Flyfishing ~ April 1991, Vol. 14, N. 1
The Miramichi: Legendary Salmon River
By Adriano Manocchia
A fall fishing trip for salmon on the Miramichi Rover in New Brunswick , Canada evoked excitement, anticipation and the possible answer to a long-held curiosity as to why it is regarded a classic and historic salmon river. I had read plenty of articles and books about the Miramichi and had viewed many older paintings done on this river. Now I’d have the opportunity to fish, sketch and paint it for myself.
The trip north was a last-minute arrangement. I had just gotten back from research trips to Canada and the Rockies to paint wildlife and sporting scenes of different areas. I anxiously awaited the return of winter so I could get back to my easel and away from the airports, hotel rooms and customs inspectors. However, and opportunity to fish the Miramichi could not easily be turned down, so I loaded up the car once more and headed north. Bill Taylor, manager of Public Information Service for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, would make the necessary arrangements for our stay at the Wilson ‘s Sporting Camp in McNamee near historic Doaktown in New Brunswick . We’d spend three days fishing there during the last week of the salmon season. I left New York quite apprehensive. It had been a few years since I headed out on an assignment without having every possible angle planned under complete control. Here I was driving 10 hours to Canada based on the promises of a stranger who assured me a memorable experience! Was I nuts? What was I thinking of? Perhaps I was thinking of he potential 34-inch Atlantic salmon and the opportunity to paint a classic section of the Miramichi. That was enough to take a chance.
As we pulled into Wilson ‘s Camp, it was raining hard. I felt the anxiety build up inside me. Bill Taylor, whom I had finally met only 30 minutes before in Fredericton , assured me again that everything would be great. I should relax, things were under control. “But Bill, it’s pouring! I just drove 11 hours!” I exclaimed. Keith Wilson, Bill and Lloyd Lyons, who would be our guides for the next three days, all laughed.
He’s definitely a New Yorker,” Keith said. “Put your clothes away, get your gear ready and sit down for lunch.” Relax? Lunch? This wasn’t southern California , this was New Brunswick . I had just driven 12 hours and it was pouring outside! Or was that 13 hours? If I wanted rain and miserable weather I could have stayed in New York !
I was ushered into a rustic and charming dining room. One immediately got the feeling of being surrounded by history. On every wall were photos, letters, memorabilia from the many years that the Wilson family have been part of this sport of salmon fishing. Keith is the fourth generation of Wilsons to run the camp, and you could sense it was more than a business for him; it was his heritage, and he was proud of it. Lunch lasted over an hour, and it was now time to get down to some serious fishing. Keith had set up a schedule. Today, we would fish the home poop till 4:00 p.m. , giving us about three hours. Cutting the fishing time to 4:00 p.m. gave the locals a chance to fish the river. As I walked outside, I realized it had stopped raining and the heavy clouds were beginning to break up. Bill didn’t say a world. We piled into the pickup waiting for us in front of the lodge and headed for the river. A few minutes later we came over a crest in a hill, and the Miramichi became visible for the first time. It was vast. The river seemed over 300 yards wide; the water was crystal clear and moving fast. Lloyd parked the van close to an embankment which lead to a 50-foot drop. Bill and I quickly climbed out of the vehicle. As we made our way down the hill, Bill grabbed my arm to stop me. He pointed out towards the river. Suddenly you could see them. Salmon were jumping everywhere. They were large, and they were leaping two to three feet in the air. Bill laughed when he turned and saw the expression on my face.
Three days before leaving for the trip, I’d made a call to Tom Rosenbauer at Orvis in Vermont . I wanted tot know from Tom what gear he suggested for this trip. Tom is an accomplished fisherman, writer and manages the Orvis fishing and hunting catalog. He assured me these fish were no 14-inch trout; we would be dealing with heavyweights. I mentioned to Tom that I was interesting in using a light rod and reel, maybe a 5 or 6 weight on this trip, taking these fish on light tackle, really making it a challenge. Tom on the other hand suggested I go with a 9 weight set up. I took his advice. Why look fro trouble?
While I was fiddling with tying my salmon fly on the leader, Bill had made his way out 100 yards to the center of the river and was casting across at a 45-degree angle. On the way to his destination, he did mention that he would be hooking a large salmon quite soon and I should be ready with my camera. He also assured me he’d catch the first salmon in our party. No sooner did I get my line out in the water that Bill cheered. “First of the day!” He yelled.
