THE BEST OF "IN THE WOODS"
By Len Rich
When the telephone in my office rang, it could have been anyone on the opposite end. The last person I expected it to be was Geoff Meeker, managing editor of The Newfoundland Herald, but the conversation between Geoff and I during the next few minutes was to have a great impact on my writing career ... and in fact my life as I knew it.
The Herald hadn't run an outdoor column since the untimely death of Ray Simmons a few years earlier. Ray was a popular and prolific writer who was sadly missed by his many readers in the outdoor community and it was a big pair of shoes to fill. But Geoff had seen some of my articles in Eastern Woods & Waters magazine, a regional out of Halifax, and we came to an informal agreement over the telephone. I agreed to present Geoff with a cross-section of copy for the first six columns. They'd gauge public reaction, and if satisfactory, we'd keep the column going.
I found myself in St. John's a few weeks later and presented Geoff with the first six columns over a lunch of Chinese food. There was quite a variety among the columns, everything from bow and arrow hunting to the traits of the black bear, and I had no idea of the order in which Geoff would run them. As it happened, the first column to appear on February 13, 1988, was entitled "Casting into a warm pool of memories". It was a fantasy yarn of recollections about angling experiences of the past, remembered as I gazed from the snowy window of my "den" on a boring and chilly January evening, wishing for the warmth of summers past and looking forward to those of summers ahead.
Since that epic appearance there have been more than 150 "In the Woods" columns, covering a diversity of subjects from threats to the fragile environment to enjoyment of fly fishing. There have been hunting stories, fishing stories, camping and boating stories, tall tales and some down-to-Earth, close-to-home stories of life in the outdoors in Newfoundland and Labrador or my travels in the Maritimes. It has been an enjoyable experience in my life to write these columns, which in fact are a series of weekly feature articles, and it appears I have developed a strong readership in the outdoor community.
The Best Of "In The Woods" is a collection of my favorite articles from the years 1988-1989. It covers a wide gamut of interests and subject matter which I hope you will enjoy reading a second time around.
- Len Rich
CASTING INTO A WARM POOL OF MEMORIES
(This was the first column to appear under my byline. I was tenuous about its reception by readers, but since I escaped seeing a lynch party, intuition told me it must have been okay.)
Is there anything more frustrating to an avid sport fishermen than the dregs of winter? Snow to the window sills, a bonechilling bite to the frigid air, winds whistling and howling around the roof eaves are not conducive to the spirit when the body yearns to be standing in waist-deep waters, warmed by the sun of summer, patiently casting to a rock or a steady or a rapid where you know a fish may rise and strike on the very next cast.
My fidgety feet walk the hall, stop at the room holding my fishing gear, hesitate. I wander into the room I call "den".
There's one possible redeeming factor about snow flying and cold winds howling in the dead of winter...it helps the frustrated among us to remember the good times of the past summer and to look ahead a few months to the spring breakup and a return to rivers and ponds for pursuing our favorite pasttime.
It is a time for replenishing the spent flies of last year and the years previous, to return to the vise and the bobbin, and to work out the kinks and regain the nimbleness of fingers it takes to construct the varied patterns we have come to know and use constantly. It is also a time to pull out the rods and reels, to blow off the dust of accumulated idleness, to grease and polish and oil and clean these tools of trade which we depend on in the summer months ahead, I tell myself.
Winter may not have to be a dead loss, you see, even though a fishing trip is months away. There are photos to pull out of albums, moments frozen in time, memories caught by the lens of a camera which capture pleasurable experiences to recall at times like these. Wow! There's that salmon that 'ol George hooked in the steady below Big Falls, remember that one Flo? God, didn't he look funny when he fell in up to his chin with that fish still on the line? What a laugh we had! H.m.m.m.m....wonder what George is up to today? Must give him a call .....
Well, well, there's that issue of FLY FISHERMAN magazine with that fly pattern that buddy said was the be-all and end-all. I was going to tie one of those to try on the Codroy next year, although I have my doubts about what it will do. Still ... it might be worth a try. Now what did I do with that bloody yellow yarn....
Ah, the new Fenwick rod still looks as good as new when I bought it five years ago. What stories that rod could tell if it could talk! That big five-pound speckled trout I hooked up by Peter Stride's Lake sure gave it a workout a few years back.
The rod bag is getting a little worn, I must look into investing in a new one this year. That rod will last me a lifetime if I just look after it. Now to get out the wax and cleaner....
Slipping the Hardy reel from the bag is next, I suppose. Boy, they don't make them like they used to when I got this one back in '74. Look at that, just as smooth as silk. The little dent on the side, now where did that one come from? It could have been that quick trip on the Grandy's when I slipped on those basketball-sized rocks and tried to catch myself. It struck with quite a clang then, if I recall. Gosh, that was some day, with John and I catching our limit in just an hour that morning. Those fish sure loved the Green Highlander with the hitch, that's for sure. I wonder if John would like to try that trip again this year?
Well, well, the black flies sure had a field day on me the day the fly dope got on this fly line. Bad stuff, that fly dope...tears the hell out of anything plastic...and it didn't do much to keep the black flies off, either. The Forteau, I swear, has to be the home of those devils...what lumps they left me with!
It seems a major investment is due this year for a fly line, Flo my love, because this one has just about bought the biscuit. I wonder if I might get the early part of the season out of it if I dress it up real well.
Jim called me the other night about some kind of automobile plastic cleaner that makes the fly line cast longer and float higher...now what was the name of that stuff? Slicker than fish slime, Jim said, and makes you look like a real pro when you cast. Well, I suppose Canadian Tire has it on the shelf somewhere, and it'll probably come to me if I see the name....
Now there's a fly I haven't tried in a couple of seasons...that was the one Freddie and I had such a time with on the Upper Humber when the big grilse run was on. I remember now, I saved this one with the barb broken off so I'd have a pattern to tie another one. Well, let's see, I guess I should get back to the vise and whip up a couple. Who knows, 'ol Fred and I might just try that run again this summer...
Outside it is cold, a fresh fall of snow has covered the tracks to the front door, and summer seems far away. But in my small room which I laughingly call my den, I gather around my old friends from summers past, old friends which have shared moments on rivers and ponds, moments with companions with whom I've shared a few casts.
As swirling snow flows effortlessly around the corners of my small prison, I feel a little more comfortable to be sharing it with my familiar fishing friends, my fly tying gear, my aging vest with its many pockets, remembering and reliving.
Yea, though I sit in the cold valley of winter I shall fear no evil....my rod and my reel they comfort me...and after all, summer isn't that far off!
THE BLACK BEAR ... NOT A BAD GUY
(This article was a lot of fun. What some people refer to as my "weird sense of humour" surfaced a little as I attempted the "spruce up" the narrative yet get the message across about one of my favorite animals, the Newfoundland black bear.)
The black bear is probably one of the most maligned and misunderstood animals in the province.
You hear tales every year about how one big devil broke into Uncle Josh's cabin and tore down a wall on the way in, sucking up all of the old stores he had tucked away last fall from the rabbit catching trip; how one got up on its hind legs and peeked into a trailer in one of the parks when the missus was preparing a big Jiggs dinner scoff and scared her half to death; or how you'd better not sleep out in the woods in a tent 'cause those big old bears, half crazed with hunger, will eat you alive.
Just ask yourself...how many bears did run across last year? How many red-eyed, mouth-foaming monsters did you see dragging away helpless men, women, and children to their lairs so they could have a meal to gnaw on for a week or two? In fact, other than cases where food was involved, how many bears have you ever seen....period?
In truth the black bear is a secretive creature which would rather be left alone to live a peaceful existence in the forests and high country of Newfoundland and Labrador. Driven by intense hunger, bears may venture into community dumps and sometimes even civilized areas in search of easy meals at times of the year when natural food is not readily available. It must take a super effort for these animals, with their extremely sensitive noses and sense of smell, to overcome the acrid odor of rotting garbage and decayed foodstuffs to search out something fit to eat in the smokey atmosphere of a dump. If you've been to a dump lately you'll know what I mean.
But in spring, when these bruins emerge from hibernation after long winter sleeps, there is not a great deal of food available. Greenery has not yet grown, buds are small on the trees, and three squares a day are not the easiest to find. What better source of food than a quiet, remote cabin where Uncle Josh didn't quite put all his foodstuffs away, and the odor of cooking still lingers from that loosely screwed-on cap or partially washed frying pan. How about that acrid smell on the airways wafting from the town dump, where piles of old chicken innards were just dropped by the local slaughterhouse? Sure 'nough, food is food!
Some of the outfitters in Labrador can tell you stories about their bears, which appear to have no fear of man. They are constantly seen near lodges, and one operator says when his plane begins to circle for a landing he can see the bears running down the beach to greet him, knowing that food will soon be on the go!
If you fish in Labrador's rivers or lakes, bears may sit on the banks and watch you for hours, waiting until you catch a fish so they can come down and rob it! Food is pretty scarce up that way in the early spring, that's for sure!
Around June month, when moose and caribou begin dropping calves, bears make the most of the opportunity to sneak in and take a few, trying to gorge themselves and begin to build the layers of fat required to take them through yet another winter. It doesn't sound too pleasant, but it is nature's way for one animal's young to provide survival for another species, especially a carnivore like the bear. In fact, bears aren't that fussy, and will eat their own kind, cute little cubs and all, if the opportunity arises..
With moose and caribou and other bears, they take the very young and weak, the crippled or feeble adults, even strong and fully mature adults if they can get away with it. Biologists tell of grown bull moose and caribou which have been found with a neat incision in the back (a bear's way of entering a cadaver) and all the meat and edible parts removed, leaving little but a sack of skin and bones. They are certainly thorough.
How can a black bear, those cute and cuddly things, attack a fully grown animal like a moose and kill it, you ask? Considering that we have some of North America's largest bruins living on the island, with weights of 600 to 700 pounds not being that uncommon, it isn't that difficult. Stories have circulated of bears dispatching huge specimens with one swipe of the paw!
As summer progresses and grasses and sedges mature, bears live in the forests in seclusion on nature's greenery. Sure, you might still see the odd one here or there, but generally they are back on track and now have enough natural food at their disposal to survive in relative comfort.
As the autumn approaches and berries mature, black bears are often seen by big game hunters on the open country, gorging on berries which have ripened in the late summer and early fall.
Like humans, bears prefer a variety in their diets, a mixture of meat and vegetables and particularly sweets...to remain healthy and strong and to build up that necessary fat reserve for the winter.
As a chill enters the air and snow flakes begin to fall, a natural change occurs. Bruins get sleepy and begin to den...any old place will do at times...and curl up for another long snooze until nature awakens again the following spring. That's their life-cycle, like it or not.
And while I don't recommend trying to feed one by hand, I hope you have learned that they aren't quite as dangerous to man as you may have been led to believe! Bears are just another of nature's wonderful creatures sharing the places where we live, driven by needs but fulfilling a role in the scheme of things.
THE GIANT TROUT OF AWESOME LAKE
(I was fortunate on a trip through Labrador to stop with my Cessna pilot, Wes Mitchell, for a lunch break at this small, beautiful wilderness lake which Wes dubbed "Awesome" for the scenery, the clear water ... and especially the trout angling!)
"My God, I've been into salmon that didn't fight this hard!" Perry gasped as his fly line and backing sped screaming from the small fly reel. His eyes bulged and his mouth hung open as the great Eastern Brook trout fought back against the pressure of the slight Fenwick graphite rod, stripping line in a bid to escape.
Perry and I were in Labrador, on a late July trip to a hidden lake whose real name shall remain unknown. I had been there a year previously with a bush pilot who put it into perspective. Wes was so impressed by the scenery of snow-capped mountains, the deep azure of the lake, the enormity of the landscape which surrounded us that he muttered "Awesome, simply awesome", and from thenceforth it was known only as Awesome Lake.
Wes was there with me when I discovered the great brook trout which occupied this huge watershed. In this pristine setting I had hooked into two "brookies", one of nearly eight pounds, while casting a hair-bodied mouse into the soft eddies of a stream outlet near a beach where we had tied our float-equipped Cessna.
The water, even in August, had been icy cold, and the pair of fish had fought more savagely than any trout I had ever experienced in battle. Wes had been trying a lure and spinning rod without result, but the great trout had been tuned into mice due to a heavy migration of Arctic lemmings that summer. They simply loved the deer-bodied facsimile, and had been gorging on live versions for most of the previous two weeks.
I had later returned to the island and dreamed the dreams of anglers during the winter months, intent on returning to the lake we called Awesome for a second try. Had it been a fluke for Wes and I that bright summer's day, or were there even more of the elusive monster brookies waiting for us? I had to know.
Perry Munro is a long-time friend from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, a superb bowhunter, and a very knowledgeable fly fisherman. We have shared pools for more than 15 years in various parts of our two provinces, and I knew he would have both the angling skill and appreciation of Awesome Lake's beauty that I could enjoy sharing. Perry and I would be able to fathom the secrets of this lake in a few short days...if there were plenty of big trout, we'd soon know it; or if my previous experience had been only a one-shot fluke, we'd know that too.
We arrived in the middle of a howling windstorm, with Alister Lantz and John Wilson (making up our foursome) hanging on for dear life with Perry in the back seat of the Beaver, looking queasy but somehow keeping supper down. We made it in beneath the mountains, landed safely, and disembarked in the middle of the Labrador wilderness to set up a small camp. It looked and felt quite lonely as the sound of the Beaver's throbbing engine faded and was replaced by the howling of a chilly wind.
We were locked primarily into walking distance from the campsite, except for a square-stern Coleman Scanoe which we had to maneuver by paddle. It was not an easy situation in the gusts which whistled continuously across the white-capped lake, and we limited most of our explorations to places we could reach by foot.
(On one particular night, Perry and John were caught across the wide expanse when the wind rose suddenly, and spent the sleepless darkness hours trying to keep black flies at bay and a fire going for warmth. They made it back to camp early next morning when the wind bated, John looking the worse for wear as his eyes were nearly closed from insect bites).
Perry found a nice little brook feeding the lake, and cast out into a deep hole which appeared nearly black against the light sandy bottom. He hooked into and landed a 28 inch brookie which would have gone well over 7 pounds. A few snapshots were enough proof, and he then released the trophy back into the lake's inviting waters. That one is still in there, probably a little smarter but waiting for the next angler to fool him.
Alister and John had their good luck along the way, each hooking and releasing several fish of five pounds and more. Awesome Lake was proving that it not only had many trout, but also that its virgin waters had not been over-exploited through the years. As with most of the larger fish, we insisted that a "catch and release" policy be maintained except for one trophy, and all willingly complied. One fish was plenty for anyone.
Perry's big battle came on the final day, a fitting ending to a trip one may never repeat in a lifetime. It was at the lakes's outlet, a thundering waterway, that he caught the trout which fought like a salmon. We had been skittering hair mice and large dry flies over a shoal near the mouth, and had moved into a deep pool downstream below a rapids to catch not only a "keeper" for Perry, but also a nice 6-pounder which I kept and is now adorning my office wall. We had the answer to Awesome Lake.
It also proved that there are certain unexplored and pristine areas of the province (primarily in Labrador) that still retain the type of angling which we all dream about. Dreams can come true. It can happen for us and our children and their children if we respect this precious resource, if we simply use it and enjoy it and then put it back for the next generation.
Too many of our island lakes and rivers have already been ruined through over-fishing or a lack of thought or concern for what tomorrow may bring. We have a rare opportunity to prevent it from repeating in our last bastion, Labrador. As we proved to ourselves at Awesome Lake, catching a huge trout and enjoying the sport doesn't require you to kill it. Just think of the big one which Perry released that is waiting to be fooled again! That alone is enough encouragement for me.
THE RETURN TO AWESOME LAKE
(This article won an annual award by the New England Outdoor Writers Association as "Best Column" for 1989, and is a natural extension of the previous story. I spent hard winters wondering whether anyone had stumbled upon this pristine piece of Labrador, and the thought of someone raping its resources triggered many a nightmare for me. Fortunately, it is still relatively undisturbed.)
It glistened like a jewel in the bright sunlight, a sparkling emerald nestled below the sweeping green hills of Labrador spruce and fir trees, dwarfed by the rising peaks of nearby mountains which still contained patches of snow from the previous winter.
Awesome Lake was still as awesome as I had remembered, and as the floatplane made its final approach a chill of anticipation passed through me. Thoughts of the lake had turned into pleasant dreams during many a winter night, dreams in which I had once again waded its streams, casting flies into deep pools which harboured brook trout of five pounds and more.
But I also felt a chill of dread touch my backbone. Was this tiny pristine piece of the world still untarnished by the invasion of man, or had it been "discovered" by an element bent on destruction of the resource, an uncaring band of people who killed innumerable fish and left behind litter and garbage as evidence of their disregard for nature? I had heard rumors that someone had stumbled upon the lake, and that it was being mercilessly exploited. I hoped not.
As our plane softly touched the choppy surface I spotted the shallow sandy inlet and dark deep pool where Perry Munro had hooked and released a colourful 26 3/4" Labrador brookie only two years previously. That great fish had been released after a brief photo session to live and grow a little larger, and perhaps it was still out there swimming through the depths. How large did these trout get, and how long did they live, I mused?
