Fishgirl's first salmon

I have no objection to men on fishing trips, as long as they don't get in my way when I'm casting ... Katie Cooke

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Up, Two, Three, Forward by Fishgirl

My introduction to angling was not auspicious. It was, however, motivated by what drives great anglers - hope. At five years of age I tied a safety pin to a long piece of cotton kitchen twine. I cast my line into a very large muddy puddle near my home in Saint John and sat on the edge of the puddle with great anticipation. A few years later I had a brief stint of fishing with my mother on the Hammond River. Although she did not have a fishing background, she did possess the pure joy of putting line into the water and hoping to see a fish.

I grew up and moved to St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia. My husband and I had a Cape Islander and we hand-lined haddock each evening when I returned from my pharmacy job. A decade later the fish were gone and we sold the boat. I wrote. I raised our children. I worked. I took up knitting. My husband, meanwhile, had begun fly-fishing. I listened to the stories but felt no urge to pick up a rod.

In August of 2006 we planned a holiday to Cape Breton, our first time away alone in twenty-five years. My plan was to knit. His plan was to fish. He packed his gear and I packed mine. Our first stop was a beautiful yarn store in Baddeck. I nabbed a set of birch needles and some top quality merino and we were good to go. Off we headed to the North River. He fished while I knit.

There are moments in time when life takes a huge swerve, after which nothing is ever the same. A fish jumped. Salmo salar. I'd glanced up from my knitting and a huge salmon leapt free of the water, knifing into the air, suspended for the briefest moment, then sliding back into a dark pool. I threw my knitting on the ground and ran over to my husband. I grabbed the rod out of his hand, walked into the river and started casting. My experience with a fly rod at that point? Nil. Not like that would stop me. I'd watched him casting - how hard could it be? I kept casting until I couldn't cast again. He later told me the hackle of the fly was completely unravelled and the hook point was missing due to the numerous times I'd unintentionally smashed it on the rocks behind me. I began counting the days until fishing season opened the following year.

I fished sixty-four times in 2007. I fished on opening and closing day of trout season, and closing day of the salmon season. I felt respect but a healthy scepticism towards salmon. We'd seen them in the River Philip, seen them in the Margaree, but I couldn't quite fathom why they were so picky. What was up with them? Trout took the fly. Salmon? Well, I didn't know what to make of them. I decided that despite my best efforts I'd never catch a salmon and I was fine with that.

July 2008. We'd booked a three-day trip to Tuckaway on the Miramichi and I'd spent weeks reading online about the place and the guides. I feel slightly sorry for my coworkers. I've spent hours teaching these people about fishing, all while standing in the dispensary. You could go there and quiz them. "What's a dryfly?" "Why is it a good idea to buy gravel guards?" "What weight line would you use on a nine-foot salmon rod?" "What is the rod made of?" I'm sure they'd get a perfect score on the quiz and bear in mind they've never set foot in a river to fish. By the time I left for vacation they knew all about Renate Bullock, the RBM (Renate Bullock Muddler), the 34 pound salmon she'd caught, and that she'd been guiding since 1986.

I was scared. It was a mixture of nervousness and excitement and anticipation. Up until the week before we left I'd been trying to improve my cast. Ninety percent of our fishing took place on narrow rivers, fishing for trout, my trusty little seven-foot rod, sometimes my six-foot rod. I got tired of climbing trees to retrieve the flies so I roll cast. Short distances. My husband showed me a Dave Whitlock video many times. We'd watch the section about "common casting errors" and then we'd head out to the back yard where I'd try to correct my errors. It seemed I had every error a person could have. My retrieve was lousy, my backcast was dreadful, and I couldn't get any line out. My husband told me to pretend I was hitting a nail with a hammer. My father was a contractor and I'd worked for him as a teenager. I've hammered thousands of nails, straight and true. The hammering and casting analogy never worked for me. The fish of the Miramichi were going to be safe.

