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In The Field

Signs of Salar


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The Rivière Saint-François’ runs out of Lac Saint-Pierre north of Sherbrooke.

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Like any good tour guide, Serge Allard saved the best for last. As we got closer to the final stop on our excursion to check out likely historic salmon spawning and angling sites on the Rivière Saint-François, he became noticeably more animated. So excited was Allard that he couldn’t hold back. The grand finale, he revealed, would be a municipal signpost that confirms beyond all doubt that this southern Quebec river once held a significant run of Atlantic salmon. He remembered the historic plaque from younger days, and like many such memories, it shone brighter with the passing years.

Of course, I didn’t need a sign to help convince me about the Rivière Saint-François’ salmon credentials. One of my honoured predecessors, none other than the founding Journal editor, Percy Nobbs, wrote, “The more I found out about the St. Francis the more certain I became that it would again be made as fine a salmon river as it ever was; and it was once the best in Quebec not so very long ago, which is saying a good deal” (“The Restoration of the St. Francis, Quebec, as a Salmon River,” Atlantic Salmon Association publication no. 10, November 1949).

Nobbs’ words are reinforced every time one crosses the Rivière Saint-François on Highway 20, which connects Montreal to Quebec City and beyond. The brown sign reading “Riviere à saumon,” which identifies scheduled salmon rivers in the province of Quebec, is absent. But the bright river and sun-washed bars of smooth, round river gravel say more than any metal panel could.

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“The St. Francis provided fish in abundance. The salmon were plentiful in the upper reaches of the river and at the end of the run of salmon, every family had a barrel of fish salted down”

Nobbs, a respected Montreal architect and a founding member of the now 75-year-old ASF, was widely accepted as the authority on Salmo salar. Yet, somewhere along the years, he seemed to fall out of favour with the Quebec salmon community.

As proponents explored the potential for restoring salmon in the Rivière Saint-François , critics challenged Nobbs’ contention that the river ever had a strong run. In “The River that Might Have Been” (ASJ, Autumn 1986), George Gruenefeld wrote that fishery managers of that era felt the project was a “pipe dream—an academic exercise in probabilities.” There were even attacks on Nobbs’ credibility. Dr. Vianney Legendre, the director of Quebec’s ministry of recreation, hunting, and fishing research laboratory in Montreal, took the 1949 publication to task, questioning Nobbs’ sources and even labelling him as an “amateur writer devoted to salmon.” Ouch.

A young woman named Yolande Allard (no family relation to Serge), a historian from Drummondville, rescued Nobbs’ reputation as well as the hopes and dreams of those who wanted to restock the Rivière Saint-François . Thanks to Serge Allard, I got to meet Yolande in person last summer at an Italian deli in Montreal’s St-Henri district. A petite, pretty woman, in a simple black dress and lilac-coloured hat, her entrance was that of a celebrity. To the salmon anglers, biologists and others who dreamed of reintroducing salmon to the river that ran runs through the heart of Drummondville, she was a hero—and to many, still is.

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Dreamers and schemers: Frustrated by red tape and a lack of action, a group of Saint-François Atlantic salmon “restorationists” released a few thousand parr into the river at Drummondville.

Back in 1986, she was fresh out of university and looking to do postgraduate work in history. Yvan Gosselin, along with our guide, Allard, had just formed The Rivière Saint-François Salmon Society (SSSF). This group had big plans—restoring the Rivière Saint-François to its formal status as one of the world’s great salmon rivers. Through them, Yolande became intrigued with the history of Atlantic salmon in the Rivière Saint-François watershed.

She may not have been an angler, but in Yolande, the society had found an ally and, as it turned out, the perfect history major. Her original project was to be a study of a munitions factory that operated in Drummondville during World War I, but her advisor accepted her request to focus on the Rivière Saint-François, which ran through the Bishop’s University campus!

