The Longest Run

Text and Images by Jean Doucet

Jul 3, 2019
The Ste-Anne River gathers its ice cold waters from the snowy peaks of the Chic Choc Mountaions before emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrene at Ste-Anne-des-Monts.
On the very last day of July in 1997, my guide Arsène Dugas and I were left alone near Lislet Pool on the Ste-Anne River in Québec’s Gaspé region. My fishing partner had driven our truck with his guide down to Roger Pelletier Pool. It was getting dark fast and the salmon had shown no interest even though we changed flies often to darker and darker shades. I was still casting, and hoping, when suddenly Monsieur Arsène, as he was respectfully known, became restless in the bow of the canoe. He took a quick drink of coffee and I knew right away it was time to put the rod down and get ready to head downstream. He lit a cigarette, put his lighter in his pocket, sat down and took the last sip of coffee from his thermos.

Arsène provided no detailed instructions, he just reminded me calmly and quietly, while he steadied us, to keep the canoe straight with my pole. We slipped away from shore and moved slowly downstream. In the darkness, as the current caught us, our pace quickened and rocks appeared unexpectedly, like ghosts, ready to jump out of the river.

My first float on a salmon river was down the limpid waters of the Bonaventure. I am a Bourdages, a family whose roots run very deep in that area and many of my relatives claim the river as their own. In 1991, however, a coworker invited me to fish the canoe run on the Ste-Anne River, which takes its source high in the Chic Choc Mountains and runs through the Parc de la Gaspésie, one of Québec’s natural jewels, eventually tumbling into the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Sainte-Anne-des-Monts.
The Ste-Anne’s northward orientation and rough character are in direct contrast to the Bonaventure, Cascapedia and other, better known, Gaspé rivers, which flow south, following a smoother course before emptying into the Baie des Chaleurs. The Ste-Anne might be smaller, but it is a rather temperamental river, where the water levels can change quickly. Salmon take best at high water and some years the river produces good runs, while others are less plentiful. Regardless of the conditions or the numbers, it remains a beautiful, wild river where hooking a salmon always provides a special thrill. And unlike other salmon rivers on the Gaspé, I often found myself alone with a guide whose stories soothed and entertained as we worked our way downstream from pool to pool.

I have grown to feel very comfortable on the Ste-Anne, and the reason is simple—the people. Among the many who have helped me feel at home, Monsieur Arsène will always stand out. A senior guide, he welcomed my friends and I on our visits to the river starting in 1991, nearly 30 years ago.

Most guides concentrate on the job at hand. They know the river well and make sure the canoe remains stable and that their “sport” is safe and in a spot with a good chance of hooking a salmon. They will prepare lunch, keep the net at the ready and retrieve flies caught in trees. Monsieur Arsène was all that. What made him different from other guides was that he had a way of noticing every detail, which helped make him an excellent teacher.

One day, about 25 years ago, he called to me from shore as I was trying to cast to a tempting eddy below a large rock. “I can’t figure out why, with your equipment, you cannot reach the bouillon near the rock on the other side.” I could feel some frustration in his voice; he knew salmon often lay in that spot. He had been watching me cast. I put out a decent loop, yet could not reach the target, and the overhanging trees on the bank behind me did not help.
Arsène Dugas. “Monsieur Arsène” in his element as he keeps watch on the Ste-Anne River, its salmon and his sport.
When my partner took over the pool, I went to sit next to Monsieur Arsène on the homemade bench on the bank. After warning me to watch out for any nails that could rip a hole in my waders, he got down to business. Casting instruction can be very technical—the angle, the timing and body position. Arsène, however, never studied physics or geometry, so I was not surprised that without any detailed explanation, he just flat out told me, “Jean, I think you are casting a fraction of a second too early, your line does not extend properly at the back.”

That evening in the cabin I found an old dog-eared copy of L.L. Bean’s Fly-Fishing Handbook and studied the pictures of Dave Whitlock demonstrating proper casting techniques. Whitlock suggested that a fisher should turn around from time to time to observe his backcast, to look for a good loop, to see if the rod is going too low, and that the line is well extended before the forward flick.

The next morning, on the river, I kept turning my head and watching my backcast constantly. Our two guides on the bank were intrigued and began laughing at me. It is not fly-fishing protocol to watch your backcast, rather you should look at the target in order to be accurate. I didn’t care what anyone thought, because I was finally able to reach the bouillon! Monsieur Arsène, doyen of the Ste-Anne, who perhaps lacked Whitlock’s reputation had, nevertheless, fixed the unfixable. I had become a better caster overnight, lengthening my cast by 30-feet with a modest loss of accuracy. The salmon remained unimpressed,but from that day on, the Ste-Anne and other rivers became much easier for me to fish.
The rustic chalets at Petit Saut are from another era, but still welcome anglers into their comfortable confines.
Monsieur Arsène lived his entire life in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. His father was also a long time guide on the river, à l’époque des clubs (in the era of private clubs). And like his dad, in the off-season, Arsène was a jack-of-all-trades, who among other odd jobs, made a living laying ceramic tiles and linoleum. He was also a very talented accordion player, sought after to play at parties, local bars and weddings. Somewhat like my own father, he had an energetic personality and knew only one speed—full out. Sadly, monsieur Arsène passed away in 2013, at age 78, ending the long run of the Dugas family as guides on the Ste-Anne.

