By Alex Shoumatoff
January 11, 2006 A version of this, in which Hoagy was changed into moi, ran in the July, 2005 Travel + Leisure magazine.
Hoagy Carmichael Jr. was up to his waist in the Grand Cascapedia, the Pebble Beach of salmon rivers, on Quebec’s Gaspé coast. With the effortless grace and unerring precision of a Zen archer, he cast a loop of line a hundred feet out over the amber green water. The loop uncurled in slow motion and softly, unobtrusively dropped his gawdy Lady Amherst fly right into a riffle where a big Atlantic salmon had just rolled. Then he watched intently, his left hand on his hip, elbow crooked, and neck craned slightly forward, to see if the fish was going to take it.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he called to me, trying my luck further down Little Camp Pool, one of the 87-mile-long river’s 150 named pools. The laid-back, clubbable Hoagy’s father composed some of the immortal jazz standards, and he gets royalties every time a new version of “Stardust” or “Georgia on My Mind” is recorded. This has enabled him to indulge his passion for this highly ritualized aristocratic blood sport. Every summer he comes to this majestic river, as do some three thousand salmon. They come back to spawn in the river where they were born, after years of epic, uncharted peregrinations in the North Atlantic.
There are 23 salmon rivers on Gaspé Peninsula, and 150 in Quebec, but the fish that return to the Grand Cascapedia are a particularly robust strain of Salmo salar, the biggest in Canada, or anywhere except Norway’s Alta River. They average twenty pounds. Three forty-pounders had been already caught this summer. The record is still the 54-pound fish caught in l886 by R.G. Dun, of Dun and Bradstreet, the New York credit-checking firm.
Hoagy is writing a history of the river, so he is on top of these facts. “Sometimes I think of all the interesting people who have fished this pool,” he told me : “Chester Arthur, Jimmie Carter, Mike Mansfield, Bing Crosbie, Benny Goodman, the hockey great Bobby Orr, the sculptor Joel Schapiro, various Vanderbilts, three generations of Fricks. Just recently I found the diary of Dr. Weir Fisher, an eminent Philadelphia surgeon. Sitting in his canoe in l896, he wrote, ‘Ah ! the sweet green peace of it all.’ To me that is a perfect summation of what this river is about.”
The shimmering reflections of the towering, closed-packed trees crowding its banks brought to mind the thumping dactylic hexameter of Longfellow’s Evangeline,
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks
Bearded with moss and in garments green indistinct in the twilight
Stand like druids of old, with voices said and prophetic.
This was the wilderness he was describing. But to me there was nothing gloomy about it. It was radiant, glorious, this maritime boreal forest—nature in its purest, cleanest, almost untrammeled splendor.
“People have enormous respect for this river because of its rich heritage, its big fish, and its beauty,” Hoagy went on. “You feel privileged when you take a fish from it.” For me it was privilege enough just to be here. Whether or not I a caught a fish was secondary. In fact, I was secretly hoping I didn’t. 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 imprinted on the river’s unmistakeable geochemical olfactory signature before they took to sea, as six to eight-inch par. In the best of worlds, these fish
should be left in peace while they go 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 totally on the forbearance and wise management of the people who catch them, who want their to be enough fish to catch next year. This is one of the ironies of conservation, and has been since the movement began, in the late nineteeth century, as an alliance between the birdwatchers and the hunters. The trout and ducks’ most powerful advocates are sportsmen’s organizations called Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, and the much more imperiled Atlantic salmon look to the St. Andrews, New Brunswick-based Atlantic Salmon Federation and locally to the Cascapedia Society, whose memberships overlap heavily.
After the French lost their colony on the Plains of Abraham in l760, and New France became Canada, the British administrators arrived with their rods and reels and guns and racquets and golf clubs. It didn’t take long for word to reach their ears about the humongous salmon in the Grand Cascapedia. Sport fishing on the river is documented back to the l840s, but it didn’t really take off until the Marquis of Lorne, the Governor General of Canada from 1878 to l883, and his wife, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, steamed down the St. Lawrence River from Montreal and around the Gaspé Peninsula to the Baie des Chaleurs, which the Grand Cascapedia pours into. There they were met by the Micmac Indians who had been living at the river’s mouth since time immemorial and trapping and spearing the fish at night with torches. Their settlement was called Gesgapegiag, “Where the River Widens.” It is still there, home to 550 Micmacs.
