Canada’s Classic Fishing Lodges,
Text by John St. Louis & John Townley
Wilson ‘s Sporting Camps Ltd. is one of the oldest fishing lodges and outfitters in Canada . The Wilson family has been in business at its unique location in McNamee , New Brunswick , since 1928, when Willard Wilson and his wife, Sarah, began outfitting and accommodating anglers lured by the famed Atlantic salmon runs of the Miramichi River . An outfitting and guide service was a natural fit for Willard, as his ancestors had been fishing and guiding on the Miramichi River since the mid – 1800’s. Willard’s great-grandfather John Wilson settled on the same property in 1803, just a few hundred yards from the banks of the tempting Miramichi.
In the early nineteenth century, salmon from the Miramichi provided an important source of food for the isolated early pioneers of the area, in addition to providing great sport. Perhaps John Wilson was the source of his family’s affinity with the river. He was an “inspector of fishing” on the river between 1810 and 1814, and subsequent generations of Wilsons have embraced the family’s traditional reliance on the Miramichi River and the woods surrounding it, including its current proprietors, Keith Wilson and his wife, Bonnie.
Before the arrival of their first guest in 1928, Willard and Sarah ran a country store from their house. Possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit, Willard also provided amateur veterinary and undertaking services for other citizens of the isolated community. It is uncertain if Willard simply fell into the fishing business or if it was a calculated move; however, it is known that the first guests of Wilson ‘s Sporting Camps came as a result of hearing tales of the opulent salmon fishing from Willard’s daughter, Marie Grace. Perhaps it was Marie Grace’s enthusiasm that drove her father into harnessing the bounty of the river.
As a registered nurse, Marie worked at Dick’s House, the infirmary at Dartmouth College in Hanover , New Hampshire . It was here that she met many doctors and professors, some of whom were avid anglers. The first “sports” (as fishing clients are affectionately called in the eastern provinces) to make the trip at Marie ‘s suggestion were Dr. and Mrs. John Gile. Other early guests were Harry Wellman, professor of marketing at Dartmouth ‘s famous Tuck School ; Halsey Edgerton, treasurer of the college; and Nat Burleigh – all of whom became frequent and loyal guests. They each paid a fee of $8 a day, which included legendary home-cooked meals, accommodations and guide services provided by the Wilson ‘s sons, Murray and Thomas.
Here, Thomas Wilson describes hooking a fish with early guest Harry Wellman:
Harry went around the ledge and got into the boat and we started fishin’. It was a pretty deep pool and we fished maybe an hour and by and by he hooked this fish. That would be about eleven o’clock . Well, we played it for quite a while and he says ‘By God, Tom, that’s an awful salmon.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it just put you in mind of a pig jumpin’. And it did – you know, when he came down in the water with a big splash. I says ‘I don’t know if we’ll ever land that or not.’ But there was a rock down below us about 60 feet and what did that salmon do but went right around that rock and the line went around it, and he come up on the other side. And Harry says ‘I’m caught.’ I said ‘Don’t do a thing. I’ll wade out there and see if I can trip him.’ And I did. And boys that salmon went. He was jumpin’ then and we played him there for four hours and fifteen minutes. Harry hung right onto her. He was so played out the next day he couldn’t fish. Finally I waded out by this rock – the water was over it. So when he could get the fish dropped down by the rock I had a pretty good chance to put the gaff in him. When he did come down, I put the gaff in him and started and he started and took me right off me feet. I went right down in the water on my knees but I held it to him, and then I got him around and got him in on shore. We were both played out. I think that fish weighted 38 pounds and some ounces. We won the Rod & Reel prize that year.
