Text & photos— Elisabeth Cardin
The journey out always feels quicker than the route back. Every bend in the road hides the name of a village, a blue horizon, or an old house I spot with eagerness and longing. The older the house, the stronger the pang. If it’s covered in graying cedar shingles, I get downright jealous. I’m dreaming, along the 132, of a large garden on the banks of the St. Lawrence and children freely exploring the streams. I’m forgetting the suffocation of hot quadrangles and the strange solitude I share with my thousands of neighbours in the city.
A feeling of wholeness overwhelms me when I reach Côte-du-Sud. It must be the increase in the salinity of the St. Lawrence. I am made of water and salt, after all; it’s not impossible that I should finally feel complete when everything around me tastes slightly saline. I have an intimate relationship with the land: I devour it.
In the Lower-Saint-Lawrence, I always stop along the shore to pick samphire, searocket, beach peas, and saltbush. I think you only truly discover an area through what you can eat there, as much in roadside diners as forests and rivers.
I’d set off for Gaspésie with a brief adventure planned in Matane to learn how to fish for salmon. Until then, I had tallied a grand total of 20 days of fly-fishing experience in my life, and that was with trout: salmon is a whole other kettle of fish, so to speak. I was a little afraid to do it all on my own, and none of my friends could join me. But Danik, my fly casting teacher, convinced me to spend a day on the Matane River with a guide. “You’ll see, Guillaume is the best in the area. Don’t be scared. You cast well enough to reel in a salmon.” So I followed his advice and booked a day with Guillaume via his father Denis, who responded to my email with a two-word message: “No problem.” I knew then that I was going to be experiencing something simple and true.
Upon arrival I’m greeted by a playful red and white dog. My name and cabin number are written on a board outside the reception. There are a dozen cabins in all, to which hundreds of fly fishers have flocked to try their luck.
Many of them are regulars: either because they still haven’t managed to land a large salmon, or because they’re addicted after their first catch. I don’t know which of these situations I’ll be in in two days, but the mere fact of reading Elisabeth, #10 on the board fills me with pride.
The next morning, Guillaume joins me at 5:00 a.m., and I nervously explain that I’m a beginner, that I don’t really think I’m good enough to catch a salmon, but that I’m happy enough just to learn. He responds, “No problem!” confirming that he has inherited his father’s kind, unpretentious demeanour. Guillaume is calm and patient. From 5:00 a.m. till noon, he watches me execute cast after cast after cast, correcting me and guiding me to “cover the pool” of the stream. First, I go with a wet fly and let it drift. Then, I try a dry fly and attempt to perfectly present it to the salmon, clearly visible in the translucent, turquoise water. My casts are good, says Guillaume, adding with a laugh that he has counted 989 since this morning. I laugh and show him my right thumb, already blistered. My attempts attract the attention of a small salmon, who more than once swims up to my fly—but never bites.
Around 5:00 p.m., under the watchful eyes of a couple of curious onlookers (Guillaume lied to their faces, “No, no, there’s no action here”), a large salmon finally bites. The feeling is indescribable. Everything happens very quickly, and adrenaline rushes into every vessel in my body. I manage to strike properly and watch the fish’s large silvery back break the water’s surface. Guillaume shouts, “Let go of the reel,” then adds, with all the pride in the world, “You’ve got it! You’ve got your salmon!” I hold my rod high in the air. When the salmon tugs, I let it go. When he calms down, I reel him in. We parry like this for twenty or so minutes, until I finally bring the beast home. I can’t feel my right arm. I’m delirious. I’m hooked.
You won’t see any photos of my big catch. The line broke just as he was entering the net. I would have loved a photo of me proudly showing off my salmon just before throwing it back (the large ones have to be spared to ensure the survival of the species). But the best travel memories tend to be the ones you can’t photograph, like the exhilaration of a vast landscape or the flutters of meeting someone new.
I didn’t want to go back to Montréal. The route back always seems longer than the journey out.
Elisabeth Cardin is the co-owner of Manitoba restaurant in Montréal. She’s also a hunter, gatherer, and bearer of Québec’s culinary identity.