Brief history

The Bonaventure, a love affair still being written ...

The Bonaventure, a crystal-clear river the color of jade, has its source in the heart of the Gaspésie in the Chic-Chocs. From there, it travels a distance of 125 kilometers to get to the sea near the village of the same name.

The Mi'kmaq named it Wagamet, which means clear water. Mother Earth opened her arms to the first Acadians fleeing the deportation in 1760, when Bonaventure Parish was founded.

Since that time, as it had done for centuries for the Aboriginal families living at its mouth, it has continued to feed the inhabitants who settled on the banks of its shores.

Back then, and until the end of the nineteenth century, only subsistence fishing was practiced on the river. By means of a marten and a torch made of birch bark, well settled in their canoe, the first inhabitants of Bonaventure went at night to bring in their salmon for the winter, which they salted in large barrels. In spring, at the end of May, just before the first salmon runs, smelt was plentifully collected by means of weirs, or barricades. It was salted, smoked and dried so that it could be kept as long as possible.

Thus, from these ancient days until today, to the rhythm of the seasons and especially the summers that inevitably brought back quantities of salmon to this river and, through repeated gestures that became custom, names were engraved on its memory: Élide Poirier, Ned Sinclair, Lorenzo Poirier, Félix and Donat Arsenault, Narcis Miousse, Honoré St-Onge, Jimmy Tozer, Simon Poirier and many others. Names that still resonate today in the minds of those who have lived near this river for many years. These master-guides, guardians, and club managers were men of the river; they lived as one lives from the air one breathes.

It was in the year of 1883 that the sport salmon fishery came to exist on the Bonaventure. On June 1 of that year the first fishing club was founded: the Bonaventure Salmon Club. In the early 1900s, the Livernois brothers of Quebec City, well known in the fields of photography and pharmaceuticals, bought a large part of the fishing rights in the territory below the one occupied by the club to create another private salmon fishing zone.

With the advent of the fishing clubs, a tradition of guides and canoe builders gradually established itself on the banks of the river. Félix Arsenault, a farmer and carpenter by trade, was one of the first guides who, along with some Mi’kmaq, conducted sport fishermen (les “sports”) on the fishing grounds.

After a number of years of experience on the river, Félix Arsenault was inspired to design a light canoe, easy to manoeuvre in the current and very stable. In the late 1880s, combining the long profile of the aspen three-planked canoes (built by Gaspé manufacturers) with the well-molded shape of sea boats, he designed a five-planked cedar canoe which has endured into the twentieth century, and still found today on the Bonaventure River and on other rivers in the Gaspé Peninsula. In its heyday, this boat occupied a prominent place as a navigational tool on the rivers of the Gaspésie and the North Shore. Some of these canoes were even shipped to the state of New York. From father to son, this tradition of “maître-canot,” master canoe builder, lived on until the early 2000s. (The last was built in 2004).

The Bonaventure has always been a generous river, but there have been years when it has been especially so. On June 23, 1924, six fishermen caught sixty-four salmon. Geo McAvity, guided by Felix and Donat Arsenault, caught fourteen alone. It was this year that, seeing the abundance of salmon, the first daily limit was set at eight catches (at that time daily catch limits were set by club members and not by government regulation as they are today).

The same year, two other fishing clubs were founded on the Bonaventure, the Canadian Salmon Club founded by John Hall Kelly, a well-known lawyer from New Carlisle and politician of the time, and the Kirby's Club, property of a U.S. coal and oil company, the Pittown Coal Company.

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t only Americans who had exclusive fishing rights to the Bonaventure. The members and guests of the Bonaventure Salmon Club and the Canadian Salmon Club came mainly from English Canada, especially Montreal for the first and Toronto for the second. In addition to the Livernois who came from Québec City.

The clubs employed slightly more than thirty guides and about fifteen guardians in addition to the cooks and the maintenance staff. For those who lived on the river, to see the end of May come with the buildings to repair, the canoes to prepare, everything to be put in place for the beginning of the fishing season, it was a kind of rebirth. To get in touch with the smells of the aspen and spruce mixed with those of the fresh and welcoming river, to hear the sound of the rapids during the mild mornings of June and July was, for them, a unique and exhilarating experience.

