You Can’t Always Get What You Want : By Jim Stenson

Alexander Pope, in his famous essay “An Essay on Man,” wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Sure hope springs eternal in the human breast, but a good plan and a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

Twelve years ago I hatched a plan that might put me in a position to catch my first Atlantic salmon. It was fraught with landmines and more if, ands, and buts, than you could imagine. First, I needed to reach out and find an Atlantic salmon lodge gullible enough to agree to my offer below. Then I needed to convince my close friend and world-class photographer Mark Lance to come along. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but at the mere mention of Atlantic salmon and Mark takes a deep breath and rolls his eyes. That should have been my first clue.

Getting a hold of a lodge owner or a guide during high season is always an adventure. After weeks of trying, I had almost given up hope of reaching Kevin McWhirter, the general manager and head guide at Camp Brule on the Petite Cascapedia, and with it my cunning scheme to finagle my way into my first trip fly fishing for Atlantic salmon. A few days after my last-ditch effort, leaving my umpteenth message, lightning struck, and Kevin and I both ended up on the line simultaneously. I introduced myself as the publisher and managing editor of The Contemporary Sportsman and The Contemporary Wing Shooter. I was beginning to explain my situation when I heard Kevin bark orders about the importance of keeping the fly in the water and fishing out the swing.

It sounded familiar but somewhat off-topic; it dawned on me that Kevin was calling from the boat. Indeed, Kevin soon apologized and explained that he was on the water with a client. Since Kevin assured me that his client was not offended by our conversation, I did my best to work around their ongoing discourse. Trying for maximum professionalism, I worked on tempering my excitement as I explained that I wanted to bring a photographer up and spend the week chasing Atlantic salmon on the Petite Cascapedia to write an article about the experience and then publish it in The Contemporary Sportsman.

Kevin asked the name of the photographer, and before I had time to tell him I hadn’t decided yet, blurted out he had in his possession hundreds of photos taken by Mark Lance several years prior. I was afraid that might come up: I had known about the photos long before I called – they were parked on a CD on top of my desk. As I had feared, Kevin volunteered to write the article in my stead, sprinkled with Mark’s pre-existing photos. I had to change the parameters of the argument on the fly, no pun intended, sensing my clever scheme for scoping out a new lodge and concomitantly finagling my way into Camp Brule for a week of salmon fishing slipping away. I explained that the article was meant to be about my first Atlantic salmon on the fly. Perhaps seeing through my cunning designs, Kevin started to laugh and capitulated but informed me that he didn’t have any openings until the season was over. He thought the fishing might be better in the fall, so we settled on the first week of September. Granted, most experts might not consider fall prime time, but if we were lucky, if the late-season rains showed and the proverbial creek didn’t rise too much, I might catch my first Atlantic salmon after all.

Inviting myself to Camp Brule turned out to be the easy part. The real challenge involved explaining to my wife why I had just tacked another ten days onto my already two-week-long trip covering lodges on the Skeena and the Buckley rivers in British Columbia. While I was at it, I also intended to spend another three days camping on the Rapid River chasing landlocked salmon at the mouth of the Mooselookmeguntic.

Mark Lance, my partner in crime for the Camp Brule trip, flew in from Denver a few days early so we could take our time meandering our way up and down the Gaspe, as was our modus operandi on most road trips, even the sixteen thousand mile road trips. When Mark finally arrived, a few hours late, he had that beaten-down look we all acquire after a long flight. I offered to take him to his room so he could unpack and take a shower before dinner, he wouldn’t hear of it. It wasn’t difficult to see that Mark needed a cold beer and some real food.

Later that evening, we dragged Mark’s luggage up to his hotel room and agreed to meet the next morning in the lobby before daybreak. Mark was once a geologist by trade, and, like all scientists, he gets kind of testy about schedules. So, I set my alarm clock to four o’clock in the morning and made sure to be showered, packed, and stowed by the time Mark came down the elevator.

