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Voices from the Valley

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There are mixed feelings about the 2014 season, but on the Miramichi everyone looks to the future.

Downtown Doaktown on October 15 and Geoff Giffin pulls in to the Irving for gas and coffee. You wouldn’t expect a traffic jam at this time of the day or season, but there’s a line up for the pumps and the coffee is fresh because turnover is big even at mid-day. There is a canoe sticking out of the truck in front of us, so while we wait Geoff chats with Peter Graham, a member at Log Cabin fishing camp who just happens to be filling up, his ASF and MSA stickers unmistakably displayed on his vehicle.

The canoe owner comes out from paying and wouldn’t you know it’s Tyler Coughlan, son of Byron the owner of Country Haven where we stayed last night. Can everyone be connected around here I begin to wonder?

Before I can ponder this any further, Graham begins explaining that he’s had some good fishing up at Rocky Bend. And we all listen as Tyler proudly describes his day working for the Miramichi Salmon Association, opening up beaver dams to allow fish passage. The talk turns to improving habitat for salmon and Graham tells us how his camp has recently invested in such work, including repairs to a pool damaged by the flood cycles.  

It’s just a quick stop for gas in a small town in New Brunswick, but I’ve already learned two powerful truths. Business is humming at this moment because anglers are in town for the last day of fishing season, and nowhere do people care more about Atlantic salmon and the river they swim in than right here.

Of course, any salmon river is a valuable asset to the region through which it flows. In 2011, a Gardner Pinfold report (Economic Value of Wild Atlantic Salmon) estimated the total annual economic value for wild Atlantic salmon at $255 million, supporting over 3,800 full-time equivalent jobs. One of their four case study rivers was the Miramichi (the other three were the Exploits, Margaree and Grand Cascapedia), where they pegged annual spending related to wild Atlantic salmon at $20 million, supporting 637 full-time equivalent jobs.

Two other facts become clear as well from the chance meeting with Graham and young Coughlan, which we will confirm over the next few days. To some along the river, the reports of the Miramichi’s demise are vastly exaggerated while to others, the third year in a row of disappointing returns after the very good season of 2011 serves as a wake-up call for everyone connected to wild Atlantic salmon. Regardless of where one fits on the spectrum of opinion, questions abound. “Where are the grilse?” “Are the fish late in arriving?” “How about that striped bass population?” “Is this the cumulative effect of clear-cutting and over-fishing of salmon and their forage in the high seas?” Certainly, there was some relief brought to the Southwest Miramichi in the last few weeks of the season; the numbers of salmon steadily increased at the Millerton trapnet monitoring facility, operated by the MSA, indicating what appears to be a decent fall run.

The question remains whether it will be enough to meet minimum spawning targets. We will only know after DFO’s analysis of year-end indicator counts is complete. However, it is apparent that there wasn’t a similar bump yet on the Northwest Miramichi. Short of a miracle in the days leading up to spawning, the “Nor’west” system will most likely once again fall far short of its minimum spawning targets.

By October 15, only 198 grilse had passed through the Northwest Cassilis trapnet compared to 230 on the same date last year. For salmon, the numbers were worse, 83 compared to 196 in 2013. Salmon and grilse numbers at the Millerton on the Southwest Miramichi had recovered by October and 743 salmon passed through the Southwest’s indicator trapnet (466 on same date in 2013) with 568 grilse (versus 371, same date ’13).  

The numbers become ever more startling with a quick glance back through earlier years. Average counts at the Northwest Cassilis trapnet between 2001 and 2010 were in the 400 range for salmon and 1100 for grilse. This is in stark contrast to the 83 salmon and 198 grilse counted by the same time period in 2014. While the salmon counts at the Millerton trapnet on the Southwest are somewhat closer to the averages for the same time period, the grilse numbers, while up from 2013, are very depressed. From 2001-2010, average grilse counts at Millerton ranged from 1,935 (2006-2010) to 2,663 (2001-2005).

The trapnet numbers are not complete counts of what is in the river, but rather are partial counts that provide an indication of fish that are entering the Northwest and Southwest systems respectively.  

Numbers aside, the fishing was tough in most places and everyone we spoke to—anglers, outfitters, First Nations, as well as cashiers, cooks and cleaners—were worried. Runs on salmon rivers across eastern Canada, and indeed throughout the salmon world, were generally down this year, and the salmon river with the largest run was no exception. One thing is for certain, however;  in few places have anglers contributed more and sacrificed more for the “king of fish” than on the Miramichi, and indeed in New Brunswick. To many, the recent uptick in fall numbers offered some reassurance, but to others there was fear that all the negative talk and perception would mean not fewer fish, but fewer anglers.

Just a short cast from the gas station sits the renowned fly shop, otherwise known as W.W. Doak and Son. The season might have ended yesterday, but Jerry, his son Matthew and Bruce Waugh are busy working at the fly vise. The elder Doak has a lot to say about the season that was, his voice is calm and his tone measured, but there is no mistaking the passion and concern.

