Eastern Fly Fishing

Pools and Pools of Salmon
By Paul C. Marriner

After feeling the Ghost Stonefly’s nip and trying to dislodge it with three thrilling leaps, the 12-pound silver swimmer headed back to the salt. Backing peeled off my large-arbor reel against the pressure of my palm on the rim. More than an eighth of a mile of Dacron should allow plenty of time to turn its head, I thought. Even more consoling was the knowledge that Camp Bon-aventure guide Danny Poirier could lift the anchor at any time and follow the fish downriver in the Bonaventure canoe.
   Suddenly the rod tip flipped up and the salmon was gone. Usually I’d be upset at such a turn of events, but I felt only a momentary sense of loss. An hour earlier I’d released the fish’s virtual twin, so bringing number two (the limit of fish you can land) to the boat would have meant ending the day’s fishing before lunch.
   As I began reeling in I knew something was wrong—almost no resistance. Sure enough, when all the backing was recovered there was no line attached. For the first time in almost a half century of salmon fishing, my backing knot had failed. And this after having recently survived several runs. We floated downriver in search of the line and found it 2 miles or so below, no longer attached to anything living, with leader and fly intact. Sadly, the line itself was less fortunate, having tangled with the prop during recovery. But I had another fully rigged rod available. We headed to the far shore for lunch, and afterwards, a few yards away, my day ended with landing one of the salmon’s equally acrobatic classmates.
   Such was the fishing in July 2011, a great year for Bonaventure salmon runs following an even better year in 2010. As we fished our way downstream in Sector A, we saw pods of fresh-run salmon in virtually every known lie. Rather than showing the fish several patterns or changing our methods, we moved on to a new location after a single refusal.
   The Chic-Choc Mountains form the spine of the Gaspé Peninsula. All of the peninsula’s major rivers arise along their length and flow south to the Baie des Cheleurs (aka Chaleur Bay) or north to the Saint Lawrence River. Called Wagamet (“clear water”) by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Bonaventure River flows for some 78 miles before emptying into the Baie des Chaleurs nearly 560 miles northeast of Montreal. Atlantic salmon and sea trout travel far up the main river and its tributaries, with the lower 40 miles being available to salmon anglers. On first viewing the river, most anglers are shocked by its astounding clarity; under certain conditions a canoe will appear to be floating on air.
   The river bottom is highly varied, from ledge rock to boulders to beach rock to gravel. Situated in the world of ice and snow, pools can change substantially from year to year. While filling in with gravel is the usual bad news, sometimes a clean-out can be equally disruptive. Sinclair Pool, for example, can be sensibly fished only from the far side (opposite the road) and thus requires wading across the tail. For several years this was a go-to pool until the tail deepened to the extent that without a canoe only Friar Tuck could reach the far-side beach. However, as so often happens, by 2013 it had filled in sufficiently to require nothing more than a careful wade. Moreover, such annual activity creates unnamed pools, presently as many as 15 or 20. Without a guide familiar with the river, a visitor is unlikely to discover these hot spots.
   A decade ago my friend and skilled guide Claude Bernard told me the annual return to the river was estimated at 3,000 salmon. They arrive between the first of June and the end of September. Multi-sea-winter (MSW) salmon outnumber grilse (one-sea-winter fish), but the catch ratio is nearly equal. Unfortunately, following the general trend in North American rivers, the returns have fallen since then. The 10-year average has decreased to 2,200. However, even when combined with a 70 percent increase in rod days, the success ratio has held steady at 0.25 per rod day, likely due to the substantial numbers of both grilse and salmon released. Of course, this ratio more than doubles when there is access to the limited-rod water or a lodge reservation.


Zones and Pools
At least from a salmon-fishing perspective, the Bonaventure is divided into 11 zones (counting the estuary) containing 97 named pools. Progressing upriver from the estuary, the zones are designated Private, A, B, B1, B3, B4, C, D, E, and Sanctuary.
   The first (private) zone has five named pools and is a holdover from the days when land grants included fishing rights. Camp Bon-aventure owns such land and, while not generally fished throughout the season, the river there can produce fishing at either end. Some years ago I visited the lodge in early June before it opened for guests and had some good fishing in the “home” pool. Owner Glen LeGrand told me that it has also fished quite well in September.
   Sector A is an unlimited-rod sector with 10 pools and was the place where I lost my fish and line. Two popular wading pools are Green and Malin. The former has a gravel bottom for much of its length and is easily accessible. At a popular campsite beside the pool you can often find some very skilled fly tiers with vises clamped to picnic tables. Between the two pools a canoe is almost essential because the river is bordered, at least on the accessible side, by private cottages.
   Sector B and B4 are designated reserved-rod, with 10 and six rods respectively, the former including 13 pools and the latter eight pools. Except in quite low water conditions, both are canoe sections. I’ve never had good luck in B, but pools such as Grassy, Snake, Jug, and Felix have excellent reputations—in that order. Sometimes anglers will spend the entire day in Grassy. Most of the pools in B are wadable on one side or the other, and Grassy, for example, is fished quite easily from the east bank in normal water. I’ve passed through, but never fished, B4. Claude tells me that while all eight pools in B4 can hold salmon, Deer Landing has the best reputation except in high water, when Slocum may prove friendlier. Of the remaining Bs, B1 is publicly available all week, while B3 is open on Sundays only (the other six days are reserved for the private camps under an arrangement that helps fund the local management authority). My only experience here is with B3. One of the pools, Double Camp, held considerable numbers of salmon, even in a relatively lean year.
   Sectors C and D—where I’ve spent most of my Bon-aventure days—are unlimited-rod zones with a total of 26 pools offering a mixture of easy and difficult wading and canoe-only water. Your choices will typically be guided by water levels. Some pools, such as Moose Rock in Sector C, are dominated by stretches of ledge rock with salmon lies in the central channels. At least for me, this demands careful wading with a staff and water levels low enough to make the ups and downs negotiable. Conversely, Premiere Est and Petit Black in Sector D offer relatively easy wading and can be negotiated in somewhat higher water.
   Sector E includes nine pools. Although I’ve driven along the road that overlooks several pools, I’ve never fished the sector. My friends tell me that while Double Crossing is the most popular, it would a mistake to ignore Russell. The latter occasionally yields a trophy brook trout to a lucky rod. The Sanctuary area begins just upriver from Double Crossing.



