Part of the allure of a canoe trip is the bond. Nothing brings people together like shared experiences — and with canoe trips, the experience is all-encompassing. Breaking free from separate day-to-day existences and embracing the collective in the pursuit of adventure can only be about connection; connection with nature, connection with each other. If you’re lucky, these connections strengthen your most important relationships.
Last June, my father and uncle traveled to New Brunswick to connect with my brother and I. I’d been begging the old farts to come canoeing in New Brunswick for years. Both had long-since retired from tripping, so when they finally relented, there were some terms. No portaging, minimal rapids, and plenty of brook trout. Our destination was the first river I canoe every spring: the Gaspereau.
The Gaspereau River begins in earnest in Gaspereau Lake, a small lake that rises from the wetlands of the Bantalor Region in central NB. The Gaspereau is a part of the St. John River watershed and runs about 60 km in total — traveling northeast for 35 km or so before turning southward, where it eventually merges with the Salmon River.
In a time before roads, the Gaspereau served as an important travel corridor between the St. John and Miramichi River systems. Travelers coming from Saint John would cross a grueling, 8km portage trail to access the Cains River, a tributary of the SW Miramichi. Incredibly, the trail can still be used today thanks to the efforts of W.F. Ganong in the early 1900s and more recently an Ancient Portage Trails Committee.
We pulled off Route 123 and onto a logging road on a cool, rainy, mid-June morning. Our plan was to put in at a snowmobile warming hut on the upper Gaspereau and paddle down to the Burpee Covered Bridge. Given the timing of the trip, water levels were a concern. Locals tell me that — when looking down river from 123 bridge — if a large rock is not visible on the last corner before the river goes out of view, then there’s enough for the run. No rocks were visible, so we were feeling confident.
The upper Gaspereau flows through a narrow, well-defined channel. Dark, fast moving water flows between banks lined with thick grass and low-lying forest. In June, the river is home to a healthy population of brook trout. Within a few minutes of launching, we’d all caught our first trout. Within an hour, each of us could have easily been at our limit for the day. The trout were small, in the 6-9″ range, but beautifully colored.
With good fishing and heavy rainfall, our desire to paddle was limited. After a couple hours on the water, and only 3-4km traveled, we started looking for a campsite. Accessing the shore proved to be a saturating experience — 30-40mm of rain will do that. Enormous water droplets sat precariously on the fat blades of grass, waiting for a fool in a cheap rain suit to give them the gift of inertia. Ultimately, we ended up on a long, flat access trail.
We erected a fire pit, poured ourselves some Five-Star whiskey, and debated the best lines from our pre-departure movie, “The Edge” with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. For your information, “most people lost in the woods, they die of shame” and “fire from ice“ were the two favourites.
The next day, as the rain continued to fall, my father and uncle reminisced about their tripping histories. They reminded my brother and I that foul weather builds character, and that camping gear has improved substantially over the last 40-years — no doubt in their day, they portaged uphill both ways. It was fun to watch them fall back into their old routine — the food manager, the chef, the wood collector..etc. In observing their systematic behaviour I had the realization that you can learn a lot from old guys.
Again, the fishing was excellent, so we spent our time casting rather than paddling. We only traveled another few kilometers before deciding to set up camp. Our second site was on a shrubby point off the sharp corner just below the mouth of Mountain Brook. The river slowed as it rounded the bend and formed a deep pool that was full of trout.
The sun finally emerged late that evening. Low angled light glazed the tree tops with a golden hue during the evening fishing session, a hopeful sign for things to come. My father — the grill master — looking on as he tended the cooking fire, noted that “you kids don’t have the experience to cook a perfect steak in the woods.” He was not wrong.
Later, we assembled around the campfire under a star lit sky and told stories of trips gone by — my brother and I struggling to imagine our elders as youths. After a couple whiskies and some campfire pizzas, we turned in.
The sun warmed our faces on day three as we finally paddled under the Route 123 bridge — a common nighthawk swooped to within a few feet of us on the other side. After this point, the Gaspereau widens out, becoming rocky and shallow. We realized that, without the previous two days’ rain, the trip may not even have been possible.
The fishing action quieted down, but we still managed to enjoy a shore lunch. Eventually, we picked our way down river a kilometer or so and settled on our final campsite. The site was nestled under some mature fir and spruce trees, elevated enough to be dry, with lady slippers dotting the understory. After an hour’s work, it was a great site with a nice fire pit and plenty of wood storage. We spent our last evening together enjoying each others’ company.
