A fish tale that began 75 years ago has turned a small Quebec town into an international winter destination.
Today, Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade boasts that it’s the world capital for tommycod fishing as it welcomes tens of thousands of visitors annually.
As the story goes, it began in 1938, when a local grocer went out on the nearby Sainte-Anne River to cut up blocks of ice which he would put into boxes to keep his meat refrigerated.
When he cut through the ice, he noticed small codfish in the river. The word spread and fishing huts soon began springing up every winter, turning part of the river into a small village on ice.
During the early days, because roads were closed during the winter, people came by train to fish and scoop up the tommycod, also known as tomcod. Horse-drawn sleigh carriages were used to bring the eager visitors to the fishing chalets.
Steve Massicotte, a town councillor and president of the Sainte-Anne River Outfitters Association, says the wood-heated chalets were originally quite small.
“In the beginning, there were chalets that could accommodate four, six, up to a maximum of eight people,” he said in an interview. “Since the ’80s, we have chalets that can accommodate 25-30 people.”
Massicotte says 500 fishing huts are now set up each winter along 1 1/2 kilometres of the Sainte-Anne River and that more than 80,000 eager tourists drop by every year to enjoy the winter fishing.
In one period, during the 1950s and ’60s, as many as 1,200 tiny chalets covered the ice on the river.
The tommycod fishing season officially starts on Dec. 26 and runs until Feb. 16. Ste-Anne-de-la-Perade is located between Montreal and Quebec City, about a 25-minute drive east of Trois-Rivières.
“People come from everywhere in the world to fish,” Massicotte said, noting that along with Europeans and Russians, much of the clientele comes from China and elsewhere in Asia.
“People find it magical, just to be able to walk on a river,” he added.
Over the past 10 years, tourists have generated between $4 million and $5 million annually for the Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade economy and its 2,000 residents.
For Massicotte, it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.
“The small fish actually arrive at the beginning of December and there are about 800 million that enter the Sainte-Anne River and leave at the end of February,” he said.
Fishing lines hang from the ceiling of the hut and drop into an ice hole that’s 30 centimetres wide.
Each person has two or three lines to watch and as many as a dozen people can fish at a time. They can reel in between 150-250 fish in 10 hours.
“There’s no permit needed and no limit to what can be taken,” Massicotte said. “People in the cabins can sometimes get 200, 300, 500 fish.”
It costs $28 per person for adults to fish on weekends and $25 during the week. It’s half-price for children six to 12 and free for kids five and under.
“For children, it’s a fish that poses no danger, there are no sharp points, no teeth,” Massicotte noted.
A tommycod can measure anywhere from 15-35 centimetres long.
There are no family rates, but everything is included — even the wood for the stoves that heat the huts.
“People can fish in total comfort,” he said. “When the stove really heats up, it can raise the temperature up to 25-30 degrees (Celsius) inside the chalet.”
There are also electrical outlets for small appliances like radios. But people have to bring their own food.
Massicotte suggests tourists may also want to consider coming to fish during the week because weekends are often all booked.
There’s also night fishing which goes on until six in the morning. Visitors can even park their cars outside the chalets.
This season, various sporting events are being added to the list of activities held on the ice.
There will be a beach volleyball tournament during the weekend of Jan. 18 and a pond hockey tournament — with boots, not skates — the following weekend.
The town also holds a big festival, beginning Feb. 1, where a tent set up on the river becomes the focal point for music and entertainment.
Massicotte also stressed that people shouldn’t worry about falling through the ice, which has to be at least 30 centimetres thick. In late winter, in February, the ice can get a thick as one metre.
“It’s very, very safe,” he said, noting that heavy-duty tractors are used to move the chalets out onto the ice.
“We go on the river with tractors (and) they are pretty heavy machines, and we wouldn’t do that if the ice wasn’t safe.”
Massicotte says finding lodgings nearby should not be a problem. But he cautions to reserve ahead of time.
“We have local inns, small bed-and-breakfasts, where people can reserve rooms, and we also have hotels and motels that are situated nearby at Trois-Rivières and
St-Marc-Des-Carrieres,” he added.
“It’s important to make reservations because we know that between 80,000 and 100,000 people come through, so places are limited.”