Quebec's Accessible Salmon
QUEBECS ACCESSIBLE SALMON
Québec's Atlantic salmon Rivers have long been revered in books and magazine articles as some of the premier spots in the world to fish. The image of wild rivers flowing with their gin clear waters full of bright salmon has filled the minds of many salmon enthusiasts for years. Unfortunately, for many of these anglers, these images have always remained just that, images and nothing more. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the perception from many non-residents is that these rivers are all privately run or that the language barrier is too big of a hurdle to overcome. Although much of this was true in the past I would like to set the record straight for those of you that have always dreamed of wading, or floating one of our crystalline rivers in search of our beloved Salmo-Salar. To do so however, one must talk briefly about the history of salmon fishing in Québec and how things have changed over the last century.
History of Atlantic salmon angling in Quebec
For well over a hundred years Americans, Europeans and Canadians alike have visited the rivers of the Gaspé and the North Shore. In the beginning, these rivers were run mostly by wealthy Americans and other wealthy businessmen from around the world including Canada. The camps were very exclusive and were most often run as private clubs allowing only their members and their guest’s access to fishing. The management and protection of these rivers was at the same time looked after by locals who were hired by the members and owners of these camps. Many jobs were created for the local population, who at the time were happy about the opportunity for employment in these developing areas of Québec. In some cases whole towns depended on the jobs created by these visiting sports and in some areas, this is still true today.
Access to prime salmon rivers was very much the same in many of the other provinces as well as Europe and the U.S. at this time in history, private and accessible to only a privileged few. It was not until the Gaspé and other areas of the North shore became more developed that the local population took an interest in the sport. Unfortunately for most of them, there was no chance for them to fish their rivers because the land and water rights had either been sold to or leased out to the owners of private camps.. This became a hot topic back in the late 60's and throughout the seventies for the residents of these salmon fishing paradises as well as the residents of the bigger cities like Montreal and Québec where the interest in fishing was on the rise. At the same time we must remember that the separatist movement was gaining popularity with many of the French-speaking residents of Québec. There was a very real anti-English attitude that was beginning to show through, not so much anti-English but rather, a desire to preserve and protect Quebec culture and language. It was becoming more and more apparent that the Quebecois people were unhappy with the fact that mainly those who had money and power controlled their rivers. Change in politics and attitudes were about to change in a big way.
By the mid seventies there were plenty of people making money (especially in the North where big dam and mining projects were on the rise), and the need for these local, lower paying jobs on the river became less attractive compared to the higher paying, year round jobs available to them. As the political climate started to sway towards and independent Quebec, more and more pressure was being put on the government to do something about the situation on the salmon rivers as well as with the exclusive hunting clubs that had appeared over the last century.
In short the majority of Québec residents were starting to show a desire to reclaim some of their rivers and forests so they could be used by the public and not only by the "Non-residents". In 1977, the inception of the Z.E.C. system was brought into being. Z.E.C. meaning Controlled Exploitation Zone or Zone d'Exploitation Controlée, this system was intended to be a fair and democratic that would finally allow access to rivers and hunting territories throughout Québec that had been until then, inaccessible to them. In short, this was the beginning of the end for many of the privately owned camps in Québec. Depending on which side of the fence you sat on this was a good thing or a very bad thing. In effect the government took back many of the leases and rights of the camps which in turn resulted in the loss of many jobs for those who worked on the rivers as guides, wardens, cooks and many others. This also resulted in the diminution of surveillance on these rivers, which in turn resulted in an increase in poaching and other abuses. It wasn’t perfect when it all happened; however, since the inception of the ZEC system monumental strides have been achieved. Today, Quebec has one of the worlds best-managed and accessible salmon fishing systems anywhere on the planet. As a matter of fact, other countries and provinces are now examining it as a model on how to allow democratic and fair access to all, residents and non-residents alike.
