MSA Student Conclave

By Doug Underhill

 Do you know what fly this is? asked Hampton High student Josh Whepley.

I examine the fly he holds between his index finger and thumb.

“I’m not exactly sure” I say, “but if I had to give it a name, I would say it is close to an Undertaker”

“I would like to know, because it is one that my grandfather tied and gave to me.  I’m going to try to tie more like it.  Do you mind if I fish with it today? asks Josh.

“Not at all”, I reply “I’m sure your grandfather would feel honoured.”

This was certainly not what I had expected heading into the High School Conclave sponsored by the Miramichi Salmon Association.  I had wondered if the students would be more interested in using their I-phones to send and receive text messages and whether they would see this day as simply a day away from classes.  I was in for a pleasant surprise.

It was a sunny morning the last day of May, and full of promise as I headed to the Miramichi Salmon Association hatchery located in South Esk, a twenty minute drive just outside of the limits of City of   Miramichi, NB.  The hatchery has the distinction of being the “longest continuously operated hatchery in North America”. 

However, it was not the hatchery itself that was the target of my day, but rather what it offered, and surprisingly, it was not the usual mandate of raising fish stocks for future generations.  But there was a link.  This day, the MSA had offered its hatchery for a day-long student conclave hosted by North and South Esk Regional High Fly Fishing Club and Outdoor Pursuits 110 Class under the guidance of teachers Dax Silliker and Brock Curtis.

Part II of the whole experience followed on Saturday June 1 which was “Fish New Brunswick Day” when all provincial citizens are allowed to fish for the day without a license so they can experience angling and perhaps become practitioners. 

Miramichi Valley High School Fly Tying Club hosted this part of the two-day event.  Club teacher Ashley Hallihan and leader Jason Curtis organized a day on the water for any of the students who wished to stay over from Friday.  They were given the use of many private stretches of water by various clubs and lodges on the MainSouthwestMiramichiRiver.  These included : Renous River Club, Country Haven Pools, Barrnettville Open Water, Orr Pool and Mountain Channel below Blackville.

Above Blackville were Campbell’s, Hallihan’s, Peterson’s, Wade’s, Black Brook Salmon Club (both sides) and he Mouth of Cains River.

Close to 90 students from five New Brunswick high schools, (three local, North and South Esk Regional in Sunny Corner, Miramichi Valley High and Blackville High)  and two (Hampton High and Rothesay High) from the Saint John area) would spend the day touring the facility to better understand its role in conservation and how it works toward sustainability for future fish stocks, particularly Atlantic Salmon.

But this was only the launching pad for the day’s real activities.  All of the students were from high school fly fishing clubs which had come together for friendly competitions and an opportunity to not only share their own experiences, but to learn from mentors who volunteered their time on this special day.  As well, all students were given free membership to the MSA.

As I reached the hatchery there was already excitement as students were mingling, waiting for schools which had not yet arrived.  One group was a bit late as it had stopped to release salmon fry into the MiramichiRiver.  What a way to start the day!

After a welcome and basic information session, a group photo was taken prior to beginning the day’s activities.  Students were eager and full of excitement.  They did not have to be coaxed to smile and pose for the camera.  Their enthusiasm bubbled like the brook that ran through the hatchery grounds.  This was their day and they were going to enjoy it!

One session was fly casting with instructor Steve Smith.  Grade 12 student Stewart O’Brien, a first-year member of the Rothesay High Club was happy he had joined the school club because he had learned about “fly-casting, conservation and protection of the environment and fish species”.

O’Brien described how “awesome” it was “to be out, seeing the morning mist and experiencing the moods of the river”.  He had me seeing all of this as I stood by his imaginary river.  The spell was broken when his voice continued:

“I enjoyed the casting session and picked up some tips such as “keeping my hand and wrist straight on the back-cast, so I’m looking forward to trying this out when we go fishing on Saturday”, he says.

Evan Curtis of the NSER Club said he had taken up angling a couple of years prior, but this was his first year as a member of the club, and he was very glad he had joined:

“I learned a lot about casting and tying flies, but most importantly, it gave me an appreciation of the sport of angling and a love for the river.  Today was our biggest event so far, and I picked up some good pointers in both casting and tying.  Now I’m looking to hook my first salmon or grilse”, said Curtis.

Sam Jones, a grade 12 student from Hampton High said joining the school club was an extension of something he already enjoyed doing:

“Joining the club was a good way to spend lunch hour.  I had done some of the activities before, but the club gave me more experience in doing them.  But the trip here today is the most memorable because I’ve gotten to meet so many more who are interested in the same things, and I’ve picked up some great tips on conservation and casting”, said Jones.

Jones added that his family owns a 550 acre woodlot with Bradley Brook running through it.  Not quite the same as “A River Runs Through It, but just as genuine.  He and his family have cut hiking trails along it which allows him to fish the brook in summer.  Besides fishing for trout, Jones had also fished for Striped Bass in the St. John River.   His father commercially fishes for sturgeon, gaspereaux and shad, but Jones is working on getting him to join him in angling for salmon.

