Atlantic salmon on the Gaspe Peninsular
Henry Gilbey samples the delights of fishing for the king of fish in some of the clearest rivers on earth. This is salmon fishing with a difference.
Part of you cannot believe it is really true. Indeed, after a ten mile, bone-shaking drive through the forest I am beginning to think we are on some wild goose chase in the dark heart of the Gaspe peninsular.
The talk we have heard of gin-clear rivers and pools full of salmon has certainly brought about a high state of excitement, but where on earth is the river? An easy day's journey from London has brought us to this quiet corner of eastern Canada. I have yet to come across another UK angler who speaks of fishing these waters and have been told that this fishing is one of the world's best kept salmon fishing secrets.
Our young guide, Drapper Clarke, eventually pulls his car to a stop, whereupon Pete McCloud and I excitedly and rather gladly dismount to check out the river that gurgles tantalisingly through the trees. Like overexcited kids we rush to the nearest vantage point to see if all the talk is anywhere close to reality. And like fumbling beginners we are halted dead in our tracks as the clearest river you could ever hope to see comes into view. Better still, the most perfect looking pool is stacked up with at least 50 Atlantic salmon. Surely there are fish there easily nudging 30lb. I have never seen fly fishermen tackle up so fast...
For the first few hours we all took it in turns to cover the fish with flies such as the Green Francis and the much favoured Dotty Orange, but Pete and I had to stand back and watch as US client Joe Zimmer fished quite beautifully to take two fine salmon, with one surely close to 25lb. We watched from a higher vantage point as one of the big fish finally turned on the fly, charged across the pool and then smashed into it. Whilst the early bright blue skies might have been perfect for me and my cameras, in truth the fishing only really turned on when the clouds rolled in. By no means do the guides say the salmon will not take in bright conditions, but clear as day we could watch the overcast conditions produce many more turns on the flies.
For three full days we fished the most outrageously perfect rivers I have ever seen. Not once was there anything less than absolute clarity, for these rivers are spring fed. The local fishing guides and fisheries managers are constantly in touch, so everybody knows exactly where the salmon are stacked up. If fish move with an influx of water, then rangers will be out on the riverbanks checking where they have gone and counting new arrivals. Sport fishing is tightly controlled to protect the fish and keep angling pressure to a responsible level that works for fish, rivers, locals and visitors. The permit system does not allow for more than one guide or single angler to fish a beat at one time. Whilst fishing for a fish that in theory is not feeding when they are in the rivers is never going to be a pushover, the sheer fact that you can see them so clearly certainly keeps the pulse in a constant racing state.
What I find so unique about this magical area is that seeing the salmon you are fishing for allows you a real insight into their behaviour. Whilst fly fishing for Atlantics is arguably a best guess combined with hard factual knowledge, when you see them as clear as day you cannot help but learn so much more. The feeling is that the Gaspe salmon are behaving in much the same way that other Atlantic salmon do, but it just happens to be the case here that these salmon swim in crystal clear waters. So clear in fact that you can easily count the pebbles at the bottom of a 30' pool. Creep low and close and you can watch fish to your heart's content.
I seriously envy the divers who enter these rivers once a year to accurately count the salmon numbers, although not perhaps the cold water they have to endure!
The salmon season in this part of Canada runs from June 1 to the end of September. Outside of those dates there is no fishing allowed on the rivers, indeed a part of October is moose hunting season, when locals and visitors alike head to the wooded hills to try and bring down their (tightly regulated) one moose and fill the freezer with meat for the cold winter ahead. July and August is the favoured time to target the salmon with dry flies, indeed my heart races at the thought of seeing 30 pounds of fish rise to a dry on these quiet rivers. Outside these times, the bulk of the fly fishing is mainly wet fly fishing, upstream, downstream and across, stripping and swinging the fly. Spey casting works on a couple of the rivers in early season, but gloriously these smaller waters can mostly be tackled with a very simple single-handed outfit. Fly fishing is strictly catch and release.
This is by no means a numbers kind of fishing. A local average seems to be about one fish per day per angler, so while seeing them at least proves the fish are there, catching them is still the challenge it should be. Red letter days always happen from time to time, and good numbers of salmon over 30lb are caught every season, with some creeping close to the 40lb mark. I know fish this large exist because I could see them with my own eyes. On our last day we hiked many miles down one of the seven rivers that are fished, to put flies across a couple of near-virgin pools. For the last hour of the day I sat high atop a rock and watched open-mouthed as twice a salmon of at least 30lb charged Pete's Dotty Orange. We remain convinced that it took the fly at least once, but the fish's huge kype got in the way and the fly pulled through. A couple of smaller fish from a stunning run had already made the day. This place is every bit as special as I had hoped. I will return.
9' #8 fly rod and matched reel work perfectly for much of the fishing
Floating lines and light leaders, 15lb fluorocarbon or 8lb mono
Weighted flies banned
Traditional flies like the Dotty Orange and Green Francis always work, size 10 is a good all rounder
Bigger flies like the Orange Rubber Legs sometimes annoy the fish into taking, using them depends on your sensibilities!
Breathable chest waders and decent wading boots are must-haves.
Take very good polarised sunglasses, I use nothing but the Maui Jim ones, see here www.mauijim.com
Layered fly fishing clothing to deal with temperature fluctuations and rain
This area is stunning, take a camera