It is first come first served—but there are too many seconds—as fishing rights on Quebec rivers pass clumsily from private to local control
August 15, 1976

Each July the Gorge Pool of the Dartmouth River, on the Gaspé Peninsula of the province of Quebec, fills with Atlantic salmon. Heading in from the North Atlantic, the beautiful silver fish will hold for a while in pools with names like Strawberry Island and Burnt Jam, but all of them eventually will fight their way through the Lady's Steps Rapids and end up in the Gorge, their upstream journey halted by a mighty falls that they can negotiate only when the river drops to its low summer level.

A fisherman trying to scramble 300 feet down to the Gorge Pool must check his descent by grabbing at pines and hope that his nailed boots will hold on the steep final leg of bare rock. Then, breathless, he finds himself looking into a dream: at least 100, maybe closer to 150, salmon finning gently in a pool no bigger than a suburban living room.

If this were Scotland, you would probably come by such a sight—rod in hand, that is—only if your family owned half a highland county; in Iceland you would merely have to be very rich. On the Dartmouth, though, since June 5 this year, all that is needed to win the right to cast a Silver Rat across those delectable fish is a $40 one-day permit ($20 for Quebec residents), a dime to call the toll-free number 800-462-5349 (418-643-5349 in the U.S., where it is not a free call) and an enormous amount of luck.

This is because the salmon fishing on the Dartmouth, as on other Canadian waters, has been taken out of private hands. More precisely, the government has not renewed the lease to the Dartmouth Club; in the future the government will administer the fishing itself.

The philosophy behind the take-over seems unassailable. How can one justify permitting a small group of individuals, because they have the $75,000 or so needed annually to cover river management costs, to keep to themselves a rare natural resource—Atlantic salmon fishing—and to deny to anyone else, even men who were born and grew up on the river's banks, the right to fish? Particularly, how can one justify it when these fishing monopolists are either rich men who live almost 1,000 miles from the river or foreigners from the U.S.? Place that situation in the troubled context of bilingual Quebec and you wonder why the rumpus didn't happen years earlier.

After the revolution of June 5, 1976, in the best of all possible worlds, the deprived locals of Gaspé town and the riverside villages would be merrily fishing away as the wicked capitalists packed their rods and sneaked out of town. Poaching, so long a scourge of Canadian salmon streams, would disappear: if anyone could go fishing legitimately, who would need to poach? In a year or two there might well be a street renamed rue Juin 5 in Gaspé and maybe a statue of M. Rejean Maranda, the special counselor to the Minister of Tourism, Hunting and Fishing in the provincial government, who is generally thought to be the driving force behind the salmon takeover. The Dartmouth change, of course, is only a single example of general policy regarding Quebec's salmon resources. According to a spokesman of the ministry, only "budgetary limitations" stand in the way of complete nationalization of all waters.

But among the salmon anglers of Gaspé, no public subscription is being raised for that statue. Indeed, there is a strong feeling among them that while recognition of their right to fish was long overdue, it does not seem to have led to much actual fishing. In fact, it is easy to meet good, French-speaking Canadians who believe they caught more salmon in the bad old days of the foreign oppressors. It all boils down to that toll-free number. In theory, if you call 48 hours ahead of the day you want to fish, at precisely 10:30 a.m., you will find yourself with the freedom of the Gorge Pool, the Ladder Pool and the four other salmon-holding pools that make up the prime Sector 2 of the Dartmouth. In practice, though, what you will almost certainly get is that old buzz-buzz busy signal.

In Gaspé town itself, 800-462-5349 is passing into local mythology. What happens at the other end, there in Quebec City? Some say there are up to 50 girls poised to answer the calls; others say that there is a dusty locked room somewhere in the city with a telephone that is permanently off the hook. "I've tried it 24 or 25 times since June 5th," claims local angler Jean Marc Adams, "but the line is always busy." "I called that number the first 10 mornings," says another fisherman, "and I never got one answer." All over Gaspé you hear the same complaint. "It was better before," declares Gerald Langlais. "I used to get invites."

