My Turn to Guide

Lover of the woods, fly-fisherman, and conservationist, SIDNEY C. HAYWARDis Secretary of Dartmouth College. With his friend Paul Sample, the artist, he has fished for salmon in the Canadian rivers and in Iceland. Last summer he undertook the management of a new camp in Newfoundland, and here, for the first time in his career, he assumed the duties of a professional guide. It was quite a different point of view.

by SIDNEY C. HAYWARD

1

MY TRIPS to northern waters in search of Atlantic salmon and trout have usually been taken with someone at the other end to make all the arrangements. Native guides carried the packs and built the fire at noon to “bile the kittle.” They did the worrying about wind and weather on the water. They consoled me if the fish were scarce.

Now it was my turn to guide. I was in charge of a new set of cabins in Newfoundland for an American company whose offices were 1500 miles from the sub-Arctic area. Few of the guests flying in each weekend had ever thrown a fly for a salmon or had any experience with deep pools and fast water; some had never handled a fly rod; others had fished for muskies, trolling heavy gear from a boat; others were addicts of the spinning rod.

My first job was to get acquainted with the newcomers and to match the guests with my crew of cheerful Newfoundlanders. A tired, tense executive would find tonic in the bantering, relaxed company of Mac. That younger, exuberant guy (he had never hooked a salmon before) would need Jack with his safe and quiet ways. This angler with the keen look and well-worn equipment might be top rod of the season if he had Angus at his elbow to help spot t he fish.

The guests began to ask questions and I found myself giving the traditional replies.

“How’s the fishing?”

“Well,” I said, “it was good last week. You can never tell . . .”

“Are the fish here?” inquired another sportsman.

Albert spoke up: “Salmon are here, sir, but the river he is too low and they don’t take good.”

“We need rain and a rise of water,” I remarked. “The sun is too darn bright. I wish you had all been here last week.”

I wasn’t trying to dampen their ardor; it’s just the way things are.

So we paired off for the evening fishing. I led my sportsman to the head of a handsome rip — fast water leading into a deep, dark slick fanning out to a long, quiet pool. I cautioned him against beating up the fly on the backcast.

“Use a short line and hold the rod high,” 1 advised. Within three casts the hook of a new Jock Scott from Hardy’s hit a rock on the beach. I tied on another and we worked together on casting, counting aloud “one . . . two . . . three,” back . . . pause . . . forward. It went better.

“You moved a salmon,” I called from a rock downstream. A guide often sees fish first because he can spot a slight bulge on the surface caused by a moving body beneath. The fisherman becomes too preoccupied with casting and retrieving, with laying out too long a line, when he should be concentrating on action in the water. The guide looks for signs of a fish.

“He took your fly. Strike when I shout,” I yelled. Another cast. A bulge on the surface, a flash of silver beneath. “Strike!" I called. Back went the rod, but not in time. How I ached to have that rod in my hands!

The stream really came to life. Salmon jumped. Huge dorsal fins showed in porpoise rolls. But they weren’t hooking themselves, and we took the trail back to camp empty-handed. On the way we fell in with Mac, whose man asked, “Any luck/" “No,” my guest replied. “We should have been here last week. Water’s too low.

Sunday evening the cabins were full of talk as we got ready for supper and the long evening of fishing.

“My wife gave me this pole a year ago last Christmas. She thought it was a bargain. Is the pole any good ?”

“What kind of rod is it?” I began, but —

“Not a damn salmon fly in the city of Toledo. Tried everywhere. They thought I was crazy asking for Atlantic salmon flies, but when I told them I was headed for Newfoundland . . .”

“All I brought with me was a casting rod and plugs, but now I hear you’ve got to use flies. Anyway, I always did want to learn fly casting . . .”

“Do you put stockings under the waders or over?”

“Honest, do we use hooks that small? How can you catch a big fish on a little thing like that?”

I moved around the cabin and the bedrooms: “Supper in five minutes. You want to get out early tonight and stay late. A lovely evening to fish.”