On our final morning, the sun was shining and the birds were chirping early. Inside my two-man tent, I opened my eyes to my brothers’ bloodshot stare, he mouthed, “The f-ing birds” — clearly sleep had eluded him. My father and uncle had the coffee percolating on the fire when we finally emerged. We pulled our stools up to the fire, poured ourselves a mug and sat together, enjoying a still moment watching the river flow by.
Here in New Brunswick, we’re lucky to have wild rivers right on our doorstep. Personally, I feel lucky to have people to share them with. On the final day of the trip we scrapped our way down 25 or so kilometers of river finally arriving at the covered bridge; a structure standing the test of time, like the bonds created by those who travel the waters flowing underneath.
Download map pdf here: Gaspereau
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
A Thursday morning in the office quickly turned into an evening on the river when a coworker came to me brandishing a calendar and a camera. He showed me today’s date on the calendar with a black cartoon fish beside it and a photo of himself with three salmon on his fingers. “Last time the calendar showed this, I got these.” was all he said.
I have never put a lot of stock in suggested “best days” for outings based on the moon phase but his photographic evidence had me home packing waders and a rod into the bed of his truck. The plan was to drive up to Cormack, NL and hike 45 minutes up the Humber River to Cabin Pool.
Upon arriving at the pool it was clear to us that the water was high and the pool had expanded in size. We knew this because there were fish breaching — everywhere! We made a plan to go above the pool and work our way down both sides of the run.
After a couple hours of fish jumping all around us my coworker suggested I move toward him somewhat as he could see a fish between us that was rising towards my fly. I took a couple steps toward him and cast my line in such a manner that it would drift over the area he indicated. The fish took my Blue Charm with a Squirrel tail much the same way a trout would. She tugged on it a couple times before I rose my rod to set the hook. She stayed on the bottom and didn’t budge. Only when I made my way toward shore did she begin to run. My reel screamed as I persuaded her towards a shoal where my coworker was waiting with a net.
At 60cm and 5.5lbs she was definitely worth one of my tags. We hooked and lost another fish each that evening before trekking back to the truck. You can bet that the next time my calendar has a black cartoon fish on it I will be headed to the river!
On a May weekend I had a trip planned with some friends into the famed Chiputneticook Lake system of western New Brunswick and eastern Maine. These lakes comprise the headwaters of one of Canada’s most culturally significant rivers, the St. Croix River.
Our group proposed to travel roughly 55km from the north end of North Lake, across East Grand and Spednic Lakes to Spednic Lake Provincial Park. Unfortunately for us, the forecast for the weekend did not look promising — they were calling for abundant precipitation. Despite the negative forecast, the group agreed the trip was a go; consensus was we didn’t just suffer through a long, hard winter to be deterred by a little rain.
The section from North Lake to Davenport Cove on East Grand Lake is part of the ancient canoe route known as the Maliseet Canoe Trail. The route extends over 200km from just outside Woodstock, New Brunswick to Old Town, Maine. It crosses three major watersheds — the Saint John, the St. Croix, and the Penobscot Rivers — and served as an important travel corridor for Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and European people at different times throughout history. In the last 85 years only three parties have traversed the entire trail, the most recent of which was in 2005. The 2005 crossing featured several esteemed adventurers and can be read about online — a must read. While our trip was unlikely to be historic, it presented a challenge to the participants in it’s own right.
My Old Town Discovery and I rolled into Spednic Lake Provincial Park late Friday afternoon where we met up with our bowman Shane and our tripmates. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, we were crazy to have considered cancelling! The only issue was the shortcut via highway 630 was washed out.
Because of our circuitous shuttling route, we arrived at North Lake late in the evening. The fading daylight forced us to shorten our paddle by putting in at the border crossing between East Grand and North Lakes. From here it was a short paddle to our destination for night one, Blueberry Point on East Grand Lake.
With the boats loaded we set off down the inlet toward the open water — a slight breeze in our face. Empty cottages illuminated by the hues of what promised to be a memorable sunset, lined the banks on the Canadian side. As we approached a point before paddling out into a bay crossing, an ominous old man with a fishing pole appeared on a waterside rock. “I wouldn’t cross in these conditions” he announced, as his lure plopped into the water not 20ft from me. “It gets pretty choppy out there when the wind’s coming from the east.”
Someone in our group replied with something like, “well we’ll give it our best shot” and he shook his head in a way that suggested he’d go ready the rescue boat.
