On The Miramichi

On The Miramichi

Angling on New Brunswick's legendary Atlantic salmon river

  • By: Paul Marriner
In a fly-fishing word-association test, when prompted with "Atlantic salmon," most salmon-angling North Americans would respond, "Miramichi." This is true not only because it has the largest run of Atlantics on the continent, and arguably the most publicized history, but because it also offers the most publicly available water. True, the present day runs of 50,000 to 80,000 salmon are almost an order of magnitude below the estimated historic highs of half a million. Nonetheless, the fish are there and they can still be caught.The variety of water, plus the vagaries of regulation can make a trip to the Miramichi a bit daunting (it's also in a foreign country, eh). So what follows is a primer for anyone interested heading up north for the so-called'polo of fly-fishing.' Since my first cast flopped onto the Miramichi more than three decades ago, both the river and I have changed. In the river's case, it has changed several times-and the fortunes of anglers have changed with it. In the late 1960's we'd leave home in Nova Scotia at 2 AM to arrive on the banks of Michael's Landing or Wasson's Bar before dawn and hoped to be among the first to fish the pools. Rarely did we succeed; the folks in the nearby trailers got the prime places in rotation, plus a couple extra hours sleep. The photo on page 138 of Joe Bates'1970 classic, Atlantic Salmon Flies&Fishing, shows 17 anglers in the water on the public side of Wasson's Bar, but doesn't reveal how many were waiting on the bank to take their turn. Back then commercial net fishing was still legal in the river, so most of the fish anglers caught were grilse. In fact, several seasons passed before I landed my first "true" Miramichi salmon. Regardless, the grilse fishing in July was often outstanding. While the daily limit of eight was rarely reached on public water, it wasn't unusual on the better private sections. Within 15 years, however, the runs had diminished, the commercial fishery was closed and anglers were restricted to a maximum of two grilse a day and all salmon had to be released. Due mostly to the closure of the commercial fishery, the fishing has improved in many ways since then. Records support my memory that in the 1970's the ratio of grilse to salmon was about nine to one. For example, for the 1970 season on the Little Southwest, the numbers were 3,436 grilse and 176 salmon. Although New Brunswick stopped collecting angling statistics some years ago, personal experience, supported by full-time river watchers like Jerry Doak, suggests that the ratio today is around 5:2. Moreover, the salmon are getting larger! Thirty years ago the landing of a 30-pound salmon was worthy of a story in the local paper; today it's just another entry in a lodge's logbook and a big smile on the angler's face. For example, one of Byron Coughlan's regular European clients had a dream session in October of 2002. One morning he released his four fish limit: two salmon weighing 30-pounds, and two others of 12 and 8 pounds respectively, all on an Ally's Shrimp! Salmon returns to the Miramichi have increased for the past two years and chances of it continuing to improve are good. Angling success has also increased recently-but of course, as with salmon angling anywhere, this is wholly dependant on conditions. Geography Although commonly called the Miramichi River, in reality it's not a river but a river system. Draining 5,400 square-miles, most of the eight major tributaries (see map) have fishable salmon runs. Two other salmon rivers, the Bartibog and Tabusintac, flow into Miramichi Bay. While geographers include these two rivers in the Miramichi system, most anglers don't. The "stem" is the Main Southwest Miramichi. Once joined by the Northwest Miramichi, it finally becomes the Miramichi River proper. Major tributaries of the Northwest are the Little Southwest Miramichi and Sevogle. The Renous, already beefed-up by the Dungarvon, joins the Main Southwest at Quarryville. This is tide-head on the Main and arguably the most popular public pool in the system. When a big run passes Quarryville, salmon are constantly in the air. Farther up-river, the Bartholomew and Cains make a contribution. The Bartholomew is lightly fished except for trout, but the Cains is a favorite of many, both for trout and salmon. Near Boisetown is the mouth of the Taxis River, a tributary that attracts a few salmon but doesn't have a high profile. Finally, a long way from anywhere, the Main Southwest splits into the North and South Branches. Private vs. Public Many anglers believe the Miramichi system is mostly private water-but this is not true. Yes, much of the lower Main Southwest and Northwest is owned by individuals, but many miles of the tributaries are public. The long-established outfitters do control substantial water and make these pools available to their clients. Among the outfitters that don't own water, the best have arrangements to lease private pools for their guests. Without getting mired in legal technicalities, private "water" means the land under the river, so either wading or anchoring without permission is considered trespassing. Seasons Early Spring As my truck rolled down the snow-fringed drive to the main building of Upper Oxbow Adventures on the Little Southwest, I crossed my fingers on both hands. The late-afternoon, early-May light was perfect for shooting pictures; all we needed now was a little cooperation from the salmon. Within minutes my tackle and cameras were loaded into a boat and we headed for the far side of the river. On the way across I tied on a Magog Smelt variation. Anchored down, I began casting the full-sinking line down-and-across, alternating sides, and extending the line some three feet after each swing. "Not as many fish hooked here this year," said guide Bob Blackmore. That wasn't good news, but there wasn't time to move. Reaching the three-quarters point of the line, I reeled in and we dropped 50 feet downriver. A dozen casts later everything tightened up. The salmon cleared the surface once and broached a couple times before I felt completely in control. While keeping constant pressure on the line, we lifted the anchor and "walked" the salmon to the far shore. Tailed and cradled, 30-plus inches of kelt posed for a Nikon moment before being release. The popularity of kelt angling (salmon that have overwintered in the river and lost between a third and a half of their original body weight) rises and falls. After a nadir in the 1980's, due mostly to negative publicity from some angling writers, non-resident participation has rebounded. With good reason too, as kelt fishing has a negligible impact on salmon populations. While cold water ensures virtually 100 percent survival for released fish, due to natural causes kelt survival after reaching saltwater is poor regardless of whether they've been handled by anglers. From an angling perspective kelts are relatively easy to catch because they are feeding, and regulations permit unlimited catch-and-release. Twenty-hook-up days are frequent when one can find the fish. Granted, kelts don't match brights for stamina, but I have had them jump as many as eight times. Officially kelt season begins on April 15. However, nature follows its own calendar: some years the river is still frozen or full of ice; in others that first week produces the best angling. For those with inflexible schedules I recommend visits during the second or third weeks of the season. Kelt fishing has gotten a bad rap because of the traditional angling method-a complete full-sinking line extended behind an anchored boat and then reeled in. The technique still catches, but today's fly fishers prefer to cast from boat or shore. Boats are best because, by tradition, the entire river is open to all boats during the kelt season, whereas private shorelines remain off-limits. Late Spring Some kelts may still be in the system when the first bright salmon arrive. The Northwest system hosts the best-known June run of nickel-bright salmon and grilse, but the Main Southwest has its own version, the Rocky Brook run. Although fewer in number than those entering the Northwest, Jerry Doak, of W.W. Doak's, says Rocky Brook salmon are the most prized by locals for the quality of fight and flesh. But because plenty of cold water moves this run upriver quickly, contact is very much a hit-or-miss affair. Regardless, Byron Coughlan of Country Haven Lodge says that at the end of the first week of June 2003, a group of corporate clients expecting to spend more time in meetings than fishing encountered the Rocky Brook run and had some of the finest angling of the season. Summer Thrumming in the current, the spruce pole jammed in the rocks of Big Louey rapids had me checking the canoe for the spare pole-and also hoping our Pond's Resort guide remembered the first rule of poling: "If it sticks, let go." We were on a three-day canoe trip on the section of the Main Southwest from Half Moon Pool to Slate Island. Early in the 20th Century this was part of a longer float favored by more adventurous salmon fishers. Here the river is quite different from the lower-middle sections. Gone are the gravel bars and easily waded pools, replaced by boulder-filled runs and rock-strewn rapids. Although there are a few classic pools, most of the fishing demands an ability to read the water for less obvious salmon lies. Typically, conditions determine summer success. With no mountain snowpack to keep the water cool, much of the Miramichi warms rapidly during hot, dry spells. Warm water suppresses the "taking" instinct in salmon; low water does the same. At the upper temperature limit, salmon congregate at the mouths of coldwater brooks; such spots on the main river are prized and virtually all are private pools. Too much water is just as bad, as it encourages the salmon to keep moving. The best condition is an alternating rise and fall of cool water: The fish never settle for too long and take well each time the water slows down. Summer is the season of the dry fly. In the larger sections of the rivers, typical hotspots are tail-outs with sub-surface rocks. Here, generally, the