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Country Haven Lodge, Canada
Jesse Robbins October 24, 2022
Country Haven Lodge, Miramichi River, New Brunswick
6/17 – 6/21/2022
By Jesse Robbins
Anyone whose heart has been captured by fly fishing will eventually find themselves looking at photos of and reading about Atlantic salmon. Along with trout, they are synonymous with the origins of the sport itself and are featured prominently in countless historic fly fishing books, including Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Dubbed “The King of Fish” and “The Leaper”, Salmo salar are chased in rivers from eastern Canada across the Atlantic Ocean, through Iceland, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, all the way to the Kola Peninsula of Russia.
To anglers keen on Spey casting with double-handed rods, Atlantic salmon are especially dear, for it was on Scottish salmon rivers that the casting style was invented. Famous rivers such as the Dee, Tay, Tweed, and of course the River Spey itself will forever hold a special place among Spey casters’ hearts.
For Americans, the closest opportunities to fish for Atlantic salmon exist in eastern Canada. There, in the provinces of New Brunswick, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, flow many fine rivers with healthy runs of salmon. Among these, one river stands out as the most accessible – the Miramichi of New Brunswick. On the banks of the mighty Miramichi, in the town of Gray Rapids, sits Country Haven Lodge. (In addition to close proximity, traveling logistics to Canada are now made easier by use of the government’s ArriveCAN smartphone app.)
Owned and operated by the Coughlan family since 1999, Country Haven offers anglers an intimate, family-style fishing program targeting Atlantic salmon primarily on the Southwest Miramichi River. At certain times of the year and in certain conditions, anglers may also visit the Cains, Renous, and Dungarvon rivers. Byron “Byzie” Coughlan heads up operations at Country Haven. He is ever-present, hosting guests at the lodge, coordinating day-to-day fishing logistics, and ensuring everything runs smoothly. His son Tyler is one of the lodge’s main guides and he too is very involved with lodge guests.
Fishing on the Miramichi is unique: most of the pools are privately-owned, and non-residents must fish with a licensed guide above tidewater. While these two elements do make DIY fishing challenging, the result is a relaxed and high-quality fishing experience. Combined with the regulations of single, barbless hooks, mandatory catch-and-release, plus the fact that there are no dams on the river, it’s easy to see that why the fishery remains in good health.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect to the fishing program at Country Haven is in the amount of water they have can access. Through their own ownership and numerous community relationships, guests at Country Haven may find themselves fishing any of 25 different private pools during their stay. The benefits in having access to such a large number of pools cannot be overstated, for conditions on the Miramichi change quickly and, of course, the fish are traveling. Byzie and his guide staff are in constant communication throughout the day, sharing real-time fishing data on river conditions plus where and when fish are hooked and seen. To the angling guest, this translates into a confident selection of water for each of the day’s fishing sessions. (Anglers fish a morning and evening sessions, usually in different pools, with a midday break of several hours.)
Atlantic salmon fishing on the Miramichi begins on April 15th and ends on October 15th. In between, there are three distinct seasons: spring kelt fishing; summer; and fall. From April 15th to roughly May 15th, anglers target kelts, or “black salmon,” as they make their way downstream and back to the ocean. These fish have wintered-over and have recently spawned. As such, they are typically skinny, but they are voracious feeders and still strong-fighting fish as they build back up their body mass. Single handed sink tip lines or Skagit style setups work well for these fish, and they take large wet flies usually tied with healthy amounts of marabou. Anglers often fish out of boats during the spring season, though certain pools and conditions warrant wade fishing as well.
Once June comes around, anglers wait for reports of the first fresh, adult salmon of the year. The run begins in earnest by the third week of June, but large, bright, fresh fish have been caught as early as the middle of May. During this time of year, the fresh fish are on the move and anglers cover water with long casts and traditional wet flies. Classic patterns such as the Black Ghost, Black Bear Green Butt, Green Machine, Undertaker, Green Highlander, Ally’s Shrimp, Copper Killer, and the Silver Rat are favorites, among others.
Once the summer run begins, fish continue to enter the system and travel upstream through October, depending on conditions. As is true with anadromous fish in other parts of the world, spates and cooler weather get fish migrating upstream while lower and warmer water will cause fish to hold in certain pools. The ideal scenario is a dropping river, just when many fresh fish have just begun holding in pools and known lies. Of course, it’s easier said than done to predict when this will happen!
