The Eve of Miramichi Salmon Fishing and lots more

Daisy-fresh, 10-pound, River Thurso springer caught the last week in March by Pat Nicol of Wick, Scotland

Fishing Friends

Lots of open water at Bullock’s in Boiestown

The salmon season opens April 15 on the Miramichi.  I just bought my annual catch and release license.  It will sure be great to be out on the river fishing at the beginning of a new season.  So how are things looking today, April 5th?  First, here is a shot from the MSA webcam of Bullock’s Pool in Boiestown, then here is a photo sent in by Eddy Colford of the Black Brook Salmon Club.   The ice in both shots is thin and worn, plus there is quite a bit of open water.  The question is, will it go by April 15?

Water below the brook is open at BBSC in Blackville. Photo by Eddie Colford

Byron Coughlan of Country Haven had these comments: “With the weather staying cold much of the river system is still frozen.  The ice isn’t that thick due to a late fall, and much of the shores are now starting to open up despite the cold spring.  With the warmer weather and rain forecast to begin this weekend we expect things to look much different a week from now.  It is still too early to know if the river will be ice free on opening day, or if there will still be a lot of moving ice in the system.  With the warming conditions I do expect there will be some open water.  If there’s not enough for safe boat fishing – as is traditionally done on opening day – there should be some shore-fishing, so a total blowout is not forecast.  After the long winter it is hard to keep some of the die-hard fishermen away from river on opening day.”

Darrell Warren ran into three feet of solid snow that stretches all the way down the Campbell’s Pool driveway.

For many folks – like me for instance – who have been planning on an opening day trip, the problem may be as much snow as ice on the river.  The snow was too deep for Darrell Warren to clear down my driveway with his big tractor and snow blower.  Byron Coughlan of Country Haven also said that a big pickup truck and plow couldn’t clear the way into Orr Pool yesterday either.   Lack of access will make it very difficult to get to camps, turn on the water and get heat running.

The weather forecast appears to be making a big turn on Sunday.  Temperatures for the rest of this week are below normal, but for next week they are well above.  In fact next Thursday it is supposed to be well above 60F.  Snow will disappear rapidly in that warmth, so we are in a race against time.

Debbie Norton says a raise of water will be needed at Upper Oxbow on the NW Miramichi. She predicts fishing on that branch around the 21st.

After April 15 we have several days of rain forecast.  Combined with the big snow pack and warm weather we could see a large raise of water.  It doesn’t sounds as dangerous as it could be because with the warm winter we had the ice is thin and already very eroded.  It could, though, make for some very high water fishing conditions.  I plan to keep my eye on conditions, and be ready to go if it looks possible.  For those of you headed for commercial camps the outfitter is the person with the best knowledge of how things are at their place.

As far as the fish forecast, the numbers of salmon – as opposed to grilse – were up last year for the third straight year.  This ought to provide some good fishing for large spring salmon/kelts.   I’m looking forward again this year to trying some Spey casting from the shore with a heavy sink tip line, but there is no question that being in a boat is the ticket for keeping you right on the fish.

Taking the scenic route away from Helmsdale Sunday the 2nd.

One of John Young’s springer flies tied on a copper tube.

MSA board member Ralph Vitale and I were in Scotland on the River Helmsdale last week.  It was a slow week on the river with dropping water and a cold east wind.  The catch for the week was only 7 springers – as the Scots call the early bright fish – spread among a dozen anglers, and neither Ralph nor I were among the winners, though Ralph did have a brief encounter with one.  March fishing for springers is always a searching game.  We had a terrific ghillie named

John Young, our very able Helmsdale ghillie.

John Young.  John has decades of great experience and ghillied for years on both the Rivers Tay and Earn in Scotland.  John’s philosophy is that perseverance is the key element in finding a springer.  Finding is the operative word, because most of these fish are ready takers, and if you make a reasonable presentation with almost any suitable fly, the springer will usually take it aggressively.   A look at one of John Young’s springer flies illustrates what a large, attractor-type tube fly catches early springers.

I must say that I learned a ton from John in the course of a week.  At one point I was standing on a high rocky ledge casting to the far shore.  John was immediately on me to move the tip of my rod to within inches of the ledge I was standing on, and to keep the tip of the rod within inches of the water.  He knew that the current would catch the line if the rod was held close to the bank, and that would slide the fly across the lies holding any fish.  John paid attention to every detail whether it was the type of fly line – for this fishing he uses an intermediate line with a short, fast-sinking tip, to the color of his flies – he is partial to yellow in his spring salmon flies.   He was also very particular about his casting, utilizing a number techniques to defeat the winds that blow incessantly from one direction or another at this time of the season.  He wanted the fly within x feet of the bank, and to be cast carefully so that even the big, metal tubes landing at the end of an 80-foot cast didn’t make any more disturbance than necessary.  When you fished with John you pretty much had to bear down all day long.  By the end of the day I was ready for a whisky and then off to bed.

Ghillie from Badanloch Lodge congratulates “Hendy” on his bright springer.  Photos of Hendy by Colin Somerville.

John Young and his lab Booh are walking towards the Kildonan Falls. Carrying the sport’s rod is an old custom. It’s a good thing too, because I couldn’t begin to keep up with him otherwise.

