Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Salmon Fishing (Guest Article)

Every year a group of my friends travel to the Miramichi River for some Atlantic Salmon fishing.  I have never been, but hope to experience it some day.  I asked one of my friends to put together a story and take some pictures.  This is the story, as told by Jesse Saunders, and it is an outstanding piece of work.  Enjoy!

     Typically the ice runs on the Miramichi River in mid April.    This year the river ran on the 22nd of March.  On only two other occasions since 1830 has the ice run this early.  The age old standard maintains the best black salmon fishing is during and immediately following ice out.  Spawned out Atlantic salmon overwinter in the river, holding in back channels and bogans, waiting for the spring freshet to flush them back to the ocean.  There are, however, other factors in addition to ice run which influence the salmon exodus.   Water temperature and photo period also interact to stimulate the migration back to the ocean, which is timed to meet the influx of sea smelt ascending the river to spawn.  With the fishing season opening on the fifteenth of April most of the black salmon could have already returned to the ocean.  Would water temperatures in the mid thirties and short overcast days hold the fish until the season opened?  Would the fishing be as good as it normally is or would it be poor due to the lack of fish left in the river?  These were the million dollar questions.
     For almost a decade we have made the annual pilgrimage to Upper Blackville to fish for Miramichi black salmon.  We fish the Upper Blackville section of river for several reasons.  Large numbers of fish overwinter here because of the abundance of back channels and islands which provide the slack water they need to rest in.  Unlike areas farther upriver which lose their fish earlier, the fishing in Upper Blackville remains good longer as waves of salmon descending from upriver replenish those fish which have already left for the ocean.  Perhaps the biggest draw for us is the cost to stay here and fish.  Because we have friends with camps on the river who allow us to stay for a nominal fee without hiring their guides, we can fish for half of what other people pay. We bring our own canoes, motors, gear, and food.  Four of us have New Brunswick guides licenses so each boat has the requisite guide.  Most importantly we can come and go as we please and not have to follow someone else’s camp routine which limits our time on the water.  On a typical day of fishing we will be on the river at 5:30 am and return to camp at 7:30 that evening.  If the weather permits we will stop for a brief cook up on one of the many islands. 
     Late in the afternoon of the fourteenth we arrived at the Upper Blackville Bridge after a three and a half hour drive from Fort Kent.  The locals had already begun to burn the grass on the nearby islands and the air was tinged with the acrid smell of smoke.  A few early blackbirds tentatively cackled in the alders along the river bank.  The river ran low and clear.  With great anticipation we carried our canoes to the water and hung our motors.   Several locally built plywood skiffs were already tethered to the bank, waiting for the season to open the following morning. We stood quietly savoring the last of the sun’s warmth before it fell behind the adjacent hill.  Another winter was behind us and in a few minutes I would again feel the familiar throb of my Johnson outboard as we motored along.
"Motoring Up To Mercury Island"
The Miramichi is a riverman’s dream.   The water runs deep.  The channels and bars are well defined. The bottom is beautifully cobbled.   Skeg breaking boulders and rock piles are scarce.  As we turned into the current and headed upriver I thought of all the water we had covered through the years, the salmon landed and the salmon lost, and of the new adventures ahead of us.  Josh turned his Scott canoe down river and headed to the camp to begin preparing supper (homemade fries and a seventeen pound turkey cooked in hot oil).  John and I would make the run upriver past Donnely Brook to the old Sweat homestead to look things over.  Water levels on the Mirimachi fluctuate a great deal and strongly influence where the salmon lay.  A quick look at the river would make finding fish easier in the morning. On the ride back down to camp we saw good fish jumping at the Government Pool, Mud Pool, and along the Pines suggesting there would be plenty of salmon around for opening day.
     Supper proved to be enormously satisfying.  Josh’s culinary skills were impeccable as always.  The Peterson’s rottweilers lingered on our camp porch well into the night, snuffling lustily amongst our coolers, hoping for more leftover fries and crunchy turkey skin.

