The Grand Cascapedia in Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula represents the crown jewels in terms of Atlantic salmon fishing in North America. No other river has the prestige or exclusivity that the Grand commands. It has an extremely distinguished history that stretches back hundreds of years and an even more distinguished clientele that have fished its waters. Although only a medium sized river compared to some of its neighbours and with a run of salmon that is not unduly noteworthy, where it stands out from all others is in the size of the salmon that its waters produce, both historically and stretching up to the present day.
Access to the fishing on any of the stunning rivers on the Gaspe Peninsula, notably the Grand and Petite Cascapedia as well as the Bonaventure is for most only available via either a lottery system or on some open stretches of public water. Much of this can be very attractive and indeed productive but neither does it represent the hallowed private water controlled by the private camps on the Grand Cascapedia. Given the chance to reserve a week at middle Camp it was an opportunity that could not be refused and although it was late in the season it was also the same week that produced a 48lb salmon from one of the pools fished by Middle Camp in 2013.
Big fish aspirations aside Canada in late September is a visual spectacle. Coming from almost any country in Europe it is difficult to get a measure of the sheer enormity of the wilderness in this region. Following a flight connection from Montreal to Bathurst it was a 2 ½ hr drive to Middle Camp. Initially the drive along the highway dissects a vast uninterrupted space of wilderness woodland prior to opening out on the coastline the beautiful bay of Chaleur, traversing the mighty Restigouche river and then hitting Cascapedia St. Jules at the mouth of the Grand. On the day of our arrival the vast swathes of natural forest was an exquisite montage of greens and yellows however by the end of the week this was transformed into a mesmeric blaze of all the colours of the Canadian fall.
Middle Camp itself is as comfortable a fishing lodge as I have ever had the pleasure to visit. From presidents to princesses, lords and ladies its guest list reads like a who’s who of celebrity salmon anglers. Its history has been nothing but eventful. The current camp consists of three main structures, the Schlotman Lodge (Joseph B (Jack) Schlotman died 1951) which has been rebuilt from the embers twice, most recently in June 2004 (almost 50 years to the day from the first tragic fire) following a fire resulting from a stray ember from the chimney. The original and long-standing Ford (Emory L (Pat) Ford 1876-1941) lodge on the other side of the old dining room has survived the years without any catastrophic events although it often finds itself at the mercy of the Cascapedia. Prior to opening the 2014 season the staff and guides had to work tirelessly to clear deposits of silt inside the building following a huge spring flood which had risen a foot or so above the floor-level and washed away a section of the main road from Cascapedia St Jules to the camp. Every year at the close of each season all furniture needs to be either stored upstairs or placed on stilts out of harms way.
As is often the way when salmon fishing it is usually one thing or the other and infrequently just right. There was certainly no sign of any floodwater during our stay and although a small rise the previous week had resulted in some very good fishing that influence had petered out by the time of our arrival. The rivers across the entire region were all definitely on the low side and despite a very small boost on the Monday for the rest of the week we experienced conditions that more closely resembled mid-summer with brilliant blue skies and daytime temperatures that hit 26 C. Consequently the better fishing was in the first 3-4 days, tailing off towards the end.
On our first afternoon Phil and Howard had a taste of what we hoped would be the way of things to come, landing a couple of salmon up to 24lbs from Addalin’s Ledge Pool. As is often the case it was the one that got away that held the emotions high. After a good and visual fight Howard lost a fish that was estimated at being far in excess of 30lbs that would haunt him for the rest of the week. The Grand Cascapedia had at least given a hint at what it might offer.
As well as the private Middle Camp water that was rotated every two days a roaming pair also had the option to fish either the Bonaventure or the upper sections of the Cascapedia. The Bonaventure is almost without equal in its clarity and although the salmon were on display for all to see it was only possible to entice one grilse to take over the two days we fished the river. Nevertheless swinging a fly over pools where it was possible to count in excess of 80 salmon is a mesmerising experience. Watching a few of the more active fish swing out of position to lazily inspect our offerings is a rare sight in almost all but Icelandic rivers and when that fish is in excess of 20lbs quite something to behold.
The very slight rise of water on the second day was enough to raise the possibility of a canoe float trip down the Salmon Branch, the upper section of the Cascapedia where the river forks. Both the Lake and Salmon branches of the Grand Cascapedia offer fishing in almost total wilderness and seclusion. Although the rise of water proved to be less substantial than hoped and the canoe required a reasonable amount of elbow grease to encourage it over some of the more shallow sections it is an amazing way to see and fish a section of the river which is infrequently seen and rarely fished. The Grand Cascapedia carries a slight peaty tinge that means spotting fish is not nearly as straightforward as on the Bonaventure. Despite this our guides JP, David and Charles did their best to help untrained eyes distinguish the salmon from the shadows, the 20lbers from the grilse.