Of course — as they often are — the old man was right. We emerged from behind the point and a strong headwind was blowing from the east. Skirting the shoreline wasn’t possible, there were only two options, wait it out or travel straight across. It was early in the trip and we were full of energy so Shane and I decided that we could handle the crossing. We hit the open water paddling hard with little to show for our efforts, while our companions did the smart thing and waited for the wind to die down. Their decision was the correct one, they arrived at the far bank shortly after us.
The Blueberry point campsite was not where we expected it to be, it had been moved down the shoreline. The new site was rustic to say the least — it was damp and rocky, with few level spaces for a tent. With three tents, it was a tight squeeze for our group. One other awkward note: the privy is located effectively in the heart of the sight. With that said, we were in the woods and sitting around a campfire with good company — tough to complain about that.
Overcast skies and a moderate breeze coming from the south greeted us in the morning. The water in the vicinity of our site looked calm and paddleable. Unfortunately, a member of our group announced he was feeling sick and had decided he wouldn’t be making the rest of the trip. After some discussion we decided to press on.
Conditions on the lake were deceiving. The water was calm in the narrow stretch from before Spruce Point, but we were greeted by white caps and intense wind as we gazed across the bay toward Hayes Point and the Five Islands. Watching the force of the waves as they crashed into the shore did not fill us with confidence. We learned our lesson the previous evening, and decided to take refuge at the Spruce Point campsite. This site is a long, waterfront campsite with the firepit connected to the tenting area via a short trail. The best access is via a nice sandy point with some struggling cedars and a broken old picnic table. Sadly, the rain arrived soon after us — around 11:00 a.m.
After setting up a tarp, putting on a fire and enjoying a coffee, the weather still hadn’t broken. We’d traveled a total of 1.5km — roughly 5km out of the proposed 50km — and steady cloud cover suggested that we weren’t going anywhere. With enough firewood to last for multiple days we explored the area on foot. Mostly lowland species comprised the surrounding forest — cedar, black spruce, and the ubiquitous balsam fir. Fiddlehead season had just concluded and Trilliums were in full bloom. When 4:00pm rolled around the decision was made to setup camp and to start working our way through the beer supply.
Steaks were on the menu for supper, but because we neglected to bring a grill and there wasn’t one on the site, Shane and I were forced to improvise. We constructed a feeble reflector oven with tinfoil and a wooden frame, using rocks to seal off the sides and back. It got the job done — eventually — and the steaks were delicious, but then again an old boot with some steak spice may have been just as enjoyable. The night ended early with the group resolving to get up before sunlight and make a decision about moving forward.
At 5:30 a.m. thick grey clouds hung low in the sky but, more importantly, the wind had died in the night and the water was a smooth as glass. The group conceded to packing up camp and hitting the water without breakfast or even coffee. At this point the trip was in jeopardy and we needed to take advantage of our opportunity to get across the open water between Spruce and Hayes Points. After a couple handfulls or trailmix we — finally — resumed our voyage.
Out on the lake a soft, grey gloom engulfed our boat. Navigation by sight became impossible — the fog was so thick that we drifted off course and ended up near the Maine coastline. We headed west toward the American shoreline on a compass bearing and followed it until Work Point, and from there we paddled across to the Hayes Point campsite — where our tripmates were waiting, with coffee.
As the winter draws to an end and the days begin to warm, I start to see signs that the rivers will soon begin to flow. As an avid canoeist and fisherman, spring break-up brings all the memories of seasons past and the anticipation of memories to be made.
I recall an early season trip back in April 2012, Grant and I were anxious to get the first trip of the year under our belts and to try our luck with the early-run trout. We convened on a Friday evening at the camp with the goal of doing a little stream-hopping — trying a few casts in a couple different nearby tributaries of the Gaspereau River — and getting up early Saturday for an upper Gaspereau River paddling adventure.
McKean Brook was our first destination. To get there we headed north on Route 123 towards Doaktown, and pulled onto a logging road known locally as G-11. The brook meanders east, draining Ackerman Heath, and is known to hold trout in the early season. It crosses G-11 at an 8 foot galvanized-steel pipe — where we parked the truck and baited some hooks. We worked a few hundred meters of stream on both sides of the pipe, but with high water levels and a subconscious knowledge that it was probably TOO early for trout, we decided to pack up and try another stream.