"An Early Start"
At 5:30 the next morning a good frost had settled on the thwarts and gunwales, but the outboards started crisply and were soon pumping warm water as we rigged our rods and loaded up for the day.  Josh and Tim pulled a hole shot and were off to the Fork and the Knife Pool before John and Barry climbed into my canoe.  We eventually motored past them to the bar at the head of the Mud Pool and set the anchor.  The Mud Pool is more than a pool.  It is a long run of 1000 feet where the main flow of the Miramichi swings into a broad bend leaving a curling seam of slack water along the southern shore.  Salmon traveling down river sweep across the bar at the head of the pool and hold in the current seam.  There are two ways to fish the Mud Pool.  It can be trolled or you can drop fish it.  Drop fishing simply means anchoring and casting (with a sinking fly line), lifting the anchor after a while, drifting back a few feet, resetting the anchor and covering the water with more casts.  Trolling usually produces larger fish but will put the fish off after more than three successive passes.  Drop fishing does not disturb the fish as much and typically produces more fish, but the fish are mostly grilse, not the larger adult salmon we enjoy catching the most.  I wanted to drop fish first because it sometimes just feels nice to cast a fly with a good rod.  My ancient Sage eight weight comfortably launched sixty feet of sinking line into the main flow to my left.  I settled into the old routine:  bracing my knees against the canoe seat and slowly twitched the Renous Special back to me with short strips. 
     We were there only a few minutes when Luther’s head guide motored up with his usual sport (an attorney from Massachusetts) and dropped anchor two hundred feet below us.  Within two minutes the sport had hooked his first fish, a grilse.  The fish was played, landed and released quickly.  A few more minutes of casting and another fish was hooked and landed.  And then he hooked another fish.  “You know, he’s not stripping that fly on the swing.  He’s letting it dead drift,” my always insightful cousin John commented from the canoe seat behind me.  The sport’s raucous laughter and bean town accent irked me. Each time he hooked a fish he whooped and laughed loudly.  I watched him disdainfully; a city boy fishing from another man’s boat.  But he was good.  His casts were relentlessly efficient and precise.  He was disciplined.  He fished the close water first and gradually fanned his casts out covering the farthest water last.  He was using a light rod (not a spey rod) but could easily pick up forty feet of sinking line and with two strokes lay an eighty foot cast.  His technique suggested he had spent considerable time on the water. He was more than likely a man of means whose flies had plied the renowned waters of Labrador’s Pinware and Eagle Rivers.  He had probably tamed many Restigouche, Matapedia, and Bonaventure salmon. So I did exactly what he was doing and I started catching fish.  When you fish away from home it always pays to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from the area’s experts and this guy proved to be a big help.  A dead swing with no retrieve was just what the fish were after. Within an hour I hooked, landed, and released six grilse.  Each fish took on the swing, no twitching or stripping was necessary.  Because the water was so cold the salmon took gently and lethargically.  Most of the time I noticed a vague resistance and raised the rod tip to find that I had a fish on.  The fellow from Boston continued to rack up fish.  He had caught at least a dozen grilse by the time I landed my sixth fish, but he had hooked only one mature salmon and had lost that fish on the second jump.  Barry had been casting unsuccessfully from the front of the canoe and John had not yet wet a line.  It was time to move on so we pulled the anchor and headed upriver to the bridge.

