A wee grilse that made it through in fine condition.

I came back Friday from three days on the Miramichi and Cains Rivers fishing for spring salmon.  I always love this experience, even though….and this year the even-thoughs constitute a fair list.  Even though the highest temperature for the period was 43F during rain on the last day of fishing, even though it snowed two out of three days – it rained the other, even though it was well below freezing every night and Tuesday night it was only 23F, and even though fishing started off slower than expected.

Campbell’s Pool camp and sheds, snow still in hedgerow

So what made up for it all?  I found the camp at Campbell’s Pool in great condition, and the old fields and woods were a sight for sore eyes.  We were constantly entertained by the local herd of deer that were out feeding 24-7 on the new grass shoots, the pair of black ducks foraging in the guzzle leading out of the pond in the back yard, and many returning birds including eagles, osprey, kingfishers, robins, black birds, and Canada geese.

For the last 25 years or so, with the exception of two or three seasons circa 2007, I have made at least one annual spring salmon trip – either to the Matapedia/Restigouche or the Miramichi.  As with all salmon fishing, predictions about next season’s success are useless, and even tomorrow’s forecast is of relatively little value.  None-the-less, in recent years the earlier you can get fishing after the season opens the better your chances generally are.  In some of the warmer springs the only decent action has taken place in the first couple of weeks of the season.

This year, though, has been a really old-fashioned year in that despite the ice-out being more or less on time the recent daily average temperatures have been well below average.  We did not take the water temperature, but I would put it at very little above freezing.  On Monday before we arrived it rained and snowed all day and this gave us a high, dirty river on Tuesday.  On Wednesday morning the outside temps dropped to 23F, and it snowed off and on from midnight throughout the day, there was ice wherever the water moved slowly, and we had ice in the rod guides all day long.    The unusual cold each night, though, reduced the runoff, and the river dropped and cleared up some each day of the trip.

A good kelt

Despite the consistently cold conditions we managed some reasonable catches.  Spring salmon fishing is more about sniffing the breeze than it is hauling in fish after fish, but fishing without that occasional tug is just casting, and it is important to have some success.  We didn’t start until around 9:30 to 10:00, taking pity on the guides as well as ourselves.  We took a liberal two hours for lunch, and after starting again at 2:00 we stopped casting in time to be back at camp by 5:00 PM – anticipating an extended cocktail hour.  Still, on this light schedule we managed a half dozen fish apiece each day, and I had 7 on the last day.    I know that people have caught many more than that in a day’s fishing for kelts – and so have I – but we got to see enough salmon to keep us quite content.

Almost all the fish we caught were at the end of the swing with a 450 grain head, and after waiting a long pause before that first strip.  I have no doubt that with some warming conditions the fish will be more active and accommodative.  We did notice an almost even mix of salmon and grilse, and that is reflective of last year’s run of bright fish.

Here are a few photos from the trip, hope you enjoy.

Jason Curtis at the helm

Darrell Warren guiding in mean conditions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitetail deer eating first new grass shoots in a long time.

 

A decent snowfall for late April

 

 

 

There’s a Willie Gunn Waddington under that snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoveling out the boat before fishing

Fish Porn

Captain Bellefleur with grilse

A Cains River salmon during a rare moment of sunshine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A handsome spring fish from our last day honey hole

 

Early spring fishing is done deep and slow along the shorelines

See the new comment button below right.  Feel free to make comments or ask questions for the benefit of all readers.

 

 

Late on Easter Sunday Jason Curtis sent me the link to a drone video by Ashley Hallihan.  Frankly I’ve never seen anything quite like it taken on the Miramichi.  The video begins with Jason’s Sharpe canoe moored in the confluence of the Cains and Miramichi Rivers.  After a lovely panning of the area that shows some views that few people have ever had the pleasure of witnessing from the air, the canoe heads up the Cains River.

A little while into the video the canoe passes through the Admiral Pool leaving the camps of A. D. Merrill, then Wades Fishing Lodge, and now Black Brook Salmon Club on the left.  A short while later the canoe passes by camps on the right side that border the Teedlan Pool, once owned by Ted Williams who reportedly deepened it with the help of a bull dozer -once common practice.

No more than a half mile above Teedlan we come to the Brophy Pool, and Jason stopped the canoe there while Ashley panned the area.

The next stop was a mile or so further up where Ashley was playing a large salmon that was eventually netted.  You can see Jason unhooking and releasing the 40″ salmon.

Here is the LINK.  For those of us devoted to salmo salar, and particularly loving the Miramichi watershed this is a great treat.  Brad

 

 

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Junction of Cains on left and Miramichi Rivers 4 11 17

In my last blog on 3/31 I noted that the river was at a recent low of 1.5 meters, and that the first sign of ice out would be rising water.  That day the river began to slowly rise with warmer temperatures and rain.  On 4/3 Jason Curtis sent me an e-mail with a picture of tiny spot of open water at the mouth of McKenzie Brook across from his home in Blackville.  This is the first chink in the armor, he said.

People who live along the Miramichi get excited about ice out.  Seeing this large river rise and the ice flow out – with the constant potential for it to jam up and flood – is an awe inspiring sight and a bit unnerving.  People up and down the river talk to each other and get into their cars and drive to this vantage point or that.  You’ll hear things like the ice ran for a couple of hours this morning in Doaktown, or it’s jammed up at the Blackville Bridge and the water is rising clear back to the Cains….  In the end, though, there is only one place for it all to go, and inevitably there is a parade of river ice towards the sea that takes several days or more to completely clear out.  It certainly appears now that there will be open water for fishing on 4/15, though people will still need to keep an eye out for large pieces of ice coming down river.

Here is a daily sequence of photos taken by Jason Curtis of the progressive thinning of ice from 4/3 up to 4/10 including a couple of very short video clips of moving ice on the last day.

Double click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.

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4 3 17 The first chink in the armor

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4 7 17 After some rain.

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4 8 17 Ice has risen and separated from shores

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 9 2017 Ran during night, partially open

 

4 10 17 Ice Jam in middle of Campbell’s Pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 11 17 Pretty much open water with lots of shore debris

 Click on the IMG files below for video links.

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I’m heading up to Blackville on Monday the 17th to fish for three days and just to be back in camp after the long winter.  I’ll give you a report on the fishing and conditions at that time.

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DFO Salmon – Saumon – Map with Numbered Areas

I recently received courtesy of the Miramichi Salmon Association a report by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “DFO” entitled Indicators of Atlantic Salmon in Gulf Region Salmon Fishing Areas 15-18 for 2016.  This region is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence from the Bay of Chaleurs down to the north coast of Nova Scotia, and it includes Prince Edward Island.  The principal Atlantic salmon rivers in this region are the Restigouche, Miramichi in New Brunswick, and the Margaree in Nova Scotia.  Beyond that there are many smaller rivers both on the mainland and PEI that also have salmon populations.  I found the report to be reasonably encouraging.  Here are some of the highlights that I came across.

Restigouche – compared to the tag and recapture system used to estimate the run in the Miramichi the DFO uses the reported catches of angled salmon and spawner counts derived from diving through pools to calculate the Restigouche run.  The results were an estimated return of 5,535 large salmon and 4,400 grilse.  In 2016 large salmon showed an increase of about 11% over a 12 year period while grilse are down by 47%.  This trend of outcomes between large and small salmon abundance repeats in most other salmon rivers within the region, and given the fact that juvenile or parr counts have been somewhat consistent one has to assume that somehow recent sea winter conditions are better tolerated by the larger fish.

Additionally the Restigouche achieved 98% of the conservation requirements for egg deposition – amount of eggs required to fully seed the river.  Over the last 10 years the Restigouche is thought to have achieved the full conservation requirement 5 times.  The DFO says that the last 12 years have seen a positive trend in the percentage of conservation requirements being achieved.

According to the DFO Restigouche fry and parr have declined modestly over the last 12 years, but they also state that this could be biased by difficult sampling conditions.

Miramichi – As with the Restigouche the numbers of large salmon increased last year, and the numbers of grilse were down compared to 2015.  The number of large salmon were also at or above the long term average while the grilse numbers were well below the average.  The total returns of large salmon were estimated at 18,200 and grilse at 15,200.  Large salmon were in line with returns over the last 20 years, but grilse were down.  Like the Restigouche the Miramichi achieved 98% of its conservation targets.  The Main Southwest branch was at 108%, but the Northwest only achieved 75%.

According to DFO salmon fry were captured at all 56 survey sites around the river meaning that salmon continue to spawn throughout the watershed.  Overall juvenile salmon abundances have remained at higher average levels since the closure of the commercial fishery in 1984.  In fact parr densities are quite  good throughout the system, though there has been a modest decline over the last 12 years in fry and small parr.  The exception to this is the Southwest Miramichi where large parr – next year’s smolts – have increased in abundance consistently over the last 12 years and are consistently well above the long term average levels.

Margaree – 2,500 large salmon and 350 grilse were estimated to have returned to the Margaree in 2016.   These numbers are both well below the long term averages.  The Margaree only has a conservation requirement of a little more than 1,000 salmon so there are plenty of spawners in the system.  Parr counts, though, are among the lowest that have ever been counted in the river.

Rip Cunningham – member of Black Brook Salmon Club, and a person with great experience in ocean fisheries management sent me some thoughts on why we may have seen an increase during the last couple of years in sea winter survival of Atlantic salmon:

Salmon numbers for many Maritime rivers have been trending upward for the last several years. There is a lot of research and discussion about what has been happening to cause the low return numbers in recent years as compared to historic levels.  At this point, there is no smoking gun, but it is common sense that these fish need forage while they are wintering over at sea. Several recent articles have talked about the resurgence of capelin, a primary forage for a number of species, around Newfoundland. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/08/06/after-years-decline-cod-and-community-rebound-newfoundland/oNxKF14RpE47yc65OOAy6O/story.html

This has to be good news for salmon and may indicate a return to historic norms for water temperature in that area of Western North Atlantic and with that the return of a historic norm for forage base. It certainly appears to be the case with cod which are also rebounding off Newfoundland.  We will have to see if it holds true for salmon.

Thoughts on the benefits of longer Spey rods – Among my blog followers, and traditional North American fly fishermen in general, two handed rods are used by a minority.  That is my observation, plus I hear it from shops along the river like W. W. Doak and Curtis Outfitters.  But some Atlantic salmon fishermen, and those who go west for steelhead, have embraced the concept of Spey casting.  A lot has been written about the relative ease of making a long cast with a Spey rod, and the fact that you don’t need to strip in and manage nearly as much line in order to make those casts.  I find that among those who do use Spey rods the short, thick heads as used in West Coast Skagit casting, and to a lesser degree Scandinavian underhand casting, have found a ready audience because they make Spey casting much easier to learn.

Casting with these short, heavy heads is so easy that instead of the traditional 15, 16 or 18’ rods many anglers use 12 or 13’ rods.   I’m not sure exactly why people gravitate to the smaller rods, though I guess that it is perceived weight, and perhaps just that these anglers are more comfortable with shorter rods because they are more like the single-handed rods that they learned to fly fish with.   Are anglers, though, missing some of the greatest benefits of Spey casting by using the shorter rods?

Most of the advantages that Spey rods bring – easy line mending and steering of the fly, long casts without a lot of line retrieval or false casting, easy casting of sink tip lines used at the ends of the Atlantic salmon season, ability to keep the line away from you in higher winds, better casting with rough bankings or obstacles behind you that limit your backcast, are all enhanced with longer rods.  A modern 15-footer can weigh less than 9 ounces, and that’s less than a 13-footer did just 4 years ago.  You can cast a rod like that all day long without undue fatigue.  I just put in two back to back 6 day weeks in Scotland casting nothing but a 15’ Sage Method – not the very lightest you can get – and developed no sore muscles and never felt particularly tired.  The new 15’ Sage X-Spey that I just ordered is only 8 7/8 ounces!

Even in the lighter line weights I am going longer.  Over the winter I also bought a 14’ 8-weight, Sage X-Spey because it is 6 inches longer than my 13’ 6” Sage One 8-weights.  I’m confident that I’m going to like the extra leverage and reach that this rod provides.

Here are a few tips and thoughts that I’ve learned when it comes to fishing with Spey rods –  You will cast 90% as far if you back off considerably on the power.  Good timing and form will allow you to cast further with limited effort.

Strive for technique instead of trying to muscle your fly off to the horizon.  I’m constantly amazed at my fishing buddies who are also golfers.  They analyze and practice their golf swings incessantly, but only work on their Spey casting when they are on a salmon fishing trip.  Get a good video or two – You Tube is full of them – find some nearby water, and practice, practice, practice…

Buy the best rod you can afford.  The best tackle really does perform better.
Use the lines the manufacturer suggests for the rods, and stay away from the really long heads.  They will frustrate the devil out of you, and their advantages, even if you learn to thrown them, are debatable.
Be sure to learn the Circle C or the Snap T.  These casts are more or less the same thing, and will anchor the line on the water in front of and away from you if needed – wherever you want it.  They are very important casts to have in your tool kit on windy days.

All Spey casts end in the single Spey –  Put most of your casting practice into developing a single Spey with the rod kept close to your body, using a decent amount of lower hand pressure, and with a relatively small rod rotation.  Long arm movements tend to create problems like tailing loops and pulling and pushing excessively on any Spey rod and line can quickly create muscle and joint problems – I know because I’ve been there.

Miramichi condition report –  I wish that I could find some material sign of spring to report to you from the Miramichi.  March has been colder than February this year – or close anyway – and the river is running at as low a level as it has for a long time -rising water is the first thing that happens when the river is threatening to break up.  I even looked on Bullock’s web cam up in Boiestown, and the river can only be distinguished from the rest of the landscape by the fact that there are no trees growing on it…

The 14 day trend, though, shows a significant break coming next Wed.  Also, the Miramichi valley is not forecast to get the storm we will receive this Friday night – so their snow cover won’t be further increased.  After next Wed. a protracted period of round the clock above freezing temperatures are forecast with daily highs near 50F and occasional rain forecast.  That is what we need to finally bring us into spring.  Will the river be ready to fish on 4/15?  I really have no idea, but stayed tuned because we’ll keep track of the weather and events leading up to ice-out.

 

 

 

 

Fishing Friends – For years now I have kicked off the Atlantic salmon fishing season with a couple of weeks of fishing in Scotland.  Some of the best and earliest runs are in rivers located in the Northern Highlands.  Names like the Helmsdale, Brora, Thurso, Naver and the larger Dee and Deveron have fish entering during virtually every month of the year.  Mid-March, though, seems to be the generally acknowledged start of regular availability.  The fish that enter the rivers prior to June are referred to as “springers”.

This year George Watson and I returned to the Naver where we have been fishing annually since 2009.  We have leased a couple of stretches of the river called “beats” for each week we are there, and team up with friends we’ve made in Scotland including a well-known fly tier and retired Thurso River ghillie or guide, named Pat Nicol “the Heron” from Wick.

Early Run Report – Some years are better than others, but seemingly counter to the tales of woe that are so common in Atlantic salmon fishing these days, things seem to be on the upswing in the Scotland springer fishery.  It seems to be particularly true this year with good or at least better reports coming in from most rivers.  It has undoubtedly been helpful that Scotland has ended the practice of allowing coastal netting that previously indiscriminately captured fish from both healthy and struggling rivers.

I sure hope that this spring’s uptick is a harbinger of what we’ll see in June when the Miramichi early runners begin to appear.  When you look through the photos and videos included in this post you’ll see that a lot of the fish that we caught are in the 8 pound or so range.  These fish are likely to be 2 multi sea winter “MSW” virgin spawners meaning on their first trip back to spawn since leaving the river as smolts.  Holding off until June as they would on our side of the ocean they would weigh more like 9 to 10 pounds.  Historically these are the same fish that also make up a large percentage of the salmon run into the Miramichi.  Here are some typical examples.

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Big Fish Bragging – Not all the salmon entering early are small though.  There is a good smattering of teen sized fish.  We had one of 34.5 inches that according to the calculator should be about 16 pounds.  Almost all the early fish are fresh from feeding in the sea, chrome-bright, with solid, wedge-shaped bodies weighing the maximum for their length.  The Naver is not known as a “big fish river” like the Tay or Tweed, but it does produce some large outliers from time to time.  On Saturday the 18th I landed the fish pictured here, a 41.14 inch male that calculates out to 25.5 pounds.  It sure made my day!

