And then, of course, there are the people you meet. One morning, I headed upriver, where the Margaree grows more sylvan and intimate, resembling an Adirondack trout stream. At Cemetery Pool, I ran into Todd Karnas and Blair Banton. Karnas is a professor of literature at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He had canceled a few classes to spend the week fishing with Banton, a member of the Canadian Coast Guard. As was the case downriver, the fish were showing but not biting. The duo did not seem disheartened. Banton, who has a tattoo of a salmon fly on his left forearm, intensely watched his line swing through the pool.
“We’ll keep at ’er,” he said.
In the middle section of the river, at Etheridge Pool, I watched Anita Coady make a series of graceful casts. Coady’s family has lived in the Margaree Valley for centuries. Though she travels a bit in other seasons, Coady is always sure to be home in the fall. “This place doesn’t ever change,” she said. “Why would you ever want it to?”
At the hub of much of the activity is Alex Breckenridge, the owner of the Tying Scotsman, the only full-service fly shop in the area. Breckenridge, with his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, ties flies to match the colors of the fall — deep red marabou streamers and bright orange shrimp patterns. He moved here from Ayrshire, Scotland, in 2003 and opened his shop two years ago. “This river is so accommodating,” he said. “All you need is a license and a place to stay.”
Like many, though, Breckenridge worries about the future of Atlantic salmon. A witches’ brew of maladies — including overharvest, habitat degradation and climate change — has caused a precipitous 30-year decline in worldwide Atlantic salmon populations. The species is now listed as endangered in the United States and is extinct on some rivers in southern Nova Scotia.
The Margaree has not been immune to the troubles. But angling organizations, like the international Atlantic Salmon Federation and the local Margaree Salmon Association, have taken steps to try to mitigate the decline. Recent measures on the Margaree include attempts at habitat restoration and a mandated catch-and-release policy on the river.
Credit Marta Iwanek for The New York Times
The declines in the runs have made some wistful for years past. But Gaines and Child shun the nostalgia. “Every week up here, and every day on the river, grants you a new chance,” Child said.
That optimism is a necessary trait for Atlantic salmon anglers. Its adherents are practiced in the art of rejection. The enigmatic species has been called “the fish of 1,000 casts” for good reason. (Atlantic salmon do not feed when they enter freshwater; many believe they strike flies out of some instinct developed as a juvenile in rivers.) Some anglers endure long stretches without catching a fish — I’d gone a full two weeks on the Margaree over the summer without even a strike.
It’s certainly not a sport for everyone, especially those with a steady iPhone habit. For others, though, the patient, repetitive process — and the ability to simultaneously daydream and pay close attention to your fly — is the entire point. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and an avid Atlantic salmon fisherman, has likened salmon fishing to being stoned.
I’m firmly in Chouinard’s camp: The process is more important than the result. Still, on the last evening of my October trip, I was going on three weeks without a fish. What I wanted more than anything was to feel the pull of an Atlantic salmon — a jolt, always unexpected, like shaking hands with an overeager Texan.
I walked down to the lower river, tied on one of Breckenridge’s red-and-yellow marabou flies and began to cast. On my third swing, my fly suddenly stopped. The water frothed as the salmon leapt twice, completely clearing the surface of the river. Eventually, I tailed her and held her steady in the current, up to my elbows in the water. Her back was lightly bronzed, her flanks silvery. It was getting dark quickly and the air had chilled. My ritual of the fall was at its end. The salmon, with a flick of her strong tail, shot upstream, continuing on with hers.