The Joys of November

As November slips away, Atlantic salmon are in the act of spawning in a wide array of rivers - even as we speak!

For anyone who loves wild Atlantic salmon and salmon rivers it should be a time of celebration - a salmon person's own private Thanksgiving event as the salmon jockey for stretches of gravel and cobbles in the very streams where they were born. A completion of a cycle and beginning of new life in the rivers we love so much.

Events in some rivers may be a bit later this year, as water temperatures have remained warmer. Once they get down to 5 C. there should be greater action. But there is also a photoperiod trigger and many have spawned already. Check out Greg Lovely's survey on branches of the Margaree this past week. As many realize, these nests can be dug down 50 cm / 20 in in the gravels.

This year autumn river levels were high in many areas for part of the season, but have been somewhat lower in many areas in November, not necessarily a bad thing. It will help ensure that nests are not left high and dry during lower water times in mid-winter.

Greg Lovely notes there were about 12 redds (salmon nests) within a half kilometre on Nile Brook. Signs of new life that we can all hope will result in plenty of Atlantic salmon hatching next spring.

Redd showing due to the excavated and then repiled gravel at the bottom of Nile Brook in Cape Breton. Date was Nov. 11, 2016. Photo Greg Lovely.

With the variability of the success of egg laying, Atlantic salmon scientists hesitate to provide predictions on the success of 2016's salmon runs until numbers are compiled in the first few months of 2017. That later assessment includes results of redd counts, swim-throughs, analysis by age, and other information.

Meanwhile, that doesn't stop everyone mulling over the anecdotal and scientific evidence we have as of November, with the angling season over and everyone with their views on numbers of salmon that returned.

What are the trends, based on evidence to date?

Large Salmon - First and foremost, there were greater numbers of large salmon in many rivers, when compared with 2015 returns and with five-year running averages. Good sign there, where large salmon have such large numbers of eggs to lay.

Grilse - Overall, a significant drop in grilse numbers was seen throughout the range of Atlantic salmon rivers in North America. It is hazardous to guess, but perhaps in the order of a 25 percent or greater drop. In some rivers, like the LaHave in Nova Scotia the drop was critical, from 160 to 19.

Not every river followed the pattern of decline. The Matane river in Gaspé had a 41 per cent increase in grilse. But rivers like the Matane were in a definite minority.

Low Water Summer - Many regions, and especially Nova Scotia, experienced a drought year, which was definitely an issue for both juvenile salmon as well as blocking upstream movement of salmon.

Periods of High Water in Autumn - Many areas had plenty of water in the early autumn, and that may help boost numbers of successful spawnings in some rivers. In mid-autumn central Newfoundland was literally flooded with the tail end of a tropical storm.

Angling on the Rocks.  Anglers caring for rivers, and the future of wild Atlantic salmon is a vital part of our future heritage and healthy rivers.  Photo on the Dungarvon River in early autumn by Nathan Wilbur/ASF.

Besides these general comments, a look at regions may be helpful.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Where Newfoundland salmon have a high percentage of grilse, the general trend was of a decline from 2015. But please remember that 2015 was a rather good year for returns.

Exploits - This great river had a 24  percent drop, compared to 2015, and 29 percent drop compared with the the previous five-year average.

South Coast Rivers had a particularly poor year. The Garnish had a 56 percent drop compared with 2015, which was the first year for a count there. Even more disturbing, the Conne dropped 49 percent compared with 2015, and 34 percent compared with the previous five-year average.

West Coast Rivers overall bucked the trend. Harry's River, that does have a considerable number of large salmon, did drop 11 percent compared with 2015, but this was still a 22 percent rise compared with the previous five-year average.

The Torrent, further north and up the Northern Peninsula, had a 25% drop compared with 2015, but was roughly in line with the previous five-year average, with a 2 percent decline.

In Labrador, the drop was also seen. But remember that the 2015 numbers for Labrador were the highest recorded. The grilse numbers dropped 58% on the Sand Hill compared with 2015,and were 67 percent down compared to the previous five-year average. Overall that reflected returns of grilse in Labrador. It is worth noting that anecdotal information has said that there was a late grilse run, at least on the Sand Hill, after the counting period was ended, but that would only be reflected in results from juvenile growth in the years ahead.

