Faced with the option of a domestic flight from Montreal to Bathhurst or Gaspe, an overnight hotel stop followed by a 2-3 hr drive, the 'romance' of an overnight train which would drop us less than 10 mins from Salmon Lodge on the banks of the Grand Cascapedia seemed like the obvious first class option. Of course romance may be to strong a word given that my travelling companion and cabin mate happened to be a 6ft 4in Danish Viking! As we were going to be sharing a room for the next week, if nothing else this was going to be a baptism by fire.
What became very obvious on arrival at Montreal train station is that English is very much second to French here. Although English is spoken do not expect signage to be bilingual. After 20 years, forgetting almost every word I had ever learnt over a painful eight years I finally had a chance for some payback on the huge investment of time and education. Alas it was too late for any coherent conversation! The next surprise was our train, which I suppose I had expected to be some ultra modern trans-country affair appropriate for spanning Canada's huge expanse. A quick inspection as to the population density along our route / intended destination would probably have led me to the conclusion that this was unlikely to be a bullet train! Instead, what we were faced with was probably the absolute cutting edge of sophistication…40 or so years earlier. The fact that the façade of the train was in such good condition, even if wonderfully dated, stands as testament to the quality of the original construction.
The train was astonishingly slow but quality linen sheets, super friendly service and a good shower along with towels and toiletries masked any significant frustrations. Added to this was an excellent dining car with above average food and service and superb views both from there and from the second floor observation deck as we paralleled the St Lawrence River, Matapédia Valley and the exquisite coastline bordering Chaleur Bay. The disembarkation flood of one additional passenger along with ourselves at the unmanned New Richmond train station marked our arrival at a fairly special part of the world.
Our visit was as much a reconnaissance as a fishing trip with just a few days allocated to fishing and a few more seeing the rivers and camps. There are three outfitter fishing camps which offer fishing on the Grand Cascapedia, Bonaventure and Petite Cascapedia. Between them the rivers represent a visual spectacle, with variety in size, appearance and prospects. If you are a one beat sort of fisherman they may not be for you. For diversity, prestige, history and opportunity then they are certainly brim-full of merit.
Like any salmon river the world over conditions are going to play a dominant part in prospects. Although this was mid-July and on the cards as a prime week, for the second year running Canada was gripped (as was much of the Northern hemisphere) in a parching heat-wave. Water levels were down and water temperatures were up. Expectations needed to be realistic. Our first evening was starry and clear-skied and distinctly cool. With a very light cloud cover the following morning prospects were definitely better than they had been for a week or more. Our first day of exploration took us to the Petite Cascapedia; an intimate river that none-the-less had a reputation for producing 30-40lb salmon. The two anglers who unwittingly found themselves the focus of a video camera and a long photographic lens were in their 70's and 80's respectively. They may not have represented the elite Canadian spey-casting duo but they stood their ground remarkably steadily, given age and the fact that one of the gentlemen sported a prosthetic leg. Over the next two hours they hooked, landed or lost five salmon. A good bankside lunch later and a move to another pool resulted in yet another fish to the net. Given that temperatures had climbed into the 30's by mid-morning this was a notable achievement.
The Petite Cascapedia, along with the Bonaventure, both source from high in the Chic Choc Mountains. Underground springs ensure the water remains cool all season. The result is that both rivers are noticeably colder than what you would expect given the relentless blue skies that we faced all week. The Petite Cascapedia rarely goes above a 16C (60 F) and even on our last day fishing the Bonaventure, when the car gauge was reading an air temperature of 35C, my final embrace of the river before departure, a swim in one of the pools, was definitely refreshing. Bright blue skies are always the enemy of a salmon fisherman but after that first morning I never felt we were fighting an unwinnable uphill battle. The Petite Cascapedia has a reputation for having aggressive taking salmon, even in the heat of summer, whilst other rivers are cooking.