As with all dramatic change, came problems. The non-residents who had supported these rivers and their local economies now found themselves treated as outsiders and were not always made to feel welcome on the rivers were they had once enjoyed exclusivity. For quite a long time there was a lot of tension between the local fishermen and those who ventured onto Québec's Z.E.C. run salmon rivers. This was especially true of those non-residents who could not speak any French. Slowly, by the 1980's the tension diminished and things started to stabilize a bit more. "Americans" (as all non-residents were deemed) started to come back gradually to visit these newly accessible salmon rivers in Québec. One must not forget that there were a whole lot of non-residents who were hoping for the change in accessibility to Québec's salmon rivers along with the local residents due to the fact that most of the camps that enjoyed exclusive rights did not include them either. A new era was about to be ushered in…
Today, thanks to the efforts of the local ZEC’s and the F.Q.S.A. the management of these rivers has improved tremendously. With help from the Provincial government, which the FQSA solicited for help, millions of dollars have been injected into these local organizations for the purposes of salmon restoration projects, infrastructure improvements and marketing. It should also be mentioned that the anglers themselves have been very generous in donating their time and money to help realize these restoration efforts. The Provincial government and the F.Q.S.A. continue to recognize the economic and social importance of the Atlantic salmon sport fishery and continue to support all involved. You and me as anglers reap the benefits of this each time we set foot inside one of these river basins.
A New Era
Today, anglers who have ever thought about fishing our beautiful rivers should now feel very welcome. And for good reason, great efforts have been made to try to accommodate all anglers on our rivers. Of course, it isn't always easy getting the proper information on how to secure water from all of the Z.E.C.'s because on occasion there is still the language barrier but this is relatively uncommon nowadays. There are indeed a few of us who have seen the pages of history unfold and have positioned ourselves to become advocates for our beautiful rivers. I continue to provide detailed information to those who seek it, however, today almost all of the information anglers seek is now available on the world wide web, and most notably on the www.saumonquebec.com website where you will find almost everything you want to know about how to book a trip on one of our magnificent rivers!
Before getting into how to secure water on the Z.E.C.'s I should explain how the Z.E.C. system and the other management systems work. First of all, there are six (6) different statutes in Quebec; there are Wildlife Reserves managed by the MEF, Wildlife Reserves under delegated management, Z.E.C.’s under delegated management, Private or Club properties, Outfitters with exclusive rights and finally Outfitters without exclusive rights. For the purposes of simplifying things we will concentrate on the Z.E.C.’s and Wildlife Reserves under delegated management. These two Z.E.C.’s and Reserves are run very similarly and are the best way to secure water if you do not have connections with a club or do not want to go through a private outfitter.
Each Z.E.C. and Reserve divides their rivers into sectors, sector A, B, C, D, etc. There are certain sectors that are limited access; example 8 rods per sector, 2 rods per sector and so on¼ Securing rods on these sectors will follow. There are also unlimited rod sectors that have no limit on the number of rods sold and no reservations are needed. Every Z.E.C. and some Reserves have unlimited rod water.
ANOTOMY OF GASPE RIVERS
I have been asked many times to explain how the rivers here in the Gaspe “look”. As with any living thing, no two things are exactly alike - except for Dolly that is. Clones you will not find here in Quebec; each of these beautiful rivers has its own very distinct look or “feel” if you will. The one thing they do share is exceptionally pure and clear water. The differences become more apparent as we study the different kinds of substrates (the actual river bed) found here.. There are two categories of rivers here in the Gaspe. The first are the gin-clear rivers like the Petite Cascapedia, Bonaventure, Ste-Anne, Grand Riviere, Pabos and St-Jean. These rivers are so exceptionally clear that you can literally see if a quarter is sitting heads or tails at 15 feet. Most of these gin-clear rivers are medium sized rivers that run very cold and are nourished by countless underground springs and mountain lakes. You will encounter just about every type of pool you can imagine. Slow deep emerald green pools cutting their way into ledges over the years, ending out in a strait tail-out just before becoming class 2 rapids and then forming another narrow run-type pool. What apparently makes them so limpid and aquamarine is the existence of fine silica type particles that flow through mostly gravely substrates. The continual flow of water over these stones creates friction and these fine particles float almost invisibly in the water column and when hit by the sun create an array of mind blowing colors similar to the seas of the Caribbean.
We must remember that virtually all of these rivers get their source from the Chic-Choc mountain range at the interior of the Gaspe Peninsula. Making those that are fed by streams and springs very cold throughout the summer, which of course, makes for excellent angling conditions. It is very rare that these clear-water fisheries see 65 degrees and some will never get over 58 degrees F. That said, some of our rivers are indeed a bit slower moving and have more exposed rocks making them more susceptible to occasional warmer water temps. This means that some of these types of rivers may hit the upper 60’s and on some rare occasions the low 70’s. Thankfully, this is a very rare occurrence.