A scale sampling from a trophy Awesome Lake "keeper" had told us that they grew about one pound per year, and we assumed that the average life span for a brook trout was about eight years. If Perry's fish had weighed some six or so pounds two years ago, it could possibly still be alive and healthy, and now in the eight pound range. That thought was appealing, although the odds of it surviving predation or heavy ice also had to be weighed.
We settled softly onto the lake's surface and taxied to a safe haven where the aircraft could be tied up. I jumped to the rocky shoreline and walked the beach, expecting to find evidence of human visitations ... a soft drink tin, an empty cigarette pack, discarded paper, charred remains of a fire ... but the area was clear and clean. Hope emerged that perhaps the rumors had been false, but proof would lie in a brief test of the waters. If the lake was still productive, it would logically follow that it had not been severely exploited ... and in fact, may not have been discovered.
As I put rod and reel together and threaded fly line through the eyes, I studied the lake outlet before me. There was no sign of any activity, no tell-tale swirls of a feeding trout gently sucking an insect from the surface film, no spinners or mayflies or drakes or other hatches. To the casual observer this body of water could have been completely devoid of any aquatic life.
A slight breeze rippled the water as I tied on an orange-hackled buck bug and applied Gink floatant to the stiff fibres. A few false casts and it had landed with a soft "plop", floating slowly toward the edge of a deepening shoal. After four such attempts the fly was sucked gently beneath the surface by a brookie of about two pounds, small for this watershed. It was promptly played to shore and carefully released. The bug picked up a few more smaller trout and then one in the four range before I decided it was time for a change.
A large Royal Coachman replaced the ugly bug and it floated high on the water toward the lip of a large submerged rock, its white wings clearly visible in the choppy water. It was on the initial pass that a nice trout of perhaps five pounds rose from the bottom, its huge head and back rolling over the fly as it accepted my offering. Yes, it appeared the large trout of Awesome were still around! I played this stronger fish for several minutes before it surrendered to the rod's pressure and allowed me to remove the fly before releasing it.
Over the next hour I had some of the best angling a trout fisherman could ever hope for. I changed to several various patterns, each as productive as the past. I tried sneaking a large nymph over the shoal and letting it sink along the edge of submerged rocks and gravel, and was rewarded with yet another heavy trout in the five pound range. A monstrous grey dun dry salmon fly disappeared in the centre of a dimple, and on the business end a colorful five-pound male fought against my coaxing pressure before being returned to the chilly waters.
I hold the opinion that large flies attract the largest trout, a theory somewhat substantiated through the years by observing very large trout lying quietly in various stream beds. Clearly visible, these trout were easy to spot along the bottom, and I noticed that a minimum of effort was expended for their feeding. Often a trout would raise its head only a few inches to accept some tasty morsel bouncing along the bottom or riding in some underwater current a few feet off the stream bed, then sink back into its lie. It was only when some huge, irresistible meal came by that these large fish could be enticed to expend enough energy to leave their comfortable berths to rise to the surface for some "floating food".
That's why my best angling came when I tied on the old favorite for big trout, a huge, hairy mouse with a short leather tail. My mice are not "fancy" with ears or whiskers or little black eyeballs ... they are made to catch fish, not fishermen, and they work. I believe it is the profile which is important, the profile seen from the fish's viewpoint from beneath the surface, so my mice are more functional than beautiful ... from beneath they have the shape of a mouse, and on top the compressed deer hair is just rounded off with scissors. The trout don't mind.
The climax came on the mouse. As I skittered it over the surface a large head appeared suddenly behind it and gulped it down, and I immediately felt the heavier weight of a trout in the seven pound range. It was a battle royal as the slender graphite rod and slight four pound tippet held this heavy fish, a battle which had my arms aching before it could be brought to bay. I posed the great trout for a few photos and revived it before releasing it back to the stream, hoping that perhaps next year it could be fooled and caught again as an eight-pounder. Maybe at that time, its productive breeding stage over and in the twilight of its existence, the trout could be considered as a trophy "keeper" to hang on a wall. But for now I was satisfied to know that the trout of Awesome Lake were still .... well, awesome.
The breeze died off, a sudden heavy pre-storm stillness fell over the lake, and even the mouse failed to take another trout. It was as if a switch had been pulled, a signal that interest had died and no more trout were about to be fooled on this day. A few green drakes appeared, floating helplessly in the surface film, but they were to be safe on this occasion. The lake had taken on the same lifeless appearance of an hour before.
As our plane lifted off for the trip home, I hoped that in future, if some wanderer happened to fall upon Awesome Lake, the same situation would occur ... a sterile appearance which would deter any interest in it.
Perhaps this was nature's way of ensuring the lake's ultimate survival, to only allow a "window" to open on occasion for a sincere angler to briefly savor its taste.
I left Awesome Lake as I found it, undisturbed and natural. In my brief hour I had once again tasted the lake's beauty and savored trout angling to dream about, and it was enough.
NAMING A NEW FLY ON THE GANDER RIVER
(Danny Stiles and Terry Cusack are not only good friends of mine, but a couple of real entrepreneurs who had a dream and the courage to begin a company on the beautiful Gander River which they call "Gander River Tours." I had been fooling with a new series of fly patterns and was looking for a fish foolish enough to take one so I could call them something, and this is that story.)
As the small grilse struggled and splashed beside our Gander River boat anchored on the edge of a long riffle, my guide and host, Danny Stiles, deftly slid the dip net beneath it and lifted it into the safety of our wooden craft.
I was traveling down the Gander on an abbreviated version of a three-day trip which Dan and his partner, Terry Cusack, usually operate under the name of Gander River Tours.
We had stopped for a brief try at one of the Gander's many excellent pools on our way downstream toward our eventual destination of Dorman's Cove, and at Dan's insistence I was using a wet fly pattern which I had been experimenting with.
It was one of a series which were differentiated by colour variations, and I was using the blue pattern (the remainder being yellow, orange, green, and silver-bodied). I had told Danny that they still didn't have a name, but they would be called after the first river in which one took a fish...and they had drawn a blank at Labrador's Forteau.
The fishing had been extremely poor due to low water conditions, and some locals also blamed the lack of salmon both on excess commercial pressure and the wages of heavy poaching in the river itself. Whatever the reason or combination of problems, angling had been "the pits," and even the orange-hackled bug had not worked for us.
A couple of persistent veterans had hooked into a few grilse the previous evening on a scraggly Blue Charm at Fourth Pond Bar just above Dan's cabin, so I had agreed to try the blue version of my series.
As the bright fish lay in the boat, we noticed that it had several net marks on its side, and turning it over we saw that one of its eyes was missing. Was it the gauntlet of salmon nets in the bay which had done the damage, or perhaps a poacher's net in the river? We could only guess, but knowing it probably wouldn't survive this mutilation long enough to spawn, I decided to dispatch it for the pot.
Commenting on the missing eye, Danny good-naturedly pointed out that the fish "had to be half blind to take that fly anyway!", but doggedly reminded me of my commitment to name the fly after the first river in which a fish was taken. Thus the Gander River Series was born, christened on the "Gander River Blue" by a fish with only one eye.
The Gander has to be one of the most beautiful rivers in the province as it winds its way some 32 miles from Glenwood and Appleton on the TCH to its outlet in Gander Bay. Lined with beautiful white birch trees and green grassy banks, it is steeped in a history of hardy settlers who used the sprawling waterway as a path to reach the small, isolated communities along the coast.
It was the Gander River boat, a long, narrow and heavy craft built from local steamed lumber in the shape of a square-stern freighter canoe, that provided the stable way through raging rapids, rock-strewn shallows, and the long steadies and ponds.
Deep and strong, the boats were capable of carrying extremely bulky and heavy loads of freight and staples far downstream, and in the hands of skilled river men provided dependable and safe transportation for decades before the highway system began serving the outport communities.
They were ideal for meeting all conditions the Gander could throw at them...channels between boulders so narrow that they rubbed the sides, shoals covered by inches of water which scraped the bottom, high winds, raging spring run-off...you name it, the boats could handle it.
The Gander men learned each rock, each boulder, each obstacle which could cause damage, and with pole or outboard motor they traversed the 32 miles of river safely...not for enjoyment, but out of necessity.
In modern times, you can retrace the Gander path with Danny or Terry as part of a three-day (or longer) package, with plenty of time for sightseeing, fishing, or photography. The trip begins at the TCH, with Danny taking you through the upper part of the Gander in one of their river boats as far as Fourth Pond and his Green Point Cabins. A pleasant home-cooked meal, an evening's fishing and an overnight stay in his two-storey log home is all a part of the package.
Day two is more of the same, with trout angling or salmon fishing if you wish, stopping at several of the better-known pools. At the halfway point you'll bid farewell to Dan as you switch boats to Terry or another of the guides who know the lower river, and the second night is spent in a small, comfortable cabin with a full-course dinner complete with wine.
Bring a camera, because the river is magnificent in this section. Along the way you'll pass Beaver Lodge, operated by outfitter Carl Blake of Gander Bay, occupying an island site adjacent to some fine pools. This camp offers weekly angling packages to sportsmen from all over the world. And further down at First Pond, longtime operator Calvin Saunders caters to guests at Camp Minehaha, presumably named after the Indian princess of legend. Many of Calvin's camp guests try the famed First Pond Bar, one of the Gander's most prolific and popular salmon pools, or other hot spots in the lower river. This is also a scenic area, although private cottages have, in recent years, somewhat marred the wilderness setting and beauty.
The trip ends after the third day at Dorman's Cove, a small Gander Bay community, with a night at Terry's hospitality home. Pleasant conversation over a warm meal and a good night's slumber rounds out the trip before you are returned by vehicle to your starting point.
Everyone should be able to traverse the Gander at least once; if not for the beauty or the fishing, then simply to retrace a piece of history in one of the long wooden craft once used as a vehicle of survival and existence.
And Gander River Tours is one of the ways to do it for people on a tight time schedule with a yen for special treatment at a reasonable price.
Ah, yes, the fly....it is simple, really. A gold tinsel tag and oval rib covers the back half of the body, which is made from Phentex fibres the same colour as the throat. Golden pheasant tail is optional.
The front body half is black wool, heavy and no ribs. The wing was made from black-tipped, white-based guard hairs from a wolf hide, although coyote, fox, or moose hair with the addition of Jungle cock eyes would be as effective. Match the back half-body colour exactly to the hackle colour for the throat, which can be placed beneath beard-style or palmered on in front of the wing, Cosseboom-style. Try it!
BOWHUNTING FOR BLACK BEAR ... A SPOOKY EXPERIENCE
(This two-part article related one of the most exciting hunts I have ever experienced, an archery hunt for black bears from a tree stand. It was also a very strange hunt because of the twist of fate in which nature brought one of its creatures back the following season to meet its final demise. My buddy Jim Hefford still talks about it.)
It was unbelievably unstable in the tree stand. A gale wind shook the two slight spruce to which the small wooden platform was attached, shuddering and twisting it beneath me and causing it to sway back and forth at precarious angles. At times I clung to the tree trunks with a death grip, afraid of being tossed the twelve or so feet to the brush-littered ground below.
This was not a particularly auspicious beginning to a black bear hunting trip, but here I was in the middle of September, hanging for dear life to a spindly platform of planks and two by fours, all decked out in camouflage clothing and waiting for an unsuspecting bruin to appear below for a meal of sweets, stale doughnuts and spoiled meat scraps at one of Jim Hefford's bait stations.
Although the bait was hidden under a pile of brush and old logs some 25 or so yards away, the scent of sweet cakes and candy, mixed with the unpleasant aroma of rotting fat and meat, reached me on the gusts of high winds sweeping down from the Buchans plateau.
Jim is one of the island's new black bear outfitters, a small group of local entrepreneurs who decided a few years ago to pursue the rewards of outfitting for this big game predator by attracting non-resident hunters willing to pay to shoot it.
The procedure was simple - find a good location with sign of bears, set up a series of bait stations with which to attract the animals, and keep replenishing them on a daily basis until it became a regular routine for the bruins to visit and partake of a good meal. Once this was in place, it was left only to build a small platform on which to place a hunter to "ambush" the bear when it came to feed. It was a baiting practice proven in many parts of North America, and would work in Newfoundland as well.
Jim had been successful in an area east of Deer Lake, setting up a series of bait sites along a little-used woods access road, and the bears had cooperated by finding the baits and cleaning them out almost daily.
Jim had been busy with his old four-wheel drive truck, renewing the baits each morning to keep the bruins happy, and was readying for his first non-resident guests the following spring. But it was now September 1986, and I was the first to be proving to Jim that the system worked at his "bear restaurants".
In the tree with me was my Hoyt Impala compound bow armed with a half-dozen razor-sharp broadheads, and a Winchester lever-action rifle in the new .307 calibre for back-up. Both hung from nearby branches as I clung with both hands in the swaying trees.
I had been on the small platform for about four hours and it was beginning to darken just a little as the sun settled toward a far hill. The wind had lessened slightly, but gusts heavier than any I had seen all day still battered the trees occasionally. My time had been jointly occupied by the gymnastics of trying to hang on and the entertaining antics of some red squirrels which were stealing small bits of candy and cakes from the bait pile, but I was in a sort of half-asleep stupor when the visitor suddenly showed up.
When the big bear appeared I nearly jumped out of my skin, damn near spilling out of the tree in the process! The bruin was very large, most probably a male, and was so quiet that I couldn't believe it was actually there below me. It had emerged from the shadows out of nowhere, and obviously didn't have a clue in the world that I was anywhere near.
Thankful that the noisy wind was covering the sounds of my knocking knees, I swallowed down the bitter taste which had welled up in my throat and tried to regain some composure. But the sight of 450 pounds of black bear whipping huge logs aside like toothpicks was rather unnerving, and it took a little longer than normal to settle down.
Finally, between gripping the tree and trying to stop the shaking of my nerves, I removed the bow from its swinging perch and managed to nock an arrow. My movements and the sounds were being covered by the wind, and the bear was preoccupied with the pile of food which he had now uncovered and was devouring. Assured that his attention was totally diverted, I drew back the bowstring to my anchor point, slowly lowered the bow until the 20 yard pin was resting just behind the bruin's front shoulder, and took a deep breath. Below my feet, the trees quivered and shook, and in the distance I was vaguely aware of the approach of another gust.
My complete attention was focused on the shot, and I wondered to myself what would be the reaction when the arrow penetrated into the bear's vital organs? I concentrated, began to loosen my grip on the string, and then the whole situation nearly turned into disaster. The gusts hit at that precise moment, wrenching the trees in a violent surge, and I felt my footing slip. My balance upset, I began to fall from the tree!
Desperately I watched as the arrow was blown off the string, falling to the ground below in a metallic clatter. I quickly let down the bow string and in almost the same motion thrust out my hand to grip the nearest tree, and swung my body into the trunk. Clinging with all my strength with the one hand while I held onto the bow with the other, I felt the sweat pop out on my body, and chanced a look in the direction of the bear.
If the bear knew anything about the mini-drama which had just occurred in the tree, it didn't let on. The arrow lay on the ground below the stand where it had fallen, but the bruin was so engrossed in feeding that it obviously hadn't noticed. Mind racing, I wondered at the outcome if it had been my 200+ pounds which had come crashing to the ground instead, askew in the brush and maybe out cold or helpless as the breath was knocked out of me, trying to fend off the defensive instincts of a carnivore which had been disturbed while eating. Would I have been the next meal?
I shuddered at the possible outcome, but after a few more minutes a calm settled over me and I began to think of dealing with the situation at hand. It was rapidly growing darker, and a strange purple tinge was in the air now as the shadows lengthened. The bear was still there, and the wind was still blowing my stand around like a cork on a high sea.
Like it or not, I had to deal with the predicament I had let myself become involved in; I couldn't just climb out of the tree and wave goodbye to the bear. Not 25 yards away was a carnivore with the strength to dispatch a moose twice its weight with one swipe of a paw, and here I was trying to stick an arrow into it.
A popular '60s hit, "What kind of fool am I?", came to mind. Now, old man, what to do?
To my left the Winchester lever-action caught my eye. It was swinging by its sling which was hooked around the stub of a chopped branch, tossing in the breeze. In the excitement I had forgotten it. Earlier, I had shoved five shiny brass cartridges into the tubular magazine after climbing into the tree...but had I loaded one into the breech? No!
The bear below was now pawing at the bait pile, trying to hook out some of the tastier morsels, and looked more agitated to me. I lifted the stiffened muscles of my left arm which was gnarled in a half-nelson around the closest tree, aware now of the bow which I was still clutching in my right hand.
Looping the upper cam and string over a branch stump until it felt secure, I let it hang free. Another gust buffeted the trees and I once again clung on for safety purposes, an eye on the bear feeding below me. As the breeze died I reached with tentative fingers for the rifle, gripping the sling near the upper buckle, and lifted it gingerly off the branch stub. The bear never noticed a thing.