“I’m trying to get my dad interested in fly fishing with me.  I haven’t caught a salmon or grilse yet, but maybe I’ll be lucky up here.”

Jones also likes to fish with flies his grandfather has tied, and tries to tie with him when ever possible.

I caught up with JonathonUnderhill, a grade 12 student from the Miramichi Valley High Fly-Tying Club.  He was very involved with the “Rod, Reel and Line Maintenance” session.  As I approached he was working with a Grey’s G-500 reel.

“I have taken an Environmental Science class and I enjoy the activities of the club.  I especially like the rod and reel maintenance part.  I like learning about how reels work and how to properly maintain them.”   

Underhill said he enjoyed fishing for Striped Bass and was teaching his 12 year old cousin to fish.  He described bass fishing as “the gate-way to salmon fishing”, and was especially looking forward to Saturday so he could “go out and experience parts of the Miramichi watershed that is in his own back yard.  It will be the first time some Miramichiers have the opportunity to fish these private pools in a long time.”

Like Jones, Underhill was hoping to get his dad and family hooked on fly fishing.

Alex Hallihan, a grade nine student from the Blackville High club under the direction of teacher David Mason, said this was his third year in the group.  Living close to the river, he had caught his first salmon and released it at age 10.  He enjoyed the fly tying session given by volunteers Marc Madore and Cathy Colford.

“I loved getting together with all the kids from the various schools and I enjoyed the tying session.  My favourite fly is the Green Machine and I have caught fish on flies I have tied.  Now rather than buying flies, I tie my own.”

He enjoyed the day, especially casting in the trout pond and seeing all the fish in the hatchery, especially the sturgeon.   

MSA Hatchery Biologist Alex Parker gave students a tour of the facilities explaining not only the process for salmon and trout raised at the hatchery, but also touched on a special project as the hatchery, the raising of sturgeon for a commercial company.  To many this was certainly a species they had not seen.

Courtney Tozer, a grade 12 student from NSER was very involved in demonstrating how to tie various knots.  She said she had never fished for salmon, but had done some Striped Bass fishing. 

“I just got started in all of this from a class I’m taking in school for a credit.  We are marked on our ability to do various projects such as knot-tying, rod and reel maintenance, tying flies and casting, mostly hands-on stuff.  I like the knot-tying the best, and I am looking forward to becoming a salmon angler.  My step-dad loves to fish, and I anticipate doing some fly fishing with him”, said Tozer.

The group also was treated to a session on conservation and angling regulations given by Phillip Donovan of DFO.  Geoff Giffin, ASF’s NB Regional Director, also gave a presentation on behalf of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.  Students were given instruction on proper techniques for hook and release fishing.

Debbie Norton and Bonnie Wright did an excellent job preparing a free barbeque lunch sponsored by the Miramichi Salmon Association.

Winners in the fly-tying competition were: Logan Brophy of BHS first, Stephen Mill of MVHS second and Erin Chambers of MVHS third.

Logan Tucker of NSER placed first in the casting competition with Connor Donovan of BHS second and Justin Matchett of NSER third.

MSA President Mark Hambrook was all smiles as he watched the day’s activities:

“We have a beautiful facility here to host an event like this, and it is an opportunity to extend the mandate of our Youth Programs such as our Fish Friends where students make posters, look after fish eggs in aquariums, and raise and release them into our rivers.  We also have permission from Trout Unlimited to use their ‘First Cast’ program that introduces youth to fly fishing.  With some schools now having fly fishing and tying clubs, this is a natural extension of our goals, and a great chance to partner with them.  Hambrook said the MSA, courtesy of the New Brunswick Wild Life Trust Fund, purchased both fishing and tying equipment which they loan to schools and young angling groups, and use at events such as this.

“We are hoping to make this an annual event, and are also hoping that this can be the catalyst to the formation of such clubs across the province and into other areas as well.  The more we can get our youth involved, the better the future for our salmon” , said Hambrook.

Even the over-night stay by students who had signed up to fish on Saturday was full of enthusiasm that could not be deterred by thunder, mosquitos or spiders.  Geoff Giffin noted that at the lodge where the Rothesay and Hampton clubs stayed (Geoff will get the name) was a real highlight for them.  A funny event involving Josh Whelpley and some of the other Hampton boys is that they had set up their tent, but it crashed in and flooded from a thunderstorm in the night and so they slept on the porch, and despite getting chewed by swarms of mosquitos, and with Josh sustaining a spider bite on his lip,  they loved every minute of it and were raring to go early Saturday !

The next morning began at the BlackvilleHeritagePark where students were divided into small groups and readied for a day’s angling on some of the most private waters along the Main Southwest Miramichi.  Each group was assigned volunteer guides and set off for the first of two sessions, one above the BlackvilleHeritagePark and the other below it.  They were to return to the park for lunch, eat and then head out to a different stretch of water for the afternoon fish.