One of the guests had been pointed out to me as a devout Catholic who had missed church because of travel into the northern wilderness. Candles were lighted along the table. The kitchen boy held plates for me to serve two huge pink slabs of charcoal-grilled salmon.

“We’ll return thanks,” I said, and heads were bowed in the brief word of grace.

“My guide says they had no woods work last winter and the people are very poor. How do they earn a living?” It was a motor executive from Detroit speaking.

“It’s a rough life and very hard to earn a living,” I replied. “Cod fishing with hand lines is almost a thing of the past. Lobsters provide uncertain and short employment. Work in the woods, cutting pulp and saw logs, is now the best bet for a man along these bleak northern coasts. When there’s no logging, there is almost no money coming in — except for visiting fishermen. Sporting camps can make a difference.”

Another observation: “We are guests up here of a company that has invested in cabins, equipment, and local labor. Does Newfoundland welcome the idea?”

“ The government is cooperating,” I said, “knowing that salmon fishing is one of its most important resources. Plans are under discussion for leasing the more remote rivers and pools, such as this one. At the same time Newfoundlanders, living for the most part near mouths of rivers or in the cities, would retain public fishing rights to those nearby waters. For every fish killed, two or three are released by our guests to swim away, spawn, and come again next year. Conservation of this farsighted sort is very important. These fish can’t stand heavy pressure. Without some leasing plan they will be wiped out in Newfoundland, as they have been to a great extent on open rivers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.”

2

THE timing in casting a fly and in striking a rising salmon results from coördinated skills acquired through practice and experience. Beginners in the art were wise to ask for instruction, and also to keep their sense of humor dusted off. One of the older guides, who stated his opinions with complete candor, but only in my hearing, despaired of getting a fish for his man. “Mr. ‘Ayward,” Joe said, “we has plenty of rises but he don’t hook them salmon. That’s what he don’t. Couldn’t hook a thing, not he.”

When a fisherman is down on his luck and others are reveling in good sport, an indigo atmosphere stifles all efforts by guests or crew to lessen the tension. As hours and days go by without a fish, pride suffers grievously.

That evening I went along with Joe and his fishless sportsman to the best pool on the river. The visitor was really learning to cast.

Joe whispered, “I tells him to keep the rod tip high, come back slow, wait a bit, and then make his cast. He do’s it pretty good.”

Just then a No. 8 single Jock Scott fly lured a great fin and huge tail above water. It brought a yell from Joe: “Strike! Pull! Hit it! Pull back on that son of a bitch!”

But the strike came too late and too hard. “Here, Joe,” the fisherman said, “you get one and I’ll net him.”

The guide threw a nice line — back slow, the allimportant pause at the top of the back swing, then swiftly forward with slender, strong bamboo sending the oiled silk across the pool. The fly curved downstream. Before the salmon showed himself (but the surface bulge and a slight checking of the fine were clues), Joe raised the rod tip firmly to straighten the line and the fish was hooked. It ran straight out, jumped, and circled with a tight line screaming from the reel. Great leaps threw showers of spray. Gradually, a hundred feet or more of line was reeled back. The salmon eased in toward shore, silver sides flashed in the dark water of twilight, the guest was ready with the net. He moved too fast, lunging at the fish, striking a steel body that had never known restraint. Off went the heavy salmon, pulling hard against too short a line, the leader broken, dashing to freedom in skips and jumps across the pool.

“My God,” Joe whispered to me, “he can’t even net a fish, much less hook one!”

Frontier people have their own ways of showing whether morale and spirits are good. Eight guides were leaving for a night at home. Much of the 24-hour leave would be spent rowing and hiking to the distant ocean settlement, then back over the same rough trails, crossing wind-swept lakes and bucking river currents. Tomorrow evening another group of Americans would arrive eager for salmon and trout.

“Cheerio!” I called to the departing group.

“Cheerio!” They waved from a heavy Newfoundland dory loaded deep in the water with men and duffel.

