Jerry Gibbs lives, fishes and writes from the mid-Maine coast unless he is on the road hunting off-radar waters, fish and anglers that will make a good story. Gibbs is the former Outdoor Life fishing editor.
The rain came in hammering waves the way it can when outside is not where you want to be. The highway tried hard to drain but we had moments when the SUV hydroplaned until the tires grabbed again. There were tornado reports. I tried but failed to kill the lyrics in my head, now a brain worm insisting that “If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s gonna break.” There were no levees here, but we knew New Brunswick’s Northwest Miramichi River and all the tributaries gushing into it would push water levels up and turn the normal tannin color to mud brown. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right about not being able to go home again; maybe trying to replicate our last trip, an intensity of striped bass fishing, would disappoint. Along with the Noah-class deluge, the temperature had dropped. And though stripers are a cool-to-cold-weather/water fish, local wisdom says that if the water cools quickly, the fishing tanks.
But Duncan Barnes and I had faith. Hadn’t Jason Curtis told us of the splendid fish numbers caught already this year? And hadn’t Jason only a few years back guided us into a profusion of migrating striped bass that was, well, startling? And were we not in the prime mid-May to mid-June time slot? Ask local stand-up paddleboard enthusiast Lynn Carney about the intense concentrations of these fish and she’ll tell you this: “It was crazy. They came up and banged under my board and bounced it up and scratched it; I mean, I have grooves on the board bottom.” She does, and “crazy” is correct when you know it’s the spiny dorsal fins of bass that caused the grooving.
This explosive striped bass fishery in the Miramichi and surrounding waters is a management success story that thus far has not succumbed to politics, unlike many of the U.S. striper fisheries. In the Canadian Maritimes, the Miramichi fishery is fed by stripers from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The only other confirmed population in the Maritimes is in the Bay of Fundy. Evidence shows the two populations don’t mix and the fish do not migrate between these two areas. The Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery nearly came to its end in the 1990s due to overfishing. In 2000, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) shut down all forms of striped bass fishing. In 2013, limited First Nation fishing privilege, along with a severely limited recreational fishing, were restored. In 2014 the recreational fishery expanded and continues to improve. The bass rebound has reached numbers that continue to defy counting. Fish that overwinter in the big river are estimated at 100,000. They are joined by fresh spring runs that, beginning with April ice-out, build to 300,000 to 500,000, maybe more.
Stripers that leave the Miramichi following the spring spawn move north up the New Brunswick coast and have been caught—even through the ice—off Labrador, where cold sometimes leads to their demise. Some groups have moved south of New Brunswick to the Prince Edward Island rivers. In January 2022, a massive winter die-off in the Bay of Fundy fish occurred in Dingwall Harbor on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. The kill was attributed to a sudden mix of super chilled freshwater with deeper saltwater where most of the bass were holding, described by biologists as a freak event. Still, within their core ranges, both Maritime striper populations seem to be expanding.
New Brunswick’s DFO considers today’s gulf striper comeback a success on environmental, social, and economic fronts and is handling things with kid gloves. Every year it imposes a five-day closure for all fishing in the primary spawning area. Still, it has allowed carefully monitored indigenous commercial harvest—those fish being sold in major Canadian cities and to U.S. wholesalers as far south as New York. Since 2015 it has permitted a wild weekend “rec-mercial” event—a tournament that surely has been showered with blessings from the heavens by that old promotor Ray Scott.
The resurgent bass fishery has also attracted fly anglers from the U.S. as well as other Canadian provinces. In the process it has created an expanded option for area guides and fishing lodges, which is perhaps a tad bittersweet when you understand the focus of this fishing is a river system that’s home of one of North America’s largest Atlantic salmon runs. That water has lured anglers for more than a century. There is definitely a dark side to the runaway bass fishery.
Jason’s clan reaches generations back in Miramichi country. He is first and foremost a salmon guide with a divided heart that shares his love for grouse, woodcock, and his cherished Brittanies. Like many salmon guides, lodge affiliated or not, he has also embraced stripers. His take on bass versus salmon is one of thoughtful analysis, unlike some salmon anglers who consider stripers the chief culprit in the downturn of their beloved fish. There is reason for all concerned.
