Trip Reports
Canada Dry – By Matt Harris
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Canada Dry - By Matt Harris

“Canada Dry” – By Matt Harris, Trout & Salmon Magazine – March 2007

Matt Harris visits Canada to float a Bomber on the quiet waters of the Miramichi.  Within a week, he’s back for more…

Gary Scott, with a silver 16lb Atlantic Salmon from the Miramichi River - caught on the legendary ‘Cigar butt’

Gary Scott, with a silver 16lb Salmon from the Miramichi – caught on the legendary ‘Cigar butt’

New Brunswick folklore has it that in 1967, keen local fly-fisher Reverend Emmer Smith tossed his cigar butt into the twinkling waters of the Miramichi River and watched in wide-eyed amazement as one of the river’s abundant Atlantic Salmon emerged from the depths to take it.

Our hero rushed home to “match the hatch”, fashioning a crude imitation out of deer-hair.   His fly was an instant hit and although initially named the cigar-butt, it soon became universally known as the now legendary bomber.  The fly quickly developed into the first line of attack for the Miramichi’s huge summer run, and it remains so to this day.

While the bomber will catch fish on other rivers, it is usually skated over fish, producing slashing, bow-waving chases similar to the takes you’d expect on a riffle-hitched fly.  On the Miramichi, the fly is dead-drifted and the take comes out of nowhere.  Imagine that!  I’ve always considered the sight of a Trout taking a dry-fly to be worth ten on the nymph, so the sight of a big salmon-and the Miramichi fish can run to grand proportions-popping up and wolfing down a big dry-fly has always seemed like a very tantalising prospect indeed.

In mid-June of this year, normally prime-time on the Miramichi, I was invited to fish the river’s prolific middle reaches around Blackville.  Our group contained some of the best speycasters in the business including the likes of Scott MacKenzie and Gary Scott from the world-championship winning Scotland speycasting team, as well as some extremely talented anglers.  Our guides, the Colfords, have been guiding on the river for the best part of a century and know it back to front.  What could go wrong?  Big numbers of large salmon seemed a formality.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, nobody had remembered to tell the fish.  Global warming had created a freak ice-jam off the coast of Newfoundland, resulting in a frigid thermocline around Newfoundland.  The extremely low temperature of the sea acted as a barricade to the salmon and delayed their migration home by two weeks.

In a week, we collectively made countless casts, tried every fly in the box and caught precisely no salmon.  Long evenings spent drinking indecent quantities of cold beer and good scotch, watching the sun set on the lush silver birch forests that surround the valley and talking with some great company in the handsome lodge at Bowns Camp more than made up for the lack of fish.  Nursing a large tumbler of Famous Grouse and listening to Jim Patton, Davie MacDonald and Bobbie Teasdale lustily dusting off the great Scottish ballads was a singular treat.  Hearing those wonderful songs, immortalising the oh-so-rare occasions when the Scots gave us Sassenachs a bloody nose or two at Killiecrankie and so on, I was reminded of the old cliché, there is more to fishing than catching fish.

During the day, I’d pass the long hours waiting and hoping by doing my best to hone my speycast on the wide dreamy pools of the Miramichi.  It is a humbling experience to throw what you would consider a perfectly respectable line and then to see Scott MacKenzie’s magnificent tracer bullet of a cast go whistling out literally twice as far.  Gary Scott, while not throwing the astonishing distances of which Scott is capable, casts with an elegance and style that leaves me for one feeling clumsy and wooden.   With the exception of Messrs Fairgreave and Drury, I’ve rarely had the privilege of watching such graceful speycasting, and Gary’s presentation is immaculate, the line coming down poker straight and the fly and leader turning over and dropping gently into the water time after time.

Unfortunately it all counted for nothing – the week rushed past and suddenly the fat lady was clearing her throat.  Our hosts were distraught.  “I so wish you could have seen the fishing the way it should be at this time of the year,” Rodney apologised.  We all commiserated with him, and told him not to worry, we’d had a great time, notwithstanding the lack of fish.  All experienced anglers know how fickle salmon can be, but as we stacked the KIS cases onto the back of the truck and prepared to drive back to Halifax, I couldn’t help feeling just a little cheated – here was a place where salmon – big salmon – could be caught in a unique and heart-stopping way, and through a little freaky hiccup of nature, we were going to miss out.

