Cast Away in Western Newfoundland

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A fishing expedition to western Newfoundland’s Humber River finds chef Jeremy Charles and his nine‑year‑old son Hank in pursuit of one of angling’s most coveted prizes: the wild Atlantic salmon.

Newfoundland and Labrador may be 30 minutes ahead of the rest of Canada in terms of its time zone, but rural cell service here feels years behind. My phone’s last data bar has long since faded away (along with most of the daylight) as I pull off the smooth paved road and onto a dirt one. For miles I rumble along to the lone sound of gravel crackling under my tires.

I have driven seven hours across the island from St. John’s to meet up with Jeremy Charles, one of Canada’s most acclaimed chefs and the man responsible for putting Newfoundland cuisine on the map, to fly‑fish for Atlantic salmon on the Humber River. Jeremy has come here to teach Hank, his nine‑year‑old son, to fly‑fish, something Jeremy learned from his own dad at the same age. A couple of Charles’ fishing buddies will join us on the river – two of the province’s top fly‑fishing guides. If ever there was a time for me to learn, it is now, on this river, with these people.

April 13, 2022
Kastine Coleman of Tight Loops Tight Lines demonstrates proper fly-casting form to the author, a new angler.
Kastine Coleman of Tight Loops Tight Lines demonstrates proper fly‑casting form to the author, a new angler.

I finally pass through the entrance to Sir Richard Squires Memorial Provincial Park. It’s a suitably noble name for a public park with a river like the Humber coursing through it, a stretch of water with royalty status in the world of Atlantic salmon fishing. I see signs of angling life – rods perched along the sides of campers and hip waders spread out to dry on truck hoods. With the spring sun setting, I pull into the Charles’ camping spot. After a couple of cold India Beers (a classic Newfoundland brew), we climb into the camper and call it a night. Hank is already asleep, a vintage Captain Newfoundland comic book still open by his side. In the darkness, I hear a low, constant roar. It’s the sound of the Humber River.

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The next morning is a blur of strong coffee and the rituals of preparation. Rods are assembled, fly cases stocked and waders slid on. In flat‑soled river boots, the Charleses and I clamber down steep steps to reach the river, its 150‑metre‑wide stream already dotted with early‑bird anglers. The thrum from Big Falls, the crowning feature of the Upper Humber River, echoes off the damp cliffs to my side. I feel like I’m walking down the narrow aisle of an NHL arena toward my seat at the start of a big game.

Jeremy Charles has brought his son Hank to the Humber River to share his love for fly-fishing, a passion that his own father passed down to him.
Jeremy Charles has brought his son Hank to the Humber River to share his love for fly‑fishing, a passion that his own father passed down to him.

Like many things in Newfoundland and Labrador, fly‑fishing is different here than in other places. For starters, the province is a fly‑fishing Valhalla, with more than its share of wild salmon rivers – nearly 200 drain off this giant rock into the cold North Atlantic. Second, every river is public, open for anyone to fish as long as they’ve purchased their annual licence from the government. (Non‑residents must also be accompanied by a licensed guide.) Salmon fishing can evoke images of private camps and tweed garb, but in this part of the world, there is little pretense: It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Gore‑Tex gear or duct‑taped rubber waders, it’s all about the fishing.

The Charleses wade into the river together. I watch the two performing the Newfoundland version of a dad teaching his boy to throw a fastball: casting and stripping line side by side, with the father occasionally guiding the boy’s arm through the proper motions. When he’s had enough for the moment, the young protégé heads back to shore to skip rocks or hunt for frogs, completely in his element in this river playground.

Father and son observe the Humber River at the point where salmon gather their strength before attempting to leap up the powerful Big Falls.
Father and son observe the Humber River at the point where salmon gather their strength before attempting to leap up the powerful Big Falls.

I ask Charles what he hopes his son will take away from this time on the Humber. “Some of the best memories I had as a kid were fly‑fishing with my father,” Charles says, “being out in nature, exploring different rivers across the island and meeting people from all walks of life. I want Hank to experience that.” He also wants him to develop an appreciation for the salmon itself, and the importance of treating this resource properly to ensure the fish live on for generations. “In the end, I just hope that every time I ask Hank if he wants to go fishing, he smiles and says, ‘Yes.’ Because there is no better time spent than being with him on the river.”

I watch the two performing the Newfoundland version of a dad teaching his boy to throw a fastball: casting and stripping line side by side.

The Charles’ colourful array of fishing flies, tied just for this trip.
The Charles’ colourful array of fishing flies, tied just for this trip.