The presence of striped bass in their primary spawning grounds—the Northwest Miramichi along with the Southwest Miramichi and other branches—coincides with the downriver migration of maturing juvenile salmon smolts heading out to sea. Various tagging studies along with angler observation show little doubt that the bass are taking a share of smolts, though the extent of the depredation is not established. It’s important to remember that natural smolt mortality can be caused by predation from cormorants, mergansers, and gulls, along with trout, tomcod, and even kelts or black salmon (spawned-out Atlantics that have overwintered). With Atlantic salmon numbers in a downward spiral since at least 2011, the cognoscenti are vocally unhappy about yet another factor working against their favored fish.
Stakeholders in the salmon fishery continue to call for significant curtailment of striper regulations they consider excessively conservative. Among them is Brad Burns, passionate salmon angler, owner of private camps on the Southwest Miramichi and Cains (a major tributary), and founder and president of Stripers Forever, a U.S. non-profit group working to reduce striped bass mortality along the Atlantic coast.
“The one place that we don’t need striped bass is up inside the freshwater portions of the Miramichi and branches,” Burns said. He has called for “no season, minimum or maximum size, or bag limit on stripers caught above the head of tide.” Still, in balance, he’ll tell you, “Considering the decline that other Canadian rivers are also seeing in Atlantic salmon, I doubt that striped bass predation is the only culprit. After all, stripers and salmon have coexisted in the Miramichi since long before human history.” But there is further worry.
Though most stripers leave the Miramichi in late June following the spawn, a growing number are holding over and getting caught in July and August. “There’s little doubt as we’ve all seen,” Jason said, “that those fish are feeding on salmon parr (the next developmental stage from fry). It’s bad enough stripers are eating the smolts. It’s scarier if they’re cleaning up on our parr.”
Miramichi salmon face yet another threat. Smallmouth bass were illegally introduced in Miramichi Lake far upstream on the river’s southwest branch. It took 11 years before DFO approved a rotenone application to treat the lake, its outlet, Lake Brook, and 14.5 miles of the Southwest Miramichi. Smallmouths have evolved to thrive in rivers. If established (young smallmouths have been found) they could possibly outcompete salmon. A scheduled 2021 rotenone treatment was canceled due to protests and cold weather.
Back to fishing.
The annual 6-mile, five-day striper spawning area closure from the Miramichi’s Red Bank Bridge (considered the head of tide) downriver was in effect when Duncan and I launched our return fishing effort with Jason. The day following, pounding rains came on with a bruised sky and strong wind. It was cold. Even if we were of a mind to count numbers, even if we had not considered releasing fish (which might have brought cheers from the salmon dedicated) we wouldn't have put a scratch on the bass population. As predicted, the water was muddy, visibility near zero. We were well below the closed area, a place where on our last safari to these waters we were doubling on fish minutes after launching. Now we had nipping fish with few deal closures. “Caught something like five fish,” Jason allowed. It was a numbing, and for this fishery a humbling morning. Happily, we had somewhere to go to warm up and eat. A pretty special place it turned out, not the least of which was a dog named Diesel.
Diesel is part husky (with eyes to prove it) and part yellow Lab, with a touch of German shepherd (you only need to look at his tail). The dog instinctively senses when an angler returns whipped by the day. He will gently commiserate in the subtle ways only dogs can. But, if you have a great day, he’ll know and go bouncing like a pup. Diesel is also a ham. Try to line up a photo of yourself and pals in the lodge living room and the dog will push himself front and center. He is the perfect lodge dog.
Byron “Byzie” Coughlan’s Country Haven Lodge and Cottages sit on 100 private acres 20 miles from Blackville village on green, groomed grounds gently sloping down to the Southwest Miramichi. You can stay in the cathedral-ceilinged lodge itself or one of several beautiful cottages. For years, Coughlan established Country Haven primarily for salmon anglers with a potpourri of other outdoor recreational activities close at hand. Now, striped bass are high on the menu, and he carries a team of guides knowledgeable in both key fish species.
Just now in the main lodge, out of the cold and wind of the day, we were glowing from Chef Bev’s multi-course evening meal—yes, with extra desert. We heard a favorable weather forecast, and Jason promised to take us upriver to a sector we hadn’t fished. Diesel seemed to know what would happen. At least his ears perked.
