The Grand Cascapedia River (Courtesy of Bob Carty)
The Grand Cascapedia River, on the Atlantic coast of Canada, boasts some of the best sport fishing in the world. Its salmon stocks are in great shape and people pay big money for permits to fish there. Hoagy Bix Carmichael, son of the singer-songwriter of the same name, fell in love with the Cascapedia River. Carmichael took producer Bob Carty fly fishing and talked about the river's unusual history and of concerns for its future.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Every summer, a small group of anglers pay a lot of money – around ten thousand dollars a week - to cast a line into a river on the Atlantic coast of Canada. They do it because the Grand Cascapedia has produced three quarters of the largest Atlantic salmon ever caught in North America.
And not only that – the Cascapedia’s salmon stocks are in good shape while many salmon rivers in eastern Canada are in decline and most in the eastern United States are barren. A key reason for that lies in the Cascapedia’s fabled history, the subject of a new book by Hoagy Bix Carmichael. He’s the son of the great singer-songwriter, Hoagy Carmichael who gave us Georgia on My Mind and Stardust.
Producer Bob Carty spent some time fishing with Hoagy Bix Carmichael – talking about history and his father’s music, and about the river he loves.
[MUSIC: The Mills Brothers “Up a Lazy River” from ‘The Mills Brothers’]
CARMICHAEL: There are a number of rivers mentioned in Dad’s songs. This one is not a lazy, this river can be a torrent in fact, not “up a lazy river.” I wish Dad had been a fisherman – it would have been something that we could have shared together.
CARTY: Wherever Hoagy Bix Carmichael goes, his father, and his father’s music are never far away, even when he’s standing on slippery rocks, waist deep in the fast-moving waters of the Grand Cascapedia River. Hoagy swings his 11-foot pole back and forth, looping the line in broad arcs until it casts a fly 30 yards out across the rapids. The river takes it downstream, and Hoagy watches with the intensity of a sprinter waiting for the starter’s gun.
CARTY: The Grand Cascapedia River tumbles out of the remnants of the Appalachian mountain chain in the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec. Its pristine waters cascade down 100 miles of rapids, cutting a narrow valley through dense pine forests. Along the way, in more than 150 pools, there are salmon. From the riverbank you can actually see them - 20 and 30 pounders – floating there on the bottom. Hoagy’s fishing guide, Lee Forn, can’t help but remember what can happen when a fly touches water.
FORN: It was about 20 min before dark, the water just exploded. Had him on for over 2 hours, 60 inches long, 28 inch girth on him – monster fish.
CARTY: But for now, the monster fish are just ignoring Hoagy’s fly. But that’s OK.
CARMICHAEL: A friend of mine said “let me find a good fish and if I do I’ll get a thousand dreams out of it.
CARTY: Hoagy has spent five years of his life writing about this river, not just because of its fish, but because in a way, the river helped save his life.
[MUSIC: Louis Armstrong “Stardust” from ‘Louis Armstrong: Smithsonian Box Set Collection’]
CARTY: Hoagy Bix Carmichael was born in 1938 in Los Angeles and grew up there in the years when his father was at the top of his career – composing hit tunes, starring in Hollywood movies, hosting radio programs, touring around the nation and the world.
As a kid he used to cast plugs into the backyard swimming pool and pretend to catch a big trout. As an adult he found a calling in public television – producing the Mr. Rogers and Julia Childs shows. He was also managing his father’s song catalogue – which meant getting royalties for every new recording of Georgia On my Mind or The Nearness of You. And that allowed him to enjoy his favorite river.
CARMICHAEL: I first came to the Grand Cascapedia in 1985 – I loved the beauty of the river, seeing a bald eagle land as I was casting for a rising 20 lb salmon that you fight for half-an-hour. It really did feel I needed to come back here.
[MUSIC: The Four Aces “Heart and Soul” from ‘The Best of The Four Aces’]
CARTY: And Hoagy Bix did come back here, almost every summer. Even the worst summer of his life. In 1999, Hoagy was diagnosed with a bad case of lymphoma. He had to have chemotherapy. His appendix burst. He was very ill. And it was just a week before he was due to go to the Cascapedia.
[MUSIC : Hoagy Carmichael “Rockin’ Chair” from ‘Hoagy Sings Carmichael’]
CARTY: Hoagy’s father had always told him that if you look at a piano; there all kinds of new songs waiting there right on the keys … you just have to find them. And so Hoagy began to try to track down the details of the Grand Cascapedia’s history. In the 1880’s, the river was the near exclusive domain of the governors-general of Canada, the representatives of the British Queen. But in 1893, a group of American entrepreneurs bought them out. The best salmon river in the world was turned over to an elite club of American anglers.
CARMICHAEL: This is the original room of the old Cascapedia members - it was a small club of six to eight men at any one time: Mr. Vanderbilt – maybe the richest man in America, Henry Clay Frick, who worked with Andrew Carnegie and developed U.S. Steel. R.G. Dunn, Dunn & Bradstreet, still bears his name – in fact R.G. Dunn employed four of the presidents of the United States, including Abraham Lincoln. And they all brought man servants, some brought two – it’s sort of all the simplicity money can buy.
CARTY: American domination of fishing on the Grand Cascapedia would continue for the next 90 years. Raising not a little amount of debate. The Micmac native people had used these territories, and fished the salmon, for centuries before the sportsmen arrived. John Martin is the local Micmac chief.
MARTIN: I remember speaking with an elder a few years back and I said “Yeah, you must have been doing a lot of fishing in your time when you were a young fellah” and he said, “No, we couldn’t fish, we’d get thrown in jail, we’d get chased off the river. They wouldn’t allow us to fish. And yet, it was our God given right to do so. Guards and gates set up and we were prevented from exercising our rights.
