Brook Trout and Early-Run Bright Salmon

Ralph Vitale casting on a cold morning in the Cains River, Shinnickburn.

Fishing Friends:

This is a really exciting time to be a Miramichi fisherman.  Spring salmon fishing is over for another year, but it is already early enough to be fishing for bright salmon.  Last year, Colin Gilks of the Miramichi Salmon Club in Blissfield, landed the first bright salmon of the season.  It was a real beauty: tiny head, thick powerful shoulders, a terrific specimen.  Colin’s fish would make the season for most experienced anglers.

Colin’s fish from May 2022.

The biggest reason more of these early fish aren’t caught is mostly that so few people try for them.  It has been that way as long as I can remember.  In my salad days on the river I remember being tied behind my desk in Maine while Willy Bacso and Jason Curtis fished for sea run brook trout during the evenings.  There were a lot more sea run brook trout then, and the first SW Miramichi salmon would often come while fishing for brookies.  They weren’t fishing the prime salmon lies either, since most of the brookies were caught in the smaller water closer to shore.  Don’t forget, you can just double click any image to fully enlarge it!

Generally the first fish would be caught in very early June, but things seem to be happening a little earlier in the last 10 or 15 years.  The run has always been a little earlier on the NW Miramichi, but May fish are caught every year now, even on the SW.   It has always been earlier on the Restigouche system too, and I noted that one of the lodges there already has photos of a couple of 2023 big, bright salmon.

Slightly better than average sized Cains River resident brookie.

A good flow of water in the home pool at Mahoney Brook camp.

Most Miramichi fly fishermen fill the last couple of weeks of May either fishing for brook trout or going down towards the estuary for striped bass.  I just came back from a few days on the Cains River fishing for brookies.  May 15 is too early for sea run brook trout to be up at Mahoney Brook, but there are some resident trout that get to be 16 inches or so, and the number of 10 to 12” fish is quite good.  This year, though, perhaps because of the cold temperatures, it was slower than last.  On last Thursday morning it was 26F at camp, and Darrell Warren broke through some solid ice in puddles on his way driving in.

Temperature isn’t the only environmental condition to consider.  The Cains had a strong flow of water, and was at a height that we often yearn for in the fall salmon fishing.  The SW Miramichi, though, was down to only 1.15M which is unusually low for mid-May.  As I write this the Miramichi is finishing the last of what was forecast to be about an inch and a half of rain.  Hopefully this will bring the river up after making it a bit cloudy for a few days.  This might also be helpful in allowing a few extra of the smolts to slip by the armies of stripers coming in to spawn.  The rest of the week has only a few showers forecast, and while things can change it looks like we are going to go into June with a level of water that will be excellent for salmon fishing on the lower river since the salmon tend to hold up much better in lower water.

Nick Keenan’s catch.

I did find a few trout almost everywhere we stopped in the Mahoney Brook to Shinnickburn area, though the mouth of Muzzerol Brook didn’t show us any brookies at all despite being quite good last May.  A small section of rocky shoreline below camp gave me a dozen or so on Tuesday morning.  The biggest was about 11 inches.  I’m sure things will pick up, and in fact Nick Keenan sent me this photo of a nice one he caught in one of the same areas that we fished a couple of days earlier.  That’s fishing…

A couple of proven Cains River trout flies

We used a variety of flies, but for me the most successful was a #6 Olive Wooly Bugger, though two of my larger fish were caught on a silvery colored fur strip.  It too was on a #6 hook, but the fly was as least half again as long as a traditional #6 wet fly.  These were flies donated by Bill Utley to the Falmouth, Maine MSA dinner last winter.  It was cold and windy, but there was enough insect life that we probably should have tried some dries.  My fishing partner Ralph Vitale fished a Muddler a bit, and that can be fished either dry or wet, but the trout didn’t seem crazy about it on this trip.

Thank god most of the resident brook trout are immune to the striped bass.  Their entire lives are spent upriver beyond the reach of these predators.  The sea run brookies are another story.  During cooler months of the year, when the smaller trout that are destined to become sea runs venture down into the estuary, the bass undoubtedly chow down quite a few of them.   This spring, though, fishing for sea runs at the top of tide water in the estuaries of both branches was better than any of the last few years.

A good brookie on a silver fur strip from the Slow Pool.


A future 30 pounder if he can get by DFO’s striped blockade.

