H: So, it only took a Pandemic and a few months of self-isolation to get me writing again. I have to say, it feels good. My recent case of the Salar blues had me thinking about a short Atlantic salmon trip I took with a good friend 2 years ago. After almost 4 years of silence, is there anyone still out there reading this? Regardless, here we go, again....
I fish too hard. A few close friends have told me that. Never when I’m trout fishing. I typically have 70 days a year on the water for that. While trout fishing, I’m a woman of leisure. When dry fly fishing for trout on my home water, the Upper Delaware, I might spend a whole afternoon on the river barely making a single cast, and that’s ok.
But the 14 or so days a year I go Atlantic salmon fishing or steelhead fishing, it’s true. I fish too hard. I switch on like a machine, change gears, and transform into an anadromous fishing fanatic on a quest. LOL. Can you blame me? It’s my pilgramage, my hajj. By machine, I’m referring to the no holds barrred commitment needed to make the thousand casts sometimes required to catch these fish on the swing. I will cast and cast and cast till my stripping fingers are cut and raw.
But there's nothing mechanical about swinging flies for atlantics or steelhead with a spey rod. It’s an art as well as a science. It’s like music but you’re trying to feel and learn the rhythm of a river, a place in time. Anyone who has spey cast knows, when you find that rhythm, everything feels connected. You, your flyrod, line, and fly are one with the water, the air, the whole freaking universe. Seriously! It’s like a flawless performance of Beethoven’s 9th with the Spey rod, my instrument of choice. (No, I’m not on anything while writing this ;).
2 years ago, I took my friend Kat up to the Gaspésie for some salmon fishing. She was scheduled to tie at the ASFI (Atlantic Salmon Fly International) in New Brunswick so we decided to fit a few days fishing in beforehand. Timing wise it was a little too early for the Bonaventure and Petite Cascapédia. The water was still very cold and few fish were in the rivers. But a few days fishing is better than none. I was scheduled to drive out West the day after I returned from the ASFI with Kat so this was my only shot.
Kat has fly fished for atlantics in Scotland, Ireland, Norway, and Iceland but this was her first trip to the Gaspésie. She and I go waaayyy back. I met her 10 years ago at the Juliana’s Anglers’ Fly Fishing School and we became good friends shortly afterwards. She was one of the instructors at the School and I was a newbie. Back then, the School and the Club was very active. I recall there were 20+ women at the School the year I attended. They broke us up into groups based on experience level: the brookies, rainbows, and browns. I was a brookie, the greenest of the green.
Kat is one of the nicest, toughest, and most independent-minded women I know. She’s a talented tyer (she ties in hand) and an accomplished angler, a true Renaissance woman. We’d traveled together for fishing before but it was always with a group. The first time was a 4-day camping trip on the Deschutes where we both caught our first West coast steelhead. The second was to the Bahamas for bonefishing but that was about 6 years ago. Passions get muted and priorities change. While I had become a somewhat hard core Spey angler, Kat had been traveling to fly tying shows abroad, squeezing in some fishing when she could.
She told me about the last time she fished for salmon. It was in Ireland. She stayed at a beautiful historical castle which served 3 gourmet meals a days and had a small salmon stream running through its property. She would fish a couple of hours on the stream during the day, but so far, she’d had no luck. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to sleeping in castles or savoring gourmet meals. But ever since I learned to fly fish, the fishing has always come first.
The ZEC catch books, not that they’re 100 percent accurate, showed 1 fish caught on the Bonaventure since the season opened and 1 on the Petite Cascapédia caught a couple of days before we arrived. I had entered us into the draw for the Grande but we were not so fortunate. With only 4 days to fish and conditions being far from ideal, I knew it would take luck, hard fishing, most likely both, to catch a salmon. To increase our chances and for Kat to see as much of the rivers as possible, we hired guides for 2 days.
Our first day on the Bonnie was with J-P. It was cold and wet with heavy mist covering sections of the river. Great steelhead weather but not ideal conditions for trying to spot salmon from a canoe. Kat was far from optimistic about the fishing. She said to me in her best brogue, “The Irish have a saying. When the mist comes over the mountain, the salmon ne’er do bite.” In other words, you might as well head to the Pub. I had two grabs that day but no hookups. I think the water was still too cold to get these fish to do much more than mouth a fly.
Our second day was spent on the Petite. I’d never fished the Petite before but Kat won Sector B in the draw so we decided to take it. We spent most of the day at 1 pool. Kat was struggling with her casting but Frankie, our guide, gave her some good tips. He even let her borrow his Rage line for the rest of the trip. Once again, I had a salmon grab my fly. This time, in my excitement, I committed the dreaded trout set and it over before it even began.
Our third day is one I won’t soon forget, but not because of the fishing. We were renting a small chalet next to one of the Open Water access pools on the Bonnie. Kat had some work to do that morning so I walked over to the pool and made a couple of passes. It’s a popular and productive pool so it wasn’t long before I was joined by several anglers. Kat showed up just before noon. She was followed by a group of 5 anglers. One of them was a fellow classic salmon tyer headed to the ASFI, Sasha, a friend of Kat’s. Accompanying him were 3 Canadian anglers and guide, Marc LeBlanc.
I started tying flies right before my first salmon trip to Gaspé 5 years ago. Some of the first flies I ever attempted to tie were hairwing patterns created by Monsieur LeBlanc including the picasse. Here was the man himself—soft spoken, with twinkling blue eyes, sporting a gloriously flamboyant handlebar moustache.
I had wanted to head upriver to sector C in the afternoon, to the place where I had those grabs but Kat looked very happy and in her element. We took over the access picnic table. Bottles of Irish whiskey and Scotch emerged from fishing packs and coolers. Canadian beer flowed freely. Kat even drove back to the chalet to get cheese, salumi, and more libations. We spent the afternoon talking, laughing, drinking, eating, and NOT fishing.
Monsieur LeBlanc was very charming and gracious, as well as a consummate flirt, LOL. He opened up his fly boxes, metal candy tins outfitted with foam, to show us his flies. Inside were beautiful and colorful candy for the salmon. He shared stories of how some of his creations came to be and gave both Kat and I our pick of flies. There were some fancier salmon flies in his boxes but my eyes were drawn to the Royal Picasse—a special tie of a very simple but brilliantly effective fishing fly. Kat chose the Out to Lunch (pictured below), a great high water fly.
Marc also shared memories about the early days of Quebec salmon fishing, of fishing with Lee and Joan Wulff. It wasn’t till the afternoon light turned gold and the air cooled that we finally got around to fishing. With 10+ anglers at the pool, we would each probably get 1 full pass depending on the pace of the anglers.
As the magic hour approached, the salmon began to stir, and a couple of fish announced their presence at the tail of the pool. When magic hour arrives, a lucky angler in the right position (in this case, the pool’s tail) has a great chance of hooking a salmon. The lucky angler turned out to be Kat’s friend, Sasha. Granted he took his time going through the run, taking baby steps down to the tail. But no one really minded. We were all happy to see a salmon brought to net. I think it was the third salmon caught on the Bonnie since the season had opened.
Of course that day would be Kat’s fondest memory from our trip and she has told me a few times,“You fish too hard.” I too enjoyed that day on the Bonnie, hanging out with the guys and meeting Monsieur LeBlanc. It’s never been only about the fishing. I enjoy every facet of being on a river including the comaraderie of fellow anglers. But if I had to choose between hooking and fighting a big beautiful fresh hen.... Hmmmm.