Gaspe Gold - And silver too, With nary a fly-rod in sight

Tom Cheney, with photographs by Nick Hawkins

Dec 18, 2018
The St-Jean is the most southerly of the three salmon rivers at the tip of the Gaspé peninsula (the other two are the York and the Dartmouth). Around 1,000 salmon return here each year to spawn in cool waters that flow from the Chic Choc mountains. In late fall, the surrounding forests are cloaked in the dark green of spruce and fir, speckled with yellow and gold from aspen and birch trees.
On a dreary mid-October morning I waded out to Nash Bar, a favourite pool on the Miramichi. The sky was releasing a fine mist, and the cold reached my bones. Conditions were ideal, but the fishing had been disappointing. Patiently, I swung an Ally’s Shrimp. When I felt a grab but didn’t connect, I knew there was a chance. I waited a minute, then backed up and worked through again, full of anticipation. On the second pass, the grilse was decisive and gave five exciting jumps before rolling off my barbless hook. There are worse ways to cap a season.

With me was Nick Hawkins, my close friend and collaborator. We were disappointed that fishing was over for the year. But adventure beckoned us still. We put away our tackle and rods, packed Nick’s truck with all the diving and photography gear it could handle, and headed north, to the famously clear rivers of the Gaspé. We were off to see—and capture—Atlantic salmon in a new and different way.

On the road, I wondered aloud where we might stay. Campgrounds would all be closed, and we were unfamiliar with the area. “Oh, we’ll find a good spot somewhere by a river,” Nick assured me. I didn’t have time to worry about it, because just then he pointed to a golden eagle soaring above the road. Each winter, a scarce few migrate down to New Brunswick in search of food. Spotting one of these rare birds seemed like a good omen.

Several hundred kilometres and too many coffees later, we pulled into the ZEC parking lot in the town of Gaspé. Jean-Guy Béliveau, a top-notch local photographer whose images are often featured in these pages, had kindly volunteered to help us get the lay of the land. It was abundantly clear that his love for the rivers and their fish was unsurpassed.

He happily shared a wealth of information on where the salmon were and how to approach them.

In the pitch darkness we followed Béliveau’s car along a dirt road until we came to a clearing in the forest. It was, indeed, “a good spot somewhere by a river,” a perfect place to camp, where we could get right to work in the morning at Bluff Pool on the St-Jean River.

As we pitched our tent, we heard the high-pitched, haunting calls of a northern saw-whet owl and later were awoken, alarmed by the rustling of leaves as a moose sauntered through our campsite. Then as silence returned we heard something that filled us with great excitement and anticipation—the splashes of salmon rolling and jumping.

We woke to a fresh, clear morning and peered into the St-Jean. In the limpid water, the silhouettes of large salmon stood out starkly against the pale river bottom. Béliveau had brought us to a remarkable place to photograph salmon. But, before Nick donned the many pounds of scuba gear, we simply stood, warm coffees in hand, transfixed by the scene before us.
The fish seemed impossibly large for the pool, and at the same time perfectly at home. Like ghosts, they moved slowly and effortlessly through the water.
The fish seemed impossibly large for the pool, and at the same time perfectly at home. Like ghosts, they moved slowly and effortlessly through the water. Now and again, the placid scene was punctuated by displays of raw power. With what seemed to be less than a flick of the tail, a salmon would accelerate rapidly, travelling the length of the pool in a flash. The grace and athleticism of Atlantic salmon had never been more palpable to us.

We could have quite reasonably speculated which fish would take, and felt the deep desire to have one on the line, but none of those notions entered our minds. The season was closed, liberating us from any thoughts of angling for these fish. Instead, for the next few days we would watch and think about them purely for what they are in themselves. Our relationship to the species would be forever altered.

Nick spent long hours in the water with the salmon, working hard to get the best shots. I helped whenever possible, but still had plenty of time to take in the scenery. I was struck with how different Gaspé salmon country is from the Miramichi. Of course, the crystal blue water was astonishing, but the light bedrock of the river bottom, with its elegant contours, added to the surreal effect.
In Bluff Pool, on the St-Jean River, the clarity of the water makes for excellent photographs
The land, too, had a new feel.

The Gaspé peninsula seemed an endless expanse of spruce, tamarack, poplar and birch—Boreal woodland, unlike the familiar mixed Acadian forest of home.

The hardwoods had dropped their leaves, and the forest had the barren, slightly uninviting feeling of late fall. We felt as if on the frontier. The feeling of isolation turned out to be partially illusory. The periodic crack of a rifle in the distance reminded us that it was moose season.

Several times, curious visitors stopped to chat with us. They were interested in our work, and astonished that Nick was actually swimming in the freezing river. One friendly character joked that I had the comfortable job. I tried to explain that fully insulated in a dry suit and working hard beneath the water, Nick was literally sweating down there.

Really, I was the cold one, standing around on the bank all day. Our visitor didn’t buy it. One day we left the St-Jean and took a drive along the road that follows the nearby York River. We parked the truck and strolled through damp and mossy forest to Spruin Rock. The water of the York is green, compared to the cerulean St-Jean.