We headed further north, crossing the Gaspereau River Bridge — our take out the next day – turning onto Mountain Brook Road to try our luck on a brook of the same name. Mountain Brook flows northeast into the Cains River. We stopped at a bottomless arch culvert and worked a few casts into the black water. Again, no luck.
Determined to catch something, the right decision seemed to be to head back to camp in hopes that some of last season’s trout were trapped in the beaver pond behind the camp. After a few casts we started to think that leaving the fishing rods behind tomorrow wouldn’t be a terrible idea, when I felt a light nudge at my single blade spinner. A quick retrieve and an aggressive cast back to the same location yielded an instant strike. The fish squirmed and ran parallel to the dam before breaking the surface in a series of splashes while I reeled her towards shore. It was a beautifully colored brook trout that had darkened from overwintering in the beaver pond. It retained pink coloration in its meat — which paired nicely with our strip loin steaks later that evening. A few cold pops enjoyed over several games of cribbage next to the fireplace saw us into our respective beds.
Grant and I arose to a chilly cabin and a silvery landscape. A heavy frost had worked its way into the river valley overnight. Over breakfast we both agreed that this is what spring paddling is all about. After shuttling a truck to the bridge we headed to our put in. From here it was a short portage to the river’s edge where, as the sun began to peer over the tree tops, we slid the Old Town Tripper into the water.
We had roughly 15km ahead of us to the bridge, an easy day paddle with plenty of time for fishing at the best holes. The water was swift and made paddling more of a steering affair – I’m not sure Grant touched a paddle all day. Steering is important on this stretch of the Gaspereau River, it is narrow and turns back to meet itself every kilometer or so. Out of the sunlight the air was cool and most of the trip was through the shadows of the mature spruce and pine. We managed to keep warm by doing the odd 8oz curl and casting our lines.
As lunch time rolled around we spotted a nice bank with a few downed snags and pulled ashore. We worked swiftly to get a little fire going to take the chill off. Thankfully we had brought hotdogs and granola bars along with us as the fish were hiding quite well up here too.
After our shore lunch we continued on down river enjoying the scenery and the day as it was presented to us. Small talk and sightseeing was all that was needed for entertainment. We landed an 8 inch winter trout each before happening upon a majestic pine that the ice had scoured under for years, giving it appearance of being suspended in the fresh spring air. Effortless paddle strokes brought us around the bends until finally, the bridge was in sight.
Bring on the effortless bends.
As June turned to July the water levels of New Brunswick’s rivers continued to drop – providing limited canoeing options. So, when my friend Randy and I were searching for places to head out on a two-day canoe trip, I suggested the majestic Cains River. Earlier in the month I had paddled the lower Cains, so to make things more interesting we decided that we’d paddle the often-ignored upper section. We thought access might be an issue, but after some local advice and extensive mapping we located an accessible put-in about 30-40 km above the 123 Highway bridge.
On the hot and sunny morning of June 30th my truck – along with my Old Town Disco ’69 — rumbled up Randy’s steep gravel driveway in Gaspereau, N.B. Randy was in the yard preparing his Old Town Discovery 17’4”. For something different, we were both bringing our own boats. It was going to be my first overnight solo trip, and I was pretty excited. The Upper Cains is shallow with intermittent deep pools, and no real rapids — basically a perfect candidate for a canoeist’s first solo overnighter. Randy is also a certified canoe instructor, so I reasoned that if I was struggling I could – begrudgingly – ask him for a few pointers.
Our shuttle driver was Roger, Randy’s big, burly, soon-to-be father in law. We loaded the boats into the bed of Roger’s 1990’s GMC pick-up – stacked on top of each other – and strapped them down tight. Our excessive strapping prompted Roger to note, “we ain’t gonna be doin’ a hundred mile an hour boys, she should hold.” After which we hit the road, promptly travelling 99 mph.
The road to the put-in was rugged, and likely inaccessible by car. Thankfully, Roger’s truck weaved us through the patchy landscape without much trouble. The landbase in the area is mostly industrial. Fresh clear-cuts from harvesting resulted in unnatural, yet intriguing views of the forest interior. The understory of the spruce-fir forest appeared dark and barren. I wondered whether or not I would notice the cuts from the river — or would I be lured into imagining contiguous, untouched wilderness. Regardless, the area is wild country — fishing camps serve as the only human habitation.
The put-in was at a site where an old bridge used to be. The water was easily accessible via a gravel trail where four-wheelers cross the river. We bid our adieu to Roger and hit the water around 10:30 a.m. The temperature was already well above 20°C with expected highs of around 32°C — the forecast calling for sun all day. Thankfully we were both equipped with the finest headwear known to man, Tilley hats.
