I had big plans for the last days of May and first days of June in 2014, I was going for what I was referring to as the ‘elusive double run‘. The double run consists of two separate day trips on two separate rivers in a single weekend. It may not sound like much but, my last attempt didn’t go so well – I blame my good friend James Ready for that. Two day runs are a little trickier to execute than an over-nighter, there’s twice the shuttling, driving, canoe lifting… etc. But in my mind it would all be worth it — I was going to be all over the watershed of the world-famous Miramichi River.
My plans were to run the last leg of the North Renous River into the Main Branch of the Renous and down to the mouth of the Dungarven River – where my friend has a camp. After a night’s rest at the camp, the plan was to jump in the truck, head up Route 625 from Boisetown and run the Taxis River down into the Main Southwest Miramichi. A five river weekend!
My bowman Shane and I left Fredericton at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Conditions were perfect — the waterlevel gauge in Blackville read 1.5 m. After a quick stop at Shane’s camp, we were at the put-in around 10:00 a.m. As we were unloading my Old Town Discovery 169, a couple locals stopped by who were heading up the North Renous to fish, sure enough they owned that same boat. “But mine doesn’t say Disco ’69 on the side” the old fella said with a big grin. I groaned, “I didn’t make it that way, one of my buddies and his friend Alexander are responsible for it”
We shoved off the bank at 10:30 a.m. Based on a little map work, we estimated the run to be around 30-35 km — and we expected it would take all day. The ride down the North Renous was bumpy, I was anticipating it to be the hardest part of the trip. It was Shane’s first time as my bowman so we hadn’t worked out all the kinks yet — and there was no where to practice.
The river gets really narrow just before the Renous Forks and there are two back-to-back blind corners with steep banks that gave us a little trouble. We failed to execute two maneuvers, first we wanted to upstream ferry across the narrow channel, but we couldn’t get the angle right. Second, I wanted to perform an eddy turn on the corner to avoid slamming into the steep bank. I instructed Shane to draw hard into toward the eddy as we came around the bend, but we missed it. We didn’t slam into the bank though, so we didn’t miss it entirely!
We stopped at the mouth of the North Renous to take in the scenery and take a couple photos and again at the gravel pit salmon pool to try a few casts. From gravel pit on down it was a great run, lots of sun, lots of fishing. I hate to be this guy, but I caught a beautiful sea trout 15-16″ — but couldn’t get it into the boat!
The Renous River is a wide, calm, meandering river that doesn’t present much difficulty to the average canoeist. There are no rapids to speak of, just some rocks to watch out for. We even successfully executed a few eddy turns in the wake of some of these rocks! At this water level we scraped bottom in a couple of places, but weren’t forced to get out of the boat and drag it. There are a couple of particularly beautiful places with New Brunswick’s signature high, red sandstone banks and others with thick mature cedar and spruce. There are plenty of nice looking camp sites along the way as well — one in particular, called McGraw Brook, used to be a campground.
We arrived at the mouth of the Dungarven River at 6:40 p.m., just at the sun was starting to get low in the sky. My thoughts drifted to the next day — Part II — and what a great weekend I was having in my beautiful adopted province. Shane’s parents had a couple of burgers and a couple of beers waiting for us as we slid up to the sandy bank at the camp – now that’s how you end a day run.
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.
Last Saturday morning I got up, checked the weather, checked my hunting calendar and remembered that it was the second last weekend of the 2013 grouse season in New Brunswick – likely the last without a major snowfall. Outside it was a beautiful, brittle November day. The thermometer read -9°C, there was little-to-no wind, and the forecast called for sun all day — perfect grouse hunting conditions. I knew there would be a thick frost; we’d had 100mm of rain on Wednesday. My girlfriend, Maggie and I had planned to go hiking however – with a little convincing – I was able to persuade her into combining the two activities. Who wouldn’t want a nice grouse for supper?
We hit the road around 9:30am – heading for some public land about 20 minutes south of Fredericton. I was looking for a nice softwood (coniferous) forest, preferably with some pine. This late in the year – in the absence of herbaceous vegetation – grouse introduce pine needles and/or buds into their diet. This dietary change impacts the taste of the meat – it’s supposed to become gamier – but this doesn’t bother me.
After arriving at the hunting grounds and topping off our clothing layers with some hunter’s orange, we set out on foot down an old ATV trail. I was carrying my faithful Remington 870 Wingmaster, and Maggie was unarmed – which was probably for the best. Our objectives were to hike up a hardwood ridge into my deer stand – a story for another day – and check my game camera. After which we planned to head back down to find some softwood and maybe some running water. Thankfully, back in September, a friend and I had forged a nice little trail that provided direct access – up a major slope – to my blind. So up we went.