I gripped the tree with one arm wrapped around the trunk and a knee locked around it further down toward the base of the stand, and got a good grip on the gun. Easing forward the lever, I saw there was no cartridge in the chamber, and more sweat popped out on my forehead. Could I load a bullet without making noise to scare off the bear, and would the wind cooperate? Now I needed a gust to cover the sound, and I waited until I heard the treetops whistling before I made my move. As the gust hit, I eased the lever fully forward, watched the cartridge pop up and slide smoothly into the barrel chamber, and eased the lever back down to lock it into place.
So far, so good - and the bear was still pawing away below, unaware of my movements.
I pulled the gun up to my shoulder and eased my cheek down to the stock, trying to find a comfortable position. The trees continued to sway and shake, and it became obvious I wasn't going to be able to pick and choose my shot. The waning light made it difficult to pick out the end bead sight, and I realized I would have to shoot soon. I got a firm grip, leaned back against the trunk, and lined up the sights. Below, the bear shifted positions and lifted a 30-pound log with a flip of its front paw, sending it flying off to the side. As the tree swayed, the rifle's sights moved across the bear's front shoulder, and I squeezed gently on the trigger.
KA-BOOM! The stillness erupted at the sound of the shot, and the bruin reacted by leaping straight up into the air, spinning in a circle at the same time. As he landed, he leaped again, spinning in the opposite direction, covering a dozen or more feet with each bound. He was now immediately below my stand, and I jacked another cartridge into the chamber. But with a third bound the bear disappeared suddenly into the black shadows, and I could hear him above the ringing in my ears as he crashed ever further away through the thick brush. The entire sequence took perhaps five seconds, and I'd never seen an animal move so fast!
I froze in place, listening for any other sounds, and after a reasonable length of time took the police whistle from my pocket and blew three long blasts to alert my hunting partner, Chris Buckley, that I was alright.
A few minutes later, as I lowered my weapons by rope and climbed from the tree, Chris appeared on the trail. He had heard the shot from his stand a quarter mile distant and came to investigate, so I told him about the encounter.
We couldn't see much at the bait station in the descending darkness, so we returned to Jim's cabin to organize a party to find the bear at first light. Excited, we were confident of locating the animal within a few yards of the stand.
Early next morning found five of us scanning the ground for any sign of blood or any indication of where the bear had gone. There was no sign to be seen except stirred leaves where the bear had moved through trees below the stand, but tracks were soon lost on a bog. We couldn't find a drop of blood anywhere!
"G'wan, you never touched a hair on him," Jim taunted, "the wind was blowing too hard!" I was still convinced by the animal's reaction that I had hit it, but reluctantly, after two hours, we gave up the search. It was a disheartening and very disappointing conclusion to the adventure ... but it was to have a surprise ending, much later than we would have imagined.
In May, 1987, a non-resident hunter at Jim Hefford's lodge shot a black bear at the same stand where I had lived this adventure the previous fall. The bear was a large male, and was quite thin after emerging from den all winter, but had a marvelous shiny black coat and a record skull measurement. Local taxidermist Rex Jennings and I met the outfitter and his hunter at the stand and helped move the bear into Rex's small pickup. When we examined the carcass on site, we found an old bullet wound with the entry hole barely skimmed over, the exit hole still open and seemingly infected. Rex and I recovered the animal and brought it to Hughes Brook where Rex has his shop, and skinned it at the hunter's request to make a rug.
When the body cavity was opened, the odor of the bear left little doubt as to its sickness. It was heavily bloodshot in the left shoulder where the bullet had entered, and the infection had spread to the other side of its body as well. Small shards of lead and brass were found near the hole. This was one sick bear inside, but a splendid specimen outside. In our opinions, the bear had been shot the previous fall, the bullet had entered at a downward angle and just missed the shoulder bone and vital areas, passing along the ribs in the meaty part of the shoulder inside the leg. Layers of heavy fat would have lined the skin that fall, and the wound would have probably sealed and left little or no blood trail.
We figured the bear, probably severely debilitated by the wound, would have laid low and perhaps one to den early as a natural body defense against the infection. But it was too much of a coincidence to be anything but the same bear I had shot on that dark September evening from a swaying perch in the midst of a howling windstorm. We think it was the very same animal, and this is one case where truth is much stranger than fiction.
OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES WHEN IT COMES TO LITTER
(The environmental damage that we inflict upon ourselves without thinking is happening daily - through carelessly littering. Nothing irks me more than to find a beautiful lake or river bank strewn with rusting tin cans, beer bottles and garbage, but it is still happening. This is a problem our generation has let happen.)
A large maroon Chrysler product of the late '70s genre, its four doors spotted by patches of polybond and primer, sped by me in the outside lane, black smoke spiraling from its exhaust pipe, going at least twice the legal limit in the reduced speed zone.
From the vehicle's open windows came the sounds of loud rock music. A group of young adults were laughing and carrying on in the speeding car, and one male adolescent turned, laughing, and made an obscene gesture from the back window as it swerved in front of me. "Foolish kids," I thought.
As the car approached the crest of a small rise some 50 yards further, a box of garbage flew from the passenger window, spreading itself along the roadside ditch. The familiar spectacles and goatee on the face of Colonel Sanders stared back at me from the cardboard box as I passed the mess of discarded chicken bones, napkins and styrofoam containers.
Anger grew in me as I coaxed the little four-cylinder engine in my car to catch these defilers of the environment, hoping to at least record a licence number, but it only served to frustrate me further. As I crept closer, another box flew from the car, followed by several soft drink bottles and a couple of aluminum cans. Then the car's driver punched the pedal to the metal and shot away from me, rapidly increasing the distance between us. As I came over the crest of a far hill I could see it away off in the distance, rounding a bend to finally disappear from sight. I eased off the accelerator, anger slowly dissipating.
In the process of cooling down from my frustration, I began to scrutinize the roadsides and ditches, and was absolutely amazed by the garbage which had been discarded by vehicles traversing that section of road. Soft drink bottles, old cartons from various take-out food franchises, and aluminum cans led the list, and there was no doubt about the #1 Cola in the Province!
But there were even stranger items left by thoughtless and uncaring individuals. Pantyhose, old washing machine parts, a bag of Christmas tinsel, a "Please Don't Litter" bag of gum and candy wrappers, a small plastic Christmas tree, and assorted hard liquor bottles were also encountered in a short stretch of ditch.
My eyes were certainly opened by the amount and variety of litter which had been casually tossed aside; but even more disgusting was knowing that this entire section of Bay of Islands highway had been totally cleaned up only the previous spring as part of a local "make-work" beautification program! This stuff had accumulated in only a matter of months. At the rate it was going, the ditches would have been filled level in a few years if not for the annual cleanup to keep ahead of the game.
This experience took place on a stretch of road near Corner Brook, but it could just as easily have been anywhere in the Province. Newfoundlanders are our own worst enemies when it comes to littering the habitat, and the evidence may be seen along just about any road or indeed any location where groups of more than two people may gather.
I was appalled on a recent island motor trip by the numbers of discarded soft drink bottles between Deer Lake and South Brook. In most cases, the bottles were concentrated in "pull-off" areas where vehicles had obviously stopped to lunch up when loading or unloading snowmobiles, but they were also found in great numbers all along the road. The glint of sunlight off broken glass and bottles was obvious as far as the eye could see.
It will now take a massive effort to tidy up this section of the TCH, normally one of the most scenic and beautiful on the island, but how much simpler would it have been if everyone had just taken that bottle back home with him and tossed it into the regular garbage container?
As bad as this is, it becomes even worse "back in the country", where the once-pristine environment is rapidly becoming a massive garbage dump; a good example is a salmon pool or favorite trouting pond, and one which comes to mind is Mistaken Point on the Upper Humber River below Big Falls. It takes a half hour or more to walk the well-worn trail to this remote pool, and most anglers take a lunch along with them. Unfortunately, few bring the garbage back. Pools are easy to locate on this stretch of river...one has only to look for the litter, old tins and charred wood along the banks to know where people have stopped to "lunch up".
If not for a few concerned people the mess would be worse. For the past several years, the brothers Rod and Don Stowe of Pasadena, who operate an outfitting business nearby, have voluntarily dragged out full garbage bags of discarded junk from Mistaken Point in an effort to keep the river tidy. But even their efforts cannot keep up with the daily accumulation which is deposited by uncaring anglers who call themselves "outdoorsmen".
The same situation is true of any pond or lake or river accessible by people...at the end of the path or somewhere along the shore you're sure to find a pile of garbage.
The littering situation has reached staggering proportions in some places, and it will take more than declaring an annual "Environment Week" to bring it under control. The roadside signs which threaten fines of up to $2,000. for littering are ludicrous because they aren't being enforced, and in many cases the litter is being left near and even on the signs as a taunt.
The solution is not simple. It isn't easy to change the ways of a generation, and as teens see their parents and peers doing it, they will also form lifetime habits that continue the degredation of habitat. Perhaps enforcement of littering fines may have some small effect, and education in the schools may help change some minds, but we as outdoorsmen and women can set an example to our fellow humans. Take a small plastic grocery bag along on your next trip, and carry your garbage back out with you. Keep a couple in the glove compartment of your car or truck, and use them to carry the garbage back home rather than toss it from the window.
If you are in the country for an extended stay, bury your garbage in an area off the beaten track where it won't blot the beauty of the environment. When "boiling up", put out the fire and scatter the ashes, and make sure you leave the area the same way you found it.
Perhaps, by concentrating our efforts, we can help to undo some of the damage left as a legacy by previous generations who didn't care. Perhaps by example and deed we can help to change the minds and attitudes of those we encounter today who still don't care or understand the damage they are doing.
And just perhaps, by pointing out the problems to our Newfoundlanders of tomorrow, we can avert a repeat of the pollution to our habitat which we now experience. Let's hope so.
FISHING LABRADOR'S FAMED SANDHILL RIVER
(This was one of the most memorable fishing trips I've ever experienced. Some of it related to the company of the FISH 'N CANADA film crew, some for the friendships that were cemented furing this brief time, and some of it because of the angling itself. Bill Bennett is one of the real Labrador outfitting pioneers and quite a character in his own right ... and he sure knows how to run a quality fishing camp!)
"Wat'cha got on 'dere, my son?" the thick Gander Bay accent of Russ Smith rose above the roar of nearby rapids.
It was mid-July of 1987 in Labrador, the waters on the riverwere just about perfect, and a run of Atlantic salmon was on.
Russ was Bill Bennett's longtime guide at the Sandhill River Lodge, located about two miles further upstream, and had stopped by at Bill's request to see how we were settling in.
Russ had just made his way by riverboat from a site downstream to our location on a lower island near our temporary home, Bill's private cabin. We had arrived earlier that afternoon by float-equipped aircraft from Goose Bay, and after stowing our gear had succumbed to the lure of the waters flowing on both sides of our cabin. The three of us were fishing a long run at one end of the island and I had just released a grilse taken on a Cosseboom when Russ showed up.
One of my companions, Randy Jennings, had just spent a good half hour tying in a new leader material and preparing his fly fishing tackle, and now watched, intrigued, as Russ pulled the line into his fingers and examined the long leader and fly pattern.
"Nope, no good," Russ muttered, clipping off about half of the tapered nine-foot leader. "Too long." I watched the change of expression on Randy's face as his jaw slackened.
A fly tin suddenly appeared from an inner pocket, and Russ produced a scraggly black fly with a blue throat and a patch of stiff moose hair for a wing. "A Blue Charm'll work," Russ winked.
He deftly tied the fly in place, then took two turns of leader in half-hitches behind the head. The black fly now protruded awkwardly off the end of the short, stiffened leader, resembling a broken neck in a hangman's noose.
"Have to use 'er with a hitch, n' ya don't need much line if ya wants to catch a salmon here," Russ offered in explanation. "C'mon, now, there's usually a fish lyin' by that rock."
He pulled about ten feet of line off the reel and extended Randy's rod out toward the river. The fly on the business end danced on the water's surface, a wide "vee" flowing behind it, and we watched in disbelief as it disappeared in a sudden swirl on the second pass.
" 'Ere, bye, have some fun!" Russ roared over an ear to ear grin as he passed the rod back to a wide-eyed Randy. Out in the rapids a silver missile burst from the waters, stripping line from Randy's singing reel as it bid for freedom from the bite of the barb. So it was that my mainland companion was introduced to the technique of hitched-fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on Labrador's remote Sandhill River.
Randy and I were part of a four-man team which had ventured to Labrador as Bill Bennett's guests to film a television segment for the FISH 'N CANADA show. Rounding out our party were Todd Munro, the show's cameraman and technician; and Alf Walker, a representative for Normark Canada, an experienced salmon angler, and a technician in his own right with a flyrod.
Seen over the CBC network and on many cable television channels, the show's pro staff anglers explore and film many parts of Canada where a variety of sport fishing experiences are available - from pickerel in Northern Ontario to huge lake trout of the Northwest Territories. Our goal was two-fold...to capture on film some of the fabulous Labrador angling for Atlantic salmon at this remote coastal river, and at the same time to help Bill Bennett promote his lodges to probable clients in the television audience.
As it turned out, there was no problem to catch salmon on the Sandhill once we adopted the hitching technique, and the footage turned out to be all action for Todd's big camera.
The Sandhill River flows some 40 miles from the foothills of the Mealy Mountains in eastern Labrador, fed by icy snowmelt which peaks in mid-June and keeps the waters chilly throughout the summer. It empties into the Atlantic Ocean on the Labrador coast near Sandwich Bay, to the south of the major coastal fishing community of Cartwright. The water is crystal clear and unpolluted, and it was on the lower stretches just in from the salt water where Bill decided to place his camps. Bennett worked on the premise that salmon fresh from the sea are lively to hook on a flyrod, and accept a fly more readily than fish which have been in the fresh water for a number of weeks.
A study undertaken by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans during the 1970s disclosed a great deal of biological information about the river, data which identified it as one of eastern Canada's most prolific waterways for Atlantic salmon and helped influence Bill's decision to build outfitter's lodges there.
Information gathered at a counting fence over several seasons revealed that about 5,000 salmon annually pass up the river on spawning migrations, a significant number attributed inpart to the lack of pressure from both commercial and sportfishermen on this isolated section of the coast. Biologists also found that a fairly high percentage of the salmon were multi sea-winter fish of more than 6 pounds, the weight normally associated with a grilse (a salmon which has been at sea only one season before returning to spawn). This meant Bill could offer both quality and quantity to his sport fishing guests.
Over the next four days until our departure we learned a great deal about the Sandhill River. The lower reaches below the cabin were very productive for both our party and other anglers who were guests at Bill's salmon lodge above us.
A series of rocky shelves extended across the river and created holding pools, or places where the salmon would hesitate momentarily on their upstream travel. The areas adjacent to our island were also excellent pools, especially edges of the rapids and near rocks which now protruded from the river.
It didn't seem to matter at what time of the day we fished, the salmon would be there, rising madly for the bubbly wake which followed our "hitched" flies across the river.
The technique was amazingly simple...cast the fly into the river at about a 45-degree angle downstream, keep the line taut, and cause the fly to swim on top of the surface and leave a "vee" wake behind it. It sometimes meant stripping the line rapidly to make the fly rise to the top, and sometimes mending line slowly to maintain the swimming action caused by the half-hitches behind the fly's head.
The hitch had originally been promoted and publicized by Lee Wulff, the pioneer outfitter who operated fishing camps along the Great Northern Peninsula's Portland Creek, and who was also the author of several angling books and producer of many entertaining films about salmon angling during the l940s and 50s. Wulff had dubbed it the "Portland Creek Hitch" after local anglers who fished a short line and skittered the fly along the surface.
Some said the hitch developed because the old hooks had a "gut loop" eye at the head in the traditional British style for attaching the fly to the leader, and once the loop wore or broke the flies were still used by locals by tying the leader around the fly's head in a sheepshank knot. But regardless of its roots, and as awkward as it sounded, the hitch's surface action worked on the Sandhill River!
Randy Jennngs was admittedly not the most adept or experienced fly fisherman in the world, but was eager to learn and experiment. A FISH 'N CANADA pro-staffer, Randy had more experience with spinning and casting rods, and was highly proficient in catching the central Canada species of salmon which had been introduced into the Great Lakes from the west decades ago. Fishing for these battling wild Atlantic salmon on a fly rod was a new adventure!
Alf Walker was the traditionalist in the group, steadfastly holding to the more standard patterns and proven techniques gained from fishing rivers all over the world.
It was well into the second day before he succumbed to the obvious and began "hitching" his flies on a short leader and using the esthetically less beautiful but more efficient moose hair-winged flies preferred by the Newfoundland guides. Both Randy and I good-naturedly kept on his case until he hooked into his first salmon.
Always the pessimist, I usually carry a small selection of fly tying equipment with me...just in case I need to tie a fly which is working at the time but is not in my tin. During the four days it got a real workout, especially the dyed blue hackles and other materials used in building a Blue Charm.
Randy was an apt student, and under my tutelage soon caught onto the technique for making these simple flies. His creations left plenty to be desired in appearance, but much to the chagrin of Alf and myself they were readily accepted by the salmon if they were fished with the "hitch".
"There's no accounting for the taste of these fish," I laughingly shouted over to Alf as Randy hooked into the second grilse of the day on our third morning out. He could cast across, down, or even upstream with the most ragged looking flies, and by keeping them moving he would induce rise after rise. It was almost too easy!
