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!
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.
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.