Casting East of Montreal
By Ari Vineber
The Rivers and Lakes of the Eastern Townships
Photos by Mark Krupa
Most non-Quebecer fly fishers are aware of the excellent fly
fishing the province offers in the ZEC's north of the Ottawa and St.
Laurence rivers, the far north and the salmon rivers of the Gaspe and
the North Shore. Few are aware that there is superb fishing just a short
drive to the east of Montreal.
Even though it's never really attracted the attention it deserves, it seems
both right and fitting. After all, if it had been publicised, it probably wouldn't
be the place it is today. And this seems to suit the locals, who know a good
thing when they're on it and tend to keep it to themselves.
That's just part of the provincial charm of The Eastern
Townships and its small, rural communities.
The area was originally settled by Scottish Loyalists in the eighteenth century, who, as an
incentive to relocate in the New World, were promised that they could lay claim to
approximately all the land they could clear in three years—with the other two thirds
reverting to the Crown. This proposition was irresistible to a people who, in Scotland,
had no hope of becoming landowners. They flocked to the area and, as a bonus, were
comforted by a geography that was reminiscent of their native Highlands. To this day,
their descendants can still be found living in small anglophone communities such as
Scotstown and Gould.
Rivers in General
The region is interlaced with streams and rivers, which flow unhurriedly through
forest and farmland. Most of these are rarely fished, except by local anglers. As
fishing pressure is focussed on the two principal lakes—Memphramagog and
Massawippi, it's possible to enjoy the luxury of fishing alone all day on a variety
of streams, perhaps under one of the historic covered bridges, without seeing a soul.
These are not storied rivers such as the Bow, Bighorn, or Battenkill. The mysteries
of their hatches have never been eloquently storied by famous fly fishing writers, nor
have they spawned legendary fly patterns. And, no, Orvis hasn't named rods after
them. Nevertheless, they do have stories to tell.
The St. Francis, Moe's, Ulverton, Mississquoi, Magog, Coaticook, Eton, Ascot,
Salmon, and Massawippi rivers, as well as a number of smaller streams, all hold
trout—browns, brookies, and rainbows—although rarely do all three co-exist in
the same water. Browns are the most prevalent. Most of the fishing is open to the
public, provided the high water mark on private property is respected. Most are
easily accessed from the road.
Trout fishing on the rivers can be handled with five to seven weight outfits. Lighter
weights are an option, but these lead to grief if you hook into one of the really big
browns. In some rivers, there are specimens that go to 15 pounds.
Early in the trout season, which opens the third Friday of April, the water levels
on some rivers can be somewhat unpredictable. This partly due to local hydro
dams, which are used both for controlling the flow and for meeting local energy
demands. These conditions favour bait fishing and fly fishers have to be prepared
to work for their fish.
At this time of the year, the best results are obtained with a floating line and a
weighted nymph along with a strike indicator. Long leaders with fine tippets are
a must. Presentation should be a deep, dead drift, bouncing the nymph right
along the bottom or just above it. The fish are rarely choosy, and most nymph
imitations work, especially big, juicy stonefly and hellgrammite patterns.
The St. Francis
One of the largest rivers, the St. Francis, was once a major Atlantic salmon river and,
even when looking at it today, it's not hard to imagine how impressive a salmon run
it must have held in its heyday. According to reports, it was somewhere in the
hundreds of thousands. The St. Francis is a long and serpentine river, an endless
flow of flat water, rapids, and riffles that tail out into deep, still pools. The riverbed
is composed of fine, glacial moraine and sand, which date back to the last ice age.
The Molson family (of brewery fame) built a small salmon lodge on the St. Francis
in the 1850s between the locations of the modern cities of Sherbrooke and Lennoxville.
Today, the building still stands, housing a business which rents out kayaks in the
summer. The customers paddle along a river that has been devoid of salmon for
over a century and a half, a sad casualty of industrialisation.
Today, in place of the fabled salmon, the river hosts a multitude of other species,
ranging from sturgeon to smallmouth bass, and pretty much everything in between.
Surprisingly, there are a fair number of rainbow trout in the river, which use the
confluence of the St. Francis with Magog River as one of their main spawning
areas. This smack dab in the heart of downtown Sherbrooke, just below the
cooling turbines of the American Biltrite plant.
The Magog River
This tributary of the St. Francis runs out of Lake Memphramagog in the town of Magog.
It's a good spot for trout and even landlocked salmon in the spring. Landlocks are best
targeted by casting from the parking lot by MacDonald's in the early morning before
the worm fishers arrive. Memphramagog Smelts and Mickey Finn streamers are the
hot patterns. Although a far cry from wilderness fishing, it does produce results.
A more solitary experience is possible further downstream in the small basin at the
dam beside the Dominion Textiles plant, where good numbers of lake trout find themselves
stranded in the fall. Still further downstream, just above Highway #410 outside Sherbrooke,
a hydro-electric facility provides plenty of current and oxygenated water to keep trout
happy almost all summer. Although the fish here tend to be somewhat smaller, averaging
between 12 and 16 inches, this is a good area to fish dry flies in the summer months,
especially during the Hexagenia hatch.
Most of these fish originated from stocking in Nations Lake, a small impoundment in
the heart of Sherbrooke, where a local tournament for tagged fish is held each summer.
This event does not bring out the most sportsmanlike behaviour in the participants, but
it has the advantage of incidentally augmenting the trout population of the river, as most
of the fish remain uncaught. Many of them fall prey to pike, which might explain why
so many huge specimens are caught in the lake each year. ~ Ari Vineberg
More on this region next time!