Salmon on the Gaspe

Thrashing through London’s notorious Friday night rush hour, I was busy snarling at other hapless road users when a good mate of mine, Topher Brown (spey-casting guru and perhaps the ultimate Atlantic salmon aficionado) rang to ask if I fancied a whistle-stop guided salmon-fishing tour of the Gaspe peninsula, in Eastern Quebec.

Jostling through the rain-swept, mid-winter traffic, I was transfixed. Topher animatedly described the pristine birch forests, jeweled with fabulous, crystal-clear streams where large, mint-silver Atlantic salmon could be spotted and individually targeted.

The gin-clear waters of the Bonaventure.

“Topher”, I interrupted, perhaps a little abruptly, “is the Pope a Catholic?” Six months later, in early June, I stepped off of the plane at Gaspe airport, to be met by Topher, whose mile-wide grin told me even before he could, that, like me, the salmon had arrived right on time.

After checking in to our motel, we went to grab a much-needed coffee. As I politely forced down the sugary treacle that Tim Horton’s somehow pass off as Cappuccino, Topher gave me the low-down. We would fish the York, the Dartmouth and the St Jean, drawing our beats day by day in the Gaspe’s Kafkaesque “lottery” system, before moving south and west to try our luck on the hallowed waters of the Upper Cascapedia and the Bonaventure.

Topher fishes the “Chute” Pool on the York.

We were out early to fish the “Bonnie” before the sun was on the water. Topher and I fished hard, sending cast after cast whistling across the gorgeous, gleaming waters, but to no avail. By early afternoon, after an excellent riverside lunch, Topher decided he would recharge his batteries and took a well-earned nap on the grassy banks.

While my companion was dozing in the delicious early-summer sunshine, I saw a canoe come gliding downstream and was intrigued by the sight of one of its occupants who was looking into what looked like a partly submerged box hung over the boat’s side, whilst his colleague steered the boat. “La Boite” explained Matt, our guide: “La Boite” – the box – is a form of reverse periscope that allows the viewer to survey the scene beneath the surface from the comfort of his boat. In the gin-clear water of the Bonaventure, almost every fish in the river can be seen this way, and the boat’s occupants were conducting a scientific survey on the number of fish in the river.

“Of all the fabulous, crystalline rivers of the Gaspe, the Bonaventure is surely the most magical.”

Topher’s immaculate modern take on the local classic, the Picasse.

My first view of the York from a road bridge above the town made my heart leap – gin-clear water scything through the bedrock and birch, bubbling across golden gravel and skipping relentlessly on to its rendezvous with the Atlantic. “There’s one”, nudged Topher, and looking down the line of his forearm, I made out a vague aquamarine teardrop wavering gently in the current.

“About sixteen pounds” grinned my host, and as the shape resolved itself into the handsome lines of a fresh, ocean-fat salmon, Topher was already counting the other fish that sat in serried ranks further down the pool. I slowly made out perhaps a dozen fish, and was only a little deflated when Topher told me that this part of the lower river was out of bounds to fishermen.

Top left – An 18 pound stunner from the “Bonnie”. Top right – A lovely 14 pounder from the Dartmouth. Lower – Another local killer, the Sugarman Shrimp.

There are few more beautiful places to fish for Atlantic Salmon than the Gaspe peninsula, and with Topher’s expert guidance, I caught several stunning fish over the next few days – a chrome-bright 16 pounder from the infamous “La Chute” pool of the York, and a sleek beauty of 14 pounds from the “Ladder” pool on the Dartmouth. Not only did both fish fight like tigers, but they also succumbed to my favourite riffle-hitched sunray shadow, making the takes heart-stoppingly visual.

I found all of the rivers utterly beguiling, but when we drove around the coast and arrived at Glenn LeGrand’s peerless Camp Bonaventure, I really did fall head over heels in love.
Of all the fabulous, crystalline rivers of the Gaspe, the Bonaventure is surely the most magical: only New Zealand’s gin-clear trout-streams can boast such mesmerizingly clear water, and, in later season, there can be no better river on the planet in which to sight-fish for Atlantic salmon.

Another beauty that fell to the hitched Sunray Shadow.

“Have you seen many?” I hollered to them as they came by, and my heart sank when one of the scientists shouted back “Trois, seulement!” I had hoped that perhaps the scientists would be able to show me where hordes of big, fresh fish were stacked up waiting for a well-presented fly, but clearly only a handful of fish had arrived just yet. The boaters came carefully and quietly ashore before walking up to me and shaking me warmly by the hand. They were both charming: genial, friendly, and both evidently very keen to help in my quest for a first salmon from this legendary river.

They walked me down to a spot just above where Topher was still snoozing, and pointed to a couple of small boulders breaking the river’s surface, around twenty-five metres from shore. “Deux poisons, ici!” whispered one, and as I peered into the impenetrable depths of the broken water, the other assured me that the fish were right there. They watched as I fished Topher’s Picasse fly carefully through the spot, and seemed reluctant to leave when one suddenly looked at his watch and realised that they were well behind schedule. I bade them farewell, and as they half-jogged back to their boat, I tied on my beloved hitched sunray and decided to go back over the same water again.

Hopes increase as the light starts to drop.

My helpers were still waving farewell from their canoe, when my fly was suddenly arrested by a big, flashing silver shape just upstream of the two boulders. “Fish on!!!” I blurted out, to which Topher, a hard-bitten Atlantic-salmon fishing sceptic well used to my pranks, drawled back “No you haven’t” from under his hat. I didn’t need to say another word – the chrome-bright salmon shot into a high vaulting cartwheel and the subsequent hefty splash and enthusiastic cheers from the scientists soon snapped Topher from out of his slumbers. The fish shot across the river in a blistering run before catapulting into another high-flying, silver blur of a leap that will stay with me always.

We went at it for a fair while, and then the crisp carbon of the short double-hander started to take its toll. Finally, Matt was putting the net under a stunning, deep-bodied eighteen-pound hen, an iridescent diamond in the sparkling sunshine. I gazed at the exquisite, ice-blue flanks of this peerless creature as Matt eased the barbless hook from the scissors, and then we watched as she went gliding back into the pristine waters of the Bonnie to continue on the last leg of her epic journey. There are countless thousands of rivers and streams that welcome salmo salar back into their waters every year, but the Bonnie is right up there with the very best – do anything you can, but make sure that you get to cast a line over the bewitching waters of this special river at least once in your life.

Matt Harris

Few fish are more beautiful than a fresh-run Atlantic salmon.

Contributed By

Matt Harris

I’ve been fishing since I was around six years old. Since then, I’ve found a way to combine fly-fishing and photography in my professional work. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the world’s very best fly fishing guides. I write and create images for magazine articles and I shoot for outfitters, tourist boards and tackle manufacturers.

Check out my images and articles at: www.mattharrisflyfishing.com A special thanks to Topher Brown – please check out his book, “Atlantic Salmon Magic” and his instructional spey casting dvd, “Spey to Z’. For more info on The Salmon Lodge on the Cascapedia and Bonaventure Lodge, please contact Glenn le Grande, using these links. For more info on the York, Dartmouth and St. Jean Rivers, please contact Ann Smith with Quebec Sporting.

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