Our Man In Canada
February 28th, 2005

A Whale of a trip:
Fishing at Lac Champdoré in northern Quebec
By Troy W. Ketela, Cambridge, MA

The following article is a recap of the fishing that I and three other fly fishers experienced at Camp Champdoré in northern Quebec during the week of July 14-21, 2004. I've broken the text up into a day-by-day account of our trip so that the reader might more easily follow the numerous locations that we fished and the variety of species that we caught.

WEDNESDAY

As we stood on a dock in Labrador city watching the pilot pack our gear into the tail of the 50 year old deHavilland Beaver, I marveled at the fact that we were about to travel yet another couple of hundred of miles further north. Our group (Howard, Terry, Don and myself) had spent the previous night in Labrador City after flying in a series of jumps from Montreal. Each stop saw our Dash-8 turbo prop empty further and further, until only a handful of passengers, us and a small group of mining company executives, made the final flight from Septs Iles to Wabush (the town adjacent to Labrador City).

As the Beaver taxied around the lake while the pilot filled in his flight information, we passengers excitedly and somewhat nervously awaited takeoff. This Beaver had clearly seen over five decades of bush service, and the pilot had jovially informed us that she was nick-named "The Donkey" for her mysterious inability to climb strongly. Soon enough we were safely (if somewhat slowly) airborne, flying at 1500 feet to keep under the rain clouds. At this altitude, we were able to see great detail in the landscape - seemingly endless miles of ancient Canadian shield, lichen, stubby pines, sand, water, and even snow banks (on the 14th of July!). One other feature that was visible from the air were countless thousands of caribou migration trails. A veritable spider web of these trails covered the tundra and taiga, worn into the landscape by the passage of millions of caribou over thousands of years. An hour later we banked steeply and gently landed at Schefferville, a former iron-ore mining town now the site of a native reservation and float-plane base. After loading supplies for the camp and topping up the fuel tanks, we lifted off into a now sunny and warm sky. Forty five minutes later we descended to our final destination: Lac Champdoré.

We were warmly greeted at the dock by our hosts and guides for our visit; the Gabriel family. We later found out that the Gabriels, members of the Montagnais first nations community, had called the Champdoré region home for several generations, and that the elder Gabriel, Grégoire, had been born on the shores of Lac Champdoré. The main camp consists of a several simple sleeping cabins and a pleasant dining cabin in a cleared area on the lakeshore. The camp has a wonderful view of the lake and the peaks of twin ancient mountains across the water. Power is provided by a gasoline generator and propane. In addition, the ingenious Grégoire has recently installed a solar power system which reduces the camp's reliance on the gas-powered generator.

The outflow from Lac Champdoré forms the Whale River (Riviere Baleine). From it's headwaters at Champdoré, the Whale winds its way north through the landscape, eventually emptying into Ungava Bay. Our group had been lured to the upper Whale by tales of tremendous fly fishing opportunities for a variety of species, including lake trout, brook trout, Ouananiche (landlocked salmon), and northern pike. My personal goal was to land a lake trout of 20 pounds or better on my fly gear, something entirely possible (or even probable if reports were to be believed) on a trip to this region. We had timed our trip for the 3rd week of July in an attempt to coincide with the onset of heavy caddis and mayfly hatches. Ice-out in this region typically occurs in mid June, but it had been a wet cool spring this year and the ice had receded late, leaving higher than normal water levels when we arrived.

The fishing season at Champdoré essentially spans two months; July and August. My research told me that typically in the first half of the season, huge lake trout in shallow flowing water are accessible to fly anglers, and later in August when lakers become scarcer, the brook trout fishing really heats up. Pike are around pretty much right through the season in the shallower and slower margins of the river. Ouananiche are phantom ghosts, their movements hard to predict, although generally the best fishing for the larger ones coincides with the best lake trout fishing. The finest fishing opportunities generally occur at the bases of the numerous large rapids in the river, and at moving water confluences far up the lake. Because several of the large rapids on the river cannot be safely shot with boats, and to provide variety in water and scenery for anglers, Champdoré has many boats with motors and fuel cached in various locations throughout the watershed.

