Saturday, July 9, 2016

No Never or Always

H: I started writing this blog post several days ago, and as usual, I wrote a novel. As I got ready to publish it, my fishing buddy Jessie, asked me not to post any pictures of her. That sort of put a damper on things since the majority of my photos have her in them. After some back and forth, she reluctantly gave permission to post two of them. So, I've replaced photos and edited things down as best I can....

Beautiful swallowtail butterfly, York River, Gaspé


Last year, I fell hard for the beauty of the Gaspésie rivers and I landed some amazing salmon. I couldn’t imagine this year being any better…. Well, it turned out to be a great trip but there were plenty of bumps along the way and lessons learned.

We arrived in the middle of a major storm that dumped a lot of rain in a very short period—3 inches in Gaspé. After the deluge, this stubborn nor'easter stuck around like an unwanted guest, circling and hovering, keeping everything damp and gray. It made the rivers pretty much unfishable for days.

As bad luck would have it, I won the Falls in the 48-hour draw. I've yet to fish the Falls—the most coveted water in Gaspé. You're almost guaranteed a fish there. But the Dartmouth would not be fishable for a week after our arrival. Jessie needed to return those rocks to the St. Jean ASAP ;). Lesson learned: selecting preseason water (especially early in the season) is a definite gamble. Then again, fly fishing for atlantic salmon is a huge gamble!

The crystal clear St. Jean River was a muddy torrent. Gaspe
The St. Jean river was unrecognizable. It's crystal clear waters were a muddy torrent.

To top it all off, Jess started feeling sick. Her throat was sore and she started coughing. We raided the local pharmacy for anything that might help her. Since our first day of fishing was a complete wash, Jess slept in while I took a long walk along the estuary, anything to get my mind off fishing. A visit later that afternoon from our friend Jack and his friend Dany Smith (a local guide) cheered us up. Dany invited us to lunch at his camp the following day.

The Gaspé estuary was a gloomy sight. At least it wasn't snowing! ;)

Neither of us were optimistic the following day. We probably should have sat it out. Instead, we bought passes for the York Open and drove way up to Sector 10 to see if there were any fish there—a fool's errand. The York was fairly clear but still very high. We were able to fish only one small pool, casting in waist deep water, 2 feet off the bank. Still, it felt good being on the water.

After a delicious seafood lunch at Dany's camp, Jessie went back to the motel to rest. I fished the rest of the afternoon with Jack and Dany on the York. We couldn't cross the small stream by Wayne Taylor to walk up to Huit Bouleaux. It was way too fast. Butler was unrecognizable. I remembered wading out to the middle and casting to the far bank. This time, you could barely walk out 3 feet. We fished hard into the evening with no luck. I returned to the motel to find Jessie sleeping. The rest had done her good and she was starting to feel better.

The following day we fished Sector 1 on the St. Jean river for the very first time. It turned out to be purely a scouting trip. Jess finally returned those rocks to Home Pool. Surely our luck would now change....

As the rivers slowly started to drop, things began to turn around. On our second day on the St. Jean (a bonus day won in the 48-hour draw), I hooked my first salmon at Wild Rose. As I fished the run, I kept thinking, there has to be a fish in the tailout near the bank. But fishing that far down was going to be tricky since the grassy bank was submerged. It looked like one step off the bank and you'd fall into oblivion. I fished from the submerged bank, as far down as I dared, and was rewarded with an aggressive take and a salmon at the end of my line. I fought it for at least 5 minutes before it came unbuttoned. It jumped once, took a few runs, rolled on the surface shaking its head in protest, before diving down. That was the last I saw of it.

Jessie fishing the beautiful run at Burnett, Sector 1 on the St. Jean River, Gaspé
Jessie fishing Burnett, Sector 1 on the St. Jean river.
Hyun Kounne fighting her first salmon of the trip at Wild Rose, St. Jean River, Gaspé
Me, fighing my first salmon of the trip at Wild Rose, St. Jean river. Photo courtesy of J. Lettich.

