Our Man In Canada
August 20th, 2001

The Downtown Fly Fisher
Fly Fishing North America's Oldest City - St. John's Newfoundland

Arial View of St.John's

Text and Photos By Paul Smith and Ian Gall

The Europeans who first began to visit Newfoundland in the sixteenth century came for the fishing. The city of St. John's, which was established by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583 (making it North America's oldest city), served as a supply base for fishing fleets from England and other European countries, which all competed for control of the fisheries. Consequently, for the next 200 years St. John's was a prime military target for the competing nations, until the English established permanent control in 1772.

Today, the saltwater fishery is only a faint shadow of what it used to be and the conflict has largely shifted from a struggle between nations competing for control, to a campaign to preserve and sustain wild stocks of fish in both salt and fresh water.

California Rainbow Trout

Fortunately, despite the universal decline of wild Atlantic salmon, many Newfoundland rivers still enjoy relatively respectable runs. The three rivers which flow through St. John's - the Waterford, the Rennie's, and the Virginia lost their salmon runs years ago. However, a stocking program to reintroduce Atlantic salmon in all three rivers started several years ago. In 1999, six grilse returned to the Rennie's . There have been reports of salmon entering the Waterford River, but they were never confirmed. In 2000, only one grilse returned to the Rennie's River, but local flyfishers remain hopeful. Salmon parr are still caught occasionally, and it is hoped that, through time, a viable run will be established again. The stocking program utilizes personnel from all stakeholder organizations, including The Salmonid Association of Eastern Newfoundland and the Federal Department of Fisheries.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of salmon, St. John's three rivers offer superb flyfishing for resident and anadromous brown trout. In addition, there is also excellent fishing in a number of lakes (known locally as "ponds"), all within the city limits.

The Rivers

The Waterford River flows directly into St.John's harbor, while the other two rivers flow into Quidi Vidi Lake and, finally, into the sea at the tiny fishing village of Quidi Vidi on the east side of the city. All three are blessed with healthy populations of brown trout. In addition, brook trout can be found in small numbers, especially in the smaller feeder streams.

Paul Kearly Fishing the Waterford River

The browns are descendants of fish brought over in the 1880's from England, Germany and Scotland. Locally, the fish are often called "German Browns," but the characteristics of most fish seem to be of the Scottish "Loch Leven" strain. The fish were first established at Murray's Pond, which was and still is a private fishing club. They were also released into several small streams and gradually migrated into salt water.

Current Issue

Today, sea-run browns are found all around the Avalon Peninsula, where they flourish, making Newfoundland a world-class flyfishing destination. (For a more detailed treatment of sea-run browns in Newfoundland, see the Summer 2000 issue of The Canadian Fly Fisher.) Lower Pond, Witless Bay, a mere 20 minutes from St. John's, has produced several fish in the 20 pound range. The largest sea trout caught during the year 2000 was a hefty 25.5 pounds - bigger than the largest salmon taken by most fly fishers - and a trophy in anyone's book.

In the city rivers, the browns run somewhat smaller, with sea-run fish up to 5 pounds being taken. But, despite their relatively smaller size, they make up for it in sheer numbers - these rivers teem with trout. While spring and late fall offer the best chance of trophy catch, the trout season starts in early February and continues until October with a closure of one month from mid-April to mid-May - measure to help protect and enhance the wild native brook trout fishery. However, fishing for brown trout remains open on a number of rivers, with a strict mandatory release policy for any incidentally hooked brook trout. In the city of St. John's during the closure period, the lower reaches of the Waterford and a section from the outlet of Quidi Vidi Lake to the sea remain open for fishing for sea run browns. The mandatory release policy for native brook trout applies.

The Waterford River

Due to its dense trout population, ease of access and proximity to the business quarters, the Waterford River is the visitor's best bet for some downtown fishing. A good place to begin is at the Chalet that marks the beginning of the eastern terminus of the Trans-Canada Trail. Moving upstream, you'll find the first few hundred yards is composed of several small falls and pocket water. In early spring, this is an ideal stretch for dead drifting large nymphs, such as the Montana or Zug Bug. Streamers such as the Muddler Minnow, Black Ghost, and an Alevin pattern also work well, fished down and across. Bead head nymphs are very productive, as fresh-run sea trout seem to have a particular liking for them, either dead drifted or fished down and across. My own favourite nymph is a no-name brand creation tied primarily with peacock olive chenille. In the mid-summer months, a small White Wulff or a Deer Hair Bug is ideal for dry fly fishing the broken pocket water behind the rocks and small falls.

Tall ships in the St. John's harbor

The middle stretch of the Waterford (about 1.5 km of flat flood plain) is composed mainly of riffles, a few deep runs, and several large pools. This section is most productive in summer when the high grass along the riverbank provides shade and cover for resting and feeding trout. The best approach is to wade upstream armed with midge and small dry fly patterns (sizes 14 to 18). A local favourite consists of a black body, with two or three strands of brown deer hair tied in as a back sloping wing (cut very short) and with a sparse black hackle (one or two turns) wound in front of the wing. Standard patterns that work well are small Adams (parachute or otherwise), and small CDC emerger. Experimentation will usually pay off, as the fish are not overly selective. At the upper end of the middle section there is a larger falls with very broken water below it. This is another great opportunity for nymph fishing. Dead drifting with standard nymphs and bead heads should produce results.

The upper section of the river begins above the falls and continues up to another falls located at Bowring Park. Here the river splits into two branches. Fishing is prohibited within the park, but above it, the fishing in both branches, while not as popular as downstream from the park, is still quite good. In autumn, a large falls on the North branch of the river provides a great display of leaping trout on their spawning run. ~ Paul and Ian

Continued next time!

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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