The True Cost of Fishing on Cape Breton’s Majestic Margaree

By David N. McIlvaney

When someone asks what it costs to get into fly fishing, my pat answer is, “It depends.” Yes, there are the usual gauges of price, worth and value. But I choose to measure the cost of fly fishing another way: Casts per Fish. What is the value of the effort you put into catching a fish when it’s stripped down to its most basic element?

Take Atlantic salmon fishing on the Margaree River in Nova Scotia.

A few years ago, my angling pal, Adam T Hayes, and I went to Canada for our first salmon trip. We have fished for trout but not salmon, and we had never done an overnight trip together, let alone a week. I needed to be in Halifax for a few days on a personal matter in early October, so Adam drove up from New York City and we met at the Halifax airport for the four-hour drive to Cape Breton and the Margaree River valley. 

When “best of” lists are compiled, Cape Breton is always on the “most beautiful island” list. At the far end of Nova Scotia and separated by the Strait of Canso, Cape Breton is the closest in spirit and landscape to Scotland that you can get in North America. In fact, it is one of the few places outside of Scotland where Gaelic is still taught and spoken, and the road signs are bilingual. Decades earlier, I solo-cycled the Cabot Trail—the scenic highway that circles the wild highlands and lush valleys of the north of the island—and I couldn’t wait to get back. It seemed the perfect place to try for our first Atlantic salmon. 

Prior to the trip, I booked Paddy Poirier, considered one of the best guides in the area, for the first two days. A few hours out, we received a call from Alex Breckenridge, the owner of The Tying Scotsman, the only fly shop in Margaree Forks where the northeast and the southwest branches of the river meet. He informed us that Paddy had a medical emergency and “they” were looking for a replacement. I hadn’t booked a guide through Alex, but I like to think that he put the call out and all of Margaree was rallying.

Even though it was Sunday, Alex told us to come to the shop when we got to town so we could pick up our licenses and talk about guide options. 

“Honk when you get here.”

We pulled in a few hours later and after a quick horn blast, he came out of the neighboring house and opened his shop. By “opened” I mean he turned the handle. Small-town Nova Scotia.

Good fly shop—nothing that you didn’t need. Wading gear here, rods and reels there, tying bench in the middle with a Blue Charm in the vise. It was the first salmon fly I had actually seen in person and I fell in love with it. We sorted out licenses and got around to the guide. He sat down at the bench and continued tying the fly. 

“Can you guys fish?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Then you don’t need a guide.”

“Well, we’ve never fished for salmon and don’t know the river so we thought a guide for the first few days would help.”

“But you can fish, right?” He looked up from the fly. “I ask as it’s pretty busy right now and all the decent guides are booked. If I have to, I can close the shop and take you out myself or there’s this one guy available. But he would need you to know how to fish. Also, the water’s way down. You really came on a bad week.”

He went back to the fly as Adam and I glanced at each other. No better way to bring the dream crashing down than the “you should have been here yesterday” refrain. I didn’t want to take Alex away from his shop, so we decided to go with the offered guide.

“He’ll meet you at the gas station at 6:00 am.”

I’ve met guides at gas stations all over the world. If the apocalypse ever comes and you get separated from your group, head to a gas station to find each other.

We drove over to our rental cabin. Great place. The owner was a salmon fisherman, and the cabin was kitted out like an angler’s dream—shadow-boxed flies, river maps, historic photos of the area and a trout lamp. That is, a lamp with a carved trout as a base. And two bedrooms. We were each a little nervous about how the week would go as we’re both fairly private and overly polite, so when Adam poked his head into each bedroom and said, “Happy to take the smaller room,” I agreed.

The majestic Margaree River [Photo credit: Scotty Sherin]

Next morning, we pulled into the gas station and a few minutes later our guide, John Hart drove up. Quick introductions and we were on our way to the upper river. But first we stopped off to check a few pools for fish. Salmon fishing, it appeared, was sight fishing.

No fish to be seen. “You boys picked a bad week.”

We hopped back into the trucks and headed to a pool called Cemetery, the uppermost pool on the Northeast branch of the river. He pulled a couple of ratty White Wulffs off his hat and handed them over. 

“Just cast into the riffle and let it swing down.”

Then he set himself up on a large rock to enjoy his coffee as we flailed our way through the pool. My single-handed 8 weight was new to me and I was definitely showing my trout training as I was trying for dead drifts in the moving water.

After about an hour and a few, “Doing great, boys,” we moved on to the next pool. On the drive down, I turned to Adam and suggested an alternative. When we pulled up at the next spot, I approached John. “Since the conditions are a little off and we’re at the top of the river, how about we just do a tour of the pools? You can show us the where and how, and then we should be good on our own.”