Later that evening at Burnett, I hooked, fought, and just about landed another St. Jean salmon. Jess and I shared the pool with Jack, Jere, and their guide. The four of us fished that run surgically. Jere was in rotation ahead of me. He’s an excellent salmon angler and a great caster (far better than me). After I hooked my fish, he joked about me picking his pocket. He had swung his fly in front of that fish just a few minutes before I did. It was a taker but why did it take my fly? Granted I had a very handsome salmon fly on (Daniel Bolduc’s Lord Spey ;). But was it the fly itself? Did mine swim a little bit faster, slower, deeper, higher? Whatever the reason(s), the planets momentarily aligned—my fly swung near the right fish at the right speed at the right time :).

When I hooked my fish, their guide naturally went into guide-mode. He started coaching me, yelling out that I should fight my fish with my rod tip straight up high. I usually fight fish by applying sideways pressure but I decided to give it a try out of courtesy (what was I thinking!). He then dropped into position to tail my fish.

It was a great battle with a super strong fish, stronger than the 20+ pounder I landed in the York last year. I couldn’t wait to see her/him! After several good runs, I finally tired it out enough to bring it to the bank by the guide. What he did next surprised me. He grabbed the leader with one hand while attempting to grab the tail with his other. My salmon wanted none of it. With one strong slap of its tail, it escaped his grasp and broke my tippet. Needless to say, I was super disappointed. In hindsight, I should never have allowed this person to step in. Jess should have been the one to tail my fish. Later, I learned that he was a guide in training, lol.

The next 2 days were spent on the York. With high water, we were limited to fishing Gros Saumon and Still in Sector 4. I caught my first ever salmon at Gros Saumon last year. This time around, it was Jess who hooked up there. The look on her face when she hooked that fish was priceless :). She fought it for a few minutes and it jumped for her before it came off.

Jessie hooks a salmon at Gros Saumon, York River. It was great to see her smiling!
Jessie hooks up at Gros Saumon, York river. It was great to see her smiling!
Hyun fishing under the watchful eyes of the salmon gods on the York river
Fishing under the watchful eyes of the salmon gods, York river. Photo courtesy of J. Lettich.
The afternoon and evening was spent fishing Still with the Mancini brothers, Justin and Nicolas. I had seen their names numerous times as winners in the 48-hour draw. They come up with their family to fish the Gaspésie for weeks at a time every year. They were nice boys, very opinionated about salmon fishing, and highly secretive with their fly boxes ;).

The next day we were fortunate to have York Sector 6. Murdoch pool was known to be holding lots of fish. Every angler lucky enough to have this sector pretty much parked themselves there all day, taking turns in a 6 angler rotation. Luckily, we knew 4 of the other anglers—Jack, Jere (plus guide Wayne Jean), Pascal, and Pierre (with sweet Maggie :). Jess and I each took a pass at Murdoch before heading off to fish Fairbanks and Dexter. Jessie still wasn't 100 percent and needed a break, so I went to Cuve by myself. There were salmon there but none were interested in my flies.

A view of Cuve pool looking down to Murdoch, York River. Gaspé
A view of Cuve pool looking down to Murdoch, York River.

Walking back to the car to meet Jess, I run into Dany and Jim Vincent. They had been fishing in Sector 9 but apparently there was f**k all there. All of us are in attendance at Murdoch when Jere hooks and lands his second salmon of the day. He had landed his first while we were away. I hook a fish later that morning but the hook isn't set well and it comes off after a couple of minutes. I realize now that I didn't wait long enough before I raised my rod tip. That was a shame since Wayne Jean was there patiently waiting to net my fish for me.

