The Flyfisher- Fall 1991, Vol. XXIV, N.4
Spring on the Miramichi
By Harry Middleton
Studying a map of New Brunswick only reinforces the actual experience of driving through this great hunk of sprawling Canadian landscape, giving extra detail to the sense of its vastness and, in places, its remoteness, the wild edge that marks it from mountains to ragged Atlantic coast. Isolated, somehow disconnected for a moment from the great sprawl of Canada , New Brunswick resembles a great tattered isle populated only at the fringes, with the great woods, a scattering of nervous small towns and villages. To the north is Cambelton at the narrow neck of the Baie des Chaleurs. Down the Atlantic coast Shediac, Sackville off the Cumberland Basin , St. John on the teeming waters of Edmundston. The largest city any distance inland is Fredericton , capital of the province.
In the early spring, New Brunswick ‘s weather is a chaos, not of patterns, but of assaults. It is weather with teeth and a sense of irony. On the same day it can be mild and balmy as a tropical island at St.George and snowing hard out of a yowling wind up in Northumberland district, along Nepisiquit river near Mount Carleton .
On the afternoon I left Fredericton for the Miramichi River country, a day when I should have had nothing on my mind but leaping Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and the great river, wide with the ice melt and early rains, and surely thick with salmon, I was instead confronted by fog, a fog so vile it looked as though it has just rolled off the dark walls of the north Atlantic. It was like driving through an endless pall, some wet, viscid shroud covering the entire countryside. Finally, the road itself seemed to fall away, disappear, and I was left driving on faith, heading generally toward the town of Doakville at a hesitant 15 miles an hour, as Fredericton was enveloped in an immense glacier of fog. Fredericton is known for its stately elms, its lush greens, the skilled artisans of the New Brunswick Craft School , and the cherub atop the fountain at city hall known affectionately as “Freddie, the Little Nude Dude”. It is also known among Canadians as the poets city, being home of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, Jonathon Odell, Bliss Carmen, and Francis Joseph Sherman.
Ahead, Highway 8 stretches like a black ribbon in the gray fog, edging into the great Miramichi Basin , a vast tapestry of streams and rivers and lakes radiating out from the Miramichi River . The thick woods are full of spruce and fir. There is the heavy smell of hemlock and juniper on the wind. It is a countryside of great beauty and an allure as strong and natural as the pull of gravity. This is country for hiker, canoeist, bird hunter, and especially the salmon angler.
The river’s name is from the Micmac Indians who thought of the river as sacred, the haunt of spirits, a place of great power. Those who call the river valley home continue to believe in the Miramichi’s special character. To come from the land of the Miramichi is to be greatly blesses, an argument that is hard to contest, once you have given into the river and he land through which it inexorably moves.
Ernest Long was born on the river and its mark is on him, in his infectious smile and laugh, in his manner and character. As a Canadian paratrooper for 19 years, Long has seen the world and much of its beauty and mystery, but still no piece of the earth affects him like the Miramichi. To it he has always returned. Long will proudly tell you that even while in the service he only missed one salmon season on the river. The river is in him and he is in it. It is a trait common along this great salmon river. Those fortunate to call this land home rarely leave it, or if they do, as Long did, they nearly always return, driven perhaps by the same undeniable instinct for home that drives the river’s Atlantic salmon on their long and often brutal migration each year back, not to just any salmon river, but only this river, the river of their youth, the river they recognize and separate from all others by its smell, the feel of it through their gills.
On our first day on the river together, Long stopped the boat for a moment near Duff Pond to show me the bright white frame house up on the high bank, above the flood-line, where he was born. He took his first bright salmon on the river before he reached the age of 12 and started guiding the anglers at Wilson ‘s Sport Fishing Camp when he was 14. Keith Wilson pulls his boat beside us. Keith is the fourth generation Wilson to run the camp. He tells me that it had been a good year, all things considered for the salmon; they are here. The angling has been good, especially just before I arrived. Naturally.
There are four anglers in camp. A good number. The Miramichi can swallow up four salmon anglers in a hurry, make you feel as though the whole river and every salmon in it have been reserved for you. Keith shows us to our cabins across the street from the old Wilson home-place that now serves as the dining room and lodge. The Wilsons have been guiding anglers on the Miramichi since 1929, making their camp the longest running family-owned fishing camp on the river. The cabins are simple, comfortable. Everything but telephones and televisions, which, of course, are among the things salmon anglers are trying to escape from, however briefly. Salmon flash in the big pond in front of the old house and the Canadian flag snaps in a cold early spring wind. As we cross the street, Keith motions to the pond. “There’s a seven-pound brook trout in there I can’t catch,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. There is a noticeable quicken of our paces as we near the cabin and our flyrods.
Before dinner that first evening, there is a ritual pilgrimage from the lodge in McNamee, five miles north of Boiestown, into Doaktown, where there is a museum celebrating the river country and the Atlantic salmon, considered here and elsewhere to be the king of sportfish, the royal head of the Salmo or trout family. Nearby is yet another angling institution, Doak’s Fly and Tackle Shop, where two generations of the Doak family have tended to the needs of fishermen, whether locally made salmon flies, level-headed advice, or as level-headed as a man can be about Atlantic salmon, or a place where the vexed and the lucky can spin their salmon tales. I leave with a pocketful of colorful smelt flies and Golden Eagles. “They’re a sure thing,” says one of the shop’s local customers. “Took me two salmon on one this morning a’ya.” I also grabbed a handful of Elmer’s Specials, just in case and Jerry Doak smiled and said, “Best to take a selection. Locals been known to tell a tale or two about what flies are good just to keep other anglers off the fish.” The atmosphere of the shop seems composed almost entirely of spent anglers’ breath, as the little crowd of fishermen reassure each other that salmon are complex and difficult fish, impossible to figure out, which only increases its nobility and mystery, qualities that trout anglers find particularly irresistible. The more upsetting a fish, the greater it’s allure. And Atlantic salmon are forever unpredictable, a source of constant surprise. Like the river itself and press of the new season, there are different not only from day to day, but from moment to moment, at once exasperating and exhilarating.
