But Brock Apfel,
who serves as coordinator for Bean's hunting and fishing schools, is
experienced enough to have wisely anticipated a possible skunking on salmon.
"We chose Park Lake because the big brook trout offer a fall-back
position," he said. "It would be terrible to come all this way just to
see a few salmon jump. In addition to the brookies, there are also northern
pike in the drainage—big ones, up to 12 and 15 pounds."
biologists speculate that the presence of the predatory pike in the same
drainage as brook trout may be responsible for the great size these Labrador
trout achieve. Though the growing season is short in these high latitudes—ice
doesn't go out of Park Lake until June, and the snow flies again in
September—there is an abundance of food available during the short summer, and
virtually nonstop daylight for the trout to find it. The brookies have to get
big fast to evade the lupine jaws of the pitiless pike.
"This must be
what fishing was like in the United States a hundred years ago," Hetzer
said one morning when he and I, sharing a boat, were pulling in Park Lake's
brookies hand over fist. Probably most of us think of the past that way: An
unlimited supply of three-to five-pound native (i.e., brook) trout in every
stream from New England to the Great Lakes. Not so. Listen to Theodore Gordon,
writing in 1903: "Fifteen years ago, in many of our best New York trout
streams, a one-pound native trout was a big fish. In all my experiences of
waters easily accessible...I took but one fish of 16 inches."
Other writers of
the period corroborate Gordon. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, who was Teddy's uncle
and a superb fly-fisherman of his time, had to journey to the northern (or
Canadian) shores of Lake Superior to catch three-and four-pound brookies. Once
the European brown trout was introduced to American waters, about a century
ago, large brookies became even harder to find. Browns grow big, and quickly,
and they are much warier than the naive native. They are much more tolerant of
warm water, which is why they were brought to the U.S. Brook trout habitats
declined precipitously in the post-Civil War period because of uncontrolled
logging, which exposed streams to sunlight and raised the average water
temperatures above the optimum brook trout range. The browns drove what few
brook trout remained into the higher elevations of the east, where there was
cold water but less food and less room to grow. The result: dwarf trout. I've
caught fully mature natives in the brooks and rills of Vermont that were every
bit as bright in spawning colors as the Labrador brookies but measured only six
So even though
the giant brookies of Park Lake were only second best to the salmon, there was
little complaining. And each day was much like the last—glorious. Park Lake
Lodge, the only camp on the lake, was cluttered with the homey accoutrements of
fly-fishing: damp waders dangling from hangers above the barrel stove like so
many pairs of "pale green pants with nobody inside them," as Dr. Seuss
so nicely puts it; rod cases, fishing vests, buffalo-plaid shirts scattered
hither and yon. And on a table in the lounge area, Apfel's fly-tying vise and a
big plastic bag full of "makin's"—deer hair, spools of vividly colored
silk thread, enough hackles and marabou feathers to fill an Antarctic-class
sleeping bag. Each morning after breakfast, the Bean instructors conducted a
low-key, high-value, half-hour class in subjects as various as knot tying,
Whitewater survival and casting into a heavy wind. The casting instructor was a
baby-faced lad named Scot Bealer, and at first some of the mossbacks among the
student body looked askance at the youngster—well, he was actually 25 years
old. But Bealer erased all doubts when he walked out on the dock and cast the
entire 90-foot length of the fly line with only two, maybe three,
Five boats were
available to the party, and every day the Bean instructors rotated from one to
another, ostensibly so each could share his superior skills and knowledge with
the students. But since the salmon weren't biting and the prey was the
omnivorous brook trout, the need for sage advice was at a minimum. The closest
thing to a hot tip, in fact, was provided by Hetzer. He was poking through his
fly boxes late on the first morning when he came up with a bundle of fur laced
with hook points—a cluster of tangled mouserats.
"I don't know
why I brought these along," he said doubtfully. "They're really bass
flies, I guess. I picked them up at a little tackle shop on the Au Sable in
Michigan. The owner had tied them himself, and I suppose I felt sorry for him.
I bought out his whole supply."
We were anchored
in a back eddy of the Muskrat River, which feeds Park Lake from the north.
Upstream and across from us lay another boat, and from it, whenever we looked,
Apfel or Doug Joseph, a computer salesman, or Peter Blackman, a paper
distributor, seemed to be fighting another brookie bigger than the last. Since
Hetzer and I both hail from the Midwest, at least originally in my case, we
were damned if we were going to let a trio of New Englanders—Joseph and
Blackman both live in Massachusetts—outfish us. I had noticed a lot of lemmings
running around the cleared area surrounding the lodge, so maybe a rodent
imitation wouldn't be a bad bet to bolster our regional pride. I tied on a
mouserat and cast it to the edge of the main current.
It bounced once,
twice, on the chop, then disappeared in an orange and ivory flurry.
A moment later
Hetzer cast his mouserat to the other side of the boat and was rewarded by
another immediate hookup. For the next half hour we took a fish with every
cast. The guys in the other boat were gaping at us.