George Smith poses with a nice brook trout he caught in northern Quebec's Leaf River. Credit: Courtesy of George Smith

As an old brook trout fisherman, I can only hope heaven is as good as the Leaf River in northern Quebec. When death darkens my door, perhaps my eyes will suddenly open on the Leaf, with only an eternity of fishing ahead. Hallelujah!

The fishing on the Leaf is as good as it gets, with brook and lake trout, plus the bonus of an occasional Atlantic salmon.

Because I was an outdoor writer, associated with a TV production company and a travel agency, and executive director of Maine’s largest sportsmen’s organization, I’ve been blessed with many free trips to Alaska, Montana, Quebec and Labrador. In fact, I’d been to the Leaf in 2005 on a free trip to produce TV shows with Harry Vanderweide, host of Northeast Journal.

Normally I don’t return to a place, because there are always new places available, for free. In fact, I’d never paid for a fishing trip out of state before. But one year I returned to the Leaf — and I paid for the trip. That’s how much I love this river.

If trout fishing was an Olympic event, the Leaf River is where you’d hold it. This big river in the northern tundra is a world-class venue. Let me tell you about one morning when we fished “the funnel,” perhaps my favorite place on the river.

Our excellent and experienced guide, Serge, put us ashore about 200 yards below this spot where the river narrows sharply, a mountain of water rushing through and over huge boulders, quiet deep pools of fish along the shore. I hiked to the top of the funnel, passing a complete set of caribou antlers, weathered on the shore right where the animal had dropped them.

The Leaf gives you a lot more than fish. Migrating caribou trot across the tundra, then swim the river – often right where you are fishing. One morning we saw a beautiful silver wolf swimming across a very wide place in the river. We boated up to him for photos. What a thrill! Musk ox and even black bears are sometimes seen beside the river.

But of course, it’s the fishing that brought me back and this particular morning at the top of the funnel will tell you why. A ripple of water flowed about five feet from shore and I casually cast a muddler in brook trout colors. Pow! A huge trout burst through the surface and grabbed the fly. The fight was on, and he took me well into the backing as my 5-weight rod had all the fish it could handle.

When the trout was finally at my feet, I lifted it with my boga grip to check the weight: a hefty 3½ pounds. It is no exaggeration to say the next seven casts caught seven trout between 1½ and 3½ pounds. They all rose to take the muddler on the surface.

Stepping upriver about 20 yards to check out the quiet pool at the top of this run, I gasped. Huge trout lay all over the pool. Switching to a dry fly, a large royal Wulff, I was astonished to see, as soon as it settled on the water, three gigantic trout rose to fight over it.

That pool produced 50 trout for me in about two hours of heavenly angling — none smaller than 1½ pounds. Many were 2½ to 3½ pounds. One was more memorable than the others. He looked big when he splashed to the surface to gobble my fly, and he took me down river in the rapids very quickly, breaking my tippet and stealing my royal Wulff — the only one in my fly box.

Forced to try other flies, I found a few that attracted these trout – but none as successful as the royal Wulff. About a half hour later, another huge trout rose to take a large stimulator, and he too headed quickly into the rapids. But this time I skipped along the shore and kept up with him. After a ten minute battle, he was at my feet — the biggest trout I’d seen in this river — and I carefully photographed him lying in the water, then used the boga grip to check his weight: 4 pounds!

While his weight and girth were surprising, the biggest surprise came when I grabbed the fly to remove it from his jaw. As my fingers reached for the fly, I stared at it in confusion. I was looking at my royal Wulff — not the stimulator I’d cast! It was the royal Wulff that I’d lost about a half hour earlier! On one side of his jaw was my royal Wulff, and on the other side, the stimulator. This was the same fish I’d broken off earlier.

I reattached the Wulff to my line and got back to catching trout on every cast.

One other fish in that pool was memorable. A large lake trout could be seen in the pool — and it chased the trout on my line quite often, sometimes grabbing my trout and fighting for them. Finally, I tied on a large green bass fly and tossed it into the current. On the first drift the laker grabbed it, and the fight was on. I landed him about ten minutes later. He weighed six pounds.

Although the Leaf is famous for its brookies — what they call “speckles” — the river also offers the challenge of lake trout — a tough, strong fish that will give you all the fight you can stand. One day I broke off four big lakers. If you catch a smallish trout — 2 pounds on this river — oftentimes a laker will grab it and fight you for it.

I won’t soon forget one of these lakers. He chased a small trout up to my feet, grabbed it before I could, and took off across the river, as I struggled to stop him. About 150 yards out, he actually broke my line. He wasn’t hooked. He just wouldn’t let go of that brookie. After landing six lakers from 6 to 7 pounds, and breaking off four larger lakers, I can tell you that some of your most remarkable fish will be lake trout.

What I liked

Experienced guides, large brook trout, strong lake trout, magnificent Atlantic salmon, a big noisy river, walks along the shore searching for pools of trout, migrating caribou, a wolf swimming the river, lots of hearty food for breakfast and dinner, delicious shore lunches of potatoes and trout, jet boats skimming over huge submerged boulders, barren rocky tundra as far as you can see, northern lights, comfortable cabins, hot showers, flush toilets, but most of all, the fish and the river that holds them.

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George Smith, Outdoors contributor

George Smith has spent his life advocating for hunters, anglers, wildlife and conservation. He has been awarded many lifetime achievement awards including from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife...