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.
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!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Brad Burns
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or 506.622.4000; or Linda Guild at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781.397.8870.
I hope very much to see you there.
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.
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 email@example.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.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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
Here are the graphics for Main Southwest Miramichi Grilse
Here are the graphics for the Northwest trap at Cassilis salmon.
Here are the graphics for the Northwest trap at Cassilis grilse.
What 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:
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.
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.
An Odd Season for Weather
The 2016 season is now history, and putting everything in the perspective of modern times the size of the salmon run this year was quite good in terms of multi sea winter salmon. But while grilse totals were far above the scary low numbers of 2012 and 2013, they were less than last year and only about half of the long term average annual return. I’ll do a separate report on the trap numbers during the first week in November. It is likely, though, that at least the Main Southwest Miramichi met its minimum spawning numbers for the year, though the official determination of that is months away. The strength of the run aside it was a challenging year for fishing at many lodges. At last communication one noted club on a river just north of us that is known for its fall run had caught almost no fish for the season, simply because of a season-long drought. On the lower Miramichi and Cains we had enough thunderstorms to keep us in decent water for all but the end of the Cains River fishing season. I might add, though, that a low water level that has just risen slightly because of a small rain is much more invigorating to salmon than the same level slowly being reached after weeks with no rain and the river just existing on ground water seepage. A little occasional rain really helps liven things up!
We also struggled back and forth with warm water in mid-summer – actually hot weather started in late June which is exceptionally early . What should have been our first big push of fish in very late June and early July was knocked out by that heat wave. Such is salmon fishing, though, and just as the last weeks of the season in 2015 ushered in fabulous conditions and catches for the upper Cains, the river above Muzzerol Brook in 2016 was nearly fishless due to terribly low water. The double whammy was the almost unbroken string of bright, clear, sun-filled days. When combined with the constantly lowering water level no salmon could truly be comfortable. I noted that mornings were by and large poor, and most evenings the main river hosted a fresh run of salmon, some of which would occasionally take a fly as they barreled upriver. I can only conclude that the salmon were reacting to the sunlight and low, clear water conditions and preparing to move under the cover of night. At Campbell’s we found ourselves fishing until the edge of darkness to find a taking fish. In most years we find the prime fishing occurs much earlier in the evening than that, while on those gray days that the autumn is famous for the fish will readily move and take at all times of the day. By contrast to the sun-filled skies we struggled with here is the forecast for Doaktown just a week after the season ended – oh to have had that weather!
September 28 through October 9
This period began with the Miramichi at .75 meters on the Blackville gauge. This is a good medium height of water and we hooked and caught fish every day both at Campbell’s and on the lower Cains – though we were running out of water on the Cains. Also, we noted that with the raise that took place the week before a great percentage of the holding fish had cleaned out of the lower Cains pools and begun their slow march up river. Under these conditions one is usually much better off on the main river simply because the number in the run are so much greater. On the Main Southwest Miramichi below the mouth of the Cains you get the benefit of both the Cains fish and also all the fish heading up for the main river headwaters. The plague of this period was the exact weather that all the leaf peepers are looking for, and that I complained about a couple of paragraphs earlier. It seemed as if we had one crystal clear day after another with frosty mornings and warm, sunny afternoons. With few exceptions this weather stuck with us for whole final three weeks of the season. I remember one day, I think it was Sunday the 2nd when it was your typical cold, gray, fall day with moist air and an occasional sprinkle. That day fish would hold up in various lies all through the pool and it was just fabulous stuff. Unfortunately I didn’t make the most of it. I briefly connected with three fish, but they all got off. I’m not going to complain too much about barbless single hooks. I’m sure they save a ton of parr over the fishing season, but you definitely will not put as many fish in the net when using them.
Another thing that the conditions made a bit confusing was fly selection. Up until the last week or so I was still carrying around all sizes of wet flies plus a box of bombers. I cast the dry flies to a few reluctant fish holding in the pool, and I rolled a couple but never landed any. You’ll see a picture in here later, though, of a bomber-caught fish from Upper Blackville during the last week. Normally lowering water means small flies, and since we were soon into the .6 meters on the Blackville gauge we were using them. Looking in the book I see fish were caught on tiny, thinly-tied Ally’s shrimp, #10 Undertakers, and similar sized Black Ghosts, Black Bear Green Butts, and Same Thing Murrays. On the other hand we caught some of the traveling fish on #2 October killer streamers. That is a more typical fly for us to use on the large, late run fish in the 48F water at the end of the season. I used to think that salmon primarily took flies simply out of feeding instinct. Now I simply don’t know, but I do tend to believe that both hen and especially cock salmon become very protective of their space as spawning time draws near. A large, bright fly may very well elicit a strike from a salmon that has nothing to do with feeding instinct.
October 10th through the 15th
This is the grand finale that as upper Cains River devotees we wait all year for. Pools that hold nothing all season suddenly have salmon, some that may spawn locally, and some heading much further up to the Cains headwaters areas. The Slow Pool that I write about in Closing the Season is a deep, boulder-bottomed corner of the river that is lined with ledge on one side. To many anglers the very slow pace of the flow would make it unexciting water. To us, though, the fact that it sometimes has a bunch of big salmon quietly passing each day in its dark, protective depths is enough reason to love it. Ralph Vitale did catch a good salmon there this year, but during that entire last week we never saw a single fish roll in that pool. In the other holding pool we call Wood’s Pool – which is another mile upriver from the Slow Pool – we saw a total of one grilse during the last week. Ralph’s fish did also take a long red, orange, yellow, and black Scottish fly called a Willy Gunn. Ralph’s three-inch fly was more like the stuff we normally fish up on the Cains during the tail end.
On Thursday morning the 13th I made a trip up to our Mahoney Brook camp as much out of duty and affection for the place as anything. The truck said 20F on the drive in, so Jason Curtis built a good fire in the wood stove and we sat back to watch the sea smoke and perhaps get a glimpse of a moose or bear crossing the river. My two guests were stationed with Darrell Warren back on the main river with the fly line freezing in their guides. After a fishless morning I was sitting on the deck having a glass of wine and a smoked turkey sandwich when to my amazement a salmon rolled beside a rock in the main run about 400 feet from where I was sitting. The water in that spot was just over knee deep, and I felt that the fish was probably just moving slowly upstream. I took a nap, not long, maybe 20 minutes, and then I repaired my leader and tied on a new October Killer Jr. This is just a smaller version of the fly that I talk about in Closing the Season. I set up at the head of the run perhaps 400 feet above the fish, and in all it was nearly two hours before I finally made a cast over the area where I’d seen the fish show. As the fly swung beside the boulder where I’d last seen the fish it was instantly taken by a nice cockfish sporting its full spawning colors. That’s the one in the last blog’s video, and here is a still picture of it.
The next day in the boulders about 200 feet further up river I hooked another good fish, but this one got off after about 60 seconds. Both fish were very reluctant to leave the relatively deep channel of the pool, and they ran rapidly up and down through the current, leaping over rocks, skimming along on their sides with their long snouts pointed skywards, and in the case of the cockfish in the video eventually beaching himself in a shallow stretch of mid-river gravel shingle. That fish was tagged at Millerton, and in fact we landed 3 tagged fish in the last two weeks, so it will be interesting to learn a bit more about those fish such as how long they had been in the river etc. I’ll report that in my blog as the info becomes available. While fish were scarce up at Mahoney Brook we were hearing that they were arriving into pools around Muzzerol Brook on a daily basis. It seems that is about as far as they were going in any numbers without a new raise of water.