Four days after I got back, wading through the misery of quarterly VAT return, an e-mail popped up on my laptop.  It was from Rodney, and showed him holding a magnificent, paint fresh 25lb salmon.  The fish had arrived in numbers and would I like to come back for a few days.  I looked around my office at the mountain of receipts and invoices and made my decision in a heartbeat.  The next afternoon I was digging Gary Scott in the ribs and laughing like a schoolgirl, as I sank my second gin and tonic and we peered out of the window of Air Canada’s flight from Heathrow to Halifax, not quite able to believe our luck.  We were on our way back to the Miramichi.

As it turned out it was to be Gary’s triumph.  I have little doubt that his consistently precise casting style and the resultant superior presentation of his fly at long range was the reason for him catching the beautiful Miramichi salmon of 15 lb, 16 lb and 28 lb, all on dead-drifted dry-fly.  I could tell you that I spent most of my time behind the camera, but in truth, I fished hard and managed only to roll three fish that never quite seemed intent on eating the fly.  Gary’s former personal best is 24 lb, and it was great to see an angler of his ability rewarded with such a magnificent fish.

I tracked Gary’s bomber for long hours with a long telephoto lens, but when the take finally came, it was like a magic trick.   The fish didn’t head and tail like a trout – it simply sucked the fly off the top without seeming to more than dimple the surface.  One second the big green bomber was there and the next, it clearly wasn’t.  As the rings subsided, I took the camera away from my eye to see what had happened and found myself looking at a cartwheeling 28 lb salmon six feet in the air.

One great thing about the Miramichi is that, once you’ve hooked your fish, no matter how big, you shouldn’t have too many problems landing it.  The river has a stately, gently flowing character and its boulders are smooth and rounded, offering little by way of line-snagging hazards.  Gary patiently played his trophy, letting the big double-hander and the hefty Hardy drag gradually take their toll.  Apart from a couple of flying leaps early on and a rather hair-raising moment when Rodney’s trusty hound, Buddy, went ploughing into the water, apparently intent on chewing Gary’s fish-of –a lifetime clean off the hook, all went to plan.

Rodney’s father, Gary Colford, a lovely guy who was guiding on the river before I was in short trousers, deftly netted the fish and I clapped Gary Scott heartily on the back, telling him succinctly and colourfully what a lucky man he was.  In truth, he’d earned every ounce of the enormous fish wallowing at our feet, and we were suddenly grinning and giggling again as we gazed down at the huge brassy flanks in the folds of the net.  Tucked in its scissors was Gary’s imitation Cigar-butt.

Although Gary had his fish a good way out into the river, on most of the pools the locals tend to fish at moderate range with single-handed rods.  Presentation, not distance, is the key.  Rodney’s 12 year-old son, Zach, catches his fair share by casting maybe eight yards to obvious lies and watching his bomber like a hawk.  Unlike classic wet-fly technique, salmon on dead-drifted Bombers need to be struck hard and fast, and a short line is much more efficient in this regard.

As we sat on the plane home, Gary and I began talking about what a perfect “classroom” the Miramichi would make to teach people salmon-fishing.  The wading is easy and safe, and the river rewards good technique, but often at short range, thus putting well-coached beginners in with a great chance of a big fish.

The river’s beautiful maple birch and pine-forested valley is populated by moose, eagles, beavers and bears and all put in an appearance now and again.  Add that from May of next year you should be able to fly from Gatwick to Frederickton in six hours, and be making your first cast on the Miramichi 90 minutes later, and a long weekend seems perfectly feasible.  We stayed at Bown’s camp, a beautiful timber lodge on the banks of the river and the accommodation was warm, cosy and appealingly informal.  Our meals, served by lovely cooks, Peggy and Ruby, consisted of delicious home-cooked fare served in almost grotesquely large portions.

Best of all the Miramichi offers the opportunity to emulate the legendary American Lee Wulff.  It is without doubt, the place to enjoy a thrill that, as Gary Scott for one will tell you, will all but make your hair stand on end: catching a large Atlantic salmon on dead-drifted dry-fly.  God save the Queen!

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