Last September, I made two visits to the Ste-Anne River. Réjean Pelletier, one of the guides manning our canoe, told me that I was perhaps their “oldest customer.” He quickly corrected himself. He hadn’t meant that I was the oldest in age, but rather the angler who had fished the longest run of consecutive seasons. I am not sure if that statement holds water, but I have been fishing the river since 1991.

A lot of water has flowed out to the sea in that time, but many memories remain. I remember vividly how in 1998, Destination Chic Chocs, the organization managing the salmon fishing at that time, introduced mandatory catch and release of large salmon. That section of the Ste-Anne was the first river in Quebec to adopt this conservation measure. Unbeknownst at the time, this represented a major step for salmon conservation in the province. Other rivers followed and over the long term, for me, it added to the experience. By the end of the season, we could observe more fish in the pools because of this new policy.
The year 2000 brought another big change on the Ste-Anne River. My Monsieur Arsène, dean of the guides on the canoe run, retired. That season, I was fishing alone so I invited Arsène to join me on the canoe run as an angler, not a guide. He was more than happy to accept and come along.

At the start he offered me first pass at every pool, a reflex from his guiding days. I insisted that we at least alternate from pool to pool. It was June. The salmon were few and some pools completely vacant. On the second day, we stopped for lunch. I headed up to the cabin perched on a cliff high above the river, but Monsieur Arsène remained on the shore with the other guides. He seemed to relish the moment and the company, and the “guide talk.” I had just started to make lunch, when Réjean, the new canoe master, arrived breathless, having run from the river.

“Arsène got a fish on,” he screamed through the screen door. I reached for my camera on the kitchen table and we both headed quickly down the hill. On the narrow gravel bar, Arsène was keeping his rod high to the sky. For the next twenty minutes, he kept laughing, while providing a constant commentary on the fish behaviour, what to do when it jumps, and how to avoid the hidden rocks. When the salmon was in the net, there was a loud cheer. How fitting, Monsieur Arsène whose family history dates back on the river to the last century, had caught and released the first salmon of the new millennium.
Two guides steady the canoe as their “sports” enjoy a coffee and a laugh between drops (above).
Because the Ste-Anne River is in the Parc de la Gaspésie there is a significant effort put into wildlife conservation, notably for the woodland caribou that roam the upper plateaus of the Chic Chocs, but for many other species as well. Along the river, we often see shore birds, kingfishers, bald eagles, great blue herons, mergansers and even rare Harlequin ducks.

There are many mammals to be seen like moose, deer, beaver, mink and bats. Once, while fishing at Caché pool, a female moose showed up on the far bank just as a willing grilse took my blue charm. The moose remained motionless, until the fish was brought to shore and released. There was something unreal about the entire scene; none of us had ever seen a moose come out to observe an angler for such a prolonged period. It was as if the moose was offering her blessing to the fact that the Ste-Anne was the first major Quebec river to adopt live release.

The years have taken their toll on this caster and his cast, but I still plan to fish the Ste-Anne this summer. With its rugged landscape, it might be a more difficult river than the Bonaventure to fish from a canoe, but I can’t stop now. Perhaps I am the angler who has the most consecutive visits, but more importantly each trip connects me to Monsieur Arsène and to his father. Theirs is truly the longest run.

And every return visit, I can relive my fondest fishing memory—that long run down the river at night with Monsieur Arsène. Travelling in a canoe in the dark is always a tricky business. This is not something I would try myself, or recommend to anyone else. It was thrilling, but I never felt concerned because Monsieur Arsène seemed to know the way and the exact location of every rock and twist and turn. I like to think he learned how to do this from his father.
The author’s children are awed by the 30-metre high Ste-Anne’s Falls, the end point for the Atlantic salmon migration on the river.
In the quiet, the scraping sound of our poles was amplified. The river in that section is relatively wide and shallow, difficult to navigate at low water, but we were lucky it was running well that evening. I concentrated on keeping the canoe straight and not catching my pole between two rocks, which would force me to let go, or worse, be thrown overboard.

The spruce scented cool air was calming. Monsieur Arsène and I worked in tandem. This kind of experience was new to an urbanite like me, but despite having to concentrate, I remember being able to take in the wild beauty of the river. A hush descended over the water and the forest, it was as if time had stood still. Most anglers carry an imaginary chest filled with memories. To this day, that descent down the Ste-Anne, poling with Monsieur Arsène, remains the most cherished recollection in mine.

As we softly landed on the sandy beach at Roger Pelletier Pool, Monsieur Arsène turned around, his face sporting a generous smile.

“Ça a ben été,” he said. In English it translates to “that went well,” and indeed it had.

As a wildlife biologist, Jean Doucet studied animals ranging from shrews to moose. Now in retirement, he is already planning his 30th season fishing on the Ste-Anne in 2020.

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