Bill Bennett had joined us by now, and was being not only a congenial host but also our guide for the remainder of our stay. An accident to one of the regular guides had resulted in a broken limb, and Bill had volunteered to "fill in" for his incapacitated employee who had been slated to guide us.
A veteran bush pilot and owner of a provincial charter flying service called Gander Aviation, Bill is almost a legend in Labrador. His shock of snow white hair, ruddy complexion and piercing blue eyes are familiar sights in most Labrador communities where Bill has spent time during the past two decades, and his sometimes gruff, no-nonsense approach to doing business has earned grudging respect from those who know him.
His Sandhill River Lodge began operation in the late 1970s, and soon proved to be one of Labrador's most prolific places to fish for Atlantic salmon. A new lodge was also constructed and began operating in 1987 at the outlet of Wulff Lake, which feeds into the Sandhill River about seven miles or so up river from the sea, providing ready access to mid and upper reaches of the Lower Sandhill which were previously too hard to reach for most guests. At the new camp it was simply a matter of walking out the door and fishing the outlet pool!
Bill proved to be an amicable companion when he finally got to relax a little with us for a few days, escaping from the hectic flying and camp operating schedule which is jammed into the short Labrador summer. His knowledge of the river and feeder streams had us exploring new areas in the final hours, and a quick trip up and down the Sandhill on the last morning in a Beaver float plane added to Todd's enjoyment. With the rear door removed to help accommodate Todd's camerawork, it provided a breezy but low-altitude look at the region which the TV audience could enjoy.
Our success during the four days was difficult to fathom, even in retrospect. We caught and released the daily limit of four fish easily, and lost several which broke off or were not well hooked. At times it seemed that every cast brought a fish off the bottom for a look at the fly, and kept the adrenalin pumping for our trio of erstwhile anglers.
Nearly all of our salmon were voluntarily released after photo sessions, although we saved a few for a tasty late dinner on one particularly pleasant summer evening, and donated one to Todd to prepare once he returned to the hectic pace of Toronto living.
We also found that the majority of this particular run consisted of grilse of about four to six pounds. There were a few larger fish mixed among them, and they presented a major challenge once their lies were located. Even the grilse were savage fighters on our light fly tackle as they emerged from the nearby sea, but the larger fish were simply unmanageable!
Randy struck into a fish exceeding 12 pounds on a pool near the cabin but lost it after a few minutes, and Alf also struck into a very nice salmon which soon escaped the tiny No. 10 and 12 flies we were using.
On the final evening I located a good fish which was certainly larger than a grilse, and passed a fly over it for the better part of an hour. It would rise only when I changed positions and presented the fly at a different angle, or varied the speed of retrieve. The fish expressed interest but something was not quite right.
In desperation I crossed the river and tried passing the fly over it from the other side. It took all the backbone of my Fenwick World Class to get the line out there, but on the very first pass I hooked into the lunker. Experience told me it was in the 15 pound range or larger, but like my two companions my fight was to be short-lived. One reel-screaming run peeled off a quick 50 yards of backing before the fish leaped, then crashed back into the river. On the re-entry my fly was shaken from its tenuous hold, and I was left with a slack line and sweaty palms.
For Alf Walker, Randy Jennings, Todd Munro and myself, the Sandhill River would always provide memories of some of North America's finest Atlantic salmon angling on a light fly rod, and would bring chuckles as we recalled some of the highpoints of the trip.
Who could forget the rolling Newfoundland accent of guide Russ Smith, or the first flies which Randy proudly exhibited after a half hour alone at the fly vise, or the good-natured ribbing endured by Alf as he refused to capitulate to the "hitched" Blue Charms? We also would not soon forget the thrill of battle as fish after fish took the small black flies, leaping and thrashing under the pressure of our flyrods, or the twinkling amusement in Bill's eyes as he flew a queasy Todd up and down the Sandhill River's length.
Bill had promised us super fishing and he had certainly delivered the goods. The Sandhill River is indeed one of Labrador's most prolific Atlantic salmon streams, and if a small Blue Charm with a hitch works as well in the future as it did during the summer of 1987 for our crew, it will provide superb angling for many future generations to enjoy.
For the ultimate in Atlantic salmon angling, plan a trip to Labrador and experience the Sandhill River firsthand. Bring a load of Blue Charms and plenty of stiff leaders...and you won't be disappointed!
For further information on fishing the Sandhill River, contact Gander Aviation, c/o Bill Bennett, P. O. Box 250, Gander, Nfld., A1V 1W6.
A FORMULA TO BEAT LABRADOR BLACK FLIES
(On several of my trips into Labrador for caribou, I've had ample opportunity to put insect repellant, or what we refer to as "fly dope", to the test. In the middle of this wild land is no place to be without adequate protection from these bloodthirsty bugs, and I was to learn that a combination of ladies bath oil and a standard product wtih a high ratio of DEET did wonders for my sanity.)
"Damn, how in the world do they ever find you?" I asked myself as a thousand or so mosquitos attempted to penetrate the thin barrier of clothing and insect repellant to remove a little of my precious blood supply. A cloud of them surrounded my body, from tip of toes to the camo wool cap pulled tightly around my head.
The constant buzzing around my ears and head was enough to drive a normal person insane - but I was pursuing the sport of bowhunting, hardly classified as normal; so I held still in the quiet morning air and watched for movements of big game, fearful that the buzzing of all those mosquitos would probably reveal my position to the sensitive ears of an approaching caribou.
Never before had I been so thankful for the thin application of Muskol which held these hungry and noisy pests at bay. If ever there was an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of an insect repellant, this had to be it!
In this particular instance I was standing near the edge of an open bog in northwestern Labrador just north of Schefferville, Quebec, in an area where our small hunting party had spotted a huge trophy caribou stag the evening before.
This was late August, the weather was unseasonably hot, and the insects were having a heyday with anything with a blood supply .. including caribou or humans. It was this plague of thousands of parasitic insects and pests which helped provoke the caribou to move to higher ground for relief ... and here I was, right in the middle of a lowland bog teeming with them.
The previous night it had been blackflies, the scourge of the north, which had harrassed our trio to the point of running for cover as we set up camp on a small island. (Relief was found downwind of an open fire smothered by the smoke of burning alder leaves). For two days we had scoured the border of Labrador and Quebec by light aircraft in search of the caribou herd, but could find nothing except beaten trails where huge numbers had recently passed.
Our host, Ashuanipi Hunting and Fishing, Ltd. of Labrador City, was trying its best; but it seemed our arrival had just missed one huge herd of 50,000 by a few days and was too early for the next migration. We had arrived "in between", but were now searching for the stragglers, the huge bulls which follow the herd at their leisure and dawdle here and there along the way.
It was one of these trophy stags, spotted from the air, which had enticed us to try a hunt on an island of some 10 square miles in the middle of nowhere. While one bull was hardly a herd, it was better than nothing, but I wondered at our wisdom as the incessant buzzing of hungry mosquitos grew ever closer.
What constitutes an effective insect repellant, and how long can a liberal application last in summer's heat? While standing relatively motionless in the middle of Labrador surrounded by clouds of "flies", one has ample opportunity to reflect on this matter, and I did.
The most effective insect repelling ingredient known to date is DEET, short for Diethyl Toluamide, and the strength of most modern insect repellants is measured by the percentage of DEET in its formula. That morning I had borrowed a bottle of "Muskol" from guide Jim Muise to apply liberally before I left, and knew its formula contained 95% DEET.
During the summer I had used other brand names such as "Repex" and "Deep Woods Off!", both with 95% DEET in their formulas, and both were effective for periods of from one to three hours before wearing off.
I had also acquired a small container of "Ben's 100", with 100% DEET in its formula, and found its added strength to be even more effective for mosquitos, sandflies, midges, stouts, and blackflies. While the container claims "Up to 10 hours of protection", it couldn't stand up that long to the onslaught of Labrador's profuse biting insects, especially the persistent blackflies. But it was a little better than the others I had tried.
What DID work on blackflies was a liberal application of Avon "Skin So Soft", a women's bath oil which is usually mixed one capful to a tub of water for moisturizing and softening skin of the fairer sex. But for Labrador blackflies you use it straight from the bottle, and they stay clear for about an hour or so before another dousing is required. Exactly why this happens and the effective ingredient is a mystery.
What I found MOST effective while fishing several Labrador rivers during the summer was a mixture of Ben's 100 and Skin So Soft in the palm of the hand and applied liberally to all exposed surfaces.
The two seem to complement each other - while the Ben's 100 DEET takes care of all the other bugs, it also adds power to the Skin So Soft and makes it more effective than using it alone straight from the bottle. Not only that, but you smell pretty good in the bargain.
One problem with these high potency insect repellants is their corrosive effect on plastics, especially fly lines, lures, fishing boxes, monofilament lines, or on painted surfaces. It requires a careful washing of the palms of the hands or exposed skin areas which may come into contact with plastic or painted surfaces. I can recall leaving fingerprints in the plastic steering wheel of my old truck, and the virtual melting of my flyline's surface into a sticky mess. This effect seems to be lessened with the Ben's/Avon combination, however, and after a summer's use my flyline is still intact.
One also has to be careful not to let the repellent touch eyes or sensitive skin areas. Instructions are clear on every container, including remedies in case irritation develops.
But what of the flies in the bogs of Labrador? By 10 a.m. the sun had risen higher, and the mosquitos had decreased to about 800 or so. The hands in my pockets were being bitten through the cloth, and my shoulders, where the fabric was tight against my skin, were nothing but lumps. About 10:45, as the heat increased, a definite decrease in mosquito populations was evident, and a slight breeze helped relieve the buzzing.
It was about 11 a.m. that a few mosquitos broke through the barrier and began attacking exposed skin areas, and pain of bites around my eyebrows and hairline heralded the arrival of about 2,000 blackflies. With my Skin So Soft and Ben's 100 lying back at camp, this was no place for me! Caribou or no caribou, I beat a hasty retreat, temples already swelling from the several blackfly nips.
The effective time for the Muskol with 95% DEET had been about 2 hours and 20 minutes, not bad considering that some of it had been sweated off in the heat - and that I had been virtually swamped by insects since standing on the bog. Other than the irritation factor, I had been protected fairly well; but I certainly could feel pity for the caribou and other warm-blooded creatures of Labrador which had to endure the constant barrage of insects as they lived their existence in this wilderness.
It takes a summer of outdoor activity in Newfoundland and Labrador to really appreciate the miracles of modern science which developed DEET and Skin So Soft. The next time I hear "Avon calling!" I'll certainly be replenishing my supply.
(When it was first introduced, the concept of catching and then letting a fish go was not popular ... in fact, even today there is an element of recreational fisherman who refuses to release a large fish as required by law. But as an increasing awareness of the fragility of our limited resources develops, even these diehards must agree that conservation and proper management is the only hope for survival of salmon and trout stocks).
"I don't understand about this catch-and-release business," the female reporter commented to me. "It must be some kind of `man' thing. Why go fishing at all if you're going to let it go?"
Careful not to sound too macho or chauvinistic, I replied. "You see, this is sport fishing, and you don't have to kill the fish to prove that you have vanquished it. To have it in your hands and then release it to live is enough. And it isn't by any means limited to men."
"Well its beyond me why you even bother if you plan to let them all go. Most stupid thing I've ever heard."
She walked away before I could reply. It was probably just as well, for I knew it would be an impossible task to convince her of the value of conservation.
We had been discussing the introduction by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans a few years back requiring the release of salmon over 63 centimetres in length by anglers as a conservation measure to help preserve the genetic strains of large salmon. It was no secret that most Newfoundland rivers were becoming grilse rivers, grilse being small salmon generally less than 63 centimetres in length and under 6 pounds which spend only one winter at sea before returning to spawn.
The larger fish were succumbing to the nets of commercial fishermen while primarily the runts were able to avoid the mesh and make it to the rivers to spawn.
Biologists were concerned about the declines of large fish, fearing that if only the smaller breeders made it back to spawn we could end up with nothing but grilse.
Manipulations were made to delay the opening dates of commercial efforts to allow the escapement of large, early run salmon to reach rivers, and similar restraints were placed on sportfishermen ... once in the river, they had to be given the chance to reach headwaters and spawn new generations.
Since a salmon fly is non-discriminating and will entice a 30 pounder as well as a grilse, it was up to the sport fisherman to aid the process by letting the bigger fish escape...thus the catch-and-release policy.
There was initial resistance to the regulation, some of it bordering on the ridiculous. Men who had fished for years got into a snit and gave it up altogether because they couldn't kill the big fish they caught, others threatened to challenge the policy in the high courts as an infringement on their basic rights and freedoms, still others became surly and decided they wouldn't abide by the rules no matter what, and some went so far as to sell all of their tackle and take up gardening and golf.
Even those who wanted to abide by the ruling had problems because few knew the proper techniques for safely releasing a salmon. The resistance fighters seized the opportunity, their tact being to prove it wouldn't work by kicking the fish up onto rocks, grabbing it by the gills to remove the fly hook, wrestling it into submission, then throwing the beaten hulk back into the stream.
As the poor fish floated belly-up in a struggle to regain its strength, the cry sounded...."Some damned good it was to release that fish...its goin' to die anyway!"
But that was a few years ago, and except for the diehards who still feel they have to kill everything they hook, the practice of catch-and-release has gained wider acceptance. Most anglers now know the procedures for safely releasing a fish, and there is a realization that the technique has been going on for many years with success in other parts of the world. In fact, catch-and-release is probably the saviour of the recreational trout fishery in the United States.
Outfitters in Labrador have for many years insisted that their guests retain only one or possibly two fish for their week of angling, depending on the camp, with all others to be released. That is the only reason there is still world-class brook trout angling in such remote lakes as the Minipi and Upper Eagle River systems, where brookies of eight to 10 pounds may still be caught by patient anglers.
Conservation of the resource is the only reason this quality sport fishery has survived, and guests willingly accept this restriction because in doing so they are assured that next year, in a decade or in 50 years the big brookies will still be there for them or their offspring to enjoy catching - and releasing.
The mentality of killing everything and tossing it into the deepfreeze is slowly being replaced by killing only what you really require to eat. With the price of everything today, it is much cheaper to go to the local fish plant and buy your salmon rather than spend a weekend driving hundreds of miles, camping out, buying waders and flyrods and flies and all the other paraphernalia, and possibly coming back empty-handed. Besides, there is a certain inner satisfaction in having a live thing in your hands and making a rational decision to let it go back to its habitat to live.
If you need a memory, take a photograph...you can lift the fish from the water long enough to do that without causing major harm. And it is all the evidence required to prove you have the skill to catch it...and the compassion to let it live.
WHERE ARE ALL THE TROUT?
(Over the past twenty years I've seen a big difference in the quantity and quality of trout which are now available to anglers. You once could go to any accessible pond or brook and catch a feed of these delicious pan fish, but it is becoming rarer all the time. Some of it relates to habitat degredation, some to accessability, but most of it to over fishing. This article explores how to cope with the depleting trout resource).
There has been a growing concern (and rightly so) among some conservation groups and individual sportsmen about the depletion of trout stocks across the province, particularly in some of the once remote ponds and lakes which have become more accessible in recent years through woods roads, ATVs, snowmobiles and other means.
You can go into just about any pond adjacent to a community and find that trout stocks, if not close to being cleaned out altogether, are so scarce and small that they are hardly worth wetting a line.
Even worse are the ponds "back in the country" where there used to be big trout that you had to really work for. It took a lot of effort to reach those watersheds, at times hiking or canoeing for hours, and perhaps tenting overnight and making a real trip of it.
In some cases you can now drive the family sedan to the same lakeshore, or at the very worst you may have to haul the snowmobile or ATV out of the old pickup and ride for a half hour to reach a spot which was once a day's hard hike. The country is rapidly shrinking.
What was an annual tradition of family trouting on the long Victoria Day weekend may become a forgotten memory, and those once enjoyable summer days wading the shores of an inland pond, casting to the ring of a rise, may result in nothing more than fly bites.
Trout stocks are depleting at a rate at least relative to the rise in accessability. The problem appears to be two fold.
First, it is easier to reach those hidden remote ponds and lakes which have traditionally been unmolested, so more people are now able to fish in them. Nothing wrong in that, except that trout were able to stand the pressure and repopulate when they were taken in moderation by a few anglers.
After all, how many trout could one or two persons catch and carry out in a day's hike? But now that hordes of people can access the same ponds, the pressure has increased a hundred or more times. A quick trip on a snowmobile puts you miles back into the country, and a four-runner ATV or balloon-tired vehicle can cross just about any piece of terrain with ease. That it problem one.
The second problem is bag limits. It is bad enough if everyone sticks to the daily limit of 24 trout plus one fish, or 10 pounds plus one fish, whichever is the greater. Put 50 people on a pond over a weekend each taking 25 small trout a day (you are allowed to have two days catch in possession) and it adds up to 50 trout each, or 2,500 fish over a weekend. Add it up over the course of a summer, say 8 weekends, and it comes to 20,000 fish! And you wonder why the trout disappear!