I tried to be a gentleman. I tried to break every branch at face level in order to protect Maggie from being whipped in the face. But I realized I couldn’t get them all. I think Maggie was starting to question my decision to turn this into a hunting expedition. “I thought you said this was a trail,” she uttered while feeling her face for scratches.
Things were inexplicably quiet, the magic hour — 10:00am — had come and gone and we hadn’t seen or heard a thing. We were content with not seeing anything; it really was a beautiful day to be in the woods — the chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers were out in full force. I think it was a hike more akin to what Maggie had in mind. We approached a frozen beaver pond chatting away – not paying attention to the trail ahead – when a grouse fluttered up and across the trail and landed in a thicket of tall, dense balsam fir.
I attempted to make chase, but the wall of fir stems was nearly impenetrable. Eventually I found an opening and slid in amongst the slender trees. I quietly stalked in the direction I thought the bird would have gone hoping for a second glance. Sure enough I caught up to the bird as it was walking through a thicket about 15 yards away. I pressed myself up against a tree and waited for a clear shot. Unfortunately, the bird grew wise to my presence when I accidentally broke a branch. I could see that it was about to take off so I stepped out and took aim. I took a shot through the thicket as it flushed, but it wasn’t meant to be. The bird sailed away across the beaver pond, earning its freedom. I returned to the trail empty handed.
Maggie was ready to head back – we’d already walked several kilometers – but I convinced her that we needed to investigate what was around the next corner first. Several corners later – in a red pine stand – we heard the familiar sound of rapid shuffling on the forest floor. I wheeled to the left and sure enough a ruffed grouse was running through the understory. I quickly raised my Remington 870 Wingmaster, aimed about eight inches in front of the bird, and pulled the trigger. With the sound of the wings flapping against the ground, I looked over at Maggie, and knew it was time to go. After a couple staged photos.
As I cleaned the bird back at the trailhead, I thought it might be interesting to open up the crop and look for a little evidence of the dietary change. Sure enough the crop was full of pine needles and unidentifiable buds – my guess was birch. I reflected upon the season that was. It was a memorable year, with some near misses and – of course – some complete misses.
The ruffed grouse holds a special place in my memory; it was the first thing I ever hunted. I shot my first grouse in October of 2011, just outside of Chipman, New Brunswick. It was the first weekend in my life that I was a gun owner. I had gone through all the testing, courses, and paperwork in the fall of 2010 and was ready to purchase my first firearm. I called Matt earlier during the magical week and informed him of my intention to purchase a firearm, and we both agreed that given his interest in guns, his presence was required.
Every pump action shotgun in the store found its way up to my eye. I considered how they felt, how they looked, and, most importantly, their cost. Just as I was beginning to think a black Remington 870 Express 12 gauge was the gun for me, a local legend pointed to a used Remington 870 Wingmaster.
“I’d buy that used one right there over the Express,” he said. “The new ones use plastic parts, not steel, and they don’t make’em like they used to.” In my mind I like to think that I replied, “well you can’t beat American steel!” but in reality I just stared blankly until Matt stepped in and struck up a conversation. I walked away from this excursion with a brand new — in 1979 — Remington 870 Wingmaster 12-gauge shotgun, with a fully choked, smooth 28” barrel. I was now officially a hunter — or so I thought.
On the drive home I kept wondering when and where I was I going to get a chance to try out my purchase. That’s one thing about hunting and shooting: you need a place to do it, and finding one isn’t always easy or cheap. Fortunately, New Brunswick is 48 per cent public land (3.4 million hectares). I was hoping to try some skeet shooting first to feel things out before shooting at a live target. But, before I could say ‘pull,’ Matt invited me to his camp for the weekend to participate in his annual bird hunt with one of his buddies. The camp was located on the banks of the Gaspereau River, in the heart of grouse country.
After a long two days, Friday finally came and we were off to Chipman. Roughly three quarters of the way there, we pulled onto a logging road engulfed by grey speckled alders on both sides. Matt grabbed an empty plastic pop bottle from the bed of his truck and said, “lets see if you can kill this first”. I anxiously removed my firearm from its case, removed the trigger lock, and grabbed a #6 shell. Matt had set up the bottle about 10-15 yards away. I loaded the weapon, removed the safety, took aim and awkwardly squeezed the trigger, maybe closing my eyes in the process. When the dust settled and my ears stopped ringing, the bottle was full of tiny holes. I was now officially a hunter. Of bottles.
With the firearm christened and everything packed up, it was time to get back on the road, but not before a little omen. Just as we were pulling away, a spruce grouse wandered out onto the road for a gravel snack and a dust bath, a sign of things to come.
