Farewell to the Ponds

Lee Wulff

Jan 7, 2021
Lee Wulff preparing to bring in an Atlantic salmon in northwestern Newfoundland.
Many memories came to me as I stepped out of the chopper with my wife, Joan, on the bank of the River of Ponds. It was 1983, nearly 20 years from the day in 1955 when I'd sold my Newfoundland fishing camps, leaving behind a river that I'd grown to love.

I recalled the first time I'd come here, sailing to the river with Frank Silver in his wonderful Gertrude, a 50-foot yacht that barely made it over the bar stretching across the tidal pool at the mouth of the river. That was in 1941.

Later, during the war, I'd returned to the river by plane to guide some of the military's top brass. On one of those trips our Grumman Goose suffered damage on landing, and I'd spent a day walking through the bogs that still cover much of Newfoundland's northern peninsula before I could radio out for help. Another time, after I'd returned to the river in my own plane and set up my initial camp, I saw my eldest son, Allan, catch his first salmon.

Yes, I had many memories to mull over on this day, as I fished through the River of Ponds for the last time. Proud and happy memories, far removed from the ones I would take home with me at the end of this trip. I recalled a day in the mid-'50s, when two good friends, Okey Butcher and Al Nogard, flew up to Newfoundland in Okey's two­seat Areonca Chief to fish with me. Okey lived in the same small town that I did, close to the border between New York and Vermont, and had been taught to fly by the same instructor, Lew Lavery, at Round Lake, New York. Al was an FAA inspector, and had earned all the ratings up to and including those of an airline pilot. I knew he would have no problem reaching my camp on Portland Creek, which, like the River of Ponds, is located high up on Newfoundland's east coast. I 'd planned to have Al and Okey stay with me at Portland Creek to fish, but when they arrived I had three open days at my Western Bluie camp so I sent them there instead.

Steve House, who had asked me to tie a fly containing loon feathers on my first trip to the river, was there to guide them and make them comfortable, along with Fred Patey. When Al and Okey reported back to Portland Creek they swore they'd had the best fishing of their lifetimes.

Okey had hooked his first salmon in front of the camp. He had on a heavy leader, knowing he was fishing for good-sized salmon, and he'd hauled back hard at the strike. The startled salmon, surprised beyond thinking, made a blind rush away from that awful pull, one that took it all the way across the pool and six-feet back into the alders on the far bank. The equally surprised anglers had to get into their canoe and paddle across the river to collect the fish.

I had other fishermen in the Forks cabin below them, so Al and Okey fished the stretch upstream to Eastern Bluie. They caught and released a lot of salmon. Okey, with his intimate knowledge of wild things, quickly made friends with Steve and Fred, both of whom were trappers, too.
Lee Wulff in latter years, one of the legends of Atlantic salmon angling in North America.
A bear had been coming to their camp occasionally. It had only broken into the supply tent once, though twice they'd had to scare it off. Once Fred had taken a shot, but, in the darkness, he'd missed. Okey had trapped and shot a number of bears in his day, and he regaled the others with his bear stories. They were planning to try to catch the animal in a rope snare, but Okey discouraged that. He promised to send them a real bear trap when he got back home.

Each afternoon, Al and Okey told the guides they were going to fly around a bit and explore. And each afternoon, as I'd instructed them, they flew up to the inlet of Big Bluie where I'd seen all those salmon years before, and fished till their arms were tired. I 'd made them promise never to tell the guides or anyone else where they'd gone to fish, and always to report poor luck when they got back to camp. They were the only ones I ever told about that wonderful spot, and they kept their promise. I knew that someday this great shoal of fish would be discovered and massacred, but I wanted to put it off as long as possible. For the nine years I ran the camps it remained my secret, but, as the roads moved up along the shore from Deer Lake, and the logging operations at Hawke Bay expanded, it was inevitable that more and more people would reach Big Bluie Pond. That would be the end.

When Allan was 14, he was doing a responsible guiding job for me. I explained to the sportsmen he guided that he was thoroughly knowledgeable about the river and the tackle needed to fish it, and that if, for any reason they wanted to change to a more mature guide, I'd make the change. I chose his charges with care, and not once did one of them complain or want to switch. As father's do, I'd counseled him on courtesy and thoughtfulness. Among those advisories had been a discourse on "letting someone else tell it when you've done something to be proud of, because if you tell too many things like that yourself it will sound too much like bragging."

One day, Allan had a busman's holiday. I let him go along on a trip to the River of Ponds with a group from the Bowater's Paper Mill at Corner Brook, friends of mine who had the company plane at their disposal. It was late in the season and there was no one at Western Bluie, so that's where I sent them to fish. Allan was to tell them where to land and where to fish. If it wouldn't bother the sports, I said, he could fish a pool after they'd finished. I guess we both knew it was more likely to be a job than a holiday.

