Fortune Always Favors the Foolish By : Jim Stenson

Barely across the Connecticut border, my cell phone started ringing. I didn’t recognize the number at first, but for some reason, it reminded me of a Canadian area code. Why shouldn’t it – I had been in Canada for the last four weeks. I was beginning to think like, act like and occasionally speak like a Canadian guide, and that’s scary on so many levels. At first, I thought it was Kevin at Camp Brule. I couldn’t think of one good reason he might be calling unless I forgot something at the lodge, or I absconded with the family jewels. It wasn’t that I was opposed to answering the phone, but the highway was littered with signs warning drivers; it was against the law to talk on your cell phone and drive at the same time. It was something about the five hundred dollar fine that made me a little reluctant, so I let the call go to voicemail.

A few hours later, I had pulled into a Waffle House for a quick bite. Usually, I never stop and piss my money away at a chain restaurant – although they have their advantages. If you order a cheeseburger at a McDonald’s in Maine, it probably tastes like any McDonald’s in South Florida. Joe Hovious and I have been known to drive fifty or sixty miles out of the way to run down a good mom and pop restaurant, especially if it’s a diner, and spend hours trying to find it again on the way back. When possible, Mark and I do our best to stay off the interstate, usually running into them accidentally. That’s the cost of admission if you’re traveling with a professional photographer. However, I would be more inclined to call Mark an artist, even though he would scoff at the idea. Of course, it’s a fallacy to think that all mom and pop restaurants are created equal. Like all things in life, it’s a crapshoot. Rarely can you find one on a major highway, and if you do, the food is usually mediocre at best. If it was indeed a great mom and pop restaurant, you would have to wait in line or better yet, hope you can find a couple of empty seats at the counter. Unfortunately, this time the quest would have to wait. As the Bandit might say, I was “Southbound and down, loaded up and truckin.” 

It was time to go home. At this point, I had been north of the Mason and Dixon line way too long.

About halfway through my All-Star Special, I remembered I had several messages on my phone. It wasn’t Kevin or Mark. It was the lodge owner that must not be named. From this point on, I will call the lodge owner Voldemort for the lack of a more appropriate name, and I will name the lodge Hogwarts. Voldemort wanted to know if I was interested in visiting his lodge on the Matapedia River next season. He wanted me to bring a photographer up and shoot the photos for his new website. That meant we would get seven days guided fishing, and room and board, for the images. It seemed almost too good to be true if the Matapedia was still a reasonably good salmon river.

The Matapedia essentially straddles the border between Quebec and New Brunswick. From what I knew about the Matapedia, and that wasn’t very much – at one time, it was considered one of the best, if not the best, Atlantic salmon river in Quebec. Of course, at one time, all the rivers that ran to the sea throughout Eastern Canada were considered cosmic. The only way to find out was to fish the damn thing.

There always seems to be the quid pro quo involved in these offers. There was still the cosmic catch, the universal truth, the carrot at the end of the stick sales pitch. John Nash would have been proud to know that every modern-day lodge owner is well versed in the Nash Equilibrium. The mathematical formula is a proposed solution of a non-cooperative game theory involving two or more players. Principally with both players benefiting equally in the spoils. Typically, when someone offers me the deal of a lifetime Nash Equilibrium or not, I run for the hills. Regardless of what someone tells you, there is no such thing as a free trip. Even the most basic free trip these days will set you back several thousand dollars. It reminds me of when a neighbor down the street knocked on our front door one night and offered us a free puppy. 

At that point, I don’t think I could have suffered through another seven days without hooking and landing a salmon, although it’s not uncommon not to catch a salmon. In fact, it seems to be the norm, not the exception. It’s the nature of the game we pay to play. Sometimes I tend to think it’s much better to approach these trips in a more holistic perspective. If you’re consistently try to break down the journey into smaller parts, you will drive yourself crazy. Suppose you decide to justify the trip by the trip’s cost divided by the number of salmon you catch. In that case, you will find yourself on your knees with a very sharp samurai sword about to commit seppuku—the samurai’s traditional way to redeem himself to the local warlord and restore his honor. I can think of less painful ways, like putting in more time on the water, learning how to cast better, learning to read the water, and if that fails, try golf. The idea of splitting my stomach open with a razor-sharp sword and then watching my guts spill out on the ground is a little melodramatic if you ask me. In the end, it’s just fishing for Christ’s sake.

