OUTDOORS

The Miramichi: a reel treat

The salmon are back in a legendary river system

June 28 1993
OUTDOORS

The Miramichi: a reel treat

The salmon are back in a legendary river system

June 28 1993

The Miramichi: a reel treat

OUTDOORS

The salmon are back in a legendary river system

Erdie Price disbanded his touring country music group last year and returned to New Brunswick’s Miramichi River to work as a sportfishing guide. Two factors figured in that decision. The first was his growing disenchantment with being on the road for months at a time. The second was that his two brothers, his father and grandfather had all been guides at one time or another. “I grew up on the Miramichi,” said the 35-yearold Price last week, “and wherever I go it keeps hauling me back.” He may be back for good. North America’s richest and bestknown network of Atlantic salmon streams has undergone a spectacular revival after nearly a decade of decline. Fishermen from across Canada, the United States and Europe have been congregating in ever-increasing numbers since the season opened on June 1. “The word is out,” says Jim Bashline of Spruce Creek, Pa., former managing editor

of the angling magazine, Field & Stream. “The world’s most famous salmon river has come back.”

That buoyant attitude is in sharp contrast to the mood that began building in the early 1980s among guides and lodge owners who for generations had catered to hundreds of wealthy anglers each year. Catches and the proportion of big fish began falling dramatically. Among the reasons: commercial fishermen both on the Miramichi and off the estuary were netting huge amounts of seawardbound smaller salmon which ordinarily return to the river about a year later to spawn. Faced with the loss of tourist revenues and the despoiling of the 600-mile-long Miramichi network of rivers and streams, the federal and New Brunswick governments intervened and halted commercial salmon fishing. They also imposed limits on the number of fish each angler could catch—currently eight for the season—and decreed that

salmon more than 25 inches long—needed to preserve the health and size of the fishery—had to be released.

At first, the restrictions drove away some trophy fishermen—those looking for big fish to stuff and mount over their mantle pieces. But government action, together with the 1991 decision by the federal fisheries department to suspend commercial salmon fishing off Newfoundland, on the salmon migration route, have paid off. During the June 1 to Oct. 21 salmon season in 1991, only 19,833 fish were either landed or caught and released. Last year, the catch soared to 40,724 and rivermen expect it to be even greater this year. That trend offers great promise: it is estimated that each pound of landed salmon puts anywhere from $300 to $1,200 into the local economy. The money is spent on everything from gasoline and food to fishing equipment. Said Keith Pond, owner of Pond’s Resort at the hamlet of Ludlow,

which has catered to fishermen since 1925: “Without salmon this place dies.”

It has been that way for decades. The postcard-perfect Miramichi began attracting anglers more than a century ago. By the 1940s, it had become a mecca for well-to-do fishermen from the United States, lured by the huge salmon runs and the forested wilds of east-central New Brunswick. “There was nothing fancy about the setup in those days,” recalls Clayton Stanley Stewart, 84, who has been outfitting hunters and fishermen since 1936. For $6 a day, tourists got a guide with canoe, food and a tent.

But the low-end bargains did not last for long—wealthy visitors from Connecticut and California might have been prepared to don hip waders and stand in the water for hours,

but they wanted something fancier than a tent when they sloshed ashore. Along the riverbanks, entrepreneurs began building cedar, spruce and pine lodges, some of which now have big-city amenities such as saunas and even helicopter landing pads. Accommodation, food, a guide and access to a private salmon pool costs from $150 to $350 a day, depending on how good the fishing is. Many of the best spots—and the adjacent lodges—are owned by multinational corporations, including the big international pulp and paper companies that have dominated the local economy for generations, or wealthy businessmen such as New Brunswick’s multimillionaire Irving family. (In Canada, riverfront ownership traditionally has extended to mid-stream and the owner can deny others the right to fish. But the waters themselves must be kept free for navigation by anyone.)

The well-heeled share the river with celebrities. Their ranks include former Boston Red Sox outfielder and baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams,

Canadian-born Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, legendary U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager, golfing great Sam Snead and numerous British peers.

Prince Charles has been an occasional patron.

However, once on the river, guides say, everyone is equal. “All that matters is what kind of person you are and what you can do with a rod in your hand,” declares Ernest Long, 61, a cigarpuffing veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who lives near Doaktown, N.B.,

g and has been working as a

P guide on the river for 42

0 years. And once the salmon

9 begin to run on the Mi-

1 ramichi, almost everyone— whether they opt for canoes, flat-bottomed boats or hip waders—experiences the heart-thumping thrill of hooking one of the world’s greatest fighting fish on a tiny manmade fly. “In all the time I’ve been fishing here,

I’ve never been skunked but once,” says Julian Dixon, a retired pulp and paper company executive from Dorset, Vt., who has 5 not missed a season since ë the early 1970s. “That’s a claim I can’t make for any of the rivers I’ve fished in Scotland and England.”

In the end, the elegant salmon lodges represent the Miramichi dressed up in its Sunday best. When the salmon season concludes in late October, the rich and famous will pack their rods and retreat to their familiar surroundings. Until recently, the thou-

sands of rivermen left behind made a tough and hazardous wintertime living in the Miramichi woods during the province’s wild days of lumbering and shipbuilding in the 1800s and early 1900s. Now, many of the smaller mills have been replaced by a handful of larger operations, most of which are located at the mouth of the Miramichi water system. Moreover, technology has eliminated many of the traditional lumbering jobs— and the unique woodsman’s skills that went with them. “It’s sad really,” reflected Eldon Black, who first worked in the woods in 1946 and today, at 76, still puts in an occasional shift at the family lumber company in Boiestown, N.B. “Last year we had 30 men working in the woods and I bet not one of them knew how to handle an axe or saw.”

For the most part, though, the people of the Miramichi contemplate the changes in the lumbering industry and the area’s generally grim economic circumstances with Irish humor tinged with irony and quiet endurance. Explains Jerry Doak, 36, the

second-generation owner of Wallace W. Doak and Sons Ltd., which has been outfitting Miramichi fishermen since 1946: “Miramichiers don’t expect to be at the centre of anyone’s universe.” They may not be. But the river that has shaped their lives is again at centre stage for anglers around the world.

JOHN DeMONT in Doaktown