Theoretically a springer could be in nearly any of the 10 or so named pools found on each of the 6 Helmsdale beats.  Actually there are 12 beats, but half of these beats are found on the upriver side of the Keldonan Falls, and fishing on the upper beats doesn’t usually begin until after the last week in March.  When fishing a week on the Helmsdale you get to fish each of the 6 beats.  This is because just like on the Naver the various estates owning the beats have a reciprocating arrangement.  In February and March, depending on water height, the fish move along through the various pools, and you have to try and intercept one.  Beat 1, the closest to tide water, and Beat 6 the beat leading up to Keldonan Falls, often collect a few extra fish.  The great majority of the fish for the week came from Beat 6, and they did that in the first three days of the week.  After mid-week we had a cold easterly wind and constantly dropping water heights.  I think that only one fish was landed the last three days compared to 6 or 7 in the first three.  There is no salmon fishing allowed in Scotland on Sundays.

Ghillie is preparing to net Hendy’s second fish of the morning from the gorge at the foot of Keldonan Falls on beat 6.

To show how much it can change, on Monday, 4/3, the first day of this week, both the Helmsdale and the nearby Thurso landed 5 fish for that one day.   In both cases it was most of their total for the previous week.  I asked my old ghillie pal from the Thurso, Pat Nicol why the fishing had improved so, and he told me that it was simply larger tides.  A full moon is coming up on April 6, and that is creating larger tides.  When we were on the Helmsdale we were told that a lot of salmon were being seen jumping in the tidal sections about the mouth of the river.  Apparently these fish are now entering the river in larger numbers.  I have always heard that the bigger tides bring in more fish, but on a large river like the Miramichi that change is harder to see.

Sir Michael Wigan and John Young visiting at Kildonan cottage on the River Helmsdale.

While on the Helmsdale I also had the occasion to meet Sir Michael Wigan who owns Borrobol Estate and is the manager of the Helmsdale District Fishery board.  I’ve run into Michael’s tracks on many occasions while salmon fishing.  Michael is very interested in seeing other salmon fisheries and a few years ago fished the Serpentine River in Newfoundland where I have been fishing regularly in recent years.  He has also fished as a guest at the Restigouche Salmon Club.

Michael is a writer and has among other topics written a lot about the Scottish estate system, red deer stalking and salmon fishing.  One of the topics of our discussion was salmon stocking.  The Helmsdale has long been regarded along with the Naver as one of the two best small rivers for salmon fishing in Scotland.  To keep up the stocks the Helmsdale has its own hatchery.  They keep track of the level of parr in the river through electrofishing and supplement the population with first feeding fry in different amounts as the population level dictates.  This simple and common sense system has worked very well for them for a very long time.

Helmsdale hatchery where water is circulated directly from this burn feeding the river.

In reading Wigan’s 2013 book The Salmon – The Extraordinary Story of the King of Fish I got a further glimpse of his philosophies.  In response to what he calls the “genetic integrity brigade” he offers the story of the Mersey River in England – home-river of the Beatles.  The Mersey, once a prolific salmon river, but with its population extirpated by pollution in the 1940s, is now again hosting considerable runs.  Genetic work has shown that this was accomplished naturally by strays – the Mersey being lucky enough to exist in an area of many neighboring salmon rivers.  Something like 15% of Atlantic salmon are known to stray from their home stream or river.  Genetics work on the Mersey indicates that its current run is made up of salmon from 37 different rivers.

Michael does go on to say that: “Hatchery science needs re-visiting and clearing of clap trap and bad practices.”  He was referring here to the largely abandoned practice – at least in the Atlantic salmon world – of using flabby old adults coming from several generations in captivity and their equally unfit offspring dumped into the river as parr after a summer of eating pellets in a fiberglass tank.  No one, certainly not the MSA, is doing anything that resembles that.  The anti-hatchery Messiahs – also an excellent Wigan term – don’t want to hear anything good about any hatcheries, but how can smolts that are born of wild parents, and lived and fed in the river for their entire lives, avoiding predators and surviving at least two winters, not be of benefit to a river suffering with numbers of outgoing smolts inadequate to sustain a healthy run?

This was the program envisioned by the founders of CAST.  Unfortunately, that program, designed by the Province’s top scientists, was the victim of some bad politics.  Don’t you just hate politics?  As one NB salmon PhD put it recently: “The opposition to stocking is not based on science, but rather reflects the personal prejudices of the individuals involved.”

Speaking of CAST, one of the partners was Cooke Aquaculture.  Cooke is held responsible for many of the famous problems with open net pen ocean aquaculture of Atlantic salmon.  Cooke has also done some very good things including extending a great deal of generosity towards the MSA on several levels.  I don’t personally know the Cooke family, but I do know that they have their own fishing camp on the NW Miramichi which tells me that they love this fishery as we do.  I was pleased to see that they are well on their way through the permitting process to build a land-based aquaculture facility in New Brunswick.  You can read all about it as this link. 

The next blog or Facebook post that you are likely to read from me will be from the banks of the Miramichi itself.  Starting on the 15th I’ll do my best to keep up with the daily happenings on the river whether I am there or not.  You’ll be able to find these reports on my website at this link.  I’ll also be back writing the reports for Fish Pal.  Fish Pal has made an effort this past winter to work with the Miramichi outfitters and get them some extra exposure to salmon fishermen everywhere.  If you haven’t gone to FishPal and signed up to receive their e-mail alerts about availability on the Miramichi – or anywhere they cover for that matter – here is the link.  I get alerts on a number of rivers and very much enjoy the service.

Thanks for reading.  Brad

PS  Below you will find a random selection of some photos from the River Helmsdale in Scotland.  Just click on any photos to enlarge to full size.


































2 Comments on “The Eve of Miramichi Salmon Fishing and lots more

  1. Thanks for a wonderful report. Anticipation for the new season is exciting!

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