I love it when they jump! Jere playing his second salmon of the morning at Murdoch, York river
Wayne Jean nets Jere's salmon while Maggie looks on. York river
This being the second fish lost in 3 days, I get into a discussion about hooking salmon with Jere and Wayne. From my steelhead days, I hold a small loop in my line hand which I let go of when a fish takes off with my fly. On a few occasions, I'd strip set, pulling on this loop when a steelhead tugs on my fly. Jere and Wayne, both very experienced salmon anglers, told me I needed to lose the loop. In fact, I shouldn't be holding or touching my line at all. The reel's drag should be set so that when a salmon took my fly, the drag should allow some line to be taken by the salmon as it turned. The hook should set itself. Throughout the rest of my trip, I made a conscious effort to lose the loop.

Pascal Perreault cradling a tired Maggie on the York river.
Pascal cradling a tired Maggie :).

We returned to Murdoch later that afternoon, just missing Pascal and Pierre. I learned later that Pascal caught a fish there right before they left. Jack joined us not long afterwards. Jack had yet to hook a fish and I could tell it was starting to wear on him. Not to mention he was worried about his spouse back home who had broken her leg. I hoped his luck would change soon. Jessie and I were thinking of fishing the Dartmouth Open the following day. The Dartmouth was finally fishable! We asked him to join us but he decided to take a day off from fishing.

The Dartmouth was good to us the following morning. We wound up at Snake, Jessie's favorite run in the Dartmouth Open. We hooked 3 and landed 2 salmon in our first 3 passes of the run before word spread among the salmo salar that 2 salmon slayers were there ;). I lost another fish there when it bulldogged me by some rocks. But that was soon forgotten when I finally got an opportunity to tail a salmon for Jessie, and I didn't screw it up.

Jessie and her lovely salmon from the Dartmouth river.
I've tailed only one other salmon before, for Alain on the Bonaventure last fall. Tailing a salmon is common sense really: Stay behind/below the fish and between the fish and the bank; Keep alert and be ready to move when the fish moves; Whatever you do, don't grab the leader; When the right moment presents itself, grab hold of the tail like your life depends on it :); Keep the salmon in the water.

But it's easier said than done in the heat of the moment! I was tempted at one point to grab the leader but resisted. The fish decided to take another run when I got close and I had to get out of its way in a big hurry. Tailing a salmon, especially in challenging conditions (high water, murky water, or difficult to wade runs), is tricky and coordination with your partner is critical. Lesson learned: next time just bring a big net :).

Hyun tailing salmon on the Dartmouth river. Gaspe
We hooked 3 and landed 2 salmon in our first 3 passes! And I finally got to tail a salmon for Jess!

Our last fishing day in Gaspé was rather anticlimactic. We fished York Sector 9 for the first time. It's a stunningly beautiful sector and we had it to ourselves. But that was the problem—we had it ALL to ourselves. Didn't spot a single fish.

A beautiful pool in Sector 9 on the York river, Gaspe
The pools of Sector 9 on the York were absolutely stunning. Too bad there were no fish there.
L'Orignal, Pool 56 in Sector 9 on the York River, Gaspé
The ZEC river patrol guy said we should go to L'Orignal, so we did.
Beautiful Keg pool. York river, Sector 9
It was hard leaving Gaspé, especially with the fishing just picking up. But spending time with Jack and Jere and observing their rapport with each other (like a happy old fishing couple) made me realize once again that the most important part of any good fishing trip is the company you keep. The rivers might be super high and unfishable; it might be pouring and the wind howling; and the fish might be MIA or just not biting; But if you're in the company of good friends, it's all good :). I truly enjoyed fishing with them, appreciated their advice, and hope to do it again.

It was a pleasure meeting and and spending some time with: Dany Smith and Wayne Jean (two great guys and local guides), Jim and Kitty Vincent, Justin and Nicolas Mancini, Geneviève, Lise, Pascal.... And thanks again to Murray and Joanne for their generous hospitality and delicious seafood pizza!