Cascapedia is a corruption of it.
The Micmacs poled the party from Montreal up the treacherously strong and swift river in long birchbark canoes. The Marquis of Lorne was, in the words of his biographer Sandra Gwyn, “a member of the homosexual set” who “lacked the capacity for sustained concentration,” and Princess Louise was the lady Di of her time, a great outdoorswoman who had “a favorite guide” who posed in the nude for her (and that is not all, according to gossip); she rewarded him with a ranch in Alberta when she went back to England.
Princess Louise secured for a few pounds an exclusive ninety-five-year lease of the river for the governors general, and a fancy fishing camp called Lorne Cottage was built for the couple fourteen miles up the river. The Micmacs were forbidden to hunt the salmon—poaching what were now the governor general’s fish was punishable with jail time– and many departed for factory towns in New England. The bottom fell out of their culture, and they remain deeply demoralized and marginalized to this day. While I was there, the chief’s teenage daughter killed herself.
A jaunt in the Canadian wilds became the in thing for English nobles. “Camps” was a facetious term for the seven splendid compounds that were eventually built on the Grand Caspedia. It was hardly camping out. Each camps had its staff of guides, cooks, servers, shoreboys, cleaners, smokers (who filleted your catch into orange-pink slabs and hung them to cure in the beech-fired smokehouse) to attend to your every need. An elaborate camp and pool etiquette evolved. Special flies were designed : besides the Lady Amherst, the brainchild of a Rochester investment banker named George Bonbright, there were blue charms and green highlanders. Thick, sixteen foot long bamboo rods were made to play the huge fish (although Hoagy and I were using single-handled eleven-footers, as most anglers do now). The reels went from wood to brass to hard rubber and nickel silver and are now mostly aluminum. A good one can easily set you back a thousand dollars.
The next governor-general, the Marquis of Lansdowne, built an equally fancy camp that he called New Derreen after his estate in Ireland. In four seasons he and his guests caught 1245 salmon. Then Lord Stanley, who created the Stanley Cup, built Stanley House, an 18-bedroom Queen Anne mansion, on the bluff overlooking the 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 l898 to a syndicate of American millionaires, “high-living, cigar-puffing products of the age of unfettered capitalism,” according to one writer (Robert Stewart), who “pursued salmon with the same relentless zeal as they pursued the almighty dollar” (according to another writer, quoted but not named by Stewart). These plutocrats founded the Cascapedia Club, which controlled the river exclusively until the early seventies.
Lorne Cottage was acquired after some decades by the obese, carrot-haired South African gold and diamond merchant Charles Englehart, who was the inspiration for James Bond’s hideous archfoe, Goldfinger. Ian Fleming was a regular guest at the camp. After Englehart ate himself to death in his early forties (he was well over three hundred pounds), Lorne Cottage passed to his five daughters. The one who was married to Oscar de la Renta had just left, and her snitsy sister Susan, who lives in Missoula, Montana, was there, “in camp” now. We ran into her husband, Roy O’Connor, at Mrs. Guest’s pool. It was named for Mrs. Winston Guest, the daughter of Henry Phipps, Jr., Andrew Carnegie’s business partner. Her brothers built the 400-foot-long Camp Chaleur in l922, which was burnt to ground by two disgruntled locals on a snowmobile in the dead of winter fifty-five years later. The incident precipitated a Steven King-like tragedy that no one in the local community wants to talk about, “and I wouldn’t either, if you ever want to set foot here again,” a woman advised me.
New Derreen’s present owners are Royal Victor IIIrd and Walter Shipley, the ex-c.e.o. of Chase. Tracadie has passed from Frank Goelet, who owned “half of Manhattan,” to his nephews. Hoagy and his seven guests were staying at Middle Camp, the most accessible of the seven private camps. “But you still have to know someone to get in,” he told me.
