fall fly fishing in Nova Scotia

A heartfelt story about an unforgettable fishing trip on the East River.

Over the past few months the team at Fish and Fly have been kind enough to publish several articles featuring fly fishing in Nova Scotia. Our first story introduced Fish and Fly readers to the exhilarating experience of fishing big salmon on the LaHave River in mid-May. Our summer piece featured the amazing rebound of the salmon run on the St Mary’s River and this, our final instalment for 2008, showcases the fall run on the East River, New Glasgow.

First a few words about my good friend Jim Barrett, perhaps the most accomplished dry fly salmon fisher I have ever seen. He could present a fly, the right fly, in the right manner, to the right spot with uncanny consistency. Jim was one of group of five special friends who shared the fly fishing addiction. Our “fly tying” dinners with our significant others (that only infrequently had anything to do with tying flies) and our times together on innumerable salmon pools spanned more than twenty-five years.

This past summer Jim passed away after a long, terrible battle with cancer. It was a battle that Jim fought courageously. He never complained, and always treated his cancer as an imposter that would soon be ousted thus hardly worth talking about. Surgery followed surgery, radiation followed radiation and chemotherapy became part of his life but Jim seemed almost indifferent to it all.

best dry fly fisher

August 9th Jim finished his last bout of radiation and chemotherapy. That same week the Margaree River was freshened by 30 millimetres of highland rain which enticed hundreds of salmon into the river. There was no power on earth that was going to keep Jim, his body weakened or not, from being there and wetting a line.

On the morning of August 12th he decided to fish one of his favourite haunts, the famous Fahey Pool. The top of this pool features a narrow, fast run that butts up against a rocky bank, makes a hard left and then turns into a long deep pool. A long and accurate cast is a definite asset here. The water in the Margaree River water is gin clear. In the Fahey Pool if the sun angle is right you can see salmon in the run when they flash up under the fly. When the fish are in an aggressive mood the Fahey Pool offers a truly exciting fly fishing experience.

Jim fished a Colburn Special and over the next couple of hours he hooked and released three bright salmon. The last one which he guessed to be between 15 and 18 pounds, put up a spectacular fight putting all of Jim’s considerable skill and experience to the test.

dry fly

Just before noon and just after releasing “the big one” Jim felt a twinge of chest pain and headed back to the cottage for a rest and a bite of lunch. For thirty minutes he regaled friends with the story of his “hat trick” morning at the Fahey pool. He said he was feeling a bit fatigued and went inside the camp to lie down. A few minutes later he suffered a fatal heart attack. How’s that for a fisherman’s final day on the planet?

October 23rd, 2008 will be forever remembered as the day Judge Levy finally hooked a salmon on the East River, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In fact it was about 4pm in the Basin Pool just below the run on an old Blue Charm that he’d tied himself.

We’ve been fishing the East River together as an annual two day event for at least six years. I have hooked a good many salmon on the East River in October and raised many others. For some inexplicable reason every time I fished the East River with the Judge we were skunked. Worse, for five years we never saw a fish! On several occasions I successfully fished the day after the Judge left in frustration swearing never to return.

It was almost like the Judge was a jinx.

This year in late October salmon were holding in the pools upriver but none were taking. We fished several hot spots without result except for one important moment when a 20 pounder jumped out of the river right in front of the Judge. This event seriously shook his long held position that no salmon exist in the East River. He seemed conflicted. I did note from that point forward he fished with renewed hope and intensity.

Later that afternoon after debating whether or not we should try downriver we had a judicial decision to fish the Basin Pool. Positioned just above the tide this is a very popular place to fish in low water. It is a huge pool that can easily accommodate eight rods fishing both sides of the river. The path to the Basin Pool is a brisk downhill 1.5km walk on a mowed path. This day I was grateful for the exercise as it was a cool 4 Celsius. Thankfully the wind was abating. It had been a factor all day.

As it turned out we waited only a few minutes before stepping into the rotation at the top of the run. Not long after we got started a large salmon was hooked by a fisher two places ahead of the Judge. A few minutes later the fisher immediately ahead of the Judge hooked a grilse. Was this proof beyond doubt that salmon are actually caught in the East River? The Judge was paying close attention to the evidence unfolding before him.

I thought he was casting with increased focus as he waded closer to the “hot spot”.

The Judge, writes, with, perhaps, some hyperbole, that he is to angling stories as was Rembrandt to the canvas and Mozart to the symphony. Here he recounts with his typical understatement and modesty the rest of the story:
“I skillfully cast my fly with uncanny precision to the perfect spot allowing it to drift down over the hot spot with a nuanced balance of silky smoothness and subtle movement. Beguiled, ensnared by this artistry a strong, bright salmon attacked the barbless fly, with a fury commensurate with a fish ten times its size. Thus began an epic struggle that onlookers will transmit in awed tones and song to succeeding generations. It ran in all directions, the reel screamed in protest even giving off smoke. High into the air the fish torpedoed repeatedly, demonically contorting itself with spectacular aerobatics in a vain effort to dislodge the fly.

The battle waged on as late afternoon gave way to evening and a crescent moon ascended into the darkening October sky. The noble fish, doomed from the moment it spotted my fly, drained, finally of its unearthly strength, and recognizing the futility of further struggle against a superior foe, surrendered to its fate.

So long, so furious was the struggle, so heroic and all-consuming the battle, that when it was finally tailed by Mr. Robinson, it had lost so much weight that it was now a grilse, and even at that, Mr. Robinson could barely overpower it, nearly losing it as he has done in the past.”

Every dog has his day and this year the salmon gods finally smiled on the Judge. That afternoon six fish were hooked in the Basin Pool. It was one of those wonderful late October East River afternoons.