An Atlantic Salmon Flyfishing Odyssey

The author lands an Atlantic Salmon grisle.

I was first bitten by the Atlantic salmon flyfishing bug perhaps 40 years ago. Angling luminary Lee Wulff had popularized this splendid gamefish in his writings about Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, and most notably Portland Creek. Reading those and other stories was enough for me, and off I went to see for myself what wonders awaited me in that rugged and beautiful land. I was not to be disappointed.

After flying from San Francisco, California to Stephenville, Newfoundland, I rented a car and drove northward up the Great Northern Peninsula to the mouth of the Castor River. There, I rented a small cabin and prepared for the next day’s adventures.

Early the following morning, my guide and I had boarded a boat and motored across a small lake through which runs the Castor River. After donning chest waders, we hiked upriver a short distance to a series of pools and rapids where we stopped to try our luck. After receiving instructions on how to present the fly, I waded out into the water and faced downstream for my first-ever cast in an Atlantic salmon river. I was using an 8-weight fly rod with floating fly line and a nine-foot leader. Attached to the end was a No.10 Blue Charm hair wing fly. The fly was tied to the end of the leader with a common improved clinch knot, after which two half-hitches were taken behind the head of the fly to form what is called a “Riffling Hitch” — or “Portland Creek Hitch.” When fastened in that manner, the fly causes a wake on the surface as it swings down and across the current after the cast. Salmon often find this presentation irresistible.

Atlantic_salmon_flyWhat happened next will forever remain in my mind. After I had made a few casts, a salmon engulfed my fly with a mighty splash and a violent jerk and I responded with a hook-setting jerk in the opposite direction. The fight was on, and I remember exclaiming out loud, “I’m into one of these things!” The next thing I remember is that fish streaking upstream toward me, then leaping out of the water and sailing through the air directly at my chest! I reacted by trying to step backward, but fell flat on my back in the water, that luckily was only about 18 inches deep at that point. Instantly, my chest waders filled with icy-cold water. The fish, that had by then splashed back into the stream, rocketed past the submerged rod tip, snapped the leader and was gone, taking the Blue Charm with it. I managed to quickly regain my feet and muttered, “How does anyone actually catch one of these things?” It was a classic case of reductio ad absurdum. Such was my indoctrination to fly fishing for Salmo Salar — the king of freshwater game fish. I was hooked and never looked back…

Subsequent Atlantic salmon fly fishing trips in the ensuing years took me back to Newfoundland, then to Labrador, and to several other Canadian maritime provinces, including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. Then it was off to Ireland and Norway. Those were cherished years, and I will never forget them.

Fast forward 17 years to the February, 2015 SCI Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada where my wife, Sandy, and I stood at the Newfoundland/Labrador Outfitters Association booth, talking with Executive Director Cory Foster about the possibilities of a return trip to salmon fish. Cory was very encouraging and said the fishing was as good as ever. This was the news we were hoping to hear, so our affirmative decision was made there on the spot.

When Sandy and I returned home from Convention, our first order of business was to select an outfitter. With Cory’s assistance, we were contacted by Dr. Paul-Aime Joncas, owner of the Lucky Strike Salmon Lodge on the Pinware River in southern Labrador. Paul was very optimistic in his assessment of the fishing in mid-July on both the Pinware and the nearby Forteau River. He told us he had an opening available at that time, so Sandy and I said we would come. Paul explained to us that there was air service to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec from both Montreal, Quebec and St. John’s, Newfoundland, and that Blanc-Sablon was only a short distance over the border from his lodge. Since we were free of obligations during that period, we decided instead to fly into St. John’s at the far eastern end of Newfoundland in late June, and begin a 25-day fly fishing and sightseeing odyssey across Newfoundland and over the Strait of Belle Isle by ferryboat to Blanc-Sablon, then on to the Lucky Strike Lodge.

Since it had been so many years since we had fished in Newfoundland and Labrador, we contacted Don Ivany of the Atlantic Salmon Federation office in Corner Brook, Newfoundland to inform him of our plans and to obtain current information on the fishery. He was extremely helpful and suggested we try the Exploits River and the Humber River en route to Labrador in order to break up the long trip. He also felt we had made an excellent choice in choosing the Lucky Strike Lodge to fish the Pinware and Forteau rivers. He spoke of the Pinware as having a reputation for producing big salmon.

Suley and author releasing Atlantic salmon.
Suley and author releasing Atlantic salmon.

Armed with that information, Sandy and I left our home near San Francisco on June 24, and arrived in St. John’s the same day. The following morning, we obtained our rental car and stopped at The Blue Charm Angling Company in the same city. We met proprietor Oisin McMahon and purchased my fishing license (Sandy elected not to fish on this trip), a few incidentals, and an assortment of exquisite salmon flies, painstakingly hand-tied by Oisin himself. The assortment included, in various sizes, Blue Charm, Silver Tip, Green Highlander, Black Bear/Green Butt and the Bomber floating fly. Equipped with these colorfully-named flies and a wealth of fishing information, we set-out on the road portion of our trip.

Since we had ample time prior to our July 5 arrival date at Lucky Strike Lodge, we opted to spend a few days touring both the Avalon and Bona Vista peninsulas before continuing on to our planned stop at the community of Norris Arm, where I would fish the Exploits River. We found these peninsulas to be very scenic and loaded with historical sights.

