Chick Chisholm has heard a lot of stories in his 39 years as a warden on the river. From late May until November he lives in a cabin on the bank. "There are places out there," he says, "where the river seems to talk to you at night." Occasionally the voices are real. "When salmon are concerned you can't trust anyone," says Chisholm. Almost everyone who works along the Restigouche is related to him—a cousin or an in-law. In lean times they might just become outlaws, and he knows it, for poachers get a good price—60¢ a pound—for salmon at Black's Seafood Market in Campbellton (the retail price is $1.75 a pound). Wardens hired by the fishing camps have guarded the Restigouche since 1889, for poaching is an old and honorable profession. Today 16 wardens patrol the river in canoes, day and night, and two or three times a week Chisholm says he "runs into something. It's usually not serious enough to take to court. You seize their rods and give them a chance." But horses, cars and nets have also been impounded. Only the drift netters are truly menacing, for they can take in 30 minutes as many salmon as a fly-fisherman will land in a year.
The local people, for the most part, accept the sovereignty of the American fishing lords, though they may put it to a sporting test now and then. The local economy depends on the American fishermen—$2.5 million is spent each year by the anglers for leases, licenses, wardens, cooks, guides, supplies and refreshments. Camp Harmony, for instance, pays $12,000 in school taxes for its 4½ miles of riverfront. Over $28,000 is paid annually to the provincial government by the 24-member Ristigouche Salmon Club for the fishing rights to 20 miles of river (it owns another six miles outright). The club hires 48 guides during the season (at around $15 a day) and another 40 to 45 people as servants.
It is understandable, then, that the river remains the guarded preserve of the very rich. Some years ago a photographer for a national magazine had to hire a cook and handyman to pose "fishing" in a canoe, so shy of publicity are the club members themselves. The caption under the published photograph identified the two as "sportsman and guide," much to the hilarity of the guide fraternity.
The anglers' names along the Restigouche have not really changed in 50 years, but the anglers have—and so has the once-serene nature of their sport. Today's fishermen own jet planes and most of them are in a jet hurry. "They don't appreciate the sport," says Frank Fitzgerald, who still manages Grog Island Camp. "Rush, rush, rush. They fly in to catch a salmon and get away as quick as they can. The old Ristigouche Salmon Club members used to come for three or four weeks and would take that long to go upriver. They'd stop for at least three days, and often six, at their camps along the way—Cheater's Brook, Red Pine Mountain, Pine Island, Indian House, Red Bank, Downs Gulch. Now it's a race against time; they go up and down, up and down in their motorboats. Greed, greed, greed. They're in such a hurry that they don't properly fish the water they have. The old men used to hate to see the horse towing a houseboat so much as jogging on the beach. Three miles an hour was fast enough for everybody then."
The slow pace and primitive nature of the Restigouche, circa 1900, made the sportsmen and guides dependent on each other and on each other's company. Friendships were formed of a type that are rare today. Frank Fitzgerald's father guided the governor-general of Canada one season, and the next spring when he was passing through Matapédia in his private railroad car, the governor-general stopped, hired a horse and buggy and drove to the Fitzgerald farmhouse for tea. Such courtesies are unusual now. Telephone lines run into the fishing camps and America's richest men no longer must drive three and four miles to the nearest grocery store, where they used to share the party line with local housewives. Gone too are those moments when fishermen put a whiskey bottle on the kitchen table and invited their guides in to help them cook. In recent years the Ristigouche Salmon Club has employed an English butler.
The guides prefer the old times. Late into the night, with the kettle boiling on the stove and cookies on the table, a man like 72-year-old Winston Ferguson will entertain a visitor with his remembrances. He brings out a drawer of photographs, fading brown prints of wide-girthed men...pictures of their daughters, bloomered and black-stockinged, holding up fish a little uncertainly. "He was president of the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad—left $71 million," Winston says, picking up one photograph. Somehow in this backwater the details of rich men's wills and the minutiae of their private lives are well known and much discussed.
But reflections of those good days are being edged out now by deep concern for the fate of the Restigouche. The river is no longer so bountiful and blessed. At Camp Harmony 800 salmon were killed in six weeks in the 1880s. In 1969 there were 68 fish killed in 12 weeks. The Ristigouche Salmon Club took 157 fish from its 26 miles of river in '68 and only 295 in '69. Until the '50s members used to take an average of 1,500 a season—and some years more than 2,000. In the club's famed Patamajaw Pool (or, as outsiders call it, the Million-Dollar Pool) one used to see 5,000 salmon on a July day. Now there are perhaps 500. The provincial fish and wildlife office in Fredericton, New Brunswick says 37% of the anglers on the Restigouche failed to take a single salmon during the 1968 season. In the month of August the average catch was 1.9 salmon per angler per week.
The causes of the decline of the river are familiar. Five factories are polluting the waters near the mouth. The virgin forest in the river's watershed has been lumbered, and heavy winter snows (144 inches in 1968) are no longer trapped and held into June by the limbs of the dark spruce. The thaw used to come gradually and the river remained icy cold through the summer. Now the snows melt quickly in the belts of hardwood, the mountainside brooks dry up and by the first of July the river is low and warm. Unless the salmon can find a cool fresh current they are reluctant to head upriver to spawn. Instead, their instincts frustrated, they circle slowly in the Bay of Chaleur. Fly-fishermen blame the operators of stands of nets at the mouth of the river for devastating the salmon population, but commercial fishermen say the fault is not theirs, and they are probably right. They have, after all, been working these same stands of nets for years. One of them, Reid Stewart of Dalhousie, inherited his stand of nets with his 100-acre property. His father and grandfather operated it before him, the original grant coming from the British Crown in 1805. Forty years ago a fisherman could harvest 30,000 pounds of salmon annually in a good stand of nets on the Restigouche. Last year, Stewart says, he took in 3,000 pounds. However, fishing boats in the Northumberland Straits that use radar and sonar equipment are decimating the numbers of salmon. They locate schools of fish heading to the rivers to spawn and haul them in with three-quarter-mile nets. The salmon must contend, too, with the commercial netting in their winter feeding grounds off the coast of Greenland (SI, Jan. 12).
Efforts are being made to stock the rivers but the results are disappointing. A fish hatchery on the river at Charlo puts 10,000 salmon smolt in the Restigouche each year. Only 5% are believed to survive long enough to make it back to the river as grown salmon. Coddled in a procelain-basin world, the smolt do not have the natural instincts to escape their enemies.
With the sport's increasingly limited returns, salmon fishing on the Restigouche is a dear endeavor. One camp on the river charges $300 a day (plus extras) per rod. This means if a fisherman has average luck the 1.9 salmon he kills in a week will cost him $2,100. At a local fish market he could buy a 20-pounder for $35.