"The world's greatest Atlantic salmon river," writes Wayne Curtis of the
Miramichi River in Currents in the Stream. A sweeping
statement, perhaps suspect by having been made by a native son. The
evidence however supports the superlative. No other river sees as many
angler days, produced as many Atlantic salon, or offers such a length of
According to Curtis, in his book, Fishing the Miramichi,
the word Miramichi is a Montagnais (a native people of Quebec province)
word for "Micmac land". The Micmacs (local aboriginal people) called the
river Lust-a-gooch-cheech or Little Restigouch (another famous New Brunswick
salmon river). Why the Montagnais word stuck, except perhaps that it was
easier to pronounce and write, is a mystery. [See map,
Many great rivers are fully of the wilderness. Not so the Miramichi.
Much of its lower valley has been inhabited for three centuries. The
valley's people are as important to the river's story as the great silver
fish which brought it angling fame.
The Miramichi is actually a river system located in New Brunswick, one of
Canada's east coast provinces. To be precise, which almost no one ever
is, the Miramichi only exists for a few miles after its two main components,
the Main Southwest Miramichi and the Northwest Miramichi, join near
Miramichi City (formerly the towns of Newcastle and Chatham). From
there the river flows to a rendezvous with Miramichi Bay and the Gulf of
St. Lawrence. At it's mouth it is nearly a mile wide. The first European
to comprehend the full extent of the system was the young French
engineer/cartographer, Batiste Louis Franquelin, who mapped the country
in 1686. Regardless, most people speak of the Main Southwest as if it
were the Miramichi and treat the Northwest as one of its tributaries, so I
will follow this convention.
Fish of the Miramichi
To fully appreciate the Miramichi, one must understand the fish which plays
so large a part in the river's past, present and future. "In the beginning," Atlantic
salmon eggs are laid in a gravel redd in November and hatch the next spring.
The fry grow rapidly and within a few months acquire the characteristic
bars and spots of a parr. One spring, after from two to three years in the
river depending on the available food supply, the parr get a silver coat and a
new name, smolt, and drop downriver to the ocean.
Now a genetic program (not yet fully understood) kicks in to protect the species
from most natural disasters. Some smolts feed in the ocean for only one year and
then return to the river. These are grilse, most weighing between three and six
pounds. Some believe grilse are a subspecies and/or are all male. Both views
are false, although the grilse population is significantly gender-biased in favor of
Salmon spending more than one winter at sea are called multi-sea-winter (MSW)
fish. The number of years at sea determines the final size of a salmon returning
home. Some think all large salmon have spawned several times - another myth.
While an average of 30 percent of MSW salmon in the Miramichi spawn from
two to four times, the majority are maidens. Most Miramichi spawners overwinter
in the river and return to the sea in early spring. Called kelts, they feed primarily
on an incoming run of spawning smelt.
There is no historical evidence to suggest the Miramichi was ever home to
very large salmon. Some argue the relative ease of migrating is responsible,
but I am not persuaded. Other notable big fish rivers are no more difficult.
Regardless, between 30 and 40 pounds seems a natural genetic limit. Due
to conservation efforts, more salmon in this larger class are being landed
and released each season.
Atlantic salmon is the glamour species of the Miramichi, but it is not the
sole inhabitant. While the lower river is too warm to support a large
population of resident brook trout, it is a highway for anadromous brook
trout headed for cold-water tributaries and the headwaters. This run peaks
between mid-May and mid-July and trout over five pounds are taken each
Shad, another anadromous species, are virtually ignored by anglers.
They enter the river in mid-May to spawn and are scarce by the end of June.
Striped bass are another sleeper species. While individuals have
been seen as far upriver as Boisetown, most remain in the lower tidal
regions of the main and Northwest rivers.
History of the River
The wonder is that there are any Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi today.
When Europeans first arrived at the mouth of the river over 350 years ago,
"So large a quantity of them [salmon] enters into this river at night
one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make in falling
upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into
Though few in number, the colonists set about with considerable
ingenuity and gusto to bring silence to the night.
The chosen weapons were nets and spears. Set nets ringed the bay
and stretched across the river, pools were swept with net by day and
night, and canoes set out for the spawning grounds after dark bearing
flambeaux (torches) and spears. So prodigious was the slaughter
that by 1789 almost a million and a half pounds of salmon were
exported from the Miramichi. A good night for the upriver spearers
could see 1000 carcasses hauled ashore . . .