We unloaded and unpacked our gear from the plane as quickly as possible, anxious to hit the water. We grilled the departing guests, a father and son team, on their experience during the preceding week. We were elated to hear that they had experienced amazing fishing, although we were slightly dejected by the news that no insect hatches had been witnessed.


The main camp on Lac Champdoré.

Grégoire and his grandson James would be our guides for the week, each of them leading a pair of anglers. All six of us loaded into a massive wooden freighter canoe and we motored across the bay to the far shore. For the next few hours, we waded near shore in swift, shallow flows above the raging rapids of the lake outflow, prospecting for trout and salmon. While fishing, I saw many rises out of casting range, out near the middle and far (camp) side of the flowing lake narrows. I was tremendously excited by the observation that the gap between the dorsal and tail fins on some of those rising fish appeared to easily exceed 24 inches; truly large trout! In the end, we only caught a few smallish brookies before packing it in and heading back to camp for dinner.

THURSDAY

The next morning we loaded the freighter canoe and again crossed the bay. Instead of fishing above the rapids, we followed a trail along the river for roughly a mile and a half, bypassing the raging whitewater. After 40 minutes of walking through the damp forest of ancient, aromatic pine trees that line the river bank, we emerged into a clearing at the base of the rapids where a pair of 16 foot aluminum boats with motors had been stashed. We split up into groups of two fishermen and one guide per craft and then motored out into the roiling water, and up to the base of the rapids where we could anchor in small eddies and work the surrounding swift flows.

Terry, my partner for the day, was quickly was into a nice pike of around 8 pounds. Shortly after releasing that first fish, he was straining against the pull of a strong 10 pound lake trout in fast water. We were rigged with 8wt rods and changed lines between floating, sink tip and full sink lines as we worked the current seams and bottom pockets. Large, flashy streamers were the fly of choice. True to the words of the departing sports who we had quizzed on the dock the previous day, we saw no insects on the surface of the river (although the mosquitoes and black flies were maddening, prompting a few of us to don head nets). Later, while taking a rest in the bow of the boat, deeply breathing the fresh air and letting the stress of city life pour out of me, I watched Don and Howard land several large lake trout from the main current seam in the middle of the river. I wondered if it could get any better than this...


Terry with his first lake trout of the trip.


Don with a nice laker from the base of the rapids.

Sensing my frustration at not frequently hooking up, James suggested that we try a pike spot on the river for variety. We motored over to the far side of the river into a shallow flow and dropped anchor. Knowing that we were intentionally casting to pike, I switched to a wire leader and a very large deceiver. In very short order, Terry and I boated and released fully a dozen toothy pike ranging from 6 to 10 pounds in size. It was a blast to stand in the boat and watch the pike zoom out of nowhere and hammer the large streamers in water that in most places was only up to our knees or waists. Now that I had a few fish under my belt, I was feeling better.

All morning, the wind had been gusting fiercely, straight up the river into the rapids. As the afternoon began, low dark clouds settled in, the breeze diminished and the chop on the flats below the rapids disappeared. Looking downstream, I spotted a couple of rises in the calm water of the wide flats. Tired of pike and desiring trout, I suggested that we pull anchor, switch out the wire leaders and pike flies for lighter tippet and smaller streamers, and go exploring. As we drifted down river past the area where I had seen the rises, a 10 pound lake trout nailed the small streamer I was casting. I had heard that Champdoré lakers were immensely strong and had a propensity to make long runs when hooked. That certainly proved to be true. These far northern lake trout seemed to have much more vigor than their southern cousins that I was familiar with; some lake trout even jumped while hooked!

Shallow water laker trout in July - great fun on a fly rod!

Further on, I spotted another series of rises and asked James to drive us over to them. What followed in the next few hours was some of the most memorable, exciting fishing I've ever had. While we drifted and then later anchored in the calm flats downstream from the rapids, pods of sizable Ouananiche swam past the boat and rose around us within easy casting distance. The fish were working a fertile midge hatch that was occurring over an area of soft river bottom. We knew that landlocked salmon are commonly caught by trolling streamers, but we preferred to try to take them by casting. For about an hour, Terry and I tried a variety of different types of flies and retrieves while attempting to entice the rising fish. We had dismal success with everything we tried, and eventually decided to give up. As we started to slowly motor away, I began retrieving a streamer that lay out at the end of a long, bowed line. When the fly accelerated as the line swung around to straighten out behind the boat, a 5 pound Ouananiche smashed it and went airborne. Eureka!