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About Scotland – Altnaharra, Scotland is on roughly the same latitude as Nain, Labrador – an Eskimo village.  The weather, though, is much milder and more maritime in Scotland which sits out in an oceanic flow called the North Atlantic Drift.  In addition to relative moderation this ocean weather pattern provides regular gales of wind and rain, and lots of gloomy weather.  Daily temperature highs and lows are very close together, and by New Brunswick standards Scottish winters are very mild, but the summers are much cooler than we are used to – wouldn’t that be nice.  This little video will show you the conditions we fished in on several days of the trip – turn up the sound a little.

Water in the Highland Rivers stays cool almost year round, but seldom freezes to any real extent even in winter.  The water temperature was as low as 37F during our stay, but during the second week got up to about 45F or so.  In tackle selection the bottom of this temperature range dictates sinking lines and long, slinky flies.  At the top end of the temperature range you can move to an intermediate sinking tip, and use a light weight fly instead of a faster sinking tip and a heavy copper or brass tube fly.  That 45F water temperature mark seems to be important as to whether or not the fish show on the surface of the water.  When the water is in the 30s you may catch fish, but you will not see any rolling.  During the second week, and on the warmer afternoons, we began to see the occasional fish roll or porpoise as it moved through the pool.  It sure makes fishing more fun when you know that there are fish in the pool that you are casting into.

Some Fly and Tackle Talk – The sinking tips which are so important in early season Scottish salmon fishing don’t seem to have the same effect on the Miramichi early run fishery due to our relatively warm water temperatures.  I think the same is true of fly size.  The long slinky flies that are used so much in Northern Scotland and in Scandinavia don’t work well in high water temperatures.  Fishermen there go to smaller sizes in summer just as we do.  When our first salmon begin entering the Miramichi in early June the water is normally already well in to the 50F range, and by mid-June it is normally over 60F.  We do use bigger flies in the early going, but I’m talking about going up to a #4 or #2, not to a 4-inch long Monkey Fly like the one pictured below!  Another big difference is fly color.  We tend to think of orange and reds as fall colors.  These colors are used extensively in springer patterns in the UK and I suspect it is just custom.  They would probably work on the Miramichi in spring time too.  The other hot springer pattern is one called black and yellow.  I caught the big fish on a two-inch long black and yellow tube fly made with Arctic fox.  My guess is that the colors really don’t matter that much at all, but I see no reason not to use the proven color combinations.

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Typical Scandinavian style Monkey Fly on cone head copper tube. This fly had just caught two springers minutes before.

 

The Miramichi – A quick look at the Miramichi conditions shows the river currently running at about 1.6 meters and covered – as it should be – with thick, unbroken, snow-insulated ice.  The snow is still deep on the ground, and more is on the way.  Temperatures, though, over the next couple of weeks are forecast to be more or less normal with highs improving into the 40s which will create considerable day time melting.  Will we have open water for the beginning of the season?  Darrell Warren who spring guides for Country Haven Outfitters has lived his whole life on the river, and he says that it will be close.  Right now it is impossible to say for sure, but usually the river is ready to fish when April 15 comes around.  By modern standards we had a good run of salmon on the Miramichi in 2016, and there should be plenty of kelts available for this spring season.  I know that I can’t wait to get into a canoe and out onto the waters of Miramichi and Cains Rivers again.

Here are a collection of photos and videos from my recent trip.  Enjoy and if you have any questions just contact me at bigbass@maine.rr.com.  Brad Burns

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The Round Pool – the big one came by casting from the corner. The current flows in from the right.

 

 

Thurso River Beat 4 006 (002)

Pat Nicol’s 20 pound Thurso River springer

 

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34.5″ cock springer in the net, long orange fly

 

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Soon to be free again!

 

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Brown spots on the back are sea lice

 

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George Watson plays a springer in the Kelt Hole

 

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Here are some happy fish!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is great to be able to say that it is late winter. In another week or so the daily average high temps will begin that slow rise towards spring, and we will be moving out of the heart of winter. We all know that there is more cold and stormy weather to come, and that the Miramichi is frozen sold – as it should be – but we have passed the crest of the hill. This is a time when I often think about the winters that the settlers in New England and the Maritime Provinces faced without snow plows, snow blowers or even electricity.
The picture below appeared on Facebook the other day. I enlarged it a bit and gave it some color. This is the old Brophy Farm where Otter Brook flows into the Cains. Those of you who have fished there will be able to recognize the spot. The little island out in the river above the brook is visible, and one can see the curve of the land where the stream runs along the edge of the pine trees.

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The house appears to have been located a little further down the hill than we thought. An old patch of lilacs near the present camp had made me think that was the area. There are still many people living around Blackville who remember this house including men I know such as Emery Brophy whose ancestors settled on the property, and well-known guide, Gary Colford who worked there summers as a boy. Can you imagine the winter storms and violent ice-outs that this old homestead endured? When thinking about old times, we could play a little game that an old fishing pal of mine, Phil Perrino and I used to entertain ourselves with. In the late 70s we’d be surfcasting out on the rocky, southwest end of Martha’s Vineyard. How’d you like to be here on the best night that there ever was, one would say to the other, as we stood there by the Atlantic’s edge and imagined the nighttime surf literally filled with huge bass. Well, you can imagine how many salmon were holding in the Cains River, in just the first hundred yards below Otter Brook, on the best day there ever was.