Above the Red Bank Bridge the river narrows. The shores are green and manicured, sweeping gently back, dotted with occasional trees. There are well spaced, beautifully-kept private homes. Here and there are islets. To the left, the Little Southwest Miramichi adds its gentle flow. In a word, this pastoral sweep of country is more intimate than the broader water sector we’d fished downriver. We had pulled up onto a bar of smooth, gray cobbles and were eating again, sitting in the sun in the canoe’s ladder-back chairs, and feeling like well-pampered salmon fishers. But we were gnarly striped bass guys just now, and proved it that morning.
In the quiet of this upper river the sudden smashing of what could be mistaken as surface feeding stripers was quite inspiring. Though we were well above the primary spawning grounds, the explosive displays we were seeing were not nosh fests at all, but orgies of the carnal kind. Pods of male fish were truly into those hen stripers. The intensity of their desire was well beyond what one might describe as the niceties of courtship. Periodically, amidst their frothing, bomb crater blow-ups, there would rise the spade-size slab of a hen fish’s tail.
We focused on leaving these ménage-à-many a wide berth. But of course, as with other game species, you are unabashedly fishing spawning runs. Happily, in concert with our already ingrained habit of quickly releasing fish, there are provincial regulations calling for single hook, barbless flies (no tandems). Jason’s sharp eyes will call you out should a barb not be flattened to his satisfaction. If there are no fast hero photos required he quickly plucks the hook free and simply upturn the net, rolling the fish into the water.
The fish came in waves. Far downstream you would see an eruption at the surface and hope that fish would pass within range. And they would. We were into fish in the 32-to 33-inch class, big shouldered, bellies gleaming like painted enamel. They had fattened on smelts. Gasperau (alewives) would soon be on their menu too, but in the heightened grip of lust it seemed at times that they would eat nearly anything you offered. To be sure there were flies that stood out at certain moments. Duncan had great success on an electric-green Deceiver-style streamer. Many of my fish came on my white/blue version of Johnny King’s Kinky Muddler and also a multi-colored Hollow Fleye variation I’d made to suggest peanut bunker down home in Maine. For the record, the beige/brown/white Kinky Muddler has been a go-to here for years. At times we were bringing in stripers on every cast, sometimes muttering curses at breaks in the otherwise steady, solid hookups when fish began nipping for no apparent reason, indecisiveness that could suddenly slam into wrenching strikes.
Although it seemed impossible that the fish could come faster, later we would be treated to a frenzy. It would cause us to cast a selection of non-prescribed flies simply for experimentation and sheer fun of it. We would coax Jason in on it from his perch in the stern while Duncan and I cast from standing or sitting positions. Periodically during breaks we would switch bow or middle seats in the canoe—a craft which in the world of any type of bass fishing is far less seen at this time of year on this river, especially below the head of tide where jon boats, deck boats, and muscle bass rigs are common.
Jason’s rig is the quintessential, amazingly stable Atlantic salmon upriver boat. It also handles the big water splendidly. The craft is a 26-foot motorized Sharpe canoe with the typical fore and aft pulley-operated anchor system, ladder-back seats for the anglers and a black fir push pole that plays an occasional role as a depthfinder. It represents ingenious evolution from the early construction by indigenous peoples, especially the Algonquins of Eastern Canadian woodlands who are credited with perfecting the birchbark canoe.
One morning at breakfast, Chef Bev Coughlan showed us photos of her Percheron horses. She runs a team of the big draft animals and previously ran Clydesdales—those of Budweiser fame. Suddenly Diesel began some serious barking and ran to and opened the screen door, startling a moose that had ambled close in the yard for a look-see. Our host Byron allowed this as part of giving guests the total Canadian experience. He described how he impressed anglers watching from the dining room window waking salmon as they moved upriver. “I’d tell them just when a fish was going to a jump,” he said. “It always worked. They’d think I was a sorcerer. Actually there was a big rock affecting the current and forcing the fish to jump if they wanted to get by. And then if things worked right, a moose would come visiting. Unfortunately winter scoured the rock away.”
We were pleased just with the moose.
