Adventures in wild Newfoundland with Brian Dobbin
10 March 2007
Casting for 40lb salmon on one of the best fishing rivers in the world, knowing there is barely another human being for 500 miles, has got to rank as one of the most exciting experiences of a lifetime.
Discovered by the Vikings 500 years before Columbus ever set foot in the Americas, Newfoundland is only now being rediscovered by the outside world. Until recently, its population consisted of tough loggers for the paper industry and tougher fishermen who trawled the Grand Banks for cod. But with the collapse of the cod-fishing industry in the 1990s the island has had to find new ways to make money – and, ironically, one of them is still fish. This time, however, the fish are salmon, great big salmon, and the fishermen are no longer grizzled locals, but fishing tourists keen to sample the 110,000 square miles of open lakes, rivers and mountains. Earlier this year, my godfather Michael Galsworthy, 12-year-old godson Jack (Jack Gee) Galsworthy, childhood friend Sam Galsworthy, my brother-in-law Jack Smales, and I set out to explore and fish this rugged country.
I should point out that I am no great fisherman. In fact, I have never even caught a salmon – but I love the sport regardless. Over the past 10 years, I have flogged numerous rivers in Scotland and the West Country, and I have heard all the polite excuses a ghillie can give – it’s too hot or too cold, there’s too much water or not enough, you should have come last week or next week – and now I have heard them in a Canadian accent, too.
I first heard about the fishing when I was out there skiing last year. A few more enquiries told me that Newfoundland’s rivers had some of the highest catch rates in the world. It looked as if I had finally found a place where even I could not fail.
Our base for the week was Humber Valley Resort on Deer Lake, a 20-mile-long lake with its own small provincial airport, which, miraculously, has direct flights to London once a week. Even more extraordinarily, the flight is a short five hours. Newfoundland is on the same latitude as Paris, although the weather is very different, with warm and sunny summers and freezing winters when temperatures drop to -30°C.
Our accommodation was the first major difference from previous Scottish fishing trips, where I had often stayed in freezing lodges or roadside hotels with plywood walls, limited hot water, and unexplained patches of missing carpet. Our house in the Humber Vallery Resort was more like a palace. Built on the shores of the lake three years ago, it had five huge en-suite bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a giant flat-screen television, a gas barbeque, a hot tub out on the deck, and a sauna (very good for drying out wet fishing clothes). Although there are more than 100 lodges in the resort, they are each set in an acre of woodland and are, therefore, completely private. Moose tracks were found outside our door every morning and foxes, squirrels and chattering chipmunks were constant visitors to our balcony, much to a catapult wielding Jack Gee’s joy. In fact, moose hunting is one of the other sports available – which judging by the friendliness of the moose around our lodge, doesn’t appear too challenging a sport. Nevertheless, Italians and Germans apparently pay thousands to bag one… a good gig if you can get it.
Our fishing was organised by Bill Brydon of Eureka Outdoors, who is well-respected locally. Bill came to the lodge on the first day, had a beer with us, and worked us up into a fishing frenzy with his tales of the 40lb salmon he had landed only a mile away. Our guides for the week were the easy-going Paul and grizzled ‘ole boy’ in a battered baseball cap who introduced himself as Clare. When I chuckled that Clare who has my wife’s name, he seemed about as amused as the ‘Boy Named Sue’.
Most of our fishing on the Lower Humber was done from a boat, the river being very high after an unusually wet August week. Unfortunately, the wet weather was to continue throughout our stay (cue ‘oh you should have been here last week’ from everyone we met on the river…), and the 20-mile lake rose 4ft in seven days. As the water rose, so any evidence that the 30lb beasts in the water beneath us were interested in our flies waned. That isn’t to say they weren’t there. An oft-quoted 70,000 salmon migrate up the river each year, and by August and September, a lot of those are more than 20lb in weight. As we fished, every now and again a giant dorsal fin would should itself on the surface, taunting us. But as the waters rose, even the locals were having no luck, and the smaller spate rivers were unfishable raging torrents.
And so my odyssey around the globe discovering great fishing spots, which would have been ‘if only I had been there a week before’, continues. We did catch a number of delicious sea trout, which were absolutely fantastic when fried by the river, but the only salmon we were getting was in the local restaurant.
But I am, really, okay with that. Fishing for me is not only about the catch. Just the process of casting a fly and concentrating on how the line moves across the water forces you to forget any other stresses for the day. The slightest ‘nibble’ by a fish (or the simulated nibble when you catch a rock or a twig) sends your heart racing. Even the preparation and expectation is almost enough to compensate for the lack of fish at the end.
And when it became impossible to fish, Newfoundland has a wealth of other attractions. on one particularly windy day, we took out two the resort’s Hobie Cats, and sailed and capsized all over the lake. There were canoes for us to take out and watch the endless birdlife form, and numerous mini expeditions to find moose, reindeer and beavers. As most of the rivers and lakes in Newfoundland are owned by the State, once you have brought a £28 license, it is possible to fish for trout almost anywhere. We did this once on a lonely pond and found a solitary beaver swimming continuously up and down, putting on a parade for us for nearly an hour. This odd behaviour was later explained by the fact that we were standing unaware on its home, which we were using as a convenient platform to cast from.
Just north of Deer Lake is the Gros Morne national park, which provided us with a spectacular trek through its fjords and tablelands. These are geologically ancient highlands that come to an abrupt stop at sheer cliffs that plummet hundreds of feet down to the sea below. North of Gros Morse, human habitation becomes even more sparse, but you pass over yet another salmon 4-filled river every 10 minutes on an eight-hour drive. Up here, most of the fishing and hunting lodges can only be reached by seaplane or jet boat, and in the summer, translucent blue icebergs float down from the Arctic. As well as salmon-fishing, there is sea-kayaking, squid-jigging, and even fly-fishing for mackerel that can reach 3lb in weight.
But ironically, it is what Newfoundland lacks that makes it so special. Humans. It is about the same size as England, but has less than 100th of our population, with only 450,000 inhabitants. Perhaps due to their scarcity, the locals – from the lady who served our breakfast pancakes in the diner to the state fishing wardens – were all unfailingly friendly and pleased to see us. Even our guide, Clare, turned out to be a big softie once I had got my hook stuck in his thigh for the third time. When the rain did stop, we had some great bonfires in the evening down by the lake and a lot of Canadian beer. Nature even conspires against the golfers on the local course, with foxes racing after their balls and burying them in the bunkers – I saw it happen.
So, I came back from Newfoundland still without any salmon to my name. And to rub salt into a familiar wound, Sam stayed for a further three days and caught four salmon (You should have been there next week…’). But that’s fishing for you – or rather, that’s fishing for me. Within a few weeks of coming home, we started planning a return trip to Newfoundland next year. There is so much left there for us to explore, and I’m sure, this time, that next fishing trip will be ‘the one’