Atlantic Salmon Highway - The Miramichi
Fly fish for Atlantic Salmon on the legendary Miramichi River, New Brunswick, Eastern Canada. If you want to see more salmon and catch that fish of a lifetime, this is the place to be.
The Miramichi River, New Brunswick Canada, has earned the reputation of being one of the best Atlantic salmon rivers and is regarded as the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world. The Miramichi accounts for around half of all North American rod caught Atlantic salmon. Over 100,000 salmon enter the river system each year with some 30,000 taken on the fly, the majority of which are returned. These facts encouraged Bryan Martin to visit the Miramichi in June 2008, booking a week at Country Haven Lodge at Blackville, situated right on the banks of the river.
This proved to be an excellent choice. The lodge and cottages boast 'Canada Select' 4 star rated accommodation, the owner Byron Coughlan, his staff and guides were friendly and helpful and ensured the fishing, food and overall ambiance were first class. The first day's fishing was hectic. 10 fish were landed with as many others hooked and lost after a variety of aerobatics. These bright silver grilse seemed to prefer to be airborne rather than submerged when hooked. Plucks and tweaks were felt on almost every cast even when a firm connection didn't result.
This time of the year was the peak of the grilse run and the majority of these fish were in the 4 to 6 pound bracket. The 'Green Machine', a favourite local fly pattern, fished a few inches below the surface and allowed to swing round in the current, accounted for most of the fish. Other flies used were our home patterns such as Stoats Tail, Allies Shrimp and Cascade. These were all tied on barbless single hooks, a local requirement for spring and early summer fishing. Heavy rain lifted the river the following night and fishing was tough for the rest of the week. The rise in water encouraged large numbers of fish to enter the river, showing at regular intervals as they made their way upstream. We changed our tactics by adding extra fast sink tips to our lines and tying on bigger flies, sizes 4 and 6. Long casts at a relatively shallow angle and upstream mends allowed our flies to fish slower and deeper. A good sized fish was caught later in the week using these techniques and it was quite a struggle in the fast water to bring it to the net.
I had never seen so many fish moving in any other river before. A return visit was a must for the size of the water, the natural choice of UK fishermen would be a 14 or 15 foot double handed rod. However, most of the Canadian and USA fishermen, guides included, use single handed rods, 9 foot 8 weights being popular. Seeing how efficiently the 15 foot 10 weight double handed rod covered and fished the water there was a growing interest. Discussions later with Byron led to setting up a UK 'Spey' week in September 2009. Byron already offers a UK package of 7 days fishing, 4 hours each morning before lunch and 4 hours in the afternoon/evening each day. It was decided to 'bolt on' Spey casting tuition by Bryan Martin, an APGAI qualified UK instructor, at no additional cost. The addition to the normal package would be daily Spey casting tuition sessions run after the mid-day meals before the afternoon fishing session. So, in 2009 a group of 12 like minded salmon fishermen and women got together for a September week.
We chose this time to be there when the larger late summer fish were running in. With that number of people a second instructor would be needed and so colleague and fellow APGAI instructor Brian Warrington was invited to join us. We travelled from Gatwick airport to Fredericton, New Brunswick where we were met by our guides and transported to the lodge, via the 'liquor store' to obtain our week's supply of suitable refreshments. After our evening meal, a good night's sleep and a breakfast to keep us going until lunch time, we were met by our guides who took us off to our beats where they advised on fly patterns, fish holding spots and where to wade and cast. These guides know the river inside out, mostly having grown up and fished the beats extensively themselves for many years.
Their main interest is for you to catch fish and they will do everything they can for you to succeed. Our first impressions of the river in September met with our expectations. The water was gin clear and the features and character provided a mixture of fast flowing runs and steadier pools. Overall, wading is comfortable with many of the private beats being quite easy. As always, a wading stick is recommended and lifejackets provided if wanted. The river is a classic for casting with double handed rods. Long casts are not essential on most of the pools but you will certainly cover more fish and improve your chances if you can stretch the line out further on occasions. There had been little rain for a few weeks and the river was lower than ideal but there were plenty of fish present which gave us lots of encouragement as they frequently jumped or turned on the surface. There were good numbers of fish reported in the estuary just waiting for a rise in the water to enter the river.
The size of the fish was much larger than the June fish encountered the year before. Those we caught ranged from around 6 to 25 pounds with a fish of well over 30 pounds lost after a lengthy tussle when the hook broke. We saw many fish showing, some estimated at up to 40 pounds. Our guide Gary, in response to our excitement, laconically replied 'the big ones have not arrived yet'. It is not unusual to get big male fish up to 50 pounds during the autumn. The guides have their favourite fly patterns and flies such as Green Machine, Black Bear, and Undertaker are firm favourites. Our home patterns also work well and it is worth giving Ally's Shrimp, Cascade, Willy Gunn and Silver Stoat a swim. Water temperature as always affects fly size and we mainly used size 10's and 12's with water temperatures in the high 50's and up to mid 60's by the afternoon. Country Haven Lodge keeps a good supply of flies in stock and the guides carry well stocked fly boxes. It is also well worth taking a good selection of local patterns with you and also some of your home patterns as well. Information on suitable local patterns can easily be found from the web, bearing in mind that patterns and sizes vary throughout the season much the same as on our home waters.