"Josh Tails A Good Salmon"
"Tim Holds The First Fish Of The Season Landed From Josh's Canoe"
     Just below the Upper Blackville Bridge salmon will commonly lay along either shore, but with the low water it was impossible to troll there without immediately putting the fish off.  When we motored through the previous evening we swung out into the slack water behind each of the bridge piers and noticed conditions were ideal for fish to hold there.  Normally with higher water there is too much current behind the concrete piers for the fish to stop and rest for any period of time.  There was now a comfortable six feet of water and enough of a lazy back current to appeal to a salmon.  I lined the canoe up with the seam between the main flow and the back current. Barry and John stripped out their sinking lines and settled down for a good slow troll.  As I drew up to the pier and began to creep under the bridge I jokingly cautioned Barry not to break his rod against the concrete abutment when he set the hook.  Somewhere eighty feet behind us his Golden Eagle lazily cruised the edge of the eddy behind the pier.  A few moments later the tip of his eight weight Sage dipped as a salmon took the fly.  He set the hook with whole hearted, lip ripping commitment.  It was a good salmon, not a grilse, and it immediately took the remaining turns of fly line off his reel and surged into the backing.  His rod buckled deeply, bending down into the cork grip as he tried unsuccessfully to put the box to her.  It was a magical moment of helplessness as a good fish makes its first seemingly unstoppable run.  We have a trick we use when a salmon becomes uncooperative.  Instead of trying to drag her back upriver to us, we back the canoe down to her recovering line as we go.  When we draw alongside the angler drops his rod tip and applies pressure to the side of the boat away from the fish.  This pulls the salmon out of line with the current and forces it to turn and continue fighting.  Barry did this and that got that fish pretty riled up.   She came up hard and fast.  She didn’t shake crazily like a smallmouth but that yard of salmon came down with a ponderous thwack.  It looked like a large toilet had been flushed where she hit the water.  We were in like Flynn.  There was considerable give and take over the next ten minutes. There were a couple of close calls.  Once, when I was trying to tail her on the motor side of the canoe (always a bad idea) she dove, surged under the boat, and started to thrash and jump on the other side.  I had to lift the foot of the outboard and feed the line out and around the rear stem so Barry could continue fighting without breaking his rod tip.  Eventually he drew the salmon alongside and I was able to tail her, remove the hook and release her.  We continued working the edges of the slack water behind each pier and landed several more good fish, all of them between 31 and 34 inches in length.  

"Barry With A Representative Fish"
     Just above the bridge is a large island that is nearly a half mile long.  At the foot of this island is a stretch of calm water that is a common holding spot for traveling fish.  Usually several local boats are anchored here drop fishing.  Today was no different.  A thousand feet above this island is a second island where Barry landed his largest salmon ever, a few years ago.  I have never seen a local boat fish this spot.  I can only surmise that no one bothers fishing here because they all focus on the mouth of Donnely Brook (a very productive but heavily pressured location) a few hundred feet upstream.  We headed up to “Barry’s” island.  We had also checked this spot out the night before on our reconnaissance run.  The ice run had been particularly violent this year due to the sudden spell of extremely warm weather in mid March. In several places the plowing ice had changed the pools and runs the salmon lie in.  Behind Barry’s island was one such spot.  The deepest cut of calm water was no longer centered below the island but had moved fifty feet to the right (as you face upstream) against the edge of the right hand channel.  I motored up the left channel and sneakily side slipped the canoe over to the very foot of the island.  Barry quietly lowered the anchor and we sat there for a few minutes anticipating what was to transpire.  I took my rod, turned to the back of the canoe, and set my knees against the rear seat.  I shook out a few coils of line and watched it snake through the guides.  I flicked a few short casts out the left side, first covering the nearest edge of the most promising water.  The blue smelt drifted through unmolested.  On the third drift I felt the line tighten and I set the hook.  It was a two foot long grilse.  He gave a good showing of himself but I had him alongside in a couple of minutes.  The next cast produced a carbon copy of the first fish.  This one was also landed and released in short order.  By the next cast my fly was drifting through the middle of the best water and a good salmon struck solidly.  As I brought up the rod tip she turned and bullied her way out of the slack water.  As soon as her flank caught the main current she took off like a kite in a gale and burned out fifty feet of fly line and backing.  She didn’t cotton to being attached to me and came up in a classic Atlantic salmon leap; standing on her tail and throwing the hook.  “Those stupid barbless hooks,” Barry offered from the front of the canoe.  Even though you plan on releasing all your fish it still hurts to lose one.  Feeling the thickness of the tail as you grasp a salmon between its adipose and caudal fins and support its head and front shoulders in your other hand is a sublimely satisfying feeling of completion.  That wasn’t going to be happening with this fish.  My hands had just been deemed unsuitable for the task.  I resumed casting and in a few minutes hooked and released another grilse.   Things got quiet after that.  After thoroughly covering all the water on both sides of the canoe for another half hour, the urge to find more big fish prodded us onward.  We continued; alternately trolling and drop fishing as we made our way upriver toward Mercury Island.  We fished Donnely Brook, the Stop Sign Pool, the Ledges, and the Sweat homestead.  At noon time we stopped and briefly conferred with Josh and Tim. They had been having good luck as well, landing mostly adult salmon.  Tim was using a dark fly pattern called the skunk.  Between both canoes we had already released more than thirty fish not including the occasional brook trout which were becoming collateral damage to our salmon flies.  Tim had landed and released a handsome hen that was 38 inches long (a bologna).  