What Gaspé people don't know is that 800-462-5349 is only a tiny cog in a huge bureaucratic machine that is the booking department of the Quebec Ministry of Tourism, Hunting and Fishing, the biggest organizers of outdoor holidays in the world, they will tell you, be they simple camping or boating trips or fishing or hunting expeditions. The home of 800-462-5349 is on the 10th floor of a high-rise office building and it is part of an operational headquarters that reminds you of those movies about the preparations for D-Day. Girls flit silently about changing the symbols on vast wall charts, and a battery of telephone operators—20, for the information of puzzled Gaspesians—attend to calls requesting reservations. And if you think that the fishermen of Gaspé have problems when they try to book a day's fishing on Sector 2 of the Dartmouth, then you should hear Andre Lachance, a spokesman for the ministry, discourse on the events of Jan. 5, 1976, when the switchboard opened for general reservations for Quebec outdoor vacations. "For Mastigouche Park," he will tell you, "200 boats were gone in 20 minutes." That sounds more like an appalling marine disaster than a holiday reservation plan, but the real disaster hit the Bell Telephone System. "Bell told us later that they measured more than 700,000 calls on our toll-free number on Jan. 5th," says Lachance, an undeniable note of pride creeping into his voice. "It completely jammed up the 800 system. Oddly enough, just about 800 people actually got through and were able to make a reservation."

So, standing in a Gaspé telephone booth with a dime in your hand, you should know that the odds are stacked high against your picking up a fishing reservation on the Dartmouth. Surprisingly, however, some Gaspé anglers seem to be consistently successful in getting through to Quebec City at the magical moment of 10:30 a.m. There is William Boulay, for example, who has the Chrysler agency in Gaspé and also owns a motel. He managed to book a considerable number of days on Sector 2 and in the first month of the season landed 13 salmon out of an approximate total river catch of 100.

"There's this one guy gets a booking every day," says a disgruntled Gaspé fisherman. "How does he manage that?" There are wild guesses in the town as to the number of people Boulay has calling 800-462-5349 each morning—up to 30 or more. In reality, he'll tell you, he just uses his two secretaries and his sales manager. Sector 2 can fish six rods, and at the beginning of the season the first caller lucky enough to get through could reserve all six, which was clearly inequitable in a plan meant to provide fishing for all the locals. Now the booking limit is two rods, but there is still a lot of discontent.

In Gaspé last winter, at a town meeting convened to discuss new arrangements, fishermen were told that there would be a rotation system. "It was supposed to be, you'd get so many days' fishing, then you'd quit," recalls Edsel Langlais, who was the manager at the club when the Dartmouth was in private hands. That apparently sensible plan fell through when the citizens' committee, which was going to handle the fishing on a local basis, decided that it didn't have the time or the money to administer the scheme. So the government itself, only six days before the season opened, was compelled to take over the running of the Dartmouth.

"The government is prepared to give the river back to the local people next year should they want it," says Yvon Fortin, who is the assistant manager for both the Dartmouth and the Saint John. But that doesn't seem likely at the moment, and the telephone booking system will continue. Meanwhile, all-comers' fishing is available without reservations on Sectors 1 and 3 of the Dartmouth—residents pay $6 a day and outsiders $12—but fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon is virtually impossible under the crowded conditions that are inevitable when there is no limit on the number of anglers who have the right to fish a pool. "I was there on the $6 stretch at 3:30 on the morning of opening day," says Jean Marc Adams, "and there were nine anglers ahead of me fishing the pool. I went home."

But even under conditions so crowded that only a New Zealand fly-fisherman accustomed to "picket line" fishing on the Taupo stream mouths could cast a line and keep out of trouble, isn't this system fairer than the old one? It would seem that this might not be entirely the case.

Until this year, for more than half a century the Dartmouth fishing had been leased by the same family: first by a Canadian industrialist, Jules R. Timmins, then by his brother-in-law, Senator Donat Raymond. Recently the lease has been held by Ken Reardon, a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s, who married into the family. And for Gaspé anglers, certainly in recent seasons, there was no question of being kept off the river. "To give you an example," says Edsel Langlais, "the first year I was on the river, Mr. Reardon fished until July 1st and then he left it up to me to bring in guests. I brought in 97 that year, mostly local but some were from Montreal. They paid nothing except the guide's fee." Anglers from nearby, in fact, found it fairly easy to get invitations—far easier than making a successful call to 800-462-5349.

