With Atlantic salmon stocks on the rise, Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula offers great chances for the fish of a lifetime.

With Atlantic salmon stocks on the rise, Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula offers great chances for the fish of a lifetime.

With Atlantic salmon stocks on the rise, Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula offers great chances for the fish of a lifetime.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Geoff Moore
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Being a travel writer and angler, I’ve endured enough to believe that karma makes or breaks trips, and that starting out on the bottom side of good fortune just isn’t right.

That’s why I was worried when, while laying over in Denver, on leg two of a five-flight day to Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula to fish for Atlantic salmon, I phoned Visa to ascertain why my credit card was being rejected. Their answer—“It’s maxed”—would not have been such a bitter pill to swallow had I not scissored a backup card the night before while celebrating having paid that sucker off. None of this would have created a panic if, after realizing I’d be without credit on the trip, I’d been able to use my ATM card. But when I pulled that card from my wallet it cracked in half and not even the thinnest tape made it credible to a cash machine.

I have friends who take great pleasure in watching me melt down while traveling, my mind working forward on a potential chain reaction that eventually brings me to financial ruin and all of us to our bitter ends, where we’re attacked by bat-like alien creatures that gnaw down our extremities before going for the jugular. They say there’s medicine to correct my plight, but I’m learning to take a breath instead, to go along for the ride and believe that travel is made relevant only because we don’t know what might happen. So instead of panicking, I strode confidently to the aptly named Rock Bottom Brewery and, with some of the last dollars in my pocket, ordered a double Bloody Mary.

That might have been a mistake because, later, a major storm cell touched down in Montreal and prevented our plane from landing. Naturally, as we circled and circled and circled, I wondered how much fuel was left and how I might pay for a hotel in Montreal that evening, let alone food, if I missed a connecting flight to Québec City. Fortunately, we landed shortly after the storm passed. My checked baggage arrived in time for me to clear customs and reach my plane just before the cabin door closed.

I’d only fished Atlantic salmon once before, and that was on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Somehow I’d decided that Atlantics were nearly extinct in eastern Canada and there would be no reason to bother trying to catch one there. Some people are OK casting all day on historic waters where famous people have waded, even if they don’t get a take. I don’t fall into that lot. But I’d met people in April who said salmon fishing in Québec could be awesome. They urged me to visit. I bit, and booked a trip for early September, hoping for the best.

Spirits swelled during my first morning on the Gaspé, when guide Bruno LePage walked up to the Bonaventure River, directed a digit at the water and said, “Double Camp. One of the best runs on the entire river. Maybe a hundred and fifty fish in there.” Say what?

The routine at Bonaventure Lodge was to fish two anglers with one guide on restricted beats, one beat in the morning and a different beat in the afternoon. We switched beats at 1:00 PM when other lodge guests, or common anglers with permits to fish the water, took our places and we took theirs. Naturally, the first beat of the day fished best, especially because we encountered super-low and clear water conditions, which makes salmon nervous, tight-lipped and mostly unwilling to bite.

I was doubting myself after three fishless hours at Double Camp. The fish were there, I could see them in the Bonaventure’s crystalline flow, but I couldn’t get any to take. Until 12:50 PM, just after LePage said in his French-Canadian accent, “A few more casts and we leave.” That’s when the line tightened and I hollered, “That’s a fish.”

LePage, who was sitting on the bank smoking a cigarette—just the way I like guides to be—raced to my side with a net. And a few minutes later he corralled a 10- to 12-pound hen. At that moment I was willing to say all the travel was worth it—we had a first-day Atlantic salmon in the net. After I released that fish, LePage gave me a hand-wrestler shake, then placed his palm on my forearm and mine on his. We slapped each other’s forearms as if being pounded by a salmon’s tail. Then I lit a cigar and allowed my nerves to loosen, something I did after landing and releasing each fish of the trip, plus a few times when I thought, The world is just about perfect right now. I took in the classic scene at Double Camp, with a broad exposed rock bank and the greenish clear water in front, and rising from the far bank a thick mixed spruce and cedar forest, with the first tinges of fall color. LePage pulled a flask from his pocket, handed it to me and said, “Take a good one, Greg.” I did, just before it all went south.

