Between the Ponds

Lee Wulff

Jan 7, 2021
When I finally reached the upper waters of Newfoundland's River of Ponds, it was by air. The war was on, and the top American military brass came through the province on occasion. Many of them, General George Marshall, the chief of staff, and General Hap Arnold, the air force chief, in particular, were fishermen, and had a hankering to catch an Atlantic salmon.
The Goose was the first Grumman airplane with fewer than two wings and more than one engine. The first one flew in 1937.
A search-and-rescue Grumman Goose was available for VIP R-and-R in those days, and it was in that aircraft that my group made the trip to the River of Ponds. Air maps weren't very reliable then, but I remembered vividly Sam Shinnicks's description of the different stretches of the river between its upper "ponds". It wasn't hard, once we'd flown up the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Newfoundland's long northern peninsula, to find the river. We landed in a pond called Eastern Bluie, 10 miles inland from where Sam and I had fished on my first trip to the river in '41. It was a smooth landing, and we taxied slowly toward the shore, aiming for the point where the pond emptied into the river. The pilot let his wheels down as we approached a sloping rock shelf, and shortly afterwards we could feel the wheels touch bottom and start to roll. Then, as the pilot turned the plane to reach a smooth place, we came to a sudden stop as one of the wheels dropped into a seam in the rock. We were stuck.

The water was a little more than knee deep, so we all put on boots to wade ashore. There were six of us in the group, the general, the pilot and another captain, two sergeants and myself. Once he'd reached the bank, the general immediately rigged up his tackle, and I walked the 50 yards down to the pool at the outlet with him. We looked out on a number of beautiful salmon lies, where the still water quickened before beginning its tumbling flow over the rocky streambed that would take it to the next pond.
River of Ponds has numerous lakes along its length, as shown by this GoogleEarth image.
As I stood there, explaining to the general where I thought he should cast, a salmon rolled to the surface right where my finger pointed. The general stripped off line and cast to the spot. On the first swing, the salmon rose, took the fly, and made a great leap before heading out into the pond.

Fortunately, the general had plenty of backing on his reel, for the fish ran a good hundred yards through the smooth water of the pond before it jumped again. The general was a good fisherman and needed no coaching to play the fish well. Three more jumps, some lesser runs, and the salmon came to the shore. I waded in up to my knees to tail it. Then we walked over to the spot where the two small tents were going up.

The pilot and the general began to confer about the plane. After a bit, the general came back over to me and said, "The landing gear's bent and won't retract. That means we can't fly. But I left word as to our position and there should be a plane flying over tomorrow to check on us . . . l've got to be in Washington day after tomorrow and it can take me out. We'll have tomorrow for fishing as we planned."

Dawn came early, and we were up to greet it. And we fished. We fished the outlet, and then we followed the river down, fishing each pool down to the next pond, Western Bluie. Loads of salmon were lying in the slow flow of its inlet, clearly visible against the sandy bottom.
Lee Wulff holding a large salmon, at or near River of Ponds.
We caught fish after fish, saving the first dozen so that everyone on the trip would have at least one to take back and there'd be a few really good ones to take on to Washington. Then we began releasing them. By mid-afternoon, after eight hours or more of steady, successful fishing, we were back at the plane for a late lunch.

There had been no sign of the "cover" plane, but while we were eating I spotted an airplane working back and forth at low altitude in the southwest. It must have been there for half an hour or more. We could barely see it, and only once in a while could we hear the faint drone of its motor. I figured they'd made a mistake and were flying over the uninhabited ponds of Portland Creek, 15 miles away, instead of our area. Surprisingly, they didn't extend their search a little farther northeast and find us.

"Maybe they're searching southwest at the next inlet down," the general said, looking at the map. "That would be Parson 's Pond, and that looks even less like this place than the Portland Creek ponds do. When they don't find us there, they ought to come back and hunt up this way." We waited and waited, but they didn't.