We agreed to keep in touch, and after I was home for a few weeks, I would give him a callback and discuss the trip in more depth. Somewhere in Southern Kentucky, I managed to reach Mark and fill him in on Voldemort’s proposal, if for nothing else to see if he was even interested. I wouldn’t say he seemed thrilled, but then again, it was another chance to catch an Atlantic salmon, and it’s been my impression that fortune always favors the foolish. The more I thought about it; I probably should have waited a few months before I called Mark. He just stepped off the horse, and I wasn’t sure his heart was in it.

I was in striking distance of Mobile. With a little luck, I should be home before nightfall. After a few days of unpacking and catching up on the random chores and spoiling my wife, I had to get back to work. The summer was ending, and fall was right around the corner. To make things a little more aggravating for the wife, I was headed back to British Columbia the last week of October and the first week of November to chase steelhead.

In January, I was headed to Southern Oregon to chase winter steelhead. In May, June, July, I would be fishing the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva for snook and tarpon. That being said, the Matapedia seemed intriguing. Of course, it involved another long road trip. Then out of the blue, I received a phone call from Neville Orsmond, the relatively new owner of Thomas & Thomas fly rods. He wanted to advertise in the Contemporary Sportsman, and if I had time, stop by and shoot the photography for T&T’s new catalog. At first, stopping by sounded a little ridiculous; one does not just stop by when you live at the opposite end of the country. Then it dawned on me, T&T was in western Massachusetts, and if Mark and I flew into Boston, and we rented an SUV at the airport, we could drive west and spend three of four days at T&T, and then head northeast towards the Matapedia and kill two birds with one stone. The T&T job was an easy sell, but back-to-back trips might be difficult for Mark to justify. Even though July seemed like a long way off, I knew from experience that it was right around the corner. It’s not like we needed to start packing tomorrow, but we needed to stay on top of it.

The fall and the spring vaporized, and before I knew what hit me, it was late May, and I was still on Sanibel chasing snook on the beach. I barely had the time to get back to Mobile and start packing for the Gaspe. Even though the Matapedia River might not exactly be on the Gaspe, it’s definitely close enough for government work. It was a strange dichotomy – the ninety-degree white sandy beaches of Sanibel and the cooler and the almost fall-like temperatures and green forest of Northern Canada.

A few weeks later, I was about to land in Boston, a city I promised my wife I would never step foot in again. After grad school, my wife took a job at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge. We lasted three or four years, and even though my wife dearly loved her career, she understood I had to get out of the damn Northeast corridor, or I was going to commit harakiri sooner than later. I had already picked up the rental car when Mark finally landed. By the time we made it to the suburban, it was almost five pm, and the afternoon traffic was already stacked up at the toll booths. I tried my best to explain to Mark what we were in for the next several hours, but I got the feeling he thought I was exaggerating. Little did he know at the time, I was trying to shine a positive light on the nightmare ahead.

We were headed west at a snail’s pace. Mark was fortunate that I had spent three years driving in this ridiculous traffic. In Boston’s defense, my wife and I lived there at the Big Digs high water mark. I remember the day we left like it was yesterday. When we finally crossed the Mason Dixon Line, I pulled the moving truck off the road and got out and kissed the ground. I swore to myself I would never cross this line again. Of course, I forgot that all the great Atlantic salmon and steelhead rivers lived north of the Mason Dixon Line.

By the time we made it to Western Massachusetts, the sun was starting to fade. We were both exhausted! I was coming down with the flu. Either that or Mark already had the flu, and I tried to avoid him at all costs. When I harken back to the crime in question, I think Mark showed up at the airport with the flu and shook my hand or gave me a bear hug. Regardless of how it started, I spent the next several days in bed while Mark started shooting the photography for T&T’s new catalog. I did manage to spend some time in T&T’s facility. The shop was nothing like I expected. It was an old-world shop littered with artifacts from a time gone by, a more gentile time when craftsmanship was more important than mass production. Everything reeked of history and the smell of bamboo and resin. It was an assault on our senses. The next morning we did our best to hit the road early, but unfortunately, we couldn’t leave town without stopping at all the coffee shops and the occasional bagel shop on the way out.

Later that day, we found ourselves just shy of the Canadian border. It was getting late, and we knew we had to find a motel quickly, or we would be sleeping in the truck. We knew once we crossed the border, there was a cluster of motels about two hours down the highway. It was about nine o’clock when we pulled into the parking lot of the same motel we had stayed in the previous year. We might have reached the motel a little quicker if we could have ignored the multitudes of Tim Hortons along the way. That’s how we measure the distance to the Gaspe – the number of Tim Hortons per mile. The motel wasn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton by any stretch of the imagination, but we did have a bed and a reasonably hot shower. Both of us were coughing and hacking and a little stuffed up. We weren’t exactly at our best.