At noon, MVHS teacher Jim Watters and his Out Door Pursuits Class cooked up an excellent scoff for lunch.  Specialty menus included “Mountain Man Breakfast”, “Jumbalaya” and other dishes cooked in big dutch ovens cooked over hot coals.  This was a real highlight with many of the kids opting for these dishes over the burgers and hot dogs that were also being barbequed.   Nobody went hungry and there were no leftovers!

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had given us more than an abundant supply of water just previous to Friday, leaving the river sky-high.  As such, angling conditions were far from perfect with no one hooking into a big one.  However, Despite the fact that no salmon were caught, a number of brook trout were, and each was greeted with great enthusiasm. 

Giffin had accompanied this group for the afternoon  session and was very impressed with how carefully they handled the trout as they released them back into the river. 

“It just came so naturally for the kids to put them back, and happily I might add”, said Giffin. 

Not only was the excitement present for the students. It was pretty funny when RothesayHigh School principal Stephanie (Underhill) Tomilson who was there lending support to the teacher/club leader at JC Cormier(the VP of the HRAA) caught a trout.  She literally jumped up and down screaming and singing “I caught a fish, I caught a fish”.  This incident highlighted the support and interest the various group leaders shared and passed on to the students, who will be the leaders in conservation for the next generation.  All enjoyed their time on the water and fishing stretches of river  which they had never been on before, including many of the local students who were the opportunity to fish some of these private stretches for the first time.

Student Josh Whepley of Hampton enjoyed both days, especially Saturday when he was able to fish with flies tied by his grandfather:

“I enjoyed both days and picked up a lot of pointers that helped my casting.  I just wish I had caught the big one!”

The day concluded with presentations and draws sponsored by TourismNB courtesy of Serge Theriault who gave each of the five clubs a copy of my book, Salmon Country and each student a gift. 

Although two great days of participating in the whole culture of angling on the MiramichiRiver were over, it was not the end of a beautiful experience for those involved.

The very next morning I received an e-mail from Hampton student J. R. Bowland:

Doug: I just wanted to say Thank You for all the work you put into helping us on Saturday.  I really enjoyed all the tricks you showed and told us about the art of fly fishing.  I’m still working on my cast, but it has come a long way, and I don’t think I would have had as near as much fun as I did if you weren’t there.  Thanks again!”
            The same morning several of the organizers received the following from teacher Hardy Cameron from the Hampton Club:

            “I wanted to make sure I took some time to properly thank you guys again for putting on such a tremendous show this past weekend. It was by far one of the most organized events I have ever been a part of, and one of the most fun. My students are still raving about it to their classmates; as am I to my colleagues.

            I also want to thank Geoff and Doug for spending so much time with us while on the water. We all learned a lot from you, and it really meant a lot to me and my students. When I first started out with the idea of starting our club, I had no idea that we would be able to take part and accomplish so much with such a new venture. This went above and beyond what I had imagined. I could not wipe the smile from my face at the end of the day Saturday!

            I plan continue to help in building this provincial event in the future, and we look forward to working with everyone again. I don’t have everyone’s contact information, so please forward this along to the guides and other group members that helped to make this such a memorable event.  Best regards, and thank you so much.”

            Most are familiar with the movie “Field of Dreams” and its famous line “If you build it, they will come”. The Miramichi Conservation Centre and the MSA have done just this, and so much more to ensure that our rivers have a future for salmon angling. 

This time they have reached another level of sustainability.  They have sown the seeds for a future generation of anglers and river-watchers who will continue to conserve and protect the culture of salmon angling in their own communities.

            As ASF representative Geoff Giffin so aptly said:

            “We want kids not only from the Miramichi, but from all over the province to take their experiences back to their communities and spread the excitement and education across New Brunswick and beyond.  The art of salmon angling is about family connections and different generations sharing and passing on the lore and art of salmon angling.”

            As a matter of fact, when the Hampton crew was packing up to go at the end of the event, Geoff over heard them asking their club leader Hardy Cameron whether they could stop and fish some brooks on the long drive back home!  (Which I think they did)

            With an attitude like this, perhaps these young people will become even more involved in the Saint John area which is also “salmon country”.  With their interest in conservation and a love of angling they could be a driving force in on-going efforts in their own backyard to bring our Salmo Salar back to the St. John River.

            Angling is very much about casting and catching.  With this High School Symposium, the MSA has made the perfect cast, and caught and released many big ones that will nurture the future of angling and as well as the creation of a new generation that will become river-lovers and river-watchers. 

            As I drive home following two days of experiencing the youthful vigour of these students, there is a deep contentment within me.  My thoughts drift to off to Josh Whepley.  I imagine him sitting with his grandfather at the tying bench, watching carefully as experienced hands create the secret fly that produces the stories that flow from him.  I hear the ‘Song of the Reel’ and see a beautiful salmon tail-dancing across the pool. 

The future is in good hands.