Still Catching Kelts and Trout; Miramichi Conservation Updates

Sleeping Black Brook home pool is almost ready for a new season of bright salmon.  Eddie Colford

Fishing Friends –

I remembered something I had written in the end-of-summer blog last year – you can easily scroll back and read it all, but here is the operative sentence: “The 34 that entered the Millerton trap during the first two weeks of August this year amounted to 56% of the 60 salmon that had been captured during all of June and July.  In 2021 that same percentage was 21.5% and in 2022 it was just 5%.”  Why was this August 2023 number so out of whack with historical distributions of the run?  Remember, in 2023 we had almost constant high water.  Numbers caught in the Millerton trap were exceedingly poor through July, then they were exceptionally good for the first two weeks in August.  I postulated then that the high water masked the actual strength of the June/July run.  That is the most likely scenario.  In short, the run came early because of the high water.  The salmon weren’t as visible as they would have been in lower water when in mornings and evenings you can see the vees of the schools headed upriver, and the high water caused the fish to avoid the trap as it is known to do.  The true volume of those early run fish is responsible for the good spring fishing that we have seen this season.

Jan Doucet is a having a great day on the Miramichi. Byron Coughlan

Spring fishing works for introducing young anglers to the sport. Karl Wilson

Karl Wilson reported that the kelt fishing has now slowed down in their part of the river.  He added that the trout fishing is fantastic.  As it usually does, the run moves down river with the last kelts hanging around in the Rapids feasting on whatever smelts the stripers haven’t destroyed.  They aren’t all down there yet, though, as Byron Coughlan reported that some of Country Haven’s sports had good luck all week almost as far upriver as my camp at Campbell’s – just four miles below the mouth of the Cains.

A little hard to see, but this photo shows a pod of salmon in the shallow water. Martin Belanger

Martin Belanger, a dental surgeon from Fredericton, and now a camp and landowner on the Cains River reported that recently in Blissfield they found a pile of salmon.  The water had dropped to a low level, and therefore cleared up enough so that in one area they fished they could see the salmon laying along the bottom.   He said that they saw “dozens” laying all over one area.  Fishing was excellent, and his six-year-old son Gab got his first salmon!  It is an adult cock salmon too, a relatively rare Miramichi spring catch.

Gab’s first salmon was a cockfish at that!  Great condition.  Martin Belanger.

Mike Deloia of MA caught this incredibly good looking kelt fishing near the head of tide. Country Haven

Another feature of the spring fishing in 2024 was the outstanding condition of the fish.  Certainly, there were some “slinks” but by and large the fish have been thick and full of fight.  Most people attribute this to the short period of ice cover and overall gentle river conditions.  We’ll just have to hope that it was also a very good year for spawning.  The high water of last season allowed the fish full access to many tributaries that can be hard to reach in low-water years.

I just love this picture of Dejan Gilsic’s Labradoresque sea-run brookie. Wow!! Country Haven

Last, and for a second year in a row, spring fishers were treated to a decent number of large sea-run brook trout.  Again, we’ll hope to see some of those further up the river later on this month and during June. These brookies are testimony to spawning and nursery ability of SWM and its tributaries.  If the bass weren’t being overly protected by DFO the sea-run brook trout fishing would be world class again in a very short period of time.

Last weekend the Miramichi Salmon Association held its annual general membership meeting.  The new president Butch Dalton as well as the various committee chairs discussed efforts that had been made during the winter to move DFO away from its over-zealous protection of striped bass and encourage them to do more to bolster salmon stocks.  There is some progress to report.  First, it appears that we will be allowed to stock a much larger amount of salmon fry, and importantly we will be able to use brood stock that we have grown from wild smolts in the MSA hatchery.

It should be noted that any joy over this important development must be tempered with the reality that the entire current capacity of the hatchery to raise fry is about 1.5% of the rivers potential to accommodate them.   By comparison, as past MSA president Mark Hambrook points out, the hatchery’s current ability to grow broodstock from wild smolts, so that they can be released for natural spawning, is equal to 10% that of the river.  This was the intent of the CAST program that was sadly canceled for all the wrong reasons.  Live and learn, we hope, and it is very possible that we will come back around to supporting the stocking of adult salmon “SAS” in the foreseeable future.

