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September Salmon on The Gander
By: Gord Follett

The decision was touch-and-go during the days leading up to a tentatively-planned September salmon fishing trip on the Gander River. Mind you, I could have taken Matt Romkey of Gander River Outfitters up on his offer to be part of a bear hunt relatively close to the lodge if the angling ban hadn’t been lifted by Sept. 5, but sitting virtually motionless in a bait stand for hours on end as an observer or cameraman is not my idea of excitement.

Anglers throughout the province had taken to social media in waves of protest over the previous weeks, claiming – among other things – there was “absolutely no reason” for the river to be closed. Pressure on federal fisheries officials to reopen the Gander was mounting, so on Sept. 3 – “hoping for the best” – I readied my gear and confirmed to Dwight that I would be making the trip with him.

I cannot recall whether it was the day before we left St. John’s or just as we hit the highway, but the news we were waiting for was indeed announced shortly before we arrived in Gander Bay to meet Matt – Gander River was reopening!

“Within minutes I was into my third fish, a jack which we estimated was in the 68-70-centimetre range. I set this fella free to chase the pretty young hen I released earlier.”

These are the moments we live for.

Dwight and I had fished the beautiful Gander many times before, most often with Pete Stacey’s former operation, Gander River Tours. We would travel downriver from the TCH, soaking up every second of the magnificent ride with highly-qualified guides and boatsmen such as Kenny Raymond. We didn’t always hook a lot of fish during these excursions, but we did enjoy ourselves immensely each and every time.

It had been almost a decade since I last tossed a fly across the holding pools of this picturesque waterway and I really wasn’t expecting a helluva lot of action this time of year, part of the scheduled “fall salmon fishery” from Sept. 7 to Oct. 7, permitted only on the Gander, Exploits and Humber rivers. This would be more of an unwinding “last few flicks for the season” kinda thing, we figured.

Well, talk about a pleasant surprise! What an incredible three-plus days of action we experienced, beginning with a hookup directly in front of the lodge just a couple minutes after my initial cast. It was around 7 p.m., as Dwight and Matt were chatting and enjoying a drink on the front deck behind me, that I announced a hookup.

That small grilse of just over three pounds was quickly released, and by the time Dwight ran inside to the get the video camera “just in case” I hooked another, I was again shouting, “Fish on!”

This one was closer in size to your typical “football-shaped” Gander River grilse, and it too was released to continue its journey.

I did my little “chat piece” for the show before resuming casting in the same spot while Dwight sat on a large shoreline rock and waited.

Good thing he did, for within minutes I was into my third fish, a jack which we estimated was in the 68-70-centimetre range. I set this fella free to chase the pretty young hen I released earlier.

With the new federal regulation set at a maximum of three released fish per day, I reeled in and headed back to the camp, where I wiggled out of my leaky old waders, removed my soaking wet socks and sweatpants, then hauled on a pair of jeans to join the boys on the deck and watch salmon jump and porpoise all over Jim Browne’s Pool until dark.

Serene mornings like this one are common on “The Gander

Watching fish jump as I sipped fresh coffee at first light the next morning – while the boys were still in their bunks – was simply too much to resist on this windless, beautiful day, so I slipped into my fishing outfit, grabbed my 10-foot Loop rod and Opti reel, then headed back to where I had so much action the previous evening.

On my third cast, I noticed part of a head barely nudge my fly.

“A rise already,” I said to myself. “Is this day gonna start like yesterday’s ended?”

I watched my No. 8 Nimbus skip along a ripple before skating through a small “slick,” then Bang! As fast as that I was into another slightly-over-the-limit jack, which sped across the pool with a series of impressive twisting leaps.

I recall glancing back at the lodge to see if anybody was watching.

Nope.

I grinned regardless. This was about as good as it gets, I thought. And on my 61st birthday, to boot!

I tried to get the fish in for a release as fast as possible, but on two occasions when it was almost within reach, it hauled 70-80 feet of line downriver, each time with at least one impressive display of aerobics. I actually managed to capture a short I-phone video of one of the jumps.

Eventually I did bring him in for a “no-touch” release. I had heard friend and master angler Rob Solo mention this release method on occasion, including when I fished Codroy River with him eight or nine years ago, but I always pictured the fly shooting back with force at the last second and embedding itself deep into my finger. Once I garnered enough nerve to try it a few years back, however, things went quite smoothly, with absolutely no damage done to my fingers or – more importantly – the salmon. I simply try to remind myself each time that the barb is pinched, so even if were to shoot loose and dig into my thumb, it would just be a matter of pulling it back out. Mind you, it’s not every time you can bring a fish in the way you’d like in order to perform this no-touch release, and sometimes you do have to tail it, but I’m pleased to report that I am getting better at it. In fact, close to 50 percent of the salmon I’ve managed to land in recent years have been set free this way.

Rather than “stir up” the pool too much for my buddy who would soon be ready to fish and was expecting some action to film a show, I slowly made my way back to the lodge for breakfast, stopping every now and then to glance back at the river, where not a single soul – besides the few of us at camp – had been fishing the entire time we were there.

I finally heard another sign of life at the lodge as I poured another coffee.

“Were you on the river yet this morning?” Dwight asked.

“Yeah, for five or six minutes,” I replied.

“Any fish?”

“Oh yeah, got some video on my phone, too, in case you thought I was pulling your leg,” I said. 

“Did I hear you say you hooked and released a fish already this morning?” Matt asked from the kitchen while pouring a coffee.

