The High Church of Salmon

The private camps of Canada are where faithful anglers go to worship the most romantic of fish
| By Pete Bodo | From 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.

Then, starting as early as May, the fish ascend as many as 80 or 90 miles of rugged, cataract and rapids-laced rivers and their tributaries in search of suitable places to spawn -- often selecting them within a stone's throw of the very place where they were conceived. It is a deeply touching saga that kindles our sense of the miraculous. But neither that, nor the emergence of an aquaculture industry that now produces the vast bulk of the salmon we consume, has ensured the continued existence of wild salmon. A fish that demands a pristine river environment, the salmon is endangered by three factors: habitat destruction, continued overharvesting (legal and otherwise) and, in an ironic twist, the threat of "genetic pollution" posed by aquaculture escapees that may interbreed with wild fish.

These factors have transformed the majority of salmon anglers from typical hook-and-bullet photo subjects, grinning while they hoist lodge poles bearing large, beautiful, dead fish, into conservationists willing to release angled salmon or even to lay down their rods to help save the fish. The declining number of fish has also reversed the usual equation, making a typical salmon fishing trip one of the most costly yet least fruitful (at least in terms of numbers of fish caught) of outdoor adventures.

Despite all that, the experience and tone of salmon fishing remain largely unchanged from the halcyon days at the end of the nineteenth century, when a curious combination of adventurers and well-bred sports traveled to the wild reaches of Quebec and New Brunswick on successful quests for pools filled with leaping salmon. The pioneers, who often traveled upriver on horse-drawn barges, took their cues from salmon fishers of the United Kingdom, where the sport was -- and remains -- a decidedly aristocratic pastime.

Although the quasifeudal days when wealthy individuals locked up entire river systems, or even bought them outright, are long gone, and most salmon angling now takes place at commercial camps, or on water readily available to the public, an inherent reverence remains for this most romantic of fish. The private camps -- places with names like Tracadie, Runnymeade Lodge, Lorne Cottage -- are the high churches of this benevolent cult, and within their walls of rough-cut, shiplapped pine, ritual is paramount.

In the salmon patois, you are not "at the camp" but, like a British lord, "in camp." And in camp, you always fish with guides, sometimes even two to a boat, as they do on the Gaspé's legendary Grand Cascapedia River. In camp, all fishing is done with flies, although the ethereal British originals like the Thunder and Lightning and Green Highlander have been relegated to the display case on this side of the Atlantic by appropriately rugged, simplified patterns like the Rusty Rat and the robust Cosseboom. And while heavy, handsome tonkin cane rods have given way to those made of graphite, and reels machined from bar-stock aluminum have supplanted handmade ones, the camps remain tweedy rather than, well, polar-fleecy.

In camp, you don't wake up at dawn to get a jump on the fish, nor do you just wander out when you feel like fishing and commence flogging the water. You start -- and finish -- either of your two daily fishing sessions at a predetermined time in the morning and evening, in keeping with a traditional New Brunswick meal schedule. This consists of a hearty breakfast followed at about 2 p.m. by dinner, the main meal of the day in many local households as well as the fishing camps, and a late, light supper.

A midday meal at MacLennan Lodge is apt to be lamb shank, or a pork roast with all the trimmings, plus wine -- enough to give the most active angler food coma. So most of Tucker's guests stagger off for a late-afternoon power nap, and only emerge from its spell when the time arrives for tea, which precedes the evening's fishing.

The luxury of salmon camp may seem at odds with the vigorous, natural experience of fishing the remote north woods. But while the daily routine in camp may be tougher on the waistline than on the salmon, that benefits a fish that has too often been overexploited even by its greatest fans. The restraint built into the camp experience functions as a conservation measure. Besides, as the water is private, the threat of some enterprising angler sneaking in ahead of you does not exist. In camp, guests take their cues from the guides: at MacLennan Lodge, we know that fishing time is whenever Shane, David and Ollie leave the kitchen and head for the rod rack and dock, at about 9:30 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. daily.

Rites always risk becoming hollow or decadent, but the salmon angling tradition is so rich that the opposite effect takes place. In salmon country, I've sat on a deadfall in a cold drizzle, watching a guide brew up tea in a dented, charcoal-stained pot. It seemed a borderline spiritual experience.


The brief, afternoon thunderstorm has passed, leaving shreds of bright white cloud hung up in the pine trees on the steep, wooded slopes on either side of the Upsalquitch. The fecund air is utterly still and surprisingly warm. Ollie Marshall and I are heading downriver in the heavy, 26-foot wooden canoe, which is painted green but for the glowing, varnished interior ribs. I sit in a honey-colored wooden seat with a folding slatted back, while Ollie navigates from the bench seat at the stern. The surface of the river is like a flexible skin of clear glass through which almost every pebble on the multicolored bottom is visible.

