Peter Brookes: Seeking silver: Atlantic salmon in Maritime Canada

Peter Brookes fishes for salmon in New Brunswick, Canada in July. Courtesy photo

The closest thing I can think of to equate it to for someone who hasn’t done it before is to describe it simply as chasing after shadowy, silver spirits from the sea.

What I’m talking about is fly fishing for the exciting — and elusive — Atlantic salmon, a ghost-like gamefish considered to be a quarry of 1,000 casts before one is hooked and landed.

Or was that 10,000 casts?!

Though anglers are known for — shall we say — embellishing just a tad, I was determined to try my hand at catching this king of sport fish, signing up for the Miramichi Salmon Association’s (miramichisalmon.ca) Salmon Classic this summer.

The  Classic  takes place in New Brunswick, Canada in early to mid-July on the famous Miramichi (pronounced: meer-ah-mee-SHE) River, its many tributaries and branches (e.g., the Dungarvon River).

I’d heard it was a challenge to even hook an Atlantic salmon with a fly since they’re no longer eating when arriving from the salt water to the fresh water to spawn. These fish can also be difficult to locate on big water as they push up river, pausing briefly in pools along the way.

Now you understand the ghost-like reference.

Interestingly, Atlantic salmon don’t die after spawning like their Pacific cousins do but reproduce for many years, migrating from as far away as Greenland to the waters of their birth. The big salmon runs on the Miramichi are typically in July and then September.

I’d also read that salmo salarv — Latin for “the leaper” — isn’t only hard to hook, but even harder to land due to its acrobatic abilities above, and fleetness of fin in, the water. In fact, it can be so taxing to net one that some anglers will brag about just hooking a salmon.

Local anglers also warn that these sneaky salmon will wrap your line and leader around any rock available to them in a run or pool; fighting these feisty fish for an hour or so to bring it to hand isn’t uncommon.

One fellow I spoke with told me about his “long-line” catch and release method, a euphemism for how these piscatorial powerhouses will put you well into your fly line backing before breaking you off.

And breaking your heart.

Also interesting was that single-handed 8- to 10-weight fly rods — rather than two-handed Spey rods — are standard equipment, despite the amount of water that sometimes needs to be covered, the friskiness of the fish — and the local Anglo-Celtic heritage.

(Just as well, as I don’t Spey cast — yet — but I was going to tell my wife I needed a new rod for the Classic. I guess I’ll have to conjure up another “excuse” to get my first Spey “stick”…no worries — as an outdoorsman, I have a million of them.)

In the end — after at least 999 casts — I did technically catch an Atlantic salmon. Unfortunately, it was an 8-inch parr, a juvenile, and not a more mature 1-year old grilse or even an older adult fish.

I also caught some good-sized brook trout and some of the biggest creek chubs I’d ever seen. Of course, the initial tug of each hookup made my pulse race in hopes that on the other end of the line was a prized salmon.

I’d have loved to have hooked at least one big fish — even if it got off — just to have a good story to tell about the “one that got away.” The practice would’ve also given me a feel for the famous fight of these Moby Dicks of the Miramichi.

Now I understand why the Classic is three days long, consisting of morning and evening sessions swinging wet flies (e.g., the Green Machine) on some of the best Atlantic salmon beats that Maritime Canada has to offer to chase this low percentage-catch fish.

But the longshot odds of catching ol’ salmo salar, especially for a first timer, was more than offset by the beautiful countryside, the friendly, helpful Classic staff and volunteers and the great company of other anglers, including a lot of Americans.

Some had come a long way to catch the fish of a lifetime.

By the way, though haunted by my lack of success on my first try to hook and bring this fabled fish to hand, I learned a lot on my initial go at it. Oh yeah, I’ll definitely be back. After all, who’s afraid of ghosts?

Dr. Peter Brookes is a D.C. foreign policy wonk who escapes to his Fort Valley cabin and the great outdoors whenever he can. BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.