Atlantic Salmon Museum Hall of Fame Ceremony
If one spends a little time around the Miramichi they become intertwined with the fabric of the place and its people. The years go flying by and soon a real bond develops. When I purchased Campbell’s and Keenan’s I stepped into a piece of Wade’s Fishing Lodge history. One thread of that fabric is Gary Colford. As a guide at Wade’s Gary lived in the house that is now my lodge on the river. Our first spring there in 2003 Gary guided us to some kelt fishing. During the season Gary would stop by and I’d bum a smoke from him, or I’d see him at the Irving station in town and have a say. I remember the time a crazy Englishman who was possessed with becoming the Miramichi’s top outfitter – before he went broke – got Gary to drive all night down to the Somerset, NJ fly fishing show where I met them by chance at daybreak in the hotel lobby as they were arriving.
Later Gary ended up as an important part of Byron Coughlin’s Country Haven Outfitters. On our trips out to Mahoney Brook I’d often see Gary watching over his anglers fishing Moore’s Pool up in Shinnickburn on the Cains River. Gary, like me, now in his mid-60s, had guided at Moore’s Pool since he was a teenager. I can always get an upbeat but honest report on the fishing from Gary. During 2015 letters were written to the Atlantic Salmon Museum, and Gary along with several other notable Miramichi guides, sportsman, and outfitters was inducted into the 33rd Hall of Fame Anniversary. Jason Curtis good friend Marty Stewart was one of the others as was Wesley Curtis of Mountain Channel. Wesley is the son of Ted Williams guide Roy Curtis. Anyway, I bought tickets to the dinner held at the curling club in Doaktown, and a couple of my friends and I attended and ended up sitting at a table along with Moore’s Pool owner, Bill Moore, and his friends as well as the owners of The Ledges Inn fly fishing lodge in Doaktown. It was great fun, and certainly a bit surprising to see just how these tough outdoorsmen were touched emotionally by this recognition. You can read more about the Museum’s Hall of Fame on their website.
Photo Gallery click on the pictures to expand to full size
Video of Wood’s Pool on a blustery autumn day.
Video of Mahoney Brook Upper Home Pool, Cains River
I returned to Maine on Sunday after spending the last two weeks of the season on the Miramichi and the Cains. I’ve got a lot of experiences and information to share with you about that trip and the entire 2016 season. It will be a little while before I can get that all together, but we have all winter now to reflect on the past season. I’m still excited about this great Cains River cockfish, though, that really made the end of the season for me. I told my guide Jason Curtis when I caught it that if it had been the only fish that I landed on the trip I’d have still been more than satisfied. I hope that you will enjoy this video as much as I do every time I watch it. Maximize the size and turn on the sound before you start – if you want to hear a 66 year old man who is as excited as a kid with his first fish.
Another Week of Back to Back Raises
We had 40mm of rain over the Miramichi and Cains River watersheds just before last week’s trip, and it brought the water level to 1.6 meters on the Blackville gauge. That was the most substantial raise in a while. The water then dropped fairly quickly only to receive a half inch of rain again on Friday. I’m not saying this is all bad, but every weather scenario has its effects on the fishing. Normally speaking a raise will move all the holding fish in the pools further upriver, and it will bring in fish that are ready from the estuary. These fish are all on the move and are notoriously hard to catch while the water is rising. Raises will also dirty up the water, and even after the water begins to fall it is usually not great catching until things clear up a bit. To some degree we had those problems this last trip – twice!
Thursday was tough with fairly high and dirty water. Friday was the best day, with a steady stream of fish moving upriver under the cover of the rain and cloudy darkness – man do I love rain when I’m salmon fishing. We had targets all day long, and though we only landed an average of one fish each there was action throughout the day. On Saturday the river was again rising slightly, and there were less fish around than the day before. We did okay, though, with fish from both the Cains and the main river including a 12 pound salmon. So far this fall we have not had our share of those massive fall hens or Godzilla hookbills. The prime time for those big fish is now at hand, and we’re heading back up Wed. and will be ready.