We arrived at Tuckaway and unpacked. Coming towards the cabin was Renate. I felt myself break out in a sweat. There she was, right in front of me. After all that reading and thinking and imagining, she was standing right in front of me. She said she'd be back at 6:00 and that we'd fish the Camp Pool.
Six o'clock came and we headed for the pool. She was so kind, so calm, that I started to relax. She asked us questions and decided that Pat would fish upriver and she and I would head downriver. Down we went. I knew I had to fess up. "Renate, I can't cast." She just nodded, like that was okay. I'm not sure she believed me. Then I cast and I'm pretty sure she believed me after that. I whipped line around and suggested she might like to move out of the danger range but no; there she was, bravely and patiently at my side. I began to relax more. I said, "I think it's the rod." When in a tight spot, look for something to blame. Bless her, she agreed. Bad rod. No wonder I couldn't cast. She wandered over to the riverbank where Vince Swazey was sitting, talking to my husband. Back she came and handed me Vince's rod. I don't know much about fishing equipment but I knew this was an incredible rod and only someone with either no sense at all or a huge heart would put it into my hands. All I could think was, "Don't fall, Pam, don't fall." And I prayed not to fall and break the rod. Well, my casting seemed no different using Vince's rod. We both just kind of smiled and nodded and the sun began to set on this piece of paradise and off to bed we went, with plans to meet and fish the Home Pool at 8:00 in the morning.

Two things happened in the Home Pool. The first thing is that I learned how to cast. I'll readily admit I take instruction poorly. Renate was fabulous as she quietly showed me all kinds of tips and helpful pointers. I handed the rod to her and asked her to cast and I watched her with as much focus as I've ever watched anything in my life. She counted out loud; "Up, two, three, forward." I realized that "up" was a one syllable word, up. Up didn't take too long but it was smooth and strong. Two and three, which I'd previously thought were "two&three," something to be raced through, manifested in her moves as a graceful arc of time, two followed by three. FORWARD. Well, there was no mistaking forward. To my complete joy, she never mentioned time. No ten o'clock, no two o'clock. I took the rod back from her, retrieved my line, pretended it was all a graceful dance, and counted, up, two, three, forward. Out went the line! A miracle. I'm not even close to producing my own instructional video but I will tell you that anything is possible. Cast after cast, my lips moved as I silently counted and worked my way down the river. She tied her fly, an RBM, onto my tippet.

And the second thing? Fish on. Fish on! It was an overcast day, raining slightly. I was three-quarters of the way through the pool. I hadn't seen any signs of fish. Suddenly there was this weight on the line. Serious weight. Remember, my experience had been with the seven-inch brookies. When trying to describe to my non-fishing sister the experience of having that fish on the line I said, "A trout on a line is like a hot dog on the end of piece of clotheslines. A salmon is like a twenty pound turkey on a piece of dental floss."

The fish did everything perfectly. Renate did everything perfectly. The reel made a lovely high-pitched song as the fish went this way and that. My mind was racing, keep the rod up, bow if he jumps, walk backwards. I didn't know if I'd had him on the line for ten seconds on ten minutes. Renate came out and stood beside me. She leaned forward and suddenly the fish was in the net. Pat was videoing the event so I now know it took just over four minutes for me to bring him in. She asked if I'd like a picture of him and I said, "No, let's just let him go." He was a grilse, 23 inches. She held him to me and said, "Give him a kiss" and I did, his back cool and strong. She lowered him and whoosh, off he went. No rest time, just shooting back from whence he came.

In the video I'm laughing and kind of crying. It was a laughing and crying kind of time. I couldn't sleep that night because I was too excited about the fish. I wanted to meet his brothers, his sisters, and cousins. It was a great honour to stand in the mighty Miramichi with Renate and Vince and Dan and those fish. On the last day one of the other guests asked me how it felt to be "top rod." Top rod? What was that? At first I thought it was a joke but I could see he wasn't joking. I nodded and said, "It feels very good."

We're booked for next year and I'm in love. I'm in love with Salmo salar. I'm in love with quiet cabins and the nightly display of fireworks put on by the fireflies. I'm in love with the osprey who fish with us and the boats that move us across the water to the shingle. I am forever changed. Just like that. Up, two, three, forward.

Tales Casting contest I Tangier River I Boyhood memories I Newfie salmon I Muddler's memories I Does a bear? I First ever salmon I The Tickmobile
U-Fish I 4 a.m. I Lyin seasun I Anecdotes I Fishgirl salmon I A natural fly I Main Event I Honeymoon I Vernon I Leslie I Coyote? I Newfie trout I Fantasy

Pat Donoghue, Canada, ©1997