A few weeks back, my wife, daughter and I made a trip up to Quebec City for vacation. Well, we visited Quebec City quite a bit but spent our nights and part of our days in a small town about a half hour drive up into the mountains. This wasn’t the original plan at all. In fact, we had already lined up an apartment in the outskirts of the city but my wife had the foresight to acknowledge that with a three year old in tow, we’d be stuck indoors after the little one went to bed if our vacation home didn’t have a patio or porch, so that idea was quickly scrapped. Instead, my wife found an amazing property up in the mountains that backed up to a small stream advertised as holding some beautiful native brook trout. We quickly made the reservation and two or three months later, we finally left Cleveland for the Great White (and French) North.
In the weeks and months leading up to our departure, I was practically salivating every time I thought about our little brook trout oasis. A big part of my enthusiasm was the simple fact that the fish there would be native. Coming from Cleveland, we really don’t get many opportunities to go after native fish in our local waters, except for a handful of small streams that I have yet to find and whose locations are guarded more fiercely than Donald Trump’s wig shop. They have almost Sasquatch-like status in my mind, to the point where I wonder if they truly exist or if it’s just a tall tale some of my elder fly fishing statesmen tell me to mess with me. While I had never had the opportunity to fish for brook trout, I have been obsessing over them for years and their striking appearance makes that desire completely clear, despite their diminutive size.
So after a grueling 12 hour drive into the night to maximize how much my daughter would be asleep in the car for our journey, we finally arrived at our vacation home. It was stunning. We were greeted by a lovely couple, both of whom fly fished and were even gracious enough to point out a few of their favorite spots on their property as they gave us the tour. After we settled in, I listened to the river as I laid in bed and could barely sleep I was so excited.
Here’s the catch, as we were driving up to Quebec, a storm was raging through Northeast Ohio and was following at our heels on our drive. We kept watching the weather and hoped against hope it would swing away from our destination or at least would taper off. Not the case. When I awoke after our first evening at the vacation house, the sounds of calm and serene pocket water had disappeared overnight and were replaced by the harsh sound of a terrifying amount of water raging past our house. You know in scary movies where someone is watching TV and the signal goes out and you get that crazy loud “snow”? That was a lot like the sound, and come to think of it, is a pretty good metaphor for what happened to my dreams of fishing for native brook trout.
Overnight the water level had risen 5 to 6 feet. A speeding and churning volume of scary water consumed what I had envisioned as my fly fishing Valhalla. I was obviously discouraged, but I was still really excited to be in Quebec and I couldn’t wait to check out Quebec City with my girls, so I focused on the non-fishing aspects of my vacation and kept some hope alive in the back of my head that maybe it would clear up before we left.
If you have not been to Quebec City, I highly recommend it. I’m not going to bore you with vacation photos and stuff like that, but it was truly an amazing city. It’s safe, the people are super friendly, and there are a million things to do.
We bopped around the Quebec City area and its more rural surroundings for the next several days, but every time we stopped back at the house to rest or to turn in for the night, I’d practically jump out of the car to run down to the river to see if it had come down a bit. Unfortunately, water doesn’t typically go down nearly as quickly as it can go up, so progress was slow going but despite the odds, I did get on the water a few times.
One of the spots the owners had showed me had a section of water that was moving slow enough that I could imagine some trout holding there and possibly still be able to feed, as the rest of the river would have them hunkered down on the bottom and not feeding at all. It was a long shot, but it was the only possibly fishable spot. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the river and the drift was damn near impossible. With overhanging trees and shrubs, a back cast was impossible, so roll casting was a must. However, the speed of the water was so great that by the time I could bring my rod up to start another roll cast after a 15 foot drift, my fly line was already extended downstream. Not only that, but the water was still so high that wading across to the other bank would be suicide and there were no bridges within at least a mile. It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually I figured out that if I put out about 20-25 feet of line down river from me, I could use the surface tension to fling the same length of line straight up river. This extra time of the extra line being up stream gave me just enough time to bring my rod up for a roll cast and bring in some line by hand to get the right distance to roll cast about 15 feet directly across stream. I’d let it drift about 15 feet through that slow section while I mended like a mad man to account for the swift current in the foreground and when nothing hit, I’d straighten it out downstream and do it all again. Needless to say this was exhausting and I was only able to maintain it for so long before muscle strain and lack of fish would put me back indoors.
The fishing proceeded in this fashion for the next several days, only dropping down a little bit each day where we had only minimal amounts of rain. Two days before we were scheduled to head to Montreal to visit some family before shooting back down to Cleveland, I stopped in at the Hooké headquarters in Quebec City. I had long been a fan of their fly fishing films and clothing so I reached out to them prior to my trip to get some advice on patterns to use for their local streams and for advice on how to deal with the possibility of a black fly hatch that my wife seemed to think would be akin to the end of days (PS: lemongrass oil keeps them away. PPS: it never happened). Although their headquarters isn’t really a shop per se, they still invited me in and said I could purchase some gear from them. So since the fishing had been a bust and we happened to be on that side of town, I stopped in to see Hooké headquarters while my saintly wife tended to our raging threenager who at the time was not fit for public consumption.