The Miramichi Salmon Association had their annual Boston Dinner last weekend, and in this year’s MSA board meeting held on the day before the dinner there were a number of things discussed that are worth relating:

  •  First of all the Canadian government, very much due to the lobbying for salmon conservation by organizations like the Miramichi Salmon Association and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the government has made a strong new commitment to Atlantic salmon conservation. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans undertook an in-depth study that included personal visits by the committee members to various parts of Atlantic Canada including the Miramichi. The report from the committee also came with a provision of $600,000 for funding research, scientific assessment, and other activities to help the Canadian Maritimes Atlantic salmon resource. It is good to see the seriousness with which the committee viewed this issue.
  •  I was happy to see that the commercial fishery off Greenland was clearly identified as a problem.  The  report stated that getting the Greenlanders to bring that fishery in line with scientifically prescribed harvest levels would be a goal of the Canadian government. I’ve long believed that the Canadian and U.S. governments could quickly make Greenland see reason if some earnest diplomatic pressure were to be applied.
  • The ASF recently published a scientific paper that contained a great deal of information gathered through the joint satellite and acoustic tagging work that the ASF and MSA have conducted on the Miramichi. It is well known that most Miramichi salmon go to Greenland to feed. Exactly what is their path, when do they reach certain areas, how much do they move around on a daily basis, how deep in the water column do they feed, and how long do they hang out in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence before going north are all questions that needed to be answered. This is all so that we can determine why fewer adult salmon are returning from their time in the ocean than previously did.  That, unfortunately is still a mystery, but this work provides some pieces to the puzzle.
  • Mark Hambrook, president of the MSA said that while the government is not due to release the official estimated number of salmon returning to the Miramichi until later in March, he felt that it was very likely that the Miramichi system run had reached conservation requirements in 2016. For those not familiar with the term, it simply means that there were enough adult salmon on the spawning grounds of the river this past autumn to seed the river with necessary eggs to produce the river’s estimated carrying capacity of young fry. This is great news, and essentially all that we can really hope for in terms of the river doing its part.
  • Beyond the good numbers of returning salmon there were also good numbers of parr found during the MSA’s annual electrofishing survey which they do in collaboration with the Canadian government. This too is terrific news.
  • If you aren’t a member of the MSA or the ASF –or preferably both – it is one of the best investments that you can make in your future salmon fishing happiness. Here are links to their membership pages:                                                                     MSA                           ASF                                                                  

The Atlantic salmon season open on April 15, and conditions depending there should be good black salmon or “kelt” fishing available in the river. It is a fact that almost 100% of the kelts that are caught, held out of the water for some time, have their bellies opened with a scalpel and a radio transmitter installed, then sutured back up and released, make it out of the river and swim down through the estuary and outer Miramichi Bay.  Eventually these fish make it through the openings between the barrier islands and out into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. This makes one realize that using reasonable catch and release techniques when fishing for kelts it is likely that very few of them will be killed, and that many will live to come back into the river and spawn again. In fact many that have been released with the radio tags inserted in their abdomens have lived to come back and spawn again.
Historically many of the outfitters along the river relied on the spring fishery for nearly half of their annual income. For me it provides a chance to get back in the camp and out on the river again. There are a lot of pictures of the river during spring fishing in my earlier blogs if you scroll back through the previous posts. I’ve got three days of spring fishing planned and I can’t wait to get back up and do it. It is only a couple of months away now. Give it a try yourself if you haven’t done it.
The burgeoning striped bass population spawning in the N.W. Miramichi is clearly not helpful to the Atlantic salmon co-existing in the Miramichi watershed.  They both have a right to be there, but the management programs must be more balanced to keep the bass from excessively foraging on the young salmon.  On the East Coast of the United States where stripers are the #1 salt water game fish the situation is very different. While the wild striped bass population along the East Coast of America is trying to support some 3,000,000 recreational fishermen, the last vestiges of inshore commercial fishing are competing for this same resource. The results are a significantly declining fishery that has cost not only a great deal in lost jobs and economic activity, but deprived people of the opportunity for wholesome, exciting recreation that existed just a few years ago. Stripers Forever is a conservation organization that is trying to have striped bass designated as game fish in all U.S. coastal states. I’ve personally been very involved with this organization for years. Our chief fundraising event is an online auction being held right now and through Feb. 18th. There are items of tackle, clothing, many fishing trips – including one to Upper Oxbow on the N.W. Miramichi for striped bass – gifts certificates, artwork etc etc. Check it out and support Stripers Forever’s work if you see something that you like.

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Looking downriver at Keenan’s on the left and Campbell’s across the river. Jan. 2017

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Smelt shacks Bowdoinham, Maine

As you can see by the pictures it is mid-winter on the Miramichi and my home in Maine. The amount of snow and temperatures have been more or less in line with the long-term average, but with the active storm pattern there have been several periods of really cold temperatures broken by warm spells.  This sort of unremarkable weather has had the benefit of not creating any big raises of water, and that is good for keeping down bank erosion and washing out the salmon redds.  There were decent numbers of fish in the Miramichi last fall, and we can justifiably hope for good spawning results.

It does in fact feel good to be able to say that it is mid-winter. We are now only 90 days away from the start of the spring salmon fishery, and only 120 days away from the time when the first bright fish will arrive in the Miramichi.  I hope you are getting ready!

I’ve been through my tackle, cleaned lines and ordered a replacement or two, cleaned metal surfaces of reels and rods with a toothbrush and WD40, lubed the reels, and waxed the rod surfaces. I’ve sorted through my flies, and made a tying list which I’m only partially through.  I’ve got trips to the River Naver in Scotland during March and the Varzuga River in Russia at the end of May.  These trips have given me a few excuses to tie some additional tube fly patterns.  It is amazing how universal the black, red, and orange colors of the Willie Gunn fly pattern are in the salmon world.  I think that I would feel quite confident on any salmon river at any time with just an assortment of WGs – though of course I will have many more flies with me.

willie-gunn-salmon-fly

The Willie Gunn Salmon Fly

There are a number of events coming up that will also help make the rest of the winter fly by. Among these are The Fly Fishing shows.  I usually stop by the Stripers Forever booth at the Marlboro, MA show, and I spend 3 full days working at their booth during the Somerset, NJ show.  This is a really big one, and has just about everything under the sun when it comes to fly-fishing.  Atlantic salmon fishing is well represented there with booths by outfitters from all across the salmon’s North Atlantic range, as well as tackle retailers, fly tiers, and folks who deal in the books, art and antiquities that salmon lore is steeped in.  I always come back from Somerset with a bag full of goodies and some fresh ideas for the new season.

