THE CRAZIEST FISHING IN THE WORLD
Every spring as the ice goes out the wild Miramichi River goes gloriously berserk. So do the lean tough salmon that surge among its swollen rapids and the happy, half-frozen anglers who flock to New Brunswick for he-man sport
WILLIAM J. DRISCOLL
WHEN a river, big fish and human beings are struck by spring madness simultaneously as they are each April the result is the chilliest, zaniest, most exciting angling in the world.
The river is the Miramichi, which winds through the forests and past the farming and lumbering communities of northeastern New Brunswick and empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Straining and heaving, it throws off the winter ice and celebrates liberation with a great rushing and roaring and overflowing of meadows.
The fish are Atlantic silver salmon beautiful, full of fight, strong enough to breast rapids and hurdle falls. They’ve been ice-locked too, growing lean and ravenous. Free again, they whoosh up from the depths so exultantly that they occasionally jump into boats by mistake.
The people are city peopleexecutives and professional men who also revel in escape. They bob around in canoes on the river’s swollen pools in numbing temperatures, catching the fish but returning most of them to the water: the law lets each man hook five a day, but he’s only allowed
to kill one and must release the other four unharmed.
Frank Vansyckle and Bart Bartholomew, both of Perth Amboy, N.J., both in their early fifties, and both trim and athletic, are fairly typical spring salmon anglers. Vansyckle is president of the Perth Amboy National Bank and Bartholomew is an insurance broker.
By April Fool’s Day, they have fly boxes in their pockets and a faraway look in their eyes. A client who asks Vansyckle for a loan is likely to get a lecture on the respective merits of two feathered baubles with sinister names the Skeleton Beadle and the Killer. Bartholomew, in the midst of an insurance deal, may launch into an exposition of the technique of cross-stream casting.
Their minds are not on their business, but on the distant Miramichi, and they’re waiting for a telegram from Eldred (Tugboat) Bailey, a stocky amiable sportsmen’s outfitter. “She’s cracking,” the message will announce meaning, of course, that the solid sheet of ice which has covered the Miramichi is splitting and starting to move.
When the word comes Vansyckle and Bartholo-
mew hop into an automobile loaded with tackle and items of equipment generally associated with Arctic exploration and speed almost a thousand miles from Perth Amboy to Ludlow, a gnat-sized New Brunswick village where Bailey has his camps.
There’ll still be snow in the woods when they reach the Miramichi and they and hundreds of others will all be in time to brave flash floods and late blizzards and risk drowning and pneumonia.
But their wives needn’t worry about them because they’ll be shepherded by Miramichi guides, a justly famous breed. A Miramichi guide can build a bed of evergreen brush that’s softer than a spring-filled mattress, and his flapjacks are more golden than gold itself, and the aroma of his coffee in frost-laden air is the finest fragrance this side of heaven. He can play a mouth organ as he walks a spinning log through white rapids, and he has the homespun humor of a Will Rogers and the wisdom of a philosopher, and he nurses his charges as carefully as a mother nurses children. So, in spite of hardships and hazards, the sportsmen survive to recount their adventures.
Unlike most anglers, the^ si.i-.lv to t.lain unvarnished facts when they relate their experiences, but spring salmon angling is so weirdly and wonderfully insane that they’re branded as liars anyway.
Who, for instance, believes Vernon West, of Hartford, Conn., when he says he caught a tenpound salmon with his necktie? Yet he has reliable witnesses to prove that when he was seated in a canoe, wearing a silk necktie with a hand-painted salmon-ily pattern, a fish rose and hurled itself right into his arms.
Spring salmon angling combines incredible incidents of this kind with action, thrills and close shaves. You cast from the bow of a canoe in a racing treacherous current. Pulp sticks swirl by, headed toward the mills. They’re a constant threat. So is “anchor” ice ice which stayed behind, fastened to the banks, when the main body went out, and which now breaks away in patches that can crush a canoe as easily as you can crush an eggshell.
In the stern your guide manoeuvres the craft frantically with a twelve-foot pole and a skill born of lifelong training. He usually manages to dodge the pulp sticks and the ice, but he can’t always dodge the bone-chilling wind that wheezes out of the north.
But there are the fish to make you forget you’re freezing. When conditions are right, they arch across the surface, flashing silver and splashing mightily, and there’s one in the air every second to quicken an angler’s pulse.
You have steady nerves if you can keep calm when one of them leaps within a yard or two of you, because these are no ordinary fish. It was Izaak Walton himself who described Salmo salar, the majestic salmon of the North Atlantic, as the “king of game fish.”
The Fun Is Playing, Not Eating
Chief of the Salmonidae, a royal clan that includes brook trout and lake trout, Salmo salar begins life as a tiny alevin hiding in crevices at the headwaters of fast-flowing crystal streams. Within a few months it’s a six-inch parr, jewel-like and dotted with ruby. In the next two years it grows another couple of inches until as a silvery smolt, it journeys to sea to its secret feeding grounds.