I was greeted by Fred Campbell and was graciously given a tour of the facility. I got to see their editing room and Fred’s office where I was given a sneak peek at a major fly fishing company’s not-yet-released website that he had been designing. One of the funniest parts of the tour was their fishing gear room, which was essentially a pile of fishing gear on a concrete floor in the middle of the room and a few shelves with scattered fly boxes that looked like they had been through hell and back. If you’ve seen their films and the remote places they’ve fished, you can understand why.
After the tour, we ended up in the warehouse room where all the Hooké apparel was stored. I kinda wanted to just start grabbing handfuls and run because I knew my wife still had the car running in the parking lot, although Fred seemed significantly more spry than this old man. There was so much cool stuff and Fred even showed me some of the new products they just released that were of very high quality. Alas, I’m a librarian by trade (see: no money) so I just bought a hat and Fred was kind enough to throw in a freebee hat with some stickers too.
We got to talking and when he asked how the fishing had been and I told him my sob story, I was completely reassured by his shared frustration that the rain that ripped through earlier in the week ruined all of his fishing too. He had a couple of filming trips planned that ended up being cancelled altogether and he was none too happy about it, as evidenced by his impressive display of curse words (and in English too). Heading into my visit, I was really starting to doubt my ability and while I knew a great deal of it was due to the conditions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I just sucked. But after talking to Fred, I felt at least a little more confident as he explained that brook trout in those conditions will basically just shut down and hide until well after things have calmed down. Moreover, they will barely feed at all. I was still bummed at my luck with the weather, but at least I felt like slightly less of a loser.
On the last morning at the house, the water had not come down to the level it was when we first arrived, but it was definitely low enough to fish and was crystal clear. [SIDE NOTE: throughout the high water, the water was still so clear. It was disorienting as when it rains on my local rivers, its chocolate milk.] I fished the property furiously as I had limited time. Given my built up frustration, after fishing a spot section for about 15-20 minutes, I would then wade out to where I was casting just to see if I spooked out any fish. Even if I couldn’t catch a brook trout, I at least wanted to know they were there instead of forever wondering if they just denied my attempts or if they weren’t there to begin with. I continued this process of casting and spooking, casting and spooking, working my way along the substantial length of private property we had access to. Each and every time I waded into a spot to see if I could find anything, yet all I saw were rocks. What looked like perfect trout habitat in every way was barren of any signs of life. I didn’t even see baitfish. As frustrating as it was to work through all this water without even seeing a fish in that crystal clear water, I at least walked away with the peace of mind that nothing was there for me to catch in the first place. I could at least hold on to some weak faith that I have at least some ability as a fly fisherman.
So what happened to all the fish? I dunno. Could it just be that with such an extensive stream full of great habitat that they have a million other places they could go other than our property? Sure. Definitely possible. It was very unlike the Rocky River at home where even at the height of the steelhead runs, there are great stretches of water where the steelhead won’t hold, concentrating them in higher numbers in the areas where they will. Maybe there’s just so much good water on that stream that the brook trout just move up and down freely and you just have to get lucky that they’re where you are. I have no idea. Or perhaps all the high water from earlier in the week made all of the trout retreat 2 or 3 miles downstream where there is a small reservoir that they might find refuge in, and they just didn’t make it back up yet? I could ask myself a million questions like these but it really doesn’t make a difference. They just weren’t there when the conditions were good enough to fish. End of story. Huge disappointment, but end of story. I went home with no fish and the Cavs were down in the finals 3-1 (although we know how that turned out!), sad trombone.
Thankfully, the rest of the trip was amazing. And honestly, if it weren’t for our family and friends being deeply entrenched in Greater Cleveland, we would move to Quebec in a heartbeat. That’s saying a lot for such a diehard Cleveland kid like me. I guess the moral of the story is this: Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn about you, let alone your whimsical fantasies of fishing trips or that it took you 12 hours to get there. She just doesn’t care. So even though the fishing was a bust, I still had the opportunity to fish in some of the most beautiful surroundings I’ve ever seen. And more importantly, I had a memorable vacation with my wife and daughter whom I can never spend enough time with. Would I have enjoyed catching a ton of beautiful fish? Sure. But then I would have fished longer and missed out on some of those great memories with my family. You can plan all you want in your head, but when things inevitably don’t go as planned in reality, you can either sulk about it or just appreciate what happens instead.
Also, GO CAVS!!!!