It appears that there will be some tiny progress in reducing the striped bass population. First, the recreational bag limit is being increased from three fish to four.  These fish must all be at least 50CM/19.5 inches long, and not more than 65cm/25 inches.  I don’t think going to a 100 fish bag limit would make any real difference in the overall recreational mortality of striped bass given this incredibly tight, 5.5-inch slot, but something is better than nothing.  Beyond this there is said to be a deal in the works to provide First Nations, who currently has the only allowed commercial fishery, with some additional locations to net for striped bass.  FN catch statistics aren’t made public, but the word is the current catch is only about 50% of the allowable quota, and FN officials blame this on not having enough area to fish.  This all could be instantly cured by allowing the gaspereau trap netters to harvest stripers, and while that seems fair and sensible to most of us, DFO isn’t anywhere near ready for that step.

Additionally, after years of asking, a pilot project to allow harvest without size or bag limit for striped bass caught above the head of tide – parr predators – is being initiated for 2024.  It is, though, going to be limited to a relative handful of participants and all fish must be reported by a small list of registered guides.

Caught today, 5/7/24 at Doctor’s Island. There were lots more of them too, getting ready to fatten up on smolts and parr. This fish is probably 3/4″ outside of the absurdly tight slot limit.

The bottom line of all this, is that DFO is not yet serious about reducing the striped bass numbers.  In fact, I hear that DFO does not accept that striped bass are the major factor in the severe decline of the salmon population.  Smelts, alewives/gaspereau, silversides, shad and sea run brook trout are all also severely depleted, and bass predation is thought to be the key.  Even the lobster industry is up and arms over striper predation, and lobster is a very valuable industry in the Maritimes.  DFO is sticking to a lower reference point of striped bass of some 330,000 based on what other scientists consider the aberrational year of 2017 – the lower reference point calculation is based in part on the maximum population.  Some very qualified biologists including one retired DFO chief biologist believe that the science used by DFO to stake out this high number is wrong.  Furthermore, DFO has refused to have an independent source review their lower reference point calculation.  Why would they do that? The conservation groups claim the need for a maximum of 100,000 bass to have balance in the system.  It is unclear exactly what it is going to take to get DFO to change its stance, but efforts are ongoing.

Recently FN and various conservation organizations held a Plamu – FN word for salmon – conference complete with a professional facilitator.  The need to reduce striped bass numbers was hammered on by everyone.  It is hoped that out of all this DFO will end up working out a plan to recover the Miramichi salmon population.  This plan is included in DFO’s mandate and is long overdue; the conservation groups have been clamoring for it for nearly 10 years.  It really is incredibly simple.  We must lower the striped bass population, and we need to stock more young salmon – whether fry or adult supplementation to get the population out of the danger zone quickly.  Perhaps when DFO disciplines itself to actually write this plan they will see that the bass reductions cannot be avoided.

Guide emeritus Gary Colford.

On a sad note, Gary Colford recently passed away after a long battle with cancer.  I really enjoyed Gary.  I first met him when I visited Wade’s fishing lodge in September of 2002.  I’m always up early, and when I walked out with my coffee to their little observation deck  overlooking the river Gary was there.  As we stood in the grey light, salmon could be heard and seen jumping all over the home pool.  This is one helluva salmon pool, Gary quietly said to me.  It was also the dawn of great changes for that pool, Wade’s Fishing Lodge and its employees, and for me personally as I started the move away from a focus on U.S. saltwater fishing to the Miramichi River and Atlantic salmon.

When I purchased the Campbell’s Pool property that winter I drove up to NB to see it.  Gary Colford and his wife were living in the house overlooking the pool.  He and Willy Bacso, who I had hired as my guide and caretaker were great friends.  Actually, Gary had recruited Willy to become a guide at Wades.  Gary was still in his 50s and too young to retire.  He went off to a new career, first with George Holmes who had been the past president of the Wades Fishing Lodge Club, then with a young Englishman whose outfitting career crashed and burned on the banks of the Miramichi.  Finally, Gary moved over to Country Haven, where he had a glorious later-life career as a near-celebrity status guide.  It was a relationship that was good for both Gary and Country Haven.