CARTY: But there was an upside to private ownership of fishing rights. It meant there were few anglers and those anglers had a self-interest in preserving the salmon stocks. Over the years they limited the number of rods that could be used at any one time, and the number of fish caught on any one day. They used their political connections to oppose plans to build dams on the river.
CARMICHAEL: That would have made this river a lake – and salmon don’t like lakes – and they would never have gotten up and it would have been dead. They worked very hard and made a few key phone calls – and the proposal was stopped. You quite often find that if you own something you tend not to let it run down – it’s your preserve. They’ve always been able to limit the amount of fishing that’s been on this river.
CARTY: That’s a view shared by many locals. Mary Robertson was born and raised in the valley, and now she’s the director of the Grand Cascapedia Museum.
ROBERTSON: I heard a wonderful quote and it was a gentleman from this area and he said, “If it had not been for the Americans on this river, there would not be a salmon left in the river.” These people came into this river, it became let’s say their playground, so they knew they had to protect their resource. Whey you look at this situation from the outside you’re saying “Oh yes what is it, the Americans came in and they had the rights to the river and we the local people can’t fish. But some of the local people were able to make a bit of money. They worked for them, carpentry skills were used. The women were able to work in the camps and to this day, that continues. There’s a close bond between the people who have the camps, and the local people.
[MUSIC: Hoagy Carmichael “Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish” from ‘Buttermilk Sky’]
CARMICHAEL: Some days there just ain’t no fish – other days there might be – and that’s what keeps the fisherman alive – you think you’re gonna catch something. You’re just sure of it.
[MUSIC: Hoagy Carmichael “Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish” from ‘Buttermilk Sky’]
CARMICHAEL: We’re in the room right now, the bedroom that Jimmy and Roslyn Carter stayed in when they came fishing here. That’s Bing Crosby, a picture of Mr. Crosby up here.
CARTY: Over the years, more and more celebrities have come to the Grand Cascapedia. But the river is no longer run as a private club. In the late 1970’s, the provincial government of Quebec kicked out a lot of foreign fishing clubs and set up government agencies to run the rivers. It was an egalitarian idea – offering easy and relatively cheap access to salmon fishing for everyone. But many of those rivers have been over-fished.
One thing they decided was that to protect the resource, fishing would be kept expensive. Through a lottery, some lucky members of the public can have access to fishing pools for as little as $60 a day. For most anglers it’s a bit more costly.
CARMICHAEL: For a day for two people it’s somewhere in the area of 1300-1400 dollars. When you think about it, eight or nine hours fishing on a river that could bring you the biggest fish of your life, or the biggest fish in Canada, it’s not too bad.
CARTY: The sports fishery on the Cascapedia supports about 130 jobs in the valley. It brings in more than four million dollars a year – and given that about a thousand fish are caught each year, that means that each fish caught on the fly is worth four thousand dollars.
CARMICHAEL: Lee Wolfe, the great angling writer and fisherman, said, a salmon is too valuable to only catch once. He’s right about that.
CARTY: Which is why the Cascapedia Society supports “catch and release”. Hoagy hasn’t killed a salmon in eight years. You can get a license to take a salmon away to your dinner table. But 87% of the salmon landed on the Cascapedia are now set free. And that has increased the average weight of the fish to about 20 pounds.
Meanwhile, a deal with Greenland’s commercial fish operators has got them fishing for anything but salmon, and that is helping stocks return to a number of rivers, including the Grand Cascapedia. The result: back in the 1950’s there were only 250 large salmon in this river. This year biologists counted 2,700. That’s double the number in all rivers in the U.S. Northeast. Yet, there still are serious concerns for the future.
[MUSIC : Geoff Muldaur & Amos Garrett “Washboard Blues” from ‘Washboard Blues’ (Vivid Sound)]
CARMICHAEL: The greatest threat to this river and all rivers is global warming of course because we have weather patterns and warmer water that will affect this river in 30 or 40 or 50 years and that scares me a lot. It’s fragile, it’s on the edge of being fragile.
[TRUCK GOES BY]
CARMICHAEL: There is a road running along here, used by tourists, fishermen, and a lot of logging trucks.
CARTY: Living with the logging industry is a huge challenge for this river. A few years ago local residents, natives and anglers pressured the forestry companies to reduce the amount of silt run-off. But clear-cutting in the watershed creates a long-term problem, a problem Cascapedia Society manager Marc Gauthier explains to me as we take a canoe ride up the river.
[POLLING UP RIVER]
GAUTHIER: “Look at that. That’s a big fish. They jump out of the water. That’s Salmo Salar, that’s the latin name. Salar meaning, “the leaper”.]
The river is aging. We’re getting flash floods. The logging industry tells us we have as much water as before, but that water passes by in three days instead of giving us water throughout the season. The flash floods erode the bank. You get wider river and shallower. We’re losing pools on a yearly basis. So we have to control logging so it doesn’t interfere with aquatic wildlife.
CARMICHAEL: Lady Amherst, that’s a D-fly, what’s called a stone fly. Double hook gives you a little more weight.
CARTY: Back in his fishing pool, Hoagy is going through his fly wallet. Maybe a change will bring a bite. If it does he’ll land the fish, give it a pat and let it go.
CARMICHAEL: There is a sense of conservation here where you are not trying to pound these fish to death. You fish and you go home. It does work.
CARTY: For Living on Earth. I’m Bob Carty on the Grand Cascapedia River in the Gaspe of Quebec.
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