Voldemort suggested we arrive at the lodge sometime around lunchtime. If not, we would have to find something to do until dinnertime. Evidently the lodge was closed while he was on the water guiding. Did I mention Mark and I never went anywhere fast – we were perpetually late for everything. We pulled into the lodge a little after one, and true to his word Voldemort was back on the water, and the lodge was locked up like a supermax prison. Mark and I headed toward the little town of Causapscal, where the Salmon River meets the Matapedia. We stumbled into a great small restaurant that hung out over the river that specialized in smoked meats and great pizzas. My God, what a combination! Before the week was over, we must have woofed down a half dozen of them in every flavor imaginable. After lunch, we took the Atlantic salmon tour in the little public park across the street. To my surprise, it was beautiful and quite informative, and yes, it even had few live salmon in the ponds. I kept thinking if the fishing was as bad as last year on the Petite Cascapedia, we could always sneak in one night and pilfer a few salmon. After all, how many times can one suffer the humiliation of getting skunked? I still had the open scars from the the previous salmon season.

We managed to waste the afternoon and started making our way back to Hogwarts. We must have stopped dozens of times to check out the pools on the river before we made it back to the lodge. When we finally pulled in the long driveway, we spotted Voldemort trying to take a massive outboard off one of the largest Atlantic salmon canoes I have ever seen. I will spare you the details, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. I wish it were something I could get out of my head! The little town of Routhierville was charming in an odd kind of way. If it were not for the beautiful old covered bridge on the Matapedia, I am not sure anyone would have known the little town existed.

To my surprise, Hogwarts was a beautiful little lodge. We loved everything about it except the second floor. There were four bedrooms and two beds per room and only one bathroom for potentially eight people. Hogwarts also doubled as a hybrid of sorts, a fishing lodge, and a hotel and sometimes a bed and breakfast. It was a little confusing at times, but if nothing else, it was entertaining. If you were the type of person that can’t function in the morning without a shower, you had to crawl out of bed somewhere around four am. The shower didn’t seem to bother the other guest on the second floor, but the shower was directly above Voldemort’s bedroom and woke him up every morning. The first morning I walked down the stairs as quietly as I could to find Voldemort pacing back in forth at the bottom of the stairs. He wanted to know what the hell I was doing. I politely asked what the hell difference did it make to him. That was the first morning, and it really didn’t get much better. In fact, at the time, I thought that was the high point of the trip.

I have to hand it to him; the food was excellent, and the lodge other than the one bathroom, was very well laid out. Hogwarts was on a steep hill that overlooked the Matapedia. There were several small houses and an old church that had been converted into a small lodge. A gentleman who owned a fly shop somewhere in the states owned the quaint little houses and the church that surrounded Hogwarts. He rented the rooms to his clientele from the fly shop. He wasn’t supposed to guide and to be honest, I never saw him guide anyone, but according to Voldemort, he was the second coming of the antichrist. Voldemort had filed several lawsuits and did his best to have him evicted. To make things even worse, one of the best runs on the river was just below Hogwarts, and every morning at sunrise, three of four of the fishermen that were staying in the small houses were lined up shoulder to shoulder, taking turns swinging the bridge pool. Arguably one of the best salmon pools on the river.

The first morning Mark and I decided to walk down to the river and check out the old converted church while Voldemort cleaned up the kitchen and took care of the other guests. Halfway down the road, we ran into a couple of spey fishermen from Scotland. Like all fishermen, we started asking all the stupid who, what, when, and where questions all fishermen seem to ask on a strange river. If I remember correctly, they had caught a few salmon the previous week before the water started to drop. One of the gentlemen with a wee Scottish accent asked us where we were staying. I pointed towards Hogwarts, and for the next few minutes, they started laughing uncontrollably. When they finally stopped – they asked if we were fishing with Voldemort, and for lack of a better answer, I told them the whole story, and they started laughing again. I was beginning to think; “I should have owned a comedy club instead of a travel agency for fly fishermen and wing shooters.”

I half-assed expected a tip after providing so much free entertainment. I never knew I was that funny!