After an evening of cribbage victories the morning had arrived. Outside it was a beautiful crisp fall day; we were surrounded by a deep green and gold forest and accompanied by the rushing sounds of the mighty Gaspereau River. Matt’s buddy Randy stirred, “Is that rain?” “No man, that’s bacon!” I replied. We were in no rush to get out — grouse don’t get out of bed before 10:00 a.m. — so Matt pulled out a box of skeet. “Pull!” I yelled, and a single skeet was lobbed out in front of me. I pointed the gun, aimed, pulled the trigger and watched the unscathed skeet sail to sweet freedom. I promptly declared, “Must be because it’s a full choke.” “Maybe, let me take a look at that.” Matt replied. “Pull!” he yelled as Randy launched a skeet into the air. And, as a cloud of clay dust rained down upon the ground 20 yards away, he handed the gun back to me and retorted, “There’s nothing wrong with that gun!” Following the liberation of a few more skeet, I finally hit one. After which, I heard from behind a single clap. “It’s about time,” Matt said. I was now officially a hunter. Of clay pigeons. It was time for the real thing.
The three of us piled into Matt’s truck armed with our blaze orange, a few shells, and our shotguns; which were stored in the bed in their respective cases. I remember being pretty excited and anxious. I was able to take some solace in the fact that if we didn’t get anything my freezer wouldn’t be empty; I could fill it with Doritos. There was no way we could eat the 10 bags we brought with us.
As we turned onto a logging road things got more serious. I was informed that since I was riding shotgun, it was my duty to jump out of the truck and make chase if we saw a grouse. Shortly after — as we were driving through a mature jack pine plantation — a grouse appeared about 80 yards up the road. The bird was sunning itself on a log about 5 yards into the woods. I attempted to play it cool — like I’d done this a thousand times. I slowly slid out of the truck and grabbed my gun and a couple shells. I casually lingered beside the truck and gave Matt and Randy my best ‘don’t worry guys this isn’t a big deal’ look — which of course was the opposite of the truth. In exchange, they both provided me with a look that said ‘what the fuck are you doing?’
I casually started to walk up the road – maybe strutting a little – and loaded two shells into the tube of my Wingmaster. I loudly cycled the action as I continued to stalk up the road. Miraculously the bird was still in place. After getting within about 30-40 yards I shouldered my gun and aimed. At this critical juncture, it dawned on me that the range of my gun was a complete mystery to me. I didn’t want to miss and risk wounding the animal or worse, my fragile ego. So, I turned completely around and yelled the words “am I close enough?” Matt and Randy’s reactions were not difficult to interpret. Their wild hand gestures and inaudible expletives made it obvious — they had never seen anything quite like this before. With their feedback in mind, I resolved to get closer. I turned back to the bird, took two steps, and it provided me with a look that said ‘what the fuck are you doing?’…as it flew away. I didn’t even lift my gun; I just stood there and watched with a newfound case of grouse fever.
The walk back to the truck felt like it was 100 miles. Thankfully, my two dear friends were very supportive. Randy consoled, “Grant, I know this is a bad time to bring this up, but that was literally the biggest partridge I’ve ever seen in my life, how could you miss that?” Thanks Randy. Mercifully, there was plenty of daylight left.
We continued to drive the crown woodlands; regularly stopping to explore overgrown trails with good cover on foot. The sky had clouded over and the wind had picked up –poor conditions for grouse hunting. But, if experiences on this trip and many after have taught me anything, it’s that often your prey will appear when you least expect it — as if out of thin air. This occurred on our next sighting.
We were rolling down a gentle slope, through mixed balsam fir and birch forest, when a grouse appeared in a roadside alder thicket. With the previous incident fresh in my memory, I didn’t waste any time. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed my gun, tossed a shell directly into the chamber, and thrust the action forward — I’d learned that loading them into the tube wastes precious seconds. I stalked up the road to within 25-30 yards, shouldered the gun, set the bead just above the head, slid off the safety, took a deep breath…and pulled the trigger. When I heard the fading sound of feathers flapping against the ground, I knew I had hit it.
With my prey in hand, I triumphantly walked back to the truck. It appeared as though I had made a clean head shot, inflicting minimal damage to the breast. I proudly held in my hand a beautiful Ruffed grouse. “Nice shot, GV” Randy uttered. Having guided me to my first (second?) bird, Matt proclaimed, “Grant, I feel like your dad right now.” Many hours later, after arriving back at the camp it was time to clean our bounty, ‘and now the work begins’ as the hunter often says. Matt motioned me over, “Grant, come over here and let me show you how to clean these things.” Thanks, Dad.