I once asked a man wiser than I am if I should consider a career in fly fishing. He strongly advised against it, advocating a more standard course of advancement. “It’s all I think about,” I said. To which he replied, “Do it only if you can’t help yourself, but remember the opportunity cost.” I thought he meant that I would be getting a really good deal on graphite rods for a very long time, so I accepted a job working in a fly shop in Montana the next day.
I don’t think about fly fishing all the time. There was a moment in 2004—the Red Sox had just won the World Series for the first time in 86 years—when I did not think about fly fishing. I thought about all the great players for the Red Sox who never made it to a World Series. I thought about Ted Williams. Then I remembered that Ted Williams was a salmon fisherman, and I was right back to thinking about fly fishing again.
I am not the only one. The vast majority of my friends are similarly afflicted. We form a mutual support group, a circle of co-dependents, who find asylum along the banks of salmon rivers. When I am tempted to believe that I am a bad person for thinking about fly fishing all the time, they assure me that my deviant behavior is the norm as far as they are concerned. If all the zebras are headed over a cliff, it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your striped suit.
I invited the world’s most famous salmon fisherman and fellow addict, Henrik Mortensen of Denmark, to join me for an early June week on the Restigouche. With over 4,000 Atlantic salmon to his rod, Henrik is a good man to have in camp. As it’s unwise to follow Henrik through the pool on a regular basis, I asked Thomas Thaarup, an early-season specialist on the rivers of Norway, to assume that role. Henrik is six feet and five inches tall. Thomas is even taller. When they wade up to their knees, you and I are up to our waist. As we planned to fish from shore, I figured a couple of NBA-ready specimens might come in handy in case we ran into high water.
Artists are an underappreciated group, so I invited two of them. C.D. Clarke, a resident of New Jersey and the finest plein air painter in the business, has the perfect life. He travels to the world’s most desirable sporting destinations and paints them. C.D. has rebuffed my repeated applications for a job as his easel holder. Greg Pearson is a superb waterfowling and fishing artist, who contributed all the artwork for a spey-casting DVD that we filmed together. Both C.D. and Greg are mighty handy with a two-handed rod, which formed the only real prerequisite for our group.
Rounding out our group is the finest working photographer in fly fishing today, Matt Harris of Cambridge, England. Matt arrived in Bathurst, New Brunswick from Trondheim, Norway after a week on the Gaula (where he caught the only salmon). In a normal year, Matt reserves the first two weeks of June for the Yokanga River on the Kola Peninsula. This was not a normal year. Apparently, you could walk across a frozen Yokanga in early June, which is a large problem unless you come prepared with a Jiffy Power Augur and a set of ice-fishing traps.
We assembled at Runnymede Lodge located in Dawsonville, New Brunswick. In 1903, Archibald Mitchell and Frederick Ayer bought the Dawson Farm and its fishing rights. They paid $4,000 for the house, the furniture, and the land and $40,000 for the fishing rights on the Restigouche River abutting the property. From 1913 to 1919, Mitchell, Thomas Hunter, E.A. Robertson, Sigmund M. Lehman and Jules S. Ehrich constructed present-day Runnymede Lodge. With the exception of modern plumbing in the bathrooms and fireplaces in two of the bedrooms, Runnymede has not changed since 1919. It is salmon fishing in a style to which a gentleman could become accustomed.
June of 2014 was an especially rugged month throughout the range of salar. Reports from all over the North Atlantic were dire: pack ice in the Straits of Belle Isle, a dismal run of springers in Scotland, no fishing at all on the north coast of the Kola. As we assembled our double-handed rods on the lawn adjacent to the screened smoking porch, we hoped against hope that the river gods who had been so stingy throughout the realm would make an exception in our case.
We adopted a variety of strategies to cover all bases. The artists—C.D. and Greg—decided on traditional Canadian salmon tactics: floating lines and size 4 wet flies. Matt, who has probably landed more salmon over 30 pounds than any other angler on the Yokanga, opted for a singularly snaky version of the Sunray Shadow tied on a plastic tube. The Vikings—Henrik and Thomas—settled upon triple-density shooting heads and slim Templedog-style flies tied in burnt orange and variety of other earthy hues. Suffering from an identity crisis, I chose a RIO AFS Scandi VersiTip with a 15-foot sinking tip—a line developed in steelhead country—and a succession of tube flies dictated by whim and fancy.
Matt and I drew the Deeside beat to begin our week. It is a long and open pool located 20 minutes upriver by canoe from Runnymede just above the famous Camp Harmony water. Edgar Cullman (Sr.), the former proprietor of Runnymede, hooked an enormous salmon at Deeside on June 15, 1979. While playing the monster, his reel jammed and it appeared that he would lose a lifetime fish. His guide, Lee Marshall, cut the line and attached it to the backing of a more cooperative reel. The salmon weighed 45 pounds in the net with an admirable assist from the guide.
