Cape Breton’s Best

Monte Burke, with photos by Ray Plourde

Sep 12, 2018
I’ve run into Robert Chiasson, one of Cape Breton’s premier Atlantic salmon guides, many times over the years on the Margaree and Middle rivers. I’ve yet to catch him without a big, welcoming smile. I’ve also never left an encounter with him without some pertinent bit of information—the best taking lie in a pool, the type or size of fly that might work in the given conditions, or a potential hotspot somewhere else along the river.

I always listen carefully to Chiasson’s advice, because very few people know the rivers of Cape Breton better than he does. The 54-year-old grew up, literally, on the banks of the Cheticamp River: His parents owned a hotel and restaurant near the river’s mouth, by the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Chiasson has guided on that river, as well as the Margaree and the Middle, for the last 26 years, spending 100 days a year on the water with clients (he teaches school in the winters). His choice of vocation, he says, was a no-brainer: “I got into guiding because I wanted to spend more time on the river, and it gave me a legitimate reason to do that.”

Q : What got you interested in Atlantic salmon fishing?

A : My first trip for Atlantic salmon was on June 26, 1977, which was my 14th birthday. My dad took my brother, a cousin and me to one of the upper pools on the Cheticamp. I landed a 12-pounder that day. We went back up two days later and I landed another fish, a 10-pounder. How could you not be hooked after that?

Q : You guide on public waters where the fishing can be pretty difficult, even by Atlantic salmon fishing standards. How do you handle that as a guide?

A : Most people know coming in that the Atlantic salmon is not an easy quarry to pursue. I tell my clients that one salmon caught in a day is a very good day. I think it helps that these are very friendly waters, that other anglers are friendly and helpful, and that there’s a rotation etiquette in place, so the water is shared. It’s public water, but it’s really fun public water to fish. I think people hire a guide for Atlantic salmon fishing because they are looking for an experience. They’ll get that here.

Q : Have you ever thought about guiding anywhere else, maybe on rivers that are less crowded and not quite as difficult to fish?

A : I’ve been offered jobs in other provinces that may have better angling, but this is where I grew up, this is where I’m raising my kids. This is home and it’s a special place. And though the fishing isn’t easy here, it’s still fun and I love it.

Q : Do you think that fishing public water can make you a better angler?

A : I do. The public-water angler has to share water with both competent and not-so-competent anglers, so he or she has to be sharper to succeed on a consistent basis.

Q : What separates a great angler from the rest of the fly-fishing pack?

A : The better anglers pay close attention to as many details as possible, and especially to the presentation of their fly. For them, every single cast counts and they know what the fly is doing on each one of those casts. I’ve seen a lot of people who are great casters. But you have to know what your fly is doing. You have to get the right swing.
Q : How do you know when you have the right swing?

A : A man once told me that your wet fly should swing at the pace of a walking man. Not too fast, and not too slow. That bit of wisdom has always stuck with me.

Q : How about a tip for fishing a dry fly?

A : With a dry fly, land it softly a few feet above where the fish is lying and concentrate on short drifts.

Q : Do you have a favorite salmon river among the ones you fish?

A : I’d have to say it’s the dry fly season on the lower Margaree in July and August.

Q : Do you fish away from the named pools?

A : I do when the conditions warrant it, when there’s a good raise of water. It’s all about finding suitable flow and the right depth and the right structure, like a boulder or a log.

Q : Tell us a memorable story from the water.

A : There are a number of them, but I’ll stick to one. I had some buddies who used to come up from Halifax to fish the Cheticamp on weekends in June, the “Weekend Warriors”
I called them. One of them came up one weekend and he went out to fish in the evening. I was working at my parents’ restaurant back then, and he came by for a bite and drink after he fished and I asked him how he did. He said he hooked a fish, but it broke off and that his orange and white bomber was still in the fish’s mouth. I teased him a bit and said, “When you come back next week, I’ll give you back your bomber.” Five days later, I was fishing the pool above the one he’d been in. I caught a fish and, well, it had his bomber in its mouth. I recognized his tie. When he showed up the next weekend, I handed him his fly.

Q : How about a big fish story?

A : I had a client named Andrew Sage from the U.K. He had never fished a dry fly for salmon before. He fished through a pool on the lower part of the Margaree with a wet, and when he got to the tail, I asked him if he wanted to try a dry. He did, so I changed his fly to a number 2 bomber, with a brown deer hair body and white wings and a white tail. I pointed out the taking spot and explained the presentation and where I wanted him to land the fly.

He made a number of casts but, again, was new to dry flies. So I said: “Let me show you how to land the fly softly, and show you exactly where it should land.” He handed me his rod and I made one cast and a huge fish was all over it, but didn’t touch it. I handed the rod back to him and he made a couple of casts and, whammo! The fish was
40 inches long.
Q : Do you have any pet peeves as a guide?

A : That’s simple: If you’re going to mend your line, mend it for a reason. I see too many people just doing little flick mends as the fly swings. I call them “trout mends.” They don’t amount to much and accomplish very little. If you’re going to mend, do a good one right away.

Q : How do you approach a day when you’re fishing low water over stale fish?

A : You have to try some different things. Change the angle of your presentation or the speed of your fly. Change your fly size. Sometimes a tiny fly will work on stale fish. I’ve also seen very big flies work in that situation. Try a hitch. Strip the fly fast. You have to be creative.

Q : What’s your favorite water outside of Nova Scotia?

A : Either the gin-clear waters of the Gaspé or any water that has bonefish swimming in it.

Q : Desert island question time. You have only one salmon fly to fish for the rest of your life. What would it be?

A : That’s easy. A Muddler Minnow. It’s a great general purpose, all-around fly that you can fish dry or wet.

Regular contributor Monte Burke is the author of “Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass,” named one of the best books of the year by Sports Illustrated and Amazon.