Tales of the phenomenal fishing quickly spread throughout Dartmouth College campus, and Dartmouth staff and faculty came in ever-increasing numbers. For the first decade as an Atlantic salmon camp, Wilson ‘s was essentially the college’s private fishing club. Strong friendships emerged between early Dartmouth clients and the Wilson family. In 1934, at Professor Wellman’s suggestion, Willard Wilson Jr. returned to Hanover with him and enrolled in high school, as there were no secondary schools in the Upper Miramichi area at the time. James Wilson followed three years later with Halsey and Mrs. Edgerton. Both boys went on to graduate from Dartmouth College . While at Dartmouth , the Wilson boys followed in their sister Marie Grace’s footsteps in the role of campus direct-marketing agents for Wilson ‘s Sporting Camps.
For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, New Brunswick’s Miramichi River sustained and nourished communities of Mi’Kmaq Aboriginal people who called the river Lustagoocheehk, meaning “little goodly river.” Today, the name Miramichi, meaning literally “Mi’Kmaq Land,” is believed to be a Montagnais word and the oldest Native place name in eastern Canada still in use today.
While the Miramichi has certainly lived up to its reputation as the generous “little goodly river,” this sadly hasn’t been reciprocated by the beneficiaries of the watershed’s bounty. Destructive clear-cutting of timber in the watershed and massive commercial over-fishing of Atlantic salmon in the ocean near the river’s mouth have taken a serious toll on salmon stocks and their habitat. In 1785 Benjamin Martsen, the first sheriff of Miramichi County , prophesized in a letter to the government that “unless the salmon fishery is attended to [by the government], it will be ruined by the ignorance and avarice of those concerned in it.” It took one year less than two centuries to heed this advice, and while the commercial netting of salmon in the Maritimes has been banned since 1984, returns of salmon today are still a shadow of their historical levels.
Today, the majestic, serene beauty of the southwest Miramichi disguises the impact of man. There are 26 primary tributaries fed by the over 7,700 streams that comprise the 13,600 acres of salmon and trout spawning habitat that is the Miramichi River watershed. Despite the fact that historic returns estimated to have been as large as a half a million fish have been reduced to 30,000-50,000 salmon, it is believed that more salmon make their annual pilgrimage up the Miramichi than in all rivers in Quebec combined. It is a tribute to the resilience of the river and its hardy fish that the Miramichi remains one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world.
In July 2001 we had the pleasure of sojourning at Wilson ‘s Sporting Camps. Time stands still on the Miramichi, and this reflected in the relaxed and patient disposition of all local residents that I encountered, especially the fishing guides. Tranquility prevails in McNamee, on the banks of the Miramichi, and it is contagious. Worries or stresses that arrive with anglers quickly vanish in the clam of this sleepy rural town. The main building of the camp is the original Wilson family homestead, built by Keith Wilson’s great-great grandfather, John Turnbull Wilson, in the late 1800s. Running through the house between the den and the kitchen there still exists the sawdust-insulated structure once used as a refrigerator and built over a trough through which ran a constant flow of cold spring water.
The main house has been immaculately preserved and stands proudly yet inconspicuously as the heart of this commercial camp on the sleepy stretch of road in this small town of only fifty houses. A tractor trail winds between two old barns behind the house, down a small hill next to a farmer’s field, towards the river a short distance away. Directly across the small road, in front of the main house, are five cottage cabins that house the majority of guests. These unpretentious cabins are built in a semicircle formation next to a covered storage area where many gleaming 20-foot Chestnut-brand green canvas canoes are hung to dry. While these canoes have been essentially retired in favor of the lighter and more durable Kevlar canoes of today, Keith Wilson obligingly takes one or two of the Chestnut canoes off their hooks each summer so that an old customer may enjoy the same ride as they did tears ago.
