Early season silver on the Restigouche

Paul
Paul Smith
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The 2013 salmon season opened on the island portion of Newfoundland June 1, and I suspect many anglers cleared the cobwebs from their eyes and strung weight forward floating lines for opening day.

You can’t legally wet a salmon line in the Big Land until June 15. I’m guessing that’s because the salmon arrive later in Labrador, its rivers being further north than those on the island. But I really don’t understand the delayed opening.

So, if there are few or no salmon in the river, what is the harm in fishing? Why can’t one fish empty or nearly empty water if one chooses to do so? What is the harm in a little practice?

It’s kind of like shooting clay pigeons before the opening of duck season. I’d certainly fish early if given the opportunity.

Bigger salmon typically enter rivers early in the season when the water is running high from springtime snow melt.

There’s a breed of hardcore anglers from all over the world who love nothing more than snagging these early run chrome beauties. It’s a quest where one doesn’t expect to catch many; hunting the illusive lunker is the game.

The spring run angler is usually casting to moving fish, or if holding at all, only for a few minutes. One must cover as much water as possible for many hours to have a decent chance of tangling with silver.

You’ll need perseverance and steadfast dedication to your purpose if you expect the gods to relinquish the sweetest prize, a slab sided and brawny 20-pounder.

This spring, a friend of mine, Jim Rusher, invited me to stay at his place and fish with him for early run salmon on the Restigouche, a huge river system that separates Quebec and New Brunswick. Jim runs a salmon lodge in the tiny logging town of Routhierville, on the banks of the Matapedia, another world-class salmon river that joins forces with the Restigouche in the picturesque French Canadian town of Matapedia.

It’s where I ate frog’s legs for the very first time, buts that’s another story.

The game would be chasing elusive silver in early season high water, before many anglers bother to wet their boots or flies. It also helps the cause, that although early fishing is permitted on Quebec rivers, no salmon may be retained before June 1.

This means lots of open water and plenty of opportunity to hunt your fish of a lifetime.

I would be meeting up with three buddies of mine from British Columbia, all crazy steelhead and salmon guides on the mighty Skeena, and also friends of Jim.

Jim Rusher is a giant in the salmon-angling world; now in his late sixties, he’s still at the top of his game. He’s dedicated much of his life to spey casting, tying classic salmon flies, and of course catching salmon.

He started out as a professional golfer, but couldn’t resist the lure of the long rod. He’s an interesting character, to say the very least, and cures the best cold smoked salmon I have ever tasted.

I left Torbay at 5:30 a.m. May 23 and flew to Fredericton, N.B. I rented a car and drove six hours to Routhierville, where I crossed the Matapedia via a covered wooden bridge, the first I’ve ever seen in real life. That was cool. I pulled into Chapelle Lodge and chatted with Jim while waiting for the B.C. boys to return from the river.

The lodge, as the name implies, is a former chapel converted into a fishing camp, also very cool. There were once 200 families living and working in Routhierville; now there are only two full-time residents. But people still come here to fish. Guess what Jim and I talked about? Fishing, maybe.

Matt, Jeroen, and Derek showed up at about 7 p.m. with a bunch of Gaspe lobster. I contributed 4 lbs of moose sausage that I had tucked away in a small cooler in my luggage. We fired up the barbecue and had a feast.

The fishing and fly talk intensified. Jeroen gave me the play by play version of a 40-lb leviathan he had landed the day before. Derek followed with his 24-lb silver salmon, actually his very first Atlantic.

What a way to start — beginner’s luck, maybe? Not a chance. Actually, Derek is an expert fly angler and quite capable of catching Atlantics. It was only his second stint and both were early run expeditions, always difficult angling conditions.

We awoke in Chapelle Lodge to a downpour of rain. This is sadly typical of my early run salmon life. Last year, in Norway, during the first week of June, we fished through four days of torrential rain. It’s not the getting wet that troubles us, it’s the rising river, which makes already tough fishing even more so.

There’s just that much more swollen river for fish to swim in, and lower visibility to boot. Now we were truly fishing for a needle in a haystack, but a very big shiny needle — that’s what keeps us casting hour after hour.

Five of us fished all day and didn’t get a tug. A rousing birch fire in Chapelle Lodge dried out our soaked clothes and raised our sagging spirits.

Stout drinks and Cuban cigars didn’t hurt, either. But the next morning it was raining again. The B.C. crew were leaving for home at noon and they opted to pass on angling for a classic fly-tying session with Jim.

This was a wicked opportunity that I too could not pass on, in spite of how badly I craved a fix of silver. Besides, I would have all afternoon and evening to fish. Observing Jim tie a classic full dress Green Islander was worth the journey to Quebec.

At 1 p.m., I was fishing public water on the lower Restigouche, about a kilometre above where the main power lines cross the river. I fished for three hours with nary a pull. But finally, through dark bellowing rainclouds, the gods smiled upon their devout servant.

As my giant Blue Charm swung through the powerful current, I felt the mighty tug I had been waiting for, and dreaming about all winter. It was a beautiful thing.

I lifted the rod to set the hook and we squared off in the pouring rain for a 20-minute battle. Finally, up to my thighs in water, I had the fish in hand, my freezing fingers precariously squeezing its tail.  I took a measure with my rod and confirmed it later at 39 inches (a metre). I’d estimate the salmon was at least 20 pounds.

My free hand, also with very cold, numb fingers, fumbled down my chest waders for my cellphone. It ended up on the bottom of the river.

My next waterproof case will be neon pink, not bloody black. I released the fish and ended up wetter than ever diving for my phone. I found it, but there’s no photo of my first Restigouche salmon. There’s always next year.

You might be interested sometime in fishing for salmon in Quebec. I’ll explain the regulations and give some tips on where to go in a future column.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted

at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Geographic location: Restigouche, Labrador, Quebec Routhierville Matapedia New Brunswick British Columbia Skeena Torbay Fredericton Gaspe Norway

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  • Petertwo
    June 09, 2013 - 05:53

    I stopped ranting about the dates for salmon fly fishing about 15 years ago. Older folks I'd talked to remembered catching salmon in April and May ,one even during a light, falling snow. The season opened earlier in BSG, like a week, phooey, and the guys were all complaining that the salmon were too big 10-12 pounds. Aha, self explanatory- salmon fishermen as opposed to salmon anglers- whereas anglers as you noted will fish in all weather's -(I used to fish Toronto harbour for salmon and trout in the winter where there was open water around the generating stations)- and love it, cause they are fly fishing, it's addictive. We, anglers miss so much, early season and late season, until mid-October at least, and there is no real salmon tourist angling like in New Brunswick. Never will be competing with NB, Iceland, Russia, Norway and Sweden, where the big fish, (as you wrote) are what anglers crave, not to eat but for the challenge, more cerebral than just fishing for the pot. Here fishing dominates and angling is still just a novelty.