It. returns to its birthplace to breed perhaps in a year or two, as a fork-tailed grilse weighing four or five pounds, or perhaps not for four or five years, when it will be a great square-tailed silver-and-blue salmon weighing up to fifty pounds.
Its Pacific cousins, the important commercial ' varieties, die after spawning. Salmo salar lives through the ordeal and winters under the ice, nourished by its own fat. In the spring it sets out for the sea again.
Summer anglers meet the salmon when it is going to the spawning beds and is plump and delectable, its flesh a rich red. Spring anglers meet it, coming back, skinny, and its flesh, while edible enough, is dry and yellowish. It is now called a kelt, and kelt are hungriest and most numerous just after the ice runs out, which is why they are fished in such atrocious weather. Much of all North American keif fishing is done on the Miramichi. It’s a major breeding ground —there are always lots of fish to be had there in April and May. Also Miramichi keif, seem to get through the winter in better shape than those in most waters.
There’s an ancient argument as to whether kelt should be fished. Summer anglers say no—they’re inferior as food and so starved that they practically beg to be hooked. Spring anglers, in rebuttal, say spring angling tops summer angling as a sport, and is more desirable from the conservation standpoint.
“In summer angling,” states Bart Bartholomew, “you catch salmon hell-bent for the maternity ward and full of eggs, and when you catch them you kill them, put them in boxes of ice, and send them ofT to friends.
“In spring salmon angling, you catch fish that have already spawned, and you let maybe forty-
nine out of fifty go. Vansyckle and I have fished the Miramichi together for two weeks or a month each spring for fifteen years, and all we kill is two salmon apiece in a season. The fun is playing the fish, not eating them.”
Summer salmon are discriminating, hard to please, easy to frighten. It takes a combination of knowledge, art and luck to tempt them.
But you can lure spring salmon with any fly and you can be ox-clumsy when you cast. But you have to be skilful after the fish strikes or you won’t bring it to the net.
While summer anglers disagree violently, Bartholomew, like most spring anglers, claims that a kelt, pound for pound, beats a summer fish as a battler. “A spring fish is at fighting weight,” he says, “all muscle and no fat.”
Then, too, a kelt has the surging flood current as an ally. And, since the pools are several times as wide as in midsummer when the water is low, it has ample room to gather momentum as it tries to bolt for freedom.
You fish the kelt with a six-ounce rod. On
your reel you have thirty or forty yards of light tapered line and a hundred yards of untapered backing. The most popular spring flies are streamers like Bart’s Fancy (designed by Bartholomew), the Rose of New England, the Mickey Finn, Russell’s Fancy and Elmer’s Special, tied in small sizes.
Your tackle is a mere shade heavier than that used for brook trout and Miramichi kelt. run up to twenty-five pounds. Landing a kelt is thus a little like roping a wild horse with a piece of parcel cord. According to an old rule of thumb it should take a minute a pound to subdue a salmon. But a twelve-pound kelt in rushing water can keep you very busy indeed for a whole hour, which is five minutes to a pound.
Ordinarily the fish plucks rather casually at your fly, but all hell breaks loose the instant it feels the barbed hook sinking into its jaw. With a long scudding leap it jets downstream and your reel sings as the line melts into the water. Your rod bends and quivers as you apply enough pressure to slow the rush slightly. You need judgment here—need to know
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just how much strain your line and leader will stand without snapping.
Your attention is so concentrated on coping with the first exertions of the fish that you don’t realize until you hear a scraping of gravel that the guide has hauled up the killick (a stone anchor) and poled ashore.
You scramble onto the bank from which it is safer to follow your opponent, and literally trot after the salmon, up and down, up and down, giving line when you have to and reeling in when you can.
A hig one may tug out all your line and most of your hundred yards of hacking, then switch course and shoot toward you like a bullet. This is a critical moment, for if you can’t retrieve the slack in your line the fish will have a chance to jerk it, and that’s often disastrous.
Whether your line stays in one piece depends entirely on how adroitly you manipulate rod and reel, for your adversary, provided with the least opportunity', has more than enough strength to tear it in two.
Ninety-nine salmon out of a hundred will leap repeatedly in an effort to get off the hook. There’s a record of one kelt leaping sixteen times in succession. Hut the odd fish will dive for the bottom and sulk. Hart Bartholomew fought a salmon for an hour and a half without seeing it once, and finally lost it.
Besides being the biggest and most powerful of all aquatic game caught on light fly tackle, salmon are the trickiest creatures the Lord ever put fins on. If there’s a log floating by— as there usually is on the Miramichi in the spring—a kelt will jump over it. then double back under it, wrapping vour line around it. If this happens, you’re sunk.
If it can wrap your line around a bridge pier or a rock, it always will. There have been cases in which a fish rocketed over a canoe, wrapping the line around the canoe itself.
At the end of a frenzied struggle, if you win, your fish is so exhausted that the guide can easily net it. He looks at you inquiringly. If you decide to spare the fish you use the old thumbs-up signal. The guide grins and slips the kelt back into the stream. On the Miramichi, you won’t be considered silly or maudlin if, at this second, you raise your hat solemnly and respectfully. It is a dull clod of an angler who has never felt the impulse to do this.