Down the path ran Mac, a few minutes late because he had had to return to the guides’ bunkhouse for a forgotten item. Lifting his pack from the beach he hefted its weight suspiciously, pulled open buckles, and dove inside to look for stones. He found three rocks and tossed them at the dory. Men ducked splashes and fought off the invader.

Mac hauled one guide into the water over his boots. He climbed aboard and threw a pack in the river. Around the corner of the nearby cabin rushed the cook’s helper with a fire hose spraying a potent stream over the melee in the dory. Everyone got soaked. With two bailing, two rowing, all men laughing and shouting, the rolling craft crawled out of range around a point toward home.

Early in the day I had handed an air-mail letter to guests leaving from the seaplane ramp.

”I can send it from Montreal this afternoon,” said one. Another offered, “With luck I can drop it in the mail tonight in Houston.”

The Cessna taxied to the end of the lake, paused for the pilot’s final check, swung around quickly, and roared into the wind, tail up as the plane rose to the step, and suddenly the long floats were free of water’s heavy friction. Long trails of spray streamed down from the pontoons in bright morning sun. Sitting alone on a rock at the landing ramp, I waved as the craft soared away.

Now the solitary silence of the wilderness took over. In place of laughing good-bys and the barking roar of an airplane engine, there was utter and complete silence.

I finished my pipe, shouldered a box of airlift food, and turned to the empty trail. The liquid call of a whitethroat came from a fir thicket, and I caught a rare glimpse as he flitted ahead to sing his lovely song again. White blossoms were giving way to red bunchberries. Small pink flowers like tiny orchids covered the damp, mossy ground, raising a fragrance that has earned them the local name of “scent pot.” The trail swung to the riverbank flowering with blue iris, lush meadow rue, and alder blossoms, then past a salmon pool where huge fish jumped in fast water.

With a single place set at the end of the large table, and a single candle burning, Tom gave me late evening soup, salmon, toast, and tea. Instead of eight or ten lively anglers, fired with fresh air and festive nightcaps, the ceaseless wind hummed a background murmur to the cabin quiet. On the empty trail, the “Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” call of white-throated sparrows gave lyrical voice to the deep woods; here, a crackling open fire and a candle put off loneliness.

What does it all add up to — this experience of seeing a sporting camp, and fishing, from the viewpoint of guides and management? I wondered at breakfast the next morning how it would seem to spend this day between parties on the river, to locate rising fish, to do some casting myself. “No need to kill a salmon,” I thought; “just see what’s going on.”

It was good to hike the trails alone. An hour’s strenuous workout on foot and by dory ended at the big lake pool where salmon rested on their way upstream. I climbed a leaning tree and studied the eddies, rocks, and sloping ledges. Flashes of sun revealed long, dark patches on the bottom, just barely moving against the current. The fish were here.

“I’ll give them a dry fly,” I thought. “A Brown Wulff for the bright water, cast 45 degrees downstream with a short, straight line. We have a grilse ahead for food at camp. Just have fun. Loosen up. If I miss one rise there’ll be another. This is it — the true joy in fishing.”

It worked. One of the shadows down deep leisurely rose to inspect the wisp of brown fluff but a flick of the tail put him down again among the stones and other dark patches. A few casts later the same fish roared to the surface, angrily arched out of water straight down on the floating fly, The rod tip came up firmly against a tight line and the battle began. A bright sun reflected from a thousand sequin scales when I reached down to grasp him behind the gills to work the fly loose. I let him go. He flashed silver, sliding into deep water.

I might be talking to a guest now, newly arrived and eager to kill big fish. He, as I, had just won a battle with a rare 20-pound salmon. Could I make him understand what. I had learned as a guide? I could try.

“He was a beauty and you did a good job,” I would say. “I like to see him swim away since we don’t need him to eat. When he’s alive, a salmon fresh from the sea is lovely, a beautiful work of nature. There’s nothing like the way he fights and pulls and jumps. But when he lies on the shore with his eyes staring at you, bloody, with sand and slime along his royal purple back, and the bright silver getting dark and dull, then he’s just another dead fish.

“I like to see salmon swim away.”