She received much encouragement from the society; there was certainly no shortage of anecdotal fishing tales, but as a trained historian, Yolande Allard needed more than the kinds of yarns that Nobbs had been accused of relying on. Yolande dug deep into government archives, libraries and museum collections. She reviewed textbooks and technical documents, like those of Nobbs and others, like Scott and Crossman. She co-referenced these with long-lost publications such as “Fishing and Shooting along the lines,” an unauthored Canadian Pacific Railway publication written circa the 1890s.

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Fall begins to take hold on the shores of The Rivière Saint-François.

For Yolande, not being an angler was more an advantage than a drawback. She was able to maintain an impartial view, which is crucial to honouring the historian’s creed to investigate and analyze sometimes competing theories and events to help explain “what happened” and “why or how it happened.”

She unearthed commercial documents relating to the sale of salmon to buyers as far away as Europe. She confirmed that when European settlers first arrived in what is now the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the Rivière Saint-François River was home to large runs of Atlantic salmon. And as if in response to Dr. Vianney’s criticism of Percy Nobbs’ lack of reliable sources, every quote is referenced in Yolande’s 124-page master’s thesis.

For instance, in “Tread of Pioneers, Annals of Richmond County and Vicinity,” Alison Harris wrote, “The St. Francis provided fish in abundance. The salmon were plentiful in the upper reaches of the river and at the end of the run of salmon, every family had a barrel of fish salted down” (Richmond Historical Society, 1966).

As Yolande shared her findings with the society, one could only imagine the joy it brought. But along with the good news came the bad. Her research indicated that by the mid-19th century, due to mill dams on many of the tributaries, salmon were unable to reach their spawning grounds. Legislation forced owners of these barriers to install fish ladders, which led to a resurgence of salmon in the latter half of the 19th century. But eventually clear cuts, paper mills and hydro dams doomed the salmon of the Rivière Saint-François. Still, the lumber industry, with its clear-cuts, polluting by-products, and 20th-century paper mills and hydro developments, doomed the salmon of the Rivière Saint-François . What a shame.

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Dreamers and schemers: "restorationists" scoop parr from the bed of a truck into nets.
In October, we followed in Yolande’s footsteps along Route 143. We spent the night at the Horloge Casseé, a bed and breakfast in Melbourne, across the river from Richmond.
Early the next morning, I walked into the village centre, a vestige of the Eastern Townships’ Loyalist past. Even at this early hour, cars raced through the dark, the occupants on their way to jobs in Montreal or Drummondville. How many knew they were driving along the banks of a once-great salmon river?This stretch of road had no sidewalk or shoulder, and a few times I was forced into the ditch for safety. The road crossed an old metal bridge over the Rivière Saint-François , and I followed the river north.

One of the documents had mentioned that the Molson family built a small salmon lodge on the Rivière Saint-François in the 1850s. Supposedly the building still stands, housing a business that rents out kayaks in the summer. The kayak rental was housed in an old train station. There was a gravel road giving access to the river. It did look like an excellent location for a salmon camp, The station itself could easily have predated the railroad and served as a salmon camp, but there was no evidence that it had once served that purpose.

On the way back I stopped on the bridge and looked down into the dark waters below. Were those large salmon holding there? Just No, just tricks of the morning light, but still, everywhere seemed to have what anglers call that “fishy” feeling.

Back at the Horloge Casseé, Allard and Charles Cusson, ASF’s director of programs for Quebec, were having coffee. My somewhat spiritual connection with the region’s history that morning was brushed aside. Serge was eager to show me more concrete evidence of the river’s salmon past. Our first stop was the Salmon River, one of the watershed’s 13 major tributaries.

“This would have been a major spawning area,” he says. And certainly, the river resembled another great salmon tributary, the Cains. Two other major tributaries to the Rivière Saint-François carry the same salmon name—coincidence? The fact that three are named after the King of Fish is hard to ignore.

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Parr sit atop a gravel bed waiting to grow large enough to head downstream into the ocean.

On its 264-kilometre (165-mile) winding course to the St. Lawrence River, the main stem of the Rivière Saint-François is fed by hundreds of secondary streams and over 130 lakes. It drops 60 metres (nearly 200 feet) from the wooded slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.

