Fishing friends: Another salmon fishing season on the Miramichi River system has ended. I’ve been home for a week, but I still miss the river every day. I’ve reviewed my daily fishing calendar, opened up the historic water level data and weather data websites, and reconstructed the day-to-day fishing and conditions that we experienced. There is a lot more to cover though: the smallmouth bass debacle, the future of stock enhancement on the Miramichi, the end of the year trap numbers that will ultimately measure the Miramichi salmon run, the striped bass situation, and what we know about smolt and parr production in the river are all important points of discussion, and as more information emerges those topics will be the subject of blogs over the next few months.
Before I get into the fall fishing wrap up, let me make this important announcement.
What: The upcoming Miramichi Salmon Association U.S. Winter Event that will include both in person and zoom broadcast attendance along with live and online silent auctions.
When: Exact dates of the online auction haven’t been set, but the dinner will be held the evening of February 4th 2023. Save the date!
Where: The Portland Country Club in Falmouth, Maine.
Fall Fishing Wrap Up: MSA US vice president Dave Fenderson and his friend Alan Gnann – the owner of REC components – maker of Wheatley Fly Boxes as well as many other fishing industry products – redeemed the Labor Day weekend trip to Campbell’s Pool that we donate annually to the MSA. It was still late summer then, and despite a small raise of water to around one meter in height on the Blackville gauge water temperatures hovered around 70F degrees. They cast to a lot of fish that were holding in the Brophy Pool on the Cains, caught a grilse and lost a salmon, but the other fish had lockjaw.
It is worth noting here that a defining characteristic of the 2022 salmon season was that there was really no period at all of low water. On August 8th the water dipped to .7M on the Blackville gauge which is a relatively high level for mid-summer. I’ve seen many summers on the Miramichi when you would go through most of the summer and early fall and not see water levels as high as .7 meters. Water levels did get a little lower than that for about one week in the fall, but that was it. This fact persuaded many salmon to simply move up the rivers including not only the SWM, but the Cains River also where some salmon were caught regularly above the Grand Lake Road bridge from August onward.
I moved into Campbell’s on September 7th and inherited Dave and Alan’s pool full of stale fish. There were a lot of them, though, and guest Andy Dumaine hooked five one morning proving that they could be taken on very small bombers and dry flies. That technique produced only a couple of fish for us the next day, and after that even the tiny dry flies wouldn’t interest them. With the exception of pools like Black Brook, that also held a pile of salmon in its temperature buffered waters, the main river was very slow. Normally productive fall pool after pool held few if any salmon. From then through to the 15th water remained warm and constantly dropping in height, and there was little action anywhere. This was especially true on the main river where we were seeing only occasional fish at either Doctor’s Island or Campbell’s Pool.
As an additional depressing note, on September 9th, fishing a #8 Ally’s shrimp, I caught a smallmouth bass of about 8 inches in Campbell’s Pool in Blackville. A picture is attached, and we also captured its final moments on video. I reported the fish to DFO’s invasive species division, and I still have its carcass in my freezer. It was the only one we caught, and I’m told its presence could simply be an outlier like one captured a couple of years ago in the Millerton fish trap. We can hope.
On the 15th we got a tiny rain that bumped the rivers up a couple of inches. It didn’t move fish out of the cold-water pools, but it did liven things up. This little freshening of the water was also accompanied by a really significant drop in water temperature. The Blackville gauge went from a high of about 23C/73F on the 15th to a low of 13C/55F on the 16th! Wow, and temperatures never got above 16C/59F for the rest of the season.
