river tales

by Katharine R. Mott

       Many months ago a palm reader told me that my lifelines resembled two rivers. I believe that they are those to which I am most strongly connected, the Restigouche and the Stewiacke. Connection to the Restigouche has been forever; link to the Stewiacke dates back several decades. Four to he exact. In a previous life I was a suburban housewife with four young tads, all close in age. As a fishing addict myself I'd take them to the Stewiacke River Park in the hopes that the bug would bite them as well. The lure of the rope hanging over the pool was of greater interest, how­ever, so I'd leave them with their father while I went down to the Rockpile and waded in line. It was a weekend geta­way for me, and a great way to get their non-fishing father to baby sit! In my next life and next husband, canoeing and fishing the Stewiacke became a regular activity each fall, beginning in 1974. He, a keen bird hunter watched for woodcock coverts. I would fish the runs while he hunted. We tented in spots from the upper reaches of the river to the Park, frequently near a resting spot for salmon. Many a time I wakened to a splash and was quickly out of the tent door, semi-clothed with rod in hand. We were tenting nomads. We began early in the fishing season and continued ‘till the end.We packed our gear and headed out in search of trout and salmon. Some of our favourite spots were along the South and Eastern shores, and it was with dismay that we watched the gradual disappearance of fish. In time we learned about acid rain and its effects. We became more and more enamoured with the Stewiacke and its surroundings. The combina­tion of bird hunting and salmon fishing at the same time sounded like the heaven we needed. We toyed with purchasing a lot near the Park, but learned of Scott Paper's intent to auction some properties at the Glen, one of our favourite tenting and fishing spots. A bid was submit­ted, our fingers were crossed then in August we learned that the lot we wanted was ours. Oh happy day!

We spent 1979 building and fishing; after that mostly fishing and bird hunting. During the season our camp was filled with rods and shotguns, waders and hunting dogs. Some travelled up or down river by boat, some waded the Glen. The fish were as plentiful as the stories. I recall one cold rainy day when five or six of us braved the elements, among them Elmer Jones and his son, Rocky. They went down river by boat, Sandy Young and I went up river hoping to get to the sweet spot near the Pasture Pool before Gary McMahon got there. The others fished the Glen. When we gathered at the camp later in the day for some warmth and cheer. Elmer was the only one who had had success. He tightly grasped the evidence for photographs. The story is one I cherish. Rocky stood in the bow and with his powerful arm and long line, probably cast well beyond any fish resting in the pool. Elmer sat in the stern, tossing out a short line and letting it drift. Wham! Fish on! Excitedly Rocky gave advice to his Dad, "keep your rod up let 'im run careful, he'll break the leader let 'im go!" Elmer in his quiet, calm way said. "He ain't goin' nowhere, Burnley". as he kept reeling the fish in. His leader was 40 lb. Test all the way! It was a proud day for Elmer, his last fish before he went on to the Great Salmon Pool in the sky. That section of the river is still known as 'Elmer's Pool' to many of us. In the days that we kept fish, we competed for size and experience. The tales around the table at the end of the day surrounded the suspicion that 'he' was there, the fly used, the number of rises, and the exact location. When hook and release came in, we competed for size and numbers. Of the annual run or around 5000 salmon, I swear that double that number was reported just by the camp dwellers! Those days are gone. This morning I watched three female mergansers search for fish in the Stewiacke River. They dove, swam to another spot, dove, and came up - then all three were at­ each other, tooth and nail. They beat each other with their wings, they turned circles, and in the broth I spied the reason. One had found a fish - a long skinny one, probably an eel though it was hard to tell. It was evident that in slim times like these, the females expected the catch to be shared. After all, it's the Maritime way during a Depression!

This sight was a far cry from the scene out my window in years past. Winter then meant a river frozen over, with the occasional sighting of a herd of deer walking up the middle. A small open patch might attract a couple of otters to romp and giggle as they successfully fished, then played. Now we see hungry eagles flying up and down the open river, hoping for a morsel of food and battling mergansers. The otters haven't been around for a couple of years. We seldom see muskrats or mink. The weasels and rabbits have all but disappeared. Even the hungry coyotes visit only occasionally. This is not a story with a happy ending. Ghosts of the fishermen once filled with fun and passion; stare blankly at the river. Ghosts of the salmon who once enjoyed the games much as we did, wait ... but where'? The Stewiacke holds the ashes of fishermen passed, and the only salmon left are those images in the minds and photo albums of those of us who loved them. Will the salmon return? We don't know. It takes more than crossed fingers to bring them hack. Sadly, Elmer's adage "he ain't goin' nowhere, Burnley" takes on different meaning now. When and if they do, I'll be one of the ghosts that will look out my window and smile.

Article reprinted from the CSA Newsletter, Jan.2003
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