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Small pool, big fish, huge problem

When the big fish struck the fly, the surprise and savageness of the attack nearly tore the rod from my grip. Several unusual situations led to the circumstance, most were of my own doing. Over the next half-hour one of the unique, almost unbelievable fish fables that I’ve ever experienced transpired. Perhaps you’ll find it entertaining.

The Restigouche River is renowned worldwide for centuries of superior Atlantic salmon angling with a fly rod. Much of the waterway is owned and controlled by fishing clubs or privately held by individuals, so the opportunity to cast a line on these hallowed pools is a rare privilege. Salmon fishing season in New Brunswick and Quebec opens June 1. At some point between opening day and mid-month, the initial run of Atlantics will return from the sea to their home river where they were born. 

Anglers lucky enough to be casting flies during this three- or four-day event will have the chance to hook the largest salmon of their lifetime. Atlantic salmon return from sea to river all summer long, but that June run comprises mostly large fish, many well over 20 pounds. There had been a last-minute cancellation, and I got a phone call. Early the next morning I was on my way to Cheuters Brook Lodge. Over a century old, the camp, accessible only by water, holds a rich history of salmon tails and tales.

Playing and landing an Atlantic salmon upwards of thirty pounds on a fly rod is a rare accomplishment. Bill Graves managed the feat despite unexpected equipment problems for the fishing fable of a lifetime. (Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Head guide Doug Sharpe was waiting for me in a wooded parking area 5 miles through thick forest from the main highway. We quickly loaded my gear into an iconic 20-foot, hand-built cedar and fiberglass square-stern canoe and began the half-hour run upriver to the lodge. Along the way we passed four other fishing lodges and cabins and dozens of pools. I hoped we were passing over schools of fresh salmon heading to our water. The high verdant green wooded ridges on either shoreline were beautiful bookends to the deep blue ribbon of river.

Upon arrival at camp, we tied up to the wharf, unloaded my dunnage and lugged it to my cabin; then I headed to the main lodge dining area to have a midafternoon lunch with the other three fishermen. There are six main pools on the Cheuters Brook section of the Restigouche, just enough to accommodate four anglers regardless of water levels. No salmon had been caught that morning, but during the midday break several fish had been spotted rolling in home pool, right in front of the lodge. I rigged a couple of rods for our 4 p.m. launch for the evening shift. 

My pool for the night was Lower Silas Beach, so we stowed gear in the canoe, and everyone headed to their designated runs of water filled with hope and high spirits. When Doug slowed and turned the canoe upriver a half-mile from Silas Beach, I was puzzled. After dropping anchor above a small ledge and set of riffles he said, “This is Pot Hole, about 20 casts and it’s only good during high water. Might be a fish holding here to rest. It’s worth a shot.” 

“You’re the guide,” said I, and grabbed my 9-foot, 8-weight rod with a size 2 double-hook Black Dose tied to the leader. 

Pulling out about three feet of line from the reel, I flipped a short 12-foot cast to the right side. Doug and I both enjoy country music so I had a portable CD player set up behind my canoe seat. As I twisted around left to turn it on, there was a huge, noisy splash  right next to the canoe and the salmon I mentioned earlier tried to break my rod and my arm. Talk about an attention getter; music was forgotten, conversation halted and a huge silver torpedo rocketed over 3 feet above the water less than 20 feet from our boat.

I realized immediately that something was wrong when the salmon re-entered the river and started a long run that once again almost pulled the rod from my grip. Applying pressure, I stopped the fish and started to get some line back, then came another rod-bucking run with line sizzling off the spool, but not smoothly as it should. 

“I think there’s something wrong with either the gears or the drag mechanism,” I said.

“Do something,” came the reply. “That brute is over 25 pounds, he’ll break your leader or tear out the fly if you can’t fix it.” 

During a brief respite between runs I turned the rod sideways for a quick look at the reel. I saw at once this was no mechanical failure, it was “operator error.” When I’d attached the reel to the rod and run the line up through the guides, in my excitement and haste to get on the water, there had been a misstep. Rather than the line feeding straight from the reel arbor, I’d fed it over the bottom reel pillar, one of four round posts that attach both reel sides. When the fish made a run, instead of the line going smoothly to the reel drag, the line against the pillar was adding heavy undue tension.

I loosened the tension and with each surge and run used my fingers to help the line start evenly, and then put pressure on the line and reel arbor to temper the resistance during the battle. Forty-five interminable minutes later when Doug finally slipped the net around a 29-pound hookbill, one of the half dozen largest I’ve ever caught, each of us was exhausted and very surprised. The odds of actually landing a huge salmon after a long fight with seven acrobatic leaps without the reel, leader or hook failing under the extra duress of equipment malfunction are very long. 

Luck was on my side, and now I can share a happy ending story about a small pool, a huge fish, and a lifelong memory, sometimes success is about way more than a fishing trip.

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