"I've got to be in Washington by tomorrow night," the general said, and he repeated the same line again and again, under his breath, until he crawled into the tent to sleep. By that time, we'd decided that I'd walk out, starting at first light, to reach one of the call stations on the telegraph line that stretched all along the coast.

No one in his right mind walks overland in Newfoundland during the summer. The terrain is filled with soft marshes and bogs that can stretch for miles and are impossible to walk over. I could follow the river and the shores of the lakes, but I had no way of knowing how many big bogs would extend right down into the shore line. I'd have to walk my way out around them.

I always carried a compass, however, and I knew that sooner or later I'd be able to reach the coastal trail that people travelled along to repair the telegraph line, or to get from village to village. Then I'd find a settler with a boat to take me to the nearest station, which I was sure would be at Hawke's Bay. How long it would take I didn’t know but since it was only about a dozen miles, as the crow flies. I hoped half a day would do it.
The first few miles weren't too bad. The river was high, so there was no chance to walk in the streambed, but there was a passable trail along the bank. The going got tough when I started around Western Bluie, though, and I had to make a wide swing to avoid a swampy area, fighting my way over a few blow-downs. By late morning, I'd reached the big lake that Sam Shinnicks and I had looked out on three years before.

From then on things deteriorated.

The local people always crossed the Big Pond in a boat, so there wasn't the slightest vestige of a trail along the shore. I tried wading, but the water was always over my knees and I had to get out quite often as the shore frequently dropped off to waist depth. I finally gave up and stayed on the shore, fighting my way over blow-downs and clawing branches. After a while, I struck a great bog that forced me far to the north, and by the time I'd swung around it I knew I was far off my course.

I climbed a low hill, and saw a large lake off to the westward. My map indicated that a large pond lay just northeast of the mouth of the River of Ponds, stretching inland from a point near the shore, so I struck out in that direction.

Following the shore of that pond for about three miles I eventually came to the Gulf, reaching the trail and the telegraph wire that ran along it. I was dead tired. My clothes were torn from the clawing branches, and I was wet and muddy from slogging my way across the bogs.

The sun was just sinking into the Gulf as I broke out at the shoreline. I went on till I came to Hawke's Bay, where I found a man to take me across the water to the telegraph office and, because it was an emergency, got a message through.
River of Ponds is a substantial river, and the ponds along it are of significant size. In decades past this made for difficult travelling on land. Don Ivany/ASF
The general was a day late in getting to Washington.

But word then got out in headquarters that the River of Ponds was the place to go fishing, and not long afterwards I had a call to go to St. John's to meet a general and take him to the river for a day. Accordingly, I boarded a C45 at Stephenville and flew to St. John's.

I took some fly-tying material with me as well as my fishing gear, and on the way over I tied flies, perhaps the first flies that were ever tied in a flying airplane. Even though it was a bumpy ride I had no problems, because I've always tied flies in my fingers without a vise.

The general was Hap Arnold, and that trip to the River of Ponds was everything that a wilderness fishing trip should be. There were four of us in the Goose with the camping gear. A young Coast Guard captain from Texas, George Briggs was the pilot, and a search and rescue sergeant was along to set up camp and prepare the meals. We slid smoothly into the waters of Eastern Bluie, and this time I had my waders on and found a hard gravelly beach on which the plane could roll up safely to the shore. This time we had an inflatable raft with us, too, in case I couldn't find a suitable spot.

It was August, and the water was low and warm. This wasn't too good for the fishing, because most of the salmon were likely to be out in the ponds, where the water was deeper and cooler. Furthermore, salmon are less likely to rise to flies when they've been back in the stream awhile, and the flow is warm and slow. Still, it was a wild river, and we had it all to ourselves. The black flies had faded away with the onset of the warmer, dryer weather, and the hip boots the general had brought would let him wade deep enough to cover the pools.

