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photo by Nome Buckmanphoto by Nome Buckman

The Big Land is synonymous with large brook trout, but the villainous other half of that watery marriage is, shhhhhhh—PIKE. Unlike most anglers, I went to Labrador specifically to target these far northern predators.

My destination for this trip is the Atikonak River in Labrador, Canada, which is a rugged, vast, unspoiled, and completely untapped watershed. Located 100 miles due east and slightly south of the city of Wabush, the only way in is a 45-minute floatplane ride. The numerous rivers connected to lakes connect to what is called string bogs, which are impenetrable and go on for miles. Every now and again you see dark red water which is caused by iron. Rocks in southern Labrador are so rich in iron that most of the country’s iron ore is mined along a small section of the Labrador-Quebec border.

My stay is at the Riverkeep Lodge, which is a family business run by Steven and Cathy Murray. Along with their teenage son and daughter, the Murray’s have owned and operated the lodge for the past 10 years. It’s impressive and heartwarming to see this family in action. Their way of life inevitably spills over to every client. By the end of the stay you aren’t saying goodbye to strangers you met a week ago, but to a new branch of the family.

This lodge is the only outfitter on the Atikonak watershed which stretches for over 50 miles. Only 25 anglers a year are lucky enough to fish here. This is a catch and release, debarbed, fly fishing only lodge that offers fishing for five different species:  Brook Trout, landlocked Atlantic Salmon, Lake Trout, rubenesque Whitefish, and my favorite, Northern Pike.

Donna with one of her first landlocked salmon

Pike are considered a nuisance in Labrador by visiting anglers looking to chase big brookies or landlocked salmon. Lodge owners have even been told that “the fishing would be fantastic if you killed all the pike.” I find there is a lot of angler animosity for this misunderstood predator in the states, particularly back in my home state of Maine.

I arrived in Labrador with only state-side pike fishing experience. I normally describe fishing for pike as “oh, shiny—eat it” regardless of color, shape, or size. Which is exactly what I thought would be the case in Labrador, especially given they have little to no fishing pressure.

So not the case.

Pike key in on what is plentiful and each species has its own area of preferred water. Knowing where the different species live will allow you to “match the hatch.” Fast, rocky water is where the trout and land-locked salmon are. Deep water is where lake trout dwell. Whitefish, which possess one of the highest food values in this fish-eating-fish pecking order, frequent all these zones and are the unfortunate main course. Look for pike sitting in the slow, shallow water adjacent to all of these water types and base your fly on what species will most likely be near this area. Labrador pike are not as easy as I expected, especially the larger fish in the 15+ pound range.

The most surprising revelation for me, however, was that Labrador pike acted just like musky. Normally, pike aggressively attack a fly that comes into their feeding area. Most Labrador pike would follow the fly back to the boat and, if the fly paused, the pike would just stop a few feet away and stare at the fly as to say, “well, ya gonna run?” On occasion, fish were willing to eat further out, but most followed the fly to the boat. The eats boatside came with a sharp change in direction of the fly. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this was what’s known as a figure 8, where you place the tip of the rod in the water moving the fly in a Figure 8 pattern. This keeps the fly moving and constantly changing directions. This was key to enticing an eat in Labrador, especially with the larger fish.

A beautiful lake trout

Not only did these pike act like musky, but some of them also had greener sides that looked like northern musky. When these fish were first caught in this system a number of years ago, they sent DNA samples to be tested to make sure musky had not been introduced. They are, in fact, native pike that have evolved with clear green sides. Pretty wild to see up close, the evolution continues.

I tried many fly color combinations during this trip -- olive, black and red, all black, yellow, and white, with white being the top color choice. Pike did not respond to olive at all; they showed an instant hate for it. I used Reel North Flies, and each of the shredded flies you see caught many pike. Surface flies had a different response. I tried aggressive poppers without success. The best producing surface fly was a lemming swimming on the surface only. They went bananas for it. The way they would breach like sharks, mouth wide open to inhale a six-inch lemming imitation is forever etched in my mind. I landed more fish than I could possibly count.

Labrador has massive caddis and salmon fly hatches that bring the fish to the surface. I love to streamer fish, but the hatch was something I couldn’t ignore. It’s interesting to see all five species in a single area interacting. In huge back eddies, the whitefish try to hide in the foam, sucking down trapped caddis, while landlocked salmon and brookies pick around the edges of the foam. Constantly on the move and below are lake trout and pike, waiting to eat someone who made a wrong turn.

Tina admires her whitefish

One thing I can absolutely guarantee is you won’t go hungry at this lodge!  The “Lunch Bar” is an elongated peninsula of gravel in the middle of our fishing grounds where a wood fire lunch is prepared daily. With the cool weather in Labrador, everyone is extremely grateful for hot food and drinks. Breakfast is lumberjack hearty, enough to keep you until lunch, and when it’s dinner time at 6 p.m. you are shocked at how hungry you are until you remember how many hours you have been fishing. The Murrays are all about quality comfort food and everyone’s belly is always smiling.

My pike horizons have expanded exponentially with being able to concentrate on them for most of the week in Labrador. Usually, pike are bycatch and I never really take a close look at them. I’m now very curious to know how different it would be to fish for pike all over the world. What other species have pike had a direct influence on shaping?

With five different species to fish for, surrounded by stunning raw wilderness, amazingly wonderful people to keep you safe, warm, dry, and well-fed, it’s really, really difficult to be disappointed with Labrador and Riverkeep Lodge. A winning combination that makes a bucket list fishing destination live up to anglers’ expectations.