Perhaps the watershed moment of the winter season for me is the Burlington, MA dinner and auction that will be held by the Miramichi Salmon Assoc. in 2017 on Saturday February 4. The MSA was founded by members of the recreational fishing community to rid the river of the commercial fishery – particularly the nets – that were strangling the fish.  Thanks to those efforts the Miramichi has gone from what was perceived as a grilse river to one with a very healthy percentage of large salmon.

It is my belief that we are in the midst of an important transition in the salmon conservation world. The folks who founded the MSA back in the 50s are mostly gone now, and their children aren’t getting any younger.  Salmon fishing has gone from catch and cook to catch and release, as the salmon are forced to cope with their various problems – almost entirely caused by us.  The MSA continues today to do an important job of watching out for our river and its fish.  The dinner in February is the major fund raising event held in America.  It is also a great and important time in the salmon calendar.  One of my friends called last night and talked about how much he enjoys this evening each year.  The atmosphere of the entire event oozes Miramichi salmon culture.  Many of the lodge owners are there along with some of the top guides and most hard-bitten fishermen.  There are flies, art, fishing trips etc etc to bid on and old relationships to maintain.  I have a whole set of acquaintances that I usually see once a year at this dinner.  If you love Atlantic salmon and live in North America, this dinner should be on your must attend list.

To get your tickets here is everything that you need to know:

The 63rd Annual Boston Dinner to support MSA will be held Saturday, February 4th, 2017 at the Burlington Marriott, Burlington, MA.

This year the Boston Dinner is honouring our very own Director and Past Chairman Vince Swazey so we hope many of you can join us to pay tribute to this very special man. Dinner tickets are $175 each or $325 per couple. Please order your tickets by contacting Kate Flanagan at kate@miramichisalmon.ca or 506.622.4000; or Linda Guild at msa@guildassoc.com or 781.397.8870.

I hope very much to see you there.

Brad Burns

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I wasn’t in Canada over the weekend of December 10, thanks to the modern technology being used along the river I feel as if I personally witnessed the Miramichi freezing up for the winter.  Through the eye of the webcam at Renee Bullock’s Lodge in Boiestown – which I have watched from time to time all season long – I saw the river ice up severely on Friday, then saw it completely frozen up on Saturday morning.  During this same time frame Jason Curtis sent me photos from his I-phone of the stretch of the river visible from his deck in Blackville which includes Campbell’s and Keenan’s pools.  The Blackville portion of the river was visibly less thick with ice than Bullock’s on Friday, but first thing on Saturday morning the ice was dense and barely moving downstream.  Just before lunch it was no longer moving at all, and completely frozen in bank to bank.  According to most local folks this is more or less right on time.  The river can ice up as early as the end of November, but that is really rare.  Last year it was unusually late, not freezing up until the second week in January, but I guess that is last year’s El Nino versus the current LaNina.

12-1-2016

December 4, 2016

december-4-2016

December 8, 2016

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Early December 12, 2016

I’m feeling good about this year’s timely cold and Miramichi freeze up.  It seems right.  Last year it felt as if the river was being cheated out of its customary ice blanket.  When the break-up came in spring time the ice cakes stranded on the banks were much thinner than usual.  It just wasn’t a real Miramichi ice out.  Of course the rest of this winter is yet to be experienced, but we have a decent, cold start.

For all of its bleakness I love this season.  The salmon have finished spawning, and the redds are covered with pure, cold water.  The cycle that began with the first silvery fish of June has come to an end, and the beginnings of another year class of salmon are safely stowed in the gravel, right where they should be.  My old friend and guide, Willie Bacso, used to say that he felt better after New Years.  It is a turning of the corner.  The evenings already turned that corner a week ago, and are now creeping later each day.  We have to wait about two and a half weeks for the mornings to catch up, but Willie was right.  After New Years both ends of the day are headed towards their peak in late June.  How we love those early summer mornings when the birds start singing at 3:30 A.M. and salmon are again in the river.  It will be great to be on the count-down.

Here is something that will help scratch the fishing itch a bit while we wait.  The Miramichi Salmon Association is holding its U.S. dinner and annual auction again this year at the Marriot Hotel in Burlington, MA.  If you check out this link to the home page of the MSA you will find a lot of great material about the Miramichi and its salmon fishery.  While you are on the site please join.  There is very little you could do with $50 that would be more beneficial to the Miramichi’s Atlantic salmon.

Now take a look at the left hand “Quick Links” column and see “Upcoming Events”.  At the top left of that page is the announcement for the Boston Dinner.  This year it is being held on Saturday Feb. 4th.  There will be a lot more information about it later, but for a good evening of soaking up the salmon culture of the Miramichi, block off the date on your calendar to come to the dinner.  A lot of folks from out of town make it a destination.  They drive down from Eastern Maine or up from New York and spend the night at the hotel after the dinner.

