PHOTOS: SANDRA RHODDA, COMMUNICATIONS NEW BRUNSWICK; BRIAN ATKINSON, COMMUNICATIONS NEW BRUNSWICK
In an explosion of majestic silver strength, the huge fish leaps from the sun-dappled water of a truly extraordinary river, the Miramichi.
Here, where the river continues to wander through the heartland of New Brunswick, the Atlantic salmon fights with much anticipated vigour to free itself from the barb of a cunning insect, a feathery fly that has helped turn the tables in favour of the fisherman. “The Atlantic salmon is world famous for their majestic jumps and runs, and they fight ferociously against the line,” says longtime guide and outfitter Keith Wilson, whose family has been in the business for generations. “They’re very tough to catch. People can go fishing in Alaska or Labrador or Russia and catch a hundred times more fish than what they can catch here, but it is the lure of the Miramichi.”
Located in the village of McNamee, halfway between Boiestown and Doaktown and less than 80 kilometres northeast of Fredericton, Wilson’s Sporting Camps is one of many outfitters providing food, lodging and guide services to outdoor sportsmen at a cost of a few hundred dollars a day. A recognized profession, all of the wants and needs of the visiting anglers are co-ordinated for an unforgettable experience on the river.
Seen by many as one of the most magnificent rivers in the world, the Miramichi is approximately 250 kilometres long, stretching from the village of Juniper in western New Brunswick to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It sways lazily through dense forests, past villages, towns and verdant farmland, and its two branches, the South West and North West, join at Beaubears Island at the city of Miramichi in the northeastern part of the province. The river is also a fascinating journey of narrow channels, swift currents, dancing rapids, dusky shadows, soft brown sandbars and panoramic turns that sketch an intricate and pristine liquid mosaic across central to northern New Brunswick.
The Miramichi also reigns supreme as the world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon. Indeed, countless anglers have made this exquisite discovery, often investing in local lodges that are the lifeblood of small communities. In fact, these anglers return so frequently, that locals come to think of them almost as family. And it is not about the trophy catch now either. “We don’t kill any fish anymore,” says Wilson. “It’s all catch and release.”
Customers from the United States continue to be the mainstay of the industry, and lodges along this river and others benefit from this enthusiastic American influx. The original Camp Harmony Angling Club on the Restigouche River in northwestern New Brunswick was built by New Yorker Dean Sage in the late 1800s, and has maintained its popularity with Americans. The manager, with a long history in the business, is J. David Boudreau. “When you buy into this place,” he says, “you buy in at $25,000 US. You buy in off the guy that’s going out, so you can never sell your share for any more.”
With four and a half miles of pools on the Restigouche, and one pool on the Upsalquitch River, many of the famous have cast their luck there, including the late Frank Shields (father of actress Brooke Shields) whose ashes are buried at Camp Harmony.
The Restigouche is generally fished by “purpose-built” canoes, and is the choice of countless salmon anglers. However, these fishermen must content themselves with a season that lasts from April 15 until Sept. 30. During the early weeks of the season it is the kelt fishery (wintered salmon) until the more traditional fare returns to the crystal clear waters.
On the Miramichi, the season begins earlier, extending from April 15 to Oct. 15. New Brunswick has long been recognized for its superb salmon habitat, and the river offers a challenge to anglers from all over the world that is impossible to refuse. Nature has its own chorus, and before the leafy green canopy has flowered the seemingly impenetrable stands of forest that fringe the river, salmon fisherman are testing the pools, dark with the high water of early spring. As the balmy days of summer begin to settle over the lush countryside, water levels drop, leaving more distinguishable pools, deep and cold, where salmon gather to rest in tantalizing numbers.
As the season slowly slips past, autumn dashes the trees with an exuberant riot of vermilion, burnt orange, fiery red and rich gold as the canopy is set ablaze, and early morning mists rise in eerie enchantment over the tranquil surface of the water. Amid the hushed chill of early morning, dawn streaks the sky pink and lavender, and it is then that the river seems to be most vulnerable.
For anglers and guides, nothing beats waking up early and downing a hearty breakfast of pancakes, maple syrup, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade washed down with lots of hot coffee. Spring, summer or fall, anglers will agree that it doesn’t get much better when you are fishing under a cloudless, bright blue sky.
The sound of the river fills your ears, as you are poled by canoe to a promising salmon pool. Whether it is a dad and his son who have saved all year for the adventure, a business magnate just in from the U.S. or a cinema idol enjoying an exclusive experience, the river is a hostess to all.
While one of the world’s largest salmon runs starts in mid-June, by late September numbers once again swell as more salmon–some weighing more than 30 pounds–join the fall run.
Some of the river’s finest salmon pools are privately owned, making the Miramichi one of the most exclusive sport fishing rivers on the continent. To understand how parts of a river can be privately owned, is to understand riparian rights. Generally speaking, these are the common law rights of owners of the land (ripa) bordering on either side of a river–simply their rights in relation to the river. Government- or Crown-owned stretches of a river, which are often miles long, can be leased at public auction, and the competition for these salmon-rich waters is fierce.