At Norris Arm, l contracted with Pastor Gary Bartlett to guide me for four days of fishing from his boat. Gary proved to be extremely congenial and hard-working, but we met with minimal success. It seems that the run of fish had just begun to enter the river. Our stay, however, was a most enjoyable one. (Reports were that the fishing picked-up dramatically the day after we left.)

From the Exploits, we continued westward to the city of Deer Lake where we turned northward to Sir Richard Squires Memorial Park. We arrived there on July 2. Following Don Ivany’s suggestion, we checked in to the Big Falls Tourist Lodge on the beautiful Humber River. The lodge is owned and operated by Irene and Sterling Pittman. We were told that our timing could not have been better, and that the river held good numbers of fish, so we made arrangements for Irene to guide me the following day and a good day it was. Although we found crowds of other fly fishermen in boats and wading, we managed to work our way into Irene’s favorite spot. There, while standing thigh-deep in the river, I caught one fish in the morning and, after a midday break, two more in the evening.

The author’s favorite flyreel, a Seamaster Dual-Mode on a Sage One rod.

On July 4, Sandy and I drove up the Great Northern Peninsula to St. Barbe where the terminal for the ferry to Blanc-Sablon is located. Along the way, we crossed over several rivers I had fished so many years earlier and I could feel myself being overcome by nostalgia. These included Portland Creek, Castor and the beautiful St. Genevieve.

The next day, we crossed the Strait of Belle Isle by ferry to Blanc-Sablon and drove along the coast to Lucky Strike Lodge on the Pinware River where we were to spend the next nine nights. At the lodge, we were greeted by a smiling Charlotte Roberts, the very talented cook for Paul Joncas, and fishing guide Eric Belben, who had come over from St. John’s to guide some of the lodge guests.

After Eric showed us to our room, which was in reality a wonderful, self-contained cabin separate from the main lodge, I readied my equipment for the next day. At that point, we met Steven Teal from Nova Scotia, who was at the lodge for his third consecutive year. He was accompanied by friends Royce Ford and Randy Corkum, who were there for their first time. Steven stated that in his first year on the Pinware he hooked 58 salmon and landed approximately half of them. The following year, he hooked 25 salmon and landed about two-thirds of them. The largest was estimated to be 15 pounds.

My first two days of fishing took place on the mighty Pinware River, a deep, fast, boulder-strewn, and somewhat treacherous waterway with a reputation for producing large numbers of big fish.

The first morning, 43-year-old guide Marvin Normore and I hiked down a steep trail on the north bank of the river to access “Big John Pool,” a local favorite. There, using a Bomber floating fly, I hooked a salmon that looked to be 10 or 12 pounds and fought it for 10 minutes during which it made several blistering runs and spirited leaps before the fly pulled loose. Meanwhile, we could see Steve, Randy and Royce fishing the famous “Chute Pool” under a waterfall upstream, hooking and playing fish. Norman and I then tried fishing some other pools from a boat, but with no success.

The following morning, Sandy accompanied us while we fished the lower section of the Pinware, just above tidewater. Again, I had no success, but we had a very pleasant experience nonetheless.

According to plan, Sandy and I took the next day off from fishing and drove up the coast to visit Red Bay, the site of a 16th-century Basque whaling station, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since I enjoy wading versus fishing from the bank or a boat, I decided to fish the lovely Forteau River for the next five days. Rick Roberts, husband of the above-mentioned Charlotte Roberts, made arrangements for Ray McClenathan and me to be guided by Parker Suley, a local with many years experience on the Forteau. I had a rental car, so I volunteered to drive Ray and myself the required 40-minutes south from the lodge for each fishing session.

We found the Forteau to be a classic wading river, filled with many lovely pools. There, Ray and I caught numerous salmon and lost others amidst spectacular scenery. It was truly an idyllic setting and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Sandy came along one day to do some photography.

Atlantic_Salmon-release-051916Parker Suley is a guide extraordinaire. Time and again he positioned Ray and me to enable us to put our flies over places in the river where salmon were holding. One evening, while Parker and Ray were standing a short distance upriver, I cast a number 12 Silver Tip so that it would swing downstream and just above the point where a rapids began. A salmon blew-up on that fly and immediately streaked across the river, leaping wildly all the way. I was using a nine-foot Sage One fly rod with a vintage Hardy St. John reel and Rio fly line and I thought to myself that something surely would have to give. At that instant, the chrome-bright salmon, just in from the sea, turned downstream and plunged into the rapids below, taking out line at a furious pace. I will always remember the scream of that old Hardy reel as the fish continued to strip out line. I then realized that I would have to follow the fish down through the rapids or risk having it take out all my line and break-off. Luckily, I had a sturdy wading staff with me! Down through the rapids I made my way, bent rod in one hand and wading staff in the other, until I reached a point where our beached boat blocked my passage. I had no choice, so I climbed in the boat, worked my way across it, then reentered the water. Eventually, that fish and I, both totally exhausted, met on a small bit of sand beach. There the fish was released to continue on its spawning mission.

And so our adventure in the land of the codfish and the dory came to a close. We drove directly back to St. John’s and flew home, taking with us memories of a sportsmen’s paradise populated by warm, friendly people.

Note: Steve Teal’s 2015 tally on the Pinware totaled 16 hooked with 14 landed. Largest was estimated at 20 pounds.

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