Evidently they had fished with Voldemort for a couple of days the previous week. The only thing we could get them to say about Hogwarts was something about Voldemort losing his paddle or his push pole, falling asleep in the canoe, and slipping and sliding on the rocks while trying to get the canoe either on or off the trailer. There might have been something said about falling out of the canoe. I was already depressed by this time; I didn’t need to hear anymore. On the way back to the lodge, I reminded Mark that the Scots have a wicked sense of humor. If we were lucky, they were making it all up. A few years back, Mark and I ran into a couple of Scottish ghillie’s and their sport on the Skeena River in British Columbia over dinner. I laughed so hard throughout dinner I had a difficult time keeping anything down. Although I have to admit, I never really knew if the two ghillie’s we had met on the Skeena were pulling our leg or not. You never knew if they were kidding at your expense or deadpan serious.

The sun was beginning to rise over the valley walls, and still no sign of Voldemort. I thought we would have already landed several fish by then. After all, this is the Matapedia. After waiting for the guide to clean up the kitchen and God only knows what else, Voldemort finally hooked up the canoe to his truck, and the first thing out of his mouth was – do we minded using our SUV and running the shuttle. Usually, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but it was the way he asked, and yes, by now, we were both a little apprehensive about the start of the first day. Even though Mark is way too nice ever to admit it. By the end of the week, I thought Mark would probably drown him and possibly steal his canoe.

The Matapedia seems to have everything you would want from a world-class salmon river except world-class salmon. The river seemed to be in great shape. The water was clear, and overnight we seemed to get a few decent showers that cooled the river. It didn’t take long to figure out that Voldemort was just going through the motions. The fishing was spectacular! It was the catching that left a lot to be desired. Mark spent the week taking photos of the landscape and the lodge and as many photos of the food as possible. He took photos of Voldemort and me getting in and out of the canoe. He took dozens of photos of all the wildflowers along the river. He took photos from the lodge looking down on the river, and then took photos of the lodge looking up from the river.

Eventually, one afternoon I couldn’t stand it anymore. I asked Voldemort how many fish he had caught this year. He turned, and in a shallow voice, said “none so far.” I kept wondering, how could this be? I had seen other fishermen up and down the river catch fish. The salmon had to be in the river, and yet we hadn’t had so much as a tug. When we went back to the lodge for dinner that night, Mark was frustrated – he wanted to know how in the hell are we going to get any decent photos of an Atlantic salmon for Hogwarts? If nothing else, Voldemort could buy a few off the web and just lie about the fish’s origin. Then I kept thinking about the salmon at the park. Maybe they would let us take a few photos of the salmon in the ponds. We had been doing the same thing day after day for the last six days without so much as a tug. If you counted the last seven days on the Petite Cascapedia the previous year, we had been doing the same thing for the last thirteen days without touching a fish. And yes, I was counting! We had one day left, and we needed to catch a damn salmon. About this time, we were beginning to think we were cursed. I knew if Mark didn’t catch a salmon on this trip, I would never be able to talk him into coming back. It was getting to be nothing more than a case of self-flagellation. I was beginning to enjoy the pain and humiliation of getting skunked day in and day out.

We were on the water early the next morning. Voldemort started high up on the river. He wanted to spend the whole day on the river and pull out below the lodge in Routhierville just below the covered bridge. I had been fishing a single handed fly rod with a ten-pound tippet almost the entire week. Like the previous six days, we floated and admired the scenery and took pictures of anything interesting. Seven agonizing hours later, we floated into the last pool before we had to pull out. Mark and I were arguing whose turn it was to fish the bridge pool. Mark had pretty much given up and started breaking down his rod. I didn’t have the heart to pick up the fly rod anymore, much less swing the last pool, regardless of how famous the Bridge Pool was. Mark kept pushing me to stand up and start casting.

By the time we reached the pool, Voldemort had pulled the canoe off to the river’s starboard side so I could swing the deeper water off to the left. The river’s right side was too shallow to fish and littered with rubble and the occasional large granite boulder. A stark reminder that this valley was carved by mammoth glaciers that once smothered most of North America at the end of the Pleistocene. From what I could tell, there was no appreciable reason to be that close to the bank. The canoe kept scraping the bottom, and every few minutes would get stuck, and then Voldemort had to get his rather large caboose out of the canoe and push us back into the deeper water.