The vast depredations soon took their toll and the salmon runs declined
precipitously. Combined with the rapid development of a more lucrative
forest industry, the collapse caused the commercial operations to virtually
evaporate. The remaining salmon were left in peace. Netting and spearing
for local consumption and the negative impacts of mills and log drives
continued to take a toll.
The latter half of the 19th century saw the first effective regulation of the
salmon fishery and the establishment of fish culture stations. Undoubtedly
this saved the Miramichi's salmon from the ultimate fate of those in other
rivers. Regardless, the original runs - estimated at a million fish - would
never be seen again.
Apparently, few sportsmen ventured to the Miramichi before the mid-1800s.
Certainly the local people were little interested in sport, concerned as they were
with wrestling a living from the valley and considering the ease with which salmon
could be taken with net and spear. After 1850, angler/authors tell of fly fishing
the Miramichi and having some success. Charles Hallock wrote in 1873 that the
favored areas were well upstream of the nets, around the mouths of cold-water
brooks such as Rocky, Burndt Hill, Salmon, and Clearwater Brooks on the main
river. Other favored wilderness tributaries such as the Sevogle.
While some travellers reported acceptable angling, others suggested the river was
so netted and poached as to be useless for sport. Regardless, from this time
forward, fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Miramichi increased in popularity.
One other development significantly affected early salmon angling on the Miramichi,
the formation of fishing clubs. As far back as the last decades of the 19th century,
stretches of government-owned riverbank have been leased to individuals or groups
(this is in addition to the exclusive fishing rights associated with the ownership of
land in certain original grant areas). Shares were sold in these clubs, mostly to
wealthy anglers from the northeastern United States. One well known example is
The Miramichi Fish and Game Club which came into existence on the Northwest
Miramichi in 1893 (although anglers had been plying the "club" waters for two
decades previously). Edward Weeks wrote a history of the club in 1984 featuring
a riveting photo of a 36-pound monster taken by William Crawford in 1893.
The Cains Rover melds with the main river a few miles upstream of the
town of Blackville. Fed by boggy upriver springs, its waters acquire a
characteristic dark stain. Although the once renouned spring sea-trout run
is in trouble, it remains an attactive stream with an excellent fall run of
salmon and is beloved by many hunters for its grouse and woodcock covers.
I have little first-hand experience of the Bartholonew as a salmon stream.
The reason being that until recently it was designated and "index river"
(reserved for scientific study) and so closed to salmon angling. Studies
record the run size as varying wildly from year to year (under 200 to over
2000), and in some years it seems most salmon arrive after the season
closes. Bill Hooper notes, 'the salmon remain in two deep water pools
about a mile above the counting station throughout the summer and early fall.
Up-river migration begins only after the second week of October several
days before spawning.'
Under normal conditions the Dungarvon should be approached with
small river techniques. By this I mean that movement is essential.
Rather than cast over one or two pools extensively, the anglers should
cover as many as possible. Steelheaders will understand perfectly. . .
The Rock Ponds are aptly named. They are rocky stillwaters in which salmon
pause while ascending the North Branch of the river. Depending on conditions,
the angling can be excellent.
Although having happily wandered up the North Branch of the Renous casting
bugs over rock-studded pothole pools, I prefer the gravel bottom and classic
pools of the middle river. At normal water levels one can cross back and forth
to approach each pool from the proper side. And, once again, movement is
important in this section as most pools are small and unlikely to hold more
than one or two fish.
Little Southwest Miramichi River
Murray's Landing on the Little Southest, about a half-mile above Andre
Godin's Miramichi Inn, is a favorite summer pool. On a sunny, but crisp, April
day, in the company of my brother Jim and good friend Milton McKay, it also
yielded by first spring salmon while fishing from shore. Casting from huge
chunks of ice thrown up on shore by the spring flood, it was fascinating to
watch the salmon rise for our easily visible, bright colored streamers. This is
unusual for the Miramichi as angling is almost always at water level (canoe or
wading.) The experience reminded me of fishing from platforms in Norway.