But don't stop there. How many people quit at a daily limit? I had a brief conversation last summer with a fellow traveling back to the island from visiting his son in western Labrador, and he was explaining how great the fishing was there compared to the ponds around his home. His revelation was typical of attitudes which have brought our trout populations to critical levels.
"Yes, all the ponds around home are just about cleaned out," he told me. "You used to be able to catch some nice fish there at one time, but no more. And, you know, it's a bit like that around Lab City now, too. But my son and his buddy found a great lake while I was down to visit, and they brought out over 100 trout; the smallest was about 2 pounds and the biggest was about 5 pounds. They're going back in next weekend and take out some more before someone else finds it. Boy, that's some good fishing."
"Yes, it is good fishing, but why take out more?" I asked him, anger in my voice. "How many trout can one or two persons consume over the course of a year? Wouldn't it make more sense to take a few, and release the rest? Good Lord, just look at what happened to the ponds around your own home. What ever happened to the belief that you only take out of the wilderness what you need to eat, and leave the rest?" Our conversation reached an abrupt conclusion.
I've heard reports of tourists with their camper trucks who frequent ponds on the Northern Peninsula, the Millertown area, and more recently the Cat Arm Reservoir each summer and leave the province with cooler chests full of trout.
But these incidents are isolated and few compared to the hundreds of residents who do the same or worse. Not only does it take place on the island. In Labrador the Smallwood Reservoir is being raped by residents who take barrels of lake trout from the Lobstick Dam annually. It appears all over the province that the mindset is exploiting the freshwater trout stocks to near extinction by taking what you can, while you can, before someone else does.
So what can be done to stop it? There are many possible scenarios ... later season opening dates which will help curtail the winter icefishing pressure; a reduction in the bag limit to a dozen a day; better enforcement of the law; stiffer penalties for infractions; restricting some sensitive areas to "flyfishing only"; control of access to wilderness areas; preservation of some depleted ponds by a closure or a "catch and release" policy to allow stock recovery; and a program of public education to make our younger generation aware of the problems are some suggestions. Maybe all are needed.
Some of these programs will cost money - they always do. And who pays to hire the extra enforcement people, to administer the programs, to develop and implement public education in school systems? Government, most likely, will be asked to absorb the costs. But what about the user, the sport fisherman who is taking these stocks out and putting nothing back? Shouldn't he be asked to pay something?
Maybe it is time we took a hard step and recognized that our right to fish and enjoy the resource is worth a few bucks. It wouldn't take much - a resident fishing licence could be the answer; otherwise every citizen, regardless of whether or not he fishes, will be forced to shoulder the cost through taxes.
If you go rabbit catching or hunt partridge it costs you to do so. Perhaps the time has arrived for a $5.00 "user pay" resident fishing licence with the revenues channeled back into rebuilding the recreational trout fishery.
It may sound like I'm exaggerating the truth, but this generation had better do something, and do it quickly, or we'll be the ones forced to explain to our children and grandchildren why we let it happen. I can just see it now...a white-haired man sitting in a rocking chair, a small boy nestled in his lap, leafing through the pages of an old family photo album.
"What's that picture there, gramps?" the innocent little eyes will implore as they glance up at the lined and weathered face. "What are those people doing?"
"Well....hummpphh....that's what it was like 25 years ago when we used to go trouting. That big long stick, that's what we used as a fishing rod; and that's what we called a skivver that your uncle was holding; and, well, those things hanging off it were trout," he answers.
"Why can't we go trouting, gramps?"
"Well, my boy, you see ... hummpphhh ... we sort of took too many of those little fishes out of the ponds and brooks, and soon there weren't any more left. It was ... well ...too late."
A concerned look appears on the tiny face, a tear glistening in the wide eyes. "But why did you take so many, gramps? How come you didn't save any for me?"
The old man looks far away to the distance, a sudden wetness in his own eyes. "I don't know, my son, I really don't know."
I wouldn't want to be the old fellow in the rocker. To me, it is worth a $5.00 bill once a year for the privilege of fishing in this province, especially if the proceeds will help stem the problem of trout stock depletion. If you feel the same, why not approach your local conservation group, rod and gun club, or others concerned about the resource. Write your MHAs and let them know that you care. Do it now ... while there's still a chance to save something for upcoming generations to enjoy.
HOW TO PRACTICE CATCHING BIG SALMON!
(This is a true story about my friend George Taylor, an extraordinary angler and outdoorsman who teaches outdoor recreation in the city of Halifax. Anyone who has spent any amount of time salmon angling can relate to this humorous yarn which is sure to encourage everyone to run out and buy a big kitenext spring ... oh yeah, SURE it is!)
We were standing around debating salmon angling a few years ago (in 1985), appropriately enough during the Atlantic Salmon Federation's first "Conclave" in Corner Brook. Thanks to a stroke of luck I had run into old friend whom I had enjoyed guiding in pursuit of Atlantic salmon over a summer weekend several years previous at a remote lake and river in western Newfoundland.
George Taylor is an outdoor specialist with the city of Halifax or Dartmouth, I forget which, and a very respectable fellow to have around in the outdoors, especially if trying to survive in the wilderness.
George was the first fellow I had observed tying a fly without a vise, holding the hook in his fingers and applying materials as he worked along, tying it together with a series of half-hitches. I recall that it was a Black Bear-Green Butt pattern, and he actually went out and caught a grilse on it. If I remember further, it held together and was in good shape despite my bet that it would fall apart after two casts.
George is a real treasure of information; also a sometime guitar picker, a singer of bawdy songs, and a pretty damned good angler.
The conversation was moving along fairly well, recalling some good times and telling the usual "true" stories with slight embellishments in the weight and length categories, when somehow we got onto the subject of big fish, and more specifically big salmon and the lack thereof in several of our Atlantic Canada rivers. We were agreed that due to the predominance of grilse in the majority of streams, there were few opportunities to practice in playing and landing large salmon.
Even the most ardent anglers probably hook one every couple of years at best, and would undoubtedly have trouble handling it because of a lack of experience with such specimens.
Besides, which George also agreed to, many anglers had now geared their equipment to small fish, and were using extremely light tackle and leaders more suitable to grilse or even trout angling.
All the time that George and I were conversing about this very ponderous problem, the third member of our party, his best friend (and my recent acquaintance) Dave Framm of Halifax, was quietly maintaining a stern and knowledgeable expression, nodding at suitable intervals as the discussion progressed.
Anyway, we began sullying forth our proposed solutions for the anglers who want to practice on big fish without actually catching one, and proposing ways to do it which didn't seem too ridiculous. What, after all, could closely simulate the tearing rushes, the long powerful runs, reversals in direction, and aerial actions of a salmon trying to escape the bite of the hook in a wild river?
I recalled a few times on the Lower Humber River when I had snagged one of the floating pulp chunks bobbing along in the current, running along the bank trying to save my fly, but it didn't even come close.
Dave grunted knowingly, so I figured he had caught a chunk or two in his day. I also recalled a friend of mine named Fred who had mistakenly hooked into a very large and energetic beaver, which had given him quite a tussle and a few wild runs up and down a brook; but if memory serves me, the beaver had enough of this foolishness after several minutes and turned on Fred, who savagely cranked on his reel to recover line before realizing that the beaver had undoubtedly passed the irritation threshold and was in pursuit of his tormentor...namely him!
After beating a hasty retreat into a copse of fir trees, my friend broke off leader and several feet of line, wisdom being the better part of valor. George and I agreed it was highly unlikely that any respectable salmon would turn on the angler in such a savage manner, and discounted rodent hooking as a good simulation. Dave again nodded knowingly.
We also explored the possibility of hooking some other denizen of the deep which might mimic the actions of a battling salmon, but generally agreed that other than an occasional harbour seal which might wander into tidal pools and be accidentally hooked, little could compare to salmo salar.
It was then that I noticed a slight blush creeping into George's cheeks, quite visible since most of the rest of his face is covered by dark hair.
Peering over his horn-rimmed glasses, George let it slip that he had, quite by accident mind you, discovered a method of practicing the playing of a large salmon which actually worked. Despite a growing embarrassment, he blundered out his story to Dave and I.
It had been in the spring, George reckoned, while out enjoying the solitude of a warm day in downtown Halifax, that he had noticed a group of children playing in one of the local open spaces, which is city talk for "park".
As it often occurs with anglers, the warmth of the spring day brought out the urge to be on a river, or at least to blow the dust off the rod and reel; and George's mind was on salmon and the weather, playing a large fish on a long pool, when he noticed the kites.
One kite in particular, noted George, gave him the idea. It was a large Oriental kite made of plastic, and it flashed as it dipped and dove in the stiff breeze. It was shaped like and had the silvery sides of - a fish! (George now definitely had my attention, and Dave's eyes narrowed as the wheels worked.)
The facts are hazy, but I recall that George grew more animated and excited as he related the story of how he borrowed the kid's kite, tied it to the flyline on his ever-present rod and reel, and "played" this huge fish in a park in the middle of Nova Scotia's largest city to the delight of a gathering crowd. I could easily picture a grown man with a salmon rod and reel, sporting an ear to ear grin somewhere under his facial hair, playing a large gossamer salmon kite some hundred yards up in a spring breeze - hardly what you would call "low-profile", but then George was never one to bandy about.
It reached the point, he added, that he had even begun experimenting with the shapes of kites to find the one which most closely simulated the action of a battling salmon; and finally, after a series of boxes, bats, lizards, snakes, and other weird and wonderful shapes, had determined that the shape of a large bird was best. I was impressed!
While I originally swore myself to secrecy, my conscience has overcome my sense of good taste, and I feel it is in the best interests of salmon anglers everywhere to throw myself on George's mercy by revealing his secret.
It may also prevent a terrible accident in downtown Halifax from motorists who might lose control of their vehicles when confronted by the sight of Dave and George, and possibly other converts, flying their kites with bent rods and singing reels this coming spring at a local park.
Therefore, George, it is in the public interest that I share your secret. It may even become vogue among anglers who have a real problem catching fish, but would like to experience the feel and also be able to honestly tell their friends that they played a "big one" for a half hour or so before reeling it in.
It may even go so far as to relieve pressure on rivers as some anglers opt for a "pie in the sky" rather than a "fish on a dish", or at the very least it should help boost kite sales in the Atlantic provinces.
THE MAGICAL ORANGE-HACKLED BUCK BUG
(As a flytier for more than two decades, I've had a lot of fun catching fish on a variety of fly patterns. But by far the most effective and consistent has been this little fly, in sizes from a whopping big No.2 down to a No.12.)
Whenever I expound on the virtues of the Buck Bug fly, someone invariably comes back with, "That fly's no damned good. I've never caught a bloody thing on it!" Or, "I wouldn't be bothered. Tried one for three seasons and couldn't get a rise."
So for all those who don't believe in it, here's a little story about what I consider the most productive and effective trout and salmon flies ever devised - the Orange Hackled Spun Deer Hair Buck Bug, also known as just plain "Bug" to most Newfoundland anglers.
A few years ago I renewed the friendship of a man and wife outdoor writer team from Ontario by the names of Gerry and Gwynn Wolfram who were visiting Newfoundland to do a little salmon fishing and writing about it for one of the large circulation U.S. fishing magazines. I ran across the pair while they were visiting the Great Northern Peninsula as guests of Tuckamore Lodge at Main Brook, which at the time was operated by Rex and Barb Boyd.
Rex had promised to fly them into a remote river in his float-equipped aircraft, which was used as a part of his charter service on the northeast coast, and I was invited to go along to assist as unofficial "chief guide" for a morning of angling.
It was a great morning in early July, sunny and warm with just a few wispy clouds interrupting the bright summer sky, as we took off from the glassy lake adjacent to the Boyd's lodge. Rex's plane climbed and flew swiftly, and it seemed like only a few minutes had passed when we glided into a picture-perfect landing on a small lake fed by a narrow stream.
We taxied to the brook's mouth, eased the plane into a tiny cove and tied it to shore trees, then disembarked with the two Wolframs in tow.
I had never fished the river, but Rex advised that the water was perhaps a little low. I dug out a No. 10 Blue Charm for Gerry, and put him on a rock at the top of the run-in. Gwynn liked dry fly fishing, so she tied on a small White Wulff and began laying out loops into the slower moving bottom of the pool. I sat back on the bank and studied the water.
It soon became obvious that the entire outlet and pool was full of grilse in the three to five pound range. In the course of an hour, Gerry successfully drew the interest of a couple of fish but failed to connect, and Gwynn had the Wulff floating over plenty of fish but couldn't entice any serious interest.
After several changes of flies and more gallant attempts, they decided to take a break and give me a whirl.
My choice was an Orange Bug tied on a No. 8, 4X shanked streamer hook, fished with a riffling hitch tied under the head. I waded out into knee-high water about halfway down the pool with alders tight to my back, allowing just enough room for a roll cast, and began laying the Orange bug upstream about 45 degrees from my position.
It might have taken three or four casts, but no more, for the first grilse to take that gaudy missile. Its back appeared quietly from below, a submarine surfacing from the bottom, and delicately sucked in the bug as it passed overhead.
The fight was on, but short-lived. The Wolframs were awed by this sudden turn of events, and more than impressed with the fly's performance. As I brought the grilse into my reach and then released it back into the pool, they gathered near to see the ugly fly I had used.
I dug into my fly tin, came up with two more, and tied them onto their leaders. A half hour and three rises later, Gerry and Gwynn opted for another break, so I took the opportunity to try the pool again. I cast in the same manner - upstream to let the fly dead-float down to me - and in less than a dozen roll casts was into my second of the morning.
It was a repeat of the first fish, a nice bright grilse which fought hard and ran all over the pool, and it was also released to join its kin.
Re-enthused, Gerry and Gwynn went back at the battle, beating the water with their Bugs. If I recall, they each had a few half-hearted rises, but couldn't quite connect, and finally decided they had done enough damage. As they rested in the shade of the bank, I moved through the pool again and caught the other two grilse which made my limit, saving the last one for photos and a skillet which waited back at the lodge.
The Wolframs were absolutely baffled by my success and their failure while using the same patterns, but it was no real secret. Gerry later wrote in one of his articles that I had taught them a lesson in humility on this particular salmon angling trip, while in fact my intent had been entirely to see that they were the ones to feel the tightness of line and to shout, "fish on!" The Wolframs were both good anglers, but the only difference was in their techniques. Their bugs were not "swimming" through the pool properly, and consequently Gerry and Gwynn didn't connect on any fish.
I don't mean to imply that I was a better angler, but luck had little to do with it either. My success was due simply to two things; in utilizing the "dead float" technique which experience has taught me is most effective when fishing the Bug, and in the little riffling hitch which I tie beneath the head.
When the Buck Bug first became popular on the rivers of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it was designed with tufts of hairs on both ends of a cigar-shaped body, giving it a rear "tail" and a front "wing". The technique called for it to be heavily dressed with fly floatant and skittered on top of the surface on retrieve to create a noisy wake. It was often referred to as the "Bomber" and in most cases was tied on a huge hook.
Most of the earlier bugs were tied with grey or tan side body deer hair and had stiff hackles (usually brown, badger or other natural colours) palmered over the body length. Somewhere along the line the dyed hot orange hackle was substituted, the front wing was dropped, the bug was tied on smaller hooks, and the body hair was bleached white. The contrast was marked by a barber pole effect, and in fact some anglers ended up calling it by that name.
The fly which eventually evolved and is popular today across this province usually has a stubby white tail and body, and an orange body hackle. Soft tan or grey body hair with grizzly or furnace hackles are also somewhat popular and effective on certain rivers. But it is my experience that ALL of them work best when dead-floated over fish. You simply cast the fly upstream and let it float down toward you without the slightest pressure being applied to effect its "dead" characteristics.
The second little secret is the hitch tied below the head. It is simply two half hitches identical to the Portland Creek hitch, but tied so it extends downward from the down eyed hook upon which most bugs are constructed. It does two things; one, when lifting the fly from the water, you don't drown the fly because the pull of the retrieve causes the head to lift. Second, you hook more fish with it because when a fish takes and you set the hook, it forces the bend and point downward deep into the lower jaw. Before fishing with the hitch, I found that the bug often swam sideways or at odd angles, but the hitch seems to keep it upright and pulls on the hook correctly.
So next time you fish the bug, try these techniques. Cast upstream at a 45 degree angle and let the fly "dead float" back toward you, mending just enough line to catch up on the slack but not enough to apply any movement to the bug. I'll bet it catches more fish for you. Second, try tying the hitch under the head, and I'll bet you hook into more fish than you previously did.
Remember that any fly pattern is only as good as the presentation and technique used in making it work for you. Maybe for those who have not experienced success with the Bug, trying it again with these two changes will make it productive ... it could even make believers out of you!
A BLACK BEAR YARN WORTH RECOLLECTING
(This was a true story about a fellow I used to work with in the car business many years ago. Gordie is a Nova Scotian, probably by now running from bears "Up Yonder", but I know if he's still alive he'll get a kick out of this yarn. Here's to Gordie, wherever he might be.)
Could be old age creeping up, but lately I've begun reflecting on the past. The other night I was lying back in my most comfortable chair, eyes closed and the TV spring re-runs switched off, recollecting some of the most amusing and favorite moments I have experienced through my years in the outdoors.
