Salmon without a roof

WWMF Camp Bonaventure Trip

by Justin Maxwell Stuart -Sept 2018

Destination: Eastern Canada

Holiday: Camp Bonaventure

“All we can do is put foam on the runway”.  This was the expression Tim Geither used when briefing on the imminent failure of Lehman Brothers and the impending financial crisis. When compared with fishing this might seem a rather fruity analogy between topics at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  That said, over this particularly dry season, fishing lodge managers and guides have had to resort to lifestyle positivity gurus to help soften the blow on expectant anglers, faced with doomsday low-water conditions.

By contrast, “very low water but with a chance of rain mid-week and the pools are packed with fish”, was the equivalent of a green-light for landing.  When compared with river closures, cancellations and a general feeling of morbid pessimism, with a tabasco topping of Brexit uncertainty, this was a fairly positive appraisal going into a week’s salmon fishing!

A significant log-jam on the Petit Cascapedia. Salmon numbers on the river are way down from past returns however it still has a stock of Large Cascapedia Salmon. Time for the authorities to consider a smolt introduction programme??

This trip to the Gaspe Peninsula, staying at Camp Bonaventure, was a relatively late notice affair, arranged just a month prior to our fishing week over the first week of September.  Our party of six ‘WiseMen’ descended on Camp Bonaventure from the USA, Britain and Switzerland.  Innocent of the knowledge that the region had not received any rainfall since mid-May was certainly a good thing, but I think regardless of the potential conditions, the chance to escape and see new waters was as much of a push as anyone needed.   Equally the Bonaventure is no ordinary river, exceptionally beautiful with extraordinary water clarity.

A favourite guide from the Atlantic Salmon Reserve in Russia had always mentioned to me that a salmon feels most comfortable with a “roof over its head”.  By this, he meant either rippled water for camouflage or suitable depth for a fish to hide.   The drastic lack of rain, combined with primarily sunny days, had removed both of these key attributes for a good salmon lie.   The guides periscopes on the Gaspe, have always allowed them a window into the underwater world of the salmon, rarely seen by anglers.   Added to the visual weaponry available to us was my ‘eye in the sky’ drone, in conjunction with a new underwater camera.  The visibility that all of this afforded into the salmon’s lies and movements was nothing short of mesmerising.  Low water had concentrated the salmon into far fewer pools than they would normally have been in.  This certainly gave the impression that the river was packed with fish, although regardless of concentrations, the visible numbers on the Bonaventure were undeniably impressive.

100's of salmon but in this part of the pool they were virtually immune to our offerings. In the fast water it was a different matter. We hooked 5 fish in the space of about 2hrs

Unfortunately, over our week it seemed as if the salmon of both the Bonaventure and Petit Cascapedia had just seen the same offering too many times, and by the same offering I mean every combination of colour and size in a dry fly that you might imagine.  A stale salmon, whether visible or not, is a hard fish to entice to any fly.   Had we been on a river with normal limited or no visibility, the call would of gone up long ago that there was not a salmon in the river.   Looking into pools where 5, 15, 25, 50, 150 salmon could clearly be seen silenced that line of discussion!

Alongside the bombers and buck bugs we tried hitches, microtubes and the full assortment of Icelandic salmon flies, purpose-built for low and clear water conditions.   Perfect visibility seemed to have rendered the usual arsenal of surprises, that should be contained within a well-equipped flybox, redundant.  Despite a few potential windows of hope, the ogre of a fishless week hung over the lodge by the close of Day 1.

The colour of the Bonaventure is amazing, although the unseasonably low-water meant that both the Petit and Grand Cascapedia were running with equal clarity.

But, all was not lost.  Incredibly one fly seemed to work where all others failed.   The legendary Red Francis.   There is no question that this fly, inconspicuous in its simplicity of design, infamous for its carrot shaped look with protruding whiskers, produced results where all others failed.  Cast slightly upstream, the conical shape of a Francis allows it to sink, whereby its stripped feather feelers tantalisingly or irritatingly entice a salmon to take.   Colour variations were used but red was the colour to have.  The effect, over this week, was dramatic and resulted in action across the board by all who used it.  Jean Claude managed 10 fish for the week, an impressive achievement given the undeniably difficult conditions.

Camp Bonaventure is as well-run a fishing lodge as you could hope to find.  Impeccable service, a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, exceptional food, and lunches that will encourage a siesta whether you wanted one or not.  The Bonaventure is not a river that gives up its fish without a fight.   The ability to see the salmon you are casting at can give a false sense of optimism, which can turn to despair when your offering are comprehensively and repeatedly ignored.   The reduced number of pools available to fish, due to the low-water, was frustrating, however, the pools which held fish were incredibly exciting and when those fish were in the 20lb range….!  

Over this particular week in early September, although there were some supremely hot and sunny days, the weather was definitely changing with cooler temperatures particularly prevalent towards the end of the week.   Although September is at the end of the season on the Gaspe, it also heralds the start of the winter run or ‘blue-back’ salmon that enter the river at this time. There were good numbers of silver fish in both the Bonaventure and Petit Cascapedia, regardless of this being at the later stage of the season, but equally interesting was that the coloured fish, compared to the ‘true tartan’ colours that you would expect from a peat-stained river, were positively bright looking by comparison.

Canoes are an amazing way to travel up and down the Bonaventure. Having lunch on the porch of The Club which is undergoing a complete refurb to be ready for the 2019 season

For my good fortune, I have now fished such an array of waters, that I never fail to be surprised when someone or some technique unlocks the key to success.   Notably, I remember fishing in Russia on similarly low-water conditions, where a pair of Canadian anglers, amongst a lodge of 14 of us, attributed for no less than half the catch for the week, solely fishing dry flies where everyone else was struggling.   Equally in Northern India, fishing for Mahseer, a Gummy minnow, normally considered the sole preserve for saltwater anglers fishing Bonefish in Los Roques, was the standout fly.

I think or hope that most keen anglers will taste unimagined success on at least one occasion.  This is then typically preached from the pulpit, only for an almighty fall to happen on the very next fishing trip.   For all the virtues of the Red Francis on this trip, and similar techniques on others, I always secretly hope that unpredictability rules supreme at the end of the day. The heady taste of success, interspersed with a level of misery, is the best, even if frustrating draw, to pull on waders and start the process all over again!

Double the salmon. An incredible reflected image of the huge school of salmon resident in one of the D Beat pools

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