“Already?” I mumbled. Lloyd laughed. The cheer of “first of the day” brought back memories of an Italian friend of the family I knew from Connecticut who loved his wine. Every time we would refill his glass, he’d lift it and say, “first of the day!” After the fourth and fifth time of announcing this though, it would become quite annoying. By the end of the day I began to feel the same way about Bill.
I quickly reeled in my line, passed the rod to Lloyd and ran out to Bill as fast as the moving water would allow me. This would be a great opportunity to get photos of a fisherman landing a nice salmon and then releasing it. But Bill decided o show off.
“No new, Lloyd. I can do this one by hand,” he said. Except this 30-inch salmon wasn’t about to cooperate. A few fast, hard slaps with his body, and he was sailing out of Bill’s hands. “Don’t worry, I’ll get another one.” Bill said. And he did. In fact, he caught quite a few that day.
The three hours on the Miramichi passed quickly. Everything was happening so fast that I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I had hoped to. The fish were jumping everywhere. They were attacking the flies with strength. I had already used quite a few rolls of film, and my head was swirling from the excitement and possible painting I could create from the day’s fishing. As we headed back to camp for dinner Lloyd assured me tomorrow would be even better.
It was about 6 a.m. when we left the lodge he next morning to head upriver about four miles by car. Plans were to take two canoes down the Miramichi, stopping at different locations to sketch and photograph Bill and Lloyd fishing. A blanket of fog sat on the water. It would last only a half hour. It allowed me enough time to shoot a roll of film of Bill in his canoe as he gently threaded his way over the pools and shallow areas. But the weather changed fast. Layers of heavy clothes began to come off as the sun broke through the mist. The sun began warming the air. By the time we reached out first stop, Duff Pool, we were down to shirt and fishing vest. Further down river at Dudley, we met up with another local guide and two gentlemen from Massachusetts who were taking a “ten o’clock coffee break.” They proudly described the action during the morning hours and how well they had done. Our journey downriver continued.
It was at this point that the colors of the changing leaves and the spectacular blue sky began to hit a peak. The river sparkled with the brilliance that was indescribable. They were the kind of colors that one almost dreads to paint on a canvas. The colors would seem “phony” – too bright, too strong.
We reached a spot on the river which was quite deep where the river narrowed a bit. Bill shouted that he could see a large salmon moving away from one pool to another as he passed over them with his canoe. We were some 10 yards ahead when I saw a huge maple, leaves burning with the bright colors of orange and vermilion. I asked Lloyd if he could manage to stop us about 10 yards ahead of Bill. I yelled to Bill to anchor to the best of his ability about 20 feet away from the shore and give the spot a try. The image was magical. I clicked through a roll of film and grabbed my sketch pad to make some notes on color when Bill’s line tightened then began to unwind from his reel. He has hooked a large salmon. He was standing in the canoe and you could see he was definitely having a time playing the fish and keeping his balance. This was great. I dropped the pad and shot more photos.
The battle lasted quite awhile. Lloyd was able to get our canoe further upriver closer to Bill. By now the fish has been tired out enough for Bill to get him near the boat. He gently removed the hook from its jaw, and we watched this majestic fish swim back to the deep pole not far from the canoe. It had been pure magic.
We pulled anchor and continued downriver, talking about the fish and the action we had just witnessed. It was close to 12 o’clock , and plans were to stop at Big Murphy’s for lunch.
The last day at the camp saw the rains come back. I was completely content with the material I had gathered during our stay. Lloyd and Keith felt I should take advantage of the poor weather and concentrate on some fishing back at home pool. Get out on the water for a few hours and give the fishing a try myself since I had not had much of a chance the day before. It took about 30 minutes to finally coax a nice 33-inch fish to take my Taylor Special. The Taylor Special is a little green salmon fly created by Bill a few years back. The fish leaped and ran and leaped again and again. It dove deep and fought with the strength of a survivor, and finally I acknowledged why they are called the “King of Fish” and why the Miramichi is so magical.
I haven’t completely recovered from the experience of the fall trip to this piece of heaven. The people, the river, the fish are all part of this magical land. I’ve painted two oils from this experience for far, and I have two new canvases stretched and ready to begin new images from the Miramichi. I haven’t completely gotten it out of my system yet. I don’t know when I will stop painting these scenes, but I do know I plan to go back there.
After many hours discussing with Bill the future of the river and the salmon, I hope that we as fisherman will be concerned enough to keep this land as pristine as it is now, that the salmon will continue to proliferate, for future generations to enjoy such and incredible fishing trip.
It’s time to get back to the easel and get some work done. I hope I will be able to remember this fabulous experience for a long, long time.