Further up the road, we found the famed Whitehouse Pool.

The sky was gloomy and let down a constant drizzle. High on a spruce ridge, tiny crossbills flitted in the treetops, the only sign of life on this dreary day. Undeterred by the damp weather, and after a hearty lunch, Nick suited up and waded in. At the end of Whitehouse Pool, the water drops into a deep hole. There, the salmon were bunched up in an eddy, noses pointed downstream. The unusual structure of the pool permitted unique photographic angles. After the fish adjusted to his presence, they let Nick swim directly beneath them.

This allowed some of the most interesting and distinctive photographs of the trip. So captivated by the sights and experiences of this new territory, we sometimes forgot about more mundane requirements, like groceries. One day, Nick didn’t get out of the water until almost dark. We were starving, our cooler had little to provide, and the drive to the grocery store was too long. Into the pot went some leftover pasta, bell peppers, a handful of chopped hot dogs and pepperoni sticks, and half a wheel of brie.

Long hours in the fresh air are the best seasoning, and we quickly devoured our impromptu dinner. Other times we fared better. Quebec boasts a superior food culture, which means that along with wine and craft beer, supermarkets sell game meats unavailable in other parts of the country. Caribou medallions proved too hard to resist. We showered them with large flakes of sea salt and roasted them over a crackling fire. Browned by the flames, the meat had a rich, wild taste and just a hint of hardwood smoke. We felt like kings beside our campfire, primordial and sophisticated.
Despite the cold fall temperatures, a scuba dry suit kept photographer Nick Hawkins toasty warm
We sat with the dark, cold night at our backs, and the warmth and light of the fire before us. We talked at length about salmon. We had seen something incredible and had been altered by it. We observed their complex behavior and came to know their individual temperaments. We caught a glimpse of another world. It made us empathize with the struggle of this species in a new and deeper way. There is no doubt that when we return to the water, rods in hand, we’ll feel differently about our sport and the ever elusive quarry we seek.

Satisified with a new portfolio of impressive salmon images, we packed up our gear. We still had a bit of time, and wanted to see more of Gaspésie, so we left the town of Gaspé, and headed inland, along route 198 towards Murdochville. Other than the occasional logging truck, we saw little evidence of humans. This part of the peninsula remains vast and wild. The trees went on forever and we felt exhilarated to be off the beaten track.

Soon, the highway turned north and brought us to the edge of the St. Lawrence. We drove west along the shore, squeezed between sheer cliffs on one side and crashing waves on the other.

Nick pointed to the spray of a minke whale not far out in the water. We stopped to look at a group of snow geese sitting on the side of the highway, like the golden eagle, visitors from the north.

It was dark when we arrived in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and turned south towards the Parc national de la Gaspésie in the heart of the peninsula. Nick slowed his truck when the largest cow moose that either of us had ever seen crossed the road. We stopped to have a look at her and were quickly sobered to the dangers of driving at night in this new country.
The New Brunswickers found that in October even the best campsites are readily available in Parc national de la Gaspésie. From this choice spot, the sunrise over Mont Albert (facing page), dusted by an early snowfall, equalled the view from the finest of hotel rooms.
Regular operations at the park had ceased for the season. We poked around, found an unlocked gate, and let ourselves into a campground—yet another “good spot by a river,” this time, the Sainte-Anne. We made camp, cooked supper over the fire, and enjoyed some bourbon whiskey. It turned out to be the coldest night yet. Extra long johns and a tuque kept me just warm enough in my sleeping bag.

When I crawled out of my hammock the next morning my head was a little foggy, but the frigid air was perfectly clear. In the daylight, I soon realized that our campsite was at the base of the magnificent Mont-Albert. The sun’s early glow blanketed the mountain’s snow-capped peak and I stared in wonder.

Soon the river called, and we wandered down to see the Sainte-Anne. The water was dark and it rushed furiously over boulders and a rocky bottom. Cedars crowded the riverbank and their branches reached out over the current. This was a mountain stream, unlike the other Gaspé rivers we had visited. The water looked too cold even for a fish, but salmon would soon be spawning here.

We left the park and drove down through the Cascapedia River valley. Finally, homeward bound, the days of exertion caught up with us. Our oft lively conversation was curbed by tired silences, and we took turns napping in the passenger seat. We were exhausted from all the hard work, fresh air, and new experiences. Strangely, though, the tiredness brought on by the outdoors also filled us with life.

We had travelled to a place that was new and different.

We swam with the salmon, observed and heard the birds and animals, and slept beneath the canopy of trees. We were delighted by all the beauty, enchanted by the wildness and warmed by the friendliness of the people we met. Already, we looked forward to our next adventure in Gaspésie.

Photographer Nick Hawkins and writer Tom Cheney have become regular contributors to the Journal. They won a gold Atlantic Journalism Award for their article “Sons of the River” (ASJ, Winter 2017). Hawkins also won silver for his cover photograph in the same issue.
The sun’s early glow blanketed the mountain’s snow-capped peak and I stared in wonder.