fly is cast quartering upstream and dead-drifted to a point quartering downstream; however, some prefer, and have success, letting the fly wake across stream once the line straightens. Upstream, in smaller water, suspected lies are targeted with short-drift casts. Wetfly tactics span the gamut. Most anglers use the classic down-and-across cast and swing, but I have taken summer Miramichi salmon on everything from an upstream nymph to a rapidly stripped across-stream streamer. Exceptions aside, a good general rule is to reduce the size of the fly as the water warms. Fall Fall is perhaps the most interesting salmon season today because it is a fairly recent option for anglers. Back when I began fishing, the Miramichi season usually closed on September 15. Some years later it was extended until September 30, and then a few years ago to October 15. Not all the tributaries, nor even all the main river, are open this late, but the extensions include a lot of fishable water. As a result, tactics and flies from other salmon venues have appeared on the Miramichi. Some, like sinking-tip fishing with shrimp patterns, have found a permanent home. Fall salmon can be of two types. A long period of low water will hold summer-run fish in the lower reaches. By fall these fish are apt to be dark and stale. Lower water temperatures may incline them to take, but the fight can be disappointing. However, unlike many salmon rivers elsewhere, the Miramichi has a fall run of fresh fish. Granted these salmon often have more color than fresh summer-runs, but one has little difficulty distinguishing them from the stay-behinds. At Black Rapids the Main Southwest is several hundred yards wide. A late September morning throwing a long line with a two-handed rod turned out to be casting practice. For the evening session, George Curtis of Black Rapids Salmon Club suggested a short, narrow run tight to the lodge side of the river. Into the rod case went the big beast and I headed upstream with my favorite single-handed rod. On the second pass a bright eight-pounder found my fly and presentation acceptable. "No doubt how fresh this one is," said George. And right he was: The sea-lice still clinging to the salmon were undeniable proof. No talk of fall-fishing on the Miramichi is complete without mentioning the Cains. For decades this was the late-season fishery. Fed by boggy upriver springs, its waters acquire a characteristic stain. Favored by lovers of cast-and-blast floats, the Cains can produce a wonderful day of woodcock and salmon. Flies To my knowledge the Miramichi is the only North American salmon river with its own, named, fly-tying style. Development of many early patterns took place during the 1930's and '40s. In general, the Miramichi style features a short, cigar-shape body; fine tinsel ribbing; short, sparse wing hugging the body; short, sparse hackles; and, usually, no tail. Prominent fluorescent butts or tags are popular. Furthermore, the pioneers introduced smaller hooks than were traditional. Arguably the most famous of the Miramichi-style wets are the Black Bear, Green Butt and the Bomber, a spun deerhair creation of an American-Miramichi transplant, Father Elmer Smith. Bomber variants have become extremely popular everywhere. Concurrently with the patterns listed above, Bill Carter of Moncton, New Brunswick, developed the Carter Bug. Also intended to float, it is smaller and wingless, and the deerhair body is less tightly packed than the typical Bomber. My first dryfly salmon fell for a Carter Bug. Sometime after this initial burst of fly-fying creativity, some unknown thinker began a revolution. He-or she-eliminated any vestige of wing or tail from deerhair floaters, shaved the bodies until they weren't much larger than a standard wet, and tied them on heavy, down-eyed, trout wetfly hooks. These "bugs" or "Buck Bugs" are intended to be fished wet. Nonetheless, it wasn't until a green version, the Green Machine, appeared that the old order truly trembled. Today I can't imagine any knowledgeable salmon angler stepping into the Miramichi (or elsewhere) without a supply of Green Machines and a black bug known as a Shady Lady. A growing number of European visitors have introduced their favorites to the river. Particularly in the fall, shrimp/prawn patterns such as Ally's Shrimp, Sugarman Shrimp and the General Practitioner are tallying big numbers, as do a variety of wound marabou flies. Spring fishing is still dominated by large, traditional, streamers such as Mickey Finns, Renous Specials, Miramichi Specials and a variety of smelt patterns. Here too, however, new ideas are emerging. My friend Marc Madore's Madorabou Assassin (a wound-marabou pattern) flew off the shelves this past spring as news of its conquests spread. Other Species Although salmon are the reason most folks visit the river, other game species are available. Particularly in spring, some mighty sea-run brook trout are caught, and five-pound or larger trout are reported each year. While more popular with locals than visitors, a late-May float of the Bartholomew can yield extraordinary trout