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