When you’re 750 miles from home and a three-hour drive from any medical help, an angler has no choice but to become his own general practitioner.
At least that’s what I kept telling myself last week as I sat in a boat in the middle of Lac Barbel in Gagnon, Quebec.
Did I mention there was a nice trout flopping at my feet? And did I mention there was a rather gaudy size 10 orange stimulator fly firmly embedded in my little finger?
I didn’t? Well, we’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, it’s important that I mention the fishing trip that I went on with my friends Pete Warner, Chris Lander, Bill Lander and Tim Lander, was actually very enjoyable, and an unqualified success.
We spent seven days at Tim Lander’s camp, which he calls Timbuktu Lodge, and we had a great time. We caught fish. We ate like hogs. We laughed like loons.
Nobody broke any bones. Nobody fell in a lake, or a river, or a stream.
We did break Chris’s truck (twice) and Pete’s heavy casting rod. We did get a flat tire. And I did bleed a bit.
All things considered, though, on a trip to a remote former mining town in the middle of almost nowhere, I’d say that things went very well indeed.
Except for the flat tire. And Chris’s truck. And Pete’s rod. And my finger.
Ah … the finger. For those of you who don’t tend to impale yourselves with sharp pieces of metal, here’s what “firmly embedded” meant in this context.
It meant the hook had sunk into my flesh beyond the barb (which I had forgotten to flatten because the fish were rising like crazy and I just had to get a fly in the water as quickly as I could). “Firmly” meant it wouldn’t come out without some (hopefully) minor surgery. “Firmly” also meant there was going to be blood (mine), or screaming (ditto), or a combination of the two.
Luckily, I always wanted to be a doctor. Unluckily, seeing my own blood and listening to my own screaming were never part of my medical school dream.
The surgery, if not painless or quick, was relatively straight forward. Warner trimmed the feathers and thread off the fly. Then I snipped off the hook’s eye and pushed, and pushed, and pushed, until (eventually) the point of the hook popped out through the skin in another spot.
From there, it was a relatively simple process: Grab the hook’s point with pliers and pull the metal spear all the way through my finger. (Scream and bleed as necessary).
“I could have gotten that out for you in no time,” Tim Lander told me when we returned to shore.
Of that, I’m certain.
I’m also quite sure that there would have been far more screaming and bleeding involved in his yet-to-be-patented fishing-line-yank-a-roo method of hook retrieval.
Making a trip to Gagnon
Tim Lander chose Lac Barbel as the site of a remote fishing camp more than a decade ago, and regularly visits his retreat in the Quebec wilderness.
Getting to Timbuktu Lodge is really pretty simple. All you have to do, more or less, is drive five or six hours to Quebec City. Turn right and head east along the St. Lawrence River for five or six hours to Baie Comeau. Turn left and head north toward Labrador City for five or six more hours.
Then, barring breakdowns or flat tires or forest fires that block the main highway, you arrive in Gagnon, Quebec, and Lac Barbel.
For a time, Gagnon was an actual town. Mine workers lived there, and worked at the nearby iron mine. A hotel sat beside the lake, as did a couple of schools, a hockey rink and a running track.
In the mid-1980s, mine operations stopped. The town was bulldozed.
Today, few reminders of that boom exist. Chief among those: Pavement, a median strip, and manhole covers. Those signs of life, after dust-busting up gravel Route 389 for several hours to Gagnon, is disconcerting, to say the least.
The roadside hills show signs of past neighborhoods, though the alders have taken over the actual home lots that once existed.
A few folks, including Tim Lander, have private camps on the lake. There’s an airstrip at the northern edge of town.
And then, there’s nothing but more road, more trees, and more wilderness.
That, and more water.
And as you can imagine, it’s the water that draws Tim Lander and his friends back to Gagnon, time after time after time.
The fish here aren’t huge as a rule, but a few impressive trout are caught each trip. But the variety of fishing available for those willing to get off the beaten path is hard to beat.
In a single day an angler could troll for brook trout on Lac Barbel, cast dry flies to trout on the lake or any of a number of nearby streams, throw heavy lures toward lake trout, pike or whitefish on a raging river below a Hydro Quebec dam, or hike into a remote pond for a private fishing experience that’s tough to top.
We may not have accomplished all that in a single day (no sense wearing yourself out, I figure), but we did take advantage of the opportunities to do all kinds of fishing on a wide variety of waters.
On one memorable afternoon, I caught and released a dozen trout on dry flies in an hour or two of casting. None were huge. Some were medium. Most were small.
Regardless, Tim Lander nearly had to pry me off the stream so that we could head back to camp for another hearty meal.
Then, after the meal was done, we were forced to make the most pressing decision we faced all week long: Where are we going to fish now?
Searching for a game hog
Part of the fun (and a lot of the ribbing) at Timbuktu revolves around an informal competition for the coveted (or dreaded) title of “Game Hog.”
In order to become “Game Hog,” all you’ve got to do is catch the most fish, or keep the most fish, or catch the biggest fish. At least, as far as I’ve been able to determine, that’s what the competition is all about.
Of course, I’ve only spent four weeks on Lac Barbel over the past 10 years, so many of the finer points are still a mystery to me.
As you may be able to tell, the criteria for the Game Hog … um … honor is not set in stone, and truth be told, it seems that Tim Lander already knows who the hog is going to be before the slopping even starts.
This year (again) Warner was the top hog, even though he will be the first to tell you that he didn’t catch as many fish as he’d hoped. He didn’t catch the biggest fish, either.
He did, however, land a trout while fishing from “Timmy’s Rock” below a dam the Landers call “Fifty Foot Falls.” And catching a fish while perched upon your host’s favorite fishing platform (even if the host demanded that you take that productive spot) is a surefire way to end the Game Hog competition in a hurry.