Wading in the Cascapedia River

Wading in the Cascapedia River

Bobby Fisher
Bobby Fisher
The Cascapedia—cutting wild and pristine across the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec—has long been revered for its salmon by Micmac Indians, British aristocrats, and American tycoons.

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.

It was then that the Cascapedia was somewhat democratized. The Parti Québécois (which was also pushing for the secession of the province from Canada) managed to secure public access to some pools, and the Micmacs lobbied for the restoration of their aboriginal fishing rights and gained permission to trap the equivalent of 250 large fish a year at the river's mouth. A member of the Micmac tribe acquired a camp and started Micmacs of Grand Cascapedia Outfitters, whose guides now take fishermen on the river. (Most of the old camps remain in private hands, but several lodges have opened nearby.) The 1970's also saw the beginning of a steep decline in the number of large Atlantic salmon, from an estimated 800,000 then to 200,000 today.

i have journeyed by car to the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula to the headwaters of the river, in the Chic Chocs, a range of tabular mountains more than 4,000 feet high: volcanoes sheared off by glaciers. The two branches of the Cascapedia come down from them in ever deepening crevices, plunging over a series of tilted terraces, sliding sideways in glossy metallic sheets of water with such tremendous force that a few years ago a couple fishing one of the forks was swept away and drowned. It's as wild as Alaska back up in there, more moose and caribou and bears than people. The spawning fish travel 56 miles up from Chaleur Bay to Seventeen Mile Falls, where I found a game warden named Joshua Philbrick sitting in a little cabin overlooking the river gorge and carving a thunderbird mask. Philbrick, a 26-year-old Micmac, is in training as a healer. "Salmon travel all the way across the Atlantic just to spawn here," he said. "But people are losing touch with the earth. Five companies are cutting the trees. They think they can take it away and it will come back, but once it's gone, it's over. That's it."

The erosion from the logging is the most serious immediate environmental threat to the survival of the Cascapedia's salmon. The soil washes down into the river and silts over the gravel bottom that the salmon need to spawn. With the trees gone, the spongy, mossy floor of the forest is drying up. Less rain is falling, and what rain there is runs off more quickly. The river is much lower than it has ever been, and its temperature and biology are changing. Its rushing waters carry most of the sediment all the way down to the bay, which is filling up with mud, leaving only a few channels wide enough for spawning salmon to navigate.

In 1982, management of the river was assumed by the Cascapedia Society, an organization of camp owners, Micmacs, and the residents of Cascapedia–St. Jules, villages three miles up on opposite banks, inhabited by English-speaking descendants of Scots, Irishmen, and "empire loyalists"—American colonists who refused to join the revolution and fled north—and Francophones whose fugitive Acadian ancestors managed to avoid being deported to Louisiana, France, or England. The society is trying to get the logging companies to cut only 35 percent, rather than 50 percent, of the sub-basins in the headwaters, to observe the law about not cutting within 60 yards of any watercourse—a law they had been flagrantly violating—and to put in more culverts where their roads cross streams, which is where most of the erosion is taking place.

The group also tried to get the Cascapedia declared a catch-and-release-only river, but many Gaspesians, as locals are known, opposed the proposal because they want to keep their fish. At this point, releasing all fish is strongly encouraged, but voluntary: you may keep one fish per day, up to a total of seven for the season. In 2003, 2,800 large fish were counted in a diving census—twice as many as the year before, so progress is being made. About 1,500 were caught, and 291 of these were kept. Some were given to the society's hatchery, where 250,000 fry were raised from their eggs and milt and released into the river. Of course, not all of these will make it to adulthood. The alevins, as first-year fry are known, must survive predation by kingfishers, otters, brook trout (which are also sea-running), ospreys, and, above all, mergansers. The third-year fry leave for the sea to return first as two- to six-pound grilse and later as full-grown adults (most salmon will spawn once or possibly twice if they make it to the end of their life span, usually seven to eight years). In the ocean, they are subject to commercial harvest (the last on this side of the Atlantic) in the French province of St.-Pierre and Miquelon, and the quasi-commercial and unpoliceable harvest by residents of Labrador. There is also the problem of global warming, which is affecting the movement of shrimp, krill, and capelin—the salmon's natural food. Only 100,000 salmon return each year to spawn in Canada's rivers—a 75 percent decline from 15 years ago. And 9,000 of these are taken by fishermen.

Under the circumstances, it seems ecologically irresponsible not only to keep the fish but even to be fishing for them in the first place, except that much of the money that the society makes from the anglers goes to the conservation effort. Nevertheless, here I am, guiltily enjoying myself casting streamers into Little Camp Pool. This afternoon the fish aren't hitting anything. Why they ever do at all is a mystery, because they don't eat while they are spawning. Perhaps the flies remind them of when they were parr and grilse (of which I have caught two) and they snapped at anything that moved.

But no luck today. Still, I'm not complaining. The experience doesn't need to be crowned with the ultimate, vulnerable prize to be complete. I don't mind being skunked one bit.

ALEX SHOUMATOFF is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.

The best time to fish the Cascapedia River is in summer, when the salmon are running and the waters are high. Required fishing permits and information on access to pools are available at the headquarters of the Cascapedia Society (275 Rte. 299, Cascapedia–St. Jules; 418/392-5079; licenses from $8; guided trips from $282 per day), which also houses the Cascapedia River Museum, devoted to the region's history. The society will help arrange for a guide to take you to some of the more legendary and exclusive pools, inaccessible otherwise, in a 26-foot-long Sharpe canoe. Also nearby, the Nouvelle, the Petite Cascapedia, and the Bonaventure rivers have smaller salmon along with trophy-sized sea-running brook trout. Farther south, in New Brunswick, is the Miramichi, which has vast stretches of good public water.

Micmacs of Grand Cascapedia Outfitters
A member of the First Nation tribe maintains one of the area's few remaining great camps. A night at the lodge includes a guided trip to either sections A, B, and C (main river) or section D (Alder Island). Doubles from $1,164. 10 Droken Rd., Gesgapegiag; 418/392-6327

Stanley House Inn
Lord Stanley's spectacular camp sits on a bluff overlooking Chaleur Bay. Wainscoted throughout and little changed in 120 years, it is run by the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Le Blanc. Doubles from $64. 371 West Perron, New Richmond; 418/392-5560; www.stanleyhouse.ca

Cascapedia Lodge
Also on the bluff but closer to the mouth of the river, with world-class views across the bay. The hosts are a nice French-Canadian couple who don't speak much English. Doubles from $77. 135 Lynd Rd., New Richmond; 418/392-4462; www.cascapedialodge.com

Sexton & Sexton
A haven for both the serious salmon fisherman and the more general Orvis-Patagonia aficionado, this store has everything from lures and tackle to clothes and waders. 1 Rte. McKay, Cascapedia–St. Jules; 418/392-5628

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