She said “I have an adventure for you if you’re up for it. I’ll send the plane up and fly you to the head of the Freestone River. It hasn’t been fished in years and should be pretty hot for brooktrout. Float down and see what happens.” I immediately agreed as a cold front had moved into Miminiska lake and we couldn’t write a check big enough to buy a pike bite. (totally not characteristic of the lake).
That evening, while casting small flies for walleye nearby, the unmistakable buzz of the beaver came into earshot and just over the treetops what was then, a little black dot slowly grew in size and turned a vibrant sunset orange. The pilot circled the lodge once and gently put the floatplane down in front of the lodge. The plan was set, I was going to go on an adventure of a lifetime in hopes of finishing an already pretty strong fly-fishing TV show showcasing walleye and pike fishing at Wilderness North. I then, would have zero clue as to what was in store for me the next day.
When you step out of cabin 5 along what’s know as the trap line (a row of 3 or 4 cabins facing south along Mim beach) and look to the east a 5 am, more often than not, you’ll greeted with a sight to behold. The sun slowly creeps above the horizon and turns the dark water bright red, turns the clouds bright pink and the sky deep blue as it creeps awake. Mist starts to come off the water and through the trees, you’d think you were looking at a hallmark card. It’s the perfect way to start the day!
The plane is loaded, canoe strapped to the pontoon and the unmistakable pungently sweet smell of combusted jet fuel fills the cockpit of the beaver. Headsets go on and we push away from the dock. It’s not but a matter of minutes that we are in the air, everyone staring down, watching the drama of Canada’s boreal forest unfold through rounded windows – no one speaks – not a word. We fly a bit, circle a bit and land on a lake no more than 30 minutes from camp.
Joe Boyce is our guide on this adventure. A quiet man, his age I can’t even begin to guess. 30? 55? He smiles when he works, grinning a characteristically charming smile. Joe unleashes the canoe and disappears into the forest – past where anyone can see him through the spruce trees. “odd” I say in my head. We load up camera gear, lunches, paddles and safety kits. Silently he returns with a 10-foot pole shaved clean of bark and dry of sticky spruce sap. He loads in and we leave the plane behind.
The river is small past the main lake, probably no more than 10 meters across on average. Water is clear, cold and moving. We paddle across a wide pre-river bay when Joe asks me to put my paddle down. As we enter the river, he stands up in our canoe and masterfully negotiates rock, riffle and rapid simply using the spruce pole he cut from the forest. We weave through tight spots, turn almost upstream, ferry across only to pivot on a dime to resume downstream float. We come to an island and he silently slips out of the canoe and moves us into a back eddy facing a wide deep pool with 4 main seams of waterflow – 2 flowing from each side of the island.
“What do you want me to do?” I inquire (meaning technique, fly, presentation etc) “Catch the fish” he shoots back, supported by that trademark smile. So I wing it. I tie on an olive and white bunny strip streamer – an attractor fly. If there is a fish in that pool and it’s looking up, it will definitely attack a streamer. 1st cast… nothing.
2nd cast… nothing (uh oh) 3rd cast… the unmistakable silent thud of a fish slamming a fly shoots up my fly line into my casting hand… I lean back on the fish and seem to have hooked it. The fish immediately turned tail and rocketed downstream dumping my fly line and started into my backing (This is a brook trout!?!?) Slow determined headshakes left and right. I gain a little, she takes it back and some.. I put pressure to the left she counters and heads the same direction, I high stick anticipating its next move (wait, who’s in charge here?) gain a little more. Still more headshakes. The fish is tiring. I gain my fly line back and start to make some ground. The fish is now approaching the drop off from deep to shallow water and it finds a second gear. The dance continues. I look over my shoulder to see Joe calmly sitting on the canoe, enjoying a smoke and, of course, smiling… “It’s a good one” he quietly mutters, almost under his breath.
I get my first look at the first fish of the trip as it flip-flops tight to the leader not touching the gravel bottom of the freestone. I hear a flick downstream and amaze myself with the discipline not to instinctual look to see the rising brook trout below. I scoop the fish up, wet-handed and gently hold it in the current to take a detailed look. White leading edges on black pectoral and pelvic fins. Green, red and orange sides with red dots encircled by blue rings. A pure display of nature’s art on its back with complete with precision mazing of dark green on lighter beige. Or is it the other way around?
Eyes looking down, jaw pumping open then closed. I am moved. This is a 4 lb brook trout. I take the fly out, present it to camera and let it swim away on its own volition sinking out of sight into the dark pool from whence it came.
That was the first fish.
There are a handful of remarkable fish that stay with an angler over their lifetime. For me, it was the 950lb bluefin tuna we released in Nova Scotia, Canada or the blue marlin that ate the bait while I was holding the rod off the coast of Tobago, West Indies. It was the permit I caught on the first cast to the first fish I have ever seen. And now, this, the Jewel of the North, the first brooktrout I caught (it wasn’t the biggest of the trip either) 236 miles north of Thunder Bay Ontario on the Freestone River. That is a fish I will always remember. Here’s a look and Thank You.