Typical August heat usually brings about a lull in the migration and the fishing. But come September, as the weather cools, the salmon start moving again, and the fishing picks up. Fish caught in the fall usually feature stunning colorations of browns, silvers, peppered with black and red spots.
During the third week of June this year, myself and four others headed north to the Miramichi to try our luck at the early summer fish, learn more about the river, and Atlantic salmon fishing in general. We were greeted warmly by Byzie and Tyler at Country Haven and they escorted us to our private cabin. Stepping into the cabin felt like entering an Atlantic salmon fishing museum; the walls were jammed with artwork, fly panels, maps, stickers, pins, and countless other varieties of fly fishing paraphernalia. The shelves were filled with fishing books from days gone by as well as a few newer titles. But the crown jewels of the cabin were the fishing journals, one dating back to the 1920’s and continuing through World War II. (We noted a significant increase in the author’s fishing after 1945.)
We chose our dates during the previous fall and elected to err on the safe side of weather, which meant we were arriving on the early side of the summer run. In other words, we were risking arriving before the heart of the run, but we had little fear of any warm or low water. All of us having spent significant amounts of time steelheading in recent years, we tried to keep our hopes modest – one encounter per person for the trip – though we certainly wouldn’t complain should the numbers be larger!
The benefits of the vast amount of water available to Country Haven guests quickly became clear. With five of us spread out over three pools and several miles of river, it wasn’t long into the first morning that reports of fish rolling and jumping started coming in via text. Soon after that, we got word that one from our group had hooked and lost a large salmon! The morning session passed quickly as we all dialed our casting and got into rhythms. As we all met back up at the cabin for lunch, the stories began – a fish hooked and lost; a fish rolling on a fly; a fish seen jumping; and, a fish landed at Bridge Pool!
While we ate lunch and napped, Byzie and the guide staff convened and came up with the afternoon plan. Given the success had at Bridge Pool that morning, a new set of anglers headed there for the evening session. The pool produced again, offering another hookup to a large, fresh fish. I’d lose that fish in painful fashion but felt fortunate for the encounter. Fish were indeed around!
The next two days and four fishing sessions passed like multi-day trips for anadromous fish often do – long moments of calm, silence, and contemplation mixed with brief occasions of elation, chaos, and cheer. However, no matter the outcome of the fishing during a given session, a consistent occurrence that followed was great food, drink, storytelling, and laughter. Given the time of year (nearly summer solstice) and our geographic location (46-degrees north), the days were very long. We fished until almost 10:00 pm every evening, but our excitement for the river and each other’s company carried us on much past that.
Our prediction of conditions was mostly accurate – fresh fish were present, but not in numbers that were representative of the height of the run. We didn’t see any low nor warm water; in fact, nearly-constant rain and drizzle kept the river on the high side, though it never became off-color. Multiple times our guides remarked that a drop in water would’ve been beneficial to our odds but with us wielding Spey rods and Scandi lines, we were able to cover the long, wide pools effectively. Given the high water and overcast skies, the salmon were on the move. To counter this, we fished through our pools slowly and deliberately. Again, having access to fishing reports both up- and down-river worked to our advantage, and our guides chose pools based on where fish were seen during the previous session.
At the end of the trip, multiple large, fresh, bright, and gorgeous Atlantic salmon had been landed. In addition, each of us had at least one encounter of some sort with a fish, be it one to hand, one hooked, or perhaps one rolling on a fly once or more times. Our hopes, in terms of the fishing, were certainly met.
What we also came away with, perhaps unexpectedly, was a greater understanding and appreciation for the history of Atlantic salmon fishing on the Miramichi and the warm, welcoming community there. The staff and guides at Country Haven were never without a story, joke, or an anecdote that we could store away and share later. Having the chance to chat with locals who had spent a lifetime fishing the waters we stood in was humbling, and their enthusiasm for us, in our first trip to the Miramichi was inspiring.
A great fishing trip includes a variety of elements but perhaps the most telling of all may be if and when you start making plans to return. Suffice to say, we hadn’t even left our cabin at Country Haven before we began scheming our next trip.
Country Haven Lodge, Canada
Fish with a lodge that has access to more pools than any other operation on the Southwest Miramichi system.