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Atlantic Salmon Journal

Jewels in the Crown

by Tom Cheney

Atlantic salmon angling in New Brunswick’s Crown Reserve.

           “It’s not really about catching a fish.”

“Enjoying time in the outdoors is the most important part.”

The now-standard truisms of fishless days are easy to come by. We really mean it … most of the time.

But it gets harder to believe the longer a dry spell goes on. Most of us have dry spells. A week, a month—even a season. Mine was going on for years, although I won’t say how many. Long enough to rattle my faith.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, although the COVID years did make it harder to spend time on the water. And it wasn’t for lack of ability; I’m no Lee Wulff—or Bill Taylor—but I do know what to do out there. I’ve certainly made it happen in the past.

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Crown reserve shelters range from rustic cabins on North Pole Stream (see image below) to bring your own, which the author and friends enjoyed on the Upsalquitch.

An improbable yet statistically possible stretch of bad luck, then?

I reflected on all this as I sat in my comfy reclining camp chair in the Northwest Upsalquitch River on a late afternoon in early July. The days are still long in Northern New Brunswick that time of year, and we found shade on the river’s west bank, under some overhanging hardwoods.

The sun was hot, but on our feet we felt cool groundwater seeping into the river from the shady forest. I let my hand fall from my armrest and watched the Upsalquitch’s clear water rush through my fingers.

In the mug in my other hand were a few ice cubes and a slice of lime—remnants of a gin and tonic. Nick Hawkins makes a stiff drink, and his latest concoction quickly made my world a little foggy.
Still, the sense of anticipation was high. For the next 48 hours, Nick and I, along with our close friends Sean Corscadden and Ian Lodge, had exclusive access to a coveted stretch, at a coveted time. The water was running at a perfect level. And recent angling reports were highly optimistic.

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Living out of the truck is part of the charm on some Crown Reserves.

We marvelled that this place was just a few hours’ drive from our homes in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Even more amazing was that we were paying just a few dollars a day for access to world class salmon angling water.

Back in the winter, our party of four applied for and were drawn in New Brunswick’s annual Crown Reserve lottery—a system designed to provide residents of the province with access to prime angling waters.

The Crown Reserve system includes pre-season as well as in-season draws for salmon and trout angling on some of New Brunswick’s best rivers and lakes. Some stretches have cabins, others campsites. Most provide angling to successful draw applicants for two days, but some are shorter or longer. There’s something for everyone, and the opportunities are endless.

We talked for a while about future Crown Reserve trips and new waters we’d like to explore, before the conversation came back around to a more immediate affair: that evening’s fishing. For me, the pressure to break my dry spell was on. I felt a little anxious. When Nick offered a second round of gin and tonics, it was an easy yes.

After an early supper, we rigged rods and pulled on waders. The trail down to Nine Mile Pool bloomed with all the greens of early summer.

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Cabin on the Palisades stretch on the North Pole Stream

We pushed through waist-high ferns and crawled over the slippery roots of ancient cedars and didn’t really take in the majesty of it all for our anticipation to get fishing.

At Nine Mile, the Northwest Upsalquitch takes a 90-degree turn. The water squeezes through a nice run then plunges into a deep pool. Then it narrows to another run and plunges again. On the north side of the river, a tall, steep bank reaches right down to the water’s edge, closing in the pool. It felt intimate. And it felt fishy.

At this point the details may sound somewhat typical. I tied on a buck bug, stepped into the water and started working my way down through the pool.

But, of course, it never feels the least bit typical. Halfway through the second run, my line tightened and a shining 12-pound salmon took off downstream.

I wanted badly to land the fish. It kept running downstream, but a heavy leader gave me the confidence to play it hard and fast.

It paused in the deepest part of the pool. Then it jumped clear of the water, and for a moment my heart sank. But the fish was still hooked.


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Double lucky. First, to be a new Brunswicker, which gives this angler automatic access to choice wilderness locations, and second, to land and release an Atlantic salmon.

When I held it in my hands, a wave of relief washed over my entire body. The salmon was ready quickly, and as I loosened my grip ever so slightly, it shot forward and was gone.

I’ve contemplated a fair bit about what it means to fly-fish. Why we do it. Why it makes us feel the way it does. The beauty and the alterity and the mystery of it all. Sometimes, though, it just feels good and you need it and that’s enough. This was one of those days.

It’s not such a great narrative when all the tension resolves on the first day of a fishing trip. But sometimes things happen that way. Objectively, what happened on the rest of the trip was no less exciting or important.