"Tim Holds A Bologna"

By mid afternoon the fishing had slowed considerably.  The salmon were short taking and most were getting off before we could land them.  We expected things to improve as evening approached.  We had managed to land and release twenty one salmon and grilse from my canoe thus far.  At six o’clock we met up with Tim and Josh.  John climbed into the monstrous Scott square stern.  John was in charge of supper for the night and the guys would run him back to the camp so he could prepare the evening meal.  Barry and I motored back up to the bridge hoping to dredge up a few more fish before dark.  On the first pass behind the piers Barry hooked another good salmon just as we drew up under the bridge.  This was another 36 incher and I encouraged him to go easy on her.  She surged out into the backing.  Barry didn’t like the look of lime green backing on his reel spool and he palmed the reel aggressively trying unsuccessfully to break her run.  “Let her do what she needs to.  This is the last good fish of the day and we should savor the fight,” I suggested.  The sun had settled behind the nearby hill and a cool chill consumed us.  Tendrils of mist were settling over the water.  We had entered the bewitching hour.  For salmon fishermen and deer hunters it is the last mystical hour of the day that holds the greatest promise.  Far behind us Barry’s salmon leapt into the air and crashed back into the river.  It was a beautiful thing to see.  The only thing that could have made a more perfect image would have been a steady, light rain breaking the surface of the river with a myriad of raindrops.    I shifted the motor into reverse and slowly backed down to the uncooperative fish.  Barry played her hard and fast just like he always does.  I tailed her, removed the hook, and as I was lifting her for a picture she gave a desperate lunge and twisted free, falling out over the gunwales into the river.  “That’s nice.  My two best fish of the day and we have no pictures of them,” Barry complained.  “Listen, I would have been the one holding them and no one would have believed that you caught them anyway,” I quipped.   We picked up two more salmon (both were 32 inchers) and a grilse before we turned the canoe down river and headed back for supper. The final total for my canoe for the day was twenty-five fish.  Even a twenty fish day is a good day of spring fishing on the Miramichi.  We were pretty satisfied with the results and we had two more days to fish.  We made an honest effort and we had been reasonably rewarded, something that doesn’t happen all that often back at home in Maine.  

"John Lands A Good Fish On The Second Morning"

"A Handsome Hook-Jawed Male"
 As I motored through the Mud Pool in the twilight my thoughts drifted back many years to a large salmon we had lost there on a similar evening.  Tim had hooked her in a steady rain.  Barry was in the front of the canoe playing another salmon at the same time.  Tim’s fish was much larger and I was focused on helping him first.  She was a ponderous hen comfortably over forty inches (one of the very best we had ever hooked).  When he finally drew her alongside I reached down to tail her but the neck in front of her tail was too large for me to firmly grasp.  She took to thrashing and sprained my wrist as she crocodile rolled free, tumbling under the canoe and cutting the leader on the kevlar skid plate covering the rear stem.  We never got a picture of that fish either.  But we were okay with that.  Tonight after our bellies were filled, the dishes were washed and the camp windows were steamed up we would talk about that fish. 

"Playing A Salmon At The Mud Pool"

1 comment:

  1. Annual group travel with friends is really good time to bond and reunite with them.

    Ketchikan Fishing Tours