Devices, Craft, and Gear
Traditionally, angling on the Bonaventure is done from canoes, and many of its pools can only—or only comfortably—be fished while afloat. Despite more pools now having road access, canoeing remains the method of choice for traveling the river. The Bonaventure canoe is distinctive and of local origin, having been built for three generations by the Arsenault family. Twenty-four feet long, the early versions were double-ended for poling. Later, with the availability of outboards, the builders squared off the stern for easy motor mounting. The river’s namesake craft is beautiful and functional—long enough to provide control while negotiating rapids, wide enough to maintain a shallow draft, and stable enough for casting. Although props see rough usage, jet motors are considered too noisy, heavy, and expensive. Flows between 20 and 100 cubic meters per second are best for canoe travel, and anglers can get almost up-to-date data from www.cehq.gouv.qc.ca/suivihydro/graphique.asp?NoStation=010802.
The river’s astounding clarity inspired the invention of the “look-a-tout” device, which derives its name from “see everything,” a rough translation of a mixed French/English expression. A periscope-like instrument, a look-a-tout lets practiced eyes see virtually every salmon in the pool. Particularly when fish are scarce, the ability to eliminate empty areas, or entire pools, from attention substantially improves your chances. I recall one brief visit during a lean period when Bernard “scoped” four or five pools before we found, and caught, a salmon.
   When I first fished the Bonaventure 25 years ago, two-handed rods were a rarity, if they were seen at all. Today, many wading anglers choose to Spey-cast with 13- to 16-foot poles. From a canoe, single-handed rods still rule, but my choice is a 10-foot, 6-inch switch rod. Making long casts with this style of rod puts less stress on well-worn shoulder and elbow joints. When you’re wading, they have less range than the longer rods but can be cast one-handed if necessary. While it might seem that a switch rod is ill suited to dry-fly fishing—which generally targets a visible fish or specific lie—a switch rod limits the need to constantly change line length. Except under unusually high water conditions, only a floating line is needed.
   Reg Righyni was a noted British salmon angler who wrote several books, one of which is Salmon Taking Times (1965). In it he proposes that stream oxygen levels determine salmon responsiveness: neither too much nor too little, so as the day progresses the “right” oxygen level occurs twice, once on the way up and again on the way down. Righyni suggested this “inspired the famous eleven o’clock and four o’clock theory.” He then provides examples and additional support, but not, unfortunately, a detailed diary. Another, more recent, theory is presented by Andrew Bett in Trout, Salmon and the Evening Rise: The Barometric Breakthrough (2006). The title broadly tells the story.
Then, of course, there are the classic Solunar tables and Vektor fish and game tables. Both of them supposedly predict the best times during the day for fishing, based, essentially, on tides. So what has all this to do with the Bonaventure? While I certainly subscribe to the existence of taking times, rarely have I experienced a more convincing demonstration than during two days of a 2012 trip.
 Heading into Premiere Est Pool after midday, we spoke to a departing angler who said he had caught at least one salmon in that pool every day that week, always around 3 p.m. and always on dries. 
He also mentioned that he’d caught one that morning around 11 a.m. Later that day we returned, met him again, and learned he’d released his second salmon as advertised. The following day we were fishing in Sector B3 and arrived at Double Camp in time to watch an angler land two salmon in rapid succession around 11 a.m., both on dries. We fished the pool for the next four hours without any action. Then, at 3 p.m., I landed two grilse on almost successive casts with a Black Bomber. The second was so aggressive it chased the dragging fly halfway to my side of the river. Such behavior isn’t unique to the Bonaventure, but the few minutes spent in conversation with a fellow angler suggest that 3 p.m. is a poor time for an afternoon nap.
   For more than a century the Bonaventure fishery was managed as a plutocracy: only the wealthy, the connected, or their friends could access its salmon. That ended more than 30 years ago when the leases were canceled and a largely democratic regime—management by the people, for the people—was installed. 
The greatly expanded access led to a few problems but has been overwhelmingly positive. Today anglers can cast for salmon as guests at one of the world’s finest lodges or entirely on their own with a daily rod pass. You owe it to yourself to find a place for this magnificent river on your must-fish list.


Quebec River Management
I once wrote that untangling Quebec river management was like attacking the Gordian knot with a bodkin. Little has changed. For salmon, the major (but not only) format is based on local river management, at the heart of which are zones known as ZECs (from zone d’exploitation contrôlée, roughly translating as “controlled access and harvest zone.” The “year” begins with a preseason drawing on November 1. The process gets complicated, not unlike applying for a big-game hunting license in many states in the U.S. The Bonaventure has five sectors for which reservations are taken.
   One way to avoid this procedure is to reserve with an outfitter or full-service guide before the end-of-October submission deadline. They will take care of everything, including the 48-hour submissions during your stay. Also look into day tickets, which are available for three sectors and can be purchased at the ZEC office in the town of Bonaventure or at the visitor center at Premiere Est Pool, at the beginning of sector D (see Notebook for contact information).  


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