Johnny and Billy Cain Outfitters - Leaf River Estuary Lodge, Tasiujaq, Nunavik QC, Canada
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Fishing

The advantage of fishing the estuary compared to the fresh-water section of the Leaf River is that the arctic char, the salmon and the sea-run speckled trout feed vigorously there on the abundant shrimp and small baitfish.  As a result, streamer flies and spoons get quick results. 

Fishing - Click for a larger versionFishing - Click for a larger version

The large sea-run trout in the estuary tend to hide close to rocks and are best caught at low tide. A fly that is particularly effective is the wooley bugger, which provides a good imitation of shrimp and readily fools the trout and char.  Trout can also be caught on surface flies at low tide among the rocks at the edge of the estuary channel.

Fishing - Click for larger version

The char and salmon are strong swimmers and can readily avoid predation by the seals and beluga whales that enter the estuary.  For this reason, char and salmon are generally caught in deeper water via drift fishing.  Flocks of gulls that hover above the feeding char give a clear indication of productive locations. Char will also come into shallow water at high tide in pursuit of prey, in which case shore fishing is highly productive.

Fishing - Click for a larger version
Fishing - Click for a larger version
Sea-run speckled trout
Fishing - Click for larger version
Arctic char

 

Fly Fishing in the Leaf River Estuary
By
Henry (Hank) Smith
Special Assistant
Johnny and Billy Cain Outfitters
hismith@mit.edu
http://www.leafriversport.com

 

Lay of the land:
The estuary of the Leaf River is located between a large falls (about 12 meters high) located at approximately 58 deg. 47' N, 70 deg.15' W and a minor falls at 58 deg. 47' N, 70 deg. 4' W.  A map can be found at the web site of the Leaf River Estuary Lodge (http://www.leafriversport.com). Above the large falls is the Leaf River, which is pure fresh water; below the falls the water is brackish with the salinity depending on the tidal phase.   The minor falls pokes above the water surface only in the final quarter phase of tidal swing. At the maximum tide the large falls disappears; one can go by boat directly from the estuary to the fresh water river without encountering any rapids.  In August, seals and beluga whales swim up into the fresh water river chasing char in their annual migration.  Beluga have been seen over 10 km upstream. Fresh-water seals inhabit the river and the headwaters at Lake Minto 200 miles upstream

In addition to the Leaf River, three streams contribute fresh water to the estuary.

The species:
In the summer the Leaf River Estuary (LRE) contains 3 species of salmonoid: arctic char, Atlantic salmon, and sea-run eastern brook trout (speckled trout).

The char come into the estuary from the Leaf River and perhaps other sources.  The salmon are both estuarian and deep-ocean salmon.  Salmon and char can be caught throughout the estuary, often in deep water where they feed on shrimp and small bait fish, called sand lances. They are long and thin, somewhat like a finger, and have unusually large fins enabling them to leap into the air, presumably to avoid predators. I've seen this phenomenon at night.

The sea-run trout can be found among the rocks at the edge of the channel at low tide, or at high tide among the rocks between the channel and the shore. The trout need the rocks to hide from the seals and beluga whales that come into the estuary.  Trout are not the strong swimmers that the char and salmon are, and hence defend themselves by hiding rather than evasion.

Fly fishing at high tide:
The tidal swing in Leaf Bay is the highest in the world so fly-fishing tactics for high, middle and low tide in the estuary vary greatly.  At high tide I've had the best luck drift fishing from the boat (freighter canoe) of a streamer fly with a weighted head on a sinking line. There is almost always a wind blowing, which also has the benefit of keeping the mosquitoes away.  The guide will motor upwind and then cut the engine and drift.  Sometimes the char can be seen close to the surface, but experience says they are mostly down deep.  Flocks of gulls circulating above and occasionally diving give away the presence of feeding char down deep.  I believe the gulls are picking up fragments of bait fish mangled by the feeding char and salmon, but I have never actually seen what they pick up among the waves.

The char hit hard, and since they are generally big (5 to 20 pounds) they make long runs and show enormous endurance.  When they get close and see the boat they invariably make 1 or 2 more long runs.

I typically use large chartreuse streamer flies with weighted heads to simulate the bait fish.  White flies work equally well. In fact I think just about anything will work when the char are feeding.  They tend to feed voraciously and fill their bellies until they are distended. Once full they stop feeding to digest their burden. When the food is digested they feed again. This has been my observation.  If you happen to hit this feeding sequence just right there can be no better fishing in the world.