I recalled several scenes from back in the early 70s, for instance, which curled my lips upward in a smile. One which stuck in my memory involved a weekend spent at Adies Lake, a large body of water which is headwaters of a branch of the Upper Humber River above Birchy Forks - and included an encounter between a friend and a black bear and an unexpected early morning awakening.
There used to be a dam at the outlet of Adies Lake, a large wooden structure with heavy gates and a double rail on top. It was used by Bowater at one time to control water levels and I assume to assist in floating pulp wood down the river to the mill at Corner Brook.
The gates were heavy and difficult to move, but an attendant could use a small rail trolley with a winch to cross the dam's rails, hook onto the gates and lift them to allow more water to escape from the lake. An added benefit to the dam was controlling water levels which permitted Atlantic salmon to migrate freely up Adies Stream, and during the summer it was a great place to fish for salmon and trout.
It took a trip by boat across Adies Lake to reach the dam, and it was a discouragement for some people because the lake would often whip into a froth of whitecaps and you could easily get stuck on the opposite shore. Bowater had originally built a camp on one side of the dam, which was used to house a woods crew and a cook, with a front section with stove and dining table where the cook stayed separated from a rear bunkhouse section where the crews slept.
But its usage had been discontinued years earlier and it was utilized back in the early '70s by the fisheries guardian and sometimes by locals as a shelter from the elements. Eventually local use caught up with the old camp, and the stove was stolen, the old crank telephone ripped from the wall, and the place generally left in a mess of debris and garbage. It wasn't a fit place for human habitation.
I used to spend a lot of time at Adies Lake, and instead of trying to repair the old camp and make it habitable, I pitched a small three-man nylon tent on the other end of the dam and stayed in it. Two men and their gear could spend a comfortable night in one of them, and we cooked outside in the open. It was nice.
Anyway, now that you have the background, let's get on with the story. Besides salmon, Adies Lake used to have one of the nicest eating brook trout you could ever imagine, and you could sometimes catch three-pounders. A favorite but illegal place to fish for these trout was at the dam site, where it was totally prohibited within 25 yards of the structure, but it didn't discourage some of the more ardent local "trouters" - and I often suspected that the guardian sort of turned a blind eye to a fellow just getting a feed of trout and not damaging the salmon stocks.
That's what attracted a friend whom I'll call Gordie Mac to hitch a ride across the lake one Saturday with a small rod, a few staples and a sleeping bag in tow - he was after a meal of trout from under the dam, and he was planning to stay in what remained of the old woods camp.
Imagine his surprise when he arrived and found all the windows and doors missing, the floor covered in garbage and litter, no stove, and a wall beat out between the front cook house and the rear bunkhouse sleeping area. It wasn't much, but Gordie had no choice, and would be forced to call it home for the night.
I was with a fishing companion who joined me that afternoon and evening down river for salmon, and we returned before dark with a couple of grilse each. We had a late supper, sharing small talk and chatter with Gordie who had since joined us for a cup of coffee.
We learned he had accumulated a nice limit of trout under the cool shade of the dam, and following a satisfying meal we turned in just after sunset. We bid goodnight to Gordie, who picked his way back across the dam to the old building.
We arose early next morning, somewhere around 5 a.m., and got the Coleman stove pumped up for breakfast prior to trying the river again. We had a good wash in the cold water to wake us up, and were listening to the sizzle of bacon and eggs in the pan while sipping the first cup of coffee when we were attracted to a racket coming out of the old building across the dam.
Out of the door on our end shot Gordie, clad only in a pair of fleecy long johns with the rear flap swinging in the breeze, his bare feet hardly touching the ground. For a man in his 60's he was moving pretty fast, and all the time he was yelling and shouting at the top of his lungs. We soon learned why.
Out of the door at the side of the building which was the old bunkhouse shot a big black bear, moving just about as fast as Gordie but in the opposite direction, its four legs churning as it loped off for tree cover. The bear wasn't making any noise, but it didn't matter because Gordie was making enough for the both of them.
The entire incident took place in a flash, and looking back on it now I don't know which was more frightened - Gordie or the bear. The sight of Gordie standing in the middle of the dam in a pair of long johns with the rear flap hanging down around his spindly legs, shaking like a leaf with his attention wholly riveted on the now-empty building, was a sight to behold.
I couldn't help but laugh at the situation. It became even funnier when Gordie recovered sufficiently to explain how he awoke to the sound of rustling in the shack and came face and eyes into the black bear staring down at him.
He still couldn't remember how he got out of the sleeping bag and made it to the door in such a hurry! Despite our assurances that we had seen the bear exit from the side door moving every bit as fast as him, Gordie wasn't too excited about going back into the building, but eventually he cautiously returned to recover his clothes and gear, and when we left to go down river he was sitting in the middle of the dam looking furtively around his shoulder every few minutes to see if the bear would return.
Gordie and I worked together for a few years after that, and I enjoyed poking fun at him every now and then about the time he awoke to the company of the big bear. To my knowledge he never returned to the dam at Adies for trouting (or anything else for that matter), and the last I heard he had retired to Cape Breton Island in the late '70s to live out his years in a bear-free environment.
If the incident and the sight of Gordie in his long johns had as much impact on the black bear, I'll bet it never went back to the old campsite either.
A HISTORY OF CATCH-AND-RELEASE
(I'm a big fan of catch (or "hook") and release of salmon and trout. Maybe some of it relates to my bowhunting background, where the success of a hunting trip was not reflected in whether or not you killed an animal. I learned that the experience itself is what counts, and that a photo is longer-lasting than a dead fish in the freezer.)
A week can't pass without seeing some form of sportfishing television show. They all compete with each other to show you how, where and when to catch fish. "The In-Fisherman", "Canadian Sportfishing", Babe Winkleman's "Good Fishin'", and "Fish 'N Canada" are some of those which appear on cable, along with "The American Sportsman" and even "Michigan Outdoors".
In all of these shows their stars show you how to catch fish with the latest gear and techniques, expertly cranking in everything from largemouth bass to monstrous Muskies and various species of Pacific salmon which fall for an assortment of whistling, glowing, shaking or rattling lures.
There is one underlying theme to all of these shows. No matter which expert or star you watch, they all try to preserve the resource by practicing what is known as "hook and release".
If you go back a few decades, when sportfishing in the United States had reached an all-time low, some forward thinkers in the angling fraternity saw the handwriting on the wall. The once huge stocks of trout, salmon, bass, pike, and other freshwater game fish were in a lot of trouble.
The problems were several, but it couldn't all be blamed on acid rain, pollutants, sewage, industrial chemicals, and garbage being dumped into their waterways.
There was also an affluent society out there with more free time and an increased need for recreation, primarily outdoor recreation, and they descended in droves onto any lake, river, pond or brook which looked like it may contain a fish. Opening day of the fishing season looked like a crowd gathered for a sale at a major department store. The result was an unprecedented number of anglers, armed with the latest in high tech equipment and knowledge of where and how to catch fish, competing for a spot on some of the "best water."
The stocks took a real beating. Authorities responded by introducing new species, particularly in the densely populated Great Lakes areas, and by stocking their waters with domestically grown fish. But even those steps could not keep up with the growing demand of anglers.
A few leading anglers and conservationists, including Lee Wulff and Dave Whitlock, realized what was happening and began to preach that "a fish worth catching was worth catching more than once". They began treating these fish with more value, to carefully play them and handle them.
They would cautiously remove the hook, then ensure the fish was fully resuscitated before releasing it back into the streams which had been so badly depleted. As model roles they began to be followed by the common angler, and soon it became popular to voluntarily "put it back" instead of putting it in your basket.
The movement grew, and soon you heard slogans like "limit your catch, don't catch your limit".
It became known and accepted that fish could indeed be safely caught and then released without suffering mortality if the angler followed reasonable procedures. Fishing tournaments grew in popularity, with "professionals" competing for big prize money on a circuit of several U.S. states; one of the rules was the catch and retention of the fish in a "live well", and release back into the water following weigh-in and recording.
Several rivers were designated "catch and release only", and anglers readily complied as it became vogue to record the catch with a camera, then release it back to the river rather than destroy it.
The thrill was in the catching, not in the killing. Anglers found that it was enough to have caught and vanquished the quarry, and that it actually made a body feel good to let it live by "putting it back". Slowly but surely the freshwater stocks began to recover.
More recently in Atlantic Canada, a steady decline of large Atlantic salmon had reached alarming proportions. Newfoundland waters, where commercial catches continue to take the majority of multi sea-winter fish, became primarily stocked by stunted, one sea-winter grilse. Many rivers in neighboring Nova Scotia and New Brunswick experienced drastic declines in returns of salmon of all sizes due to a number of factors from pollution and acid rain to poaching and aboriginal rights.
Restrictions were placed on angling catches, limiting sportsfishermen to a small number of tags each season, and it became compulsory to release all salmon over 63 centimeters in length. Catch and release had arrived.
Unfortunately, not all anglers agreed with the conservation practice. Some blatantly disregarded the new regulations and chose to keep whatever they caught, arguing that they would do as they pleased until similar restrictions were placed on the commercial catch.
Others, even some of the conservation groups, chose to ignore the overwhelming evidence that catch and release worked, arguing that Atlantic salmon were not as tough as bass or pike and could not stand the stress of being handled despite biological data from experts in their field that salmon were no different from other fish. Given the circumstances of proper respect and handling, it had been demonstrated that salmon could easily stand the rigors of an encounter with an angler.
During the first few years some so-called sport fishermen set out to prove their point, playing fish to near exhaustion on gear which would safely handle a mako shark, then dragging them up onto the rocks of shore, handling them around the gills, and nonchalantly tossing them back into the water without an effort at resuscitation. Despite the rough handling, salmon survived. Finally shamed into doing it properly by their fellow anglers, eventually the "big fish killers" have begun to conform.
Even more critical than salmon are the stocks of trout and char in Newfoundland. A salmon, once it goes to sea, grows swiftly. Trout and char don't. A salmon of 8 to 10 pounds may be either a repeat swawner or a two sea-winter fish returning for the first time. Add the three or four years it grew in fresh water and the fish is perhaps five or six years old. It may take a char or trout twice as long to reach the same size. The growth and recovery time of those species therefore is longer, and any severe over harvest of stocks has greater impact.
Despite this knowledge, and the fact that growth rates in cold northern waters are much slower, unprecedented commercial and aboriginal harvests of Arctic char and sea trout take place each year on the Labrador coast, with authorities exhibiting no obvious concern for conservation or the consequences of this repeated onslaught.
The stocks won't last long at this rate, and in fact evidence suggests that some rivers have already critically declined. Authorities need to put a cap on the catch.
There are many organizations and corporate supporters across North America who recognize the danger and are doing something about it, at least with the sport fishing fraternity. Local angling conservation groups such as SAEN, SPAWN, or ERMA are just one segment. Such major organizations as the Canadian Wildlife Federation and its member rod and gun clubs, the huge North American network of Trout Unlimited chapters, and the powerful Atlantic Salmon Federation collectively number in the hundreds of thousands of members who support catch and release. Major tackle manufacturers, most of them U.S.-based, also contribute heavily toward programs of live release.
A new Canadian catch and release awareness program was just announced by corporate supporter Seagram Distillers, which will distribute over half a million bottles of its "5 Star" brand whiskey with a catch and release neck tag attached. This card outlines the techniques for handling and safely releasing fish so they can live to be caught another day. As well, about 350,000 bottles will have attached a free "Jig-a-Whopper" fishing lure, and Seagram is spending about $300,000. in an advertising campaign to promote the program. Not only are they sending a message, Seagram is putting its money where its mouth is by providing financial contributions to support major conservation projects in participating Provinces.
With all of this massive support for catch and release, obviously a majority of people see it as being the salvation of sport fishing, and who can argue with that evidence? The times they are a changing, and is is no longer a mark of prowess to brag about the number of fish you caught and killed during the past season. Perhaps it has something to do with the ego, to be observed by others of their persuasion as "successful", which still compels some sport fisherman to kill everything they catch.
But they are dead wrong. It is no longer possible to ignore the plight of depleted stocks, and no longer acceptable to flaunt the law. It is now more accepted as the mark of a man to exhibit some common sense and compassion by treating the remaining salmon and trout resources as a valuable commodity worth saving, and to take only what you need for consumption ... not whatever you can carry.
FLYFISHING - THROUGH THE ICE?
(Several years ago when I lived in Corner Brook, I went out ice fishing with a friend who had just come back home from working at the Wabush IOC mines. To my surprise, we used flies to catch a meal of trout, at a time when you had to wade through three feet of snow to reach the pond. This is a recollection of that time.)
"Boy, I can't wait for the ice to go out so I can start some spring fishing", my companion stated from across the table. "The winter sure is draggin' on, but it won't be long now and I'll be whippin' that fly rod back and forth." A fleeting grin crossed his face as his eyes glazed, looking forward to the blessed event.
"Why wait for ice out?" I countered. "You'd be surprised to learn that a trout will take a fly even with ice on the pond." I looked at him knowingly over the rim of my half specks.
My friend stared at me like I had just crossed the boundary line into the twilight zone, mumbled something kind about my state of mind due to the lengthy period of snowfall, and left me to my ramblings.
But my friend was missing a bet, as I have proven time and again in the chilling waters of early spring on many a pond. In fact, some of the fly fishing I've found particularly good is when there is still snow on the ground and ice on the lakes.
All you require is a little bit of open, running water.
I was introduced to this early fishing about two decades ago by a companion (now deceased) named Ed who had earlier discovered it during a stay up north. With spring and ice out sometimes not occurring until mid-June in parts of Labrador, Ed had tired of the lengthy white of a sub-Arctic environment, and had got the fever when he spotted a patch of open water in a lake where a river ran in. A slight thawing trend had caused some melt, and the result was an opening at the inlet of some 50 or so feet, plus a little opening at the outlet. The ice in the lake was still solid and thick. Ed had tried his luck with a hook and a bit of meat, but wasn't doing much, so he had decided to try a fly.
The only one he had in his scantily-equipped tin was a ragged Muddler Minnow, and he sent it out toward the ice edge. On the retrieve he had hooked a small trout, and in the course of the next hour or so had taken a dozen. They weren't very lively and they weren't very hungry or large, but they had taken the fly.
It was a lesson remembered, and one passed on to me on a sunny spring day in the late 60s as Ed and I stumbled through rotting snow to a small pond off the Trans Canada southwest of Corner Brook. At the far end was a brook running in, and a patch of open water some 40 or so feet wide, fed by the warm sun and resultant snowmelt. Ed was as happy as a schoolboy cutting classes, literally leaping through the drifts to reach the far end of the pond, expectant of what lay ahead.
I began with a small spinner and worm on the end of the fly rod, but was batting zero. Ed had tied on a small nondescript fly and was popping it out over the open section. It would plop onto the ice, and Ed would give it a jerk toward the edge and swim it back toward him in the icy current. About every fourth try he got a strike.
In an hour or so we quit, feet and legs frozen from standing in the frigid water, but the creel had a couple of dozen pan-sized trout in it, and they had all been taken on a fly.
Through the years I have kept the practice of early spring fishing alive. My flies have sometimes been weighted nymphs bounced along the bottom of the feeder brook, sucked delicately into the maw by slow-moving trout. At times they have been large streamers such as Muddlers and bright Mickey Finns, fished wet and slow to allow some sinking. Sometimes the action has been less than brisk...in fact downright slow...but the flies have usually come through for me.
Other anglers on the ponds sort of laugh and chuckle as they snake the big red and white lures with a gob of worms into the small open water spaces, I suppose expecting to hook some hidden monster of the deep. The chuckles and laughs soon fade when they see the results of select flies being consumed by the hungry little trout below.
"Gosh, how come they're takin' flies now?" is a common query. "There's no flies in the air and none on the water that I can see. What's the matter with them trout, anyhow? They must be some stupid."
"Ah, my nimble-witted friend", I reply, " these trout are feeding on emerging insects beneath the surface or indeed on anything which resembles edible insect life."
"Oh, yeah? Well how come they won't take that gob of worms, eh?" The usual angry response is to give the big devil lure an especially savage cast, creating a large splash and frightening away everything within a hundred feet, including me.
Undaunted, I will probably return again this year to the shaking heads and stares of those hardy spinner and worm purists who don't believe, even when they see it happen before their very eyes. A few wispy nymphs or breathing hackle flies will no doubt do the trick.
I guess I also go back to recall the moment shared with a long-departed friend who tried something different in a desperate attempt to shake the grip of winter and return to his first love, the casting of a delicate fly rod and the feel of a trout's fight on the other end. I do it partly for Ed.
POLLUTION IN THE SECOND CITY
(My services as a tour guide were impressed on one occasion a few years ago when I lived in Corner Brook. It took a young boy's observations of the city's air pollution to wake me up - isn't it amazing how something as obvious (and as ominous) as a cloud of ash and other air pollutants can be overlooked in the name of employment?)
From the mouths of babes often come words of wisdom, and it was the words of a 14 year-old from Clarenville named Adam Green which focused my attention on what has become a real problem in our west coast metropolis of Corner Brook.