Northwest Miramichi River
Of the major tributaries, I know least about the Northwest and its prime upriver
tributary, the Sevogle (waters in the Northwest sytem are the Big and Little
Sevogle, Portage, Tomogonops and the North and South Branch). I have
fished both, but being a long drive from home (permanent or temporary),
infrequently. What occasionally drew us to the Northwest was a large early
grilse run or the compulsion to explore.
If I have only a passing acquaintance with the Northwest and its tributaries, of
the Bartibog I know nothing firsthand. On the other hand, Jim claims to have
seem the largest salmon of his life in the river. It was near dark and he told me
he was so worred he might hook the monster that he quit fishing. The
Bartibog also boasts its own noted fly tier, Benedict Theophilus "Ben"
Connel, creator of the Ben's Best.
Miramichi's Spring Fishery
The incentive to endure the changeable weather of a Miramichi "spring"
is the opportunity to land a bunch of fish. For, while during the bright
season anglers are permitted to catch-and-release four salmon per day,
in spring there is no limit to the number one can release. With a
bit of luck and a modicum of skill, anglers can expect to release 10 to 20 salmon
per day [kelts] providing one finds the fish. As noted earlier, kelts take
the fly aggressively because they are actively feeding while dropping
The Summer Season
The first serious summer anglling is for a large run of grilse entering the
Northwest in late June. Afterwards, runs of salmon enter the main river
and the tributaries throughout the summer, the timing depending on water
conditions. In the early seventies, I favored early July for its strong
grilse runs. Then, for nearly a decade, the better angling was later in the
month. Now, early July has staged a comeback. Mid-July to mid-September
are the days of the dry fly. Not exclusively of course, but salmon seem
readier to take dries when daytime temperatures are higher. The tail of
a pool in the evening is a sound bet.
Miramichi summers are magic. Long days offer extended hours of
angling. Nights are cool regardless of daytime temperatures. Salmon
are on the move. From the veranda of Miramichi Gray Rapids Lodge,
as early July evenings yield to the night, I often watch the river's slick
surface betray pods of salmon working upriver as schools of shad drop
down. Regardless of the day's luck, this reaffirmation of the river's
eternal cycle buoys the spirit for the morrow.
. . . fall is my favorite season on the Miramichi. Now the salmon push forward,
almost disregarding water levels. Now a man may fish into dusk without the
insult of hurrying the evening meal. Now the frost finishes off the pestilence
Fall salmon are often more aggressive, although certainly still subject to
periods of lockjaw. They also exhibit an eclectic taste in flies. Everything
goes . . . They also succumb to a variety of presentations.
Fall is also the season of the hookbill - salmon which in anticipation of
spawning have already begun to experience changes. In the lower river,
many are headed for the Cains. Changes include the growing of large kypes
(a hooking development of the lower and upper jays) in the male and heavy
spotting. Cains-bound salmon will already have begun to acquire the
characteristic red sides.
Proximity to spawing affects a salmon's fighting sprit. While there are
no absolutes, fall fish jump few times and the average - for the capable
angler - landing time of a minute per pound is reduced by a third. The
compensation is more and larger fish.
Flies for the Miramichi
No one knows why an Atlantic salmon will take one fly and not another.
The wonderful (or cursed, depending on whether you are buying or selling)
uncertainty has led to a profusion of patterns throughout history. The
creative urge has yet to be stilled. There are no rules, almost. For the
Miramichi, flies must by regulation be tied on double or single hooks
without added weight.
Although black and green are the river's primary colors, there are times
when a white or yellow fly is the only answer. At such times I choose
The Priest (white) or the GW Special (greenish yellow) by Gerry Williamson.
Also, in addition to those specifically mentioned, believers modify other
patterns in the list by adding a little flash to the wing or tail.[For the flies
for the Miramichi River, click
Among the tens of thousands of anglers who have cast a fly over the
Miramichi's storied waters are names from every field of endeavor.
Writers, painters, musicians, educators, scientists, sports and movie
stars, physicians, clergy, generals, businessmen and women, and
politicians have made the journey, some many times. To all, the
lure of the river and Salmo salar is irresistible.
~ Paul Marriner
For a MAP of The Miramichi River, click
For the FLIES for The Miramichi River, click
To ORDER Miramichi River direct from the publisher, click
Credits: From Miramichi River part of the River
Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications.
We greatly appreciate use permission.