Roughly half of the trip was through crown reserve – no fishing — waters and the remainder was catch and release only. We fished the upper stretch before arriving at the no fishing area. The trout were taking on bombers. I landed a couple of beautiful 6-8” brook trout – with their signature vibrant blue and red speckles. After moving into the crown reserve zone, we put our rods away for the rest of the trip and just enjoyed the scenery and sunshine.
Canoeing conditions were fantastic — the water level in Blackville read 1.0. We drifted under the glaring sun along side shale cliffs and past sentinel white pines – seemingly deep in the Acadian forest. My only complaint was that I was sitting turned around in the bow seat. The seats in my boat are moulded plastic, so they’re a tad uncomfortable.
At one point in the early afternoon I realized Randy and I had spoken in over an hour. I paddled up alongside him and asked, “How are you making out buddy?”
He replied, “It’s hot, I think we need to get out of the sun for a while.”
I agreed, so we pulled our boats up on a nearby gravel point with some shade. In the hot sun, our beverage of choice was not doing us any favours in terms of hydration. I relaxed in the shade, staring up at the sky through the leaves of a silver maple tree and eventually dozed off. After about an hour Randy woke me up, “Hey GV, we should get going.” The shade break was exactly what we needed. We hit the water with a new-found sense of vigour.
At some point I realized that I forgot to take a waypoint at the put-in, so we had no idea how far we’d gone. This was problematic because we were looking for a certain site – famous amongst locals — known as ‘The Pines.’ Without having set foot on the site, we were searching based on a description. The site was supposed to be flat and shaded by majestic white pine. Without fishing, I became obsessed with finding it – it became our holy grail. Much to the chagrin of Randy, every cluster of white pine resulted in me asking, “do you think this is it?”
Eventually we reached what “had to be it.” It was everything we expected — shaded, flat, and covered with beautiful white pines. The twin flowers (Linnaea borealis) were in full bloom – they have a nice little pink blossom. The site appeared as though it hadn’t been used this year – most things were grown over. A bunch of old garbage was strewn about — why do people think that frying pans, pots, and beer cans will burn in a fire?
We set up our tent and settled in for the night. After the bugs died down, we sat around our campfire under the starlit summer sky and enjoyed a nice steak with a couple beers. It doesn’t get much better than that.
In the morning disaster struck. After a thorough search I asked, “Randy, where’s the pot so I can boil some water for coffee”.
He replied, “I didn’t bring one, I don’t drink coffee GV.”
I was left without coffee until we could reach the Tim Horton’s in Minto, N.B.
Parts of the river on the second day were striking, nice looking crown reserve fishing camps were situated on deep beautiful looking pools. Schools of large creek chub swam frantically away from us as we drifted over. I liked to imagine salmon and 4 lb trout lurked somewhere in the depths.
The heat was intense again on the second day, and the shady spots on the river were most welcomed. We landed at the 123 bridge around 3:00 p.m. After loading up the gear and boats Randy noted, “wouldn’t it be great to do this for a living?”
“Yeah” I replied, “but I’m happy we can do it at all.”
We jumped in my truck and headed back to Randy’s place on the Gaspereau River, another river for another day.
As Grant mentioned I was back in New Brunswick last week for a few festivities leading up to the end of the world as I know it — my wedding this winter. Prior to our St. Croix River run, I had scheduled a fly fishing trip with my father. Dad had won the trip in a draw at the New Brunswick Big Game Antler Show which was held in Chipman — our home town — this past spring.
So, on Wednesday evening we found ourselves heading north on Route 123 towards Doaktown and the storied Miramichi River. We landed at the Betts-Kelly Lodge with instructions to unload ourselves into the Lower Cabin. We soon realized that we were alone on the Lodge grounds and decided to settle into some deck chairs. As we sat and admired the beauty of the mighty Miramichi River, we witnessed a doe and her fawn brave the currents and cross the river just above us.
Just as a bald eagle swooped into its nest at the top of a large white pine directly across from us — possibly showing us where to fish in the morning? — we heard a vehicle approaching. Our host Keith made his way onto the deck as my father and I introduced ourselves. We could see that he was somewhat puzzled and then he said “I’m dumbfounded as to why you are here.” My father chuckled and explained they had spoke earlier last week to confirm the date, to which he responded, “Today is Wednesday!?” He explained he was gearing up for the upcoming bear season and had lost all track of time. We assured him everything was in order at the camp, and that we were very low maintenance so he had nothing to worry about. After a few games of cribbage and a couple of New Brunswick’s finest cold ones, we retired to our beds with our alarms set for morning.