Floating lines were used throughout and, except when fishing the dry fly, sink tips were used to get the fly down to the fish. Intermediate tips proved to be the best option, the river flow and depth not requiring anything heavier. The fish were showing frequently so we knew we didn't have to dig deep to find them. Given the vagaries of the weather and river conditions it is recommended that a full range of sink tip densities are available to get the fly down where needed, remembering that weighted flies are not permitted. Full sinking lines were taken but, as the river was lower than expected, these were not needed. Fish were caught on most days and there was always a sense of anticipation that things were going to happen. The number of beats available ensured that we were getting new locations to fish and not feeling we were fishing the same spots continuously.
One fly that worked particularly well was a Red Francis. This accounted for 8 fish hooked and 6 landed on what was the most productive day. The techniques we used were no different from those on our home rivers. A cast down and across the river, allowing the current to swing the fly downstream and then a few retrieves of the fly when on the dangle before taking a few steps downstream and re-casting.. Mending was unnecessary as the current was not running fast. A little hand lining as the fly was swinging across the river gave the fly some extra 'life'. As usual, keeping the rod tip up gave enough slack for the fish to turn and then a firm lift into the fish would set the hook. The 'luck of the draw' then decided whether the fish came to the net or not. The pools we fished all had their own characteristics so we varied casting angles and retrieves to suit the conditions. The expert and experienced input from our guides was always the starting point.
We also fished with the dry fly for salmon, which was a new experience for us. The flies we used were bombers tied on size 4 or 6 up-eye salmon hooks. Green, yellow and black are popular colours. The technique is to drop the fly a couple of feet above a fish and then immediately cast back upstream once it has passed the fish. This is repeated several times after which the fish will take with a large surface boil or just completely ignore. An immediate strike is required as any delay ensures the fish gets the opportunity to spit it out. One fish appeared to take the fly four times but failed to connect. Maybe it was just drowning the fly rather than taking it, but it was an exciting experience. Dry fly fishing is an occasion where a single-handed rod can work better than the double. Repeated casting, generally at relatively short range, and rapid striking are better suited to the single-handed outfit.
So, that was the format of our week's fishing: a civilised start time of around seven for breakfast in the lodge, fishing until around mid-day and returning to the lodge for lunch at one. This was the main meal of the day, guaranteed not to leave us needing more. One day Byron enquired if we liked lobster. Receiving an affirmative he provided a superb lobster meal a day or so later. After lunch there was a break for a few hours until the afternoon fishing session at about four pm. It was during this period that we ran the Spey clinic sessions. Here we split into two groups and Bryan Martin and Brian Warrington provided casting tuition for those who wanted to participate. We were completely flexible and covered the aspects wanted by the group. These included double and single Spey, snake roll and various types of snap casts using a range of line types. These sessions were available each day and new skills were learnt and developed. This was a useful activity as when actually fishing, the mind can be focused on catching more than casting!
This visit confirmed my earlier impressions of the river and the excellent fishing available. Country Haven Lodge has eleven private pools, nine of which are on the main South West Miramichi and two on tributaries, the Cains and Renous. The lowest pool on the Miramichi is only 5 miles above the tide. Fish arriving at Country Haven beats have seen few if any flies. They also have access to other beats on a leased basis and will fish public water if the conditions are more favourable there. As always, the main objective of the lodge is for its visiting fishermen to catch fish and have an enjoyable fishing holiday. So good are they at this that they get a regular 80% to 85% visitor return rate year on year. The lodge and cottages are located in 100 acres of their private land on the banks of the river, providing river views from the accommodation.
It was not uncommon to see eagles, osprey and beavers. Some members of our party were fortunate enough to see an osprey taking a fish from the pool they were fishing. As well as fishing, other activities are available. Moose, bear and whale watching can be arranged as well as shopping trips. Our group enjoyed the social atmosphere at mealtimes and in the evening when the day's exploits were discussed. We also enjoyed live music provided by one of our group on guitar and also from a local band who entertained us one evening.
The feedback from our group was very positive and included the following comments: * Excellent guides, good pools and superb accommodation * River is excellent and the guides 1st class * Guides were courteous and professional * A nice lodge, good food, atmosphere, very professional * The whole ambience is first class * An enjoyable week, thank you * Overall a very enjoyable week, meeting some really nice and fun people So - another return to the Miramichi? - You bet!