I wade out waist‑deep, leaning into the force of the current to steady myself. Below me is nothing but smooth rock bed. Standing on it makes me realize that the forests and vegetation in Newfoundland are really just thin layers of makeup: When scrubbed away by moving water, the Rock reveals itself.

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Nearby are Charles’ friends, Kastine Coleman and Terry Byrne, two rock stars of the guiding world. Partners on and off the water, they are as passionate about teaching people to fish as they are about conserving fish stocks. Because decades of overfishing and the impacts of climate change have Atlantic salmon runs in decline, Coleman and Byrne are big advocates of catch‑and‑release fishing and techniques that minimize stress to the fish. Learning to fly‑cast is something I have been wanting to do since recently moving to Newfoundland and Labrador, and it’s my beginner’s luck to have them as mentors.

Photo 1: Skipper Hank guides the Charles’ rental sloop upriver to their chosen fishing site near Big Falls. Photo 2: Fly-casting coach Kastine Coleman says she spends more time perfecting her form than trying to catch salmon. The proof is in the perfect loops she casts over the water.
Skipper Hank guides the Charles’ rental sloop upriver to their chosen fishing site near Big Falls. Fly‑casting coach Kastine Coleman says she spends more time perfecting her form than trying to catch salmon. The proof is in the perfect loops she casts over the water.

My first attempts at casting are not pretty. My back casts smack the water, and my forward ones tend to  end in a tangled mess. Coils of line spread around me like dropped spaghetti. “Imagine getting a phone call and you move your arm to your ear to answer hello,” says Coleman, noticing my frustration. “That pause allows your line to lengthen out behind you. Now imagine saying ‘It’s for you’ and passing it to someone right in front of you. That’s your forward cast.” It works. My casting becomes less jerky and feels less forced, gradually evolving into something that resembles a fluid motion.

There is a meditative quality to fly casting. If only briefly, my mind lets go of off‑river concerns and even the mechanics of my cast, and I feel completely tuned into the rhythms of my surroundings. When a large salmon breaks the surface of the water only a few metres away – a writhing mass of steely muscle launching into the air – I am jolted back to the task at hand, which has become the most important thing in the world. I cover the entire river pool I’m standing in, casting with zealous determination. After an hour, I know that this won’t be my fish, but this acceptance, and letting go of what might have been, feels like another step in my training.

Farther upstream, there is action. Byrne’s rod is bent in a dramatic arc. A large salmon jumps and hits the water with a loud slap.

Farther upstream, there is action. Byrne’s rod is bent in a dramatic arc. A large salmon jumps and hits the water with a loud slap. Terry remains calm, his every movement considered, despite being connected by thin filament to at least 10 kilograms of pure wildness. He reels in the fish and nets it, keeping its head submerged to minimize stress. A spattering of dark pixels dots the salmon’s shimmering sides.

Byrne guides the younger Charles through the process of removing the barbless hook and gently releasing the fish. After a pause, the salmon shakes off this alien encounter and fades into deeper water. It will continue its heroic journey from the ocean, guided by its own internal Waze, to spawn on this same river, possibly in the very pool where its own life began.

Photo 1: The chef prepares a lunchtime moose ragu at the fishing site, where wild Newfoundland aromas meet the refinement of housemade pasta from Charles’ restaurant the Merchant Tavern. Photo 2: After several patience-testing days on the Humber River, a triumphant Hank reels in the first wild Atlantic salmon of his young angling career.
The chef prepares a lunchtime moose ragu at the fishing site, where wild Newfoundland aromas meet the refinement of housemade pasta from Charles’ restaurant the Merchant Tavern. After several patience‑testing days on the Humber River, a triumphant Hank reels in the first wild Atlantic salmon of his young angling career.

We all gather back on shore for lunch. Everyone helps collect fallen branches to keep a fire burning. Charles hands me a steaming bowl of fresh moose ragu that he’s cooked up right here. A bottle of white Burgundy appears, a perfect pairing for both the stew and for fishing stories – about ones that got away and mythic salmon rivers in the Far North barely touched by anglers. I hope that one day I will have my own stories to share.

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My last day on the water, I cast until it gets dark, alone on the river. Like a gambler at the slots, I keep telling myself that one more flick of the arm will offer up my prize. I won’t end up pulling a salmon from the Humber River this year, but it’s all right: I will be back next spring.

A few days later when I’m back in St. John’s, I get a call from Charles. He sounds excited: Hank hooked a salmon, a solid four‑ to five‑kilo fish, that he fought hard to land. The boy was ecstatic. I can only imagine Charles was too, knowing that a family tradition lives on, and that together they’ve got a story to tell.

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