Miramichi River

"The world's greatest Atlantic salmon river," writes Wayne Curtis of the Miramichi River in Currents in the Stream. A sweeping statement, perhaps suspect by having been made by a native son. The evidence however supports the superlative. No other river sees as many angler days, produced as many Atlantic salon, or offers such a length of fishable water.

According to Curtis, in his book, Fishing the Miramichi, the word Miramichi is a Montagnais (a native people of Quebec province) word for "Micmac land". The Micmacs (local aboriginal people) called the river Lust-a-gooch-cheech or Little Restigouch (another famous New Brunswick salmon river). Why the Montagnais word stuck, except perhaps that it was easier to pronounce and write, is a mystery. [See map, click here.]

Note leaping salmon on left

Many great rivers are fully of the wilderness. Not so the Miramichi. Much of its lower valley has been inhabited for three centuries. The valley's people are as important to the river's story as the great silver fish which brought it angling fame.

The Miramichi is actually a river system located in New Brunswick, one of Canada's east coast provinces. To be precise, which almost no one ever is, the Miramichi only exists for a few miles after its two main components, the Main Southwest Miramichi and the Northwest Miramichi, join near Miramichi City (formerly the towns of Newcastle and Chatham). From there the river flows to a rendezvous with Miramichi Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At it's mouth it is nearly a mile wide. The first European to comprehend the full extent of the system was the young French engineer/cartographer, Batiste Louis Franquelin, who mapped the country in 1686. Regardless, most people speak of the Main Southwest as if it were the Miramichi and treat the Northwest as one of its tributaries, so I will follow this convention.

Author Paul Marriner with fall salmon

Fish of the Miramichi

Atlantic Salmon:
Kelly's Channel on the Main Southwest Miramichi
To fully appreciate the Miramichi, one must understand the fish which plays so large a part in the river's past, present and future. "In the beginning," Atlantic salmon eggs are laid in a gravel redd in November and hatch the next spring. The fry grow rapidly and within a few months acquire the characteristic bars and spots of a parr. One spring, after from two to three years in the river depending on the available food supply, the parr get a silver coat and a new name, smolt, and drop downriver to the ocean.

Now a genetic program (not yet fully understood) kicks in to protect the species from most natural disasters. Some smolts feed in the ocean for only one year and then return to the river. These are grilse, most weighing between three and six pounds. Some believe grilse are a subspecies and/or are all male. Both views are false, although the grilse population is significantly gender-biased in favor of males.

Salmon spending more than one winter at sea are called multi-sea-winter (MSW) fish. The number of years at sea determines the final size of a salmon returning home. Some think all large salmon have spawned several times - another myth. While an average of 30 percent of MSW salmon in the Miramichi spawn from two to four times, the majority are maidens. Most Miramichi spawners overwinter in the river and return to the sea in early spring. Called kelts, they feed primarily on an incoming run of spawning smelt.

There is no historical evidence to suggest the Miramichi was ever home to very large salmon. Some argue the relative ease of migrating is responsible, but I am not persuaded. Other notable big fish rivers are no more difficult. Regardless, between 30 and 40 pounds seems a natural genetic limit. Due to conservation efforts, more salmon in this larger class are being landed and released each season.

Fall fishing at Kelly's Channel

Other Species

Atlantic salmon is the glamour species of the Miramichi, but it is not the sole inhabitant. While the lower river is too warm to support a large population of resident brook trout, it is a highway for anadromous brook trout headed for cold-water tributaries and the headwaters. This run peaks between mid-May and mid-July and trout over five pounds are taken each season.

Shad, another anadromous species, are virtually ignored by anglers. They enter the river in mid-May to spawn and are scarce by the end of June.
Striped bass are another sleeper species. While individuals have been seen as far upriver as Boisetown, most remain in the lower tidal regions of the main and Northwest rivers.

History of the River

The wonder is that there are any Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi today. When Europeans first arrived at the mouth of the river over 350 years ago, one wrote,

"So large a quantity of them [salmon] enters into this river at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make in falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air."
Though few in number, the colonists set about with considerable ingenuity and gusto to bring silence to the night.

The chosen weapons were nets and spears. Set nets ringed the bay and stretched across the river, pools were swept with net by day and night, and canoes set out for the spawning grounds after dark bearing flambeaux (torches) and spears. So prodigious was the slaughter that by 1789 almost a million and a half pounds of salmon were exported from the Miramichi. A good night for the upriver spearers could see 1000 carcasses hauled ashore . . .