We awoke before the sun — at 6:00 a.m. — and began preparing our fishing gear. Having traveled from Newfoundland, I opted not to bring my rod on the plane. Dad assured me that I had an old rod at home I had forgotten about. As I pulled it from the case I immediately noticed that the rod was on the light side for salmon. Sure enough it was a 5 weight. I also noticed that whoever had tied the leader and fly on last was a complete idiot — wait, who’s rod was this again? The floating line had been tied into a double overhand loop with the leader cow hitched onto it. Suffice to say it required some improvement.
I sent dad on his way to the river and settled in at the lodge table to tie on a new leader and fly. I had read that a nail knot is great for joining leader to floating line but I had no idea how to tie one. Thankfully, I was able to access animatedknots.com to walk me through each step. After a couple tries I had leader joined to line like a professional, with limited experience. I used the improved clinch knot — that I learned on the Serpentine — to attach an Orange Bomber, and I was on my way to the river.
The plan was to enjoy a few hours of fishing in our private pool and then return to the lodge for breakfast. The pool we were working was in the main part of the river. There was a ledge protruding from the left side of the river that created a nice eddy behind it. We were casting into the current and allowing the fly to drift into the edge of the eddy where we thought fish would hold up.
Our guide confirmed that the rumours we had heard were true — it had been a bad year for fishing. As few as 12,000 salmon had returned to the river this year, down from 112,000 in 1990. After several hundred casts, we were starting to believe those numbers. Ever the optimists, my dad and I opted to switch over to smaller flies in hopes of enticing a trout. I fumbled through my fly box and came up with a fly that I had no idea what it was is called. A true amateur fly fisherman had told me to simply add the word ‘machine’ after stating the colour of the fly — making my selection a “Brown Feather Machine”.
Within minutes of making the switch my father’s line went tight. Both of our hearts skipped a beat, we were into our first fish of the day! The trout darted out into the current and, as fast as he arrived, he left after spitting the small hook. Nevertheless this encounter renewed our hopes of taking a fish home and gave us the stamina to push the thoughts of bacon and eggs out of our heads for a few more casts.
On a break between casts, as I stood and enjoyed the view of the sun rising over the trees, I noticed a black object in the river exactly where we had seen the deer cross the evening before. I motioned to Dad and we watched as medium-sized black bear made its way across the river — no doubt on his way up to eat our breakfast. As he lumbered up the bank we agreed that it was time to head back to camp. Sometimes a trip full of beautiful scenery and some interesting wildlife encounters is all you need. As we were walking up the trail, I jokingly said to dad “it’s was a good thing we brought bacon.”
I can count the number of times I have been fly fishing in my life on one hand and if you were to cut off both of my hands it would not hinder me from showing you how many fish I have caught on the fly. So when an amateur like me is approached by a co-worker with an opportunity to go fishing on one of western Newfoundland’s most prolific salmon rivers, I only asked when we were leaving and how many days of vacation to take.
We were heading to the Serpentine River, which is nestled between two of Newfoundland’s highest ranges, Lewis Hills and Blow-Me-Down Mountains. The river flows out of Serpentine Lake to the north-west through a series of deep holes, rapids, and falls before finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Most access the river via a 55km logging trail — that is long overdue for some routine maintenance. The trail arrives at the south end of the lake, after which a 10-minute boat ride will bring you to the river source.
We loaded all of our gear into our transportation for the next two days — an Old Town “Labrador” Predator equipped with a 4HP Yamaha outboard — and set out across the lake. After navigating through the shallow opening, and around a couple sweeping turns we arrived at base camp. We set up our tent, enjoyed a couple footlong subs, and set about rigging up our rods so we could get in a few casts before sundown.
As we idled down the river we gazed into the pools to see if we could see any fish. There were plenty of good-sized trout – the kind I dreamed about back in New Brunswick — but didn’t see anything resembling a salmon. We opted to pass through one of the larger pools — called Dark Hole — to try our luck on Governor’s Rock, around the next bend. Governor’s Rock is a deep pool on an outside bend of the river; it features a large rock in the middle. The pool is too deep to stand in, and it is lined with mature trees making fishing from a boat the only viable way to fish it.