Moreover, Langlais also points to the economic advantages of the old private-leasing system. "Last year," he will tell you, "it cost $68,000 to operate the club, and all that money was spent locally on food, supplies and wages. That may not sound like much but it is very important for a little town like Gaspé. And the guests also used to leave a lot of money here." Certainly, no tourist angler from far afield would now be foolish enough to plan a Dartmouth fishing trip under the present booking system, and there is clearly a loss to the district in terms of tourist income.

Langlais was one of the 14 people who lost jobs when the Dartmouth Club closed down. The handsome wooden buildings are still there but unlikely to be used again. "In too much disrepair," says Yvon Fortin, though a superficial inspection shows them to be sound except for a few broken screens and the encroachment of forest flowers and tall summer grass. Perhaps no one felt the blow more strongly than Lionel Adams, who for 25 years was a guide and river guardian. "I had a worrying time," he admits, though he and Langlais were luckier than most. Langlais works for the Quebec lottery that is helping to pay off the Olympic debt, while Adams is now a laborer for the government. In all, seven of the river guardians have found new jobs; the others are still out of work. "We're not guardians anymore," says Adams. "They have men who come from Quebec to look after the river. They don't know the Dartmouth and it's going to take a long time for them to learn."

Quebec has drafted 10 conservation officers to replace the 14 former guardians and, locally, much concern is expressed over the poaching problem. "It's not enough men to look after the river," Adams claims. "We were 14, yet we had a lot of walking to do, a lot of ground to cover. For instance, we had two men who were always posted in the upper reaches of the river, but there is nobody up there now."

Questioned, local government officials assure you that poaching will soon be a thing of the past. Yvon Fortin claims that already there has been an 80% improvement, but when pressed to justify this figure he will tell you it is based on "what we see." It is the government's belief, because people now have the right to fish, theoretically anyway, that poaching will soon be extinct. Asked if $2 per pound wasn't still an attractive proposition to illegal salmon netters, he said the government department of conservation had everything under control. This did not prevent a department control trailer from being overturned by a gang of poachers early this season, however. Four went to jail, but the evidence is that they have plenty of colleagues. American anglers visiting the neighboring York River this season claim that a net had been set for a week before it was located and that some salmon in the river showed net marks.

There can be no question, of course, of going back to the old system of private leasing on rivers like the Dartmouth, and it is clear that existing leases on other rivers are more and more likely to be taken over in the not so distant future. But what concerns serious salmon anglers, and in particular the Atlantic Salmon Association, is that in the wrangle over public or private rights it is the salmon itself, already a threatened species, that is likely to suffer. In its journal, The Atlantic Salmon, the association points out sadly that "generally, protection and management on Government rivers have...received less attention than under private or leased regimes." Given adequate money and professional assistance, it might well be that locally administered fishing will prove better in the long run for the salmon than distant control by the Quebec government; the limited experience of this first season on the Dartmouth certainly points to that. Meantime, as the ASA points out, a formula based on common sense must be arrived at, one that takes into account the inescapable fact that unlimited, open fishing is self-defeating and that the privilege of fishing for Atlantic salmon brings with it a major responsibility for the species.

PHOTOTONY TRIOLO PHOTOTONY TRIOLOOn the low-flowing Dartmouth River, two anglers at cross-purposes fish a pool big enough for one. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOWilliam Boulay found a direct line to 13 salmon. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOTwo former guides reminisce about old club days. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOAndre Lachance at the Ministry office in Quebec City. Phone: 800-462-5349. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOCrowded conditions prevail on Sectors 1 and 3, where the fee is a mere $6. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOThis fishing-is-forbidden sign no longer applies. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOAn overseer of the Dartmouth and St. John, Yvon Fortin is hard pressed to check his territory.