Leonard Schlem, a refreshingly unsnitsy Montrealer, had just acquired Horse Island from the ex-wife of the previous owner (she had gotten the camp in the divorce but didn’t fish and had put it on the market). Schlem has a chain of 305 health clubs in the U.S. and a minority interest in 200 more in Europe, and 18 in Europe. “My twelve-year-old boy just caught a fifteen-pounder,” he told me when I visited him and his American wife Sandy one afternoon, “and his sister caught a seventeen-pounder last week, but if we don’t take care, by the time they get to be my age, there will be no fish.”
In the seventies access to the fish in the Grand Cascapedia was somewhat democratized. The Parti Québécois, which was trying to secede the province from the rest of Canada, succeeded in gaining public access to some pools, and the MicMac sued for the restoration of their aboriginal fishing rights and won the right to trap the equivalent of 350 large fish at the mouth. The MicMacs also acquired one of the seven camps and started an outfitting company whose native guides take fishermen on the river. But also in this decade the number of large Atlantic salmon started to go into steep decline, from an estimated 800,000 to 200,000 today.
I journeyed to the headwaters of the river, in the Chic Choc Mountains, which are in the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula and are almost 4000 feet high, a series of tabular peaks of volcanic origin that were sheered off by the glaciers. The two branches of the Grand 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 them was swept away and drowned. It’s as wild as Alaska back up in there, more moose and caribou and bears and mountain lions than people. The fish spawn up to 17 Mile Falls, 125 kilometers from the mouth, where I found a game warden named Joshua Philbrick sitting in a little cabin overlooking the river gorge and carving a thunderbird mask. A 26-year-old Micmac, Philbrick had lost both this parents to alcohol and drugs when he was little and had become a traditionalist; he was in training as a healer. “I had reached the point where I didn’t know who I was,” he explained. “A lot of people are walking around who don’t know who they are, because they don’t understand their connections, their relations. We believe that all the animals are our relations. Every animal has a medicine.”
“What’s the medicine of the salmon ?” I asked.
“Salmon have the stimulation not to give up,” Joshua said. “They travel all the way across the Atlantic just to spawn here. If people have that connection with Salmon, they get his medicine, and don’t give up. But people are losing touch with the Earth. They don’t have that feeling any more. We’re all part of the vicious cycle now and are doing vicious things. These rich, self-centered people who are forking up for conservation—it’s blood money. Six companies are clearcutting the trees up here. 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 clearcuts is the most serious immediate environmental threat to the survival of the Grand Cascapedia’s salmon. It is washing down into the river and silting over the gravel bottom that the salmon need to spawn. With the trees gone, the spongy, mossy floor of the forest is drying up and less rain is falling, and what does is running off more quickly, so the river is much lower than it has ever been, and its temperature and biology are changing. Most of the sediment is carried, suspended in the rushing water, all the way down the river, being precipitated into the bay, which is filling up with mud; there are only a few channels left that the salmon can swim up.
In l981 the Cascapedia Society took over the management of the river. It is a tri-cultural organization of the camp owners, the Micmacs, and the residents of St. Jules and Cascapedia, villages on either side of the river six miles up composed of English-speaking descendants of “empire loyalists”– American colonists who refused to join the revolution and fled north– mixed with Francophones whose fugitive Acadian ancestors had managed thirty years earlier to avoid being deported to Louisiana. The Society is trying to get the logging companies to clearcut only 35% and not 50% of the sub-basins in the headwaters, and to observe the law about not cutting within 500 meters of anywatercourse, which they have been flagrantly violating, and to put in better culverts where there roads cross streams and most of the erosion is taking place. It also tried to get the Grand Cascapedia declared a catch-and-release-only river, but the local Gaspesians vetoed this because they want to keep their fish. So at this point releasing is strongly encouraged but voluntary, and you can keep up one fish per day, and a total of two. Last year 2800 large fish were counted in a diving census. This was twice as many as they year before. About 1000 were caught, and 300 were kept. Some of them were given to the society’s hatchery, where 350,000 fry were raised from their eggs and milt and released into the river. But very few of these will make it to adulthood. Predation begins the moment the alevin, as the first-year fry is known, hatches from its egg, laid in the gravel at the well-oxygenated tails of the pools. Kingfishers, otters, brook trout (which are also sea-running), bald and golden eagles, ospreys, black-backed gulls, and above all mergansers take a huge toll. The par, or second-year fry, leave for the sea, to return as two-to-six-pound grilce and later as full-grown adults (three or four times if they make it to the end of their 12-to-14-year lifespan). But once in the open ocean, they are subject to 61 factors that are contributing to the species’ dramatic depletion. So under the circumstances, it seems ecologically irresponsible not only to keep the fish, but to even be fishing for them at all, except that much of the money that the society makes from the anglers goes to the conservation effort. Hoagy told me about a new threat to the salmon : the Micmacs are trying to get the right to catch the “black salmon,” the fish that spend the winter in the river, after spawning, living off their body fat and gradually turning from gleaming silver to a dull slate, as they head back out into the Atlantic the following May. “Nobody every bothered with these spent fish before,” he told me. “It would be really horrible if this is allowed to happen.”
