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The High Church of Salmon

The private camps of Canada are where faithful anglers go to worship the most romantic of fish
Pete Bodo
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

The powerful, fresh scent of Canadian pine filters in through the barely open window in a cozy bedroom of MacLennan Lodge, overlooking the Upsalquitch River in Robinsonville, New Brunswick. The rising sun strikes the surface of the cold, transparent river, illuminating from within the fog blanketing the water and turning it into a massive, golden cloud. Although the calendar says July 10, it is so chilly at 7:35 a.m. that the very idea of leaving the comfort provided by the thick, olive woolen blanket seems preposterous.

Out on the half-acre lawn of the compound -- which encompasses the two-bedroom lodge, a dining quarters, a charming log cabin and an icehouse packed with snow -- three flagpoles of rough wood painted white fly the flags of New Brunswick, Maine and MacLennan Lodge. A. Tucker Cluett, of Blue Hill, Maine, the camp owner, is already outside, wandering around on the grass. Blue-eyed, with short, wiry, neatly trimmed gray hair, Tucker, age 65, has a crisp presence reminiscent of Paul Newman. Today, he is dressed in docksiders, khaki slacks and a heavy, lined chamois shirt in a woodland camouflage pattern, with the name ?Ayatollah? embroidered in gold thread above the left breast pocket.

Granted, this is not a garment of choice for a typical, blue-blooded salmon fisherman. But the shirt was a gift from a guest and Tucker, ever mindful of such things, makes a point of wearing it whenever that friend is, as they say, "in camp." Holding an open jackknife, Tucker bends over and carefully carves the bulbous head of a dandelion out of the closely mown clover. His camp may be hewn out of some of the densest and gnarliest woods in eastern Canada, but Tucker isn't about to let his lawn sprout weeds. He is, after all, one of a very small, elite group of people who own a salmon camp. So he feels obliged to carry on the grand tradition of the sport -- a legacy that simultaneously celebrates camp life, civility and the refined aesthetic reflected in almost everything, save personalized camo shirts, that defines salmon fishing: the flies, which are miniature objects d'art, the graceful, handmade canoes, even the museum-quality paintings and etchings produced by heirs to the tradition established by Winslow Homer.

Suddenly, a burst of raucous laughter echoes from the dining quarters. Nancy Firth and Anne Murray, who cook and keep camp, have been preparing a power breakfast that will include fresh, sea-run brook trout caught right in the Upsalquitch, pancakes and homemade raspberry jam. But they haven't been too busy cooking to play a practical joke on the three men who sit hunched over coffee and their morning cigarettes at their own table in the kitchen.

The men, all in forest green caps bearing the MacLennan Lodge logo, which Tucker designed himself, are the fishing guides: brothers David and Shane Mann, 44 and 39, respectively, and 58-year-old Ollie Marshall. These five people, all from families that have been in or around the tiny rural community of Robinsonville for generations, know each other better than some of us know our own faces. And they delight in the sport of "tormenting" each other with techniques ranging from verbal teasing to tying one another's bootlaces into Gordian knots.

"What, am I nuts?" I think, tearing back the covers and leaping out of bed. I want to get to the kitchen, where the action is, and see who did what to whom.

 

Canada's Chaleur Bay, which is about the size of Rhode Island, is defined by the north shore of New Brunswick and by the south shore of Quebec's Gaspé peninsula, a massive headland that thrusts out into the North Atlantic on Canada's east coast, well above the state of Maine. Two of Canada's most important salmon rivers, the Restigouche and the Matapédia, each of which has salmon-producing tributaries (the Upsalquitch flows into the Restigouche), converge to form the estuary of the bay. Although Canada has many other salmon rivers, the Chaleur Bay is, geographically and historically, the epicenter of salmon country, a hale, rugged territory in which the only industries of note are logging-related.

Very few tourists from outside of eastern Canada visit this picturesque, dual-cultured area. The only airport in the region capable of landing a jet is Charlo at Campbellton, New Brunswick, a town located on the bay. Most of the year, Charlo hosts only the occasional "milk run" local flight, but during salmon season, which runs from early June through August, an impressive array of corporate jets sometimes stand, wing-tip to wing-tip on the tarmac, their human cargo lured to the area by a wonderful resource: the wild Atlantic salmon, often referred to as "the king of game fish, the game fish of kings."

Born in clear, cold, achingly beautiful rivers, the salmon usually spend a two-year adolescence in their native habitat. When the fish are about the length of ballpoint pens and the color of chrome, they migrate in a generational group to sea and make their way to traditional feeding grounds in the north Atlantic near Greenland. After spending between one and three winters feeding at sea, an interval that determines how large the fish grow (generally between 5 and 25 pounds), the schools of salmon begin a homeward migration guided by, well, nobody is quite sure what. The fish may be responding to magnetic fields, instincts that lead them to swim close to the coastline, searching for traces of the unique chemical composition of their home waters, or perhaps even the position of the stars. All anyone knows for sure is that salmon unerringly find their way back.


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