Over the Ponds

Lee Wulff

Jan 7, 2021
After WW2, Lee Wulff piloted his own airplane, a J3 Piper Cub, from New York to River of Ponds and elsewhere in northwest Newfoundland.
When I first knew the River of Ponds it was wild and beautiful. Forests of spruce, fir and tamarack rose unbroken from its shorelines of gray rock, light green marsh grass and blue flag lilies. The river flowed from the rounded humps of Newfoundland's well-worn Long Range Mountains, high up on the island's northwest coast, before crossing fairly level land to reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a dozen miles away.

In those days, the River of Ponds was the perfect stream for a wading angler, with everything from roaring white stretches, to long still waters and occasional lakes. Its pools were deep enough to hold big salmon, yet there were places between them where an angler could wade across the river to fish from the other shore. At the same time, its lakes gave added sanctuary to the big fish, which would seek out their depths when the sun baked down in a hot dry summer, warming the river's shallow flow.

When I first knew the River of Ponds, its grilse were almost all over 5 pounds in weight, and its salmon ran from 12 to more than 30 pounds. Except for the offerings of a very few adventurous fishermen, its inner waters had never seen an angler's fly, and no one had ever fished its headwaters. Two and a half miles of wild water separated the upper river from Big Pond, a mile in from the sea, which I'd first seen with Sam Shinnicks in '41. No canoe had ever been carried up along the river's rough and rocky shores to any of its smoother upper waters, and even there intervening stretches of white water made canoeing for any distance impossible. The river lay waiting, in a great wilderness, for the coming of seaplanes.

By 1947, I'd opened a couple of fishing camps in Newfoundland, and had my own airplane, a J3 Piper Cub. One of the first flights I made after setting up my main camp at Portland Creek was up over the headwaters of the River of Ponds. The old maps of Newfoundland had shown a great lake somewhere to the north of the river, and I wanted to see if it was really there. Sam and all the other locals I had talked to said it didn't exist. But I'd seen a large lake up to the north and east of Eastern Bluie when I'd landed there with some generals during the war. (See "Between the Ponds," ASJ 4/90.) According to Sam, though, this was the headwater lake of the River of Ponds. If it was, I wanted to see it, too.

I flew to the area where the maps said the great lake should be, and discovered, as Sam had said, that it wasn't there. Probably some early trapper had misled a British cartographer with a tall tale of a great lake, and the falsehood had persisted without official checking until airplane pilots could prove it wrong.
Lee Wulff landing his plane in northwestern Newfoundland.
On my return, I swung eastward over Big Eastern Bluie Pond. It lay under the steep, sloping cliffs of Bluie Mountain, a great rounded mass of limestone at the edge of the Long Mountain chain. It was bare of growth on top and halfway down two sides, which faced a big pond, and the river flowed out of that big pond over a narrow neck of land into Eastern Bluie. I looked down on a number of what I was sure would be good salmon pools as I circled the pond to find the main inlet.

The ground around the pond's eastern side was relatively level, but I found only small feeder streams there. Finally, I saw the main in-flow pouring down the steep side of Bluie Mountain itself, cascading and falling through a forested gorge. It wasn't a big flow, and it was short; running over relatively level land between the pond and the first falls, which salmon couldn't leap. Thinking there might be a few fish lying near the stream's mouth, I swung down lower to look it over.

Shallow gravel extended out for hundreds of yards into the lake from the mouth of the stream, and just off its entry point a dark ledge some 50 yards long could be seen. I made a mental note to be careful wading on the ledge if I landed to fish, as it would probably be slippery. I dropped down from 500 feet to about 200, and made another pass over the inlet. The sun threw my shadow on the water, and as the shadow struck the ledge I watched with amazement as what I'd thought was rock disintegrated into hundreds and hundreds of frightened salmon. There were more salmon in that one spot than I'd ever seen in one place before or ever hoped to see again. I realized that this great, gravelly area had to be a major spawning area for the River of Ponds' salmon. I had discovered Western Bluie.

As usual when I flew, I had my waders on and my small rod was all set up and ready to go beside me in the plane. My fishing vest was in the baggage space. I landed, taking care to come in from one side, and pulled the plane up on the beach a hundred yards from the stream's mouth. Then I waded out slowly to cast, trying not to make too many ripples.
In Lee Wulff's explorations in the late 1940s, the grilse were large and numerous throughout these rivers.
The water was smooth. I could see dozens and dozens of little black triangles poking up above the surface, barely moving. They were the tails of the salmon that were hanging there, suspended just below the surface, waiting for the arrival of the fall rains and the spawning season.

Quietly, I tied on a dry fly and cast it out near one of the drifting triangles. The tail tip disappeared. Then the fly. I was fast to a 12-pound salmon. At his first jump, the water around me came alive with fish moving just under the surface. Salmon passed by within a yard or two of my legs as I played the fish, which made some dramatic runs. When I brought him to hand I lifted him by the tail, unhooked him, and let him go.

I cast again, and again I had a strike and brought in a salmon. One after another, I caught a dozen fish. Most of them took the free-drifting fly as it sat on the calm water, but occasionally I had to give it a twitch or two to make the fish notice it. I released them all.