Jerry Doak, a multi-generational shop owner, knows not just the river, but also the anglers. His view is more optimistic and appreciative of what has already been accomplished in terms of conservation. “The average fish size on the Miramichi has gone up,” he says. After the termination of the commercial fisheries in the early 80s, and anglers stopped harvesting large salmon in 1984, the average size salmon on the Miramichi has steadily and substantially increased. Jerry hopes this will be taken into account in future egg deposition calculations.

For many, salmon angling is an acquired taste. Being an “elusive quarry,” it takes time to develop an appreciation of the take. For some it arrives on their very first cast, but for most, perhaps many thousands later. Regard­less, it never takes much time to lose oneself in the surroundings, the people, the places, the stories and the anticipation of catching fish. It is a pursuit like no other. At one time, anglers generally recognized that going salmon fishing was a little like rolling dice, and that only added to the fun. You would book your trip in high anticipation, knowing that the rivers could be bone dry or dirty and flooding into the bushes when you arrived. But it didn’t matter. Regardless of the bounty, the fishing was always enjoyed and memories were made. Today, with the ubiquity of social media, Jerry worries that the online buzz might scare anglers away.

“There were more fish missed by anglers who didn’t show, than because of fish that didn’t show,” is how he sums up the season. Anglers that are waiting for a quick hookup and complain on Facebook when they have a mor­n­ing without a take, may be missing the point and worse, discouraging those anglers that as Jerry says, “don’t show.”

Of course, a “bad” year on the Miramichi is still better than good years most everywhere else. Paul Elson and his wife Stephanie live just outside of Sillikers in a small cabin that looks like it was designed for a couple in love, both with each other and with salmon fishing.

And Elson does love to fish, and he fishes hard. This year he landed and released between 25 and 30 fish, a great year anywhere else. But he landed over a hundred fish in 2011 (2.3 fish per day). He ticks off his other recorded catches: 2010 was good, 2009 was high water and tough fishing, 2008 was a super high grilse year, 2007 was a bad year. “In 2006 I landed 150 fish,” he tells us. This time of year he expects to hook 3 fish a day.

What concerns Elson is that he and his buddies fished very hard, but just weren’t seeing many fish. Still, although anglers obviously come here for the fishing, they also come for other treasures the Miramichi offers. Earlier this morning, as we sat in the kitchen at Country Haven, Heather Coughlan tells me about how the lodge’s guests become genuine friends. “We stay in touch, sometimes visit them in the off season.” And it doesn’t hurt that the camp, by mainly fishing the Cains and the Southwest downriver of its confluence with the Cains, experienced good fishing.

“I’m not stretching it to tell you it’s been one of our best falls,” Byron (known to most in the area as “Byzie”) says. Still, the camp owner believes there is much to be done. “The striped bass must be having an effect,” he says.

The problems the striped bass population explosion might be causing was a common theme up and down the river, but there were other concerns too. For Debbie Norton of Upper Oxbow Adventures, and President of the NB Salmon Council, the striped bass “is just the latest bogeyman.” The disappointing run this year is a wake up call, she says. Pointing fingers won’t help. Rolling up sleeves will.

“If we decide to do nothing the river will suffer, but if we stand together we have a chance to better manage the fisheries, the habitat and the stock.” Like many others we spoke to, Norton wants to see a comprehensive plan to invest in the river and the ecosystems supporting salmon to bring the numbers of fish not just back up, but way up.

Earlier, we visited Wilson’s Sporting Camps. Keith Wilson was busy with pouring a concrete foundation for a lodge (“It’s a fish hatchery,” he jokes), but took the time to tell of his concerns. His rod days were down sharply this year, and despite some spells of good fishing he was more worried about how the lower fish numbers affected camps all along the river. “For all camps to do well we need more than 50,000 fish in the river,” Wilson says. Much less than that, as this year, and he must diversify—which is why he thinks his new building will see more use by snowmobilers than anglers. But as a multi-generational outfitter who has seen bad fishing years before, Wilson is certain of two things. “This is not the time for anglers to abandon the river, it needs us now more than ever.”

You don’t need to be an angler or an outfitter to be concerned about the Miramichi. Country Haven is in the community of Grey Rapids, a not-on-most-maps settlement upriver from White Rapids and Black Rapids. New Brunswick has hundreds of places like these, which although they may not be on any map, government economists would do well to listen to what the people who live there have to say.

“What will we do if the river goes?” Terri Donahue, the joke-cracking cook at Country Haven turns serious. “It’s all we have. It’s all our children have.”

Fishing was good, fishing was bad, the fishing will get better or the future is dire, the message from everyone on the Miramichi is: the salmon deserve better. They are looking to some kind of sign that government cares. They want to help, but what needs to be done?