This year at the dinner the MSA is honoring past president and New Brunswick lodge owner Vince Swazey.  Again, I remember Willie saying one time when Vince was mentioned, “you know Brad, there was never anyone more able in a canoe than Vince Swazey”.  Vince owned and ran Tuckaway Lodge in Boiestown for years, and I know that many guests returned year after year, not only for his great knowledge of the salmon, and how to catch them, but that big friendly, boyish grin that would make anyone feel right at home.

Last, please consider making either a year end donation or, if you have a service or product that you think might be popular, providing something for the Boston auction.  If you have an idea for an auction item just send me a reply e-mail at bigbass@maine.rr.com, and I’ll be happy to talk with you about it, and tell you where it can be sent.  You can make a financial donation by going to the tab at the top of the MSA website that says “Support Us”.  Once you do that “Make A Year-End Gift” will be the first item on the menu.

Last, here is something to consider.  Ever dream of fishing in the birthplace of Atlantic salmon fishing?  This year for the MSA auction one of our directors who lives in England, has donated a week of fishing with him and his friends on the River Spey in the Scottish Highlands.  You’ll stay in a palatial Scottish country house called Laggan House on the banks of the river, and fish the renowned Carron and Laggan beat during the week of June 19 through the 26 – a prime summer week.  The trip is for two, and the opening bid is only $3,500.

I wish all the purchasers of Closing the Season, and all readers of my blog a very Happy Holiday Season, a winter of pleasant dreams about salmon fishing, and the good health and fortune to put you back on the river next spring.

Brad Burns December 2016

 

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans uses trap nets set in the Miramichi estuary to estimate the run of salmon and grilse running into the river each year. Each day from June through October DFO employees go out to the net strung on poles driven into the river bottom and count the fish trapped in the net. These fish are alive and unharmed. The fish are counted, weighed, measured, a small metal tag with a number is fixed to their back with a thin wire, and they are released back into the river. Anglers sometimes catch these tagged fish, and we can learn a lot about how the fish move in the river from information connected to these tags.

millerton-tag

DFO tag from Millerton in Cock Salmon 10/13/16

This year we caught bright salmon in every month from early June on, yet the only tagged fish we got were caught on 9/28, 10/10 and 10/13. I have no idea why it happened that way. The history of each of these tagged fish is always very interesting:

  1. On 9/28 we caught a hen salmon at Campbell’s Pool with tag #41999. I should say that we believe that is what the number was. It was getting dark and the flash on my camera reflected off the tag. Darrell Warren and I tried to remember the number, but we had 44199. There is no such number among tags used, but this one given to us by DFO matches perfectly so I’ve accepted it.
    The information on that tag is that the fish was tagged at 82.2CM or about 33 inches on 9/16/2016.The water was low this fall, and at least this fish took its time in the lower river.  Campbell’s is about 14 miles above the head of tide, and where the fish was tagged at Millerton is about 8 miles downriver from that point. That makes the journey from the Millerton trap to Campbell’s Pool about 22 miles. Some other fish that we’ve recovered before showed up just a couple of days after being tagged. This fish, though, took 12. I remember that evening’s fishing. We had a fair number of fish showing in the lower part of the pool, but they were not good takers. A friend and I only caught one other fish that evening, an untagged grilse.
  2. The next tagged fish was not taken until 10/10.   That fish was a male grilse – my notes say that I also lost a much larger fish that same evening. This fish was tag #45067, and it had originally been tagged by the DFO at Millerton on 10/6 just 4 days before. The grilse was 54.6 cm or about 22 inches long. Doubtless it could have arrived even a couple of days earlier, but 4 is still a fairly short trip.
  3. The third and final tagged fish was the next to last fish of the season. I got this fish at Mahoney Brook in the home pool in front of camp, at quite a low water level on 10/13. The Mahoney Brook camp is 22 miles up the Cains River, and so is about 44 miles from the trap. This was tag #39947, and it is the lovely cock salmon that is in the video on my website! This salmon put up an outrageous fight zipping up and down the narrow home pool, skipping along the surface on its side and violently changing directions. It was really quite something to see.  At Millerton the fish measured 81.4CM or about 32 inches long. This would make the salmon about 12 pounds, though we had estimated it closer to 15, oh well… The hook pulled out in the net, and as you saw in the video, after a brief recovery it swam strongly off. I hope it had the pleasure of sidling up to the biggest hen in the river…it deserved it.
    An interesting thing about this cockfish was that it had originally been tagged at Millerton on July 4th! We have caught sea-liced fish at Mahoney Brook that could not have been in fresh water much over 2 days – because they were still carrying sea lice – so there is nothing holding the fish back if they are in a hurry. The upper Cains River can become very tiny in a warm, dry summer. Perhaps there is some natural selection message in the late running fish of the Cains. Maybe fish that ran up the Cains early often died before spawning, and the river naturally developed a fall run, or maybe through some instincts that we don’t understand the fish just know better than to ascend the river too early. You have to wonder, though, why fish come in to the river during July if they aren’t going to go up the river for three and a half months?  So where in the river did that salmon spend its time between July 4 and October 13th? Who knows is of course the only certain answer, but I would bet that it went into the Cains as a lot of fish did this past summer during the middle of July. There are a number of good holding pools in the lower Cains strung out from the mouth just above Black Brook up to the Mouth of Sabbies River. That fish could have been laying in any of these, and then inched its way up the Cains with every little bit of rain that reached the river during September.   

 

Looking for something to give a fellow salmon fisher for Christmas?