In honour of the Miramichi Atlantic salmon, a museum was established at Doaktown in 1982. Housed in a two-storey, 5,500-square-foot building, the Atlantic Salmon Museum features nearly 5,000 salmon-related artifacts, some of them dating back to the late 1800s. Artwork, photographs and fishing tackle can be found throughout, including well-known flies with names like Ally’s Shrimp, Green Machine and Butterfly. Also featured is the salmon hall of fame, a tribute to more than 60 renowned anglers, conservationists, guides and the like. The king of it all, of course, is a replica of a 72-pound Atlantic salmon. “It’s the one everybody talks about,” says manager Bernice Price. “It was the largest fish known to be caught in New Brunswick’s river system. It was caught at the mouth of the Restigouche in June of 1990. A guide landed it in an hour and a half, and then released it.”
Salmon normally live for about 10 years.
The museum is open for the entire salmon fishing season on the Miramichi, and a visit there provides interesting and educational insights through biological interpretation of this famous game fish, considered one of the most “sought-after species in the world.”
There is also a smaller salmon museum on the Restigouche.
A bountiful natural resource, the Atlantic salmon has dictated the lifestyle of the Miramichi people for generations, as well as those who make their homes along the entire river system. And so the question is: Are the salmon stocks inexhaustible? “Salmon are in trouble worldwide,” says Mark Hanbrook. He is president of the Miramichi Salmon Association as well as manager of the Miramichi Salmon Conservation Centre. “Internationally, salmon numbers are in decline, and this is after measures have been taken to control exploitation in the ocean. Basically we’ve tried to cut down on interception with gill nets in a number of different jurisdictions. In Canada we have a moratorium on commercial fishing of Atlantic salmon, yet the numbers have not rebounded to the rivers. Everyone thought there would be dramatic increases, and it didn’t happen.”
This could be due to any number of factors, although “trouble in the ocean” is widely suspected as the cause. That view is shared by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, and steps are being taken to understand the nature of the problem and correct it. Home waters are also watched closely, where no commercial fishing is permitted and only fly rods can be used. Also, only grilse, (young salmon) usually male, can be kept, and the limit is one per day.
While the news may not seem encouraging, there is a bright spot. Hanbrook notes that while numbers did drop in the Miramichi in the late 1990s, stocks there are indeed “coming back” in gradual increase, and are in “fairly good shape.”
Indeed, conservation is on the minds of all stakeholders, and the Miramichi Watershed Management Committee is not the least among them. Working together toward a common goal, those at the table include government, conservation groups and ordinary citizens. Their efforts appear to be working.
Certainly the indigenous peoples are a major player at the conservation table. To the Mi’kmaq, the Miramichi was known as Lustagoocheehk, which means goodly little river.
Noah Augustine, the chief of the Metepenagiag (Red Bank) community, points out that non-natives enjoy a “great recreational fishery that generates millions and millions of dollars.”
He is not opposed to that participation in the resource, but he is adamantly against the exclusion of his people from “an economy generated largely from our efforts.” Selective harvesting and scientific data collecting are both active measures being employed by natives, and although they have the right to fish without a licence for food, social and ceremonial purposes, they believe they are playing an important role in the protection of the resource.
“First Nations do not want to take over these industries, they just want to participate,” says the chief. “We contribute millions of dollars into this local economy annually…yet all of a sudden when we ask to be participants in the economy in terms of our fair share in the natural resources sector, we’ve been excluded. The only way we can fight exclusion is by going to the Supreme Court of Canada, and that’s wrong.”
Augustine says that for centuries his people have been leaders in salmon conservation, and it was not First Nations people who commercialized the Miramichi salmon fishery. The development of partnerships between natives and non-natives, government and industry is crucially vital for all and the Red Bank Band has in turn developed their own management plan, “declared by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a very impressive document,” and very conservation based.
“The work we’re doing here at Metepenagiag should be commended, and the conservation within the management plan should be recognized,” says the chief. “I anticipate that it will probably receive some rewards. We’re doing our part here, but we can’t be excluded.”
In terms of historical contribution, the Miramichi is also home to those who actually work the river, out in the canoes, guiding those who are keen to catch a salmon. Certainly one of the most famous along the system was the much celebrated guide Richard Adams. He once guided president Jimmy Carter, and the two became fast friends. Carter described Adams as “one of the five most impressive men I’ve ever met.”
The famous guide even once carried an angler on his back to a good salmon pool.
Active in his trade until his 90s, he is the stuff of legends.
George Amos of Doaktown, now a spirited 83 years old, still guides “off and on.” With more than 65 years on the job working for various outfitters, he certainly has some good fish stories to tell. These aren’t about the ones that got away, they’re the ones he landed–and pictures don’t lie. “I’ve caught a lot of fish,” he grins. “I got one 40 pounds, there is a picture of it in the museum there. There’s an awful lot of big salmon on the Miramichi, and an awful lot of nice people that comes to the Miramichi, and they enjoy it.”
The Miramichi continues to work its magic, an amazing force of nature that inspires tremendous respect and admiration. After all, if the king of the fighting fish calls it home, who are we to argue about its reputation as one of the most ruggedly beautiful rivers in the world? George Amos still gets emotional about the Miramichi, a river that long ago became such an integral part of his life. “I come alive on the river,” he says. “Oh yeah, there’s nothing like the river!”