“Yessir, indeed I did,” I replied. “I’ve been in the lineup at Tim Horton’s waiting for a coffee longer than it took me to hook, land and release that fish.”

Matt Romkey, incidentally, is a 36-year-old native of Nova Scotia who moved to Corner Brook as a firefighter in 2006. Four years later he moved back to Halifax where he was expecting a similar position, but when that didn’t materialize, the avid outdoorsman took up professional fishing and hunting guiding duties in southwestern Newfoundland, where he grew to love his adopted province more with each passing week.

Fast forward to 2017 and Matt is the new owner of Gander River Outfitters, where today he offers top-notch hunting and fishing excursions as both a guide and camp operator. And he’s “not a bad fella, either,” as we say.

Within minutes after washing the last of our bacon, eggs and toast down with orange juice, Dwight and I were waist-deep in the river. I started about 50 metres up from where I was having most of my luck so that I could continue looking for fish as I slowly worked my way back down, while Dwight began casting his white-wing Blue Charm some 70-80 metres above me.

Just to experiment, I had switched to a Come By Chance Green Machine, tied on a #8 hook, and it wasn’t long before an eager grilse let me know this was an acceptable pattern as well.

Dwight immediately noticed I had a fish on and shouted something about a “horseshoe,” though I don’t think he was referring to the bend in my Loop.

“And she’s a feisty one,” I laughed, as the fish headed for the far bank with a series of leaps and twists.

“Now, I’m gonna release ya,” I said to the grilse at my feet a few minutes later, “so don’t go mad and flick the hook into my finger.”

8:55 a.m. and my second fish of the day was released.

“One more and I’m legally done for the day,” I shouted to my buddy, who was indicating he had just risen a fish.

A few flicks later, Dwight was into his first salmon of the trip, but lost it after a spirited two-minute battle. He wouldn’t be frowning for long, however, as another grilse from the same run he was fishing snatched the Charm and shot out of the water like a missile. He brought that one in relatively quickly and set it free.

With my third and final fish of the day released by 11 a.m., I offered – after a mid-day nap, of course – to sit in the bait stand that evening with Matt’s good buddy Kyle Williams, who was hoping to harvest a large bruin with a bow. No such luck on this day, however, so we made our way back to the stand via flashlights just after 4:30 the next morning, and upon first light noticed the bait had been hit again overnight, as it was early the previous afternoon.

By the time we called off the morning hunt and made our way back to camp, Dwight had hooked four more salmon, releasing two and losing a pair.

“Well then,” I said with a snicker, “looks like I’ll have this whole pool to myself this afternoon and evening. Your turn to go to the bait stand with the boys, Dwight.”

Once again there wasn’t another angler to be seen on this lower section of Gander River. Actually, for the three-plus days we were there, Kyle and Reg Vivian, one of Matt’s fishing and hunting guides who lives in nearby Gander Bay and motored upriver for a visit, would be the only ones besides us to wet a line here.

Mixed feelings of relaxation and anticipation were running rampant as I cast a variety of flies towards porposing salmon. The longest line I could possibly throw was needed to reach and hook the first one, a grilse of about four pounds. Twenty minutes later I moved 150 metres further upriver, where I was quickly into a dark and powerful 10-pound jack salmon, another to fall for the Nimbus.

When I finally got him out of the faster water and within reach, his constant thrashing made a no-touch release virtually impossible, so I tailed the impressive creature, removed the hook from his mouth and held him facing the current for 10-15 seconds until he let it be known he was “good to go.”

Again I managed to get a few seconds of I-phone footage during this six or seven-minute battle, which included an impressive four-foot leap some 80-90 feet out; not overly clear to see from that distance, but enough to confirm to the boys that it was indeed “a nice fish.”

Immediately following our evening meal, with Kyle having hooked and released a couple of afternoon fish before heading home, Dwight, Matt and I decided to spend the final few daylight hours casually swinging flies and allowing ourselves to be consumed by the tranquil ambience. I really didn’t care at that point – as a salmon came up three times for a peek at my orange bomber – whether I hooked another fish, but as luck should have it, I hauled back half-heartedly on the fourth rise and found myself fighting another. Dwight released a grilse minutes later, while Matt caught an impressive brook trout, which we estimated to be in the three-pound range.

Darkness still hadn’t quite descended upon us as we slowly headed back to the lodge, removed our boots and waders one last time and leaned on the deck railing overlooking the river.

My hopes of hooking more than a few salmon on this trip hadn’t been high as we headed to Gander Bay a few days earlier, even though Matt had sent texts and Facebook messages earlier, informing us of the fish he’d been watching “right in front of the camp – seriously!”

“A couple hookups to end the season would be fine with me,” I told Dwight when he picked me up at my Mount Pearl home.

As it turned out, it was one of my most rewarding salmon angling experiences in more than a decade; certainly the best-ever in September. If I were to narrow it down to hours – because of the three-release-per-day regulation and having to hang up my rod early each day – all these fish were caught and released within an eight or nine-hour span. And that’s not counting the few I hooked and lost!

“You’re welcome back here any time, Gord,” Matt offered with a handshake and hug after tossing our gear in the pickup back at the Gander Bay boat basin.

“Well, Matt b’y,” I replied, “my birthday just happens to fall on Sept. 6 every year, so…”

(For information regarding fishing and hunting opportunities with Gander River Outfitters, visit ganderriver.com)

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