The Salmon and Exploits River
“Possibly, with the completion of the Railway, we shall have a station at Exploits River and a hotel at Grand Falls; but for the present let us rest content that we have seen, without question, the finest picture in Newfoundland, untouched by the hand of man”.[i]
–Captain W. R. Kennedy
of the Naval Fisheries Protection Patrol
regarding Grand Falls and the Exploits River 1881
Today the Exploits valley is a first class Atlantic Salmon River. Every year on average more than 20,000 Salmon pass through the counter at Bishop’s Falls. The thrill of hooking one of these fighting silver beauties draws thousands of people to the area and pours countless dollars into the local economy. It is expected that in the near future, the run of salmon up the river may surpass 50,000 and there are some that say the river has the potential for a run of over 100,000, even 300,000. With these facts and figures it is hard to imagine that there was a time when the river was not a first class salmon river.
The Reid Newfoundland Company used to publish pamphlets touting how Newfoundland was a sportsman’s paradise with plenty of salmon and trout to catch and countless caribou to shoot. The extolled the virtues of the west coast salmon rivers and the Gander and Terra Nova Rivers. The Exploits was usually mentioned as a side note-it just didn’t have the run that the other rivers had. Looking at some old returns it appears that only around 1000 salmon were usually taken by licensed anglers on the river. The Exploits had potential, but there was a number of factors working against it.
The commercial Salmon fishery first attracted European settlers to the area in the 18th Century. Men like John Peyton had salmon stations all along the Exploits River from Sandy Point to Bishop’s Falls. They caught salmon in stone dam like constructions known as weirs. This practice was generally discontinued into the 19th Century. But the salmon stood just as bad of a chance. Commercial fishermen moved began to set their nets at the mouths of the rivers and all along the Bay of Exploits. A salmon was very lucky to make it into the river to spawn. Fishermen from Leading Tickles to Norris Arm filled boats with salmon every year. And as time went on it wasn’t just fishermen that made life difficult for the Atlantic Salmon.
The Exploits was an industrial river beginning in the latter part of the 19th Century. There were large lumber mills at Botwood and Norris Arm that dumped sawdust and other refuse into the river. The Botwood operation used the Exploits as a means to transport logs from as far west as Badger, which scraped the bottom of the river disturbing nesting areas. Industrial use and industrial pollution in the Exploits was put into overdrive in 1909 and 1911 when the mills in Grand Falls and Bishop’s Falls went into production. Bark from thousands of cords of pulpwood ended up being dumped or naturally deposited in to the river. There are stories of bark islands being located downstream of the Grand Falls mill. Bark would also be dumped from Bishop’s Falls, but the Bishop’s Falls Mill was a mechanical ground wood operation; Grand Falls made ground wood and sulfide pulp. Sulfite pulp is needed for the manufacture of newsprint and involves the leeching of water though limestone to produce hydrochloric acid to break down the pulp. The resulting slurry was for years deposited into the river-for years. To this day it is not uncommon to step into a pile of bark when walking in the river.
Besides the pollution the Exploits River physically wasn’t able to reach its full salmon spawning potential. The Grand Falls was always an insurmountable barrier to salmon. Because of this much of the watershed was not reachable by the fish. Attempts to remedy this go back as far as 1904. Before the AND Co was formed men working for the government were making an attempt at blasting a fish way up the falls. They blasted a 500 foot trench over the falls but were unsuccessful in it becoming a fish way .[ii]
This work would be negated by the fact that by 1912 any salmon wishing to go up the Exploits had to content with commercial fishermen, industrial pollution, logs, bark, two large falls in addition to two hydroelectric dams. Safe to say there was a reason that the Exploits was not touted in the same manner as the Humber, Gander and Terra Nova.
Fast forward to the late 1950’s Rattling Brook, Norris Arm where a new hydroelectric development was being undertaken on that brook. Rattling Brook was a fairly healthy salmon brook and was largely free of the problems faced by other rivers in the area. The issue was that the damming of the brook was going to cut off most of the water supply which was to be diverted into penstocks to power the power plant. It was decided to relocate the salmon stock from this river. The target for relocation was Great Rattling Brook on the Exploits River.[iii] By most accounts the stocking of Great Rattling was successful and Great Rattling now takes in a large portion of the annual Exploits River salmon run. Another mitigating factor which led to the success on Great Rattling was the discontinuance of log driving on it in 1966.
The success at Great Rattling got the government and conservationists looking at other areas of the Exploits watershed. In the 1960’s they stocked some of the tributaries above Grand Falls with young Salmon. This mainly led to the proliferation of landlocked salmon in some parts of the watershed. This was due to the fact that he area was heavily dammed for log driving. It was also not successful because salmon like to return to their streams of birth to spawn, which was impossible above Grand Falls.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s more serious efforts at increasing salmon stocks were undertaken by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A salmon hatchery was established at Noel Paul’s Brook about fifty five kilometers above Grand Falls. Fish were also trucked from below Grand Falls to Noel Paul and other areas above the falls. The efforts to improve the lot of the Salmon were further encouraged by the formation of the Environmental Resources Management Association (ERMA) in the 1980’s.
The late 1980’s and early 90’s saw two things greatly improve for Salmon on the Exploits. One was the cessation of large scale log driving on the river and the other was the building of a fish ladder at Grand Falls. The salmon ladder as it is known allows salmon to bypass and climb above the Grand Falls, allowing salmon the reach as far as Red Indian Lake.
This presented a huge increase in spawning area and through various entities like ERMA and DFO efforts were made to introduce more and more salmon to the river system. I remember that in Grade 6 our class raised young salmon and in the spring we set them free near Red Indian Lake. Despite all the efforts it is reported that only a fraction of the Exploit’s Salmon run goes above the Grand Falls, but to be fair it has only been twenty five years since efforts have really sped up here.
Restoration and restocking efforts now mean that the Exploits River now enjoys one of, if not the largest runs of salmon on the island of Newfoundland. At the time of writing (July 2015) over 28,000 of the fish had passed through the counter at Bishop’s Falls. And this does not account for fish taken before they got to the counter. The money generated by fishing tourists drawn to the river vastly outweighs what could be earned in a commercial fishery for salmon.
When I was down by the river last July, members from ERMA and an Atlantic Salmon Restoration group was loading young salmon on a tank mounted on a sling suspended from a helicopter. As if restoration efforts were going full circle, the destination of these fish was Rattling Brook, Norris Arm the very place where salmon were taken in the first restoration effort back in the late 1950’s.
[i] Taylor, VR. The Early Atlantic Salmon Fishery in Newfoundland. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa 1985
[iii] Unrealted to Rattling Brook at Norris Arm. There are a lot of Rattling Brooks in Newfoundland including Great Rattling and Little Rattling which are Exploit’s River Tributaries.