Gravlax, seasoned and ready for curing in the cooler. — Photo by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram
I mentioned last week that I had just gotten back from two weeks of salmon fishing in Labrador.
Back home, I’ve been mostly chasing cod with deep sea fishing rods and heavy weighted jigs, a stark contrast to the tiny flies we were obliged to use in order to catch a few salmon on the Pinware.
The water was low and warm, a repeat of last year, reaching 20 degrees at one point during a particularly hot spell.
For several nights we had no need for a fire in our tent. That’s pretty rare in the “Big Land.” Although the days remained pretty warm and sunny for the entirety of our trip, starry nights did get back to their normally chilly, nippy, typical selves.
That cooled the water to more sensible fishing temperatures. But although we prayed and made sacrifices to the gods of the long rod, no rain fell in Labrador for the entire two weeks we were there.
The water fell lower with each passing day. More and more rocks poked out of the current, created swirling eddies and back currents that messed with our best efforts at proper presentation.
Low water salmon fishing is a difficult business. The fish get lethargic and cranky and are not at all easy to entice to fur and feather. We had to work very hard to hook a couple of fish a day, coaxing them with tiny flies and very light and supple tippets. I was down to size 12 flies and 6-lb tippet.
That’s super slight for the Pinware’s feisty salmon and it’s very difficult to land a fish once you’ve managed to snag a hookup. But no matter; most of them we release anyway. We just keep a few for the camp pot.
Which brings me to the most interesting aspect of this year’s Labrador adventure.
We had a bit of a multicultural experience on the Pinware this season. Last summer, 2012, Matt Brazil and I were in Norway for opening week on the Gaula River. It rained for 48 hours straight, blowing the river into the trees.
The salmon gods are a mischievous and fickle bunch. They must sit around figuring ways to test the nerves and fortitude of us painfully mortal angling souls. But we persevere their wrath, and every so often they see fit to reward us with that joyous reward what we seek so passionately; good fishing.
On a tough fishing day on the banks of the Gaula, we met Pelle Klippinge, a spirited and devoted angler from Sweden. Pelle shared his beat with Matt and I on an afternoon when his fishing partner couldn’t make it to the river. It was a most kind gesture, as his chances at hooking up would have been far greater casting by himself. Nevertheless he saw fit to share his water and we became friends.
We had a grand time fishing and chatting with Pelle. It turned out that he’s not only a fisherman but also a writer and very gifted photographer.
He has written several books on salmon fishing as well as many magazine articles. We invited him to fish with us in Labrador, and on July 12, 2013, I picked him up with his duffle bag and rods at Torbay Airport.
He stayed with me in Spaniard’s Bay for the night and early the next morning we headed for Labrador. It was a very long driving day, but we reached St. Barbe, departure port for the Apollo, just in time for the 6 p.m. crossing. We were at the Pinware by 9 p.m. and just managed to set up our tents before darkness — pulled down the blinds on the “Big Land.”
Incidentally, the infamous Labrador blackflies were on duty, and there to greet us in full force. Pelle had been warned.
We sat around the table in the cooking tent drinking India beer and preparing a fry of blackened moose. Blackening is a Cajun style of frying that creates a wonderful spicy taste on seafood and meat. It is the first time we tried it on moose and it turned out just wonderful.
Pelle had never heard of blackening in his Scandanavian homeland. It isn’t common outside of North America. Pelle was impressed with both the India beer and our cooking.
He promised if we could catch a salmon the next day, he would treat us to a Swedish culinary delight. He called it gravlax. None of us had ever heard of, much less eaten, such a thing. A salmon was caught and we returned to camp as darkness fell once again over Southern Labrador.
I filleted a fine fat grilse and Pelle prepared the marinade of sugar, salt and dill needed to make gravlax. Gravlax literally translates to English as buried salmon. Lax is salmon in Swedish and grav means grave or buried. During the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen, who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. Nowadays it’s made with a dry mix of sugar, dill and coarse sea salt.
Pelle combined the three ingredients and mixed them by shaking in a plastic bag. He laid out the two fillets flesh side up on a sheet of tin foil and coated each liberally with the salt/sugar/dill mixture. Then he placed the two fillets flesh to flesh and wrapped them in the foil.
We placed the fillets in our cooler and left it for 24 hours. The next night when we returned from the river, Pelle took out the fillets and scraped them clean. Then he cut the delicious cured but raw salmon into thin delicate slices. India beers were cracked open and we enjoyed the most delectable appetizer you could possible imagine. It was fine dining Labrador Tent style.
The main course was another salmon, boiled Newfoundland style with round onions, potatoes, and salt beef. We enjoyed international cuisine at its best.
On the last night in camp I cooked up a wicked batch of cod fish and brewis complete with pork scrunchions and onions.
Although we struggled to catch a few fish on the Pinware this season, apparently the fishing was quite good before we arrived. It’s a typical angling line: “You should have been here last week, b’y.”
It’s true though, the angling was quite good in Southern Labrador this summer, that is until the water started drying up with the scorching hot days and scarcity of rain.
We were a tad late showing up. Actually it was my fault. I was off chasing salmon on the Ponoi River on Russia’s Kola Peninsula and put our trip ahead by more than a week. I’ll tell you about Russia another time.
The water was low there as well, but the salmon were biting like crazy just the same. Sorry, boys. Next year we will be on the Apollo and crossing the straits on schedule.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.