When the group returned at supper time, one of their pilots led the party in, carrying a great salmon. It was a fine fish of 25-pounds or more. Those of us who were at the cookhouse came off the porch to look at the fish, and several of the guides came out of their quarters when they heard the commotion. "What a magnificent salmon," one of the guests exclaimed. "Who caught it?"

The pilot, who was carrying the fish, turned toward the rest of the party straggling along behind him, pointed to Allan, and said, "The kid got it."

Allan held back and let the others in the party tell the story of how he had taken his salmon. "You should see the fly he caught it on, a little number 12 that he tied up himself."
Lee Wulff at Western Pond with his J3 Piper Cub.
It came out that Allan had hooked the fish up at the very head of the Camp Pool after everyone had quit fishing and gone in for lunch. It had run way out into the lake, nearly reaching the end of the line, and he'd hand tailed it to push it up on the sloping beach. I watched my son standing back, listening. I caught his eye and he smiled. "Allan," I said, "please take your fish and hold it up for a picture." After I clicked the shutter three times, I walked over and put my arm around his shoulders and whispered, "Good going, son."

I sold my Newfoundland camps and left them in 1955. For a few years afterward, I flew into that area to fish for a short time each summer. Things were changing fast. The road was stretching north, past Portland Creek, past the River of Ponds, past Castor's River and on down to the Strait of Belle Isle. Over it came a horde of anglers, and too many sinister, night-netting poachers for the salmon runs to survive.

My final visit to the River of Ponds came shortly after ASF's first Newfoundland Conclave. As guests of Arthur and Ida Lundrigan, Joan and I had flown down with him in his helicopter to my old cabin at the Forks, which he'd bought and modernized a bit over the intervening years. We planned to fly in, have a quick look around and then take off again for another river on the South Coast, where only a helicopter could land—a river where there were no nearby roads, one that was even inaccessible to seaplanes. There, Arthur promised, we would have fairly good fishing; mostly grilse, but with a fair chance for a salmon.
Lee Wulff was the consummate Atlantic salmon angler, who seemed to know the fish's behaviour in all situations.
We reached the cabin, but by a quirk of weather we were immediately surrounded by fog. The helicopter could take us up and down the valley, but no further. The sea and the mountains around us were hidden, totally shrouded by the dense mist. So I fished the River of Ponds once more and Joan fished it for the first time. Arthur, with memories of the river that went almost as far back as mine, fished it too.

The chopper took us up to the inlet of Big Bluie Pond and, looking down, we couldn't see a single salmon. There were several fishermen there, and a grilse we hadn't seen under the water jumped and fell back with a splash. We dropped down to land, and as we came in saw another grilse leap.

We didn't bother to fish. There were enough rods there to cover the water well. We walked to the warden's shack and were invited in for a cup of hot coffee. The hut stood where I had beached my plane on that long-ago afternoon 36 years earlier. From the air, we'd seen a network of logging roads crisscrossing all through that once-wild country.
The fireplace remains of Lee Wulff's main lodge building at Portland Creek, as photographed in June 2011. Tom Moffatt/ASF
The warden told us that there were only grilse in the pond now, and that no one had taken a fish of over five pounds from its waters in more than five years. We thanked him, and flew across the pond to fish between it and Eastern Bluie. We fished from Eastern Bluie down to Western Bluie. We took the canoe and fished from the Forks down to the head of the old trail. On the last day, we walked up to the Rising Water Pool on the "Spring Tilt," and cast our flies into its clear flow where it deepened from spring to river, but not one salmon moved to take our flies. We walked dejectedly back to the cabin. For all our fishing, Arthur and I had caught one small grilse each. Joan had caught two.

Reaching the cabin, we paused at the door before we opened it to enter. There, on the old door slabs, were the outlines of two great salmon, one of 31, the other of 32 pounds. I let my eyes rove again over the record of those magnificent salmon, caught back in the days when that beautiful river held my heart and filled it with happiness.

This was the final chapter in a four-part story on the River of Ponds. As this Summer 1991 issue of the "Atlantic Salmon Journal" went to press, Lee Wulff, ASF's Chairman Emeritus died while flying his Piper Cub. Lee, who through his wonderful stories spoke eloquently in defence of the Atlantic salmon and of his love for the outdoors, was missed by all at ASF.
A U.S. postage stamp depicting the Royal Wulff fly that celebrates Lee Wulff's skills and understanding of wild Atlantic salmon.
Lee Wulff, Atlantic salmon conservationist that helped bring a new acceptance of conservation for the species' future.

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