During the next few days we caught some of the biggest fish of the fall. Denny Denham was a particularly successful angler with a nice cockfish and a couple of limit days. In 20 years of avidly fishing the Miramichi I lost the second fish that I have lost to a broken tippet. The first one, about 15 years ago, I snapped off on the strike due to what must have been a tiny wind knot in a gossamer leader attached to a dry fly. This one was my fault too. I was too complacent to change the 6-pound-test tippet I had been using to fish some small flies when I switched to #2 marabou streamer. I hooked what was definitely one of the half dozen largest salmon that I have ever had on the line. This was in the relatively small and shallow Cains, and the henfish simply went berserk. After several huge jumps and blistering runs up and down the pool the salmon made one more five-foot jump, landed with a stunning wallop, and the tippet broke off very near the fly. Any of a number of calamities could have caused that light tippet to fail no matter what the angler might have done. I just wished that before tying on that fly I had taken a minute to change over to at least 10-pound-test which would not have affected the fishability of that large fly. It took several days for me to stop thinking about it. We had the medicine, though, and for a few days those big marabous accounted for a number of high teen to low twenty-pound hen and cockfish.
The change in water conditions also jump started the fall run on the main river. Suddenly we were seeing a fair number of traveling salmon during every fishing session. We were now enjoying the lowest water of the fall – the water dipped to .59M – and the fish were holding up long enough to give us the occasional hookup. I couldn’t seem to hold onto them though. In spite of fastidiously sharpened hooks I managed to lose 8 salmon in a row over the course of the next week. I attributed it to traveling fish just snapping at the fly as opposed to coming up off a lie and turning on the fly so that it amounted to a solid hookup. Finally during the last week of the month I managed to have a couple hang on, but it was a very rough spell. Luckily some of my guests in camp did better. Peter DesMeules from Vermont got two grilse at Doctor’s Island one evening and another the next morning, and Jon Robbins landed his first multi sea winter salmon from the Papa’s Rock section of Keenan’s Pool. One angler, Colles Stowell from Yarmouth, Maine got three nice hen salmon, almost summery bright in color, in three successive sessions down at Doctor’s Island.
At the moment when the fall run on the main river was really starting to seem a little like old times it was interrupted by a big rain on September 23rd. This rain fell more on the Cains where the Bantalor gauge showed 50mm/2 inches, and the SWM in Clearwater got 30mm/1.2 inches. This brought portions of SWM that also received Cains water from .6M up to 1.7M and cleaned out any holding fish. Usually, at the
beginning of a big raise after a stretch of low water you will have a period where many salmon leave their established lies and are seen jumping and rolling on their way up the river. There was almost none of that during this raise, and you have to assume the salmon just weren’t there in any numbers. The Cains came up even more, and that was the end of the fish holding in the Brophy Pool. The bulk of those Cains fish didn’t go all that far, though, because just a few days later I had reports of lots of fish showing at Salmon Brook and the mouth of the Sabbies River. I fished Mahoney Brook – 21 miles up the Cains – a couple of times, and while it is certain that a few fish went through there, I didn’t find any holding there for almost another two weeks. The well-known pools immediately above Shinnickburn like Moore’s, Church Pool, and Doctor’s Island were all fairly slow, and they stayed that way for almost the entire remainder of the season. The water just constantly dropped, but unlike last year we had had only that one raise, and many fish remained in the deep, slow holding pools that characterize much of the lower Cains. I fished one such pool in Shinnickburn regularly. It was deep, slow, and full of salmon but if you got one to look at your fly in an early morning or late evening fish you were very lucky.
By early October we were back to seeing very few fish on the SWM. Harvey Wheeler and his friend Phil Emery arrived and each got a grilse one morning at Doctor’s Island and I had two grabs that failed to hook up, but the number of fish that were around for this particularly prime time of the season was pathetic. I compared notes with a few of my friends at other camps and they were in the same boat. At the end of the first week I drove back to Maine for a few days to take my wife to a medical appointment – she is fine. With a promising forecast of some rain Ralph Vitale and I drove back up to fish for the last two days of the season.