Tradition is entrenched in the psyche of many of the guests who have been coming to Wilson ‘s for years. For numerous guests, the journey to the camp and time spent on the river is an important annual ritual. Approximately 80 percent of Wilson ‘s guests are repeat customers, several of whom are second generation. Fishing the Miramichi and staying at Wilson ‘s is a family tradition for many. The possibility of fishing a week without catching a salmon is understood by all visitors and is testimony to the fact that the intrinsic value of salmon fishing on the Miramichi is of broader scope than simply catching a salmon. This unique place allows devotees to convene with Mother Nature in solitude, or to share it with close friends. The surging spring freshets change the course of the river slightly each year. How the water moves differently over and around rocks compared to they year before, or curves at a bend, are all of interest to a Salmo salar fly-fisherman. Keith Wilson embodies this philosophy and believes that Wilson ‘s “isn’t about selling salmon. It’s selling the sport, the beauty of the water, the camp life and the joy of having a salmon on your line.”
This is such an important part of some people’s lives that it is not unusual for Wilson ‘s to host the families and friends of guests who pass away. They come to retrace the deceased’s steps, to see the place and water so precious to them when they were alive, and to leave ashes on the river, where the soul is left to fish a favorite stretch of river for eternity.
Each cabin has its own porch, where anglers spend lazy afternoons resting, smoking, telling tales or sipping whiskey between shifts. Three of the cabins, Church, Arenenson and Lukehart, are named after loyal guests who over the decades have made annual pilgrimages to the lodge. The only sounds are those of the wings of birds, crickets, bees and dragonflies.
During our stay, each morning after a hot shower we strolled across to the old dining room on the ground floor of the main house for a hearty breakfast of farm-fresh eggs, bacon and sausages, and homemade bread. The room catches the early morning sun.
Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, uncle of American president Theodore Roosevelt, ate in this same room in 1862, during a trip to Wilson ‘s that he later wrote about in his book entitled The Game Fish of the Northern States of America and British Provinces . Roosevelt started his trip in New York , traveling by ship to Saint John , New Brunswick , then on to Wilson ‘s by stagecoach. It cost him $306.69 for himself and a friend, including meals and lodging, guide service and transportation. He included a cost of $10 for “delicacies”, which perhaps came from the country store that the Wilsons used to operate in the same building.
After breakfast, Keith Wilson enthusiastically gives the guests a routine briefing on the stretch of river each will be fishing that day, as did Keith’s father, Kurt, every morning when he ran the lodge, and his grandfather, Murray, before him. Keith Wilson endeavors to limit the impact on his stretch of river by allowing just ten rods a day. This ensures that each angler can fish three new pools per day.
Lloyd Lyons, our guide, arrived shortly thereafter in his pickup, and in his thick, Miramichi Valley drawl shared the virtues of the day’s fishing pools with us. Lloyd has been guiding on the Miramichi for 37 years, an indication of the dedication that is not unusual for a guide at Wilson ‘s. Ernest Long, the head guide at Wilson ‘s, has over 50 years of guiding under his belt – a virtual Ph.D. in fishing and river experience. A photo of Ernest hangs in the Atlantic Salmon Museum in nearby Doaktown, commemorating his induction into the Atlantic Salmon Hall of Fame. The five primary guides at Wilson ‘s have, combined, over 145 years of guiding experience on the southwest Miramichi. If there were a university faculty of fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon, these guides would be the professors.
My spirits were buoyed by the knowledge that more Atlantics are caught by fishermen on the Miramichi River every year than on any other river in eastern Canada . But past experience has taught me that Atlantic salmon glory is never a given, so I looked to Ted Williams, of baseball fame, for inspiration. Ted was a diabolical fly fisherman and fished the Miramichi extensively, mostly at his private camp. In 1978 he earned the prestigious Triple Crown of angling by catching his 1,000 th Atlantic salmon on a fly, having previously caught and released 1,000 bonefish and 1,000 tarpon on the fly. If 1,000 salmon could be caught by a single man, surely I was good for at least one.
