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Each July the Gorge Pool of the Dartmouth River, on the Gasp� Peninsula of the province of Quebec, fills with Atlantic salmon. Heading in from the North Atlantic, the beautiful silver fish will hold for a while in pools with names like Strawberry Island and Burnt Jam, but all of them eventually will fight their way through the Lady's Steps Rapids and end up in the Gorge, their upstream journey halted by a mighty falls that they can negotiate only when the river drops to its low summer level.
A fisherman trying to scramble 300 feet down to the Gorge Pool must check his descent by grabbing at pines and hope that his nailed boots will hold on the steep final leg of bare rock. Then, breathless, he finds himself looking into a dream: at least 100, maybe closer to 150, salmon finning gently in a pool no bigger than a suburban living room.
If this were Scotland, you would probably come by such a sight—rod in hand, that is—only if your family owned half a highland county; in Iceland you would merely have to be very rich. On the Dartmouth, though, since June 5 this year, all that is needed to win the right to cast a Silver Rat across those delectable fish is a $40 one-day permit ($20 for Quebec residents), a dime to call the toll-free number 800-462-5349 (418-643-5349 in the U.S., where it is not a free call) and an enormous amount of luck.
This is because the salmon fishing on the Dartmouth, as on other Canadian waters, has been taken out of private hands. More precisely, the government has not renewed the lease to the Dartmouth Club; in the future the government will administer the fishing itself.
The philosophy behind the take-over seems unassailable. How can one justify permitting a small group of individuals, because they have the $75,000 or so needed annually to cover river management costs, to keep to themselves a rare natural resource—Atlantic salmon fishing—and to deny to anyone else, even men who were born and grew up on the river's banks, the right to fish? Particularly, how can one justify it when these fishing monopolists are either rich men who live almost 1,000 miles from the river or foreigners from the U.S.? Place that situation in the troubled context of bilingual Quebec and you wonder why the rumpus didn't happen years earlier.
After the revolution of June 5, 1976, in the best of all possible worlds, the deprived locals of Gasp� town and the riverside villages would be merrily fishing away as the wicked capitalists packed their rods and sneaked out of town. Poaching, so long a scourge of Canadian salmon streams, would disappear: if anyone could go fishing legitimately, who would need to poach? In a year or two there might well be a street renamed rue Juin 5 in Gasp� and maybe a statue of M. Rejean Maranda, the special counselor to the Minister of Tourism, Hunting and Fishing in the provincial government, who is generally thought to be the driving force behind the salmon takeover. The Dartmouth change, of course, is only a single example of general policy regarding Quebec's salmon resources. According to a spokesman of the ministry, only "budgetary limitations" stand in the way of complete nationalization of all waters.
But among the salmon anglers of Gasp�, no public subscription is being raised for that statue. Indeed, there is a strong feeling among them that while recognition of their right to fish was long overdue, it does not seem to have led to much actual fishing. In fact, it is easy to meet good, French-speaking Canadians who believe they caught more salmon in the bad old days of the foreign oppressors. It all boils down to that toll-free number. In theory, if you call 48 hours ahead of the day you want to fish, at precisely 10:30 a.m., you will find yourself with the freedom of the Gorge Pool, the Ladder Pool and the four other salmon-holding pools that make up the prime Sector 2 of the Dartmouth. In practice, though, what you will almost certainly get is that old buzz-buzz busy signal.
In Gasp� town itself, 800-462-5349 is passing into local mythology. What happens at the other end, there in Quebec City? Some say there are up to 50 girls poised to answer the calls; others say that there is a dusty locked room somewhere in the city with a telephone that is permanently off the hook. "I've tried it 24 or 25 times since June 5th," claims local angler Jean Marc Adams, "but the line is always busy." "I called that number the first 10 mornings," says another fisherman, "and I never got one answer." All over Gasp� you hear the same complaint. "It was better before," declares Gerald Langlais. "I used to get invites."
What Gasp� people don't know is that 800-462-5349 is only a tiny cog in a huge bureaucratic machine that is the booking department of the Quebec Ministry of Tourism, Hunting and Fishing, the biggest organizers of outdoor holidays in the world, they will tell you, be they simple camping or boating trips or fishing or hunting expeditions. The home of 800-462-5349 is on the 10th floor of a high-rise office building and it is part of an operational headquarters that reminds you of those movies about the preparations for D-Day. Girls flit silently about changing the symbols on vast wall charts, and a battery of telephone operators—20, for the information of puzzled Gaspesians—attend to calls requesting reservations. And if you think that the fishermen of Gasp� have problems when they try to book a day's fishing on Sector 2 of the Dartmouth, then you should hear Andre Lachance, a spokesman for the ministry, discourse on the events of Jan. 5, 1976, when the switchboard opened for general reservations for Quebec outdoor vacations. "For Mastigouche Park," he will tell you, "200 boats were gone in 20 minutes." That sounds more like an appalling marine disaster than a holiday reservation plan, but the real disaster hit the Bell Telephone System. "Bell told us later that they measured more than 700,000 calls on our toll-free number on Jan. 5th," says Lachance, an undeniable note of pride creeping into his voice. "It completely jammed up the 800 system. Oddly enough, just about 800 people actually got through and were able to make a reservation."
So, standing in a Gasp� telephone booth with a dime in your hand, you should know that the odds are stacked high against your picking up a fishing reservation on the Dartmouth. Surprisingly, however, some Gasp� anglers seem to be consistently successful in getting through to Quebec City at the magical moment of 10:30 a.m. There is William Boulay, for example, who has the Chrysler agency in Gasp� and also owns a motel. He managed to book a considerable number of days on Sector 2 and in the first month of the season landed 13 salmon out of an approximate total river catch of 100.