Tuesday, July 27, 2021

That's Salmon Fishing
By Alex Ford

In 1941, the acclaimed novelist Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse near her home in North Yorkshire, England. I have absolutely nothing in common with Virginia Woolf, nor do I particularly enjoy her writing. However, I’m on day 17 of salmon fishing without even touching a fish, and the rocks on the bank are starting to look pocket sized.

If it weren’t for a handful of grilse, maybe Virginia Woolf and I would have at least one thing in common.

It’s a comforting thought as I reel in the final cast after four days of salmon fishing in Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s mid July, and there are still a few months left in the season where a proper salmon might find the end of my line. At least the bass are around back home in Boston, and the next few weeks are happily occupied with the simplicity of a predatory fish and a sinking fly.

In maybe 30 days of Atlantic salmon fishing from Canada to Scotland, I’ve caught one. It was a beautiful 12 pound hen that my friend Gonzo went swimming on a November evening in Nova Scotia to net. It was the 10th day of that trip, and one of two salmon landed between my core salmon fishing friends in 2018.

Constantly battling ever decreasing salmon returns and conditions is all just part of the game. It’s an arguably masochistic enterprise, with some sullen pride being taken in the tenacity of standing in the river day after day without producing a fish. An unexplained optimism is present in all genuine fly anglers, and perhaps none more than the Atlantic salmon angler, who could be put on par with steelhead fishermen. You’ll also find an equal affinity for alcohol and tobacco in the two sects. For my salmon friends, there is never a shortage of optimism, alcohol, or tobacco products.

Come August, the conditions up north are looking bleak. We’re watching the weather daily, but the rivers are low and the salmon run looks next to impossible. By September, salmon fishing has been written off until next summer.

Boston is crawling with pop up breweries, so I met some friends at one on a Saturday afternoon. If New York hipsters were actually hipster, they’d live in Boston. A few sprinkles of rain pushed us inside at around 9pm, which is when I got a text from my housemate and salmon junkie Alec Griswold, aka Griz.

“New Brunswick is about to get a foot of rain. Big salmon push – leaving in the AM. At the Tab by tmrw night, fish Monday Tuesday, back Tuesday night late. We’re picking up Gonzo on the way.”

The same Hurricane Dorian that devastated Abaco and Grand Bahamahad made its way all the way up the coast, taking out a few jetties in the Carolinas for good measure, and was currently dumping a foot of rain on the salmon rivers of New Brunswick. The river would rise quickly, and the salmon which had been staging for the spawning run at the mouth could finally access the fine gravel beds of the upper Tabusintac River, about an hour north of the Miramichi.

My stomach dropped. It’s a well presented fly, and he knows I’ll bite. I texted colleagues to see how disruptive it would be for me to be off the grid for 3 days. I explained these were once in a lifetime conditions. The response was good.

I texted Griz back, “Can you put my laundry in the dryer? I’m going to need it.”

At this point, I’d been tapping on my phone for an unsociable amount of time and one of my friends brought this to my attention. I finished a beer and stood up shakily.

“I have to go home. I’m going to Canada in a few hours. Venmo me for this.”

The road into the Tab is a rocky one through blueberry fields and logging trails. We call in our goodbyes to anyone who might care, switch into airplane mode, and inch the truck down to the river. The first sight of it brings a big laugh of excitement in the car. It’s spilling over with rushing water and the guardian of the river says he’s seen a few salmon roll already.

We arrived at the Tab’s Big Hole Camp in time for a quick session at one of the Tab’s most productive pools. We don’t touch a fish, but the river drops a healthy six inches as we fish until dark. The next day promises the conditions we came here for.

The morning brings a perfect river height, but the water is still dark with the runoff from the Dorian dump. We start in the middle of the Tab’s beats and Griz promisingly hooks a grilse on his first pass. In the afternoon, we land a few more grilse between two and four pounds. This is great action, and to me a grilse is a salmon. Except it’s not a salmon. After two days fishing, we’ve caught 9 grilse between us. By any standards – and especially New Brunswick standards – that’s pretty epic. Add in a couple four pound sea run brook trout, and no one is complaining.

After lunch on day two, Gonzo and I are taking a beer break on the bench by the pool outside our camp. We’re watching Griz fish, giggling about his hunched over stance and intense concentration on the fly as it swings around to perpendicular. We cheers and someone says “this is like ordering room service in Paris”, as in, it’s blissfully wasteful. Here we are on a private salmon river in New Brunswick and instead of fishing, we’re sitting on the bank drinking beers.

That’s when Griz hooks up. It’s a 10 pounder, chrome fresh, and we guess it arrived in the pool perhaps at the very moment he hooked it. We’re inspired by the now clear arrival of fresh salmon. With only a few hours left of daylight before we have to make the long drive back to Boston, bags are hurriedly packed and wader straps are cinched for one last session at the Tab’s famous Home Pool.

We each tack up another grilse, but once again it’s Griz.

He swings an Ally Shrimp into the middle of the pool and lifts the rod to extreme tension.

“That felt like a fucking anchor” he says calmly as a big hen breaks the water’s surface. Everything goes completely silent. This isn’t the kind of fishing crew that offers advice mid fight. We stand and watch at a respectful distance with pits in our stomachs. The only sound that breaks the tumble of the river is the big fish’s splash as it re-enters the water on its sixth and seventh jump.

Griz only has his floating tip out of the guides now, and we can see this beautiful hen making some last attempts at returning to the main flow of the river. For no particular reason, the tension releases and the fish is off to a single “fuck” from Griz. We line up to pat him on the shoulder, which turns into some awkward chuckles, followed by some deep, wholehearted, group laughter. The trip is over, and it’s another 9 months until we might see a salmon again. But that’s salmon fishing.