Hut battling fish is only one of the pleasures of spring salmon fishing. The others include mental relaxation, the physical glow gained from exercise and fresh air, the enjoyment of food when you’re really hungry, the communion with nature, the comradeship of fellow anglers.
Friendships formed by spring salmon anglers are probably closer than ordinary angling friendships. They’re cemented by the fact that these men share discomforts and perils, and know what it is to be marooned in snowdrifts trying to reach the river, and to be caught out on the river itself, miles from shelter, in a sudden blizzard. Most who belong to this hardy fishing fraternity have had hair-raising experiences with masses of grinding anchor ice and churning patches of pulp sticks. And they’ve faced flash floods like that in 1950, which was a bad one.
That year the ice didn’t move out until April 21. A few days later, when the river seemed to be fairly clear and the angling was under way, a lot more ice came sweeping down from the
headwaters. It jammed a short distance below Bailey’s. The Miramichi burst its banks. One gigantic chunk of ice bulldozed an electric pole and the live wires set fire to Bailey’s covered bridge. The bridge was saved when all the power in the district was shut off. The river subsided a bit. But at ten o’clock at night, when the Baileys and their guests were in bed, it really went ! berserk.
The ice shook the ground like an earthquake, uprooted trees and pounded against the cabins and the main lodge and the water climbed the walls. A human chain, husky guides handin-hand, rescued one man of seventyfive who was floundering helplessly ¡ about in three feet of water. They took refuge afterward in a hillside ! schoolhouse. Esther Bailey sat in a child’s seat at the front of the room looking at the blackboard while the men changed into dry clothing they j had salvaged.
Nights like that forge a bond not j only between angler and angler, but ! between angler and guide, and the spring salmon fishermen think their I guides are the finest fellows in the j world. They have various ways of j demonstrating their regard.
Bartholomew hires a hall at Ludlow i and an old-time band and holds an annual dance for guides and their womenfolk. Harry Fadde and Charles Koenig, both of Linden, N.J., bring a projector and films with them each season to show the guides moving pictures. Fred Morrow, of New Britain, Conn., who manufactures brass studs I for cowboy belts, turns up in the spring with a whole packing case full j of them. At Bailey’s there’s a joke that if a guide fell into the river he’d I never come up—that the weight of Morrow’s studs would hold him down. Even the waitresses are decorated with j studs, and there’s talk of putting studs i on the canoes too, so the boys will be able to “polish the ship’s brass.”
How do guides feel about spring I anglers? “Ninety-nine percent of the ¡ sports,” says Fred Clowater, “are damn nice chaps, the very best, but j one percent are punks.”
Clowater, who stands six feet four I in his socks, is thirty-seven, and has ¡ been guiding for sixteen years. Like ! most guides, he was born beside the ! river, and played truant from school ; to fish.
He hooked his first salmon when he j was twelve, landing it with a homemade rod and twenty feet of line. He j had a canoe for a cradle, he chuckles, so the extremely difficult art of poling ‘ —which is what you have to do in a
stream too fast for paddling—came to him as naturally as walking. When Clowater isn’t busy guiding you’ll find him fishing.
The spring anglers and the guides on the Miramichi both feel the same about salmon—they love them. And they understand the emotions of the ancient man who was overwhelmed by a desire to catch one more salmon before he died. This man had lived by the Miramichi in his youth but had moved away. Now he hitchhiked back, flagging passing motorists, so the tale goes, with his long white beard. He couldn’t afford to stay at salmon camps like Tugboat Bailey’s, where the charge is twenty or twenty-five dollars a day, but he got cheap hoard at a farmhouse. He had no tackle, hut he borrowed some from Jim Catt, who happened to be in the locality, and who was, and still is, federal supervisor of fish culture in New Brunswick.
Lost by a Whisker
Catt helped him to a bridge from which he could cast, left him there and strolled upstream. When he had gone a short distance he heard terrible screams. He ran back and saw a sad sight. The old man had hooked a fish, and when it scudded off, pulling out line, it had wound his whiskers up in the reel. Now the fish was struggling in the pool, and the reel was vibrating against the old man’s chin. Catt, who can rise to an emergency, whipped out his jackknife and started hacking off the beard.
And then a lumberjack, who had also heard the screams, raced to the scene. He was armed with an axe and swung at Catt because he was under the mistaken impression that Catt was cutting the old man’s throat. Catt jumped oft' the bridge into the pool. From the icy water, and through chattering teeth, he explained that his intentions were humane.
“But why,” demanded the lumberjack as the light dawned, “didn’t you just cut the line and let the fish go, instead of cutting the whiskers?”
“Because,” said Catt, “I knew he’d rather lose his last whisker than his last fish.”
“Yes,” nodded the lumberjack, “that’s right.” And just as he nodded the fish broke free.
This took place, of course, in the spring salmon angling season, which starts in April and lasts through May and is the season when spring madness strikes the river and the fish and the people. It couldn’t have happened any other time, ^