The Best Atlantic Salmon in the World – The Gaspe’
Dr. Harold C. Lyon, Jr.
Heard about fly-fishing for Salmon in Scotland. Alaska, and the Miramichi? Well, one Day’s drive from New England (12 hours drive from Lakes region of NH to New Richmond, Quebec), you can have Atlantic Salmon dreams come true at modest cost – especially with the US to Canadian dollar exchange rate. This does not mean you will always catch salmon! But you will have a great experience, whether you catch fish or not, as angling is not just about catching fish; it is about fishing.
The crystal clear rivers with beautiful scenery on Quebec’s Gaspe’ Peninsula offer an incredible affordable adventure for wild Atlantic Salmon. Eighteen of the fifty largest caught wild Atlantic Salmon in the world have come from one of the Gaspe’ rivers. My friend, Randy Mithoefer and I fished two of these extraordinary rivers, the 125km long Bonaventure and the Petite Cascapedia rivers in September, too late for prime fishing, but still, in my mind, nothing quite compares. These rivers have long been among the Gaspe’s cherished Atlantic Salmon rivers and have a rich history going back to the king of France granting fishing rights to noble men in 1697.
I’m ready to go back in late June or July which is prime time there. That means the salmon are more eager to attack your fly while fresh from the salt water. But be ready for over 2000 casts for one strike and don’t get discouraged! I found the same 2000 casts/strike to be true for Steelhead on the Deschutes River in the Oregon Desert. Lee Wulff, Fishing with Lee Wulff, says about Atlantic Salmon fishing, “…The greatest mistake of all is to lose heart.”
In the crystal clear 30-foot deep basin pool called “Arthur Rock” of the Petite Cascapedia River I could clearly see fifteen or twenty 15 to 30 pound majestic monsters fining in the current less than 20 feet away, causing me -- almost – to fear that one would rise up and engulf my fly! When you hook into one of these wild monsters, watch out! This river and its neighbor, Bonaventure, which partially divides the Gaspe’ Peninsula, is not so petite, but is a challenging, sophisticated river. These rivers make their way through mountains in a series of deep, rocky, clear pools.
When we fished, the water was very low and crystal clear, offering a definite challenge to the fly fisherman, as the salmon do not move much when the water is low in September, and movement of the fish correlates highly with their propensity to take a fly. A “stale fish” is very difficult to stimulate into striking, but fresh ones moving up toward spawning sites are the prey you seek. There is much to learn about Atlantic Salmon as your addiction grows. It’s a classic but complex sport, as you are appealing to the fish’s memory, rather than hunger. Mature salmon mystically return to the river and exact spot where they were spawned after two years at sea, weighing from 8 to 13 pounds. Fish, staying in salt water for 3 years, will go over 20 pounds. As they re-enter the fresh water of their birth, guided by an uncanny taste and smell of their home river, their digestive system turns off. They do not always die after spawning, like the Pacific Salmon, and if these spent so called “Black Salmon” make it back to salt water, their silver healthy color returns for a new cycle the next year. Smaller salmon, called grilse, which spend only a year in the ocean, return weighing on average about 5 pounds. Grilse are often easier to stimulate taking your fly than the mature fish.
I was fortunate in being able to purchase at the World Fly Fishing Show earlier this year an out of print book for about $50, a bargain price for the bible of Atlantic Salmon fly fishing. It is Joseph D. Bate’s Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing, published in 1970, but still the best inside information one can read to prepare for this trip. My old copy has hand written notes from a former owner who appeared to be preparing for a defense of his dissertation! Bates is one of the genuine master Atlantic Salmon anglers. I highly recommend you find and read this rare book before you go.
Putting into practice the lessons and theory from the book is your real challenge. I learned from one guide on the rivers that you do not cast your moth-sized Bomber dry fly a few yards above the fish, as you would to a trout, to drift down over him, as he will merely size it up and say, “Here comes another one! Do they take me for a fool?” Instead, since these fish are not feeding, you drop your big dry fly right on top of his nose, and once in awhile, out of spite, he’ll instinctively attack it. An experienced guide, Gregg Hamilton, who works out of a lodge on the Cascapedia River, caught a nice salmon on a dry fly our second day on the river, dropping it directly on the nose of the fish. He told me that 90% of his clients strike too fast, pulling the fly from the still open mouth of the seemingly “slow-motion” of the large salmon.
The males are more eager to take a fly when fresh from the salt water and they get more aggressive, again, just before the spawn. Everyone gets excited when a salmon, being casted to while sitting quietly in clear slow water starts to move his fins as it is a sign of excitement and possibly a soon-to-happen strike. So we watch for movement and try to coax it in creative fly presentation.
Bates says they will sometimes hit streamers. The reason has to do with the young slow-growing parr (salmon which spend the first 3 years of their life in the river, before entering salt-water as smolt to begin their migration trip to feeding grounds off Greenland). The paar join, uninvited, into the mating process, dropping their own milt onto the hen’s eggs, while the mature males are too busy in the mating process to drive them away. So they are often attacked by the mature males as they are seen as potential competitors in the mating process. A streamer, having some resemblance to a paar, can anger the mature salmon into striking it.
Bates also advises not to rely on classic, extravagantly trimmed salmon flies which are traditional holdovers from Victorian era Scottish noblemen, but rather try a variety of smaller less garish flies from wets to nymphs.