 

For two and a half days I fished as if life depended on catching another Atlantic salmon, and for all that effort I got rejected. But it wasn’t as if I was the only one at Camp Bonaventure licking wounds. One guest, Lee Hodgkins, went without a salmon on his first day. But he did land a rainbow trout, a non-native escapee from a fish-farming operation. The following morning, while the rest of us dug into eggs, bacon and toast, the camp staff presented Hodgkins with pan-fried trout on a bed of arugula and parsley, topped off with cherry tomatoes and lemon wedges. I pronounced Hodgkins The King. He said, “To catch the fish you have to be the fish.” He offered everyone a bite, adding, “Back home in Maine eating the tail is a good luck camp tradition—the tail is mine.” When Hodgkins pulled in that evening he was beaming—he’d landed his first Atlantic salmon, a 30-pounder! His superstitious sidekick had landed nothing larger than a brook trout, which he was now pulling from a bag and presenting to the kitchen staff with a single direction: “Could you please prepare this for me in the morning? Crispy tail, OK?”

That morning my fishing partner, Geoff Moore, a British Columbia-based photographer, and I joined guide Dany Poirier and headed downstream to Poirier Pool, a completely private section that Camp Bonaventure general manager Glenn LeGrande secured for us. It’s the lowest of the 85-mile-long river’s 103 named pools, and would be the first to see fresh fish if those temperamental beasts ever decided to run. Its proximity to the sea makes it one of the most desirable places in the world to throw a line for Atlantic salmon. According to LeGrande there were some 1,500 salmon turning circles at the river mouth, just a few miles away in the Bay of Chaleur, waiting for any sniff of rain to head upstream. About 2,500 salmon return annually to the river, beginning in May and June, with prime time running through September. If any place could break my salmon slump, this, I declared, would be it.

While I was stripping line off my two-hander, Poirier told me a sad tale about the pool’s previous owner. According to Poirier, that man, a relative of his, had issues with the bottle and when a local car dealer offered him a brand-new vehicle in exchange for ownership of the pool, he couldn’t refuse. In contrast, the new owner realized the value of that water and even refused a million-dollar offer for the beat, saying, “It’s not for sale at any price. It’s for my family and my kids.”

It wasn’t long before I saw a salmon flash beside a mid-river shelf. I worked it thoroughly with a Red Francis, a shrimp-like creation tied on a double hook, with pheasant feather stems stretching behind, a classic September fly. And a few casts later I was fast to a hen that made several strong runs and two jumps, and threatened to slice the line on that rock ledge. Five or 10 minutes later Poirier netted the 12-pounder.

After releasing that hen Poirier, with a broad grin, handed me one of his cigars and a cap-full of Johnny Walker Red. One cigar and two additional shots later, it was time to throw again. Moore looked at his watch. It was 9:00 AM.

Later that day we were far upriver on the accurately named Salmon Hole when I told Moore, who had been ultra diligent with the camera, to take first stab. Shortly he was into a grilse, an immature male salmon weighing about four pounds. Grilse or not, it was his first Atlantic and Poirier was quick to acknowledge the occasion by wading to Moore with that ceremonial cap-full of Scotch. Moore had released his fish and cast again, but his Irish blood, like an involuntary reaction, told him to forget the swing and, instead, take the swig. As his head tilted back, the line went tight again. The next moment Moore was coughing Scotch as a 25-pounder contorted through the air. The fish threw the hook moments later. Moore, being easy-going Geoff Moore, just laughed off the incident and said, “Well, damn. I am so lucky to be here.”

Moore and Poirier found additional common ground while I was fishing, when they stalked up to the forest’s edge and offered their best renditions of a plaintive cow moose calling for a mate. And one time, during the relaxing routine of Spey-casting across the Bonaventure, I heard the two men behind me humming “The Star Spangled Banner.” I kept me eyes on the drift, removed a cap and placed it over my heart to the rise of laughter and clapping. During the dangle-down I cried out, “Oh, Canada,” to great applause.

