By Indrek Kongats
Back in the early part of the 20th century, writer-adventurers Zane Gray and Ernest Hemingway glamorized the sport of fishing, exploring exotic destinations and locations and bringing back with them tales for us to enjoy on long wintery nights while sitting by the fire. Both writers loved deep sea fishing; Gray pioneered the sport, while Hemingway’s passion for the “sheer power and speed of the billfish” led to his novel The Old Man and the Sea. There is yet another tale to be told equally romantic and glamorous steeped in history, culture and tradition and that is fly fishing for Atlantic salmon.
Roughly northeast of those of us living here in western New York, a mere day’s travel away lies a strip of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean called the Gaspésie, or more commonly referred to as the Gaspe Peninsula, famous for its Atlantic salmon rivers. The abundance of giant Atlantic salmon in these magnificent rivers has elevated the province of Quebec to the salmon capital of the world. For over a century it has lured the world’s financial, political, sports and show business elite to cast a line into its waters to try their luck. Hemingway and Gray would themselves bow to the likes of King Edward VII, Princess Louise, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Ted Williams and Mr. White Christmas himself, Bing Crosby.
The Gaspésie is still a relatively remote destination in today’s terms, not serviced by Uber nor the latest in Google apps. The nearest international airports are in Montreal and Quebec City, still many miles away. Two smaller airports in the cities of Mont Joli and Gaspe service each end of the peninsula with only a few of the lesser salmon rivers nearby; the most famous rivers are somewhere halfway in between. Driving your car is about the only way to get to them if you have the stamina to do so. Fortunately, there is one alternative that most new age anglers overlook and that is travel by rail. The Salmon Express rolls right out of the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery novel, or an Ian Fleming spy thriller, taking you on an nostalgic and romantic overnight trip to a destination of unknown outcomes.
Before paved roads and airstrips, rail was the main form of transportation servicing almost all of the salmon rivers between Montreal and Gaspe. Unfortunately, due to restrictive budgets, the century-old tracks have been left in poor condition and all rail service has been suspended indefinitely into the interior of the Gaspésie except by some fortunate oversight to the tiny village of Matapédia, Quebec, in the very heart of salmon country.
Matapédia lies at the junction of two of the most famous Atlantic salmon rivers— the Matapédia and the Restigouche river. These two world renowned large salmon rivers have always produced more salmon than any other in the province.
Boarding the Salmon Express around 7 p.m. in Montreal will have you arriving in Matapédia the following morning at 6 a.m., just in time for the first bite. Along the way, you can enjoy a fabulous meal and nightcap, shaken’ not stirred, while tying some flies and reading a few pages from Zane Gray’s ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, before turning in for the night in your private compartment. Early in the morning you can take in a hearty breakfast and cup of dark roast just before you unload your rods and gear at the Matapédia railway station. As you step off the platform, right across the street is the Restigouche Hotel where you can setup camp for your stay.
The famous and historical Restigouche Hotel was built in 1906 by J. A. Restigouche and offers its clients royal comfort in an exclusive setting overlooking the salmon river bearing the same name. Once the anglers check into their rooms, purchase their fishing licenses and river permits, an experienced salmon guide is waiting to take them out on the river. Richard Adams was one of those guides and a legend in his own time, guiding several U.S. Presidents and world dignitaries on these very same rivers. Since Adams’ passing, new guides have found their way to this salmon utopia and those that never left have taken his place.
Unlike western trout and steelhead rivers where the guide floats the angler down river in a modern day drift boat, Atlantic salmon guides use a motorized Restigouche river canoe to transport their clients to famous salmon pools both up and down the river. The Restigouche river canoe has its own history and tradition and won’t be found anywhere else other than on a true Atlantic salmon river. Over 26 feet long, built from cedar strips, these hand crafted works of art are a joy to travel in. As you motor through the early morning mist, coffee in hand, staring at the weathered face of your guide, you know exactly why you have made this long journey, starting with the boarding of the Salmon Express.
Maybe on this Christmas Eve, the boy in you that has begun to doubt the existence of Santa Claus might still wish for a train, a train like the Salmon Express that is about to depart for those mystical rivers —the Matapédia and Restigouche.