Living up North in Nunavik we often get to go fishing, but for most of us non-native, it is not every day we get the chance to do so while sharing the Inuit way of life at camp. Johnny & Billy Cain Outfitters offer just that. During a weeklong stay at their Leaf River Estuary Lodge last summer, facilitating the Hooké film crew on an episode shoot, we not only had plenty of occasions to catch fish, but also made a genuine connection with the Inuit of Tasiujaq, who welcomed us with open arms.
Soon after First Air lands the group of avid fly fishermen in Kuujjuaq, we depart on Air Inuit’s scheduled flight to Tasiujaq, a small Inuit community located at the mouth of the Leaf River. Upon arrival, a pickup truck brings us down a winding road to this charming village from which the beauty of Leaf Bay is striking.
Normally, we would proceed to the Leaf River Estuary Lodge by boat, but strong winds prevent us from venturing out to sea. We will have to spend the night. Fortunately, there is just enough room at the local Iqaluppik Hotel for the film crew of five while my daughter Niivi and I have family here who can take us in, giving us a chance to reconnect. It will also give us a chance to explore. Our host, Billy Cain, also happens to be the mayor and offers to show us around town. On the hills overlooking the community, we preview the Leaf River, flowing behind in the valley, where we hear wolves howling.
The tide is high
As soon as the tide comes up the next day, we are on our way. It’s still a bit choppy on the bay, but our guides have salt water in their blood and manoeuvre the outboard-powered freighter canoes as if it is smooth sailing. A few nautical miles later, we enter at the Leaf River Estuary, ready to settle at the Inuit fishing camp — our home away from home for the week.
Built by Johnny Cain, the Leaf River Estuary Lodge is entirely Inuit-owned and operated by the Cain family and other Tasiujaq residents it employs. The rustic lodge is comfortable, complete with separate sleeping quarters, a modern kitchen and dining room, running water, toilets and hot showers, all powered by the clean energy provided by a wind turbine and solar panels.
Concerned with the sustainability of this important ecosystem that Kuugaaluk, the mighty Leaf River, is to the Inuit of Tasiujaq, Johnny & Billy Cain Outfitters only welcome a limited number of privileged clients each summer. “This is where we catch fish to feed our families, but also where we find caribou, hunt seal and beluga whales,” explains Billy.
Taking its source in Minto Lake, nearly from the other coast of Nunavik, the Leaf River makes its way across the region, creating a boundary between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra as it runs over 480 kilometres along the tree line before emptying into Ungava Bay. The brackish waters of the estuary are subject to some of the world’s highest tides and with them come bountiful schools of hungry Arctic char, Atlantic salmon and sea-run speckled trout. While feeding insatiably on these nutrient-rich waters, the voracious fish will pounce on anglers’ bait without hesitation, something we’re all eager to experience.
As we awake the next morning, the tide is at its lowest, making it impossible to go fishing by boat. But there’s no need to wait for the tide to turn to cast our lines. Just a few steps away lies the estuary’s channel, where large sea-run trout lurk behind the rocks in the shallows at the edge of the deep canal. Indeed, they are waiting for us and before I can even park the kayak that we brought along to ensure our safe return to the camp, Niivi has already hooked a nice sized aanak (trout).
Soon, everyone’s lure is getting hit. We’re having so much fun fishing, time literally flies by! As the tide turns, it is our cue to head back to shore. It’s incredible how quickly the water rises. With the tide bringing us in, we don’t need to paddle very hard to make it back in time for lunch.
In the afternoon, we set out to fish alongside the riverbanks. Niivi and I ride in Johnny Cain’s canoe with his seven-year-old grandson Joshua, slowly trolling as we drift away in bliss, enjoying the fresh air under the sun. Fish follow our lures and one little salmon is so eager to grab a spoonful of my hook, he practically jumps on my lap. I quickly release him back to the water, where he’ll grow big and strong.
Meanwhile, the Hooké crew cruises farther out, casting flies from Billy Cain’s aluminum boat, following flocks of seagulls. Having already landed their sea-run trout on the fly this morning, they are now on a quest for Arctic char and Atlantic salmon to complete what they call the Arctic Grand Slam. It is a challenge they achieve, although not without a fight, as some heavy pulls ultimately ensue in these Northern parts.
More than just tales of fish tails
Being out at camp with Johnny & Billy Cain Outfitters is more than just a great opportunity to fish but also allows us to experience the Inuit lifestyle daily. The Inuit tradition is based on sharing and this cultural trait is certainly reflected in the way they welcome us to their homeland. Both Billy and his father Johnny are very generous with their time and the ancestral knowledge and traditional skills they share with us.
Everyday Johnny gathers fish in their nets with his grandson Joshua and the young guides working at the Lodge, teaching them to clean and filet them properly, the way he had learned from his elders. While Billy is busy in the kitchen frying fish or making caribou stew or steaks for dinner, Johnny prepares the fish to dry, showing how to make pitsik, an Inuit delicacy.
In a fast-changing world, it’s important for Johnny, as for most Inuit, to move forward, adapt and evolve, while keeping their traditions alive and staying true to their culture. “To keep our traditions strong, we have to show our children,” he states. We were fortunate to witness this firsthand, as Billy took his son Charlie seal hunting on his 18th birthday. The thrill of the hunt was felt by all of us. Sharing such a meaningful and solemn event, gave us a true connection with our hosts. Seeing the care that went into harvesting every bit of the animal, with as little waste as possible, just reinforced the deep respect I already had for Inuit people.
Check out www.leafriverestuarylodge.com for more information on the Leaf River Estuary Lodge and book your own fishing adventure with Johnny & Billy Cain Outfitters by calling Henry Smith at 617-253-6865 or Billy Cain at 819-633-5498 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hooké’s second season kicked off in April on Unis TV with the episode on the Leaf River Estuary Lodge. Their exceptional adventure with Johnny & Billy Cain Outfitters also spawned an exclusive short film entitled Nakurmiik, to thank the Inuit people of Nunavik, which can be viewed at vimeo.com/192185389. More information about the Hooké fly fishing community can be found at hooke.ca.