This second type of river is where you can expect to find more alder colored rivers like the Grand Cascapedia, York, Dartmouth, Cap-Chat and Madeleine. These rivers, although flowing down from the Chic-Choc Mountains too, have a substrate that gives the illusion that the water is slightly tea colored, especially in higher water. beyond a darker less gravel filled substrate, this could also be caused by deposits of peaty water that seep in from older growth forests. It should be noted that the aforementioned rivers will become very clear when the water is low, however, since the substrates contains less quarts, it is likely you will not see the mind blowing aqua marine colors you will find on the Bonaventure, for example. This does not take anything away from their amazing beauty; it just makes them a bit different and a bit more mysterious to fish.
I have also found that these alder or tea-colored rivers seem to have a tremendous diversity of aquatic life compared to the clearer and colder running rivers. This is most likely due to the fact that the number of degree-days on this type of river supports a wider range of aquatic insects. On rivers like the Cascapedia you can expect to see some pretty impressive caddis or sedge hatches from time to time.
No matter what river you choose to fish, as you wade or canoe these magnificent waters you are bound to see a variety of wildlife including deer, moose, Beaver, mink, otter, eagles, ospreys, as well as a few pesky Merganser ducks.
GETTING YOUR FAIR CHANCE AT PRIME WATER
Securing water on the Z.E.C. or Reserve controlled rivers is quite simple really. First, there is the fall drawing, which is the same date for each of the Z.E.C. run rivers. The date is November 1st of each year. An individual is allowed to buy a maximum of 10 lottery cards per river, at a price of $7.00 CDN (check for accuracy on saumonquebec.com website as prices may change from year to year) for each of the rivers they wish to apply on. The easiest way to do this now is through the www.saumonquebec.com website or by contacting a specific river association. After the draws have been completed, river managers make the results of the draws public to everyone. Letters or emails are sent out to the winners of the draw to inform them of their position in the draw. The lucky winners are then called to choose their dates according to their ranking. Your placement in the draw determines the dates you can pick to fish. The lower your draw number, the better chance you have at getting the water and dates you want. Simple.
If chosen, you are allowed to choose 2 days of fishing for one or two rods on the
ZEC controlled riers and three consecutive or non-consecutive days on the wildlife reserve managed rivers. If you miss out on the draw in November you still have a chance at securing water by calling the rivers sometime in January (you can find out when this is for each river by calling them or referring to the FQSA website) and see what is still available or what has been cancelled. Note that this is on a first come, first serve basis. If you are not chosen in the winter draw or if you don’t pick up any good cancellations, there is another draw in the summer which is done on a 72 or 48 hour in advance basis depending on the river. On almost all rivers one-half (50%) of available rods are assigned after the winter draw results and the other half are left for the 48-72 hour in advance draws. The only exception is on some rivers managed within the confines of a Wildlife Reserve where most of the water is sold in the November draw. The cost to enter this summer draw is $2.00 – $ 4.00CDN per ticket with a limit of one ticket per person. If your name is drawn you are allowed 2 rods for the date drawn 48-72 in advance. It is important to note that angling passes are NOT transferable, meaning that you cannot put in multiple names and then switch those names into your favour. This has been a gigantic point of contention on some rivers in the past where anglers and public oufitters were blatantly using the system for their own gain, penalizing those who were following the rules. Thankfully in the past year efforts have been made to tighten up these abuses. It goes without saying that no system is flawless, however, Quebec’s ZEC system is as close as it gets to allow for fair access for all.
The cost of daily access permits will vary from sector to sector and from river to river. The price also varies for residents and non-residents too, non-residents can expect to pay 25% - 50% as much as residents for their permits. Some rivers will offer reduced rates during the early or late seasons as well and will even give a free angling pass on unlimited water if an angler has purchased a certain number angling passes throughout the season. Prices of permits can vary between $60.00 CDN to about $1400 CDN a day depending on the river and the sector and if guides are included. With an exchange rate of about 30% many non-residents find Québec's salmon rivers a bargain.
TO GUIDE, OR NOT TO GUIDE
Another misconception about fishing for salmon in Québec is the guide law. In Québec there is no law that obliges any non-resident to hire a guide. Of course, if you are new to a river it is always a good idea to retain the services of a qualified guide at least for the first few days on a new river. One word of caution though, inform yourselves about your guide in advance, ask questions about experience and whether or not they have insurance. Most Z.E.C.'s have a list of guides at the office for guests to consult. Today more than ever you need to be diligent when choosing a guide, especially one who offers canoe service. I say this because in the past few years a crop of new and enthusiastic anglers of all ages have begun to spring up on the scene, and although I think this is fantastic that new people are interested in guiding, fishing a certain river or sector for a couple of years on a semi-regular basis does not qualify someone to be an “experienced” guide. Having said that, there are indeed a number of excellent guides out there. You will find that most of the best get booked up quickly so do not wait too long before finding one.
