Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quebec...I'm In Love...Again

When I was younger, images of the classic fly-fisher casting a graceful rhythm of neon fly line would tickle my imagination and fill my head with visions of gently flowing streams and perfectly silent afternoons.
I would close my eyes, comforted by the imaginary yellow glow of the sun warming my eyelids and I’d imagine that it was me who was standing up to my knees in the crisp river romantically waving my fly rod, tantalizing trout with tiny flies and tempting Mother Nature to shatter the silence with the crashing of a tail.
Oh… fly-fishing seemed so romantic to me.
que 3
Enjoying nice weather on the Petite.
As the years passed and I was able to trade my conventional tackle for fancy fly gear, I could hardly wait to actually experience this fantasy.  Ecstatic, I would finally live my dream!  Me on a serene river’s edge; unfettered and free …just me and, hopefully, the fish.
My romantic expectations rivaled any Danielle Steel romance novel..... Looking back now, I chuckle at my naiveté.
Whatever made me think that fly-fishing was going to have fewer people and less distractions than a typical day on the water with my gear rod was totally wrong and I, unfortunately, was in for a rude awakening.
Most of the local rivers were busier than ever and, now with a fly rod in tow, the distractions only increased.  You see, in addition to the regular hustle and bustle of hard-core fishers, suddenly all types of anglers were increasingly chatty and eager to swap lessons, stories and gear reviews.
This was great, but I had more peace and quiet when I carried a bait rod …
I soon came to realize that socializing on busy rivers was all part of the norm, and I welcomed the knowledge and smiles that were directed my way, glad to be making new friends.
Regardless, my fantasies of what fly-fishing entailed were definitely skewed and I concluded that though it was indeed romantic in its own right, it certainly was not the glorified ‘River Runs Through It’ experience that I had once envisioned it to be.
Naturally, as the years passed and my list of favorite rivers increased (along with equally exciting adventures), I inevitably found majestic fisheries that were everything I had ever hoped for and more; right here in my home province of BC.
Huge steelhead, towering mountains, roaring rivers and not a single other angler in sight; this was the dream that had tantalized my imagination all those years before!  But in BC, although there are unique fisheries that are at their prime when the weather is ideal, a typical checklist for BC “big game hunters” includes multiple clothing layers, a fully stocked sink-tip wallet (optional), large weighted flies, and serious wading skills.
While I wouldn’t trade this fishery, including the necessary checklist for any other, there was still something missing from the fantasy that had possessed me over the years.
As time passed I began to accept that there was simply no such thing, and that I was just a dreamer seeking to find the unicorn in a horse…a young and wishful thinker.
This was all about to change….
July 2009 found me on a plane heading to a province I’d heard about for so many years (and admittedly, cursed while enduring the mandatory high school French classes required in high school).
I was on my way to Quebec and although I had no idea what to expect, there were three things that I definitely did know:
1.   Recently bitten by the Atlantic Salmon bug, I had developed an obsession, not only for their chrome, acrobatic and sleek bodies, but also for the skilled and artistic flies traditionally tied to specifically target these wondrous creatures;
2.  Quebec was famous for it’s Atlantic Salmon fishery, and that
3.  I should probably remember some of that French I had “learned” in high school so as to avoid any cold shoulders from the locals… oh, oh….
I was scheduled to fish some of the most famous rivers in the Gaspe Peninsula, all of which held monster wild Atlantic Salmon. Joining me on this trip was Fly Max Films cameraman, Tim Myers.  Together the two of us were on a mission to capture some amazing footage of the elusive Atlantic Salmon for an upcoming episode of our new show, Fly Nation.
We were staying at the Salmon Lodge in the Grand Cascapedia Valley and were eager to get settled in and prepare for our first day of fishing.
We rolled into the lodge (which we later found out was built in the 1800’s) late in the evening and the dark masked our surroundings.  A bright light shone on a small cabin’s front door and the number on the quaint white building told us that this was our new temporary home.
The black of night engulfed the view from our cabin and it was impossible to get even a glimpse of our surroundings.  With no expectations of what Quebec looked like; I certainly had no clue that I was about to be ruined forever!
Morning came fast and the sun warmed the room.  It was time to go fishing!
Stepping out into the daylight, I stopped for a moment to take it all in.  We were right on the Grand Cascapedia, on a bluff overlooking the wide river and plush evergreens from a bird’s eye view.  My God, it looked like BC!!!  It was incredible!
The next week consisted of fishing multiple rivers; the Bonaventure, Grand Cascapedia and Petite Cascapedia were all on the docket list.
Grand Cascapedia
The Grand Cascapedia is one of the larger rivers in the Gaspe Peninsula, and it’s extensive history of angling legends and epic fish battles make it one of the most famous Atlantic Salmon rivers in the world.  If I could land even a single fish here, I was going to be one happy girl.