This suited him, so we negotiated a half day’s rate for two hours of driving around and pointing out pools and how to fish them. I felt badly, but when we checked into the fly shop a day later, Alex said, “Yeah, I figured you guys knew how to fish.” 

Salmon fishing, as I discovered, is a methodical discipline. You start at the head of the pool, cast across and down, mend to keep the fly “facing” upstream, let your fly swing through the pool, then take a step downstream and cast again. You would typically go through a pool twice. 

What was surprising is how social salmonin’ is. It’s not like trout fishing where an afternoon can be ruined if you see a crowd of anglers on the river. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Or a Cape Breton thing. It’s most likely just a salmon thing. But the folks you meet at a salmon pool in Nova Scotia are decidedly friendly.

Each pool has a bench at the head where anglers will gather to bullshit and wait their turn. In the afternoon, Adam and I took our place at the bench on the most popular pool: The Forks. We made quick introductions to the three other anglers on the bench as I watched a few guys work their way through. Most used single-hand rods as we did, but there were a few spey rods for those who wanted that extra reach.

“New York, eh? You boys are a long way from home.”

I was quick to explain that I was, in fact, born in Hamilton, Ontario, and despite the Yankees cap, if you cut me, I bleed Tiger Cat Black and Gold, but this was an old river in an old land and “from away” is “from away” no matter how close away is. For the rest of the week, up and down river, Adam and I were collectively known as “New York.”

I stepped into the pool when our rotation came up. Watching the guys before me was enough to give me a sense of how to fish it. While I didn’t quite have the cast or the mend down, with a minimum of forced errors I did well enough to get a few nods from the gallery. 

And then we carried on. We fished, ate and slept. Drank as well. We were at the pools at 6:00 am and aside from lunch breaks we fished until 6:00 pm. No media, cell phones or TV. The days melded into each other and the metronome of salmon casting became our measure of time. Roll cast to bring the fly to the surface. One back cast. Then forward cast to put the fly in position. Mend. Repeat. 

Pool after pool.

Not a fish to be found.

We drank a little more. Crown Royal. Canadian whisky with no “e.”

On day three, we were at a small little run near Tidal when I saw a salmon roll in front of me. Literally, six feet away. And I had the ratty Wulff on. Without thinking, I flipped it upstream and let it float to him. He smashed it. Instinct took over and I reacted like it was a trout 50 feet away on the West Branch of the Delaware and I set high and hard. Not sure where the fly landed—over the trees for sure, maybe the next town. Definitely not in the fish’s lip.

The salmon settled back down, and I went to that dark place where months of expectation and days of work are pissed away by one stupid move. A minute later, I started fishing again until sundown. That night we ate warm chicken soup with grilled-cheese sandwiches and talked about anything but salmon.

After another painfully slow outing the next day, we decided to stop off at the Margaree Salmon Museum on the way home to remind ourselves what an actual salmon looked like. Adam sits on the executive committee of the Catskill Fly Fishing Museum and I’ve fished the Willowemoc in front of the museum enough to feel part of the place. We paid our two-dollar admission and walked into the old schoolhouse which now boasts a world-class collection of historic salmon rods, reels, flies, and documents of the river and the people who fished it. As we wandered along the photos, looking at 20, 30, 40 lb. salmon that came out of the pools we just fished, a familiar name caught my eye. In the corner, was a section of the museum devoted to the anglers of the Catskills. It seems that Lee Wulff caught his first salmon here in 1933 and he returned often. On the wall there was a framed letter from him where he wrote, “The Margaree is my first love among salmon rivers.” 

Adam and I have fished the same New York waters that Lee once did, and now we were on his high-school girlfriend of salmon rivers. That was it … we had to catch a salmon. We drove back to the cabin as it began to rain, and we skipped dinner for cigars and beer and staring into the weather on the distant hills from the front porch.

The next day, we were fishing the Swimming Hole, midway up the river. The overnight rain had finally moved some fish and well into the pool, I felt a tug. I waited a beat until the pull was stronger, then I strip set and the fish was hooked. 

How do you describe that tug of your first salmon? It’s like a shot of electricity running through your body. You react by tensing all your muscles and momentarily freezing as you quickly scan the rig to make sure the line is clear, then raise the rod to get him on. But when the fish explodes from the water, the electricity shoots to your head and starts bouncing around your brain: fish jumped … lower the rod … keep it straight to the fish … wait for the line to tighten again … raise the rod … take up the slack … get him on the reel …  check the drag … palm if needed … watch your footing … don’t blow it … don’t blow it … don’t blow it.