It was his first trip to the city, and I had been acting as "tour guide" for Adam, his sister Gail and dad Geoff. From the vantage point of the Captain Cook monument you get a good view of the Bay of Islands as well as the city, so I took the trio there on a beautiful evening in early June. Off to the northwest, the snow-tipped plateaus of the Blomidon Mountains were highlighted by the waning sun, and the Humber Arm was a carpet of blue-green spreading to the horizon. To the east side lay the city, a myriad of multi-coloured houses clinging to the sides of sloping hills.
"Yes, this is a bird's eye view of Corner Brook and the Bay," I proudly announced. "Really pretty, isn't it?"
Adam piped up. "Yeah, it's a nice city alright but I don't see how anyone could live here. Gosh, how can you breathe? Just look at that air pollution!"
A pall of smoke lay in a mantle over Corner Brook, a heavy haze of white which nestled in the valley like a giant layer of cotton gauze. At one point it appeared to be spreading its ebony fingers in a claw to embrace the city in a throttle hold. Tracing it back was a simple matter ... the choking smog emanated from the smokestacks of the Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Company.
"I've never seen it from this angle before, Adam, but you're right ... it is bad. I guess we've learned to live with it," I mumbled. "Like so many other things, we've come to depend on the economic return so much that we tend to turn a blind eye to what it is doing to our environment."
I don't know why, but I felt sort of sheepish as we left the lookout point, almost as if I was responsible for the smog. Maybe in an indirect sort of way I was, as was every citizen who condoned the continuation of such habitat pollution.
What brought this incident to mind was Environment Week '89, which has come and gone with its usual token acknowledgment, constituting hardly more than a whisper (much less a roar of disgust) at the way we are treating the habitat and environment surrounding us.
Of course, there are not many sterling corporate and industrial manufacturers to rally behind as role models, are there? One can consider, for instance, the flow of smoke, dust and odors emitting from the Kruger paper mill to lie in a choking pall over Corner Brook; or the raw sewage and effluents flowing directly into the garbage-clogged harbour of Halifax (not to mention many of our own municipalities); or the dead sea birds, plant life and creatures smothered by excess oil flushed from bilges of oil-carrying tankers plying Maritime coastlines; or the rotting carcasses of fish and offal dumped from great factory ships off once-rich fishing grounds; or the tailings of mining projects which remove the valuable mineral wealth and leave behind unwanted sludge; or the wastelands which remain after clear-cutting techniques slash a swath through our timber reserves.
On the national and international scene, we only have to look at the mess pollutants have made of our freshwater streams, lakes, and the very air we - gasp - attempt to breathe. The Great Lakes, once so polluted by effluents that fish and plant life could not survive in many areas, have recovered to a great degree and are now producing strains of Pacific salmon and other introduced species which have flourished. But the fish are still affected by pollution and are not recommended for consumption due to high levels of harmful contaminants.
It was very recently that U.S. President George Bush, an avid outdoorsman in his own right, acknowledged that our great neighbor to the South will finally embark on a program to clean up the tons of dioxides which daily enter our atmosphere and later fall in tiny droplets as acid rain. (Our own country's leader, Mr. Mulroney, had tried to woo the previous Reagan administration into making these same commitments, but Irish eyes weren't smiling on that particular occasion.)
Unfortunately, the process will not be swift, and we can look to the end of the century before adequate steps are taken to slow the freshwater death rate caused by acid rain. Meanwhile, the rain drops keep fallin' on my head ... and your head ... and your children's heads ... and the water we require for drinking ... and the fish keep dying and the lakes become sterile.
We are thankfully not as affected as our Maritime friends, Nova Scotia in particular, where recent tests found nearly 50% of the lakes tested to be either badly acidified or very near to it. About 10 percent were attributed to natural acid levels in the water, but the fact that nearly 40% of acidity in Nova Scotia lakes could be directly attributed to acid rain is frightening.
The once-beautiful Adirondack Mountain region of Upstate New York now has hundreds of lakes classified as "dead" or "dying" ... and the cause is quite clearly emissions of sulphur dioxides from industrial emission and the burning of fossil fuels. Not only are the smokestacks of the industrialized American Midwest having an impact on eastern Canada ... they are also helping to kill their own U.S. lakes!
But let's not become overconfident. We are not completely safe. Acid rain is having an effect on some watersheds along the Southwest coast of the island where many of our lakes do not have the capacity to counteract or buffer the acidity. We have seen the effects of acid rain as well on our wildlife, where cadmium levels in the kidneys and livers of moose, caribou and bears have become too high for human consumption.
True, there has been a trend toward reduction in recent years. Isn't it encouraging to know that in this country the emissions will be cut over the next five years to a mere 2.3 million tonnes per year by 1994? Sure, that is still quite a bit, but only half of the 4.6 million tonnes being currently injected into the atmosphere. Yes, take a deep breath.
Acid rain is one serious problem, but air pollution, fresh water degradation, dumping in the oceans, oil spills, strip mining, and other industrial environmental abuses are having a collectively terrible effect on this old Earth. And what an example for the everyday citizen who nonchalantly tosses a Coke bottle out the car window or dumps a fast food lunch box into the nearest bush.
"After all," says the common man on the street, "if those people don't really give a damn, then why should I?" Indeed, it gives one cause to reflect on the state of affairs our world has fallen into, and to ask when are politicians at all levels of government going to get serious about the problem?
Meanwhile, the younger generation coming up is all too aware of the problem, for it is their legacy. They'll be the ones living with the acidified lakes, the greenhouse effect, the deteriorating ozone layer, and the industrial smog long after our generation has cashed in its chips.
Let's hope the sight of Corner Brook's smog will encourage Adam and others like him to make a real change in the system so their generation can turn it around a little from the mess our generation has allowed it to become.
(NOTE TO ADAM: Don't lose hope, a group of concerned citizens have tired of the smelly smog and prompted action to have it corrected. Kruger says it will be a few years yet, but the smog will be contained.)
ARCTIC CHAR ON A FLY
(This is one of my most exciting angling experiences, not so much for the fishing itself but for the breathtaking scenery and observation of the real wilderness of Labrador's Torngat Mountains.)
For several years I had heard that catching sea-run Arctic char on a fly was extremely difficult, if not next to impossible.
"They'll take almost any lure which is tossed in front of them, but a fly? ... well, you'd better be prepared to spend a lot of time at it," I had been told by many outfitters and anglers who frequented the char rivers of Labrador.
Still, I had taken land-locked char on flies in the confines of Minipi Lake during a fishing foray a few years earlier, and if their freshwater cousins were susceptible to a fly, why not the sea-run char? It stood to reason that if the proper fly was presented in the right manner, a char should accept it ... and the very difficulty of the task became a challenge to my fly-fishing skills that I dreamed of fulfilling.
An opportunity to test the chilly waters of Labrador came in mid-August while working in the breathtaking far northern limits of our Province. North of Nain the winter is late in departing and early in arriving, and waters from the high Torngats are chilly even in the late throes of summer. This is the time of char migrations to freshwater lakes where they annually spawn, and it was while traveling these scenic areas that I first had an opportunity to put my flies to the test.
My few "char" flies were simple. Tied on Number 8 down-eyed dry fly hooks, they had been slightly weighted with a winding of lead wire, which would get them to the bottom a little faster. The bodies were wrapped with black chenille, and a small clump of soft black feather fibres protruded as a tail. On one fly I had tied a fluorescent green chenille head, and the other was entirely black except for the addition of an oval silver rib. I planned to fish them as nymphs, casting slightly upstream into the current so they would sink to the char's level swiftly and pass across their noses.
The wondrous fjords of Saglek Bay afforded me the first opportunity to try both these fly patterns plus several other creations from my trout fly selections. It was to a tiny freshwater brook feeding into saltwater that our small group ventured at high tide, three armed with spinning rods and lures, and myself with the fly rod. My companions had been hunting for Labrador caribou with outfitter Rollie Reid, and char angling was to be a welcome break from their strenuous days of hunting.
One of the group laid a heavy lure into the brook's mouth, its loud PLOP caused quite a disturbance, and char reacted by showing themselves. The surface boiled with fish. There were probably a hundred or more silvery bodies there, now slightly more visible as our eyes adjusted to the water's glare. I lay a fly over the waving brown mass and waited as it was swept slowly in the slight current. Nothing showed even the slightest interest.
Char surfaced to the right of it, to the left, to the front and rear. I tried again and again, eventually changing flies several times in the process. I tied on dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, bugs, streamers ... Zip... Zilch... Nothing! Not even my companions with their hardware could attract a rise. Finally, as sunlight waned and the hills darkened around us, we returned to camp ... empty handed. I began to wonder ... perhaps there WAS something to the stories of difficulty in taking a char.
The next afternoon was my second opportunity to try the fly rod. Anne Lake is a beautiful, turquoise-colored freshwater lake which empties into the saltwater at Saglek Bay, and is about a 10 minute flight from St. John Bay where the Reid's outfitting camp is located. It lies in a valley which is so breathtakingly stark and beautiful that words can't describe it, and even the camera lens has difficulty in capturing its immense scope. (As a writer I feel woefully inadequate when confronted by such examples of nature's splendor.)
"They call this the valley of the bulls", Rollie told me as our small aircraft nudged into the sandy beach. "There are a great many caribou around this lake, as you'll probably see."
By the time I had left the plane and assembled the rod and reel I knew why. Two young caribou, as curious as any cat could ever be, had joined me at the outlet of a small stream and watched entranced as my fly line shot back and forth into a deep pool. Totally unafraid, they approached within a stone's throw as I worked the fly across a dozen or so char, apparently trying to figure out not only what I was, but what in the world I was doing. After five minutes or so they lost their interest and went on to doing whatever it is caribou do, and I concentrated on the angling.
The pool before me held several char, but after an hour I had to admit defeat. Despite being able to see the fish hugging a shallow gravel bar and watching the fly's path directly across their noses, I could not entice a rise. But I had noticed a churning action just outside the stream in the lake proper, and after a time moved out to the edge of a deep drop-off for a look.
Before me were perhaps five hundred to a thousand char, a large brown shadow undulating in the slight current, while others swam aimlessly around in circles at the edge of the sudden drop. Occasionally a large fish would break the surface, pushed upward by the mass of fish below it.
Excited, I changed to one of the weighted flies and lay it just in front of the mass. It moved slowly through the swirling char, and I waited, anticipating a strike at any time. Nothing. Another pass, then another, and still nothing. I laid the fly in front of a moving group of fish, and no takers.
The frustration began to get to me, and I changed fly after fly, replacing tippet with a longer and thinner version, trying every trick in the book. Still nothing.
The afternoon waned, and the strange char behavior continued before me, as masses of literally hundreds of silvery char flashed in a watery dance which ignored any fly put in its path.
A few more curious caribou appeared and watched momentarily as if to scoff at my foolish attempts, and finally I had to call it a day. Bright flies, dark flies, sinking flies, floating flies, large flies and small flies ... none had produced even the slightest interest among the swirling circles of char. Had I observed some spawning ritual, I asked myself, a ritual so all-consuming that these fish lost interest in anything but the urge to reproduce?
Or had the stories all been true, that Arctic char ARE a very difficult fish to take on a fly? As sleep crept over me to the memories of soaring canyons and turquoise lakes, I vowed to make at least one more attempt on my return to Nain from Saglek Fjord the following day.
The drone of the floatplane's engine had me half asleep, reliving the previous day's events as a mass of Arctic char lay off the mouth of a brook feeding into Anne lake near Saglek Bay, circling in some apparent spawning ritual which ignored any fly placed before it.
"There's some char", my pilot pointed, awakening me from my reverie. "Look at that big spot off the beach."
Char frequently gather in schools at the inlets and outlets of lakes, lying gently in the flow of cold water while waiting for the triggering urge which sends them into the final spawning phase. It was easy to see them from the air as our floatplane circled the opal waters of Umiakovik Lake ... a cloud of them showed black at the major inlet, a school probably numbering several hundred fish. Peter Paor of Goose Bay Outfitters operates a remote char fishing camp there, and although no guests were present at this time of year I asked permission of the camp manager to "have a few flicks". Elmer agreed.
The plane was beached swiftly, and in scant minutes I had assembled the fly rod, attached a reel, and threaded my fly line through the eyes. The weighted, green-headed fly was pulled from my fly tin and attached to the tippet, and I strode the 100 or so yards to the outlet, anxious to have another attempt at these difficult Arctic char.
From the beach, the cloud appeared to have a brownish cast, but I could see it easily off the inlet's slight current. I carefully fed out about 20 yards of flyline and laid the fly just upstream from the cloud, letting it drift slowly toward the edge. It took three casts before the drift felt right and I slowly mended line to feel any touch of a fish ... and everything went tight.
There was no savage take, no rise, no smashing strike ... just a very subtle tightening of the line to let me know there was something on the other end. It could have been the fly caught in a rock, but I lifted the rod tip quickly to set the hook ... and the other end suddenly came to life!
It is difficult to describe the battle of a char. They are tenacious fighters, bulldogged in their endurance, and pound for pound as tough to handle as any Atlantic salmon I've ever hooked. They put their heads down and fight to the bitter end, refusing to admit defeat while there is any strength left to resist the tightness of the fly pulling against it. All of this was evident in the first char I took and in the fish that followed.
Elmer and my pilot Chris, an audience of two, watched the battle from a vantage point on the beach. The char was small, perhaps three pounds, but glowed an iridescent silver in my grasp. I posed it for a few quick photos and released it back to the lake, watching as it scooted into deeper waters.
The second fish took only two casts. A slight tightening was the only indication, and this fish fought as valiantly as the first before surrendering to the pressure of my graphite rod. It was also released carefully to join its companions.
"Man, these fish can really fight," I called back to Elmer as I laid out the fly yet again. It took only one sweep before a fish was on, and this time the struggle was longer as a heavier char fought for escape from the strange pressure. The five-pounder escaped with my one and only green-headed fly as it writhed in shallow water at my feet after an arm-numbing fight. It had been a brief but exciting few minutes which ended abruptly as a high wind sprung up and the school of fish faded into deeper water, so I returned to the aircraft, thanking Elmer for the brief "loan" of his fish.
A little further south we put in at Tasiuyak Lake, and while Chris enjoyed a brief lunch I seized the opportunity to fish the wide outlet which eventually feeds into the saltwater coast above Nain. This system was once noted for its char runs, but heavy commercial netting had damaged it during the past few years.
Rollie Reid's char camp was empty except for guide Harvey Payne and his wife who were "between parties", but they indicated the char had been "pretty good" at the stream and I was welcome to have a try. I tied on the other weighted black chenille fly with the oval silver rib and began to cast into the tumbling current.
It took less than an hour to hook eight fish on that little black fly, four of which were lost or released, while I retained two for Chris and a pair for myself. The largest went about five pounds, the smallest about three.
These fish were not as silvery as the char at Umiakovik, and had taken on the distinctive pinkish underbelly tint of char nearing the spawning cycle. The spots on their flanks were large and bright pink, the fins decidedly red with white trim edging. In weeks ahead they would redden even more as their stay in freshwater extended toward the autumn spawning.
I left Tasiuyak Lake a little wiser. It was not impossible to take char on a fly ... in fact, I could not recall any better angling during such a short span for ANY species as that which I had experienced at Tasiuyak and Umiakovik Lakes.
What was it that caused the char of Saglek Bay to ignore my flies while a scant 100 miles or so to the south they had been readily accepted by char in rivers located further inland? Was it the close proximity to saltwater? Could the Saglek char have been under the stress of transition from saltwater to freshwater? And at Anne Lake, had the circling and porpoising masses been in the midst of some strange spawning ritual? Perhaps these are questions of fish behavior best left to the biologists to explain.
It was my feeling that char which have been in freshwater for extended periods and have assumed positions in the rivers awaiting spawning may be like Atlantic salmon ... perhaps the sight of a passing fly was a slight diversion to a bored char, perhaps it represented some form of food taken in its juvenile life stages, perhaps it represented an invasion or an irritation to them.
Like the salmon, we may never know why these char rise and accept a fly in a given set of circumstances ... but rise and accept they DID, which satisfied my curiousity and on this occasion dispelled the myths. The challenge had been met, the foe defeated, and I was satisfied that Arctic char of Labrador are not really that difficult to take on a fly ... at least sometimes!
SURVIVAL CAN MEAN A TINY FLASHLIGHT
(These yarns are absolutely true, and without the foresight to pack the little Mini-Mag flashlight in our fly vests, I'm sure both Rick Penney and myself may have suffered extreme discomfort - if not slightly different fates!)
I have a couple of true stories which could have had a much worse ending if it hadn't been for a product of modern technology, a tiny little flashlight called a "Mini-Maglite".
The Mini-Maglite has been on the market for several years and is extremely popular with sportsmen due to its small size, light weight, quality workmanship and endurance. Machined from aluminum and with rubber seals separating moving parts, it is also waterproof and weighs less than two ounces.
Mini-Maglite works on only two "AA" batteries, and the top can be removed to easily convert it into to a candle for general lighting of large spaces. The manufacturer's material quotes it as being up to 70 times brighter than other flashlights its size, and the bulb will outlast four to five sets of batteries. (If the lamp does go, a spare is contained in the base.)