At times, it felt like I was a character in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Voldemort kept reminding me to fish left and stay away from the right side. There was nothing but grilse on the right side. Hell, a grilse sounded pretty good at this point. I kept pounding the left side like the obedient sport. I spotted a big flat rock off the canoe’s starboard side about sixty or seventy yards from the pullout. It was pushing a lot of water, and there was a deep pool behind the rock. I asked Voldemort about the small, if not micro pool, and he kept telling me to ignore it. The small pool was only about ten feet from the canoe. When I stripped in my line and was about to make another cast to the left – I decided to flip my fly line over my right shoulder and let the fly swing through the pool. Voldemort immediately started pitching a fit and screamed, “cast left.” About that time, I finally got a hit! Voldemort began screaming “get it in the boat; it’s just a grilse.”

The rod doubled, and regardless of how much pressure I put on the fish, it never slowed down. The fish slowly swam away as if it didn’t have a care in the world. By this time, it was thirty or forty feet downriver. Voldemort kept telling me to get the damn grilse to the boat. I can’t tell you how bad I wanted Mark to slap the crap out of Voldemort. About that time a rather large salmon jumped out of the water in the middle of the river with my fly in its mouth. When the salmon finally hit the water, it took off with a vengeance, as if it finally figured out something was wrong. It’s almost as if the salmon had decided to flee rather than stand and fight. I am not saying that salmon have the cognitive ability to dwell on the situation and make a choice, but then again, who really knows what goes on in the mind of an Atlantic salmon in these situations. Voldemort panicked and started yelling, “It’s not a grilse- “it’s not a grilse. Back off on the damn drag or you’re going to lose the fish.” 

I turned and said, “no shit, buckwheat.” 

Seconds later, Voldemort dropped his push pole in the river and simultaneously almost fell out of the canoe. He forgot to drop the anchor, and between the canoe rocking back and forth and Voldemort slipping and sliding, I had little hope of landing my first Atlantic salmon. From all the grunts and groans coming from the back of the canoe, I knew Mark was biting his nails. It was only a matter of time before Mark put Voldemort out of his misery.

Voldemort was doing his best to paddle the canoe as close to the bank as possible so we could get out and fight the salmon from the shore. I was screaming, “stay in the middle of the damn river.”

I looked up, and the covered bridge was only fifty or sixty yards downriver, and my salmon had no intention of slowing down. There was little I could do at the moment. The problem was there was a giant icebreaker pointed upriver dividing the bridge into two channels, and at this point, I didn’t have a clue which side the salmon was going to choose. If it went right we would be safe, but if the salmon decided it wanted to go left and we were on the right bank, the icebreaker would cut me off. I begged Voldemort to stay in the middle, but he kept digging for the right bank like a stubborn mule. He kept mumbling something about being the guide, and he knew what he was doing. Several minutes later, the canoe was safely on the right bank, but the fish’s fate was still in question.

The biggest problem I had was the ten-pound tippet. There was only so much pressure I could put on the salmon without breaking him off. To my surprise, the salmon stayed North of the bridge, and by this time, he decided to use the current to his advantage and slug it out. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I was starting to make some progress. The fish was only twenty or twenty-five feet from the bank when out of nowhere, Voldemort charged into the river with a gigantic Atlantic salmon net and tried to net the fish. The next thing I knew, the line was screaming off my reel, and the salmon had taken back all the line I had spent the last half hour recovering. The same thing happened two or three times before Mark screamed at him to get the hell out of the water. I kept telling him if he would get behind me and put the damn net down until the fish was ready to net – I would swim the fish into the net. A few minutes later, the salmon slid into the net, but Voldemort seemed angry for some reason. It was as if Mark and I had stolen his thunder. It was a beautiful hen, not a scratch on her, but she was tired, and I was beginning to get worried if the fight might have gone on too long. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally kill a healthy salmon, for any reason, especially for the sake of a few photographs for someone’s website. At some point, the insanity has got to stop!

We spent the next ten minutes reviving her, and eventually, she swam away with a big push and disappeared into the depths of the Matapedia. I like to believe she survived and managed to lay tens of thousands of eggs over her lifetime. It wasn’t a giant salmon, but it was probably in the twenty-two to maybe twenty-three-pound range. It was a beautiful fish, and considering it was my first Atlantic salmon, all I could do was smile. I was hooked, but honestly, I was hooked the first time I stepped into the Petite Cascapedia the previous year. Yes, catching a salmon was important, especially my first one. It’s the fundamental reason we spend the time and energy to do this, not to mention the cost. If the Atlantic salmon fisheries of the world have any chance of surviving, we will have to adjust our priorities. One can only hope by the time we have reached this point in life; it should be obvious everyone.

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