The next most abundant fish to the trout were not the chubbs, though they were there too – some darn big ones in the Cains – but the salmon smolts.  We caught those in comparable numbers to the brooktrout everywhere the water was a little faster and had some structure to it.  I found that the smolts loved hanging in the turbulent water around boulders in the quicker parts of the run.  At one point we found that a moderate hatch of mayflies had incited a modest feeding frenzy of mixed smolts and brook trout. The fish were actively feeding on the surface all around us.  The smolts in particular were launching completely out of the water trying to grab airborne mayflies.  It was great to see so many of these feisty little bars of silver.   It bothers me a great deal to know that the Cains is doing its part by producing the smolts, but knowing that a high percentage of them will simply be eaten by the ridiculous levels of overprotected striped bass.

Recently I’ve heard some people say that as unpopular as DFO is these days, that they will never do anything to bring the striped bass and salmon numbers into a more harmonious balance, because they have an army of anglers who just want more stripers.   It would be a mistake for DFO to think that striped bass can replace salmon in the Miramichi.  During much of the fishing year, when the weather is at all conducive to fishing, the stripers are out in the ocean.  Atlantic salmon and brook trout range throughout the Miramichi, and provide resident anglers far away from the ocean with opportunities that striped bass will never provide.

Looking downriver, and at Darrell’s new swallow boxes.

In addition to the fishing it was great to be in camp.  We enjoyed a new 12V electric system that gave us water and lights 24 hours a day with no generator to run.  We saw bear, moose and all kinds of small game and bird life.  Darrell Warren made up some swallow boxes, and for the first time we put some up at Mahoney Brook.  On our last evening in camp we saw a group of at least a dozen-and-a-half tree swallows flying up and down the valley in front of the camp.  Hopefully some will nest in the boxes, if not we’ll be set for an earlier start next year.

Darrell Warren and Ralph Vitale hated to leave the comfort of camp on this sunny morning.

Don’t forget to save my Salmon Report to your favorites and check in on it whenever you want to stay in touch with the river.  I post the latest daily conditions and news I get from the river.  When I’m in camp as I will be from June 11 to July 11 and then from September 10 to the end of the season I’ll be fishing the river every day and reporting back on what I see and hear.  I’m never without a camera and will add photos of interest as I go along.

Also, I continue to urge you to follow FishPal Miramichi and to sign up for their e-mail alerts and newsletter.

We’ve featured some coverage of the springer fishing in Scotland’s northern Highlands in recent blogs.  Michael Wigan of the River Helmsdale told me a good fish story recently.  Apparently one of the sports landed a particularly good salmon on the Achentoul beat that the guide was unable to photograph.  The guide, who had many years of experience, did measure it, though, and felt certain that it was in the vicinity of 37 pounds which is the official river record.  Michael said that a larger one of some 40 plus pounds was caught and photographed, but that was over 50 years ago and is a bit shrouded in mystery since it was caught by a local poacher!

Thanks for reading, and please let me know when you hear of that first bright Miramichi salmon.  Hopefully it will be on the end of your line!

Brad Burns

Ralph Vitale shot this photo just after sunrise the morning we left camp.

End of another fishing trip.

11 Comments on “Brook Trout and Early-Run Bright Salmon

  1. Great report, I am been enjoying early fishing luck myself

    • Phil – I saw that photo of you on TV the other day with the huge NY steelhead. Congratulations on that one! Brad

  2. The poacher on the Helmsdale was probably just working on his McNab!!!

  3. Just back from a visit to the River SW . We have rocked one of our beats near Upper Blackville and await the results I know you had done the same a few years ago. We await reports with trepidation . We shall be regarded as real smart or a waste of money but I heard iit usually takes three years for the rocks to settle in-Is that your experience? 3

    • Great to hear from you Chris. Our experience has been that salmon will hold behind those rocks immediately. The bottom around the rocks will definitely change with spates and winter ice etc, and some lies will get better and some won’t, but salmon coming up the river will hold or pause around them and parr will choose them as their “home rock.” I would expect those rocks to help that pool quite a bit this spring.

  4. Always uplifting to read you or reports Brad. I see many comments from other posts about the strength of the late June run for both Salmon and Grilse. A great sign for the river and hopefully one that will sustain for the season. Lots of high water but that is better than low and hot for the salmon. Keep writing as I live vicariously through your reports. My fondest memories are still fishing with Gary Colford or Willie in the Campbells pool on the far side when the fish were running. Finest spot on the river.

    • Thanks John. We had some good moments in 2023 also. Gary and Willie are mentioned every day around here. Best wishes. Brad

    • Thanks John. I always love to hear from folks who fished Campbell’s and Papa’s Rock – named for Flora Papa Keenan – on the far side as you say. Wade’s owned that property since the 1940s. I was sure lucky to have it come my way.

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