This was the first of the three rivers that I was scheduled to fish, and I was chomping at the bit to get at it!
One of the most traditional rivers in the province, the Grand Cascapedia is “private” and requires the use of a guide and a special license.  Its water is gin clear and when the fish are there, they are easily visible.  True to form, it was utterly remarkable.
My guide, Clement, had me put on a dry fly (a Bomber) that made casting a sink tip seem easy.  Equivalent to the size of a small bird, the wind caught it mid-cast, making a violent “whooshing” sound as it pushed through the air.
Damn!  This thing was hard to cast and there were fish rolling nonchalantly in front of me in a pool of stagnant water.  This wasn’t my first time attempting to trick fish in unmoving still water.  I knew the likelihood of hooking one of these fish without the aid of a current was highly unlikely, and true to past experiences, try as I might with Bombers, Green Highlanders, and even the notorious Frances…. I couldn’t pay a fish to move.  It was time to try the next pool.
The next spot we arrived at was more my speed.  A long stretch of structured water, the river opened up and a welcomed current flowed gracefully.  “Hello lover”, I sighed and headed down the path.
Clement stopped me.  “Avril”, he motioned.  “This way.”
He pointed at a large canoe (26 feet long to be exact), and pulled it out into the current.  He got Tim and me to jump in while he assumed his position at the bow and we waited for him to pull out the oars and prepare to row.  Instead he grabbed a long pole, stood tall and began ‘poling’ us down the river.
I couldn’t believe my eyes!  I may as well have been fishing the flats for Bonefish!  Apparently, this poling tradition was a longstanding method and I was beginning to understand why.  Clement could see everything from where he stood, and the boat ride was smooth and slow without the obnoxious clanking of oars or splashing of water.
This dude was stealth!
Clement looked at me seriously and drew my eyes to a dead tree, which lay rotting in the water.  Sure enough, on the other side of the trunk were two salmon, their noses pointed forward, swaying in rhythm to the smooth current.
“Cast on top of them”, Clement instructed me.  I was a fumbling mess.  My nerves kicked in and the intrusive sound of the Bomber wasn’t helping.  Thirty casts later we had no choice but to move on, and the three of us settled on breaking for lunch.
Tim and I fiddled with cameras and talked about the upcoming afternoon while Clement set up lunch complete with a small table and chairs.  It was a lunch fit for a King, with only a couple of things missing - an orchestra of violinists serenading us and, of course, my “Mr. Right”.   Clement held out a bottle of Merlot and offered us each a glass.  We chuckled and politely declined.
Our first day ended with smiles and tired eyes.  Although I hadn’t hooked “my” Atlantic Salmon, nothing could dampen my good mood and I fell asleep with visions of jumping fish and thoughts of just how I lucky I was.
The Bonaventure has always sounded like a Mexican fiesta to me.  The name just sounded fun and the pictures I’d seen of it carried as much character as its name did.
Unique rock floors and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in my life; I questioned if I had just found my new favorite river.
Our guide for today was a man named Roddy.  Nothing short of entertaining, Roddy had me laughing the entire day.  Whoever said that the French take themselves too seriously has yet to meet this man.  He and Tim poked jokes from behind me on the bank and I had to focus hard on landing my casts accurately.
Unlike the previous day, I was fishing a wide run with standard swinging techniques.  A dry line, long leader and small black Atlantic Salmon pattern had me casting a tight loop effortlessly and it swung through the current just barely submerged below the surface.  If this thing actually worked, I just might consider tossing my sink tips in the trash.
Cast, swing, step…. cast, swing, step….  Just like at home.
I had made it to the middle of the run when suddenly the soft loop I held in my rod hand was pulled taut and my fly was attacked by a scrappy salmon!  Instinctively I set the hook and the battle began. Jumping, running, rolling, that salmon fought for its life and I desperately prayed that the fly wouldn’t come loose.
As usual, I knocked on the cork of my rod, a superstitious habit I’ve developed over the years when fighting a fish I couldn’t fathom losing.  Soon enough, the silver bullet of a fish succumbed to the fight and Roddy helped me land it in one swoop of a catch and release friendly net.
Even if I wanted to wipe the stupid smile off my face, it was permanently pasted on and I was grinning like a proud child.
que 1
First Quebec Atlantic Salmon.
My trip was made and it was only the first fish of the trip!
Petite Cascapedia
The next couple of days were to be spent on the Petite Cascapedia and we transferred to a new lodge called Camp Malencon.
This truly unique lodge is right on the Petite.  We were greeted by an extremely friendly and gracious French woman, who made sure that we had enough food to feed an army and showed us around our new ‘home’.  The place was huge and fully equipped with a stocked kitchen and sunroom.  I could live here quite happily for the remainder of my angling days.
Naturally, I was under the impression that the Petite was a “petite” version of the Grande and that the fish would likely be smaller.  Boy was I wrong!
