Walking through a graveyard to fish the beyond

Story by Mark Hume with Photos by Nick Didlick

Through the murky window of the trailer the parts strewn on the deck and scattered around the yard slowly come in to focus. They are bits and pieces from float planes and appear to have been scavenged from wrecks.

There are more parts, newer, half spilled from boxes on the desk where the battered coffee pot sits. The pilot pours himself another cup, his third, looks out at the sky through bleary eyes and shakes his head.

There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots, he says, repeating a clich at least as time worn as he is.

I sigh. Look at the beat up old couch where he has apparently been sleeping, peer down into the cup filled with a corrosive substance he says is coffee, and wonder for a moment what the hell we have gotten into.

And then I think about the 20 hours of driving that got us here. There is no turning back now. We drove until we ran out of pavement, came to the end of a rutted dirt road and we are flying in as soon as the weather breaks. We came for big trout. And we are ignoring the graveyard of discarded aircraft parts, the ramshackle state of the pilot’s quarters, and the warning light that keeps telling me a guy who can’t keep his coffee pot clean probably can’t keep his fuel filter clean either.

I turn to Harvey, who first tracked down the rumours of Lake X, and to Nick, who has travelled all the way from Vancouver with me on the promise of big, big fish.

I think we should still try it, I say. They nod. No need for discussion.

Sometimes you go a long way out, and you find that the lake is frozen and that spring is five weeks lake. People say they have never seen such a late spring in these parts. Never. But all you know is that the clock is ticking and each day that you wait for the melt to begin, you get a day closer to going back to work.
Finally the bush pilot says, Well, we can go and if there is too much ice we will just turn back. At $500 one way that’s a bit of a gamble, especially when just that morning you woke up to find the coffee left out on the deck had frozen overnight.
But Lake X is so close and one of the guys says, If we did get in, we’d be the first this year.

So we take the charter. We are flying over a mountain to look at a lake that, according to a local chopper pilot who flew over it just a day earlier, is still frozen solid.
If the float plane can’t land, we can always find that chopper and go in that way, suggests Harvey. Fifteen hundred bucks probably. Chop holes in the ice. We nod as if this makes sense. We have tipped over into crazy land, and nothing is going to stop us from getting to that lake now.

The Cessna takes off, sluggish on the sticky, windless lake that is ice-free because it is a thousand feet lower. The plane tilts on one wing to turn southeast. There are no roads anywhere. I watch the dark woods for moose or bear. But nothing moves. As we come over the ridge I see the ice flows on the lake. It looks bad, shimmering blue and white patches, but as we get closer the pilot says there are open leads.

The water is a different color, he says. Kinda darker. Shiny. See it?
It all looks like ice to me, but he didn’t get old by being bold, so we go in, and 30 feet from the deck find a long ribbon of black water close to shore. It is only after the float plane leaves that we wonder what will happen if it gets cold and the lake freezes solid again.

But that doesn’t happen. Each day it gets warmer. Open water grows. Spring is cracking the lake wide open. You can hear the soft, slushy sound of ice candles falling. The water is cold and clear and at night there are distant wolves. We find moose racks on the shore.
And we find the trout too; big rainbows, feeding hard after a long winter. At first we weighed them 12 lbs, 14 lbs, 18 lbs but after awhile we stopped. It didn’t matter how big they were or how many there were. But it began to matter how we caught them. I gave up on the heavey, weighted leeches that we were catapult casting and found the fish would take a nymph hung in the surface film. In the distance snow capped mountains shone in the setting sun. The sky flared red. And near me, in the dark water that had been ice only days ago, the trout humped their backs as they pulled the line down.

At one point I thought,

What did I do to deserve this?
Then I remembered, I drove 1,000 miles, walked through the graveyard of lost parts and rolled the dice on a float plane trip to a frozen lake. I coulda stayed home and fished the safe water.

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