We positioned ourselves above the rock and set anchor. My coworker Cory fished from the stern while I from the bow. The wind was moving the boat back and forth, giving us both ample opportunities to land a few casts in the slow moving water behind the rock. As I stated earlier I have not fly fished many times in my life, hence I was having a hard time casting from the boat with another person less than 8 feet from me. This difficulty became apparent to Cory, when I whipped him in the face on a back cast! As luck would have it — as I was apologizing to him while surveying for damage — the reel screamed…. ZINNNGGG! Fish on!
I pulled the rod tip skyward in an effort to set the hook and I was amazed to see a magnificent salmon breech the water and soar through the air landing back in the water behind the boat with a large splash. I kept the rod high in the air and began reeling. I was constantly asking Cory for guidance, as I had no idea how fast I should retrieve my line. There are numerous obstacles when fishing from a boat, all of which found their way into my path of retrieval. I had a close encounter with the anchor rope at one end and the motor at the other. The fish made a dive under the boat and the reel began screaming again. I battled him as he emerged down river from us as Cory picked up the net. He had me bring the fish to the starboard side and begin reeling hard. You could see the fish was tiring as he was beginning to roll on his side. It was merely a net scoop away from being my first Atlantic Salmon. Cory didn’t fail me.
After a 5 minute clash, there between my knees in the boat was a 4.2lb, 61cm grilse. I grabbed it by the gills and tail and held it proudly for the camera. What an exciting feeling to be holding that fish! I promptly tagged it and told Cory to shut off the camera and get his line back in the water!
That evening Cory and I relived the catch of the day as we shared a cold beer and watched as our fire flickered on the dark banks of the Serpentine. The night sky sparkled with thousands of stars and the promise of great day again tomorrow. We settled into our respective sleeping bags with dreams of Salmo salar dancing across the water in our heads.
The next morning as the sun poked over the hills, a granola bar made its way into my gut as I slipped into my waders. It was 5:20 and we couldn’t wait to hit the water. We slid offshore and gracefully paddled down around the bend. The plan for the morning was to fish the Black Hole we had passed over twice the day before and then make our way down river until hunger pains brought us back to camp for some bacon and eggs.
We beached the boat above Black Hole and prepared our rods. We had some luck on None of your Business, a green bodied fly wrapped with a silver line and sporting a sparkling tail — so we both tied one on for this morning. I was accustomed to using the fisherman’s knot to tie on my lures, however Cory showed me how to use an additional half hitch that not only makes your knot stronger, but also assists in presenting the fly in a different manner.
We both started making our way down through the pool casting as we went. As I neared a small eddy on the far side of the river I positioned myself for a 40-foot cast into the small ripple running past. I tried to land my cast on the eddy side of the ripple so my fly would be pulled down through where I figured the salmon would hang up. I worked the line up off the river back behind me pausing ever so slightly before whipping forward and lowering the rod tip parallel to the water. I watched as my floating line uncoiled slowly followed by my leader and dropping my fly lightly into the pool. My fly glistened as it drifted slowly in the current. I was just thinking about pulling my rod tip skyward for another cast when ZINNGGGG…. I was into my second salmon in two days!
I jerked the rod as high as I could and the reel screamed in discontent. The fish bounded skyward and hopped across the water on its side. I began reeling and making my way towards shore. Cory grabbed the net from the boat and began making his way towards me. We were both hopeful that this would be the second fish of our trip. I maintained pressure on the line and watched as the fish darted down river. Cory ducked under my rod with camera rolling as the fish made a turn into the current. I continued to reel as the salmon muscled its way up river against the current and against the drag of my reel. Both Cory and I looked on as my line came back at me like a spring and coiled up around my feet. The morning calmness of the Serpentine valley was interrupted with a few four letter words and a faint childish giggle from a man now hooked on fly fishing!
We rounded out our trip that afternoon with two beautiful sea trout, which tipped the scales at 2.4 and 1.8 pounds. The evening brought us some company on the river, and already content with our trip we allowed our friends to go fishing without us. We stayed by the fire and eagerly discussed our next trip to the Serpentine River.
After – probably – the longest winter in New Brunswick history spring has finally arrived! The robins are back, the grass is green, the buds are bursting, and the water levels are high. Fishing season opened here way back on April 15th, but winter pressed on. It’s May 10th and there’s still a couple of feet of snow in the woods in many places. Consider this, I have been fishing on the Renous River on opening day – April 15th – in each of the last two years. This year fishing on April 15th surely would have resulted in certain death. Actually, last year nearly did too.
