The Exploits River is known by salmon anglers everywhere as a world-class destination.

It's Newfoundland's longest river and was once featured on the TV show Great Canadian Rivers, on which it was praised as one of the most prolific producers of Atlantic salmon in the world.

While that reputation is well-earned, it didn't happen by accident. The success of the Exploits is a story of hard work and cooperation.

The river below the Salmonid Interpretation Centre in Grand Falls-Windsor rushes through the man-made sluice that helps guide salmon safely upstream. 

The centre draws tourists from all over the world who come to view and learn about the salmon that others travel hundreds of miles to fish.

It's the pride and joy of the Exploits River Management Association, or ERMA, which was founded by volunteers in 1983. Its mission: to save the salmon.

Don Pelley has been fishing the Exploits from just outside his own backdoor for 55 years. He was ERMA's first president, and remembers the days when it was a rare thing to reel in a salmon.

Don Pelley and Fred Parsons

Don Pelley (left) was the first president of the Exploits River Management Association. Fred Parsons is the current manager. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

"The average run on the river back then, there was a counting fence they used to have down on what we called The Beach," he said.

"It used to run from The Beach, right across the river to Bucky's Rock. And a good run in a good year on the Exploits back then was probably about 4,000 fish."
    
Local anglers weren't happy with the decline of King Salmon. There was genuine concern the native fish could disappear altogether. So, when it started in the '80s, ERMA had its work cut out for it.

"We had a spawning channel up at Noel Paul [Brook]," said Pelley.

"And we had a capacity up there of about ten-million eggs that we could artificially plant. And we'd take them in the spring by helicopter and distribute them to drop stations on the tributaries. We had a survival rate of roughly 80 to 87 per cent, as opposed to 20 per cent in the wild."

The volunteers spent years on the spawning program. They lobbied for government money to support it, and they involved the community.

Most importantly, they partnered with paper company Abitibi Consolidated, which owned the hydro generators on the river at the time.

Wilmore Eddy

Wilmore Eddy is the manager of Nalcor Energy Exploits Generation in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Wilmore Eddy has managed that infrastructure for decades. 

He said the company was open to replacing old infrastructure with a more fish-friendly system, and it's made a world of difference.

"If you take a hundred fish and you put them up in the head of the power canal, and you let them come down free will, 75 of that hundred fish will be bypassed back to the river," Eddy said.

"Twenty-five per cent will go through the turbines. That may sound bad because 25 per cent are going through the turbines. But when you break down all the math, if you're a smolt coming down the river from above Grand Falls you have about a 96 or 97 per cent chance of survival."

Noel Paul facility closed in the '90s

By the late '90s, the salmon population was on the rise, but government support for the ERMA enhancement program was running out.

The Noel Paul facility was closed, and Pelley believes that decision was short-sighted, as other rivers in the province haven't been as successful as the Exploits.

"They went up there with a backhoe and they raked it all together and they burned the whole works," Pelley said.

"Now, if that Noel Paul facility was still in existence, you could pretty much enhance every river on the island. You could keep the momentum going. We brought it from 4,000 to just about 40,000."

Still, work on the river continues, despite the setback.

exploits river

The Exploits River runs through Gorge Park in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

"In the last 10 or 12 years, we've been spending a lot of time providing the habitat. We say healthy habitat, healthy fish. Really, what we're trying to do is give more room so you don't have as much competition for food and things like that. And we have been fairly successful with that," said ERMA's current director, Fren Parsons.

"All the back country is full of rotting structures that are collapsing. And in some places, we're removing old dams that have fish on one side that want to go up, and fish on the other side that want to come down, and there's a total blockage. So that's where a lot of our effort is going for the last 10 years."

'There's nothing but you, the rod and the salmon in the river .... and you count that blessing' - Don Pelley

The Exploits saw peak returns in the last five years, with an average return of 33,000 fish. This year, though, numbers have dropped, and only 23,000 passed through the counting fence.

Parsons thinks a couple of years with low water levels and high temperatures are behind the decline. Pelley said there are other factors too.

"We're seeing a lot of predation on the river now. There's about 400 gulls that nest there on the Grand Falls, so they're having an impact on the smolt production," Pelley said.

"Then there's fish eating waterfowl like mergansers and they're picking off the smolts. There's eagles and ospreys — there's a whole gamut of things that contribute to declining numbers, fishing pressure is one. Hook and release should be banned altogether, especially in times of high water temperatures."

Hydro dam on the Exploits

The Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro dam on the Exploits River in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

But even though the numbers have dropped this year, Pelley said he's still seeing positive signs on the Exploits.

"Still, this last four or five years, I've seen big salmon come into this river. I was down with one of my friends this year and we had one to the side of the boat I'd say conservatively was a good 18 pounds. Now that's not the norm, but you get the odd one coming through that's about 10 or 15 pounds. And that's a good thing."

'In the last 10 or 12 years, we've been spending a lot of time providing the habitat.' - Fren Parsons, ERMA

Parsons said there are a lot of good things happening, but the work needs to continue.

"We would like to think the Exploits is one of the most successful stories in North America. And we'll take it a little bit further than that, and say the whole range of the Atlantic salmon," Parsons said.

Pelley is inclined to agree.

"I'm a Christian. I go to Mass every Sunday. What you're doing when you're out in the boat and you're alone, you got a chance to think. There's nothing but you, the rod and the salmon in the river .... and you count that blessing, I'll tell you that. Because that's what it is: a blessing."

Fall fishing on the Exploits closed on Friday.