Time for the Miramichi

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
–Henry David Thoreau

Prince Charles has come. George W. Sr. too. For more than a century, New Brunswick’s Miramichi River, a vast water system of 37 major tributaries stretching through the northeast corner of the province, has lured the rich and famous, movie and sports stars, indeed folk from all walks of life. And now me.

Last autumn, I stood hip-deep in the crystal-clear waters of the world-renowned recreational salmon stream, making that first sweet cast. The sun glinted off the water, and the countryside glimmered in an intoxicating kaleidoscope of colour with silver maple trees gone gold and crimson. I was mesmerized.

I’m not sure just when my mind started to drift and the hectic world disappeared, but it wasn’t long after stepping into the river. I rolled the silence around my head and thought, yes, this fabled land can get in your blood.

The trip began when from different corners of Canada, our women’s foursome of rookies arrive in Fredericton, a tidy government and university city of about 55,000, and drive an hour down a pretty road to ourase, the Ledges Inn, a handsome log lodge on the riverbanks in the village of Doaktown.

Towels dry on an outdoor line, while chest waders hang near the front door. Hostess Stephanie O’Donnell shows us our rooms: large and fresh with the fragrant smell of wood.

Our first night is about comfort: an in-room pedicure, a four-course gourmet meal in the lodge, wine, maybe a candlelit bubble bath. Fishing will begin tomorrow morning.

It’s not just the fish, it’s the river
That evening, Bill Ensor, our buzz-cut marine-tough (“You can’t hurt steel!”), heart-of-gold guide, gives us a primer on the Miramichi. The river is clean, starting out pretty much spring- fed with no dams and not much development. Commonly known as “the mother of all Atlantic salmon rivers,” it’s a huge system, with its headwaters in the north central highlands of the province and flowing into the Northumberland Strait, he tells us.

Ensor builds anticipation. “Even in your brief stay, you’ll get a marvellous feel for this river,” he promises. “It’s such an intimate thing with the river. You’re in it, you’re part of it. Not another thing in the world matters. If you hook one, it’s an absolute siren. It just keeps calling you back.”

Another guest at the lodge, New Yorker Sunny Boley, has heard that siren call many times. She and husband, Scott, have fished these shores since 1957. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere in the peace and quiet. You don’t really care if you catch a fish. You just care if you’re out there,” she tells me after dinner.

Next morning, stepping into chest waders is a strange feeling. Though the boots are attached, I keep expecting them to fill with water as I gingerly tread the rocks below the tea-coloured river.

Ensor advises not to be impatient when wading into the river. We do the Miramichi Shuffle – each one of us taking a spot in the river, then switching places after a bit.

Learning the ropes
He demonstrates casting with an easy, expert, flawless whip through the air. It’s pure poetry. As he leaves, I chant his words: cast with authority; not too much force; incorporate wrist action; pause on the backswing. Finally, when I stop thinking so hard, my rhythm improves, and a glorious epiphany hits – yes, oh, yes, this is how it’s done.

Then the fish start to jump. Big fish. Breaking the water. Making me nuts. “Come to mama,” I hear myself whisper, understanding how this can become a complete obsession.

My blood quickens when Ensor wades out to change my Blue Charm fly. I’m in a hot spot where the fish are. I throw my line again, entranced. Three hours later, we pack it in, exhilarated, but no fish the wiser. Rookies, it seems, must pay their dues.

That night at the Ledges, the group snuggles around a canoe-shaped coffee table in the living room for a reading by local author Herb Curtis, who has been nominated for the Stephen Leacock and Commonwealth Writers prizes. “The Miramichi to me is just the best place in the world,” Curtis says. “I’ve spent more time from sunset to dusk, lying down on the bottom of a canoe, looking at the stars and drifting off for miles…. It was a wonderful place to grow up.”

“The river is just a way of life here,” Valerie O’Donnell, a Doaktown native running O’Donnell’s Cottages and Expeditions, echoes the next day as she guides a three-hour canoe tour. “I can have a stressful day, and I can go by myself on the river in the evening. It’s so peaceful and calm. It’s a good place to talk to people. You have no distractions,” she says as we paddle in the stillness past an eagle’s nest. Soon, we pull off to boil black tea and munch on the molasses cookies O’Donnell had baked the night before.

Stepping back into the canoe, my thoughts drift like a fly on the water. I didn’t come to the Miramichi to fall in love with a river, but here I am, dreaming of a lifelong romance.