On the riverbank much of the non-fishing related chat centred around the forthcoming Moose season. A steady stream of SUV’s and trailers loaded with quad bikes or similar filtered up the main road all week. For those used to the more refined idea of stalking red deer in Scotland the Moose season is a little different. It is only 3 weeks long with the first week reserved for bow and arrow, rifles on the second week and black powder muzzle-loaded guns for the finale. Camouflage rifles, bows and sporting apparel are rather surprisingly augmented with day-glow orange hunting vests…and with good reason. Over the three-week Moose hunting season approx. 28,000 licenses are issued! It may not be quite a free for all but with a prize of 400lbs of meat to feed the family for the year it is more about the freezer than the sport of the trophy. Regardless it was very evident what was going to be the focus for a speedy packing up of the camp in preparation for the winter, prior to the guides being unleashed!
The flies used on the Cascapedia and the other rivers on the Gaspe Peninsula are quite distinct from those found in a regular European salmon fly-box. The likes of the picasse, green spey, and stone ghost are augmented by dry flies in every colour. Alongside these the Icelandic red francis and sunray shadow were becoming firm favourites but by the end of our week the guides were close to full conversion on the use of tube flies. There are however various oddities in the regional rulebook. Tube flies are legal in any persuasion; shape, size or weight, so long as they do not have a conehead. Intruders are a popular late season fly but dumbbells are verboten! Trebles are illegal as is the otherwise accepted and effective practice of nymphing for salmon.
The river as a whole is managed by the Cascapedia Society. The pools available are a mixture of both private water, fished solely by Middle Camp, as well as others where a limited rotation is in place. As it turned out it was the exclusive pools to Middle Camp where salmon consistently rolled and splashed, the Bar and 4-24 (so named after four 24lb salmon were caught in an afternoon). This exclusive Middle Camp water is situated immediately in front of the lodge buildings and on the still nights big fish splashes could be heard echoing across the river. Day and night the wildlife were on display with bald-headed eagles, coyotes, deer and huge male Moose as well as cow and calves all being spotted.
Although the Cascapedia museum had closed a week or so earlier a kind word by the lodge staff had it opened up for a private visit post-lunch. Inspired by history and the stories of so many colossal salmon Martin and Helmut were back on the water just after 3 o clock (with a little encouragement from Justin!) The day was as hot, bright and sunny as any day you would not of wished for when salmon fishing. The Bar is a smooth flowing pool and one which in low water, on the face of it would not benefit from such a day. Conventional wisdom would have suggested that small flies and light leaders would have been the obvious choice however as we found out all week, and is often the case towards the end of the season, being different can pay dividends.
At odds with local advice Martin was fishing with 40lb+ nylon (vs the 8-15lbs which seemed to be more commonly used), an intermediate line and a large green highlander style plastic tube fly with a body length of approx. 1 1/2 inches and wing quite a bit longer. Working his way down the pool he spied a distinctive bow wave that had not been present before. Lengthening his line slightly he re-cast and almost immediately received a solid take, pulling into the fish firmly as soon as the line had gone tight. (Striking salmon on the Grand Cascapedia is customary and not to do so may be at your loss). The fight that followed took around 45 minutes, superbly recorded by Helmut on the camera. Leslie, one of the very long-standing Cascapedia guides and who had achieved recent fame from his landing of a 48lb Salmon during this same September week in 2013, after a couple of attempts successfully tailed the fish with his hands. Estimated at 30lbs or over this may have been a relatively modest fish by Cascapedia standards however it was the fish of our trip and was dutifully toasted with several glasses of Champagne that evening.
During the week we were fortunate to land several fish of over 20lbs and lost a good number more along the way. The low and clear conditions allowed us to get a very good view of what was on offer in terms of size even if they were somewhat lethargic to our assorted temptations. Over the 2014 season split amongst probably no more than 50 separate anglers there have to date been 14 fish of over 30lbs caught and released at Middle Camp. An enviable tally of huge salmon for a bad year, just one of which for most be considered a lifetime achievement. It has been estimated that the 2014 run of salmon on the Grand Cascapedia is significantly down on previous years and as much as a 1/3 down on the run in 2011. Sadly this tallies with many salmon runs worldwide which seem to have taken a significant hit this year.
Comforts aside Middle Camp is an outstanding fishing lodge and it was a privilege to fish in such hallowed surroundings. One thing I have learnt over my years salmon fishing is never to rate a book by reading a single page. With luck, when the ‘WiseMen’ return, cloudy and rainy skies will accompany us for at least a few days and give the river a chance to offer everyone a taste of the monster salmon which will remain as dreams for most of until 2015!
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