RODROOM: Salmon in the faraway North: an exclusive flyfishing adventure in Newfoundland
Running through a remote wilderness kingdom of moose and bear is the Serpentine River, where sport is wild and free. Ian Gray witnesses the resurgence of an important fishery, and CountryClubuk Members can experience the flyfishing trip of a lifetime. Now, read on …
THE 26ft cedar canoe drifts through some of the grandest mountain scenery in eastern Canada and I am in the prow, sun on my back and a cool breeze on my face. We slide over a deeper cut in the river profile and there they lie, grey shapes, every one a salmon, potential for my bombers and single-hook dries and assorted flyfishing artillery.
As we pole and motor down this spring-fed river, clear as glass, the question is, why are we alone? In Canada, fishing is free for all. Anybody can throw a line where whim dictates. True. But not everybody can reach the Serpentine River, virtually inaccessible to any but birds. It is a secluded kingdom for moose, black bears and salmon. And perhaps few flyfishers give credence to the words of legendary American fisher and writer Lee Wulff: that the Serpentine is the best salmon river in Newfoundland.
This is the river which my companions—former ferry steward Ben, aged 82, fish dealer Sean, aged 49, and retired aeronautical engineer Don, aged 74—and I are here to fish, in the most literal and active meaning of the word. On the Serpentine River it is not sensible to simply throw in a fly and daydream while it swishes downstream. Fishing here is high-concentration, tense, demanding.
One technique is to swim a wet fly down the pool. But make no splash. The water is low. Slide the fly into the stream ahead of the fish and watch. Side-cast perhaps, avoiding throwing shadows. I rise one grilse this way, three times. He needs to be provoked. So I send the fly past his nose again but twitch it faster. Caution to the winds, this time he takes: a five-pounder.
Having first tickled the interest of the quarry, Serpentine fishers give their pools a wide berth to avoid being seen, and enter from below. Then out comes the Popsicle Bomber or the Burdock or other fancy bit of fluff with a single hook hidden beneath. On goes the special ladies’ make-up remover with its wonderful flotant properties, and we nick this fly softly on to the water in front of the last fish in the pod, finning peacefully in the pool. We work up the pool, seeking a fish that is inquisitive, irritated or ignorant. Some are, and we hook them.
The barbs on the flies are clamped down to help fishers release fish without injury, so not every salmon can be landed. In particular, when they jump it is difficult to keep them hooked. Too much pressure snaps the modest 6lb test, too little means it pops out. The great Hugh Falkus, in his classic sea trout book, advocates keeping line-pressure off the reel even when the fish jumps, but this takes nerve. I hook another grilse. It pirouettes twice and lands back in its natural environment with perhaps only the faintest recognition of the incident.
Fishing this river presents an assortment of problems because of the variety of its pools. They range from slow bends to cuts and fast runs, gravelly glides and rocky, tumbling stretches with little slicks promising fish where the dark bottom denotes depth and a possible lie. I fish a 9ft Loomis GL2 rod with a 6 line—to force the fly to dance through the fish zone often requires wading across to a point in the river from where one can direct the fly-line. Otherwise it can be whipped sideways by intervening water spilling over a not-too-distant ledge.
At the same time, when the sun shines or the sky is light, the angler must remain out of fish-view. In low water, they may see the bent-in-anticipation angler profile, and ignore his sweet offerings. Fishing becomes a hunt, stalking skills are much in demand.
From a high bank I make out a shoal of fish gently finning. Their grey shapes wobble in the stream. I tip-toe around and tie on a spiky fly named Green Machine. It has a mini-hackle and can be fished wet or dry. I pop it on to the far side of the stream, fishing it wet, and a slow roll comes up from below, hiding it from view. A large silver shape takes to the air once, twice, but somehow I hang on and we land what proves to be a 16lb hen fish. We return her to the water.