The water gleamed a dazzling blue, its beauty far surpassing the expectations I had formed based just on pictures of this river.  It was tropical, though the cool breeze and evergreen-lined embankment reminded me that I was in Quebec, not the Bahamas.
We arrived at the most spectacular run I had ever seen (no exaggeration there).  Clearer than a premium martini, every detail of the bottom of the pool was visible, as were the schools of salmon swarming the hole.
I could hardly contain my excitement as I tied on the heaviest fly my guide, Pat, had in his box.
Just…. can’t…. reach… Errgghh!  I mended and cast as far upstream as I could.  I simply couldn’t get my fly down to the bottom of that pool. I had my eye on a legitimate 25 pounder and was intent on at least turning his head.  I held my breath as my fly skimmed his nose…
Out of the corner of my eye, a looming dark shadow caught my eye.  It was over twice the size as the fish I was casting to, and his silhouette was frightening.  There’s no way that ‘thing’ was a fish!  It wasn’t even possible… was it?
I’d heard stories of dog sharks making their way into the rivers from the ocean, stalking salmon and disturbing the peace, but the way this fish moved was about as fishy as could be and I knew it was no shark.
I started shaking.  The fish was moving at a leisurely pace, but sure enough it was moving in my direction!  I lost all composure and turned to my guide in shock.  His face said it all; this fish was as big as I thought it was and it was nothing short of monstrous!!
I felt like an awkward schoolgirl again, watching the hot senior of the basketball team walk by me in the hall, hardly breathing as I waited for him to even glance in my direction.
As was expected, this scaly “hot senior” made his way past me without a care in the world…or even a glance in my direction.  I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.
I looked across the river at Tim and the camera pointed in my direction.
“Did you see that!!!”  I yelled over.
“Oh yeah”, he said with the smugness of an uptown pimp, “I got it all…”
Caught on tape; this is one moment I do indeed wish to share.
How could such a beautiful place have gone under my radar for so long!?  I set up my rig with another monster Bomber, eager to take a fish on the surface.
The sun shone brightly and I took off my jacket to enjoy the heat.  Could this be real?  Warm weather, picture perfect water, gigantic fish, dry flies, tight loops and no one around to distract me?  I thought back to all the times I had sought such sanctity; only to head home at the end of the day disappointed and discouraged.  I remembered the fantasy that I had so long ago lost hope on.
Had I finally found it?  Had I finally matched the picture that I had created in my mind when I first entertained the thought of fly-fishing?
As a salmon broke the peace and smashed my fly, I knew I had found my answer.
apr by jr
On my final day of fishing we opted to spend a half-day on the Grand Cascapedia, taking one last shot at the fish of a lifetime.
Our guide, Glenn took us to a long stretch of river that was wide and rocky with overhanging trees and slippery wading.
Glenn pointed to the far bank and matter-of-factly said, “Cast there”.
I looked to where he pointed.  It was a long haul, and I’d left my Spey rod back at the lodge.  Suddenly my single-hander and I felt very small tucked between the boulders with a strong current pushing at my thighs.
Each cast, neared backing and I started to cramp.  My guide showed no sympathy and he pushed me to throw further.  I was beginning to like this guy.  He kinda reminded me of me…. with his “no pity… we’re fishing” sort of demeanour.   He meant business.
We looked at each other as a drop of rain fell from the sky, melting into the river around us.  More soon followed and the sound of thunder bellowed from above.
He looked at me.  “You know”, he said, “we usually wrap it up about now…lightening and fly rods don’t seem to go well together…”
que 5
A weather change on the Bonaventure.
But I was determined and I couldn’t let the rain bully me into leaving my last shot at hooking a beauty in the Grand.  I turned to him and grinned to let him know that I wasn’t budging.  He smiled and we continued to cast that ridiculous line as far as I could towards the other side of the river.
As quick as it had started, the rain stopped and the sun smiled through the clouds again.
As if on cue, my line tightened mid swing and the water exploded with a jumping salmon.  “Yes!”
Sometimes the fish that mean the most are the ones that make you work the hardest.
que 2
Grand Cascapedia fish....mission accomplished
My trip to Gaspe was truly my most memorable trip to date.  The weather, lodges, guides, fish, rivers, privacy….
Everything I had ever dreamt fly-fishing could be came to life during that week as I sought the pull of the notorious Quebec Atlantic Salmon.
True, private water is always helpful when it comes to seeking refuge, though it was the Quebec experience as a whole that sealed my opinion of this flawless fishery.  Days like these are the reason I started fly fishing in the first place and to find a love like that is not to be taken lightly.
This is a spectacular trip, and I highly recommend it for anglers wanting to learn what all the fuss is about and experience the thrill of hooking an Atlantic Salmon.
The prices are no more expensive than any other fishing lodge and the experience will stay with you for life.