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Wading in the Cascapedia River

I'm up to my waist in the Cascapedia, a river on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, casting a loop of line 100 feet out over the amber-green water. It uncurls in slow motion and softly, unobtrusively drops a gaudy Lady Amherst fly right into a riffle where a big Atlantic salmon has just rolled. I watch intently, waiting to see if the fish is going to take it.

The shimmering reflections of the towering, closely packed trees crowding the banks bring to mind the opening lines of the Longfellow poem Evangeline, which is set in this wilderness: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks/Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight." It is radiant, glorious, this maritime boreal forest—nature in its purest, cleanest, most untrammeled splendor. But, of course, not quite. There has been disturbance. In fact, for more than a century, the river has been an outdoor playground for aristocrats and the well-to-do, the site of extravagant excursions and grand lodges. Not to mention a few aeons' worth of settlement by the Micmac Indians before that. The Cascapedia remains popular as a salmon-fishing destination, and, not too surprisingly, the fish are endangered.

This summer, some 3,000 salmon will come here to spawn in the 86-mile-long river where they were born, after years of epic, uncharted peregrinations in the North Atlantic. There are 117 salmon rivers in Quebec, and 14 of them are on the Gaspé Peninsula, but the fish that return to the Cascapedia are a particularly robust strain of Salmo salar, the biggest in Canada—or anywhere else, except for the Alteelva River in Norway. They average 20 pounds each. Already, three 40-pounders have been caught this year.

But for how much longer?

"My twelve-year-old boy just caught a fifteen-pounder," says Leonard Schlemm, who recently acquired nearby Horse Island and its camp, originally built in 1894 for a Michigan timber tycoon named William B. Mershon. "And his sister caught a seventeen-pounder last week. But if we don't take care, by the time the kids get to be my age, there will be no fish here."

So I am secretly hoping I won't catch a salmon. There are so few of them left, and they come such a long way, down from the outer banks of Greenland and Labrador, guided by their noses, which were imprinted with the river's unmistakable geochemical olfactory signature before they took to sea as six-inch smolt. In the best of worlds, these fish would be left in peace while they went about the critical business of reproduction. But a whole subculture and economy has evolved around them. Their hopes for survival have now come to depend on the very people who catch them—and who want there to be enough fish to catch next year. This is one of the ironies of conservation, and has been since the movement began as an alliance between bird-watchers and hunters in the late 19th century. The trout and ducks' most powerful advocates are sportsmen's organizations, Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited, and the much more imperiled Atlantic salmon look to the St. Andrews, New Brunswick–based Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Cascapedia Society, whose memberships overlap heavily.

I drop the Lady Amherst six more times into the riffle and other pockets of promising water within reach, but the fish aren't in the mood.

After the French lost their colony on the Plains of Abraham, in 1760, and New France later became Canada, the British administrators arrived with their rods and reels and guns and rackets and golf clubs. It wasn't long before they heard about the humongous salmon in the Cascapedia. Sportfishing on the river is documented back to the 1840's, but didn't really take off until the Marquis of Lorne, governor-general of Canada from 1878 to 1883, and his wife, Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise, steamed down the St. Lawrence River from Montreal and around the Gaspé Peninsula to Chaleur Bay, where the Cascapedia flows into the sea. The marquis was, in the words of his biographer Sandra Gwyn, "a member of the homosexual set" who "lacked the capacity for sustained concentration." Princess Louise was the Lady Di of her time, a great outdoorswoman with a "favorite guide," who posed in the nude for her (and that was not all, according to gossip); he was rewarded with a ranch in Alberta when she went back to England. The couple were met at Chaleur Bay by the Micmac Indians, who made their living at the river's mouth, trapping and spearing the fish at night by torchlight. The Micmac settlement was called Gesgapegiag, "Where the River Widens." It is still there, home to 600 members of the tribe. Cascapedia is a derivative of the name.

Some Micmac guides poled the party in long birchbark canoes up the treacherously strong and swift river. As a gesture of welcome, the Quebec government granted exclusive rights to the river to the new governor-general, and a fancy fishing lodge called Lorne Cottage was built for the marquis and his wife six miles up the river. The Micmacs were discouraged from hunting what were now the governor-general's salmon—poaching was punishable with fines and even jail time.

A jaunt in the Canadian wilds became a popular diversion for English nobles. As in the Adirondacks, camps was the rather understated term for these splendid compounds; seven were eventually built on the Cascapedia. Each camp had its staff of guides, cooks, servers, shore boys, cleaners, and smokers (who filleted your catch and hung them to cure in the maple-fired smokehouse). An elaborate camp and pool etiquette evolved. Special flies were designed: besides the Lady Amherst—brainchild of a Rochester investment banker named George Bonbright—there were Blue Charms and Green Highlanders. Thick, 16-foot-long bamboo rods were made to play the huge fish. (Most anglers now use single-handed 9- to 10-foot rods.) The reels went from wood to brass to hard rubber and nickel silver. They are now mostly aluminum, and a good one can easily set you back $1,000.

When the Marquis of Lansdowne succeeded Lorne as governor-general, in 1883, he built his own, equally fancy camp and called it New Derreen, after his estate in Ireland. In four seasons, he and his guests caught 1,245 salmon. His successor, Lord Stanley, founder of the Stanley Cup, built Stanley House, an 18-bedroom Queen Anne mansion (and now an inn), on a bluff overlooking Chaleur Bay because his wife couldn't stand the black flies up the river. Then came Lord Aberdeen, followed by Lord Minto, who relinquished the rights to the river in 1894 to a syndicate of American millionaires, including R. G. Dun of Dun & Bradstreet, who paid $6,000 for a 10-year term. These plutocrats founded the Cascapedia Club, which held exclusive control of the river until the early 1970's.

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