For sure, there was a lot of salmon. For many summers, we caught so many salmon that we had to distribute them to the people of the neighbourhood, in addition to the catch that was given to the guides. It seems that hundreds were counted in some pools in July. On June 5, 1941, Arthur Purvis, guided by Donat Arsenault and Lorenzo Poirier, caught his limit of six salmon (one weighed 33 pounds) in two and a half hours at Deep Water Ledge pool. By 10:30, the last salmon was in the boat. After this “miraculous” morning of fishing, our two valiant guides, the canoe loaded with salmon and their sport fisherman, went over to the Luna pool, ten kilometers upstream, to show him the river. It should be noted that at that time, the canoes were propelled by pole. Motors only appeared in the early fifties.

“We liked poling,” said Lorenzo Poirier, a touch of emotion in his voice. Yes, they liked to “pôler.” You had to see them mount rapids such as the Malin or the Cheval Blanc to believe it. With the firm motions of their hands walking with the “pole,” legs well camped at the bottom of the boat, these men and their boat were one with the river.

There were a lot of salmon, and big ones too. At the end of the 19th century, the average weight of catches exceeded fifteen pounds. The average, however, has fallen to stabilize for several years at around eleven pounds. In 1951, on June 25, the largest salmon recorded on the Bonaventure was caught at the Red Pine Pool. It weighed forty-eight pounds. Walter Molson, guided by Émile Arsenault and Thomas Poirier, is the lucky holder of this record (which is still unbroken).

And the years passed without anything disturbing the tranquility acquired by the private clubs over the years. Except, perhaps, some spring ice break-ups that occasionally shook the buildings of the Bonaventure Salmon Club, located on a flood plain.

However, in the 60s and 70s, with changes to society that left much more room for recreation, a growing number of people wanted to take advantage of this rich heritage, which until then had been reserved for a handful of wealthy people from outside the region. In 1977, a group of people from Bonaventure created the Association des Pêcheurs Sportifs de la Bonaventure, whose primary objective was to provide access to salmon fishing on the river to the population as a whole.

As a result of talks with the leaders of the Bonaventure Salmon Club, a first pool was opened to the general public in 1978 (Green) and in August of the following year, Sectors A and B became available to sport fishermen.

In the spring of 1979, the ice was the cause of the destruction of all of the Bonaventure Salmon Club’s facilities, leaving no usable infrastructure for its members.

And in the summer of 1980, with the advent of the Salmon ZECs (controlled harvesting zones), the Bonaventure River ZEC, which then included three sectors of fishing of which one was limited access, was created. (We now have eight, of which five are limited access.)

The members of the Bonaventure Salmon Club reached an agreement with the members of the Canadian Salmon Club to share their territories and facilities. As a result, the two clubs have retained some of their privileges and still occupy a zone of ??five kilometers on a fishing territory totaling sixty-four. This is based on a five-year negotiated memorandum of understanding with the Association des Pêcheurs Sportifs de la Bonaventure, which is the body mandated by the Quebec government to oversee the management of the ZEC.

The Kirby's Club, for its part, moved with some of its facilities (the main house was dismantled) to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.

For a few years now, Camp Bonaventure, an outfitter offering accommodation and guiding services for salmon fishing, has been an important partner and client of the association.

From the creation of the Salmon ZEC to today, the Association des Pêcheurs Sportifs de la Bonaventure has proven to be a highly competent manager. Indeed, thanks to our promotional efforts and especially because of the high quality of this river, the number of fishermen has increased from year to year, with the seasonal fishing effort growing from 1,500 to more than 5,000 days. The number of salmon, supported by sound management of stocks, has long been maintained at a very acceptable level, the number of spawners counted on the spawning grounds in the autumn sometimes exceeding 2,000, after catches of up to 1,200 salmon in the best years.

However, over the past five years, the number of salmon has been trending downward (this trend affects Atlantic salmon as a whole), which, in the summer of 2008, led the Ministère de la Faune du Québec, at the instigation of managers and fishermen, to decree the mandatory release of large salmon throughout the river, in order to allow a rise in the number of spawners.

Also, the number of users of the river has grown considerably over the past fifteen years. As well,  anglers, boaters, kayakers and swimmers have discovered this treasure that is the Bonaventure River. Under the coordination of the Conseil de Bassin Versant de la Bonaventure, a consultation table of users of the river was formed in order to ensure good cohabitation, which today allows a considerable number of people to enjoy what the river has to offer.

In short, from yesterday to today, the Bonaventure River has kept its promises: first of all, a rich and enchanting place to visit from many perspectives; but above all, and with everyone’s help, the promise to be there for a very long time to come, one of the most beautiful jewels of our collective heritage.

Robert Arsenault, Bonaventure River

March 2010