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Over the years, I´ve spoken with many people who believe the Atlantic Salmon to be a superior gamefish and would argue they are the top freshwater sport fish. I’ve always wondered about the Atlantic, but never fished for them. Recently, I heard about a clear-water, sight fishing venue to pursue Atlantics.
Clear water... ...casting to sighted fish... ...floating lines... ...dry fly fishing possible – sounded like something I should know more about so make reservations I did.
My wife, Marte, and I headed off to eastern Canada. This is the report on a unique and (at least for me) different fly fishing experience. (Don Muelrath)
The town of Gaspé is located in an exceptionally magnificent natural harbour, the Gaspé Bay. Breathtaking landscapes of ocean, rivers, beaches and mountains await the angler on his quest for Atlantic salmon.
The Atlantic is considered by many to be the ultimate freshwater gamefish, known for its spirited runs and size attained. Additionally, in the crystal clear rivers of Gaspe, they can be sight fished with floating lines.
The Atlantic is born as a “parr” and stay in freshwater for their first two years reaching 4 to 6 inches in length. They go to the ocean as a smolt and return as a 3 yr old (sometimes 4 yr old) grilse of 4 to 6 pounds. Second year returnees are 10 – 12 pounds and third year (now 5 – 6 years old) are in 16-24 pound neighborhood.
The 30 and 40+ pound fish are probably fourth year returnees, however some believe there are no fourth year fish. All fish return to the ocean to die as 6-7 year old fish.
The Eastern Canadian Atlantic Salmon sport fishery had been diminished over the years due to commercial netting of the species. Some years ago, the Canadian government took aggressive action to save the fishery by paying the commercial fisherman NOT TO FISH.
Since that time, the fishery has been recovering successfully. While not back entirely to the days of old, the numbers of returning fish annually make sport fishing in many rivers once again productive.
Gaspe, Quebec is a charming, predominantly French speaking town with around 16,000 citizens isolated on the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. It is an untarnished and wholesomely industrious community of 16,000 Canadians on the shore of Gaspe Bay.
There are three primary rivers within short driving distance of Gaspe – Dartmouth, St Jean, and York. Each one of them is broken into pools – gathering spots where salmon stop while making their way upstream to spawn. The rivers are further broken into sectors/zones. Sectors can be either “limited” or “unlimited.” “Limited” sectors have a maximum of 2, 4, 6 or 8 fishermen allowed per day. They can be as long as 10 miles (like sector 1 we fished on the St. Jean) or as short as less than a mile like sector 2 on the Dartmouth (the “falls”). Depending on the time of the season, it’s generally accepted that the pools in unlimited sectors see more fishermen each day, although this is not always the case. One of the top guides told us he has many unlimited pools on the Dartmouth that he finds very worthwhile and are some of his favorite spots. Some of the sectors are spectacularly beautiful with canyon stretches, waterfalls, and crystal clear pools over varying rock formations carved out by nature throughout the centuries.
Drawing sectors to fish: All sectors are established via a lottery. Half of all spots are drawn on November 1, the other half 48 hours prior to the day of fishing. Limited sectors cost more depending on which sector and the number of rods. Our Gaspe outfitter (who has been working the lotteries for over 30 years) stays on top of the lotteries. Of her many roles, from assigning guides to arranging hotel/meal packages, her most important contribution is monitoring the lotteries and acquiring sectors for our clients to fish. If you are in the lottery for the November 1 drawing, the odds of you getting the prime choices of water are very good. However, for our trip the decision was not made to go until about 60 days before departure and our outfitter was able to get our first choice of water for two days of our three fishing days using the 48 hour lottery.
This was like a fish zoo – lots of visible fish... ...but difficult to get them. If you have a decent guide, you should only fish water that you know holds fish. However, we did observe guides who couldn’t or wouldn’t spot fish for their anglers. Like any fishery, the guide is a critical element, especially where sight fishing is possible. I did encounter several unguided anglers who hadn’t released a fish in 3 or 4 days of fishing and, after watching them fish, realized one of the reasons is they spent most of their time casting in empty water.
