Trying to avoid the bully

Paul Smith
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I guess it’s bully beef for supper tonight. That’s my cry of total desperation when I’ve thrown everything I have in my fly box at sulking salmon and they invariably refuse to bite. And I have a substantial variety of fur, tinsel, synthetic and feather in my arsenal.

All hands besides me in our Labrador tenting group of four look forward to the occasional tuck of corn beef hash.

My objection to canned bully has proved fodder for much good-natured torment directed at yours truly when the fishing is tough. And there were quite likely a few tough days wherever one chose to cast a fly in Eastern Canada this summer.

The latest edition of the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s River Notes, released Aug. 16, was entitled, “If it rains, they will come.” I think the ASF was being cautiously optimistic for a decent conclusion to the 2012 Atlantic salmon run.

It has been the driest summer that we’ve seen in a very long time, not just here in Newfoundland, but in all of Atlantic Canada. Rivers have been dreadfully low and warm in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.

And we all know that low, warm water is bad for the salmon and for anglers trying to catch the few that do venture into the bathtub comfy water.

Bully beef is on the menu.

The consensus seems to be that salmon either rushed into the rivers early or bided their time in tidal estuaries or coastal areas waiting for rain to swell rivers back to their normal flow.

In many regions, the rains have yet to materialize, although forecast models are indicating more varied weather and a much higher likelihood of substantial rain.

Did those early runners know something about the weather that we didn’t? Maybe, but we can never know for sure. We do know, however, that salmon are very much attuned to water levels.

How smart are they, I wonder? Do they think and communicate information like, “It rained yesterday, guys; let’s get moving up this river”?

I don’t know, but here’s an actual piece of scientific data from the Matane River in Quebec. I actually fished in this lovely river a few years ago.

From July 23 to Aug. 10, 107 salmon migrated into the river. During the four-day period from Aug. 11-14, 317 fish navigated their way through the fishway.

The rain started Aug. 10. I think they know what they are doing.

Overall, the major Quebec rivers like the Bonaventure, York, St-Jean, and Cascapedia have had slow fishing all summer, with some recent flurries of activity and optimism due to changing weather.

In New Brunswick, the Restigouche has seen water temperatures hover around 22 degrees all summer. Considering that this famous big fish river is fed by numerous cold springs all along its course, this is very unusual.

On the Miramichi, fish counts for both grilse and large salmon are down significantly compared to last year. Hopefully, more fish will come in with the late summer and fall rains that are just beginning. There have been fishing closures and restrictions on much of the Miramichi throughout the summer.

Low waters have also plagued Cape Breton’s salmon streams. On the Margaree, salmon have only been caught on the lower sections of the river.

The story in Newfoundland is very similar. Many rivers have been closed for most of the season, particularly the smaller rivers on the East Coast and Avalon Peninsula.

Even rivers on the North­ern Peninsula closed for a period this summer. I’ve been fishing there for many years and it’s the first closure I’ve seen. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Salmon came early on the Exploits, but the numbers petered out as the driest of summers took its toll. As of Aug. 16, 29,918 salmon had passed through the counter. That’s a lot of fish, but it’s down from last year.

Water temperatures are up to about 22 degrees, slowing the angling to a snail’s pace. On one day, only 25 fish moved through the trap. That’s slim pickings for a vast waterway like the Exploits.

On the bright side, there seems to be plenty of bigger salmon mixed in with the Exploit’s enormous grilse run. That’s very good news. I’m thinking of spending a weekend on the Exploits this fall. Hopefully the rain will pour and freshen up the river, bettering my chances to tangle with a few deep-bellied, feisty salmon.

August in southern Labrador is bakeapple picking time. It’s also typically a fine opportunity to catch a few salmon on the Pinware.

The male or jack salmon, as we call them, tend to fill the river in mid-August through September. This year there’s not a whole lot of river to fill. The Pinware is still very low, just like it was back in July when I was there. Although, despite the low, warm water, reports say fish are still moving into the river.

Just writing this makes me want to pack up my truck and drive to Labrador. The Pinware is one of my very favourite places to fish on the planet.

So, it’s been a season cursed with many fishless bully beef days for all of us who quest the king of game fish. I suppose bully’s not all that bad for a camp supper. Others have eaten worse meals, I’m sure.

It’s not so much the taste of the stuff that bothers me. It’s the bloody ingredients that are listed on the label. I’ve been pondering the nature of meat byproducts. What the hell is this stuff — scrapings from the saw blade, grizzle and sinew? I’m not sure.

Anyway, I was forced to eat it as consolation to a plump Pinware grilse.

On the bright side, Rod Hale cooks up a mean canned corned beef hash. In a cast iron skillet, he renders a generous ration of pork to which he adds crisp Spanish onion, mushrooms and sliced red potatoes. When the spuds are softened just right, he adds two cans of corned beef. Sizzling briskly in the hot pan, it releases its store of wholesome goodness. I must say it creates an intoxicating aroma in our 8- by 12-foot canvas tent.

After a long day on the river mingling with pipe smoke and the distinctive bouquet of dark rum, it’s a memorable flavour. Look out arteries, here it comes. Not catching salmon is going to kill me.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

Organizations: Atlantic Salmon Federation

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Quebec, Atlantic Canada New Brunswick Eastern Canada Nova Scotia Miramichi Pinware Matane River York Cape Breton Margaree East Coast Southern Labrador

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