Just as an aside on the importance knowing your limits. Last year on opening day I was wading out into a small channel of the Renous River and took one step too many. One extra step was all it took. In an instant ice cold water was rushing into my chest waders. A friend of mine was 20ft away and was powerless to do anything but hear me cry out “Oh man, I’m swimmin'”. Thankfully, I reacted quickly and was able to swim to shore before being pulled under and washed down river. But the message was received, respect the power of water and know your limits.
This year, as April turned to May I still hadn’t had the opportunity to wet a line. With every passing day I grew more anxious. I started to feel like I’d never get to fish again. Mercifully, last Sunday a friend of mine suggested we go out and scout out some new spots. We settled on the Nashwaaksis Stream, just outside of Fredericton. Neither of us were that optimistic – we figured why bother driving for hours if we’re not going to catch anything anyways.
I spent Sunday morning getting my gear ready. I Loaded up my fishing vest – struggling to remember what goes in which pocket – and rigged up my $20 telescoping rod with my expensive Shimano reel. I was a telescopic rod cynic for years but I could no longer ignore their potential convenience, so I purchased one last year. While they have many issues – e.g. the last guide is rarely straight, sections get stuck, they are cheaply made, casting performance is poor, the action feels uneven, they feel weak…etc – they make your life infinitely easier when hiking through the woods into a fishing spot. I suppose after years of getting rods/line tangled in branches or having to cary a rod case on long hikes, I was just trying to preserve my sanity. Also, considering that brook trout don’t typically get that big, I reasoned things would be ok.
We arrived at the spot in the early afternoon – of course I forgot my rubber boots – and started to hike in through the mature silver maple, willow, and alders. Signs of the spring flood were everywhere, the forest floor was covered in a layer of pale branches and large logs, grass and other debris had accumulated in the trees/shrubs 4-5ft off the ground, the water was high and murky, and large chunks of ice had been deposited randomly around the floodplain. Most of the snow in the area was gone, only remaining in the shadiest of spots.
We stopped at what seemed like a nice looking spot and set up our rods. I have a favourite spinner I like to use for brook trout; it was given to me by a friend of mine on a day in which I was ill equipped for trout fishing. It’s nothing special – it’s plain silver in the willow leaf shape, about an inch long. The kind of spinner blank that allows you to build your own lure – they come in a 3 or 4 pack.
I’d love to tell you that on the first cast of the year I hauled in a beautiful brook trout, but I’m not that lucky. Rather, the first cast of the year was just a quiet, serene moment. I was happy to have the cork handle in my hand, to open the face of the reel and hear the click, to watch the lure soar out over the river and land with a familiar plop, and to feel the tug of the river on the line. Fishing was back!
I worked my way down river – casting across river at 45° angles and letting the lure work its way back across toward me in the current while slowly retrieving. After about an hour and a half we had nothing to show for our efforts. I noticed a small brook running into the stream a few hundred feet ahead – that I would have got to eventually – and decided that it was a spot I needed to try immediately. I set myself up just above where the brook flowed in and let one fly just into the water just above where the two merged. The perfect cast – I thought – but nothing. I kept casting into that same spot, over and over, hoping something would take the bait, but nothing. My mind started to drift – as it often does when on the water – I stared up river and watched my friend Shane cast and retrieve. I drifted further – still working the river from the same spot – and I wondered whether or not this will be the year that I finally catch an Atlantic Salmon. I was thinking about what that would be like, when I felt a tug on the line.
I pulled up the rod tip – attempting to set the hook – and instantly felt the heavy, pulsating pull of an opposing force. I looked from the tip of the bowing telescoping rod down to the end of the taught line and saw a large, bright silver flash. I involuntarily barked “WHOAAA!” and I heard Shane yell, “is it a fish?!” I don’t believe I replied. Any time I hook a fish that I think is going to be memorable, there’s always a slight pang of anxiety. Concern about the being the guy telling the story about the one that got away. Never truly being able to verify the specifics, species, size, etc. Thankfully, I managed to keep my wits about me, I kept the tip up, kept the line tight and got the fish up to bank.
It was a beautiful brook trout around 13-14 inches in length with a fat belly that was full of meal worms. Needless to say we were both in disbelief. We fished for another hour or so and caught nothing, but it didn’t matter. Here’s hoping the rest of the season goes this well – and that there’s a salmon in my future.