Salmon and People

by JACK RUSSELL

1

AT the outset, we were faced with the problem of acquiring a staff of guides for our camps on the Miramichi. I had once been told that a good man to select things for the public was a man who could buy things that he did not like himself. I was always partial to a certain type of guide, but I remembered that remark and sometimes hired guides who were not the type I would select for myself.

Some sportsmen like a guide who is quiet, and others one who is companionable and chatty. Some anglers want a guide to help them select flies, give advice, and take full charge of the try for fish. Others — and there are a lot of them — have very definite ideas as to what they want to do, where they want to go, and the way they want to fish. The smart guide lets the sportsman in that class go it alone. But I have known several instances in which the guide could stand the strain no longer. Quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) shoving his canoe ashore, he told the sportsman that he would send out another man, as he did not seem to be getting on well enough to suit.

The guides refer to that type of angler as a “guide from the city.” After all, a guide does have a fund of information about the local conditions — where the fish lie, locations of the pools; particularly, he knows how to handle a canoe on these rivers, where spring freshets change the pools nearly every year.

The old-fashioned guides, who had fished the river for years before we ever came here, were an interesting group as a whole, but few of them had any inkling as to how the sportsman lived in his own home or what he had been accustomed to eat; nor had they had any experience in preparing food as we wanted it handled on the river. But there is one thing that every competent man can do in the north country: he can cook ordinary food to his own liking.

These men were good breadmakers and could fry anything that is supposed to be fried. It was our job to teach them that food can be cooked without the use of grease. We laid in a stock of broilers which we had made purposely for outdoor cooking, and we taught the guides how to use them. It was no time at all before we had very fair cooks for the river trip. Some of these same men afterward became such good cooks that one sportsman even wanted to take one of my men home with him to the States as a year-round cook. I am glad that the United States immigration laws prevented such an arrangement, for we should have lost a good man.

I have never come in contact with a more resourceful and dependable lot of men than these Canadian guides. They have a quaint sense of humor and a native wit. I remember once on the Restigouche I had a fine cheese from Montreal delivered for one of my parties. The cheese was the famous Oka, made by the Trappist monks in Quebec; it is considered a great delicacy and it has a strong odor. The waiter was asked to bring the cheese in to the table, but he came back and whispered to me that the cook wanted to see me in the kitchen. I went out, and the cook said that the cheese had spoiled. On being assured that he had kept it in the icebox, I looked at it and found it in perfect condition. Back I went to the table, and when the waiter brought the cheese in, the cook and several guides were peeking through the window to see what would happen. When one of the guests ate a piece of cheese, the cook was overheard whispering to the guides, “By God! They’re eating it!”

One of my oldest guides, Burt Pond, was guiding a lady on the home waters one windy day, and although the lady was a skilled caster, a gust of wind caused her fly to drop on the back cast, and the fly hook bit deeply into Burt’s neck. He grabbed the leader and said, “Hold on — you’ve caught me.” The angler was horrified when she saw how deep the fly was imbedded in his neck, and wanted to land at once. But Burt cut the leader, grasped the fly firmly in his powerful hand, and tore it out, barb and all. He held it up, looked at it, and said, “That’s the first time I’ve riz to that fly this year!” The lady’s horror disappeared, and she could be heard laughing all over that end of the water.

That same guide, who had a party going upriver one night, was waiting at the railway station in Boiestown to load canoes and duffel for the rail trip to the headwaters when a stranger walked by the lamplighted platform. The man had evidently had smallpox, as his face was badly pitted. The sportsman with Burt asked if we had smallpox in this country, and Burt said, “No —why?” “Well,” said the sportsman, “that man that just walked by has had it.” Burt came back like a flash. “Oh, no,” he said, “that fellow is a guide, and those holes are where he has been hooked by sportsmen.”

Guides have a philosophy of their own. Fred Clowater told me one day that he never worried about a thing till it happened, and then “the hell with it.” There is a lot to that point of view that would help most of us.

Once I wanted to take one of my older guides to the States on a trip, as he had never been out of the woods, but he refused to go. I wanted to know why and he said that people would laugh at him. I assured him they would do no such thing. His reply was that they would, because “I laugh at them when they come here.”

Soon after I opened the camps, I had a chap come to us at the suggestion of his father. The lad had been in World War I and had had the misfortune to lose a leg. An artificial one allowed him to walk, but he had some difficulty in getting into a canoe. His father asked me to arrange to have him put into a canoe with an elevated seat in front, so that he could stretch his artificial leg out straight. I was further asked not to mention the arrangement, since my guest was somewhat sensitive about his infirmity.

I sent the young man on the river with old Burt Pond, who, besides being one of my most careful men, is an exceptionally good fisherman. When they came in to lunch I asked Burt if his sportsman was comfortable and happy. He replied, “Sure. Don’t worry about him. He took his wooden leg off and let me use it for a gaff handle.” No disrespect — just a native wit that one little expects to find in these backwoodsmen, who for the most part have never seen a streetcar, an elevator, or a building over two stories high.