Large salmon numbers were also down in Labrador in 2016, but not to the same degree. Some like the Sand Hill had a 11 percent drop for large salmon when compared with 2015, but still the returns were a 21 percent increase compared to the five-year average of previous years.

Nova Scotia

Exciting News! - On the West River - Sheet Harbour, many readers will know that a liming project has been undertaken for almost a decade, and gradually the life of the river, including invertebrates is returning. On Nov. 15, 2016 seven grilse were counted in the fence on the river, an excellent end of the season.

At the end of the Nova Scotia salmon angling season Oct. 31, good numbers were reported from several rivers. While the Margaree dropped off, as it usually does at the end of season, Middle River had good numbers.

Also, River Philip and some of the other Northumberland Strait rivers had numbers of Atlantic salmon. Hopefully that will translate into successful spawning for the future.

Along the Eastern Shore and South Shore, and Bay of Fundy region of Nova Scotia, returns were critically poor, and the West River - Sheet Harbour is the only bright light of

The above comments aside, it was a hot, dry year for Nova Scotia, so a full assessment will be needed to predict the outcome of 2016.

New Brunswick

Kelsey Taylor and Thanksgiving Weekend Salmon with guide Terry at Dudley Pool, Southwest Miramichi.

Miramichi - The returns from the trapnets on the Southwest and Northwest Miramichi reflected the general rule of better returns of large salmon and poorer returns of grilse.

The NW Miramichi trapnet had a 60 percent increase in large salmon over 2015 and a 90 per cent increase over the 2008-2015 average. Great news!  Meanwhile the Southwest Miramichi trapnet had a 43 per cent increase in large salmon over 2015 and 26 per cent increase over the five-year average.

However, for grilse the story was not so rosy. The Northwest Trapnet was down 65 percent and the Southwest Trapnet down 24 percent compared to 2015.

The story upstream at the Barriers was not different again.  Dungarvon (SW Miramichi) was down 34 per cent for large salmon and down 36 per cent, when compared with 2015. A whole range of questions arise, and hopefully other information will help explain these numbers as they are analyzed over the winter months.

St. John River - The news is certainly positive, but following the general trend of the year. Mactaquac returns of large salmon were up 94 percent over 2015, but down 20% on grilse.

Nashwaak was up 110 percent on large salmon but also UP on grilse returns by 71 per cent. That is great news for the Nashwaak.

Upsalquitch - Many questions are being asked about the counts for this tributary of the Restigouche. Large salmon numbers were DOWN 42 percent compared with 2015 and down 60 percent compared with the 2008 to 2015 average.

At Jacquet River the numbers were down for both large salmon (down 19 percent)  and for grilse (down 35 percent).

Pabineau Falls, Nepisiguit, autumn 2016. Photo Nathan Wilbur/ASF


Overall, the pattern of more large salmon in 2016 and fewer grilse also held true for a large number of Quebec salmon rivers.

North Shore of the St. Lawrence rivers generally had greatly improved large salmon numbers.

In the Gaspé region the numbers were a little more mixed.

The Cascapedia was down for both small and large salmon. The high water in the first part of the angling season may have affected these numbers, but we may never know. See chart below for 2016 and 2015 numbers.

The Rimouski had a 77 percent increase in large salmon over 2015, and decline of 44 percent in grilse.

The Madeleine had a 20 percent increase in large salmon and a 38 percent drop in grilse.

A few last thoughts on the season - until Spring.

Overall, there are some positive signs for Atlantic salmon runs, especially with the numbers

With the grilse numbers down so generally was it likely that at-sea issues of winter survival were responsible?  According to ASF Advisor David Meerburg, an expert on Atlantic salmon populations, assessments, and analysis/synthesis of results, along with other scientists, that isn't necessarily so. In looking at smolt numbers for 2015 in those rivers with data, there was generally a decline the correlated roughly with the decline in grilse returns this year.

Meanwhile, some rivers like the Miramichi have the extra hurdle to smolt survival of exploding striped bass numbers. It is likely the estimates for this year's Atlantic salmon returns to the Miramichi will be in the order of 35,000 or so. Holding its own but needing as much help as possible through better assessment, favourable government policies and increased science to bring those runs back up towards numbers seen a few decades ago.

As to the impact of the Greenland fishery, it is certainly there, and in fact has increased in last few years. We will all need to continue monitoring those numbers and maintain a pressure to have the harvest reduced.

And from NW Russia - on the Ponoi: