Archive | August 2016

The Main Southwest Miramichi: A Classic New Brunswick Canoe Trip

Boisetown, June, 2013 — My group had just finished a trip down the Taxis River, when loaded down canoes started arriving at our gravel beach take-out point in droves. The emerging paddlers described a harrowing trip full of rapids and waterfalls down the Main Southwest Miramichi River. The trip sounded fantastic, and the memory of that day was set to occupy a space in my mind for years.

Afterward, I learned that the trip from Half Moon Pit to Boisetown on the Main Southwest Miramichi was one of the classic New Brunswick canoe runs. Fellow canoeists describe the trip as a sort of rite of passage for New Brunswick adventurers.

The Miramichi River and its endless branches are steeped in lore. In many ways, these stories are what make the Miramichi experience unique. In the early 1800s British ships built with timber from the region helped defeat Napoleon. A century later, W.F. Ganong — the preeminent explorer and scientist — relentlessly studied the region’s natural history. In the 1960s, in her book Silent SpringRachel Carson dubbed the Northwest Miramichi ‘The River of Death‘ after applications of DDT infamously killed a run of Atlantic Salmon. The species endures, however, and for the better part of a century fly-fisherman from across the globe have flocked to the Miramichi for its prolific salmon runs.

Flash forward to 2016, Matt & I were in his truck bumping along NB Route 107 with his Nova Craft Prospector in tow. We’d decided to spend our May long weekend taking part in the tradition. I’d been warned about this road — it was supposedly one of the worst roads in the province — but I was skeptical. It turns out that the warnings were not unfounded.  Years of hauling timber have taken its toll, and now the 107 is easily one of the worst paved roads in the province.

We arrived at Half Moon Pit around 11:00 a.m. The put-in was in excellent condition, it comes complete with garbage cans, signage, and — my favourite — a ramp and steps to help with launching boats. There’s even the added charm of paddling under an old rail bridge shortly after shoving off.

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A single paddler guides a loaded canoe down to the water’s edge while his partner looks on.

For the first few kilometres the water was fast moving, but relatively placid. Small swirls and riffles caused by unseen undulations in the river bed rose in silence around us as we debated the origin of some young forest on the water’s edge. Only a few sentinel white pines remained amongst a dense mat of balsam fir saplings in what was likely once a mighty stand of timber.

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A palpable sense of excitement and apprehension filled the boat on the approach to the first set of rips around Fairleys and Louie Islands. We were living a tradition, but, much like those that had come before, the task at hand couldn’t be ignored. The rips were uneventful, all the larger rocks were easily submerged and offered no real threat. The closest gauge in Blackville read 1.5, which is reportedly the ideal height for a clean run. If the submerged boulders were exposed, all the rips in the upper stretch would have made this trip much more technical.

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Matt looking for a line through an early set of rips

For the bulk of the day we cruised along, floating through rips and smaller class I-II rapids with relative ease — including the famous Big Louie and the Narrows. The scenery was beautiful, although there were more camps than expected. The dark green softwoods contrasted with the grey, leafless hardwoods giving the nearby peaks an almost distinguished appearance. As we ate lunch on the bank, a moose stood up in the grass 150-200 yards away and headed back into the woods — clearly annoyed by the handsome canoeists.

Several established, and well-maintained campsites occupy the first upper stretch, these would make an ideal destination for an evening or late afternoon start.

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If this is your camp, blame this guy for us wanting to take this picture!

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In general, I don’t mind it when my naps are interrupted by canoeists

The biggest challenge of the day was the Burnt Hill Rapids, which, according to the map was Class III. The rapid was situated on a slight left-hand turn and consisted of one main ledge followed by a series of standing waves on the river left, with safer passage being offered on the right. After a day in the saddle, our confidence was high so we lined up the boat on left.

Above the rapids, the haystacks seemed manageable, but as we dropped in, suddenly they felt much larger. Firm braces at the bow and stern steadied the boat as it rode over the waves. Our line was good, but we narrowly avoided the central rock/ledge at the bottom of the rapid. Upon clearing the last wave we whooped exuberantly, while unbeknownst to us, a couple of seniors watched from the deck at the Burnt Hill Lodge.

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Night one camp site

Just below Burnt Hill we stumbled upon a flat, spacious campsite nestled under some white pines; it was too good to pass up. It was clean but had clearly been well used. An established firepit occupied the center of the site and nails could be found in most trees for hanging gear. We settled in for the night and enjoyed a moose steak and a few sips of wine while the crackling fire competed with the sounds of the river for our attention.

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What settling in for the night looks like

There was no rush to start day two given that so much ground was covered on the previous. After a bannock and bacon breakfast, we ending up hitting the water around lunch. The forecast was calling for a high of 20°C and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky — much better than the previous year.

With the difficult part of the trip behind us, our pace was vastly reduced. We stopped to bask in the sun on the gravel beach in front of the campsite at Clearwater Brook. The site boasts lengthy views up and down the river, space for numerous tents, and some of the most intricate fire pits I’ve ever seen. Inevitably, our discussion turned to how often the site is visited, and, as if on cue boats appeared on the horizon. Soggy looking canoeists eventually pulled up to the site and immediately started unloading their gear — most of which seemed to be beer. We took the hint and packed up our stuff. 

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Looking up river from the beach at Clearwater Brook

A few kilometers beyond Clearwater Brook is Falls Brook Falls, the tallest waterfall in the province, which stands at 110 ft tall — as noted by W.F. Ganong in 1909. The falls itself is located a few hundred meters from the main river, and it is well worth the short hike. If you’re visiting with someone that hasn’t been there before, I suggest having some fun at their expense. Tell your friend to prepare for a grueling 5 km hike and watch their expression when you arrive shortly after departure.

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Falls Brook Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Brunswick

Immediately after Falls Brook we stumbled upon the Trout Brook campsite and opted to set up camp. Similar to the previous night’s, the site showed signs of many years of use and abuse. Broken glass was scattered around the firepit and half burnt chairs were strewn about. The surrounding forest was mostly hardwood — beech, maple, birch, etc. — that had almost fully leafed out. Interestingly, the same species at the put-in — as of the time of our arrival — had no leaves at all, which points to discernible local differences in bud burst phenology.

From the site, we hiked upstream in search of a waterfall that the map indicated was nearby. We mistakenly assumed that a small gorge just above the campsite was the falls and only later learned that Trout Brook Falls is one of the more impressive waterfalls in New Brunswick — alas, maybe next trip.

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Juvenile beach leaves at Trout Brook

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Campsite at Trout Brook

The next morning, after a beautiful float down the river, a single fisherman stood on the bank of the river just outside Boisetown. Our gazes met, so I called over to him, “any fish?”

“Nah” he said.

I nodded in reply, we both knew it didn’t matter. Up here the river calls and you answer.

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Searching for Summer Brook Trout: Fishing the Cains River Crown Reserve

Finally, in mid-July the time had arrived. After purchasing 4-wheelers in the spring, Grant and I had been patiently waiting for a free weekend in which to hit the New Brunswick trails. This was going to be Grant’s first ATV trip, so I wanted to show him a good mix of trails and logging roads en route to our campsite. Our destination was a site on the Cains River, known locally as the Italian Bridge.

We discovered the site a few years ago on a canoe trip down the Cains. At that time it was unoccupied so we decided to squat for the night – it was too perfect to pass up. As it turned out, the site was for fishermen that had booked Upper Cains Crown Reserve fishing stretch. We resolved to return someday and fish.

During discussions leading up to our 4-wheeling trip we debated going up, camping if the site was available, and going elsewhere if it wasn’t. However, we decided that we didn’t want to spend time and gas roaming around looking for an alternative should the need arise.

Crown Reserve fishing is run on a lottery based-system. Each year anglers place their names in a draw for exclusive access to some of the province’s most sought after fishing spots. In the low season — when the fishing is poor — some weekends go undrawn. When this occurs anyone can book the stretch on a first come, first serve basis. As it turned out, we were in luck: our chosen stretch was unbooked, and just like that our 4-wheeling trip became a fishing trip.

Our plan was to meet in Chipman on Friday and strike out from my parent’s house. We arrived at the house around 4:00pm, secured our gear onto our quad racks, and hit the trail. In total, our route was around 60 km. We hoped to arrive at the Cains River in time to set up camp and partake in an evening fish.

