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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: The salmon jig is up

An Atlantic salmon fights the water at Big Falls on the Humber River. — Photo by Thomas Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation
An Atlantic salmon fights the water at Big Falls on the Humber River in N.L. — Atlantic Salmon Federation photo

Déjà vu all over again.

The salmon science numbers are in for 2018, and while the survey of individual rivers show some increases in salmon numbers, those increases come after two successive years of serious declines.

 

Five of 16 island rivers saw even more declines, and pretty much half of the rivers in the province where salmon are counted are now in the critical zone. South coast rivers, particularly in areas where salmon aquaculture has a strong foothold, are doing the worst.

And yet, this year, once again, we’ll hear more about the clash of salmon self-interest than anything else. It’s about protecting turf, not salmon.

And it will be until wild salmon are gone.

There’s a kind of set of waterfalls that some people in this province refer to as “capsules.” Generally, they are waterfalls that cascade down a sheer rock face into a deep pool. Then the water overlips and runs down the rock face to the next pool, and so on, each one connected and yet distinctly separated by walls of rock.

It’s a strangely apt word: the deep pools are set apart in the river like their own individual time capsules, containing only what has been carried into them by spring freshets or other high water.

They can be awkward to run a trout fly across, because often there are no easy angles for your rod. Often, you’re balanced precariously on a slippery lip above or below the pool. There’s a special kind of finesse to it.

I was just below a set of capsules on a river down on the foot of the Avalon, getting ready to fish up the row of those pools, standing in the summer sun on a long finger of gravel and round river rocks, unspooling line and watching to see how the fly was working across the water. (A Grey Adams, if you’re interested.) I don’t know the exact time of year, except that the ferns were fully unfurled.

Small mud trout were coming up, cutting away from the fly before they even touched it. Unusually skittish for trout on a very small river, in a spot that was, at a bare minimum, two and a half miles in from the road.

And then, up from the bottom of the pool, out of the shadow of the rock edge and into the sunlit water, came a big, slow salmon. Close enough that I could see that it had rock or net scars on its head between its eyes. It was a big olive-green slab of fish.

It nudged the fly, but not as if it planned to take it. It actually nudged the fly to one side, as if saying “nice try.” I waited for it to come closer, to try the fly again, but the salmon hovered back down out of sight, barely moving, an unlikely salmon on an unlicensed trout stream, a stream with enough in the way of waterfalls between me and the sea to make a salmon not only unlikely, but near-impossible.

Did I try to catch that salmon?

Yes, I did. I checked to make sure there were no knots in my leader, changed flies through quiet-slipping hairwings to buck bugs to the oddities that seem to collect in every fly box. I tried for 45 minutes or so, but that scarred snout didn’t come up to the surface again.

Afterwards, I was glad it didn’t.

It was the last time I knowingly cast a fly out in front of a salmon.

And then, up from the bottom of the pool, out of the shadow of the rock edge and into the sunlit water, came a big, slow salmon.

We’re already well into the decline of an entire salmon stock, squeezed by the fallout of disease and escaped fish from aquaculture operations, by poachers, by enthusiasts who say they love the noble salmon but want to kill or exhaust every fish they hook.

Meanwhile, everyone with skin in the game is arguing that we have to wait for more information, that there is no concrete proof for anything yet.

Science is thorough, but it’s slow.

And everyone — from politicians to salmon fishermen to aquaculture operators — will continue to put their own interests ahead of everything else.

Until, eventually, they will ask, with all possible big-eyed feigned amazement, “What happened?” And then, of course, everyone will point fingers at everyone else.

Sometimes, you look at the surface of a river, and it’s the pure unbroken glass of a mirror.

And there you are, looking back at yourself.

Recent columns by this author

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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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