We quickly returned to the pods of rising fish, anchored, and began casting near rise forms in the direction that we thought that the cruising Ouananiche were headed. As soon as the fly struck the water, we'd furiously strip the fly, just like we were working a bunker fly in the salt to blue fish. Every once in a while, we would accurately predict the direction that a rising fish was swimming, the fly would land in front it, the fish would see it, and a wide V-wake would disturb the surface as the salmon streaked after the fleeing streamer. Hook-up almost invariably resulted in the fish getting wildly airborne several times. True adrenaline-junkie freshwater fly fishing! In all, Terry and I caught and released a dozen and a half nice Ouananiche with this technique before the hatch petered out and the fish moved away.


One of the many hard-fighting Ouananiche we caught on Thursday.

FRIDAY-SATURDAY

Early Friday morning, our group loaded into two freighter canoes for a 30 mile trip up the lake to its main inflow. After a 90 minute ride up the mirror-smooth main lake, we began to encounter narrow, shallow channels with substantial current. We stopped at several of these narrowings to cast. Some sites rewarded us with a few smaller fish, but we failed to find an area with numerous and or sizable quarry. The fish populations in the Champdoré watershed tend to migrate throughout the season. Angle in a particular area in a given week and you might not find a single brookie, laker or salmon. Come back a week or two later, and you may land a fish a cast. Furthermore, the fish tend to school by size, so the average size of fish you catch can change dramatically from place to place, or over time at the same location. Evidently, we hadn't quite hit the right time for these particular flows yet.

Since we were so far away from the main camp, we had brought supplies and sleeping bags and planned to sleep in an outpost shelter that the Gabriel's had erected on a sandy shore dubbed "Miami beach." To our chagrin, we found that the outpost had been raided and trashed by a bear. The unruly bruin had ripped the door off the shack, overturned the stove, and failing to find food for his trouble, shredded the foam sleeping mattresses out of spite.

Over dinner, Grégoire explained that the next day we would motor an hour further up to his 'secret' spot, where he assured us we'd get into a lot of brook trout. After eating, we crawled into our sleeping bags and tried to get comfortable on the bare plywood bunks. Packed into the small shelter on a scenic sand beach with a make-shift door to keep the neighborhood bears and mosquitoes out, the bunch of us drifted off to sleep with the scent of burning mosquito coils, the sound of each others exhausted snores, and with thoughts of plentiful brook trout trying to squeeze out the thoughts of bearanoia.

After a hearty breakfast, we climbed back into the boats and worked our way further up the lake to the confluence of Lac Champdoré and Lac Tudor. James led Howard and me through dense brush along the short river to a spot at the head of the outflow from Lac Tudor while Terry and Don fished the middle section of the run. For the next couple of hours, I worked a plunge pool and the current immediately above it while Howard fished 50 meters above me at the head of the run. Although the brook trout I caught weren't huge (they averaged ~2.5lbs), they displayed beautiful coloration and were dogged fighters on a 5wt. Close to noon, James asked me to not release the next few fish as it was time for a shore lunch. It was an easy request to fulfill as I had already caught nearly 20 brookies from the pool and was still hooking fish.


An example of the dozens of colorful brookies I caught at the Lac Tudor outflow.

After a sumptuous meal of just-caught fried trout, we returned to the area to fish for a few more hours. In the warmth of the afternoon sun, a small hatch of caddis had begun. To my amazement, some fish were not just rising to the fluttering insects, but were clearing the water three to four feet in cart-wheeling jumps. The scene resembled a school of salmon trying to clear a waterfall during the spawning run up a river. Clearly the hatching caddis had excited the brook trout! The next two hours of dry fly fishing produced well over a dozen brookies, the largest about thee pounds. James, slightly disappointed by what I thought of as great fishing, informed me that the "big fish" clearly weren't in yet, and that I was just catching little guys compared to what they usually got at that spot. It was true that my fish weren't as large or numerous as the 12 dozen five to six pound brookies that one angler and his friends I had consulted for his Champdoré experience encountered on the water one afternoon on a previous trip, but it was great fun nonetheless.