With some of the normally hot Cains pools being very low on water we opted to start fishing on October 14 in the deep, slow pool in Shinnickburn that we knew held a lot of fish. By now the rain forecast had backed off until night, but at least it was overcast and with a threat of showers. Ralph got a beautiful hen of about 15 pounds on a big purple marabou streamer – slime fly – but that was our only serious strike. On the 15th we again started at the Shinnickburn pool, but I could see right away that things had changed. It had rained ever so slightly the night before, but that was enough to get things going. We saw fish waking on their way upriver, and the amount of rolling fish holding in the pool was very perceptibly down from the day before. Also, as is so often the case with moving fish, we never had a pull. Late in the morning we decided to move up to Mahoney Brook where we had a couple of choke points to intercept the fish. On the way we stopped at the Moore Pool and chatted up Country Haven’s guides. Kenny Vickers said that they had been seeing fish moving upstream since they arrived – “lots of very big salmon,” said Kenny – but had not connected with any of them. Apparently they did get a couple later in the day, but in general they were traveling and not taking.
Ralph and I continued on up to the Mahoney Brook camp and had lunch. Guide Darrell Warren took Ralph up to the Wood’s Pool after lunch. We had been seeing fish here just before I went back to Maine, but the water was even lower now, and they never saw a fish. Apparently those moving fish weren’t up that far yet.
I fished the home pool which was low but still had a good flow of waist deep water streaming through a patch of boulders. If there was anyone there I never found them, nor did I see a fish roll in the pool. Later I walked down to the end of the run about 500 feet below the home pool. A deep lead there with a few boulders in it drops into a slow body of water that we have nicknamed “the lake.” There had been and were some salmon holding in the lake. We had been watching them jump from the deck during lunch. I did have one salmon make a half-hearted pass at my fly, but failed to really take it. In the lead just above the lake, with about an hour of season to go, one of the biggest salmon I have ever seen in the flesh, honestly it looked like a school bluefin tuna, leapt clear of the water about 30 feet from me. My god what a spectacle. A few second later a grilse came out of almost the exact same lie. Clearly it was her boy toy…LOL. I ended my season by working the area very carefully with several different flies, but those fish had other things on their mind, and there was no last-minute joy for me.
Meanwhile the last couple of days produced some success on the main river for persistent anglers. Byron Coughlan of Country Haven reported that one of his clients, Jason Hayes landed a nice salmon at Quarryville and saw a number of other salmon jumping. That was nice to hear since that area has been infested with striped bass in most recent autumns. Another pair of anglers posted pictures of 4 salmon they caught down in the Rapids during the last days of the season, and there were more reports of a final spurt of sea-liced fish reaching up through pools in Blissfield and Doaktown. That’s all good news, and it will be interesting to see what the final counts look like assuming that DFO will still have the traps in. After the 15th they often take the traps out if a raise of water or cold weather threatens.
I’ve been following the Millerton and Cassilis trap numbers, and both the numbers and trends are interesting. DFO runs these traps and the numbers are updated on the 15th and 31st of each month from June to October, but the delay between those dates and when they actually post the data varies considerably. Sometimes they do it the next day, but in the case of this fall they missed the September 15th date all together and just went to September 30th when that came up. I’m in the process of trying to get the September 15 statistics from DFO, but they certainly don’t make it easy to communicate with them. After the October 31 numbers are posted I’ll write a blog reviewing those numbers for the whole season. I will end on an optimistic note, by saying that the number of large salmon as opposed to grilse – the important spawners – was up considerably this year over last year and most recent years. That can’t be anything but good.
Thanks for reading. Brad Burns
PS Please pass this blog along to your fishing friends. If they want to sign up to receive notices of new blog entries as well as other salmon fishing information, they can do so at no charge at this link: https://bradburnsfishing.us20.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=0011d662f06db06a502453668&id=a3f5f82ff2.
Thanks for the reports I received during the season from Byron and Tyler Coughlan of Country Haven, Eddie Colford of Black Brook Salmon Club, Debbie Norton of Upper Oxbow Outfitters, Keith and Karl Wilson of Wilson’s Miramichi, and Wayne O’Donnell of Rocky Brook, and all the folks who sent me e-mail reports on their observations. It is all very much appreciated.