Another important tip is not to strike the fish when he takes your fly, but allow him to set the hook himself. He will take it in, wanting only the taste of it, and turn, returning to his lie before spitting it out. This process of turning, will enable him to hook himself if in moving water. And when he jumps, drop your rod or you risk tearing out the hook from the soft mouth of this strong wild fish.
One our first day on the Bonaventure in the “Sinclair Pool,” which held dozens of large salmon in the shallow moderately fast current, we were fishing wet flies cast 45 degrees downstream allowing them to drift past these fish as we mended our lines in their drift downstream. Huge meter-long silver flashes and porpoising submarine-like salmon were leaping all around my flies, creating a stress-lump in my throat! Once one jumped into my fly and almost broke my 8-weight! I asked the guide what was going on with this dramatic flashing and leaping activity. His answer: “Since they can’t give you “the finger,’ they do this instead.” Our ZEC guide told me in their annual census of salmon in pools, he had dived with scuba gear and had counted over 150 salmon in that one pool!
How did we get there? At the Fly Fishing Show where I was giving a seminar and selling my book, Angling in the Smile of the Great Spirit (www.deepwaterspress.com), an attractive young Canadian woman, Karen Guimond, Marketing Director for Salmon Quebec, visited my booth and after getting a copy of my book, invited me to her Salmon Quebec booth. This led to an invitation to fish these waters in September, after the summer busy times. Karen, an experienced salmon fly fishing angler, would be our guide and hostess for the trip. How can one not accept such an invitation!
The trip by car was an all day one listening to John Denver music all the way, traveling north on the Maine Turnpike, crossing over into New Brunswick at Hamlin, Maine, and on up to the Gaspe’ on Route 17. When we arrived, Karen met us that evening at Camp Malançon on the Petite Cascapedia River – a beautiful set of house-keeping cabins, nicely furnished with salmon motif, very comfortable and highly recommended. Karen was as excited as we were and had caught and released a 6-pound grilse and 5 large sea-run brook trout before we arrived.
These cabins are owned by the ZEC (Zone d’Exploitation Control) of this river. What’s a ZEC? Salmon throughout Quebec are now recognized as a valuable natural resource which must be protected. Each river has its own non-profit organization, called a ZEC which manages and protects the fishery of the river. In the past before the ZECs were organized, anyone could fish and catch salmon with bait, lures, or flies. Now all Salmon fishing in Quebec rivers are fly fishing only. Some old timers resent this as for them it had been a tradition of taking salmon with no restrictions. Though it takes a generation or more for changes like this, there still remains some resentment from the past, as evidenced by some ZEC pool marker signs which have been peppered by shot. But the salmon fishery is now well managed and protected.
Each ZEC has an office and staff who will advise you and sell you a rod permit for that river. There are also drawings held in November each year to pick and purchase rod rights for days on non-public pools. There are waters for as little as $35 per day, varying from river to river. Guides are about $200 for one person or $250 for two per day. Our guide, Dannie Poirier, who works from the Bonaventure ZEC was outstanding and he worked hard for us, giving advice and flies generously!
And you can purchase daily or season licenses which entitle you to keep seven salmon. A catch and release non-resident license is only $10.25 per day, while a regular daily license is $31. A season non-resident license is $112. In non-public sectors, a limit is placed on the number of anglers in each sector. In the public sectors, there is no limit on numbers of anglers. To fish in non-public sectors, you must participate in a pre-season draw, which takes place on November 1st for most rivers. And one can arrange for rights at the last minute through a daily 48-hour draw to fill unfilled spaces -- especially during non-peak times in August and September.
The flies we fished [see pictures of flies recommended on each river at [www.saumonquebec.com] were mostly small to medium 6 to 8 size wet flies sparsely dressed including the following: Rusty Rat, Silver Rat, Green Highlander, Black bear with Green Butt. The dry flies were large Bombers with hair wings which gave the appearance of moths landing on the water. We used floating fly lines on 9-foot, 8-weight rods with 10 to 12 foot tapered leaders with 6 to 8-pound tippets. In fall with low clear water conditions Bates recommends trying small nymph-like flies and streamers, letting them drift right before the nose of the fish. Bates says that salmon do eat instinctively as the gills of caught salmon often are full of small flies and midges.
Bates is an advocate for using unconventional fly presentation techniques to stimulate passive salmon into striking, including skittering or skating the fly on the surface in front of the fish, casting up-stream at times, and the “Patent” which is a way of casting a hair-wing fly (checking the forward cast early to cause slack in the line) so it will drift without any pull from line, causing it to “fluff.” Salmon are like us in their impatience in that they get bored by thousands of flies cast over them with no variation! In fast flowing current the wet fly should be fished more down stream than cross-stream and in slow flow, more cross-stream than down.
If you expect to take home a cooler full of salmon, go out deep-sea fishing, as this is not the fishing opportunity for you. Each salmon you almost entice to take your fly is a mental “trophy of achievement.” Rod permits are for either catch and release, or for keeping a fish each day, with the cost varying from river to river. Some people may prefer to fish in cloudy water where you do not experience the disappointment of seeing so many big fish ignore your fly; but it is a visual thrill in these crystalline waters to see so many large fish to cast to, thinking, optimists we anglers need to be, that on the next cast this noble fish will attack our offering!
If you want a great fly fishing challenge and experience in beautiful waters, visually watching the monsters you are casting to, then you will love fishing the Gaspe’ rivers. I am hooked and will return next year!
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