At the beginning of the long ride back to the main camp, we passed through a couple of shallow areas and observed that a good Hexagenia hatch had begun. Clearly, the insect life in the watershed was really starting to "wake up." This bode well for the dry fly fishing possibilities for our remaining fishing days. At the moment though, I was feeling disconsolate from the fact that we had to leave immediately in order to safely make it back to the main camp before dark. I had heard tales of tremendous dry fly fishing for huge lake trout during the Hexagenia emergence in these shallow moving water confluences, and wanted to experience it first hand.

SUNDAY

After a few hours of deep sleep, my digital watch alarm woke me at 4:00am. I roused Terry and Howard, and we quickly dressed. We grabbed our gear and walked from the camp down along the lake to the outlet of the lake above the rapids. We had decided that the lake level had receded enough to try to wading out from shore above the rapids. All three of us were rewarded with several fine lake trout ranging from 6 to 10 pounds and a few small Ouananiche. As we walked back to camp for breakfast we reflected that it was a fine start to the day, and that we would have to return to the spot in our remaining mornings and evenings.

Wading above the first rapids was tricky but rewarding in the early morning and evening.


Bent rods like Howard's were a common sight on our frequent visits.


An average early-morning laker. Great fun on 5wt and 6wt rods!

After fueling up with a warm breakfast, we returned to the river below the first rapids. Today I fished with Don, who is primarily a salt-water angler, and hadn't fished much for trout before. He was interested in pike, and we spent a few hours casting large flies to the serpents, reveling in their explosive strikes that we could observe from our casting positions in the boat. Later in the afternoon, a massive hatch of hendricksons started coming off in the fast water. We motored around looking for rising fish, and spotted some salmon down in the flats where Terry and I had our great success a few days before. Don hadn't caught a salmon yet and I wanted to get him into one.

We anchored in a prime spot, and it wasn't long before we saw the snouts of Ouananiche breaking the surface all around our boat. The hatch was very heavy now, and rafts of mayflies were drifting down from the fast water down into the flats along current and wind lines. If previous days had given me some of the most rewarding fishing, that afternoon gave me some of the most frustrating fishing I've ever experienced. Unlike a few days earlier when the salmon were feeding on midges, during the mayfly hatch they completely ignored a streamer. We worked our way through our fly boxes, trying everything from wet flies to dry flies to nymphs to streamers, but absolutely nothing could distract the fish from the naturals. At times we were surrounded by literally a dozen simultaneous rises within casting range. This spectacle produced frantic, frenzied casting on our part, but no hookups.

After a few hours of this madness, we gave up, fishless and dejected. The fish were exquisitely keyed on the mayflies slowly drifting down the river. I figure that our problem might have been that the water had very little flow in that area, and that the fish, focused on the mayflies to exclusion of all other opportunities, were randomly cruising around and scooping them up off the surface. Since the salmon weren't holding a lie in a current, we couldn't present a dry fly past one on a drift, and our imitations of the hendricksons were hopelessly outnumbered by the heavy hatch when sitting still on the water. The odds of getting a fish to notice our dry flies amongst the millions of naturals were just too slim.

After an awesome dinner of caribou we attempted to fish a little, but strong winds blew us off the water. I decided that I wouldn't fish the next morning as I was teetering on the edge of collapse from sheer exhaustion. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you look at it from a health and welfare standpoint), our supply of gin, tonic water and limes had run out. I made a reminder to myself in the margin of my notebook that next time, we'd have to stock up better on the necessary supplies before stranding ourselves hundreds of miles from anywhere then went straight to bed. Each day we had been fishing with a vengeance from dawn till dusk then celebrating and recounting our day's adventures over a few drinks until late evening, then only sleeping a few hours, getting up to do it all over again. Definitely a lifestyle that can only be sustained for short periods when the fishing is really hot!