Exactly 35 years later to the day, Head Guide and Camp Manager Vaughan Irvine deposited us by canoe at the head of Deeside. Matt set off first, launching his Sunray Shadow to the far side of the holding water with a snake roll spey cast. I followed Matt through the pool, flexing my 15-foot Sage ONE rod into the cork to wring out every inch of distance with the 40-foot shooting head. Deeside takes at least an hour to fish thoroughly. We paid special attention to a small outcrop of ledge that concentrates the flow just off the right bank. Matt raised a running salmon at this particular feature, but was unable to get him back. It is doubtful the fish was around for a second cast.
C.D. landed a magnificent hen fish on a size 4 Nighthawk just below Grog Island, the lowermost beat at Runnymede. Stanford White (1853-1906), a partner in the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, devised the Nighthawk fly at the turn of the century for a trip to the Restigouche. A noted ladies’ man, the Nighthawk is a veiled reference to the after-dark proclivities of its inventor. I asked C.D. why he singled out the Nighthawk from the myriad patterns in his box. “Because it was invented just upstream of here,” was his succinct reply. That answer and his success with the pattern tell you all you need to know about our whimsical sport.
Vaughan, Sheldon and Dusty returned six sated addicts by canoe to Runnymede at the end of day. As part of our therapeutic regimen, we convened in the living room for an extended round of pharmacotherapy, which in some circles is known as the cocktail hour. Jen Irvine, Mistress of Runnymede and Vaughan’s wife, served a piping-hot chicken pot pie in the dining room. Two whole chickens disappeared into that pot pie before it, in turn, disappeared into six hungry fishermen. The orally fixated among us repaired to the smoking porch for an after-dinner smoke, where, as Sigmund Freud pointed out, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
We varied little from twice-daily excursions to the river and the regimen described above. It is a time-honored schedule perfected at Runnymede and other sporting camps in the halcyon days leading up to World War One. To mess with that schedule or to alter it in any way would be to stick a finger in the unblemished surface of a rising soufflé or to arbitrarily believe that you can improve on the fierce symmetry of a snowflake.
C.D. caught another fish on a size 4 Nighthawk. One fish is an anomaly. Two fish have the makings of a pattern. C.D. landed the salmon in Florence Pool, named for Billy Florence (1831-1891), the popular stage actor from New York City and the co-founder of the Shriners. Matt Harris was perplexed as to why the local salmon would pass up a highly mobile Sunray Shadow or a racy Templedog fly for a “short, stubby local pattern.” I explained that we colonials had conditioned the indigenous salmon to prefer short, stubby patterns with a continuous bombardment throughout the previous century. My new theory took a hit when Thomas landed a freshly minted specimen on a four-inch Templedog at Deeside that evening.
Edgar Cullman (Jr.), the current proprietor of Runnymede, joined us for the end of our week. I introduced Edgar to the double-handed rod, an initiation that I always measure with care. I’ve seen a handful of my friends go off the deep end when introduced to the long rod. Copious amounts of graphite later and the occasional failed marriage, I’m not sure they would thank me. Edgar took to the double-handed rod immediately, while retaining his far more balanced relationship to salmon fishing than the inmates of the asylum.
We spent a final day on the famed Upsalquitch River, the lowermost tributary of the Restigouche in New Brunswick. Ambrose Monell caught the first Atlantic salmon on a dry fly in North America at Two Brooks Camp on the Upsalquitch before World War One. George M.L. La Branche wrote at length about Monell and his dry-fly technique in The Salmon and the Dry Fly (1924). Like Monell and La Branche, we used 14-foot rods to cover the pools. Unlike Monell and La Branche, we fished hair-wing wet flies and modern tube flies. Our predecessors used double-taper silk lines and four-piece bamboo rods. We used a variety of the latest step-taper shooting heads and multi-piece rods constructed of graphite developed by the aerospace industry. We have better tackle at our disposal. They had more salmon. It’s a trade I would make any day.
Greg Pearson had the hot hand, landing four salmon on a full-dress Green Highlander tied on a #4 single hook. The other five rods drew a blank. I watched Greg’s fly closely in the water. The feather-wing fly knifed through the current like a living thing. Its green-and-yellow goose-shoulder wings blended seamlessly with the transparent hues of the Upsalquitch. As we bounced along the dirt track back to Runnymede, our week was complete. I wondered if I had sufficient material at my fly-tying bench to tie a selection of Nighthawks and full-dress Green Highlanders. If I am ever in doubt about what fly to put on, I intend to ask an artist.
Topher Browne is a Sage ambassador and the author of Atlantic Salmon Magic (Wild River Press, 2011) and 100 Best Flies for Atlantic Salmon.