Back on the river, the water above Red Bank was dead. Jason called for a move. Trying to piece out where the striper groups had gone, we motored yet further upstream in the narrowing pastoral river sector. Finally, Jason shot a text to his friend Brett Silliker, a salmon/striper guide and fellow bird hunter. The reply came: “Crazy good fishing! Better get down here.”
Brett’s Brittany had birthed an eight-pup litter only days earlier. Sadly, one of them arrived dead, then another passed the next day. The female was in panic mode, he said, growling if you got near the remaining pups. Jason, Duncan, and I are all Brittany guys and were feeling his hurt. But when we arrived downriver in the bigger water, not far from where we’d done poorly days before, there was Brett nearly dancing in his boat, a big grin on his face.
“I’m guessing the pups are okay,” Jason said.
“Oh yes, they’re all milk drunk,” he said. “And the mother is calmed down fine, too.”
There was a flotilla of fishing boats in the area, well spaced out. Brett swept his arm. “Fish are everywhere. Anywhere,” he said. “It’ll be hot, then nothing, then turn right back on again.”
As far as we could see, anglers in nearly every boat were hooked up. Shortly so were we. Duncan and I stood, alternately bringing in fish—he to the port, me to the starboard gunwales. Jason was spinning gracefully left-right, netting in a seemingly choreographed dance routine. As anyone knows who has enjoyed a full-on feeding frenzy of most any species, it’s common to have several free-swimming fish follow the one hooked, likely thinking they're about to get in on some of the eating. That regularly happened here, but once I was astounded while bringing in a bass to eyeball what appeared to be a veritable school of stripers zooming, circling, doubtless thinking the hooked fish was a gravid female.
It was time to experiment.
We’d been using the 250-, 300-, and 350-grain lines that are standard here, but with so many of the fish hitting when our flies had barely dropped below the surface, we began working a bit differently—as in on top. We had no floating lines so intermediate heads would have to do. Jason quickly had hits on a foam Gartside Gurgler. A Joe Bladdos Crease Fly chugged on the surface was devoured. All these worked as designed until the slow sinking lines drowned them. I switched to a standard hard popper that floated longer. Needless to say, it too was eaten.
Though much of the fishing here can key on the deeper edges of the main river channel, it is not a matter of fishing drop-offs and complex structural form. Striped bass are broadcast spawners—the males needing to aggressively butt the hens to stimulate the dropping of eggs that they can then quickly fertilize. For a successful spawn there must be adequate current for the eggs to float down-current above bottom for 76 hours. Timing of larva hatching depends on water temperature. It is no surprise that the fish are cruising not far beneath the surface where they sense appropriate depth and current until actually engaged in the spawning act. And they don’t care what time it is.
Happily, there’s no need to start at false dawn, as is typical back home, when spawning is not in the equation. We’ve take fish in bright sun from 8:30 a.m. through high noon until day’s end. With increasing daylight the fishing lasts late.
Now, all around, there were sporadic, frothing whirlpools of mating fish, even though we were well down from the closed spawning area. Boats came and went. It was a carnal carnival. Once a boatload of French Canadians came by, the anglers in party mode, rhythms of French rap blasting from speakers. It only added to the raucous ridiculousness of it all. It would not have been surprising to see the group turn their boat into a miniature mosh pit.
On it went. Rods bowed everywhere like dowser sticks. No one argues the fact that there is an element of mortality in any catch-and-release fishing, but we saw little evidence here with one exception. A deceased bass once floated by with a pod of males attempting to mate with it. Later, perhaps even more bizarre, an elbow-length stick slipped past in the current. It was surrounded by a frantic, butting group of testosterone-addled male stripers.
Finally, it was enough. It was plenty. It was astonishing. And it was time to go. As we motored up the big river to the take-out it would have been perfect to levitate, like some human drone, and capture a slow zoom-out, the boats still scattered in the failing light, anglers still casting, rods still bending, and more fish coming in.
One more spring striper saga was over for us now. Jason would make a long drive from New Brunswick to New Jersey for a new male pup, adding to his lovely female Brittany family, and I would make the run to Tennessee for a new French Britt. The glut of migrating stripers would leave the Miramichi while some would stay the winter. And then April would swing around and the first runs would come as the ice went, and it all would begin again.
For tackle recommendations and to book this trip, contact GFFI.