The vast depredations soon took their toll and the salmon runs declined precipitously. Combined with the rapid development of a more lucrative forest industry, the collapse caused the commercial operations to virtually evaporate. The remaining salmon were left in peace. Netting and spearing for local consumption and the negative impacts of mills and log drives continued to take a toll.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the first effective regulation of the salmon fishery and the establishment of fish culture stations. Undoubtedly this saved the Miramichi's salmon from the ultimate fate of those in other rivers. Regardless, the original runs - estimated at a million fish - would never be seen again.

Apparently, few sportsmen ventured to the Miramichi before the mid-1800s. Certainly the local people were little interested in sport, concerned as they were with wrestling a living from the valley and considering the ease with which salmon could be taken with net and spear. After 1850, angler/authors tell of fly fishing the Miramichi and having some success. Charles Hallock wrote in 1873 that the favored areas were well upstream of the nets, around the mouths of cold-water brooks such as Rocky, Burndt Hill, Salmon, and Clearwater Brooks on the main river. Other favored wilderness tributaries such as the Sevogle.

While some travellers reported acceptable angling, others suggested the river was so netted and poached as to be useless for sport. Regardless, from this time forward, fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Miramichi increased in popularity.

One other development significantly affected early salmon angling on the Miramichi, the formation of fishing clubs. As far back as the last decades of the 19th century, stretches of government-owned riverbank have been leased to individuals or groups (this is in addition to the exclusive fishing rights associated with the ownership of land in certain original grant areas). Shares were sold in these clubs, mostly to wealthy anglers from the northeastern United States. One well known example is The Miramichi Fish and Game Club which came into existence on the Northwest Miramichi in 1893 (although anglers had been plying the "club" waters for two decades previously). Edward Weeks wrote a history of the club in 1984 featuring a riveting photo of a 36-pound monster taken by William Crawford in 1893.

The Tributaries

John Huff tails a salmon on the Cains

Cains River

The Cains Rover melds with the main river a few miles upstream of the town of Blackville. Fed by boggy upriver springs, its waters acquire a characteristic dark stain. Although the once renouned spring sea-trout run is in trouble, it remains an attactive stream with an excellent fall run of salmon and is beloved by many hunters for its grouse and woodcock covers.

Bartholomew River

I have little first-hand experience of the Bartholonew as a salmon stream. The reason being that until recently it was designated and "index river" (reserved for scientific study) and so closed to salmon angling. Studies record the run size as varying wildly from year to year (under 200 to over 2000), and in some years it seems most salmon arrive after the season closes. Bill Hooper notes, 'the salmon remain in two deep water pools about a mile above the counting station throughout the summer and early fall. Up-river migration begins only after the second week of October several days before spawning.'

Brian Roadhouse fights salmon on the Dungarvon

Dangarvon River

Under normal conditions the Dungarvon should be approached with small river techniques. By this I mean that movement is essential. Rather than cast over one or two pools extensively, the anglers should cover as many as possible. Steelheaders will understand perfectly. . .

Renous River

The Rock Ponds are aptly named. They are rocky stillwaters in which salmon pause while ascending the North Branch of the river. Depending on conditions, the angling can be excellent.

Although having happily wandered up the North Branch of the Renous casting bugs over rock-studded pothole pools, I prefer the gravel bottom and classic pools of the middle river. At normal water levels one can cross back and forth to approach each pool from the proper side. And, once again, movement is important in this section as most pools are small and unlikely to hold more than one or two fish.

Little Southwest Miramichi River

Murray's Landing on the Little Southest, about a half-mile above Andre Godin's Miramichi Inn, is a favorite summer pool. On a sunny, but crisp, April day, in the company of my brother Jim and good friend Milton McKay, it also yielded by first spring salmon while fishing from shore. Casting from huge chunks of ice thrown up on shore by the spring flood, it was fascinating to watch the salmon rise for our easily visible, bright colored streamers. This is unusual for the Miramichi as angling is almost always at water level (canoe or wading.) The experience reminded me of fishing from platforms in Norway.