The salmon are caught the same way as the char. Although the salmon population was depleted several year ago, their population has come back strongly in recent years. In 2013 about equal numbers of char and salmon were caught. Salmon are known for their ability to leap high in the air, which they generally do once hooked. Salmon carry a parasite that causes red vent disease. For this reason and to allow further recovery of the salmon fishery, clients are urged to return salmon to the water.

I've often brought spin fishermen up with me. Using spoons they get about 3 times as many hits as do my streamer flies.  I assume the acoustic disturbance of the spoon provokes an anger response in the char.  They will often hit the spoon when their bellies are full. The spoon is the preferred lure of the Inuit.

The sea trout are almost never caught from the boat at high tide. They are hiding among the rocks at the bottom. However, from the shore one can have some good fishing for trout in water 10 to 20 feet deep.  I believe the trout and the occasional char or salmon caught at high tide from shore are seeking shrimp. Hence I use a floating line and a 9 or 12 foot leader.  My preferred fly for this is the wooley bugger in green or brown, but I must confess that I have not done all that much experimentation with high-tide shore fishing compared to the experiments I've done from the channel edge at low tide.

I do a lot of salt-water fly fishing in Massachusetts and have perfected the double-hauling technique. I find this particularly useful for casting from the shore. I use either a #8 or #10 rod. 

Fly fishing at low tide for sea-run trout:
At low tide, a clearly defined channel forms in the estuary.  On the south side, where the Leaf River Estuary Lodge is located, there is a flat region a few hundred meters wide that one can wade across to the channel edge and get some spectacular fly fishing.

The large sea-run speckled trout are at the channel edge in great numbers hiding among the rocks and watching the flow bring their food by.  I typically wade out wearing a dry suit so I don't have to worry about falling and filling my waders, which I once did. I wear a life vest because the boat that might rescue me if I happen to fall into the channel is up on the dry rocks of low tide. I place myself on a large flat rock and cast from there using either a floating line or a sinking tip.  If I use a rapidly-retrieved streamer I switch to a sinking line.

I've often caught large trout on every cast from the channel edge using a wooley bugger fly. After about 12 catches it actually gets boring. But this year the shrimp were much smaller than the type of flies I had.  Unfortunately I left at home my box of small nymphs that might otherwise have imitated the shrimp present in the estuary.  If fishing is slow I often take the first trout caught and check his stomach content, and I'd recommend this.  Thereafter I release all trout except perhaps for a bleeder.  Because the trout are so numerous at the channel edge it's easy to conduct experiments with various flies.  Streamers work well. A fast retrieve works best.  They also take pink salmon flies.  If the water is calm, which it seldom is, I'd try a large fly called “the bomber.”  This is a popular salmon fly and works well on char in the river and should excite the trout in the estuary channel as well.  The bomber would be a good idea for shore fishing on a calm evening at high tide.

With trout at the channel edge the most fun is had (at least in my view) with a floating fly that imitates a mouse!!  Isaak Walton noted in the 1600's that trout readily eat mice that happen to fall in the water, and I've found the remains of mice, or lemmings, in the stomachs of trout I caught up in the fresh water Leaf River.  When I've tried the mouse fly at the channel edge the trout fight one another to get at it. This July, on my first cast with the mouse, a large fish swept in immediately and snapped the fly off.  Unfortunately I had only one with me. The mouse is best fished with jerks that produce lots of splashes.  The technique is not elegant but trout love it, and it's fun to observe.

Fly fishing at low tide for salmon and char:
Salmon and char can also be caught from the channel edge, but they are out in the middle of the channel not on the edge as the trout are. Hence long casts are required. An alternative would be to use the boat but anchor on the north side of the channel and cast from the boat.  The char and salmon feed on shrimp if they are numerous, and I've caught char and salmon on wooley buggers.  However, most of the time I've got them on streamer flies. I'd recommend checking the size and color of shrimp at low tide in shallow water and then try to match it; could be lots of fun.

Safety alert:
When the flow of water in the channel slows down to a near stop, leave immediately; the tide has turned. It's amazing and quite scary how fast the water level will rise. Because of the lower falls, the tidal pattern is not sinusoidal at this time, so don't expect a slow rise of water. (I can explain why with equations and graphs if you like, but better to just believe me.)

Low tide from the boat:
At low tide one cannot bring the boat to the rocky shore; however one can stop at the many sand bars that pop up. Fishing from sand bars is sometimes productive. On a previous trip, highly productive fishing for char and salmon was had from the boat at a location midway between the lodge and the lower falls, which become visible at low tide.  Char were caught on nearly every cast.

Final comments:
During your stay at the Leaf River Estuary I'll be reachable by phone at 617-253-6865.  Feel free to call for real-time advice.

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