Every year for almost 30 years I’ve headed north to the Gaspé peninsula for a week or two of fly fishing for Atlantic salmon. The trip is like a metronome, marking the passing of another year.
It’s an opportunity to reconnect with people I know and cherish; no matter what happened that year, the river and its people remain. It’s a place that, through all of the changes in the world, provides a kind of constancy I can’t find elsewhere. The smell of pine and clay are a kind of reassurance, bringing a flood of happy memories back to me. My pulse lowers. My mind quiets. And I feel at home.
This year I set aside two weeks to fish with friends on Gaspé. We had gotten lucky in the pre-season draw, and landed on two weeks in early/mid-July. After fishing mostly in August and September, I thought we would be in the land of milk and honey with a river in good condition. But this is salmon fishing, where nothing is predictable. The conditions were terribly hot, and near historic (if not historic) low conditions. I’ll take each river in turn.
We arrived to find the water levels on the Grand Cascapedia as low as I’ve ever seen them — and about to get lower. And hotter than I’ve ever experienced it. On our first day on the Lake Branch, day-time temps hit the mid 90’s. Hiking into and out of pools in chest waders was no fun, and so we sought refuge at the Gite du Mont Albert for lunch, and in the newly renovated Cache — a wonderful thing to see.
Over the course of the trip, I experienced a very clear pattern: in these low waters, we were fishing very small (#10’s and #12’s) wets, and dry flies. The salmon often sipped the wets, resulting in hook-ups that would easily get away. Wet fishing became like dry fly fishing; you had to wait longer before setting to let the fish hook itself.
Similarly, with dry fly fishing, I have never seen so many salmon rise to a dry without taking it. Outside of one brief hook-up, I had many salmon rise to my dry without every putting it into their mouths. Many time a salmon would rise to the dry and, without my moving the rod or line at all, the fly would either stay afloat or disappear underwater and reappear a moment later with no pressure on the line. I’ve seen this happen, but never with such consistency.
We fished a combination on the main stem (B & C), and E1 and E3 water, and saw plenty of fish. In the end, we had two good moments, both on a day with some cloud cover and changes in barometric pressure. One was at Old Tracadie, where I caught a 20lber and lost one that was, according to the guide Perry, over 30. Dave caught a 26 or so lbs fish here as well, making for three hookups in a row, all in the same spot and on the same fly. Note: A striper was caught in the same pool, according to ASF Rivernotes, shortly after. And Perry allegedly saw a 50+ lbs fish in this pool that same week.
I was talking with JP about his experience with Hooké, with the Unis TV show, and his love of bamboo (he has built rods). If you ever go with him, be sure to ask for the Bento box — his wife makes a mean lunch.
I also talked with him about this phrase I coined: The Gaspe Grand Slam. The Gaspe is the only place I know of you can possibly catch a nice Atlantic salmon, a big sea run trout, and a big striped bass — possible all in one day. I’m torn by that possibility, given what the stripers are doing, but would like to see someone do it.
It’s also always a pleasure to see Tammy and Darlene in the Society office, and to visit the museum. And great to see Todd at Sexton & Sexton’s. They are always so wonderful and helpful. Truly wonderful people.
With conditions poor on the GC, we moved over to the Bonaventure, one of my favorite rivers around. To those who haven’t been, I suggest they imagine emptying a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, with all of the clarity and aquamarine blue, into a beautiful river valley and fill it with plenty of nice salmon. That is the Bonnie.
We explored the Bonaventure, starting at the bottom. With more warm weather, we measured the water temps at the bottom to be close to 70 — not a good sign. So we moved upriver, where we found the water temps to be lower, and therefore safer for the fish.
I found the same pattern as on the GC with dries: lots of action, no hookups. This was exciting and increasingly infuriating.
My friend Jonas related a story of one day on this trip when he was fishing solo. He said came across some people who happened to be having lunch and that they also happened to all be young women with a camera crew. They were eating foie grois and grapes, and drinking champagne. Jonas also happens to not have any photographic evidence. Given the heat, we wondered about his sanity.
Joking aside, this group is called Pêche (a double entendre for fishing and “peach”), is for women in the sport, and is designed to get more women into it. I think it’s wonderful. Sarah Nellis, from the Guide Co-Op, verified it was not a heat-induced hallucination and said lots of young women are getting into the sport. My opinion? Thank goodness. I’ve grown up as the youngest person out there, and wanted more friends to share the experience with. I didn’t get into the sport to join a fraternal order of white men. I think the sport will be more fun, more robust, and healthier, with more women involved. I look forward to seeing the video they were making and all that they get up to.
We ended the trip by fishing sunrise on limited access water (we had “won” the lottery when others were wise not to enter), and both caught grilse — a grilse I hooked at the feet of a French Canadian who, we later learned was on the first say salmon fishing, and so low-holed me by about 40 feet to cast at a 90 degree angle straight out over my line.
At least the river had been kind to send us away with a parting gift, but it was time to go. As we were packing up, the forecast for the week called for steady rain and cooler temps. Of course, the Carmichael curse had followed me into July.
Until next year!
Note: I’ll post more photos from each river shortly.
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