canoe-306

Fishing on the Restigouche River. ((Courtesy John Van Horne))

Paul Henderson had finished talking about "the goal" when he was asked about "the fish."

It was 1987 and Henderson was the guest speaker at a news conference to promote Rendez-Vous '87, which was a two-game series between the Soviet Union national team and an NHL All-Star team in Quebec City.

Anyone who follows hockey knows that Henderson's goal at 19:26 of the third period of Game 8 of the historic '72 Summit Series iced Canada's triumph over the Soviet Union.

But on this day two decades ago, Henderson recalled reeling in a salmon on the Restigouche River two decades earlier as if it happened yesterday.

"The fish! Campbellton, 1967, the Restigouche River, a 20-pounder (Atlantic salmon) I ended up serving to Gordie Howe," said Henderson. I was a reporter for The Canadian Press at the time.

Years before Henderson became a national hero, he was the guest speaker at the Campbellton Minor Hockey Association banquet. About 90 minutes before the event was to start, Henderson was in the kitchen of my parent's house, pleading with my dad to take him fishing.

He just had to go fishing

Henderson was told there wasn't enough time, but he persisted and my father — who was no stranger to a) salmon fishing; and b) having NHLers in his boat — gave in and off they went. I was told to go to the banquet and they would meet me there.

Well, 5:30 came and no Henderson and no father. About 30 minutes later, the angler and his guide walked into the banquet, held up a 20-pound salmon, and the festivities started.

"First cast," recalled Henderson. "Your dad showed me how to cast and when I got the hang of it, I threw the line out and he (the salmon) took the fly. Good fight and a great thrill."

It seems fitting that a Canadian hero has fond memories of my hometown because salmon fishing, like hockey, is a big part of Campbellton's history.

The home of great-girth Atlantic salmon

giantfish-220

A giant salmon pulled from the Restigouche River. ((Courtesy John Van Horne))

Campbellton sits on the southern bank of the Restigouche River, which is world renowned for the great-girth Atlantic salmon.

Restigouche is a Micmac word that translates into "five rivers" for the five tributaries that flow into the Restigouche. There is the Kedgwick River, Upsalquitch River, Patapedia River, Matapedia River and the Little Main Restigouche River.

Local historians have traced the salmon fishing back to 1773 when Scottish settlers, having given up on trying to establish farms in the area, turned to harvesting salmon. There are reports that four million pounds of salmon were being shipped back to Scotland back then.

When Europeans arrived on the Restigouche in the early 1800s, they were granted exclusive rights to fish near their homesteads as a means of ensuring a food supply for their families.

It wasn't long after the "sportsmen" discovered the river for angling, and soon the Restigouche became a favourite hideaway for the rich, who used their wealth to acquire riparian rights (exclusive rights for fishing) over sections of the river.

It's a place of privilege and tradition

The Restigouche River is not like other rivers. It is a place of privilege and tradition where those with old money or great power go to relax among their own kind.

Millionaires such as railroad magnate William Vanderbilt purchased land with riparian rights on the Restigouche.

The Restigouche Salmon Club, the oldest fishing club in North America, was founded in 1880 by Americans who came to the Restigouche from New York in sailing ships, anchored in the Restigouche estuary and traveled upstream in small boats.

The club is so exclusive that it can take 20 years for a membership to open. The club fishes along 64 kilometres of river, which it owns or leases. It has 30 members, half from Canada, half from the U.S. The club's early members included financier Izaak Walton Killam, mining magnate George B. Webster, steamship tycoon Sir Montague Allan, Vanderbilts, Schylers, Lamonts, Whitneys, pickle king Howard Heinz, jeweler C.L. Tiffany, rubber guru David M. Goodrich and automaker William Dodge.

In more recent years, the club has hosted executives from A.E. Lepage, Sears, Marshall Field, T.E. Eaton, Coca-Cola, Noranda, Bank of Montreal, and General Motors.

There are only 25 lodges on the 80-kilometre-long river, most of them compounds of massive stone and thick beams, accessible only by boat. Heirs to the Philip Morris fortune own one camp; another is held by the family that owns the land beneath the Empire State Building.

Bobby Orr and Glen Sather have been guests

High profile guests have also visited the river, including golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, tennis star Chris Everett, Hall of Famers Bobby Orr and Glen Sather, former U.S presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, entertainers Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

There was a time when a salmon taken on the Restigouche on a Monday was served at the White House on Friday.

Mordecai Richler set part of his novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here, at a salmon lodge among the steep walls and deep, cold pools of the Restigouche.

People still talk about how "Cannon" — actor William Conrad who played the detective in the popular 1970s TV series  — stopped at a local diner for lunch on his way "up river to fish."

My father died about 18 months after Henderson dipped his line and the salmon took his fly before he became a Canadian icon.

About a handful of years ago, I had the chance to fish out of the main lodge of the Restigouche Salmon Club. I was with former NHLer Kevin Dineen, who was the guest speaker at a Campbellton Sports Hall of Fame dinner.

This was the first time I had ever tried casting a line and before Dineen and I headed out on to the water, the guides called over to us. "Tight lines," they said. A tight line means you have a salmon on the hook.

As luck would have it, a 26-pounder took the fly about 30 minutes later and it was a thrill. The fish ran the line about three times before I was finally able to bring it in.

Henderson was able to keep his fish, while mine was returned to the gin-clear Restigouche, which now has a hook and release policy.

I thought of Henderson and my dad as the salmon made it way back into the Restigouche.

"The fish," I said. "The fish."