MONDAY

The miles and miles of walking were taking their toll on Don and he had developed extensive bruising around one of his ankles from ill fitting boots. He decided that he needed a rest, so he spent the day exploring the main lake near camp with James and fishing for lake trout with spinning tackle. Terry Howard and I were led by Grégoire and another one of his grandsons further down the river to fish the second and third rapids where an outpost camp had been erected. I had heard personal accounts of phenomenal brook trout fishing in this section of the river, usually occurring later in July and throughout August. We caught a few very large pike, but after several hours it became apparent that the brook trout hadn't yet moved into their usual haunts for that time of the year. On our way back to camp, we excitedly noted that caddis flies were starting to hatch in significant numbers below the first rapids.


Howard with a brookie-eating machine as long as his leg, caught below the third rapids.

After dinner, Terry, Howard and I trekked down to our new favorite spot above the first rapids. The evening was warm, the wind had disappeared, and it just felt like it was going to be an awesome session on the water. Large mayflies were floating down the river and being slurped down in big, swirling rises in the slick water above the rapids. I threaded a floating line onto my 8wt rod and tied a large parachute Adams onto a stout tippet. In a short time I had landed one small Ouananiche and a couple of decent lake trout. Terry and Howard also had nice successes, catching a brace of fine lakers. As the sun got lower, the mayflies became fewer and farther between but the mosquitoes got thicker and thicker. As I was switching to a streamer, Howard packed up and headed back to camp, driven to distraction by the bugs.

Before the onset of complete darkness, Terry, fishing a large floating bomber on a short stout leader, shouted over to me. I could see his rod bent in a tight arc, and hear his reel singing as the line flew through the guides. After witnessing a long, heroic battle in the twilight, I assisted Terry by applying my Boga grip to the lower lip of a 15 pound lake trout, the largest fish any of our group managed on a dry fly on the trip. After the Boga grip was firmly around the big char's lower lip, I bent down to unhook the fish. I found that the bomber had only lightly penetrated the roof of the fishes mouth, and practically fell out when I went to remove it. How Terry managed to bring that fish it without the hook coming free, I'll never know! Terry posed with the fish for a quick picture then took a break to savor the moment.


Terry with his dry fly-caught laker.

It was getting quite late, but I had a feeling that with the onset of darkness, the larger fish had come out to prowl. We agreed that I should take a few casts before we split for camp. Two casts later, I felt a hard slam on my streamer only 30 feet from my feet. The loose line whipped through the rod guides then the reel sang as a huge fish ripped out all of the fly line and 150 feet of backing in just a few seconds. This was by far the most powerful fish I had ever felt on a fly rod, and I have landed many Great Lakes steelhead up to 15 pounds. The fish surged on a second run, and we were suddenly disconnected. I reeled in to find that the frayed 0X tippet was likely a victim of a sharp rock far out from shore. I let out a string of profanity at the top of my lungs then accompanied Terry back to camp, feeling simultaneously jazzed and dejected. After we shared the day's fish pictures on the screens of our digital cameras, I crawled into my sleeping bag for a short nap, determined to head back in the morning and land the elusive 20lb lake trout on a fly rod.

TUESDAY

Fighting exhaustion at 4:15am on our last full day in camp, Terry, Howard and I dressed and prepared to head back down the river. The lack of sleep was catching up with us, but knowing that only a little bit of fishing remained, we soldiered on. I spent a few minutes wrapping Terry's wading-booted foot in duct tape before hitting the water. The sole of his boot had separated from the upper, creating a dangerous obstacle to safe wading on the slick rocks at the head of roaring white water. Fortunately, no adventurer worth his mettle would be anywhere without his handy role of duct tape (a nod to Red Green for all of the Canadians out there!), and I was able to fashion a temporary repair. Fishing was good, each of us landing several decent lake trout and a few Ouananiche. I spotted a very large lake trout rising close to shore and quickly fired a cast in front of it. The laker immediately hit the streamer, and it's heft felt very similar to that of the huge fish that I had lost the previous evening. Instantly after I set the hook, the big trout peeled towards the middle of the river and up towards the open lake, seeming to hug the bottom like a submarine at full speed. As the fish powered away from me, I could feel the line rubbing against rocks on the lake bed. The big lake trout here seemed to intuitively know how to effectively rid themselves of our flies! I tried to lift it towards the surface, but it was too far out, I didn't have the leverage, and I feared breaking the tippet if I pulled too hard. Like my previous big fish, this laker managed to wrap my floating line around several submerged rocks and break the leader.