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Later, we took refuge from a light rain under a wooden shelter at the campsite’s picnic table. Nick shucked oysters by flashlight. We squeezed lemon juice over the shellfish and slurped them back in the dark. They were briny and sweet and perfect.

I couldn’t help but enjoy a certain contradiction: on the one hand we were living out of our trucks and roughing it in tents and hammocks, and on the other we were sipping damn nice cocktails and enjoying delicacies like oysters on the half-shell.

It made me think about all the other salmon anglers on the banks of New Brunswick’s rivers at that moment. Some of them, not that far downriver, were enjoying luxurious accommodations at private camps. Had their fishing been better that evening? Was their experience more enjoyable than ours?

When the last of the oysters were gone, I crawled into my hammock and quickly drifted off. It rained on and off through the night, and the drops made a pleasant patter on the tarp above my head. I slipped in and out of sleep.

In the muted grey of early dawn, I coaxed myself out of the comfort of my hammock to find relief in the beaver pond at the edge of the campsite. The forest was already alive with morning birdsong, and at the same time it was still and peaceful. I thought about the day ahead and for the first time felt fully assuaged of my dry spell. Fishing would be different today. It would be even better.

And it was. We hooked and landed several more fish—quite a few actually, and that felt good.

The weather vacillated between burning sun and pouring rain. We’d just be dried off when the next downpour would drench the valley. We didn’t mind. Salmon will still take a fly in the rain. And they did.

We crammed into Nick’s pickup to drive down to the stretch’s lower pools. It seemed like a flood plain, with wide sandbars, low forest and big sweeping bends in the river. We stood back from the water’s edge to avoid spooking fish in the clear water. We cast bombers to them, and it felt like fishing for wary trout in a mountain stream in Montana. Or, at least, what I imagine that would feel like.

Thunderheads came rolling down the valley, and we quickly sheltered at the forest’s edge. When the torrent passed, I swung a fly to a promising run, and it delivered. The fish barrelled toward a logjam. I tried to put the brakes on the freight train, but it broke me off. I couldn’t muster any disappointment.

Back at Nine Mile Pool, I sat underneath a pair of maples and watched my friends work the pool. I knew someone would hook one soon, but something in the forest called me. I hopped up and started wandering the trail, camera in hand.

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Recounting the day's events by the fire.

I listened to the warblers and felt the mist on my face. I reached down and shook the rainwater off a fern. Standing in the opening below a gnarled cedar, I began to reflect on the timelessness of the scene. It could have been 2023 or 1823. It would have looked the same.

But then someone yelled, “Fish on!” and I had to hurry back to the pool. Sean was hooked up to a good one. The fish fought hard, and he played it well. It jumped. Sean stood his ground. He played it calm and cool, but I could tell from the look in his eye that he was looking for a decisive win. He wanted to go all the way.

Soon the fish was close, in the shallow. We could already see the triumphant fish-in-hand shot when the salmon rolled off the barbless hook and darted back into the depths.

We shook hands and cracked cans of cheap beer and sat watching the pool, and I think Sean was pretty happy.

On the last morning of our adventure, Nick raised one to a little bomber in the tailout of the pool. We could see it rising, again and again, to a variety of flies. It wouldn’t commit.

Nick was adamant that it wanted a little brown bug. I didn’t have anything that fit the bill, but I still brought it up several times to a few different dries.

Eventually the fish stopped coming, and I was satisfied that it wouldn’t be hooked. Nick wasn’t convinced and, muttering something about a little brown bug, he waded to the good casting spot and promptly hooked the fish.

Maybe it was the fly. Maybe a better presentation. Maybe Nick wanted it more and the fish was drawn to that. Maybe some people just catch more fish, and that’s all there is to it. I like that idea the best. I can live with that one.

No matter how long or short a fishing trip is, when it’s over, I’m ready for it to be. After three days of camping out, putting ourselves at the mercy of the elements and devoting ourselves to the river, it was time to go home. It was time to get back to the real world—and to our families.

I strolled back through the forest to start breaking camp. I reflected on the new memories I had to bring forward with me, and for not much more than the cost of gas, food and a few beers. There’s a perception that you need to own a hedge fund to afford good salmon angling. New Brunswick’s Crown Reserve system proves that’s simply not true. In fact, for those willing to put in a bit of forethought and some sweat equity, there are trips of a lifetime to be had throughout salmon country. More than ever, salmon fishing is for everyone.

As I packed my truck, it struck me that home wasn’t that far away—that, really, this magnificent wilderness is at my doorstep. And that, to me, is worth all the riches in the world.

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The Northwest Upsalquitch.

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