We are up at first light, bundled in layers of warm clothes, ready to fish. Breakfast first. It’s tradition, after all. The salmon have waited this long; we convince ourselves another hour won’t completely put them off. The lodge is soaked in the smell of fresh hot sausage, bacon, homemade biscuits and pancakes, eggs cooked to every taste, homemade jellies and preserves, hot coffee and tea, hot cereals. On and on. While we eat, Keith reads from the camp’s log, letting us know how the last batch of anglers did. Keith’s voice rises like steam. The room is warm, the food is warm, everything seems to glow in warm comfort. Keith’s voice rises like steam from a kettle. Meanwhile, outside it is raining ice.
Two to a boat: one angler and a guide. I ride with Ernest Long. In the rain, his ruddy, wind-burned face is as red as an over-ripe tomato. He is chewing on the stub of a cigar. Long, an inveterate storyteller, laughs easily and often, punctuating his every pause with the ubiquitous end mark “a’ya” which seems to be the Canadian equivalent of the American “ya know.” Long has been on the river all his life; there is plenty to tell, plenty he’s seen.
“Sports are always entertaining folks, a’ya. Anglers like to gossip about guides and it’s only natural that guides like to gossip about all the sports they’ve taken out. Some are just plain curious, a’ya.” Knowing that you are bound to become one of Long’s tales makes and angler check his idiosyncrasies, keep them in hand or out of sight.
The wind rubs against the skin as though it had nails. The skin chaps quickly, especially the lips, then cracks. The ice stops and the day is cold and sunless and gray, and I let out my line as Long anchors the boat bow to the current, and we are, at once, thoroughly miserable and completely happy. The reason for both conditions is the same: salmon.
Since commercial netting of salmon is no longer allowed on the river, the salmon have begun to come back, increasing every year, allowing the Miramichi to reclaim its place as one of the few truly premier salmon rivers left in North America . Wilson ‘s Sport Fishing Camps has five miles of water on the river, including more than 15 of the best salmon pools on the river, pools with names like Coldwater, Home Pool, Big Murphy, Buttermilk, and Little Murphy Pool. In the summer, one the river drops, anglers are taken to pools by canoe. For spring fishing, though, since the river is high from ice melt, snow, and rain, john boats fitted with small motors are used. Near Little Murphy Pool, our second stop of the morning, I let the current take 25 feet of line, then pulled slightly against the drag, a small flinch once and I could feel the strike. The fish is a grilse, a salmon that has been to sea only a year, a fish not fully matured, at least in the angler’s eye, a sort of novice adventurer, a salmon in adolescent’s clothing. It put up a strong fight, though, running up and across stream before finally tiring, giving in. Long brought it in carefully with the net, gently let it go. Long lights a fresh cigar. This is something he does to mark the first fish of the day. “I tell you Wilson ‘s had the best stretch of water on the whole river. I’ve fished it all, the whole thing from Half Moon down and if you can’t get a fish at Home Pool, then you can’t get a fish.” Shore lunch is at Murphy’s camp. The fire feels good. So does the coffee, the hot tea, the fresh salmon steaks and simmering Canadian hash. Everyone has at least new salmon story to tell in between gulps of coffee, bites of salmon, and time as close to the fire as possible. As with breakfast, there is too much of everything. There is more to Wilson ‘s than the fishing; there is the food, which is bountiful and generous and seems to never stop coming. Four hours after lunch we are back at the lodge sitting down to an abundant meal of soups and salads, salmon and hollandaise sauce, hot freshly baked bread, three different vegetables, mashed potatoes, coffee, tea, and three different homemade cakes and pies. Recovery from such a meal takes time and Keith Wilson makes the time pass more pleasantly by telling us the story of one Stanley Church of New Jersey who, in 1964, took during his stay at the camp 259 grilse and salmon. Afterwards, Keith takes up his log and goes around asking each of us what luck we had on the day. Having heard of Mr. Church’s luck, our voices are low and modest. As for me, I whispered, two grilse, one brook trout, one salmon.
But as the days went on the weather and our luck and the angling improved. We fished and talked of the salmon, of its complex and complicated life, its struggle for survival against acid rain, pollution, dams, and especially commercial fishing. Big, silver salmon took our flies hungrily and fought with and unyielding ferocity, going deep, twisting, turning, finally leaping , their heavy, muscled flanks flashing like mirrors in the soft, spring sunshine. We let them go easily, gently, watching them go deep, disappear in the dark water, the wildness full and uncompromised.
Each salmon that struck was not just a salmon, but a Miramichi Salmon, marked by the river, destined to return here and only here, rather than perhaps the great salmon rivers of Iceland , the United Kingdom , Norway or any other Canadian salmon river. Only here, to the Miramichi. Here they began as aleyins and some survived to become parr, fish that would stay in the river for up to two years before they would, should they survive, undergo yet another transformation and develop into smolts, fish up to two feet long, fish ready o follow their salmon blood, move into the cold Atlantic for the great salmon migration to the feeding grounds off the coast of Greenland. Those who survived would be back. Some would come in a couple of years; others later, but they would come back. “Sort of like me,” says Ernest Long. “I left as a young man, went off saw the world, but I had to come back. I ended up where I began, the Miramichi, home. Perhaps that’s why I like them so. We’ve traveled the same road, I think, and come to the same conclusion. There’s no place this river. No place at all.”