Cape Breton Home of our Hearts
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is the No. 1 island destination in Canada and continental United States, according to Travel and Leisure magazine’s 2011 World’s Best Awards
Kathryn and Lou on their wedding day, along the shores of the Margaree
My fall pilgrimage for Atlantic salmon on a historic river in the highlands of Nova Scotia, Canada, is like coming home year after year. Pursuit with rod and line for the king of game fish dates back to at least the 15th century. The colorful fall foliage, mixing with the tawny water of the Margaree River, is always postcard perfect. As are my wedding pictures, which were taken in the valley at Lower Tompkins pool. When we tried to register the marriage certificate with the Province, they kept sending it back to us, saying that the Lower Tompkins is not a building. This is true, but the Lower Tompkins pool is a hell of a great spot for holding salmon and anglers. So we joke that perhaps we are not really married. My wedding dress was full length and crimson red, so I didn’t look the part of a hardcore angler that day. I seem to remember the photographer mumbling profanities as the cows kept wandering in and out of his frame. The turkey was three hours late cooking, so our guests got a little tipsy; so much so that my new brother-in-law wanted to try to ride one of the longhorn highland cattle—in his only good suit. We celebrated late into the night with a traditional ceilidh. The next day, we cast a line together into the river.
The Normaway Inn was closed for the season, but the owners gave us the keys, so we could honeymoon in paradise. We used the industrial kitchen to fix breakfast and lunches, and we found the odd restaurant that hadn’t yet closed for the season, open for dinner. Anytime we came across the locals that week, they seemed to know that we were the honeymooners in town whom everyone had been talking about. They would ask us about the fishing, in particular what flies we liked best. I’m fond of big “leechy” profile flies in the fall along with the classics, such as the Blue Charm, Cosseboom, Silver Doctor, and Green Highlander. I fish these with an intermediate line and a 9-foot, 8-weight rod. For my taste, it’s more sporting, since “the leaper” will come up for a fly. (I take a page from Lee Wulff on this one.) My friend Eugene, to his amazement, has some luck with a white Muddler Minnow. He exclaims with a bent rod, that he never catches anything. He was fishing it wet, down and across as tradition dictates. He was so excited and shocked when the fish tugged on his line that it left him speechless.
The Margaree is a public river worth trying. Trophy salmon and clearly marked pools will call you back for more. Two distinct runs of fish return annually to their natal river after feeding in the ocean off Greenland. Returning as well are the sports. Mike Crosby is a regular fixture on the river. He taught me how to wade across high, fast running water safely…this after I was nearly swept downstream. In the fall, he fishes a sinking tip with a bright marabou fly he calls the Grape. He does a hand-over-hand retrieve that looks more like a saltwater retrieve to me, but it swims the fly like a darting bait fish and is so effective that Mike has stopped counting how many Atlantic salmon he has landed. As we hop from pool to pool we get river reports from other anglers who, like us, are waiting to step and cast their way into rotation. There’s always one idiot with lead feet who just won’t move down the pool as he should. You will see someone start to cast ever too close to the guilty party’s ear to encourage him to move along.
Then there’s the “old guy,” Stan, who comes to the river every morning in his truck but he is no longer steady enough to wade the cobbled river. He watches the goings on intently and is always good for a few stories. He said his wife was back home readying some homemade soup and tea biscuits if we would like to follow him back. We ate while we were still in our waders, too chilled to take them off after standing chest deep in freezing water all day. We thanked them for their hospitality and made our way out. Before waiving us off, she said, “Salmon fishing and a heated garage are two reasons why women get lonely. Good for you for making fishing a pastime you will share together for a lifetime.” So this is how my married life began, and there has been a lot of water and fish under the bridge since then.
I wore a cap that read, “I got married so I’d have more time to fish.” Those words ring as true today as do the vows I took.