He fished that first evening at the point where the river ran out of the pond, while the rest of us set up the camp. He caught two grilse, five pounders, typical of the River of Ponds’ run. A few larger salmon showed themselves, leaping, but none took any interest in his flies. The night was quiet and the birds were singing. A pair of loons sent forth their haunting cries from across the lake. We sat by the open fire and talked of salmon fishing, and I told them what I knew of the river and the pools we might reach to fish.

The next morning, all four of us took rods and spread out along the river. I went along with General Arnold, and occasionally fished behind him. The day was bright and beautiful, with the clouds as white as snow, and the river whispering its muted song of the lower, slower flow of summer. We hiked down the trail to the inlet of the next pond, Western Bluie.

"I think I can guarantee that two of the first three casts will draw rises from a fish," I said, as I placed the general at the head of the pool. I was right. He missed a fish on his first cast. On the second, his fly swam across the flow without interception. On the third, a grilse made a savage rise and was hooked. That fish was a difficult one. He ran around a sunken rock and Hap (by that time we were on a first name basis) had to run down the shore and wade out into the river to free the line. Then the fish came right toward him, jumping just off his rod tip as he reeled in the slack line as fast as he could. Another long run followed.

Hap worked the fish back slowly. I saw his rod bucking sharply, and knew the fish was turning in tight rolls under water. Suddenly, the rod settled into a solid pull, and I shouted "Slack," but Hap was a wise angler, and he'd released the tension on his line as soon as he felt that solid pull. Then I watched him wade out to his boot tops and poke the tip of his rod down to the streambed. A bit of wiggling and the line came free. When his rod lifted I could see it bend. The fish was still on. From then on it was routine. The grilse showed silver as it turned on his side. A lift of the rod pulled it to the surface, and Hap slid the fish along the top of the water to a point where I could get it with a hand grip over its back, with my finger and thumb just behind its forward fins. I held the fish up for a moment, and asked, "Shall we keep him?"

"Do we need him for food," was the reply.

I shook my head and slid the fish gently back into the river. It hesitated a moment, then swam slowly back to the deep water. We waded back to the head of the pool, and Hap fished through it again, spacing his casts about a yard apart. Surprisingly, he didn't get a rise. He was using a Thunder and Lightning, so I suggested a change to a lighter fly. We looked over the flies in his box and picked out a Silver Blue. He went through the pool with that fly but, again, without results.

When he'd fished to the bottom of the pool, I suggested a dry fly and gave him one of my White Wulffs to put on. He worked his way back to the head of the pool in a good coverage of the water, but not a salmon moved under his fly. It was hard to believe that the fish could ignore his flies so completely. I knew there were salmon there because several good fish had jumped while we were fishing.
Lee Wulff was guide to General Hap Arnold in this salmon angling and cross-country adventure at River of Ponds. Hap Arnold became known as the "father of the U.S. Air Force" for his energetic and effective organizational ability. He was the only man to hold the rank of 5-star general in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces, addresses four flying schools, the largest group of aviation cadets ever gathered, in December 1942. He promised to boost U.S. aerial combat capability to 10 times that of Axis forces. (Bettman Archive via U.S. Air Force)
Hap had been urging me to fish, and finally I began to cast, using a small Gray Wulff, a number 10. I concentrated on a spot where we'd seen a salmon jump. There's a saying that a leaping salmon won't take a fly, but I've never believed it. However, although I've caught a lot of other jumping fish, I couldn't raise that one. The sun was high when we took the trail back to camp.

The highlight of the lunch was the fillets from the grilse Hap had caught the evening before, broiled over the fire. There were boiled potatoes, dripping with butter, and fresh peas. There was homemade bread with honey or jam, and steaming coffee from a blackened pot beside the fire.

While we ate, we talked about the fishing. The sergeant and the pilot had seen only a few fish leap, and the pilot had hooked one, but he lost it when it got his line around a rock. It was obvious that the warm, low water conditions had turned the salmon off.

I thought it might be a good time to explore. Sam Shinnicks, on my first visit here, had told me about a branch of the river that forked not far below Western Bluie called the Spring Tilt. It, he said, rose up out of the ground to become a full-fledged stream only half a mile or so above the fork.