I touched base with Gary several times a year during all of those twenty plus years.  I remember pulling up to Moore’s Pool on the Cains one day close to the end of a season, with a particularly poor final week in progress.  I was coming back fishless from Mahoney Brook.  Gary looked at me from across the river and slowly shook his head.   I’ll be awfully glad to see this season come to an end; he said low enough to be sure that his sports who were wading further downstream couldn’t hear him.  Many other days he’d be more upbeat and talk about the salmon he’d seen go by and the ones that they had caught.  Gary Colford simply loved Miramichi salmon and salmon fishing.

When I was writing both Closing the Season and On the Cains Gary’s knowledge of the river and its history were indispensable.  Gary’s grandfather Bill Colford had guided and cooked for Harry Allen’s outfitting business, and in doing so he met and developed a relationship with Coleman Moore from CT.  Gary started guiding and cooking for the Moores when he was just a teenager.  Gary told me about guiding up on the Cains in the sections of the river that were open between the still-frozen parts.  There were tons of fish, he said, and you spent all day unhooking fish and looking out for drift ice.

Moore at one point also owned the Brophy Pool.  Do you remember the old Brophy homestead that was there, I asked Gary?  I spent most of one summer tearing it down, was Gary’s response.  Gary’s relationship with Moore’s property continued for virtually all of Gary’s life.

Gary was a nice guy, a good conversationalist and an excellent fisherman.  He was a link back to the river’s earlier days.  He knew people, history, places etc. and it was always fascinating to have a few minutes in his company to talk about the river.  Gary’s passing seals off another avenue to the river’s past, some of which I was able to capture and put in the pages of my books.   He will be greatly missed by many people including me.

History isn’t made all at once.  People pass every day, and each of them takes a bit of knowledge of yesteryear along with them.  All you have to do is stroll through Morris Green’s 160 Years of Salmon stories, and you will see that from Quarryville to Juniper, and up and down every tributary, there have been many great individual characters and families whose lives helped weave the fascinating history of salmon fishing on the Miramichi.

Many springs ago a sport nets his own salmon at Black Brook.


13 Comments on “Still Catching Kelts and Trout; Miramichi Conservation Updates

  1. Brad,

    Thank you for another enjoyable blog entry and your great tribute to Gary Colford. The river lost another good man a few days ago.

    • Thanks for your comments Chris, indeed it did. One of my more memorable evenings in New Brunswick was at the dinner where Gary was inducted into the hall of fame. I sat next to Bill Moore – son of Moore’s Pool founder Coleman Moore – with a couple of his friends who had fished there with him for years. Bill Moore spoke on Gary’s behalf. We had a great chat about his family’s history on the river including his relationship with the Colfords. I had hoped to get to know Bill better, but he wasn’t well. I could tell then, and he passed that winter.

  2. Brad,

    Very encouraging report on kelts. Hopefully there were many more salmon entering the river in 2023 than the official numbers

    Glacial progress on striped bass. How about a public forum where DFO would have to go on the record defending the rationale for its striped bass policy? Glad to hear the important lobster fishery is weighing in.

    Thanks for these updates.

    Tom Doyle

    • Tom – there had to be many more salmon than the traps indicated. They are known to be far less efficient in high water, and it was constant high water during most of the season. That doesn’t mean it was a good year, it wasn’t, but it also wasn’t as bad as indicated.
      My opinion is that DFO doesn’t have a lot of happy customers. The striped bass crowd loves the current situation and provides a lot of encouragement for DFO not to contain the bass surge.
      DFO is mandated to maximize the social and economic opportunities along the river. Salmon provide a very important mechanism to do that, and they have done so for 150 years. DFO must strike a balance, and they haven’t yet really committed to do that.

  3. Knew gary for many years, great guide and a gentleman , he will be missed and it is sad to hear of his passing ,


  4. I am totally (100%) against fishing for kelts. This is a practice that has been around for years, BUT, the fact is that these poor salmon have spent the winter in freshwater, without food, waiting to spawn in the Spring, which they have now done. Those weakened salmon that are still alive are now using what little strength they have left to return to salt water, where they will spend a few years before returning to spawn again. We should let them alone — this is the only time these poor creatures have just one chance to go back home to the salt, Ben Taylor

    • Ben – a number of my friends who come to Campbell’s agree with your thinking. Tagging results show that even after being angled, held out of water and operated on, and having tagging devices sewn into their body cavities before release that virtually all of them make it out of the river and into the ocean – and a high percentage make it back to spawn again. Spring fishing provides valuable income to the outfitters, and a chance for people without the casting ability to fish for and catch a salmon.
      Neither the fish nor the sport compare to bright salmon fishing, but kelt fishing is good stuff, and in reality it does very little damage to fish stocks.

      • To add to Brad’s thoughts on spring salmon fishing. I had always been told that kelts were very lethargic and no fun to catch. Well I have caught thousands of Atlantic salmon and mI can say that is not the case. Are they like a June bright salmon. Nothing is like a bright June salmon, but I have caught kelts casting from shore, casting from a boat and trolling and some come in easily and some it takes 15 or 20 minutes. I’m in the minority, but so were the Wright brothers, in believing that salmon are not on a hunger strike when in the river. There are many explanations for this, but does it make sense that a fish can enter the river in June and drop back in April without having some form of substance? After they spawn in the Fall, the reproductive urge is temporarily gone and they are past the osmoregulation issues they faced entering the river. They can feed on worms (why are they outlawed for salmon) washed into the river and blood suckers in the river. There are also larval insects attached to underwater structure. I panned spring salmon fishing until I tried it. Now it is on always on the schedule. And it is just nice to get back on the river after a long winter.

  5. Thanks Brad. Great read. Yes the spring fish were in remarkable shape. Glad to hear of the slight movements by DFO. Do you know if the stocking will be confined to a few areas or if there will be an effort to stock a variety of areas? Also is there a chance to expand/increase the stocking capabilities to a significant level? All the best


    • Hi Bob – MSA has always done a good job of trying to stock fry in a variety of areas around the watershed so that the fish will be distributed. I do think that there will be a pathway to increasing the stocking level. The MSA has added an advisory staff of top shelf individuals in the hatchery field to help brainstorm how to best do this. A couple of these people are ex DFO officers, and at least one will be a First Nations individual. We need to work with DFO and FN. In the long run one of the best hatchery/stocking techniques is to use adult fish and let them spawn on their own. Thinking and effort will go in that direction too.

  6. Hi Brad, Back in the day I caught & released numerousAtlantic Salmon in maritime Canada and Maine. Now Atlantic Salmon in Maine are an endangered species with no open season. We are fighting to restore them to the Kennebec, Penobscot, Narraguagus, Machias and other ancestral rivers. So I can’t get behind fishing for Kelts now that the Mirimachi appears to be in real jeopardy of losing its wild salmon. Every catch and release fishery studied shows angling mortality. Why would Kelts be any different? Here’s a suggestion; if the outfitters and anglers on the Mirimachi truly care about the salmon they should temporarily give up the Kelt fishing and switch to striped bass keeping every legal slot fish while lobbying for an expanded slot limit. Thanks Gene McKenna

    • Hi Gene – sorry, I missed your comment. I guess we could stop all salmon fishing. It would be more beneficial to stop fishing for bright fish as a first step. That would put all the outfitters out of business. I’m sure you’d agree that would not be a positive development.
      The reality is that while there is some mortality involved with all fishing, the amount resulting from c/r fishing for either kelts or brights is tiny and more than offset by the deterrent they provide to poachers.
      The real and apparently unique problem on the Miramichi is the out of control population of striped bass. Somehow DFO has to come back to earth on this issue.

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