But here I was, guiltily enjoying myself casting streamers into Little Camp Pool. “This can be a fabulous pool,” Hoagy told me, and the following week he caught two big fish in it. But this afternoon they weren’t hitting anything. Why they ever do at all is a mystery, because they don’t eat while they are spawning. Hoagy’s theory is that flies remind them of when they were par and grilce (which I did catch two of) and snapped at anything that moved. It’s just like that song of your Dad’s, “Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish,” I suggested.
“But they’re there, Alex,” Hoagy said. “That’s the silly part of it. Quite often the fly will be six or eight feet on either side of the fish, and he won’t move.”
“You’re covering the fish,” one of our guides, Barry Coull, whose father had also been a guide, told me. “If he don’t take it, there’s nothing you can do about it.” And Homer Labrett, our other guide, said of my casting, “I seen worse,” so it wasn’t a question of my technique.
But I wasn’t complaining. The experience didn’t need to be crowned with the ultimate, vulnerable prize to be complete. I didn’t mind being skunked one bit.
To get on the river, you need a license from the Cascapedia Society, in Cascapedia, across the river from St. Jules, which also has a nice little museum. Call Phyllis Caldwell at 418 392 5079 to book a guide cum 26-foot-long Chestnut or Sharpe canoe (specially designed for this river and the nearby Restigouche and Matapedia), who will take you to some of the most legendary and exclusive pools, which are fished in rotation with the private camps and which you can’t get on on your own. This runs $650-900 a day (all prices in Canadian $), depending on which sector of the river you fish. You can also get time on some of the upper pools for $60 dollars a day without a guide by submitting your name to a drawing held on the first of November the year before. Time on these pools may still be available on 72-hour notice if you call Phyllis. There are also other rivers with not as large salmon and trophy-sized searunning brook trout, like the Nouvelle, the Petit Cascapedia, and the Bonaventure, and further south, in New Brunswick, is the Miramishi, which has a run of 70,000 salmon and vast stretches of good public water.
Sexton & Sexton, in St. Jules, has everything and then some. It’s heaven for the serious salmon fisherman and the Orvis/Abercrombie & Finch/Patagonia aficionado in general.
Rivendell, owned and superbly catered by Cathy Dimeck (418 392 5560), the last Dimeck in Dimeck’s Creek, just above the Gesgapegiag, the MicMac, at the mouth of the River. $450 a day all included. Not kid-friendly.
Auberge La Maison Stanley, Lord Stanley’s spectacular camp on the bluff of the bay,
Wainscoted throughout and little changed in 120 years, run by a lovely old couple, M. and Mme. Edgar le Blanc, 418 759 3969, $60 a night with continental breakfast but no other meals. Kid-friendly and path down to private beach, as with the even more spectacularly sited
Cascapedia Lodge, also on the bluff, closer to the mouth, run by a nice French-Canadian couple who don’t speak much English. $125 a day with full breakfast. Other meals extra. View across the bay from the bluff here is worldclass. In July and August the Baie des Chaleurs has the sultry lushness of the Great Lakes of Central Africa.