Nav reeled in the slack as the ‘brookie’ darted to and fro.  The fish, showing exhaustion now, fought less hard as Nav drew it closer to the boat.  Ron readied the dip net, knowing that Nav would most certainly need help soon. 

“Uncle Gnarley”, suggested Ron, we have both underestimated the skill of this new angler; if ever I have told the truth, I assure you any scale of justice would bring this bugger in at eighteen or nineteen pounds.”

Ron slipped the dip net into the water as the fish attempted to swim under the boat; not a place any angler desired, if he is to stay in control. Ron had already decided Nav would not lose his only fish of the day and, just possibly the largest one ever caught on Park Lake.  “Swing the tip of your rod to starboard, slightly, Nav“, suggested Ron, as the fish changed direction, mere inches from the surface. 

“Holy Lord liftin’”, Ron was soon heard again, yet again voicing a necessity to recast his earlier surprise upon seeing the ‘brookie’ up close. “At least twenty”, Uncle Gnarley, Ron announced, his astonishment suggesting no hint of hyperbole, certainly none that might cast any shadow on Nav’s trophy.   “I hope you have a camera.  I wouldn’t want the others to think we would ever lie, as he exhibited his trademark grin.

Uncle Gnarley informed the boat, flatly, that he had never made it a practice to take a camera to a fishing Lake. “It would be ‘neither right nor proper’, Ron”, the old angler added, the phrase and his intonation reminiscent of a frequent incantation of a former Chief Justice, who also had been Premier.   

Ron handed the live Trout to Nav, who expressed no surprise at the fish’s improbable dimension. 

A moment later he asked Nav if it was a keeper.  “No”, replied Nav, with a certainty reserved for anglers who always catch giants.  “We’ve both had our fun” and watched, admiringly, as Ron let the eager fish return to the rapid.

Uncle Gnarley gave Nav a congratulatory handshake and, as he did so, reminded Ron, that Nav would most certainly be remembered in this summer’s tall tales.

Ron chuckled at the deference the old man was paying the successful younger angler.  He was having none of that; it might have been the largest fish Nav had ever caught, but it was still only one. 

“Well, Uncle Gnarley”, said Ron, with the devilish demeanor that had helped make him a Labrador legend:  “even a blind chicken can catch the odd kernel in a corn field.” 

The three erupted in laughter.  It was a rich guttural sound that spoke, not just to a wonderful camaraderie, but to a singularity of spirit best understood by those for whom the outdoors is not merely a love, but a passion.

Slipping his hand inside his fishing vest, Uncle Gnarley produced the mickey that held the essential topper to a great morning; only two clinked cups. The Guide always celebrates later. 

It was time to head up to the “Hilton”; Shont might already have arrived, with his charges. Over a pan of trout and the obligatory can of Vienna sausage, the other two anglers will also have stories to tell.  Nav’s will surely top theirs.  

Uncle Gnarley and Ron will be there to make sure none of them become too economical with the truth.            

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