It was shaping up to be a fairly typical workweek in the shop when a friend called and invited me to join him for a few days of Gaspe atlantic salmon fishing. He had won the trip through the drawing process that the local Quebec salmon offices (ZEC) use to allot beats to anglers. Needless to say, I wasn’t one to quibble with a few days of salmon angling in that part of the world, so off I went.
It wasn’t my first time. I had been lucky enough to fish for Gaspe atlantic salmon on several other occasions, all of which — come to think of it — had occurred when a last-minute slot had opened up and would have gone to waste otherwise. One could do a lot worse than rodmaking as a profession but it generally doesn’t afford the resources that such trips require. Fortunately, it often does afford a sense of comraderie and when something good opens up, your name sometimes bubbles up to the surface somewhere as someone who might enjoy it. And I take a backseat to no one when it comes to enjoying salmon fishing.
I was particularly keen about this trip since I had never fished any of the rivers on the northern coast, which opens up into the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The rivers of the Gaspe, which come down out of the Chic-Choc mountains, are renowned for their clarity, intimate settings, and of course, large fish. The river we had slots for — the Cap-Chat — was described as being a typical Gaspe river, which is to say pretty close to heaven for a salmon angler.
At any rate, I made the drive up from New England, meandering northeast through New Brunswick, crossing the Restigouche near Campebelton, and, once on the Gaspe, turned north to drive up the Grand Cascapedia valley, until I came down again out of the mountains at St Anne des Monts on the north coast. It was morning when I got there. Walt, who was coming in from Montreal, hadn’t arrived yet, so after a brief stop to fill up on coffee and food I took off to scout some of the pools in the lower part of the river.
The Cap-Chat was indisputably gorgeous, it’s banks thick with conifers and water clear as advertised. Even with the slightly overcast skies that were rolling in that morning it was hard to miss the salmon. You could spot them pretty easily in all but the deepest pools, and most of the ones I scouted had fish lined up on the inside current seam. It was one of those things where first you spotted one fish, then five, then twenty or more, once you realized that all of those dark patches on the bottom were actually fish, finning quietly in the current.
By the time I met Walt back at the hotel later that afternoon, I was positively humming with anticipation and after getting things squared away at the ZEC office we had our plan together. The next morning we were scheduled to fish Landry Pool, one of the lower beats.
The morning found us on Landry in decent weather, though it did appear as though someone had been there earlier than us. The pool was a big one, gradually deepening until it hit a rock face, then got very deep, and then bent to the right, eventually splitting in two to flow around an island.
My general approach to salmon fishing is a simple one – make sure the fly spends as much time in the water as possible, that the swings are slow and methodical, and that I’m fishing where the fish are (I’ve also previously written about my thoughts on designing good bamboo salmon rods). As with all great sports it sounds easier than it is, and often depends as much on luck as it does on sound strategy or clever execution. Happily, luck was present nearly at the first cast.
In fact, I’ve been lucky to hook a few large atlantic salmon over the years and good many who fought like crazy, but this was one of the best.
I had started at the head of the pool and was two-thirds of the way through it when the fish hit. At the first jump I could see that it was a very bright hen, around 13 or 14 pounds.
Things started off more or less the way that fighting a salmon does, and then this happened (warning: some mild profanity is involved).
The fish had run down into the very back of the pool, and as you can tell from the video I was nervous about two things. First, I was about as deep into my backing as I dared, and second, the back of the pool was loaded with logs and brush upon which the fish could easily break me off. And the near bank wasn’t exactly navigable, so it wasn’t going to be easy to just head down to the back of the pool myself.
Unfortunately she went off on another run, this time not so fast but steady, with more and more backing winding off the spool.
I heard Walt, who had headed downstream, call out: “It’s going out of the pool!”
And sure enough, out she went down the right hand chute, leaving a huge chunk of my backing festooned in a dead tree that had washed up on a shingle.
At that point I was still losing backing and starting to think about locking up the reel to save the line but I wasn’t quite sure how best to go about it. I was getting perilously close to being out of backing anyway, so it was looking like the choice was about to be made for me.
I couldn’t chase her any further down on account of the deep eddyback so there was little choice but to take the trail that wound through the woods.
Thankfully Walt had worked his way out to the tree and had started to untangle the line. He reported that he could see nothing but the backing trailing down the chute.
In the meantime I made my way down the trail working the rod around trees and brush and occasionally stopping to reel up the tangled backing as I went. It probably took me at least five minutes to get out to where Walt was at the top of the right hand chute. Once there I was able to get a good portion of the line back on the reel and it appeared as though the salmon had stopped further down the chute and that the line had bagged up behind her and was creating a downstream pull.
After a few minutes of getting our bearings, we suddenly saw the fish herself. She had come back up into the pool again just over the lip separating it from the chute, and not all that far from where we stood.
I carefully reeled up more line and slowly eased out into the river, coming around behind the fish and gently putting a small amount of pressure on her.
We were both pretty tired at this point, the fish and I, and after a few more minutes of getting into position, I was finally able to tail her. Walt grabbed his camera and took a few final photos before we released her again so that she could continue her journey upriver.
I’ve been lucky enough to catch quite a few fish over the years, but needless to say, this was one Gaspe atlantic salmon that I will remember for a long time. I’ve never had a fish that size put up as good a fight as this one did.