CONSIDER CATCH AND RELEASE
As of 1998 the regulations for catch and release on the Gaspe Peninsula have changed. Before 1998 if you captured a salmon and released it you were done for the day. Today, anglers can catch and release multiple salmon in a day. The official Quebec regulation allows 3 releases per day (for the majority of our rivers), whether you release a grilse or adult salmon, however, most river association suggest a 2 fish per day limit. These regulations may differ on the Lower North Shore Rivers. Due to the fact we have slightly different rules that apply to different regions, I strongly suggest you call the river association or someone in the know for complete regulations seeing as they can change rather quickly.
When should you come to Québec? This is the universal question that all Atlantic salmon anglers ask when they intend to explore a new river or area. Although I will give some general information and even perhaps advice, I cannot guarantee that things will always go as planned. This is one of the joys of salmon fishing, gambling on that perfect week when the water is just right and the salmon are on the move! For the purposes of this article I will identify different peak periods throughout the season. One last note before I begin. Peak seasons can vary from river to river even when they are in very close proximity to one another.
As a rule, almost all of the Gaspésie Rivers are seeing runs of fish by the St-Jean Baptiste, which is Québec celebration of their French heritage; the date is around the 24th of June. When it falls on a weekend, you can generally expect that there will be a lot of people applying for the summer draw on all rivers. There is not what would be considered "crowds" on all rivers some rivers actually still enjoy very low pressure at this time due to high water levels. The rule here is the higher the water, the less wade fishermen to contend with, in which case the few that do go fishing - usually do so from a canoe. This is where proper planning and your guide come in. Please refer to my BLOG post on www.atlanticsalmonguides.com in my “If I had a nickel series”.
If you know that you will be fishing one of the Gaspé rivers like the Bonaventure Petite Cascapédia, or Matapedia to name only a few canoe rivers, it is always a good idea to book a guide with a canoe. The water level can stay high or drop rapidly starting about the first week of July. If we were to take an average of what happens on the Petite Cascapédia and Bonaventure rivers, the water usually remains fairly high right up until the first week of July, however, since the first edition of this article in 1997, the effects of global warming have seen our rivers lower earlier in recent years.
If you enjoy early season angling, there are some exceptional opportunities on some of the Gaspe’s better-known rivers like the Matapedia, Grand Cascapedia, York and Dartmouth. The two aforementioned rivers The Grand and the Matapedia are well known for their big bright fish that come in late May and early June. The season opens on the June 1 and even though it can be a gamble it is one that can really pay off!
Three other great rivers to fish early season are the York, St-Jean and the Dartmouth. They have a special early catch and release season that runs from May 25th to June 1 inclusive. The accessibility on these rivers is excellent because of the lack of local anglers. Another great thing about these rivers is the fact that the unlimited access water can be just as productive as the limited water. Imagine having over 50+ miles of prime Atlantic salmon water virtually to yourself! I myself have enjoyed this early catch and release season for the past 20 years and will continue for many years to come. One note before making your plans to fish this area, bring reels with plenty of backing and a few spare fly-lines! Every once and a while you will be standing in a pool and see a whole fly-line and backing streak past you downstream!
Generally, the fishing remains very good throughout July and into the first week or so of August, again depending on the water conditions. The last two weeks of July mark the Construction Vacation almost all civil servants and construction workers are off these two weeks. This is probably the busiest time of year for salmon rivers. If you are lucky enough to have water reserved at this time it is a great time to fish. If you don't have any days reserved you can put in for the draw or fish the unlimited access water but will most likely find much more pressure during these two weeks. If you are interested in brook trout fishing, there are some great opportunities on some of our local rivers where you will find less pressure during that prime time period.
August is a great time for anglers to come as you will most likely be able to enjoy more tranquil river beats and very enjoyable fishing free from the more crowded times from mid-June to the end of July. Our rivers should have plenty of fish in them by this time. Salmon runs generally continue right into the last week of September although you can expect to see at least 80% of the annual run in our rivers by late August. This mid to later season is also a good time to practice your dry fly fishing with lighter tackle. Generally, water levels have dropped considerably by this time of the season, which translates into salmon stacking up in fewer pools but in greater numbers. This makes for very exciting sight fishing for the novice and for the seasoned angler who would like to enjoy and study the reactions of a salmon to a dry fly.