A good Gaspe guide will have you fish waters only where he has spotted fish. That doesn’t mean you’ll get the Atlantic to eat the fly, but at least, you know you are fishing “live” water. He’ll also observe the fish (New Zealand style) and advise you on your drift to get the best possible shot at attracting a fish. This would be classified as a “trophy fishery” which means success is not measured in numbers of fish, but size and the overall experience. Even with a good guide, if you average a fish a day released, you’re doing well.
However, most of the fish you’re casting to are over 10 pounds with a good number of 15 and 20+ pounders. The first year returning grilse make up a smaller percentage of the total returning Gaspe rivers fish count than most of the famous Atlantic fisheries. That smaller percentage of grilse gives the angler much better odds of getting fish of 15, 20 pounds or larger – simply more large fish present in relation to the number of grilse. Our outfitter has three excellent guides - all good at spotting fish.
Timing: The season runs June 1 to the end of September. The Atlantic’s are protected starting with October when the fish get ready to move into their spawning mode and they become aggressive toward any intrusion into their world of reproduction.
The big fish begin entering the rivers in May. By early June, there are usually enough fish in the rivers to make fishing worthwhile. However, the downside of early June can be the waters may still be high and, if the run is late (as it was this year) there may not be many fish available. By mid June, most would say the prime early season has begun.....at least in “normal years.” This early season features fresh big fish, but not the numbers of all sizes that will be present as the summer rolls on. For the “trophy hunter” who will fish hard all week in pursuit of the “Atlantic of a lifetime,” this is prime because there are not the numbers of smaller fish to get in the way.
As June comes to an end and we move into July, the numbers of fresh fish entering the system increases. In late July and through August, there can be lower (and warmer) waters. The rivers are full of fish and, with the lower water levels; dry fly fishing can be at its best. If some meaningful rain falls during this time to freshen the rivers, things can get exciting, but low and warm waters can make fishing difficult. Generally, early September brings enough rain to raise the water levels and allow significant numbers of remaining “fresh fish” to enter the rivers. The last two weeks of September can be very good with the maximum number of fish in the river systems, cooling waters, and the aggressive nature of the pre-spawning fish. A late September bonus is the turning of the fall colors.
As always, the case with attempting to identify prime times with any trophy fishery is it’s a very subjective issue with many different versions of the “facts.” And, unexpected weather can always alter the calendar at any time. My version of the season as stated above comes as a result of asking lots of questions during our trip. I gathered opinions from many different veterans and applied my personal “filter of experience” to the responses.
Two basic packages are available. Both of the Gaspe based programs include guided fishing on the Dartmouth, York, and St. Jean, lodging, and meals. The most popular stays are four days of fishing and six days of fishing.
1. There are different lodging options in the town of Gaspe. Using mid-priced lodging, pricing would be approximately:
FFTC Voucher available - 100 USD off for FFTC Members / fisherman / booking
2. The second option is the world class fishing lodge, St Jean Pavilion (photo at left). The Pavilion has over 20 miles of private water on the St Jean River available for it’s maximum of 8 to 10 anglers. Please note: space at the Pavilion is difficult to obtain and usually reservations must be made over a year in advance.
FFTC Voucher available - 100 USD off for FFTC Members / fisherman / booking
If space is available, you could do a combination package of three days fishing at one of the “in Gaspe options” coupled with three days at the Pavilion.
Logistics: to get to Gaspe, you fly to Montreal and then a 2hr, 45min flight to Gaspe that stops in Quebec City enroute – two flights a day at 9:00am and 6:00pm. If you were combining a trip to the Minipi River in Labrador with Atlantic Salmon in Gaspe, you need to get from Gaspe to Halifax by returning to Montreal, flying direct to Halifax, and then to Goose Bay from Halifax.
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