Turning the Tide
Capturing the spirit of salmon fly-fishing on the banks of the Bonaventure River.
Text—Marie Charles Pelletier
In partnership with
New Richmond, Gaspésie, 2 a.m. The alarm clock rings. Time has finally slowed, after six days of living at the rhythm of the river rather than emails and notifications. Our eyes still half-closed, we pack up Thermoses and toast for the road. We’re on our way to Bonaventure River with Saumon Québec, where the organization is shooting a short documentary about professional adventurer Lydiane St-Onge’s first catch—though the catch is far from a sure bet. BESIDE is along for the journey.
The pickup trucks follow each other into the night, leaving a cloud of dust behind them. The fishing flies are our figureheads, hung from the hoods. Our conversations quickly sputter out on their own, like a fire that no one has the strength to feed. As the trees stream by on both sides of the forested road, everyone seems to be silently asking themselves the same question: will she make her first catch today?
When we arrive near the Double Camp salmon pool, we hoist our equipment onto our backs, then sink into the forest.
We reach the river, still shrouded in fog. The night begins to dissipate as we set our stovetop coffee maker on the fire. It’s that charged moment when nature awakens. By 4 a.m. our feet are planted in the current. Our minds are still foggy, but our eyes are riveted on Lydiane’s line as it stretches and relaxes, the fly gently landing on the water. All this in the hopes of catching a salmon.
Lydiane tirelessly casts her line back and forth until, eventually, it doesn’t come back up. She’s hooked one. Time stands still. Everyone has stopped breathing, as if that small sound could free the salmon from the hook.
They say that every minute of struggle equals about one pound of fish, and Lydiane has been struggling for about 20 minutes now. It seems like she’s got a big one.
JP Tessier, our guide, was tasked with helping Lydiane to make her first catch—a woman who, before the start of the week, had never even held a fly rod in her hands. JP must have experienced this moment a hundred times over the course of his career, but it doesn’t show. He smiles and waits, muscles tensed, hands gripping the net. His gaze won’t swerve until his adversary is captured.
And then, they net it: a seven-kilogram salmon.
A cry echoes out over the river. Lydiane collapses in a wave of emotion exacerbated by fatigue. Perhaps your first catch is always a poignant event, whether you’re 6 years old or 33.
The art of waiting
Anyone who has ever spent a day gazing at a salmon pool will tell you that fly-fishing combines art, sport, and meditation. But it can seem out of reach to many, with its fishing trunks full of elaborate flies, tricky knots to master, unspoken rules, precision, and casting techniques. It’s not something you can learn overnight.
At first glance, casting doesn’t seem that complicated. But that’s precisely where the difficulty lies: for the movement to look easy, you have to have mastered it perfectly. It’s not just the matter of accuracy; you also have to learn to read the current, the wind, the changing reflections on the surface of the river, the smallest noise or movement that could disturb the waters. If a canoe glides over a salmon pool, however slowly, the fish will invariably retreat to the bottom or swim to a new spot.
You might think that fishing comes down to simply catching a fish, especially given the often-asked question, “So, are they biting?” It’s not the catch, though, but the uncertainty that epitomizes fly-fishing. The uncertainty holds you in suspended silence, eyes fixed on the fish visible next to a rock. Sometimes, nothing will happen for hours, but when you finally feel a tug on the line that reverberates all the way to your rod, the emotion you feel is staggering. That tug means the beginning of an intimate duel with a force of nature. It will make all your time spent casting worth it.
Some flyfishers live only for the feeling of a bite on their carefully chosen lure. At the end of the line: nothing. The feeling is enough. “The tug is the drug,” as Chris Santella would say.
A brief history of Québec’s rivers
Atlantic salmon were once abundant in Canadian waters. This great migrator used to travel from the south of Greenland all the way to the Great Lakes. Today, the salmon don’t travel further than the Jacques-Cartier River. The decline in their numbers is a result of habitat destruction that began at the beginning of the 19th century with log driving and, later, commercial overfishing.
Then came the craze for private fishing clubs, mostly frequented by Americans, and with it, a major problem. From 1886 to 1946 the clubs multiplied, and Quebecers gradually saw their own land taken away from them. In 1965 fishing and hunting were virtually inaccessible to Quebecers: there were more than 2,000 private clubs, 80 per cent of which were American.
At the end of 1977 Yves Duhaime, the Minister of Tourism, Hunting, and Fishing in René Lévesque’s cabinet, announced that the wildlife territories would, from that point, be managed by non-profit organizations. The following spring, the clubs were effectively disbanded: “controlled harvesting zones” (called ZECs for zone d’exploitation contrôlée) were created and exclusive rights were revoked, freeing access to the province’s forests, lakes, and rivers.
A unique river-management system was developed, adapted to the province’s specific needs. In 1984 the FQSA (Québec Federation for the Atlantic Salmon) was created to protect Atlantic salmon and to represent fishers and river managers before the government. The FQSA now oversees Saumon Québec, which promotes the sustainable development of sport fishing and fosters its accessibility.
In 2001 Atlantic salmon officially became a protected resource in Canada.
Québec’s salmon management plan closely monitors salmon populations. It has quickly become an international model, particularly for Scandinavian countries.
Its “river by river” approach sets it apart in its establishment of quotas and regulations specific to each river. Twice every season, teams come down with a counter to measure the salmon population, one pool at a time. For several rivers, salmon are also counted through fish passes.
Québec’s rivers are almost entirely managed by ZECs and wildlife reserves, non-profits in both cases, financed by the Ministry of Tourism as well as user permits and access fees. However paradoxical this may seem, fishers actually contribute directly to salmon conservation. They are often the first people to spot problems and report poaching; their eyes are on the river, and their hearts with it too.
A fragile balance
It’s easy to understand the obsession with salmon: they are stolid, intelligent fish. But as resilient as they are, they have concerning vulnerabilities. To reproduce, salmon need clear, well-oxygenated water, and they are particularly sensitive to temperature changes, which tell them when to leave pools for the spawning sites and when to leave the river for the sea. Any fluctuation in temperature affects their life cycle. An umbrella species, salmon serve as a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem, as well as water quality.
Saumon Québec works closely with scientists to monitor river temperatures and fish behaviour. These data enable them to take concrete action, such as their contributions to the recent fish stocking projects in the Romaine and Sheldrake Rivers in Côte-Nord. Saumon Québec is also collaborating on a research project on the effects of hydrocarbons on juvenile salmon development, and has financed the dismantling of an old dam on the Escoumins River.
Twenty years ago the fishing community was composed almost entirely of white men over 50. Not so today: the diversity of fishing fans has increased across age, gender, and culture, which has also led to other changes. It’s estimated that presently, 76 per cent of salmon that are caught are released, and the new generation is particularly keen on this sustainable practice. However, keeping your catch—in moderation, of course—is no sin. Experts carefully study the salmon runs for each river before setting fishing quotas.
Salmon fishing is the only wildlife activity not currently on the decline, compared to other kinds of fishing, hunting, and trapping, where members of younger generations rarely venture. This makes effective salmon management all the more important. Protecting sustainable fishing also means rallying people to fight for healthy ecosystems, as well as cultivating the range of emotions that only nature can make us feel.
Saumon Québec is an offshoot of the FQSA. In addition to river conservation and protecting salmon, the organization fosters sustainable recreational fishing in the province. It also provides mentoring programs teaching best practices and responsible fishing techniques as well as a wide range of content and information about recreational fishing on its website and social media platforms (in French only).