fishing. Another late May or early June visitor is the American shad. If the salmon fishing has been hard and one just wants to feel a decent fish on the line, an evening's shad fishing will give your arm a workout. Lodges The Miramichi system is well provided with commercial salmon fishing lodges. Some have varying amounts of private water, others operate primarily on public water. New Brunswick produces an annual Outfitters Guide available by phoning 800-561-0123 or visiting their Web site at www.TourismNewBrunswick.ca. Below are a few lodges I and the staff of FR&R recommend from personal experience. Country Haven Lodge Although not yet five years old, Byron Coughlan's operation just down river from Blackville has been experiencing rapid client growth. Not surprising as the quality of the accommodations and service is outstanding. Guests can stay at the main lodge or take advantage of large, fully equipped, housekeeping cottages. Country Haven has access to a good mix of high and low-water private pools. 877-359-4665; www.miramichifish.com. Black Rapids Salmon Camp George and Jean Curtis operate a comfortable modern lodge on the Main Southwest at Black Rapids. Complementing the fine accommodations is food that leaves one wondering if you stumbled onto a four-star restaurant by mistake. George knows his water intimately, and while there are no guarantees in salmon fishing, his many years of local experience inspires confidence. 506-843-2346; www.recworld.com/miramich. Upper Oxbow Adventures Perhaps it's only in the imagination, but the logs of the Upper Oxbow vintage cabins seem to radiate an aura absorbed from the generations of anglers that have debated the mysteries of salmon behavior within their walls. Owner Debbie Norton has modernized the facilities to provide housekeeping conveniences without destroying the classic atmosphere. For those preferring meal service as well, there is a modern dining room serving excellent food. The lodge is situated on the Little Southwest Miramichi, and guests fish that river and tributaries of the Northwest Miramichi system. 888-227-6100; www.upperoxbow.com Pond's Resort Pond's Resort is one of the longest operating lodges on the Miramichi. The family has been welcoming guests since 1925. Pond's is well supplied with private pools; one in particular, the run in front of the lodge, produces solid numbers each season. They also control a significant stretch of river upstream as well as two old camps in that area. 877-971-7663; www.pondsresort.com. Fly Shops Depending on your Miramichi destination, one of the following fly-shops will be able to fill your tackle and information needs: W.W. Doak Both the oldest (established in 1946) and best-known of Miramichi fly shops, W.W. Doak in Doaktown offers an extensive line of tackle, flies and fishing accouterments. Open six days a week (always closed on Sundays), Jerry Doak and staff have up-to-the-minute reports on what's happening in the area. Contact them at 506-365-7828, or visit www.wwdoak.com. Curtis Miramichi Outfitters Brock Curtis' new shop just outside Blackville is an attractive, friendly, well-stocked operation that also rents canoes for river runs. They have quickly acquired an enviable reputation and number the British Royal Family and former president Bush among their customers. Contact them at 506-843-2481. George's Fly Shop George Routledge's small shop in Renous is a beehive of activity during the salmon season. Located a few hundred yards from the Quarryville Pool, George dispenses tea, tackle and information in equal quantities. Hours are at George's discretion, but one can get the daily schedule by phoning (506) TK. Pond's Resort Fly Shop As a service to clients, but available to anyone, Pond's operates a small fly shop in the Ludlow complex. Open seven days a week, they can be contacted at 877-971-7663 or at www.pondsresort.com. Trout Brook Fly Shop Servicing the Northwest and Little Southwest Miramichi and tributaries, Syd Matchett's shop is well regarded in the area for quality flies and reliable fishing information. Contact Syd at 506-622-0676. Tackle The following are general recommendations for "normal" conditions. As always, circumstances alter cases and one should always be prepared for both very high and very low water. Kelts: Rod: 9 -- 10 foot, 8 or 9-weight. Lines: Type 6 full-sinking line; 200-grain sinking-tip; floating line. Leader: 12 -- 15-pound test; rarely more than half-rod long. Bright (summer): Rod: 9 or 10-foot, 8- or 9-weight; some anglers prefer to drop to a 7-weight if concentrating on dryfly fishing. A two-handed rod may offer better water coverage under certain conditions. Line: Floating. Leader: 8 -- 10-pound test; rod length or longer. Low, clear, water conditions may demand lighter leaders when using small flies. Bright (fall): Rod: Same as summer. Line: Floating; short sinking-tip or selection of sinking leaders (best). Leader: I rarely find it necessary to use anything but 8-pound test unless moving the fly when I increase to 12-pound. Paul Marriner's last piece for FR&R was "Tips For TyingParachutes," in January/February 1998.