Out next few days were on the Grand Cascapedia. Our first foray was to the Salmon Branch of the Grand Cascapedia. The River is divided into 7 sectors. Three are on the main Cascapedia with another two each on the Salmon Branch and the Lake Branch respectively. Some of these sectors are fished exclusively by the private camps on the Grand Cascapedia but others are accessible via a lottery system. As part of a fishing package the lodge you are staying with buys up tickets and this will dictate where you end up fishing, over and above any private lodge water or lease. There are always enough options to ensure good fishing can be had, but it will pay dividends to book prior to the winter draw on 1 November when 50% of the available rods are allocated as this will increase the scope of water available.
The Grand Cascapedia for the most part parallels Route 299: however above the junction where the Lake and Salmon Branches of the Cascapedia join it really disappears into the wilderness. Access to these reaches is via forestry tracks, which in the dry conditions had turned the surrounding foliage a drab dusty brown. Any passing vehicle brought with it a veritable dust storm. Although the branches represent the upper sections of the Cascapedia, that does not mean that the salmon in this area are diminished in any way. The Grand Cascapedia is the home of the 40-pounders and whilst they are also caught on the Petite Cascapedia the 'Grand' is definitely the big fish river. Its history as a salmon river stretches back to the earliest days of salmon fishing and even in the late 1800's a rod on the river was highly coveted. The river is managed by the Cascapedia Society, made up of board members of the native Mic Mac reserve and the town of Cascapedia St Jules. Unique to the main sectors of the Grand Cascapedia is a 1:1 angler/guide ratio, one means by which this historic and highly prized salmon river contributes to the local community.
My opening casts on the Cascapedia were made at the neck of a very attractive but very diminished pool. Double-handed rods were definitely out, whilst small flies and good presentation were definitely in. Surprisingly, despite my purpose assembled flybox of very bespoke Canadian fly patterns my spectacularly French and deeply charismatic guide Patrick pulled out a very Scottish lightly dressed Feeler Cascade. On my 6th cast I was rewarded with a solid take. I suppose on account of the water clarity, size of the river and the 'fluke' of a fish so early on I assumed it was a grilse. A more than reasonable fight with a belligerent amount of pressure resulted in a surprisingly bright salmon of 12lbs. What a start! As it happened the oppressive sun got the better of us or the fish or both and although we continued to see fish in all the pools we fished throughout the day, getting another one to stay on was not so easy.
The Grand Cascapedia normally runs with a tea coloured stain. Not quite the peaty colour of many Scottish Salmon rivers but not nearly as clear as the Bonaventure or Petite. Over our stay, it was, however, very different. The following day in similarly scorching conditions we spent the morning on Sector A of the Grand Cascapedia. Although it carried more water than the branches it was certainly severely diminished, and in terms of clarity, it was almost on a par with the other rivers. We watched tentatively as two anglers who were also staying at Salmon Lodge took turns alternating between wet and dry flies as they cast over a very obvious school of 8 or more salmon who would occasionally shift position to look lazily at or move away from whatever offering they were being tempted with. When the conditions are tough, although dispiriting, watching a salmon's every move and reaction as your fly swings over it beats watching TV 10:1. And when a fish actually expresses an interest then it is in another league: similar to some Icelandic rivers but when the fish are 20-40lbs...!!
For our final day, we fished the Bonaventure. Tickets from the 48hr draw had provided us with an exceptionally attractive stretch of water. There were 4 primary pools in our sector, although each area was really more of a beat than an individual pool. This area would be split between a max of 8 anglers and although you fished pools on a first come first served basis, as we discovered there were fish in all of them. On this occasion, our guide, Jon-Marc, came equipped with a periscope. Before he revealed it, Mark and I fished the pool hard for an hour or more, as the sun got steadily brighter and stronger.