When we met up that morning, we exchanged a knowing smile, each knowing he was thinking exactly what the other was thinking: pancakes with fresh maple syrup, and bacon. Ten minutes later, we were headed north, looking for a wonderful mom and pop diner. After all, this was Maine, home of some of the best maple syrup on the planet. We found our diner, collected fuel for the long trek, and enjoyed the first leg of our trip well before putting a line in the water.

September in the north embodies the beginning of the end: a time of transition. In due course, the Gaspe would be smothered in snow, but for now, it was the time of the harvest moon and aplenty for farmers and hunters. Several weeks earlier, I had been sloshing my way through the rain forest of British Columbia, chasing steelhead. I didn’t remember how much I had missed fall in the north woods until the sun started rising over the timbers of northern Maine, beginning to show their fall colors. When we hit the New Brunswick border, the woods were ablaze in intense reds, bumblebee yellows, and mango browns – the complete opposite of the monochromatic green, longleaf wiregrass forest of my sweet home in Southern Alabama.

Travel, to me, is about celebrating the differences: not only the difference in the landscape, climate, and biodiversity but also the difference in the people and cultural diversity. There is nothing better than a long, slow road trip to understand the relationship between people and the landscape, especially for the people who make their living off the land. It is comforting that there are still people who live their lives in harmony with the natural world.

Making good time, we pulled into the lodge a day early. We figured if the camp was full, we could find a hotel and crash for the night. But, to my surprise, Camp Brule was empty – never a good omen. If the fishing is as good in the Fall as advertised during Kevin’s sales pitch for this particular week in September, why are we the only ones here? When Kevin walked out of his office to greet us, even before we had completed our pleasantries, I asked where everybody was. Although he greeted Mark quite warmly, his reception of me, following my awkward question, teetered somewhat on the chilly side. Ignoring my inquiry, Kevin invited us in for a cup of coffee. So, I asked again why the lodge was empty. He took a deep breath and lectured me like a small child that the water was low, and the temperature currently more suitable for bonefish than Atlantic salmon. From there, his elucidations turned to the advantages of having the lodge to ourselves. I saw my chances for catching my first Atlantic salmon on a fly wane. But, hope springs eternal in a fly fisherman’s heart.

For its part, Camp Brule lived up to everything I had imagined: a beautiful old lodge in a gorgeous place, exuding old-world charm, and sitting on a world-class Atlantic salmon River right out the back door. Convenient for the novice salmon fly fisherman, it’s one of those places where you could spend a week and never fret if you didn’t catch that elusive salmon.

After unpacking and scoping out the lodge, Mark wanted to take a few photos in the late afternoon light. With beginner’s enthusiasm, I strung up a few rods, put on my waders, and stretched out the lines in the pool behind the lodge while Mark used me as his model. To our utter astonishment, the photo shoot only lasted a short while before Kevin came running down the steps screaming at me to get out of the water. It turns out that, for some reason, Camp Brule doesn’t own the pool behind the lodge, it’s owned by a lodge on the Grande Cascapedia. For the life of me, I don’t remember the name of that lodge, possibly because its mere mention seemed to aggravate Kevin. The entangled and confusing rules of access to local waters form part of the cultural charm of the Gaspe. I suspect it’s also one massive insider joke to identify and haze first-time tourists.

Mark and I spent the next five days floating the Petite Cascapedia. On Mark’s previous trip to Camp Brule, he had caught his one and only Atlantic salmon: a beautiful eighteen-pound hen. He liked to tell me about it in great detail when, during the next seven days, no salmon ever so much as sniffed my fly. In fact, I didn’t see an Atlantic salmon until we decided to hike into the Bonaventure.