I have seen captains of industry, railway presidents, and men from all walks of life sitting with their guides, chatting easily about things that the guides understand best, and getting a great kick out of being with them. The guide cares not a whit how big the man may be in the business world. If he is a good sportsman, taking the fishing as it comes, the good with the bad, then he has the thing that counts. Once some of my men sat listening to a group of my guests telling where they had spent their honeymoons. Some had been to Europe, one to Japan, and others all over the map. One of my guides said, “I spent my honeymoon at McGiveny Junction [a railway crossing] and I bet I had as good a time as any of them.” It’s all in the point of view,

2

WHEN a guide is expecting to go out with a new guest, the guide is naturally curious as to what kind of man he will be with every moment of the following week or more while they are on the river. We generally tell him ahead of time how we have sized up the newcomer.

Every man I have is an accomplished fisherman. It is curious to watch developments when a new man first goes out with the guide. The ability of the fisherman is soon apparent, and if he shows that he can handle a rod, the guide lets him go it alone, spending his time looking for fish and watching every cast, never for an instant taking his eye off the fly as it drops downstream.

I wonder just how many salmon anglers really know how much a guide helps them in killing a fish, once it is hooked. He immediately maneuvers his canoe into position to take advantage of every move the fish makes. If it is a long-running fish, downstream the guide goes, letting his canoe drift very slowly, always in control with his pole (he seldom uses a paddle); and when the fish shows the least sign of tiring, the canoe is backed easily toward the nearest bar, where the final stand is to be made. Many fishermen prefer at that point to get out of the canoe and get their feet firmly planted on the ground, which they feel is an advantage over sitting in a canoe. The guide very slowly takes his position at the water’s edge, with either gaff or net ready. It is there that a fish is most likely to be lost.

There is more criticism of a guide at this point than at any other time during a whole trip. The angler is anxious. The fish may be nearly to the point of the kill, but the guide sees that it would be folly to try to take the fish at this time, as it is not ready to bo brought in that last few feet or inches. Every movement of guide and angler now counts, and if the rod is being held up with the maximum amount of strain, the fish will slowly give up the battle and be brought ashore.

But alas, how many times have I seen a fight at this point bring disappointment. Many anglers are afraid of their tackle, and do not put enough pressure on the fish to bring him to the guide. The most important part of handling a fish nearing the net or gaff is to lead the fish to the guide, instead of expecting the guide to chase the fish all over the pool. The slightest movement of either person on the shore will start a fish off on a desperate run again. That is the time when the fish can most easily escape, for he is soft-mouthed, and unless he is hooked in the solid part of his jaw, the hook will keep wearing a larger hole and a roll will disengage it very easily.

Some guides have one habit that I have never been able to correct, and that is letting an angler take too much time in killing a fish. I have heard it said many times that one should kill a salmon in the number of minutes that the fish weighs in pounds. In other words, a fish weighing 20 pounds should be killed in 20 minutes.

I should think that would be a fair average. But I have seen anglers play a fish over an hour, and even two hours. In my opinion that is ridiculous. If you have proper tackle and a good guide, and if the fish has been fairly hooked, he should be killed approximately at a minute a pound.

There are exceptions to this rule, as there are to any other in sport. I have been fast to a 33-pound fish that has taken me well over an hour to land, and I never let up on him for an instant. Using a two-handed rod, on the Restigouche, I tried everyway I knew to turn that fish, but he had me just above some rapids, and eventually we had to give way to him, go down through the rapids, and try to stand him just below the fast water. But he had such a start downstream I could not stop him without either breaking the leader or tearing the hook out; so down we went, and it was well over a mile below where I hooked him that we finally gaffed him.

3

THERE are two distinct theories about handling a hooked fish that will always be controversial. One school says to stay above a fish, allowing him to keep downstream, and the other says to get below the fish and you will kill him a lot easier. I am inclined to believe that the latter is the quicker way of tiring the fish.

If you are fishing in a still-water pool, it is not difficult to work your way slowly below your fish and, by putting pressure on him from that angle, to force him to go upriver. He is off balance most of the time, and in an unnatural position. His mouth can be held open more easily, and I find that the hook is not so easily dislodged. I do not insist on either way, however, because each fish must be handled according to circumstances.

The river trip needs a very capable man, and not all canoemen are assigned for that job. When a new man asks to be allowed to go upriver with guests, I always make the trip with him or send him with one of my more experienced guides. The older guide not only keeps his eye on the handling of the canoe but takes great pains to point out the dangerous rocks and the side currents, which a new man knows nothing about, in that part of the river.

Donald McKay, one of the best-known guides and rivermen who ever handled a canoe on the Miramichi, took me on my first trip running the river, and I was much impressed with his crossing and recrossing at points where there seemed no need for it. He explained to me that he was following the “set of the river.”There is a very definite pathway on rivers, and the casual traveler cannot see it.

New men quickly recognize a salmon pool, but there are also many innocent-looking places that hold fish. It takes experience to know them, and accordingly a new guide has this or that rock pointed out to him as the resting place of a salmon that is working its way upstream. It is remarkable how quickly he will store up river lore. Woodsmen have the best memories I have ever encountered. Once a spot is fixed in their minds as a place a fish may be resting, they seldom forget it, even though there are many such in the fifty-five miles of river that the trip covers.

Guides can be depended on to tell guests about wildlife, fish, or the weather, but there is one thing they cannot do and that is to talk much about birds or wildflowers. They do not seem interested in cither one. I am reminded of the native who was asked what the inhabitants did for amusement while they were not lumbering or guiding. “Do you have any athletics around here?” he was asked. Studying the question for a moment, he replied, “Well, we used to have a lot of them, but they disappeared when the caribou did.”

(To be concluded)