This was the first trip that Moore and I have shared, and it was interesting to hear his interactions with the French-speaking Québecois. There’s tension, understand, between Québec and the rest of Canada, Québecois believing their heritage is dissolving; they periodically threaten to secede from the other provinces. Here, I considered, were two men from opposite coasts and heredity, yet so likeminded and fun-loving. They talked hockey and beer, bellowed for moose, hummed Opus’ “Live Is Life” in unison and full throat, and were equally disgusted with Gary Bettman, that evil-eyed greedy killer of their shared national pastime. Even with limited knowledge I wondered, Where’s the fault? Where’s the division? Why wouldn’t these men, those people, figure out the politics and be stronger as one? For my part I hope Québec and its salmon streams remain attached to a bigger picture. Amen.

It was a lively ride to the lodge that night, with AC/DC blasting on Poirier’s stereo, followed by a cheerful dinner; many of the other guests had landed good salmon, too. It was also a little sad because Moore and I left our new friends at Camp Bonaventure and took up residence about 40 miles away, at Salmon Lodge, on the banks of the Grand Cascapedia River.

 

The Grand is regarded as the best big-salmon river in North America. Each year it produces 40-pound-plus fish, and 50-pounders are possible. As we settled into our room, with an awesome bay-window view of the river, Moore glanced at our sunken bathroom, with its glassed-in shower and claw-foot bathtub, its gorgeous, reddish wood floors and delightful angled ceilings, and said, “I don’t know whether to fish tomorrow or stay here and shoot pictures of le toilette.”

Despite Moore’s fascination with the loo, we were on the water early, this time with Yvan Bernard, sights set on a 20-pounder. We were fishing high up, on the river’s Lake Branch, Pool 82 to be specific.

Eighty-Two starts as a rapid that pushes right, over an elongated rock shelf, before curling back left and slicing between two giant boulders. Then it makes a direct run downriver, offering additional ledges and seams, before flattening out to its finality.

I fished the lower portion first, and Moore started on the upper water. Bernard had spotted a couple fish with the “look a’ tous,” an inverted periscope that guides use to locate Atlantic salmon in clear water. But I couldn’t see or catch them. So after Moore worked downstream, I stepped in behind and worked that rock shelf and the nervous water beyond, as tactfully as possible. But no grabs. I glanced downstream to see how Moore was doing and something caught my eye, maybe a flash, maybe a shadow, something. During years of fishing I’ve learned to trust my eyes, to believe that I did see something that I may have seen. So I rolled my next cast short, mended appropriately, and fished the inside seam just above those two boulders. The grab came immediately, followed by a leap, and I was attached to a 20-pounder.

The fish ran downstream, burning line from the reel, then leaped into the air and cartwheeled before landing in a big, white splash. Then it dogged deep, looking for cover amongst the boulders and ledges, trying to get away from whatever was stinging its lip. I feared a sliced leader and fought the fish as gently as possible, yet with constant leverage, knowing that a long fight offered greater potential for the hook to pull free. Ten or 15 minutes later, my forearm burning, Bernard scooped the great fish into a net and we just looked at each other without words. From a guide’s standpoint, I’m sure Bernard was proud to have led me to this fish and realized simple satisfaction from doing his job well; to me, we’d shared a few moments and a great event in these short lives we live. And we were examining an amazing fish, a hook-jawed male salmon that entered the river in June or July and now was protecting its turf from other males, and even threats as diminutive as a Red Francis fly. It would draw a female’s attention and spawn that fall. The female would immediately leave and head back to the sea. The male would stay with the nest and overwinter under the ice before swimming to the Bay of Chaleur next spring, where it would join other males and show a fresh generation of salmon smolt the way to feeding grounds off of Greenland.

That night I shared my story with other guests, including two Newfoundlanders (“those Newfies,” as Moore called them) who remained fishless after a couple long days on the water. In a fishing camp I try to balance excitement with an understanding of how difficult it can be when you can’t buy a fish and might sacrifice an arm (or at least a finger or toe) for one. We chatted about my fish, and two others that another guest lost that day, but quickly switched to other topics, including one of the Newfies’ infatuation with Halloween. And then the conversation delved into comedic employee hiring practices. One of our fellow guests, from Ontario, told us he manages 11,000 employees and that he’d recently hired another, Nadia, a stunningly tall, blond, Russian receptionist, without informing his partners.