We arrived late at the Bonaventure to find a gaggle of fishermen in what should have been our pool. The sight of six or seven fishermen lined up, waiting their turn to fish the pool admittedly dampened our spirits at first. Our guide didn’t seem to think much about the infringement of our rights. He did his best to explain the funky rules and regulations that control the Bonaventure and some of the other local rivers: something about the ZEC, the Grande Cascapedia Society, and the lottery. To the uninitiated, it all sounds a bit complicated (not to mention expensive). More to the point, my overriding motivation was catching an Atlantic salmon not passing the Canadian bar. For one ill-tempered moment, I looked at Mark and asked, “Really, we drove two thousand miles each way to do this?” From the lofty height of having already caught his one (and only) Atlantic salmon, Mark kept reminding me that he had warned me of the slim odds of catching an Atlantic salmon on my first trip. Mark did his best to prepare me for failure. When that didn’t curb my occasional impatient grumbling, he reminded me I was the one who invited him.

The day following our shoulder-to-shoulder adventure on the Bonaventure, Kevin managed to garner us a “great” pool on the Grande Cascapedia. He dropped us off at the Grande Cascapedia Society early the following morning. From what I could make out, he had paid the Society eighteen hundred dollars for the day. That got us an Atlantic salmon canoe, an ancient guide, and a young man to do the dirty work. When the gear was packed and the sports safely aboard, the ancient mariner gingerly strutted down the rocks, climbed in the canoe, and grabbed the push pole.

For the next four hours, we fished our way down the pool and then switched flies and repeated the process until it was lunchtime. The pool was only forty or fifty yards long, and regardless of how slowly you fished it, you were continually starting over. Like Oliver Twist, the boy who dared to ask for more porridge, I had the gall to ask our guide why couldn’t we fish the pools below us. Then I topped off that affront by suggesting we float the river until we found a good stretch of water, anchor the canoe, and get out and fish it. Once I had managed to finally revive our seasoned and venerable guide, I feared he was going to beat me over the head with the push pole. For some odd reason, he kept asking where I was from – apparently it makes a difference.

Some years following my first trip to the Grande Cascapedia, I fished with a local Mi’gmaq guide, and he told me about his tribe, and about the tribe’s fishing rights on the Grande Cascapedia. From what I could tell, it was incredibly complicated, but added up to the Mi’gmaq tribe ensuring its fair compensation for the use of its rivers, which leads to some of the quirks that had struck me as a bit unusual on my first visit. Another thing I took away from the conversation was that the guide is king. If a guide wanted to pitch a stick of dynamite into the best pool on the river, no one could stop him. Then again, this information was conveyed to me by a guide, and some guides don’t necessarily let the restriction of truth get into the way of a good tale.

Later that day, Kevin picked us up and took us back to the lodge for the big meal of the day and an afternoon nap. After what seemed like rather long nap, we were back on the river and repeated the morning ritual for several more hours, unfortunately with the same results. That night we enjoyed a great dinner and cocktails before crawling into a cozy bed.

All in all, we spent seven days on the Petite, and the Grande Cascapedia my first visit. Although I didn’t get so much as a rise, I know better than to rush to judgment about Atlantic salmon fishing. After all, Mark warned me. Plus, it wasn’t the first time I’ve come up empty-handed, and I doubt it will be the last.

The Gaspe in the fall is downright breathtaking; it’s not difficult to see the hand of some divine power in the beauty of the rivers and valleys we floated. It some ways, it is a spiritual experience, a quest of sorts. Is Atlantic salmon fishing for everyone? No, it’s most certainly not! Is it for me? Absolutely! It appeals to everything I love about fishing: the hunt, the challenge, the people, the rivers, the land, and the travel. It’s not necessarily what you take from the river. It’s about what you give back. If you happen to be the privileged fisherman on any given day that catches an Atlantic salmon, count yourself as one of the luckiest people on the planet and brag about it mercilessly to those who haven’t yet. It’s a sacred part of the tradition.

All great road trips eventually come to an end. I dropped Mark off at the airport in Portland, Maine, and then pointed the Suburban south. I drove straight through, only stopping for gas and the occasional burger. At the end of this trip, I hadn’t seen my family in almost four weeks; I missed them and hoped my wife hadn’t changed the locks and sold all my fishing gear to the lowest bidder. She hadn’t, and coming home to my loving family always ranks high as the final joy associated with a great fishing trip.

 





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