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Arctic Cat XR500 all loaded for the Fishing Trip

We travelled down an old trail that connected North Forks to Gaspereau. Conditions were dry. On the Howard Lemon logging road the dust forced us to either drive side by side or 400 meters apart. We crossed the Gaspereau River at the Grand Lake SnoCruiser’s Snowmobile Shack. The trail system beyond the Gaspereau connected us to Mountain Brook Road and eventually Blue Rock. From Blue Rock we headed straight to the Italian Bridge –arriving at our site around 7:30pm.

The Upper Cains Crown Reserve is a live release only stretch that encompasses over 10km of the river. Several tributaries drain into the river in this area — Gordon, Otter and Wildcat Brooks to name a few. In total there are 14 named pools and an untold number of fishable rips, not bad for $23/rod.

With the temperature in the high 20’s, it was a warm evening. The water, however, was cool and deep, much deeper than the Gasperau. We scouted the four pools closest to our campsite — Salmon, Acadia Bridge, Pine, and an unnamed pool — and decided to fish only one for the night.

After setting up camp we tied on our go-to flies and hit the water. Things were quiet at first, but after settling in the pool suddenly came to life. Fish began rising all around us. In a short period of time we probably landed a half dozen fish — a mix of good sized trout and chub. Unfortunately, just as quickly as it came on, the pool went silent. Conditions were serene as the sun was setting so the lack of action didn’t matter. We were content to enjoy the tranquil sounds of the river and watch arced fly-lines travel through the air against a spruce backdrop illuminated by the setting sun.

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Calm evening pool.

Back at the campsite, the mosquitos were relentless. Our smoky campfire offered some reprieve, but regardless the onslaught lasted until dark. After a busy day, we attacked our steaks and wine with the same vigor as the bugs did us.

With heavy heads, we arose the next morning at the crack of 9:30am – well past peak fishing time! Dark grey clouds approached and thunder rolled in the distance, and, of course, our rain gear was packed deep into packs on the quads. The storm ended up being uneventful, it lasted just long enough to soak through my cheap rain suit. With low expectations, we made it to the river by 11:00am.

Grant had good luck the previous evening so he offered up his hot spot to me for the morning session. He had been fishing with a nameless orange dry-fly, and had enticed a few nice trout to the surface. I opted to stick with the Olive Crystal Flash Wolly Bugger from the previous evening, mainly for convenience sake. I was not having much luck, so I switched up my approach and began casting up river. This method allowed my fly to drift more freely through the center of the pool and resulted in a hook-up. A good fight ensued and I landed the first fish of the morning, a foot-long chub. Not really what we were looking for but good fun none the less.

I released the chub and began to cast away upstream again. After no more fish, I was ready to relinquish the spot to Grant when suddenly I felt a small bump. I pulled the rod skyward hooking nothing but water. I rolled the line a short distance upstream again only to feel the same bump. This time my timing was on. SCREEEECH!!! My Orvis Battenkill II reel screamed as I was into a very nice fish.

The fish swam straight to the bottom and made a run for it. In our limited experience we surmised this was the way a Salmon typically takes a fly, and, with the way my trout rod was bending I had little doubt. Grant ran back to the campsite to retrieve the camera. I did my very best to keep this fish hooked. I followed him down along the bank through the pool keeping the rod tip skyward. I was only a few minutes into this battle but I could feel my forearm pulsing to maintain the resistance. This fish was still pulling line. I had to palm my reel to slow his progress.

Grant returned out of breath but full of excitement — he wanted to land this fish as badly as I did. We coordinated an effort to land the fish on a small gravel bar along the bank. Our first attempt showed us that the fish was not a salmon, but rather a very large trout. However, the fish – like most people — spooked at the sight of Grant and peeled more line off my reel. For us, the third time was a charm, and we successfully landed the largest brook trout I will probably ever catch.

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Cains River Brook Trout

The trout measured in at 22inches in length. It had a girth similar to that of a football. I estimated that it would tip the scales at a minimum of 3.5lbs — but it was likely closer to a 4lb fish. After some photos I worked the fish back into the water to be caught another day. Grant caught a couple more trout, but I didn’t land another.

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Grant displays another fine trout caught on the fly.

Eventually we packed up our gear and headed home. That night I would attend my 10-year High School reunion and ironically, the only story I told was from earlier that day!

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