The Finest Hour Is At Hand
The water temperature coming out of Otter Brook was 46F on Thursday morning, and we had frost on three out of the four mornings in camp. The main river water was 51F Sunday morning and the time for big flies at hand. We broke out the #2 October Killer, and most fish were taken on that fly, though we also connected with a #4 black bear green butt and even a #6 green machine flash tail in a quieter main river pool.
The crème de la crème of Miramichi salmon fishing in the minds of many is that time when the run in the Cains moves towards the headwaters. The pools above Muzzerol only see dependable numbers of fish during the last two to three weeks of the season. Jason Curtis says that it seems fish can just run up the main river, but in the Cains the fish seem to move upriver by inches. The Miramichi itself can also be good to very good during this time – statistically the biggest week of the fall run is the first week in October – and one can hardly know where to turn because of all the great choices.
9/15 Trap Numbers
Here is the link to the DFO website page for the fish counting traps. The numbers are updated through 9/15. The salmon count for 2016 is the best since 2011 and well ahead of the averages for the last decade. The Millerton trap grilse numbers, while much better than 2012, 13 and 14 are behind last year and about half of the long term averages. On the Northwest Miramichi grilse numbers at the barrier are slightly ahead of last year, but the Cassillis trap counts for grilse are far behind 2015. The implications of this are confusing and a bit worrisome, but it is the big fish that will lay the eggs, and we can take some comfort in that.
We continue to catch and to see considerably more grilse than salmon, so I am not yet convinced that the final totals won’t be closer to normal. We’ll do a full wrap up on those trap numbers when the season is over.
Hall of Fame Dinner October 1.
At a dinner in Doaktown on Saturday night October 1 six of well-known Miramichi salmon fishing professionals will inducted into the Atlantic Salmon Museum Hall of Fame. I will be there with a table of guests, guides and friends. Last year’s event was great fun. Here is a link you can check to see if tickets are still available. http://www.atlanticsalmonmuseum.com/hall-of-fame/
Fishing has been generally slow on the Miramichi, with tiny amounts of rain and mostly dry and sunny conditions. The second half of this week, though, saw a decent amount of fish moving up the lower river. Some with sea lice were reported, but many of the fish were dark and getting them to take was no easy task. We did manage to hook a few of them including this nice 14-pound fish that took a smaller version of my October Killer tied on a number 6 standard style salmon hook. The fish made a terrific first run well into my backing that ended in a great leap. You just can’t beat the fight of an Atlantic salmon!
Things are really starting to change in Blackville. On Friday morning guide Darrell Warren had frost on the windshield of his truck, and bits of color can be seen here and there. We fished the lower Cains that morning and the river was running at 56F while the brook was at 51F. That’s starting to get down there!
Sunday’s rain was very light, about 5mm across the watershed, but more substantial rain has now been forecast for Monday. This year’s Environment Canada weather forecasts have been highly inaccurate more than a day or so out. On Sunday night periods of heavy rain were forecast for Chipman area – headwaters of the Cains. That has now backed off quite a bit to a more moderate rain. It is hard to know exactly what will happen until it is all over. Right now all the Cains pools are very low and the few salmon in them are generally stale as month old bread. Hopefully that will change tomorrow, we’ll just have to wait and see. The time for the upper Cains is almost at hand, and we are sure looking forward to that late season fishing.
One of Country Haven’s Anglers caught this unwanted, 20-inch striped bass on the lower Cains. Stripers are vicious predators and a striper like this can eat a lot of parr in the course of a summer. They are just as adept at feeding at night as they are during the day. What is needed is a regulation that allows all striped bass caught above tide water to be retained by the angler. This would do nothing to the overall striped bass population, but with the amount of people angling for salmon on the rivers it would remove a high percentage of the rogue fish that swim far up into fresh water every summer. There will be a time later this fall to make our feelings known to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and we will let our readers know how they can do that when the time is right.
PS It is legal to retain one striped bass per day between 50 and 65 cm. We will be filleting any of that size that we get this fall. Thankfully we haven’t caught one at Campbell’s since June, but bass like that could be coming up river now to eat young fish including gasperaux dropping down river.