That’s what’s happening on the inside. On the outside, different story. I’m generally a stoic guy so as the salmon took air, I quietly lowered the rod until the line tightened again. I didn’t make a sound or change my expression as the fish went back and forth across the pool, taking air every few minutes. I stayed rooted on the spot measuring my gear and the fish until I sensed I had control, then I began to back wade to the shore. The angler below me, however, whooped it up as he knew this was my first salmon.  

“Goddamn, New York! You got him!”

He offered to tail the fish and after some time I got it close enough for him to grab. 

“Oh man, oh man! Your first salmon!” He unhooked the fly and offered to take a picture of me with it. 

“I’m good, thanks. You can just let it go.” Stoic.

The fellow looked at me for a moment then swung the fish into the current, held it until it recovered and swam off. He wiped his hands on his jacket and shook my outstretched hand. “If you don’t mind me saying, you are one calm SOB, New York.”

Three casts later, I felt another tug. Lost that one.

Setting the salmon free [Photo Credit: Scotty Sherin]

About two hours after I caught my salmon, we were fishing a pool a few miles farther upstream when a pickup truck stopped on the road and a head stuck itself out the window. 

“Hey, New York! I heard you hooked up! Nice job!” 

That one made me smile. I waved but didn’t make a big deal of it. Part of this was not wanting to draw a response from Adam. While he’s too much of gentleman to say anything but congratulations, I could sense his frustration. 

On the second to last day, we found our perfect pool—Tent. High upstream and a little hike to what looked like a Catskill’s river. We instinctively understood it and I could see Adam’s excitement as we rigged up. I stood aside and let him go through the pool first. Nothing. On my turn, I felt a tug, quickly set and landed a 16-inch brown. I may have actually apologized to Adam at that point.

The pool netted nothing else, so we headed back to the cabin for lunch. I finally had to say something. 

“I think I’m bringing you bad luck, dude.” 

“No, I’m good,” Adam said.

“Nonetheless, I’m a little wiped, so why don’t you fish alone this afternoon?”

He agreed and decided to go back to Tent. I sat on the deck, smoked a cigar and daydreamed of silver-haired women skipping across the water. He rolled back in three hours later and took a seat beside me.

“Damn.” That could mean a lot of things, so I stayed quiet.

He continued. “I went back to the pool and as I was about to start casting, I looked over my shoulder and saw an older guy sitting on the bench. I didn’t see a rod with him and there was no other car in the lot, but I thought maybe I’d jumped the pool on him, so I asked, ‘Were you next?’ He shook his head and waved me on. Just as I was about to cast, he called out, ‘You’re starting too low.’ I turned around and he was beside me, then he hunkered down, grabbed a stick and proceeded to map out the pool in the gravel. ‘You want to start here in the riffle with a short cast. Make your way to this rock and see if you can swing your fly on the other side. There’s often fish there. Once below, work your fly with a little more speed through this section.’”

Adam said the guy went on for 15 minutes and gave him all the inside dope on the pool and how to fish it.

“We shook hands and I walked over to where he suggested I start. When I looked back to the bench and he was gone.”


“Like a ghost.”

At this point in the story, the expectation is that the next words out of Adam’s mouth would be an epic tale of a beautiful salmon caught against the setting sun on this wild mountain stream. But this is a fly-fishing story and the more honest of those are rarely about catching fish.

He stood up. “Do we have any of that Crown Royal left?” We drank and I never found out if he caught a fish. I never asked.

Back to the beginning … what is the cost of fly fishing using the Casts per Fish metric?

Two anglers went salmon fishing for a week and fished from dawn to dusk. 

Each angler cast 30 times per pool and went through each pool twice: 60 casts.

Eight pools per day: 480 casts.

Seven days: 3,360 casts.

Times two anglers: 6,720 casts.

Six thousand seven hundred and twenty casts which resulted in: one salmon to hand; two missed strikes; one brown trout in the net. And one unknown.

On the 16-hour drive home to New York City, all we could talk about was how great the trip was and how soon we could go back. The best time of year for the next trip, techniques we learned, our favorite pools. Adam dropped me off in front of my apartment building at midnight then drove another two hours to his cabin so he could fish in the morning.

We stood at the end of the continent and touched a fish that has been here for more than 50 million years and lives an impossible life of Cape Breton stream to river to sea to Greenland and back again. Adam and I still fish together on the same Catskill streams that Lee Wulff did, and though we have yet to make it back to Cape Breton, we often talk of that trip and our first love among salmon rivers. 

That’s the cost of fly fishing. If you’re comfortable with the price, it’s really worth it. And a hell of a value.

Prophetic words. Verb yes; noun no. [Photo credit: Scotty Sherin]

 David N. McIlvaney is an angler, hunter, writer, and sentimentalist living in the Catskill mountains. This piece appeared originally in The Flyfish Journal. @the_real_dnm