The Bonnie was as blue-green, clear, and beautiful as I remembered her. It had dropped considerably since reaching a record high level the week before. We fished open water our first day, which pretty much meant Malin or Green in Sector A. We spent the morning at Malin, in rotation with several other anglers. I'm constantly amazed at just how small the fly fishing world is! A facebook friend of mine, Marc, who I've never met before recognized me at Malin. He introduced himself, gave me a few tips, and wished me luck. Shortly after he left, I hooked a salmon. I fought it for a couple of minutes before it came unbuttoned. By now, losing salmon was losing its novelty.

Our plan was to check out Green in the afternoon but when we arrive, there are even more anglers waiting to get into rotation than at Malin. Jess suggests we go to Sector C. It would be a long drive, but I agree. Looking at the Bonaventure river map, there is a way to get there from the west side. Jessie navigates while I drive. Somehow we end up in the middle of nowhere on the Route de Penetration surrounded by towering wind turbines (I strongly recommend you never take this route ;). With our gas tank near empty (my bad), we turn around and finally get to Horse Landing around 7 pm. It's a gorgeous run and it looks like we'll have it to ourselves until a canoe shows up and 2 anglers get out. Oh well! It was late, so we rushed through the run before taking the very long and rocky road back to our chalet. We spent over 3 hours in the car that afternoon. Still, it was an adventure!

Mural at La Pétrie cafe, Bonaventure, Gaspé
A magnificent sunset by the Baie de Chaleurs on our first evening in Bonaventure.
A gorgeous sunset over the Baie de Chaleurs on our first evening in Bonaventure.
The next 2 days, we were on Sector B. I have mixed feelings about B. There is good, old, easy to fish Grassy on the east side which usually holds fish. Then there's the beautiful wild west side with Docteur, Upper Rock, Salmon, Snake.... I love the west side but it's not easy to fish, especially in high water. Jess hates the west side (Snake) and doesn't want to fish any of it except Salmon. But we go over to check out some of the other pools.

Docteur turns out to be the prettiest pool in Sector B and one of the hardest to fish (along with Snake). Of course I wanted to fish it! I carefully climbed over rocks and log jams to get upstream. I didn't think it could get much tougher till the wind started blowing and changing directions. Oh, that's another interesting fact about fishing the west side—the wind has a mind of its own.

Me, casting at Docteur, the prettiest and one of the hardest pools to fish in Sector B. Photo courtesy of J. Lettich.
Close up of the rocks at Docteur. One wrong step and you just might need to call one.
We finished up both days at good old Grassy. On the first day we were joined by Neil and Nick. They saw us driving past on the road and followed us back. It was great seeing them. Jess and I had planned to visit Neil some time during the trip. Nick, I met last September with Alain. Turns out he's now guiding on the Bonnie and they had just taken his canoe out on its maiden voyage. They stayed and watched us fish (eek!). Just before dusk, a salmon takes my fly while I'm stripping in line towards the end of my swing. I waited for it to turn and set the hook, instead, it spat out my fly.

On our last day, we fished Grassy with Jeff and Rob. We arrived in the morning to find that Jeff had already landed a salmon there. It was fun fishing with them and I made sure to smile a lot :). The four of us closed out Grassy later that evening. Jeff had one grab but that was it.

Canoes at good old Grassy, Sector B, Bonaventure River
We finished our days at good old Grassy. Bonaventure River.

A trip to the Bonaventure would not be complete without paying respects to Claude Bernard. On our first day in town, we spent an enjoyable hour talking salmon fishing and sipping scotch at his riverside camp. As usual, I left Claude's with some words of wisdom: There is no Never or Always in salmon fishing....

It's so true! Fishing for wild atlantic salmon defies rules and formulas. I hooked a lot of salmon on this on trip and unfortunately lost several of them. After every lost fish, I tried to think of what I did wrong and what I should try differently. I definitely learned something from every battle, won and lost. But just when you think you might have something figured out, a salmon comes along and proves your theory wrong.

I guess I need to conduct more research—hook, fight, and land a lot more salmon :). I'm already making preliminary plans to go back to Gaspé....

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