When I climbed back into my yellow bird and flew back to the main camp I had a secret. I'd found the main spawning area for the river, and no one else knew where it was. Had Sam Shinnicks known, I reasoned, he'd have told me, and the spot was out of the way of local travel. I just hoped it would stay a secret for it was something I planned to keep to myself.

Many wonderful things happened that first year I learned to fly. I saw places from the sky that I'd once had to walk over, laboriously, to reach a salmon pool. Now I could get to them from my camp in minutes. I saw fish under water in the pools as a hawk sees them, fish that would have been invisible from the shore or when wading. Mine was the first private, non­military or non-government plane in Newfoundland; the first to fly into the bush country to look for salmon fishing and to bring anglers to a great many hitherto inaccessible spots.

Flying in itself was an exciting thing. I was a brand new pilot with far fewer than a hundred hours in the air when I reached the camps. At 42, my reflexes were perhaps a bit slower than those of younger novices, who seemed to learn so quickly and fly so well, and I had much to pick up about flying a fragile cub in an area known for its violent winds. But I had two things in my favor. I had no fear of the country, for I knew it well and was sure if I was forced down, unless disabled, I could walk to some settlement, surviving on rabbits, berries or fish along the way. I felt, too, that maturity in itself would be a favorable factor.
Lee Wulff landing at Western Brook Pond in his Piper Cub. The flying left little room for error, and required extreme alertness at all time.
Still, I scared myself innumerable times, such as the day when I got into an updraft sliding up over the mountains and was lifted into the clouds. I dove blindly for minutes before seeing the land again. Another time, I flew through an indistinct haze that turned in a flash into solid fog, and scared me breathless until I saw a hole in the cloud and dropped through it to orient myself with mother earth and find my way home. From time to time, I repeated the saying, "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." Flying was so much fun I wanted it to last forever.

My plan for the River of Ponds progressed smoothly. First I flew in the tents, roofing and other materials for a cabin, along with a canoe and some food supplies. My first guides were Steve House and Fred Patey, who came across the Big Pond by dory from their houses at the mouth of the river, and carried their gear in over the trail from there.

I flew the first fishermen, Doc Glover and Bob Albee, in from the main Portland Creek camp, one at a time in the two seat, tandem cub, hoping they'd be comfortable in the rough cabin, with its spruce bough beds, and that they' d be satisfied with the bread Fred baked and the other food I 'd brought to keep them going till I could bring in more. I spent all the following day flying a party of four in from the highway's end to my main camp, and was held up another half a day by fog before I could fly back to Western Bluie to see how things were going.

This time I brought my eldest son, Allan, who was 10, along with me. I thought he might help Steve and Fred by cleaning up around the camp, and that he would enjoy seeing a new river. He might get a chance to fish, too, when his chores were finished. Unfortunately, when we got there with the supplies I found that Doc and Bob hadn't yet caught a salmon, although they had seen a couple jump in the camp pool. Apparently, the run was just starting and there were very few fish in the river. The two men had caught some good trout, however, and didn't seem too upset at the lack of salmon.

I didn't stay long, as I had more flying to do for the main camp, and it was not until two days later that I flew back toward Western Bluie with more supplies and a dozen lobsters. One learns swiftly, running a fishing camp, that if the fishing is poor the food had better be the best you can manage. It was a bright day and the land below me was bathed in sunshine. The dark peat-stained waters in the freshets and bogs were a brilliant blue, seen from the air, as they reflected the color of the sky. The forest was as green as the finest of Christmas trees, and the shadows of the scattered clouds were moving slowly over the terrain, pushed along by a gentle, westerly wind.

I thought about Allan, my first born and a dedicated fisherman. I wondered if my customers would let him fish in one of the pools where he might catch a salmon, which would otherwise be theirs, or if they would limit him to catching trout. Whatever happened, the summer would be a long one and there'd be time later for him to catch his first salmon.

Coming over a forested ridge, I could see the sparkle of Western Bluie water. I nosed down and cut the power a little, but at the same time picked up speed. The whisper of the wind in the struts was soft music and I was learning to sense my speed by the sound. When at last I could see the camp pool it was empty. I looked at my watch. One o'clock. Maybe they were all in the cook tent having lunch. I circled around to land. Then I saw the splash and the bright silver of a leaping salmon.
Lee Wulff raises an Atlantic salmon as he wades near his J3 Piper Cub.
A tiny figure was way up at the head of the pool in what we considered trout water, above the area where the salmon usually stayed. It was Allan and his rod was bending. The salmon leaped again. Doc and Bob and the guides heard the plane come over and came out of the cook tent to stare up at me, before hearing a splash and turning to see Allan's leaping fish.

I dropped behind the trees as I came in to land, and taxied over to the campsite. Tying the plane up quickly, I waded over to this fisherman son of mine and got there in time to tail his salmon for him. It was a 12-pounder, a fine fish for a budding angler to begin on. Focusing the Leica I wore around my neck, I took a picture of him with the fish. Then I hugged him . . . for the last time as a little boy. He was growing up this little fisherman of mine, and would soon be taking the controls at times when we flew. Before long, he'd become my youngest guide.

We all headed for the cook tent. The magic moment was over, but it was one I would remember forever.

This is the third in a series of four articles Lee Wulff 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.).

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