Here is a special offer from me.   Until Christmas If you purchase two copies of my book Closing the Season I will ship a third one at no additional charge. Also, for every additional one that you purchase I will match it with another free copy. When you click to “proceed to checkout” there is a place on the website for notes on your order. Just write in there the name and address of who to send each of the books to. You can also e-mail me at bigbass@maine.rr.com if this needs a little more explanation or you have a question.  But wait, as they say in those sleazy infomercials, that’s not all…   I will also include with each book – even if you order just one – an “8 x 10” copy of Percy Nobbs 1949 map of the Miramichi drainage. Even though the map is black and white I will run the copies in full color process on a quality stock that gives the map a lovely antique look.

1 nobb’s map

Percy Nobbs 1949 Map of Miramichi River System

 

Millerton and Cassilis Fish Traps

The Province of New Brunswick estimates the salmon run in both branches of the Miramichi River each year by maintaining fish trapping nets located a short distance below the head of tide at Millerton on the Southwest branch,  and at Cassilis on the Northwest. These traps capture the salmon and grilse live without injury, and they only capture a certain portion of the fish going by.  Their efficiency is variable in different heights of water and from other factors.  In fact in some years high water flows necessitate that the nets be removed, and significant portions of the run are not sampled at all.  This happened during Hurricane Arthur in July of 2014, and during the giant rains at the end of September 2015.  Still, by carefully recording and then tagging the salmon and grilse that are caught in the traps, then the counting of the number of tagged fish as a percentage of total recaptures at upstream sites – all done year after year for many years – the government has a reasonable methodology to extrapolate the total number of salmon and grilse in the run.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans will tell you that it is a minimum, conservative estimate, and that it is not meant to be any more than that.

Appearing below are graphics copied from the government website. The numbers on the left side of each graphic show the Millerton trap catch of salmon or grilse from 2001 through 2016.  The green columns are the numbers of fish caught in the trap through October 15th and the orange columns are through October 31st.  In most cases the numbers are almost the same because either the run is mostly in by the 15th or because the net was out before the 31st.

Here below are the graphics for Main Southwest Miramichi Salmon

millerton-salmon

Here are the graphics for Main Southwest Miramichi Grilse

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Here are the graphics for the Northwest trap at Cassilis salmon.

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Here are the graphics for the Northwest trap at Cassilis grilse.

cassilis-grilseWhat is best reflected by these graphs is how each year looks relative to the others in the time sequence, and therefore the general trend in the overall annual returns to the river.

While there has clearly been a decline over the last 15 years, the next most striking thing, and it is true for both the Main Southwest and the Northwest, is that the abundance of salmon has not declined nearly as much as the numbers of grilse.   No one that I know is certain why this is, but it would appear that for whatever reason grilse are finding it more difficult to survive their winters in the ocean than the larger salmon are.  It could be feed, temperature, predation, commercial fishing activity – or some combination of all these factors – that is the culprit.

A Closer Look at 2016 Numbers

The final trap numbers for 2016 came out like this:

  • Millerton salmon 776
  • Millerton grilse   1030
  • Cassilis salmon   542
  • Cassilis grilse 505

The Millerton trap on the Maine South West Miramichi averages efficiencies of 5% on salmon and 9% on grilse – meaning that historically, on average, it catches one in 20 salmon that come up the river and one in 11 grilse – so if this year is representative the run of salmon would be 15,520 and the grilse would number 11,443. On the Northwest Miramichi the historic efficiencies are 10% and 11% for salmon and grilse.  That would mean 5,420 salmon and 4,595 grilse in the NW for 2016. The total run of all salmon and grilse would therefore be around 36,978 – split fairly evenly between salmon and grilse. Note that my calculation of 36,978 is just an estimate based on the historical average trap efficiencies.  The New Brunswick DFO will analyze all the data make an official calculation over the winter.  Yesterday I googled up an old scientific report on the Miramichi salmon run, and in 1935 an analysis of the commercial net fisheries in Miramichi Bay indicated that the run at that time was about 60% grilse, so things haven’t changed all that much.

As salmon rivers go 36,978 is a big number, and the Miramichi system definitely still provides some world class fishing opportunities, but it is probably only two thirds of the average run from 15 years ago. It does, though, appear to be relatively stable.  Also, in terms of the trend, it does appear that both 2015 and 2016 were up years overall.

At a recent meeting of the MSA board, president Mark Hambrook stated that the returns to the river in recent years from smolt going to sea and returning as adults were down from a historic 10% – and even more some years – to about 3% currently. The second big factor in the final returns to the river is the number of smolts going to sea to begin with.  The number of smolts begins with the number of eggs laid in the river gravel each fall.  The magic number for meeting full spawning requirements is an egg deposition of 2.4 eggs per square meter of wetted rearing habitat.  All of this is complicated by the size of those eggs which depends on the makeup of the run – big alternate spawners have larger more viable eggs than smaller salmon.  Because we have released large salmon for many years the Miramichi has a large percentage of big, annual and repeat spawners in its run.  The current conjecture is that the Miramichi system will reach its spawning requirements in 2016, and that is certainly very important.

Why is ocean survival down from 10% to 3%? That is the big question, and no one knows the answer for sure.  Some of the prime suspects are individually, or in some combination: shrinking winter habitat due to ocean warming, removals of salmon by both directed and non-directed commercial fishing, and overharvest of the salmon’s historic prey species such as capelin and krill.  These are the things the current research projects are hoping to narrow down to some conclusions so that corrective action can be undertaken.

C.A.S.T.

Perhaps you have heard that a group named C.A.S.T. or the Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow, in which the Miramichi Salmon Association and the Atlantic Salmon Federation are both important players, has purchased a number of $100K sonar/cameras like those used to count salmon on rivers in Europe. Two of these are being installed near the bridge in the village of Blackville, NB, and for 2017 there will be another measure of the strength of the salmon runs in the river.