Northwest Miramichi River
Grilse leading on Northwest Miramichi

Of the major tributaries, I know least about the Northwest and its prime upriver tributary, the Sevogle (waters in the Northwest sytem are the Big and Little Sevogle, Portage, Tomogonops and the North and South Branch). I have fished both, but being a long drive from home (permanent or temporary), infrequently. What occasionally drew us to the Northwest was a large early grilse run or the compulsion to explore.

The Bartibog

If I have only a passing acquaintance with the Northwest and its tributaries, of the Bartibog I know nothing firsthand. On the other hand, Jim claims to have seem the largest salmon of his life in the river. It was near dark and he told me he was so worred he might hook the monster that he quit fishing. The Bartibog also boasts its own noted fly tier, Benedict Theophilus "Ben" Connel, creator of the Ben's Best.

The Seasons

Poling through a 'Louie' on the Main Southwest Miramichi

Miramichi's Spring Fishery

The incentive to endure the changeable weather of a Miramichi "spring" is the opportunity to land a bunch of fish. For, while during the bright season anglers are permitted to catch-and-release four salmon per day, in spring there is no limit to the number one can release. With a bit of luck and a modicum of skill, anglers can expect to release 10 to 20 salmon per day [kelts] providing one finds the fish. As noted earlier, kelts take the fly aggressively because they are actively feeding while dropping downriver.

The Summer Season

The first serious summer anglling is for a large run of grilse entering the Northwest in late June. Afterwards, runs of salmon enter the main river and the tributaries throughout the summer, the timing depending on water conditions. In the early seventies, I favored early July for its strong grilse runs. Then, for nearly a decade, the better angling was later in the month. Now, early July has staged a comeback. Mid-July to mid-September are the days of the dry fly. Not exclusively of course, but salmon seem readier to take dries when daytime temperatures are higher. The tail of a pool in the evening is a sound bet.

Miramichi summers are magic. Long days offer extended hours of angling. Nights are cool regardless of daytime temperatures. Salmon are on the move. From the veranda of Miramichi Gray Rapids Lodge, as early July evenings yield to the night, I often watch the river's slick surface betray pods of salmon working upriver as schools of shad drop down. Regardless of the day's luck, this reaffirmation of the river's eternal cycle buoys the spirit for the morrow.

The old Doak Fly Shop Fall

. . . fall is my favorite season on the Miramichi. Now the salmon push forward, almost disregarding water levels. Now a man may fish into dusk without the insult of hurrying the evening meal. Now the frost finishes off the pestilence of flies.

Fall salmon are often more aggressive, although certainly still subject to periods of lockjaw. They also exhibit an eclectic taste in flies. Everything goes . . . They also succumb to a variety of presentations.

Fall is also the season of the hookbill - salmon which in anticipation of spawning have already begun to experience changes. In the lower river, many are headed for the Cains. Changes include the growing of large kypes (a hooking development of the lower and upper jays) in the male and heavy spotting. Cains-bound salmon will already have begun to acquire the characteristic red sides.

Proximity to spawing affects a salmon's fighting sprit. While there are no absolutes, fall fish jump few times and the average - for the capable angler - landing time of a minute per pound is reduced by a third. The compensation is more and larger fish.

Flies for the Miramichi

Miramichi No one knows why an Atlantic salmon will take one fly and not another. The wonderful (or cursed, depending on whether you are buying or selling) uncertainty has led to a profusion of patterns throughout history. The creative urge has yet to be stilled. There are no rules, almost. For the Miramichi, flies must by regulation be tied on double or single hooks without added weight.

Although black and green are the river's primary colors, there are times when a white or yellow fly is the only answer. At such times I choose The Priest (white) or the GW Special (greenish yellow) by Gerry Williamson. Also, in addition to those specifically mentioned, believers modify other patterns in the list by adding a little flash to the wing or tail.[For the flies for the Miramichi River, click here.]

Miramichi River Journal

Among the tens of thousands of anglers who have cast a fly over the Miramichi's storied waters are names from every field of endeavor. Writers, painters, musicians, educators, scientists, sports and movie stars, physicians, clergy, generals, businessmen and women, and politicians have made the journey, some many times. To all, the lure of the river and Salmo salar is irresistible. ~ Paul Marriner

For a MAP of The Miramichi River, click here.
For the FLIES for The Miramichi River, click here.
To ORDER Miramichi River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Miramichi River part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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