Catch-and-release is obligatory. Newfoundland is conservation-conscious. Once the international ‘sports’ (as foreign anglers are known) were regular visitors. John Ashley Cooper, one of the all-time great salmon fishers and writers, fished here. But logging and resulting siltation, together with widespread netting, took its toll. Runs collapsed. Visitors left the rivers they had grown to love and sought their sport elsewhere.
The department of fisheries saw what was needed, and acted. First, they ended ad hoc clear-felling on riverbanks—a mixed second-rotation forest is growing back beautifully. Netting was discontinued in the early 1990s. Runs of salmon rejoiced in the open waters and they began to reproduce again.
Nowadays, big fish are the story. I met a commercial fisherman whose friend inadvertently netted an 80lb salmon while fishing for cod. Another giant hit 64lb—a female which, when scale-read, revealed a return history of eight freshwater visits, probably a record. Newfoundland is about to become a significant salmon fishery once more.
We are all statisticians. Our four Rods hooked 35 salmon or grilse in five fishing days, of which 19 were landed. Each fisher is allowed to keep two, but only grilse. The big fish are all returned to the river.
The Serpentine is that rare phenomenon, a river without human habitation in the catchment. Most wilderness rivers at least have a house near the outlet. Not this one. Instead, there is Ray Humber’s camp—elegant wooden lodges standing in trees a mile below the six-mile long, 600ft deep Serpentine Lake. No comfort is overlooked. Camp catering by Ray’s wife has the anglers running from their cabins when the bell is rung. Served with wild berries from Newfoundland’s extraordinary bushland, local moose meat tastes sublime. Corn cod sounds a flat affair but with pork fat and chunky ‘Newfie’ cod steaks, it is third-helping material. As for the sea trout, one angler catches a dozen in a single session, and they are relished.
On my last pool of the trip I fish a fly made especially for the Serpentine, revelling in the name Texas Jim. This weird brown and grey fly, like the crest of a woodpecker, persuades a fish to poke out its nose and suck for a second. Then I move on to a pool where I have seen 20-pounders cavorting. A fellow fisher has had the anguish of seeing one of these whoppers hook up, launch, fall on the fly-line and disappear.
I dress up a white and red bomber and project the arty-crafty fly into the stream. After a longish time covering different riffles in the broad stream cascading from a ledge, there is a mighty rise. Mystified, I haul in. Curses. I have flicked off the barb on the stones behind, the price paid for not double-hauling, and trying to cast all in one movement. As ever, the river has the last say.
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights from Gatwick go direct to the local Newfoundland airport,
Deer Lake. More regular flights are to Halifax in Nova Scotia, after
which it is a short drive to Deer Lake. For full details, call CountryClubuk
on 020 7935 0888, or visit www.countryclubuk.com.
WHEN TO GO
July is booked solid with repeat clientele but during the past four years fishing has been every bit as good in August so Ray Humber is extending his season until August 29. ‘We operate one fishing lodge and provide a very personal service, so would be able to accommodate only six sports (fishers) per week during August in order to provide a top-quality fishing experience for them. The weeks I have available for the 2009 season are therefore: August 9-15, 16-22, and 23-29.
A five-day flyfishing holiday at Ray Humber’s exclusive lodge, including ground transportation to and from Deer Lake airport to the lodge; accommodations and bedding at the lodge; home-cooked meals; licence fees; applicable taxes; a full-time cook; guides (2:1 ratio). Most flyfishers prefer to take their own rod and reel, but Rod Humber will supply for an extra $100.
The five-day fishing experience means departing for the lodge on late Sunday afternoons and returning late Friday afternoon, so guests fly into Deer Lake airport no later than mid-afternoon on Sunday.
The regular rate is $4,995 per person (currently £2,593). Our Members receive a special discount of 10% ($499.50, currently £259) for a full camp of six people, which amounts to an all-inclusive price of $4,495.50 (currently £2,334). Flights are not included, but Member Services will be happy to arrange these on your behalf.