On my second pass down the pool, I missed a fish that came to a dry fly, typically on the one occasion when I was in neutral and consequently missed my opportunity. Whether you wait for a second or strike immediately - each guide has a different technique - you definitely need to strike when using a Salmon dry fly. Despite renewed vigour, which saw a fairly comprehensive assortment of flies and techniques tried, there was no further action. Jon-Marc, seeing interest flagging under the heat, deemed that we had worked hard enough to get a glimpse of what was going on under the water. When using a periscope it has to be deployed with care, as if the sun is allowed to reflect down the mirrors it will clear a pool with the resultant flash.
Carefully shielded, we glimpsed into the water. It takes a moment to orientate yourself as the image is reversed but once levelled the underwater world was revealed in all its green-tinged clarity. What was a mysterious grey area from above the water, the appearance of which morphed around the ripples and eddies, now became a string of silvery green salmon running down the length of the pool. Although I had waded a fraction deeper from where I would have been fishing they were by any account remarkably close, no more than 10-15ft in about 3 ft. of water. Tantalizing to say the least.
As we left to move to another pool we came across another pair of anglers on our sector. Declaring that they had had a couple of fish for the morning, including one of 20lbs or so, they were heading home. Surprised as to why they would be leaving after such success they replied that they had hit the water early…around 4am, twice as committed as our early start around 7 o'clock. No doubt about it...the early bird gets the worm and they had definitely earned their siesta.
Our final escapade was no less thrilling. Having found a lesser fished stream where the river had split either side of a log jam, Jon-Marc duly reported spotting a couple of salmon with the help of his periscope; a grilse lying beside a salmon of approx. 20lbs. First pass with a secret weapon, a small ¼ inch tungsten Red Frances tube, which would bounce tantalisingly across their noses, resulted in a minor eruption as the fly reached the end of its swing. John-Marc duly reported that the grilse, had moved but now as it swam back to take station he could determine comparative sizes more accurately. "It ees a Salmon not a grile" he proclaimed. "And ze big saumon ees not a 20lb fish but maybe it ees 30!!" If ever there was an illustration as to what made fishing these rivers so spectacular this is as fine an illustration as you could ask for without the enviable 'trophy' shot.
Whilst staying at Camp Bonaventure we also unearthed a final and exciting twist to our stay, one which we might not have tried had the conditions been less conducive to the odd hours we were fishing. Near to the mouth of the Bonaventure, there is some excellent Striper fishing. Salmon fishing it may not be, but as the sun went down we made our way to the beach and joined a line of ten or more locals who were lined up with 20ft or so between them, all fly-fishing and with support crews behind with campfires burning, beers and barbecues. The night was breathless and having waded out into the sea you cast at splashes and ripples that come closer and closer as the night closes in. Weighted Clouser Minnows seemed to work as well as anything and before long there would be a crunching take, quite at odds with the genteel pull of a salmon. The fight was strong and made all the more interesting by the fact that visibility was close to zero in the inky dark of the night, save for the odd firework in the distance. Over the 2 hours we fished we caught a ½ dozen fish each ranging from 3-8lbs, although they get much bigger.
Over our all-too-short but enlightening trip we stayed at Salmon Lodge on the Cascapedia and Bonaventure Camp. Salmon Lodge is routed in Cascapedia history, and although it had suffered a period when it was bereft of significant investment or love it has now been transformed and offers not just decadent comfort but the most spectacular views of any lodge on the Grand Cascapedia. Bonaventure Camp, its sister lodge, is equally impressive in terms of accommodation, décor and service. It is hard to imagine more sophisticated or comfortable fishing lodges. The guides were universally great company.
Camp Brule is the third outfitters Camp on the bank of the Petite Cascapedia and offers weeklong packages whilst Salmon Lodge and Bonaventure have both week and 3 or 4-day packages allowing you to cover both locations. Camp Brule, whilst offering similar fishing is definitely the more rustic camp. At a different price point to the more luxurious Bonaventure and Salmon Lodge, the combination of the three provide a superb base for all tastes from which to enjoy this spectacular region.
Within a few days of returning back to Britain Mark and I were rewarded with not one but two pictures of 30lb salmon from the Bonaventure and Petite Cascapedia. I am also told it is raining buckets!
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