They asked, “Does she type well?”

And he’d answered, “No.”

“Does she take good memos?”

“No, not really,” he admitted.

“Does she speak fluent English?”

Again he answered, “No.”

“Then why’d you hire her?” his perplexed partners asked in unison.

He answered, matter of factly, “Did you look at her?”

At the end of his story I said, “If she needs an assistant, I could stop for an overnight on the way back to Montana.”

Before we turned in for the night one of the Newfies, John Kelly, said, “I’m catching one tomorrow, boys. She’s going to be mine one way or the other, even if I have to stone the pool. They say that’s a mortal sin, but if we don’t get one tomorrow the wives will ask questions.”

The following day, our last on the water, Moore and I revisited the Bonaventure and fished a pool called Deer Crossing with guide Roddy Gallon. That pool held more than 100 salmon, spread throughout. I looked to Moore and said, “You get the first shot,” and, already pulling a fly free from a rod guide and wading in, he glanced over a shoulder and simply said, “OK. I’m down with that.”

Later I went through the run and struck a good fish, maybe a 30-pounder, but it threw the hook at the surface. Then I hooked another fish, of similar size, and nearly killed myself when the leader broke. Had it frayed earlier when I’d landed a grilse? Was there a wind knot in the leader?

Despite that loss I was now fishing with confidence, feeling that my setup, a 7-weight Spey rod and a 480-grain head, supplemented with a light sink-tip and a small Red Francis, was swinging perfectly, slow and deep, but off the bottom. I had that feeling we “swing” guys get when, whether you’ve fished eight minutes or eight hours without a grab, you know it’s coming on the next cast.

I was nearly right, soon fast to another hog, a bright hen pushing toward the 30-pound mark. The fight lasted 20 to 30 minutes, longer than I’d ever fought an anadromous fish, before I slid her to the shallows and into a net. A few minutes later, after congratulations from Gallon and Moore, I was sitting on the bank smoking, get this, my 17th cigar of the trip. Gallon walked over and said, “I’m surprised. There are plenty of fish in this pool, but it hasn’t been fishing well. Nobody has caught anything here in days. Go figure.”

“Karma,” I said, “I got it going on.” So did John Kelly, who’d landed a pair of brutes that day and was in great spirits back at the lodge that afternoon. Nobody asked the question.

The next morning, at the Gaspé airport, I borrowed another dollar from Moore and slid it into a coffee machine. I pushed the start button and turned away, not noticing that the styrofoam cup harbored a slit from lip to bottom, nor that coffee was spilling all over the machine and floor. I walked over to Moore and explained my plight. We’d been somewhat impatiently waiting to clear security for an hour or more when I told an attendant about the coffee. I was dying for a cup by this time. When she said, “Here’s a dollar to replace what you lost,” I shot to the coffee maker, checked the cup and hit start. I’d no more than settled into a seat next to Moore, and was trying to take a sip of French Roast that seemed to have been brewed on the surface of the sun, when the announcement came that Moore and I should immediately move through security, without any liquid. As Moore commenced an evil laugh, I sucked at that fiery brew and scalded my tongue. Not the kind of karma I wanted when starting another five-flight day, again without cash or credit in my pocket.

Later, after breakfast in Montreal, Moore told me that the Gaspé trip had changed his life in ways that he would explain in detail later. While flying from Montreal to Denver I closed my eyes and pictured the beautiful Gaspé Peninsula, and its wonderful people, those beautiful lodges and its amazing salmon rivers. I pictured those salmon, too, stacked up in the Bonaventure, and those giants in the Grand. Then I pictured Moore, somehow changed, with big angling dreams in his head, sitting in a soggy shack in British Columbia, moose chili on the wood stove, practicing his lovesick cow calls while tying tarpon flies and perfecting the Bimini twist. 01_BWO%20Bug%20Small.tif

 

Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s editor.

Le Gaspésie

 

With Atlantic salmon stocks on the rise, Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula offers great chances for the fish of a lifetime.

by Greg Thomas photos by Geoff moore

The author peering through a “look a’ tous,” which is used to spot salmon in clear water. On the nearly crystal-clear Bonaventure anglers often spot fish with their own eyes and make delicate casts to those salmon.