We pass a similar canoe heading upriver. It belongs to Millbrook Farm, whose owner, Rick Warren, publisher of the Bangor Daily News, has the next camp downstream from MacLennan Lodge, with which he has a water sharing agreement with Tucker. "Seen any?" asks Billy Murray, Warren's head guide and Anne's husband, using the patois that really means "How's the fishing been so far today?"

"No, by jeezus," Ollie declares, "we ain't never seen nothing yet."

"Water's still too high," Billy adds, meaning that the fish are taking advantage of good flows to continue traveling upstream instead of resting in the pools, where they are most apt to take a fly.

Ollie is the only person I've ever known to utter a quadruple negative. Other than that, he is fairly typical of a salmon-camp guide. Lean and sinewy as an ironwood tree, Ollie has a striking shock of white hair and a bounding, youthful exuberance undiminished by the loss in recent years of a few more teeth and the vision in his right eye. "It's all right, eh," he says. "I still got me one good one."

The canoe ploughs nose-first through some fast water and then Ollie works his paddle hard to get the stern pointed downstream. He drops the 34-pound, lead bow anchor and the canoe groans and the stern slowly swings into place. The anchor bounces along for a bit before it finds purchase; Ollie then pays out more rope, cinching it down as the canoe comes to rest, rocking slightly in the current, where the rough water flattens out to form Moore's pool, and in position to start fishing.

Our pool or "beat" this evening, conforming to the strict rotation, consists of two pools known as Web and Moore's. Ollie settles into his canoe chair in the stern, from which he will closely watch the water, prepared to note any sign of a fish, or to swing into action if and when we do hook up. He is partial to either of two flies: the Butterfly and the Silver Rat. Taking an educated guess, albeit a 50-50 one, I've already tied the latter to my leader. I'm vindicated when he says, "How about we run the little Silver through her?"

As a youth, Ollie ventured through the steep, local woods with a gunnysack, collecting bear cubs, which he would trade for either a dollar or a pig, whichever came first. But what he most loves to do, at least for work, is guide. Years ago, many sports would read or even paint in the canoe while the guide did the actual fishing. Now, more of the sports are passionate anglers who either do all the fishing or at best share the rod with their guides, many of whom are all too familiar with the frustration of watching an incompetent and selfish sport make a hash of good opportunities. Unlike some, Ollie is content to let the sport do all the angling.

Standing up in the center of the canoe, facing downstream, I have only about 10 feet of line extending from the rod tip. I flip the fly out downstream, at a 90-degree angle to the canoe, following the fly with the rod tip as it swings across the current and comes to rest directly below the stern. Then, I make the same cast with the same amount of line on the right side of the canoe, after which I pull about 12 inches of line from the reel and repeat the process, at the end of which I strip off another foot of line and begin again. Thus, I gradually lengthen the line and cover more new water with each cast, always quartering downstream, until I've come to the limit of my casting range. Then I reel up, Ollie pulls the anchor and drops down to the farthest point covered by the fly, and we begin the drill anew, repeating it until we've "dropped" down through all the fishable water.

Like most everything else about the pursuit, this technique smacks of ritual. The repetitiveness of it is comforting, in the same way I imagine knitting must be: it keeps you busy, but not to the extent that you can't hold a conversation. One of the deeply satisfying side effects of this type of fishing is that it enables guide and angler to get to know each other if they're so inclined. Do it year after year, for a few decades, and you've made a friend for life. But the technique also represents the most efficient way to "comb" the water, passing the fly over the head of any salmon resting in the pool in a way that may elicit a strike.

Nobody really knows why salmon take a fly, because they cease eating when they return to fresh water. But sometimes, that gaudy little object swinging over a salmon triggers an aggressive or territorial instinct and induces the fish to levitate and seize or chase it. In the process, the salmon may leave a great wake, or create a huge boil at the surface as it swiftly turns with the fly and returns to its lie, steadily pulling line from the reel and effectively hooking itself. Those precious moments are always filled with sensation and awe, and are never quite believable. Those moments represent the living mystery that is the salmon, and they are celebrated in the way of life found in the great salmon camps.

Tucker died last spring, and his camp is now in the capable hands of his neighbor Rick Warren. Still it's hard to comprehend that I'll never again see him weeding out the dandelions, or spot him from a distance as we approach the dock at twilight, standing on the small deck high on the bank above the dock, hands thrust in his pockets. He often waited there, vigilant, a little lonely as perhaps all lifelong bachelors appear. He was always eager to know if we "saw anything." I saw many things fishing at MacLennan Lodge as a guest of Tucker's for 20 years, and some of them even had to do with fish.


Pete Bodo is Outdoors columnist for The New York Times. His latest book is The Atlantic Salmon Handbook.