Allard stops at a number of other sites where fishing camps were located. The Rivière Saint-François begins to look out of place. It might be an inland watershed, but its size and power give it the look of a coastal river.

Now that Yolande has restored Nobbs’ credibility, we can pay more attention to his observations. “As to the size of the fish, the Rivière Saint-François was a big-fish river with an average of 20 pounds and could do so again,” Nobbs wrote in Publication no. 10. “As a big river with big salmon the restored Rivière Saint-François would compare with the Restigouche, but would have the advantage over that great river of being near enough to Montreal to be worth visiting for a day, or even an afternoon.” In a nutshell, that was the goal of the Salmon Society of the Rivière Saint-François .

Allard mentioned that salmon were still being seen as late as the 1940s. If this was so, what happened to turn thiswhen did restoration plans plan turn into a “pipe dream,” as Dr. Legendre described it? It didn’t take long to find out. Our next to last stop was the second dam on the main stem, on the outskirts of Drummondville. A massive structure, its concrete wall was the final death knell for the salmon in the Rivière Saint-François .

Another massive structure blocked the river downstream. Nobbs had foreseen problems and offered plans for fish passage here, but at some point, the loss of the river’s salmon ceased to be a priority. And now, as if to add insult to injury, Allard could not locate the sign that summarized what this river had meant to the region.

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Dreamers and schemers: "restorationists" scoop parr from the bed of a truck into nets. Another angle.

Just at the foot of the rapids below the dam was where records indicate the last salmon were seen. There were also occasional unconfirmed stories of salmon being spotted even after the dams went up. Is it possible salmon kept returning to the river well into the 20th century?

Allard had told me that as recently as the late 1990s, his group had succeeded in obtaining a few thousand smolt from a laboratory study, which they released in the river near Sherbrooke, Quebec. It’s far-fetched, but if they had spawned and their offspring had returned as adults, maybe they could have found suitable habitat in the St. Germain River, a large tributary that empties into the Rivière Saint-François below the dams.

I was fortunate to interview Yvan Gosselin who told me another story of a “guerilla” salmon stocking in 1988. At the time, Gosselin was a biologist and also a ringleader among the dedicated group of Drummondvillagers who had dedicated themselves to bringing salmon back to the Rivière Saint-François . Frustrated by the obstacles put up by various government agencies, Gosselin and his band of dreamers arranged to get broodstock from a hatchery near the Port Daniel River on the Gaspé Peninsula. They spawned these fish and hatched out a few thousand fry. Then, before the cameras of local media and an audience of curious onlookers from Drummondville, they released the parr just below the dam at the Lord’s Falls.

“I was following a dream, and it wasn’t just me,” Gosselin told me. “We felt an energy back then, a flame, that still hasn’t burned out to this day.”

Allard and Gosselin hoped that perhaps a few fish would find their way back up to these very falls. Dreams can be contagious, and I seemed to be having a daytime version nowcatching one. I walked closer to the riverbank half-hoping I might see a salmon leap. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted something. No, not a salmon, but what looked like … like … yes, a sign! It was a historical plaque partially hidden by trees and shrubs. I wasn’t dreaming about this.

Allard joined me, happy to have found his sign, but our joy was short-lived. The plaque was a tribute to the construction of the two dams. In part it read, “All through this century the river has played an essential role in the economy of Drummondville.”

But near the bottom, almost as an afterthought, the historian who prepared the text had added: “However at the same time, the river lost one of its principal riches, the large quantities of salmon that it held diminished rapidly and were soon completely disappeared.” These last lines were in large type and bold, as if the graphic artist and historian conspired to draw attention to the loss. Could it have been Yolande Allard or Serge? When I asked him, he only smiled.

As we left, the thought occurred to me that there should be another plaque, with a photo of a leaping salmon. It would read, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Just ask Serge Allard and other members of the SSSF. For them, the disappeared salmon run is like a hole in their hearts, one no medical team can repairsomething for which no simple cure has been found.

But that won’t stop them from trying.