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September/October 2011 | by Mary Simon

Gone Fishing is a great term, often used figuratively when one is shutting down business for a while or, in my own case, taking a break from Inuit politics, policy and programs. But it’s an even better term used literally, when you can tell the office that you have actually “gone fishing” and come back with the big fish to prove it.

This summer’s journey was more than a fishing trip, it was a discovery of my own backyard, and the bountiful Koksoak River that flows by my home community of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, and empties into Ungava Bay about 50 kilometres downstream.

When I was a child, we lived by the shores of the Koksoak, but we really grew up on the George River, about 160 kilometres east, where my parents, Bob and Nancy May, built and operated the first hunting and fishing camps in the region — initially at Helen’s Falls and later at Pyramid Mountain.

Salmon fishing was the big attraction, and my brothers and sisters and I were all involved. Big or small, young or old, we knew our roles. The boys were guides on the river — in Johnny’s and Billy’s case, just until they were old enough to become pilots and fly my father’s small airplane, bringing in guests and supplies. My sisters and I worked with our mother in the kitchen.

We all learned to tie salmon flies, which we sold to guests. If they hooked a mighty Atlantic salmon on one of our flies, we knew a big tip of five or even ten dollars was coming — and make no mistake, in the economy of the late 1950s or early ’60s, we would feel quite rich. What we did not do was fish for salmon. My father knew the big fish were our real bread and butter. They were for guests only, and in retrospect, he was right.

Since my husband and I moved back to Kuujjuaq four years ago, we’ve made it a point to spend part of each summer exploring — either travelling in our freighter canoe along Ungava Bay or camping and fishing with my brother Billy and his family.

We have caught our share of trout, char and salmon. But this July was different. We spent our time on the river itself, and, finally, I experienced the excitement of hooking a big trophy salmon, the size that kept all those guests coming back to my parents’ camp 50 or more years ago.

We were with my brothers Bob and Billy and their families and we hit what my husband Whit called the “mother lode” of salmon. One after another, we were hooking fish — in my own case, two huge salmon, each about 20 pounds and one right after the other. Each one took more than half an hour to land. For me it was more than the thrill of catching the fish, it was also learning from my brothers about this unique species of Atlantic salmon.

In Kuujjuaq they are simply called “estuary salmon,” which means they don’t migrate into the wider ocean in search of food. It’s believed the mouth of the river is so rich in nutrients that they don’t need to follow the ocean currents. It may also mean they are less susceptible to being fished commercially, and as a consequence, their numbers appear to be growing.

They also seem to be getting larger, up to 25 pounds or 100 centimetres, whereas 25 years ago their maximum length was a little more than half that. There are subtle physical differences from the salmon in the George or other noted salmon rivers. For instance, the heads are smaller, they don’t appear to have as many scales and they are a paler shade of salmon pink. As for taste, however, our local experts maintain the ocean-run salmon are more favourable.

Most importantly, they have the same fighting spirit on the line, diving, jumping, twisting and rolling, trying to shake free from the hook. Many are successful — but not these two. These are in our freezer ready for some fantastic dinners that will follow. Now it’s time to change the sign to “Back at Work”!