It only got worse when ten minutes later, after re-rigging, I lost another large trout. This time, I had the fish within touching distance and could see it clearly in the water, estimating it's weight at around 15lbs. A very nice fish, but certainly wasn't as large as the two previous big ones I'd lost. Just as I was about to slip the Boga grip over the kype on it's lower jaw, it took off on another run, taking me into the backing. During the subsequent battle there was a moment when the line went slack, and a loop of it wrapped around the reel handle, binding the reel. The fish picked that exact moment to surge again and the leader parted under the immense pressure before I could figure out why the spool wasn't turning. Although I felt like insult had been rubbed into injury, I realized "that's fishing" and no amount of yelling at the piscatory gods would do me any good. I reeled up, and followed the guys back to camp for breakfast.

Our plan for the day was to cross the lake and make the hike down to the base of the first rapids. This wouldn't be an easy hike for Don to make with his swollen foot, but the lure of the caddis was too great and he managed it in good time. Terry and I teamed up in the morning, and we (especially Terry) were rewarded with scads of smaller Ouananiche rising to caddis in the fast water immediately below the rapids. Loads of fun on lighter rods and dry flies! Later, we moved both boats to a good pike location, and Don and I started casting mouse patterns. We each caught several big pike this way, my largest weighing 12 pounds.


Scores of smaller Ouananiche like this specimen inhabit the fast water. They love dry flies, and are a ball on light rods.


Mouse-eating pike!

Following lunch, we switched up fishing partners and Howard and I ended up sharing a boat for the remainder of the day. The caddis hatch was going very strongly, and we caught a few nice fish. As the sun began to set, trout and salmon really began to pepper the surface with rises, slashing and chasing after the moth-sized caddis as they taxied and fluttered over the water's surface. Two of my more interesting fish were an eight pound lake trout that peeled out my entire 5wt fly line and 200 feet of backing in one long continuous reel-screeching run and a 28 inch Ouananiche, my largest of the trip. I won't even mention the 15 pound lake trout that I spotted as it was rising to caddis. I solidly hooked it, and subsequently lost it after a long battle when it managed to wrap the leader around our anchor rope and break off (well ok, I guess I did mention it). Sadly, we had to leave the water at the height of the action in order to safely make the long walk back up river and the boat ride across the lake back to camp. You've never seen a glummer set of faces on a group of fishermen.


The author's largest Ouananiche of the trip.

WEDNESDAY

Our last morning in camp broke bright, sunny and cloudless; perfect for taking those last minute souvenir pictures of the beautiful surroundings but not so great for fishing. We dutifully trekked down to our usual haunt above the rapids, but the big fish eluded us on this last visit. Terry did catch something like two dozen small brookies on dry flies in the shallow side eddies of the rapids while I managed a pair of small lakers, so all was not lost. We headed back to camp, packed our bags and said our last goodbyes to the Gabriel family. Soon we heard the drone of a floatplane in the distance. I had a very serious, last minute internal debate about whether to not get on that plane. I could have easily stayed for another week and fished either solo or with a guide during that fantastic caddis hatch. Incredibly, no other guests were coming into camp for the week following our departure. In the end, guilt about missing work and home life prevailed, and I boarded the plane, consoling myself with the thought that "there's always next year."

In a short time we were on our way back south on a long direct flight to Wabush. As we cruised a mile high over the tundra and taiga, I reflected on my visit to Champdoré. I had experienced some of the most exciting, most varied fishing in my life: enormous, pugilistic lake trout in late July in shallow running water, cart-wheeling landlocked salmon that would make wakes while chasing a quickly-stripped streamer, ferocious pike on mouse flies, and picture-perfect brook trout by the bushel.

Importantly, we had also experienced a warm, welcoming stay with the Gabriel family. Mary-Marthe kept us well fed with hearty meals, many of which were composed from local ingredients. She also kept us full of cheer with her sunny mood and enthusiasm. Grégoire and his grandson James, both quiet and observant, guided us to some interesting and spectacular fishing. The Gabriel family don't see their camp as just a business, but also as a way to bring people into their environment and educate them about their history and culture.


Our hosts - the Gabriel family.

For more information on Camp Champdoré, see their website at www.champdore.com. ~ Troy W. Ketela

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