One person who doesn’t hesitate to say what needs to be done is Vince Swazey, as close as you can get to being the wise old man of the Miramichi. Up at his home in Boiestown, surrounded by his reel collection, his framed collection of 50 guide licenses and awards that include ASF’s Roll of Honour and Happy Fraser, he doesn’t pull any punches.

“We need to list every threat to the salmon there is,” Vince says. “And then together we need to devise a plan to overcome these obstacles.”

Bill Taylor has been working hard to implement an action plan that would answer that call to arms. “There is no question that this year’s poor salmon returns have grabbed everyone’s attention. But we have known for some time that there are things going on in the marine environment that are impacting salmon in a big way. Things like changing temperatures, increasing predators and diminishing forage. Some, or maybe even all of it, is driven by climate change. These are huge problems, but we can’t use that as an excuse for inaction,” says ASF’s president.

- Bill Taylor, ASF

He notes ASF is leading the way in smolt and kelt tracking studies, but “more research is needed.” Taylor is calling for immediate actions to significantly increase the number of wild salmon spawning in our rivers.

“For starters,” he says, “Canada needs to start practicing what we preach. If we expect the Greenlanders to follow the scientific advice and curtail their fisheries, then we must as well. There should be no harvest of any kind on any wild salmon population that is not exceeding its spawning target. We have to put an end to the harvest of mixed stocks of salmon while they migrate at sea. Anglers should release all the large salmon and grilse they catch and First Nations fishers should transition to selective gear such as trap nets so they can release all the large spawners. It’s time the gill nets for Atlantic salmon be banned.”

There are strong signs that even if government may take some convincing, other stakeholders are ready to support such efforts. Our last stop is at the Metepenagiag band office, where Chief Freeman Ward expresses grave concern over the salmon returns this year. He seems frustrated, and at one point he holds up his hands and looks around the table at me, Geoff, Betty Ward and Bill Ward, the band councilor responsible for fisheries management.

“What good are ancestral fishing rights, if there are no fish?” he asks. “It’s like having a car that breaks down, what good is your driving license if you have nothing to drive?” And what of those who have only just begun to experience the spiritual high that salmon fishing brings? The thought of his teenage granddaughter makes the chief break out into a broad smile. “Isabelle released her first salmon this summer,” he says proudly. The smile disappears. “I will do everything in my power to make sure there will be salmon for her grandchildren to release as well,” he adds. Words became actions this past summer when the band removed their gill nets and opted for a trapnet fishery. They are also investigating the possibility of developing a land-based closed containment aquaculture facility to produce the salmon they need for cultural, spiritual and food purposes, as well as employment.

Other positive developments in Red Bank include a concerted effort by the Chief and Betty Ward to promote fly-fishing and outfitting as ways to benefit from the salmon resource. Before we leave Red Bank, we walk to the bridge and look downriver. We take a few pictures of the Chief and Betty, but rain begins falling and we say our goodbyes. Geoff points the car south toward the Bay of Fundy. There is no little irony that our next stop, after visiting the mighty Miramichi, is the endangered rivers of the inner bay. What folks there would do to have a run like the Mother Miramichi! Yet, as we leave the picturesque valley, I remember back to my first day when we ran into Peter Graham and Tyler Coughlan at the gas station in Doaktown.

Beneath their optimism over the fall fishing and their concerns, lies another truth. They, as many others, are ready to sacrifice, support and sustain this river, but all they ask and need is a sign that government cares and that it is prepared to take action. And remember my question about whether everyone is connected around the Miramichi, which drains 20% of the province? The answer is: they are all are connected. By a river that flows all around them and, yes, through them. Whether you live on the river or visit, you carry its beauty, spirit, and strength with you wherever you go.

I am not alone in painting the Miramichi in superlatives. When you speak of salmon, one river is always mentioned in awe. At one point during our visit, we ran into a film crew shooting April Vokey, the talented steelhead guide, a fly-fishing celebrity really, sort of a modern-day Joan Wulff, if you will, from B.C. Her program will focus on salmon angling and she will use the beauty, bounty and history of the Miramichi as a backdrop. Guiding her was Gary Colford, a guide with 49-years of experience. As we watched Vokey effortlessly lay out metres of fly line on the Cains, I asked what he thought of the 2014 season.

When the season ends, anglers tend to look to next year and Colford was already pushing the reset button. Next year he will celebrate his 50th working as a guide. Based on his decades of experience, the salmon run in cycles and 2015 will be the 4th in a cycle that goes from excellent to average and back. “It will be a very big year,” he predicts with the certainty of a seasoned guide.

That’s good enough for me. I’m booking my fishing time now. Maybe you should too.

For more information on fishing the Miramichi contact:
Country Haven (
http://flyfishingatlanticsalmon.com), Upper Oxbow (http://upperoxbow.com), and Wilson’s (http://wilsonscamps.nb.ca).

To find out more on Miramichi salmon conservation programs or to get involved, visit the Miramichi Salmon Association (MSA)  website (

To join the Atlantic Salmon Federation and subscribe to the Atlantic Salmon Journal,
click here