September marks the arrival of crisp autumn air, migrating woodcock, the moose rut and the smells of sweet cedar that permeate the senses. It also when you can find our rivers full of copper colored salmon and a smattering of fresh fish with sea-lice! The fishing at this time of the year can be sort of a mixed bag depending on water levels. Although we usually see higher water conditions by mid-September, that is not always the case. In recent years we have experienced lower water levels, especially earlier in the month, which translates into tougher angling conditions and the need to change tactics. Having said all of that, if you hit September just right, you can expect to experience some of the finest salmon the planet has to offer!
PRIVATE OUTFITTERS AND LODGING OPPORTUNITIES
Within the organized ZEC and/or Reserve territories you will also find a few fine fishing camps that are still privately owned and outfit on private waters managed by these organizations and in some rare cases on fully private waters. These camps offer people a great way to plan ahead if they do not want to play the lottery system. Anglers may choose to combine a couple of days at one of these camps with a couple of days on the Z.E.C. water. The prices of these camps can vary a bit but you can expect to pay about $ 700 to as much as $2000 CDN per day for your fishing with guides, lodging and three excellent meals.
B&B’s, private chalets and hotels are also abundant in the Gaspe Peninsula and North Shore; many of these places cater especially to salmon fishermen and are great places to meet other anglers fishing Z.E.C. waters. These places have become very popular with the angler who is jumping from river to river and wants to keep his costs down while still enjoying great comfort and hospitality. A room at one of these establishments will run from about $75 CDN for a single to around $200 CDN for a double or a full chalet for up to 4 anglers.
In some cases the Z.E.C.'s offer their own lodging in chalets or at campgrounds near to the river. You can expect to pay about the same prices if not a little less for these Z.E.C. run chalets. The campgrounds usually have all of the services needed showers, electric hookup, and so forth; you can expect to pay around $15-$35 per night or a little less for an extended stay. Information about all types of lodging for an area is given out by the Z.E.C.'s, so contacting them is probably the best bet if you need to plan ahead. You can also check the saumonquebec website or Google for more info.
GEARING UP FOR ATLANTIC SALMON
Once you have all of your fishing and lodging arrangements taken care of your thoughts can turn to the really important subjects like what to bring on your trip. The rods and reels used on Quebec salmon rivers is very much the same, as you would find in NB or NS. As a rule 8 and 9 weight rods are most often used in lengths of 9-10 feet. Lately we have seen an increase in anglers using double handed or Spey rods, which are great in the early season, when the water is high or on a bigger rivers like the Cascapedia, Matapedia or Moisie where it can come in pretty handy. The later in the fishing season the lower the water level hence, smaller DH, switch or SH rods and line weights can be very useful and fun. You can also drop line weights to 6wt when the water is lower in July and August.
The reel you choose up to you but if you are going to be fishing the higher water periods encountered in June and July, make sure your reel has a good drag system with at least 150 yards of 20 pound backing. The combination of big bright fish and high water will often times challenge even the finest drag systems, so be prepared! It is also a good idea to bring at least one extra reel/line just in case.
Your tippet material is also determined, as a function of when you fish and the size fly you will be using. In the earlier season you can expect to be using bigger flies and larger tippets. I usually never go any bigger than 12-15 pound test in the early season with fairly large flies. When the water clears up a bit and the fly sizes drop to 4-6-8-10 I find 6-8 pound tippet to be plenty for my needs. Keep in mind that many of the rivers in Québec are gin clear, so depending on your opinion about salmon and being leader shy or not, it is a good idea to fish with smaller tippets whenever possible.
What fly patterns should you be tying or thinking about bringing? Please refer to my “If I had a Nickel” series at www.atlanticsalmonguides.com for complete info on fly selection.
A LAST WORD
It is my sincere hope that the aforementioned information might better prepare anglers who are planning on or who have dreamed about coming to fish salmon in Québec. As you might have gathered from this information there are many fantastic fishing opportunities for you to explore whether it be on one of the many Z.E.C. or Reserve delegated run rivers or with a private fishing camp. Québec has past the preliminary stages of trying to make their rivers more accessible and more appealing to non-residents and residents alike, you can now expect to have a warm welcome from the local residents who are anxious to help you in any way they can. In the future all anglers can expect ongoing changes in policies that will open the door even more for anglers to come and enjoy these magnificent rivers.
~ GASPÉSIE QUÉBEC ~