The inflatable raft we'd brought could take us across Western Bluie, and we could follow the river down to the forks, turning up the Spring Tilt branch. I had a feeling that the water there, coming up from underground, ought to be cooler, and that the salmon in it would be more likely to take a fly. Besides, I wanted to see the river rising up from the earth.

I had the fun job of riding the raft down the river from the camp pond to Western Bluie, bumping my butt on the rocks in the fast water, and scaring the salmon as I passed over them in the pools. Finally, the little craft made it down to the Western Bluie inlet pool, where we'd fished in the morning and Hap was waiting. He came aboard, and I rowed the mile across that pond to its outlet. We spent a little time fishing there, but although we saw two or three salmon jump, none came to our flies. We went on, leaving the inflatable on the shore, and hiking down the left-hand side of the river.

With the low water, we could wade most of the way, and there were only a few spots where we had to climb out on the shore to avoid deep water. At the forks we turned left up the Tilt. I was tempted to fish at the Forks Pool, which Sam had said was a good one, but I wanted to see the head of that Spring Tilt. We pushed on.

Within the space of a hundred yards the water rose out of the ground to make a full-fledged salmon stream, and where it deepened enough to be a pool there were salmon leaping. It was a fantastic sight. I wasn't carrying my thermometer, so it was impossible to measure the difference in temperature between this water and the main river's flow, but we could tell by touch that the water of the Tilt was much, much cooler.
Lee Wulff playing a salmon in western Newfoundland.
Sam had told me that there were a lot of lakes in the valley above the Rising Tilt, which was where this water came from. Its underground travel had cooled it enough, I hoped, to make the salmon active. It had.

Hap Arnold's third cast hooked a salmon, an 18-pound male that put on a spectacular show. It leaped a dozen times and took almost half an hour to land. When the struggle was over, and I'd laid the fish out neatly on some moss beside the pool, Hap sat down beside it. I can still remember his smile.

I started to sit down beside him, but he motioned a negative, and said, "No. You fish. I want to watch you catch a salmon."

So, I fished and caught a salmon, a fish of about 15 pounds. It was neither as big nor as dramatic a fighter as Hap's, but it had taken a dry fly with a beautiful head and tail rise. I played it carefully, and when it tired I drew it into some slow water and hand tailed it. The fish was a trim, silvery female. I held it high for Hap to see and asked, "Do you want to take this one to Washington, too?"

He shook his head, and I slid the fish back into the water and watched it swim away. I went over to where Hap was sitting and said, "O.K., it's your turn." But he shook his head, and I sat down beside him on the bank.

"I don't know when I've had a better day," he said, "and I needed it. I've just come back from Potsdam, and I'm sick with what happened there."

It all poured out then, the story of a sad day for America, when Joe Stalin took two innocents over the hurdles and left the U.S. and Britain with a corridor to Berlin and minimal land control. Out of a foolish policy, we'd held back to let the Russians reach Berlin first. Churchill, after saving Britain, had been ousted in an election and replaced with Clement Attlee, who was inexperienced and fumbled the ball. Truman was still more of a vice-president than a full-fledged president, a run of the mill politician who was suddenly thrust into making major, world-shaking decisions, and he lacked the sagacity of Roosevelt, whom death had taken from the White House shortly before.

When Hap had finished, we sat silent for a time and looked at the river. We watched the salmon leap. We heard a loon cry as it flew over. The water thrushes made their sharp calls in the alder bushes behind us. An otter with three young ones came up the river and then, seeing us, turned downstream and disappeared. The river sound was soft, and the light breeze made a sighing in the evergreens around us. It was good to be alive. And be there.

This is the second in a series of four articles Lee wrote for the "Atlantic Salmon Journal" about his early experiences on the River of Ponds. Master angler Lee Wulff was ASF's honorary chairman (Can.).
Location of River of Ponds in northwest Newfoundland.

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