Over four days we fished many of the best of sixteen pools that Wilson ‘s owns, over 5 miles of private water. Lloyd, determined not to let the fish win, drove us over miles of back-country gravel roads and poled us fearlessly, from the stern of a river canoe, through several traditional staging pools and runs such as Hovey’s Front, Dudley Pool, Harvey ‘s Front, Little Murphy, Buttermilk and O’Donnell’s Landing. The sun blazed mercilessly on the river, reflecting off the millions of bright-colored pebbles that make up the riverbed and turning the water an eclectic lime-green color.
Guests can elect to fish from the canoe or from shore. With the water so low, casting and wading were a breeze, so we always elected to fish from shore. And cast we did, our Orvis 9-weights punching out thousands of feet of line each day. Every fly in our fly vests had its turn. Bombers and Wulff patterns, Copper Killers, Green Machines, Silver and Rusty Rats, and Crossbooms in all sizes and colors. Even an emergency visit to celebrated fly-tackle outfitter W.W. Doak in Doaktown, where we purchased additional flies, didn’t change our luck. Seeing the fish porpoising and thrashing the surface at times made it all the more frustrating for us.
As it did on the fish, so too did the sun take its toll on us, necessitating frequent trips to the shade of riverside trees or an occasional dip in the river below where the fish were holding. Sweat-soaked from casting and wading in the hot sun, we’d sit down heavily on riverbank logs for an evening “lunch” of fresh sandwiches, cake, brownies and drinks. “Dinner” at Wilson ‘s is served at 12:30 p.m. and is always a delicious, hot, home-cooked meal using decades-proven recipes created by the Wilson women, such as Ethel Wilson’s renowned cream-of-fiddlehead soup. With my muscles conditioned to making constant micro-adjustments while wading, I could still feel the river’s current flowing around me and pushing me off balance as we sat on shore watching the heat rise, creating a mirage that turned the gravel bars upside down over the river below us. We absorbed the serenity of the ancient river and basked in the luxury of our own solitude. This is one of the true gifts of flowing water running over its native rock bed. Lloyd entertained us with stories of finned monsters that past clients had the glory of catching. After dinner, the schedule at Wilson ‘s requires all anglers to willingly retire to their cabin porch for a well-deserved siesta before heading back to a new stretch of river in the late afternoon.
Due to the timing of our visit, we missed out on the famous shore-lunch experience enjoyed by Wilson ‘s guests who come to fish the unique black or “spring” salmon fishery of early spring. Just after ice-out in mid-April, the Miramichi River salmon fishing season commences, with anglers fly-fishing for hungry salmon that spawned the previous fall and wintered-over below the ice. After months with little or nothing to eat, the salmon feed ravenously, aggressively attacking flies as they slowly make their way back to the ocean. The weather is cool and the river high and often raging at this time of year. Shore lunches then center around a blazing wood fire where guides prepare hot coffee, fried potatoes and vegetables and grilled salmon.
The dust behind Lloyd’s pickup settled quickly with the weight of the morning dew as we drove down a gravel road to our favorite, and one of Wilson ‘s most famous pools, Coldwater, a popular holding pool for salmon, especially during warmer water temperatures. The pool lies just below the confluence of the southwest Miramichi and the cooler waters of Stewarts Brook, and in addition is shaded for much of the morning. These two forces combine to keep the water temperature a precious few degrees cooler than in most other sections of the river. Immediately above Coldwater the river runs wide, swift and shallow, allowing oxygenation and posing a hurdle during low-water conditions. Up to three anglers can easily fly-fish this water, and there are many fish in the pool, mostly at the head of the run feeding it. Fish rose and jumped often to laugh at us. Overhead, an osprey flew, gripping a large fish tightly in its talons. We saw the same osprey several times during our stay, mostly flying over Coldwater Pool, and it always had a fish. But it was not to be for us. Despite the many libations of golden single-malt poured into rivers and lakes across the country, our homage to the river gods went unheeded. The relentless blaze of the sun and the low water conditions had put what salmon were in the river into a state of narcolepsy. No wonder Wilson ‘s has such a long history of repeat visitors. Revenge.