The Mini-Maglite is a real piece of craftsmanship, no doubt about it. I've been carrying one in my fly vest for the past three years and have used it extensively - yet it still has the same two batteries and is still bright!
I also have its "bigger brother", a Maglite which operates on two "C" cell batteries, and it has become a regular part of my camping and hunting gear.
Now that you have some background on these little lights, let me relate the two true stories I had mentioned. The first happened on Nova Scotia's Margaree River a few years ago and involved one of my longtime fishing friends, Rick Penney.
A crowd of us were staying at the Big Intervale Lodge on the upper part of the Margaree, which wound through some very steep hills at this point. We hadn't fished this part of the river much and were unfamiliar with the pools. It was late afternoon when Rick decided to split from Terry Ashby and myself to follow a path downstream to "poke around", while we stayed just upstream from the lodge investigating some pocket water which looked promising.
Terry and I wandered back toward the lodge at about dusk for a hot coffee and some supper, and were surprised to find that Rick had not returned. We ate with one eye peeled toward the river, but still no sign of Rick. After an another hour of pitch blackness we decided we had waited long enough. It was time to go looking for our friend.
Terry and I both had Mini-Mags, and we were joined by one of the lodge owners who knew the trail. Rick's footprints were easy to see in the muddy path as they headed downstream, and we hurried along the trail which paralleled the river, interrupted now and then by a raging brook which had risen from the three previous days of rain.
We had gone about a half hour when we spotted a faint light off in the distance, bobbing up the trail to the sound of Rick's whistling. His Mini-Maglite was weak but still shed enough light to see the trail. Rick's story was simple and typical ... he had traveled further than expected and stayed just a little too long and got caught on the trail as night fell.
On the return it was difficult to pick out the trail and he had taken a wrong turn at one of the brooks, following it up into the mountains. Keeping a cool head he had backtracked and found his error, and was returning to the camp when we had intercepted him.
The Mini-Maglite had performed like a trouper. Rick couldn't recall when he had last replaced the batteries in it, yet it had lit his way for better than two hours and had saved him from spending a very uncomfortable night in the bush!
My second story is more recent. While on the Labrador coast this past summer I was in the company of several U.S. caribou hunters at the camp of Rollie Reid in St. John Bay near Saglek. As a diversion from the hunting we were trying for some char at a brook about a half hour overland if walking or about the same time span (although about four times the distance) by boat. We had all gone to the stream in a large 20 foot fibreglass open boat equipped with a 35 HP outboard.
After a disappointing evening of angling, most of the party decided to walk back to get the blood circulating again, while I stayed with Rollie and a young Pennsylvania hunter to help push off the boat and take the long way around.
A pretty hefty wind had come up and the temperature was rapidly falling toward the freezing mark, not uncommon even in August this far North. We bounced around in the heavy swells, staying close to shore as the boat headed out toward the open sea before making the swing into St. John Bay and another 20 minutes or so to the campsite.
It was nearly dark as we swung around the headland, and it was then that the engine coughed and quit. Rollie was at the helm and tried his best to get it going again, but to no avail. I looked into the bottom of the boat ... one wooden oar was broken in two, the other looked in half decent shape. Oops, no oar locks anyway! I took the long oar and passed the broken bottom to the hunter.
"Let's start now or we'll either be smashed onto those shore rocks or blown back to the other side and out to sea. We've got to get it inside that headland for the camp to see us!"
We paddled for all we were worth with those two wooden oars, and after about 15 minutes it was obvious the boat was going to be safely inside the bay. Another five minutes and we were far enough in to pick out two tiny pinpoints of light far down at the other end ... the lodge and guide camp!
By now it was very dark, but we could pick out a few curious seals as they approached within a few feet to investigate the bobbing boat, and a large tail and heavy splash were seen only yards away as a small whale surfaced near us ... and luckily not under us.
"Don't worry, they'll be looking for us soon", Rollie tried to cheer us up. "Too bad we don't have a flashlight to signal."
Ah, Mini-Maglite to the rescue! I pulled the tiny light from my flyvest and twisted the head to turn it on ... it shone bright and strong! I pointed it toward the lodge and began the universal distress call ... three short flashes, three long and three more short ... the Morse Code for SOS.
It was perhaps another hour before we heard the sputter of an outboard and the flash of a light in an approaching boat. My signal had been spotted alright, but in the words of the chief guide who came in the rescue boat ... "It was so bright we didn't think it was you at first. We thought it was a big ship far out to sea!"
The next day the Mini-Maglite was the talk of camp. Anyone who hadn't seen it had a close look, and all vowed to put it on top of their list for purchase once they reached civilization. The outfitter swore that all of his guides would be carrying one as standard equipment from then on!
These two stories could have easily had less happy endings if not for the tiny Mini-Maglite. The entire Maglite series is quality built, and a superb investment for any outdoorsperson. This light would make an ideal Christmas or birthday gift for someone you care for. If you feel the investment is more than you want to make, you can look at some of the other small flashlights available for less money from reputable manufacturers such as Eveready.
But by all means look into carrying some sort of light with you. As Rick and I discovered, it could mean the difference between misery and comfort, if not life and death.
SALMON ANGLING ON CAPE BRETON'S MARGAREE RIVER
(For as long as I'm able to walk, and hopefully beyond, I'd like to have the strength to travel each fall to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia for autumn salmon angling. This is one of the world's most beautiful river valleys, and its people are the friendliest on Earth. The fishing is also quite fabulous - but we have the same here in Newfoundland and Labrador.)
Every once in awhile I climb into my literary pulpit and deliver a little sermon on the benefits of establishing an extended Atlantic salmon sport fishing season in some parts of the Province during autumn months.
Not that I'll be mistaken for Jimmy Swaggert or Billy Graham, but there is a lot to be said for preaching the message of late-season angling.
First of all is the scenery. I challenge anyone to argue that any scene of nature on Earth is more beautiful than the changing colours of hardwoods lining the banks of Newfoundland streams in September and October. One has only to explore the Lower Humber River or take a short boat tour down the Gander River to be awestruck by the fiery colours which Mother Nature has created from her autumn pallette.
Brilliant golds, blazing oranges, crimson reds and fluorescent greens are melded into a dotted patchwork which have you reaching for your camera as you round each everchanging bend in the stream.
So who cares whether or not you catch a fish? Just being able to experience this billboard of colour is enjoyment in itself!
Next is the noticeable lack of insects. No mosquitos. No black flies. No "no-see-ums". No irritation from an onslaught of little creatures which leave masses of swelling red bumps or remove a drop or two of your precious blood supply.
It is as if Mother Nature had decided "enough is enough", and leniently removed this constant source of misery and frustration after a long summer of plaguing each and any of the poor angling community who had the audacity to venture into her streams.
Ah...no more "Muskol" melting the plastic coating of your flyline and removing the paint from the fender where you unfortunately touched your new vehicle.
Next is the weather ... how many adjectives can you use to describe it? Autumn's air is so clean, fresh, chilly, bracing, a pleasure to inhale and exhale, that you feel glad to be alive.
And the weather of "Indian summer" is usually a combination of shortening days, of colder nights, of pleasant balmy daytime temperatures with just a hint of approaching winter thrown in for good measure. Even the fall showers are bracing and pleasurable.
Next is the resource. Many rivers contain migrations of trout species preparing for the spawning ritual and late "runs" of Atlantic salmon. Many rivers are suspected of having early spring, mid-summer and late summer (or fall) runs of salmon; perhaps this is nature's way of ensuring that enough fish will survive the rigors of exploitation, poaching and predation.
By ensuring there are staggered numbers of fish entering the stream at various times of the year, no single group is completely wiped out; and spawning redds have a mixture of fish to propagate the species. It makes infinite good sense.
By autumn is is easy to identify when these salmon entered the river. The earlier entering fish are usually dark and thin, the product of being in freshwater for several weeks. Salmon which enter later are somewhat lighter in colour and perhaps thicker or heavier in body weight. They have not been in freshwater quite as long.
The males (some call them "jackfish") which enter in late summer or fall are thick and bright, as are some females ("hens") which are timed by nature's clock to reach their spawning streams later in the year. If you are a salmon angler who spends any time on the upper reaches of rivers in late summer or fall, you will have observed this mix of bright and dark salmon.
When seasons were open much later in September than they are now, I was one who thoroughly enjoyed angling to the very last day of the season. Most sportfishermen by then had done enough salmon and trout angling for the year, and it was on to other activities for most of them. There wasn't much company on the rivers except for some moose hunters and berry pickers. But the pools were literally teeming with fish as they headed for gravel beds in answer to a biological clock which would trigger their spawning a month or two hence.
Salmon weren't that easy to take in the fall as I recall, and the majority of fish I caught were bright males. Perhaps it was protection of a territory which caused more of these male fish to take the fly, sort of a defense mechanism of the dominant male defending the spawning redd against intruders.
My friends and I didn't keep many of these fish, preferring instead to let them return to the river to finish nature's cycle. But it didn't matter ... most of us who were still fishing in autumn had already kept as many fish as we required for our needs. From our perspective it made for great sport at the tail end of the year, sort of a "capper" to the season, and retention of more salmon was not an element in the game.
These are some reasons why I trek over to Nova Scotia each fall, to get in one last bit of salmon fishing before the snow flies. It's too bad ... I'd much rather spend the time and money here in Newfoundland pursing the same activity, but so far the DFO biologists and resource managers have not been convinced that this is a good idea. And why not, I ask?
If it is possible to have a prosperous and successful catch-and-release late season in Nova Scotia, why wouldn't it work here? Assuming that there are rivers in Newfoundland which can be identified as "late-run" rivers (and there is evidence that they do exist), what is wrong with extending the sportfishing season a few weeks?
First of all, I don't think there would be an onslaught of anglers doing a great deal of damage to the stocks. With the limitations of 15 tags for the season, most residents will by then have given up angling in favor of hunting or gathering berries or repairing the homestead before winter sets in.
There will probably only be a small number of dedicated resident anglers who choose to pursue the sport, plus a few tourists who can contribute something to the local economy during a generally "slack" season.
There is also a bonus for the stocks, in having a presence of legitimate anglers on the streams when salmon are beginning to congregate in pools and are most susceptible to poaching. It would certainly be much preferable to have anglers engaging in a legal "catch-and-release" fishery on those rivers than to have the unscrupulous elements sweeping nets through pools and further decimating the few stocks which were able to survive the rigors of migration ... and don't fool yourself, this is a practice which still takes place today.
I for one would like to see seasons on rivers like Little Codroy, Harry's, and parts of the Humber opened for an extra week or two. Weighing the benefits against the possible negative impacts, it could be a plus for the dedicated angler, for the economy which would benefit from a fall tourist industry, and most important of all, for the beleaguered Atlantic salmon resource.
BIRDMAN - A LEGEND OF THE MARGAREE RIVER
(I'll never live this one down. The story you are about to read is true, every bit of it, and I often wonder why Mother Nature picks me to be the brunt of such twists of fate. This is a fish story that I won't soon forget ... too many people keep reminding me!)
In Nova Scotia they are calling me the "Birdman of the Margaree". I'm rapidly becoming a legend in my own time. It's embarrassing. Sounds like it may make a good yarn, so here it is ... but first, some background.
As is the case each fall when weather, time and money permits, the first week of October found me in the rural Margaree River valley of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island pursuing the late fall run of Atlantic salmon with fly rod and reel.
I like autumn angling. For one thing, there are no insects to plague you. The air is cool and refreshing, and sometimes a snow squall reminds you that winter is quite near. This is the time of year when hardwoods of the Margaree Valley take on their fiery colors, brilliantly announcing the end of another season as nature prepares for its wintery sleep. Anglers of the Margaree share activities with moose and deer hunters, with upland game bird hunters and with tourists just making a late trip around the Cabot Trail to admire the scenery. It is a busy place in October, as anyone who tries to find overnight lodging will attest.
For myself and hundreds like me, the attraction is the run of very large salmon which invade the river in late September. There are very few grilse among these fish, which at times reach weights of 40 to 50 pounds, and the sport fishery is entirely a "catch-and-release" activity. That doesn't discourage these salmon anglers, who travel from as far away as Alaska to have a go at these fish.
Fall salmon are different from spring salmon in the way they attack a fly. You can see these fish lying in pools of the river, stacked like pulp chunks on the edges of turbulence where they have some buoyancy, and they usually like large, bright flies to come across their noses before showing any interest. They aren't real easy to take, so when a fish is caught anywhere on the 20 miles of river it doesn't take long for the word to spread. So it was this year.
Anglers were lined up awaiting a turn to "rotate" through the fishing pools. This process is easy to describe ... quite simply, most of the pools can only be fished by three or four people at a time, so you line up and take a turn moving slowly through the pool from top to bottom. If you happen to hook a fish on your turn, you usually have plenty of help to tail it from anglers waiting on the bank.
The fun part is that everyone on the pool shares in the excitement and exultation of landing that fish, almost as if they hooked it themselves. That's what angling etiquette and manners are like on the Margaree River.
The goal is not in keeping or killing the fish, but in successfully attracting it to the fly, playing it to be quickly "tailed", then releasing it safely back to the river.
That was the situation as I made my way along the Hatchery Pool, so named because the Margaree Salmon Hatchery and Interpretation Centre is located alongside it. There was one person behind me awaiting a turn, and two ahead. Across the river, my longtime angling buddy, Perry Munro, was laying out a long loop to the foam line in mid-stream. We would cast the fly, let it swing across the deep pool, then take a step or two and cast again. Slowly but surely we would all have a chance to work the length of the pool.
I was fishing a double-hook Big Intervale Blue, a fly pattern I designed a few years back, and was about halfway down the edge when my line suddenly tightened. I pulled back to set the hook, and fly line began ripping off the reel. Perry reeled in quickly and shouted, "Len has a big fish on!" An audience from the interpretation center soon gathered on the bank to watch the battle, and I tried my best to look cool and collected.
Just as suddenly, the strong pull stopped. "Aha, sulking on the bottom," I thought, and reeled in a little more line. Out in the pool a large, strange bird popped up out of nowhere and sat silently in the back eddy, staring at me.
"Damned bird," I mused, "what a time for it to appear, just when I have this large salmon on!" I waved my free arm at it and shouted, and it dove from sight. A corresponding whine of my Fenwick 7-8-9 reel followed.
A sudden shudder crept along my spine. "Oh, no, it must be tangled in the line holding my salmon." It still hadn't dawned on me, but that soon changed as the bird surfaced and tried to get off the water. To the singing of the reel I spotted the Big Intervale Blue protruding from the bird's right leg. I had set the hook in that struggling waterfowl!
"My God. Len's hooked a big cormorant!" Perry shouted from across the pool. Oohs and aahs came from the bank behind. I put more pressure on the spinning reel's rim and the bird slowed. But now that I caught it, what would I do with it?
After all, it isn't everyday that one has a chance to play a cormorant. Two other anglers gathered on the beach behind me and shouted encouragement while I tried to wrestle the struggling bird toward shore to recover my fly and check for damage.
It was quite a battle ... probably better than I would have had from a salmon. Talk about jumps! When this bird left the water it was a real flight! And when it dove and tried to escape underwater, the reel sang and line peeled down to backing in a split second. The cormorant finally tired after 10 minutes or so and I was able to drag it toward a quiet spot by shore and grab the leader.
The bird just glowered at me and I knew it wouldn't be easy to recover that fly. Besides, how would we safely grab the big cormorant? Would it be better to "tail" it or "neck" it? As a helpful but wary angler assisted me, I snipped off the fly and let the bird escape.
From the bank above there was mixed applause and a few hisses from those who felt it would have been better for the salmon if I had wrung the cormorant's neck. But I shrugged and countered with, "I'm really into this catch and release".
Later in the day a steady drizzle began to fall, so we left the river and made a stop at the Margaree Salmon Museum to visit with curator Frances Hart and see some of the angling artifacts associated with the Margaree's history. Word had already reached the museum about my exploits.
One well-dressed fellow with a wardrobe straight out of an L.L. Bean catalogue approached. "Say, aren't you the guy who hooked that cormorant today on Hatchery? Boy, that was one of the funniest things I've ever seen." I smiled politely.
Linda Calvert, president of the Margaree Salmon Association, got her digs in. "How big was it?" she giggled.
"About 47 inches across the wingspread," I countered. "No record, but a real nice bird ... and I got three flights out of it!" This was getting to be fun.
Jim Grey, author of Handbook of the Margaree, spotted me and dropped over to say hello. Linda asked how his day had gone and he said, "Pretty slow. The most excitement I saw on the whole river all day was some guy who hooked a big cormorant down at Hatchery Pool."
"That was Len," Linda volunteered, tears of laughter running down her cheeks.
The crowning glory was when Ron Alcott, recognized as probably the world's premiere tyer of classic salmon flies, joined the conversation and asked what pattern I had caught it on. "What else would I use but my Big Intervale Blue," I chortled, "... good for big salmon and giant cormorants!"
As I left the museum that afternoon to the sounds of friendly laughter I knew that a new chapter had been written in the river's history. "Birdman of the Margaree" they were calling me.
And so it is that legends are born.
That's the last one, folks. Send me an e-mail if you enjoyed them.