It’s near sunset and I trudge out onto the 450-foot deep Massawippi Lake dressed in winter layers: Arctic-tough boots, two pairs of socks, long johns, jeans, thermal sweater, zip-up turtleneck, and a heavy winter coat with a faux-fur hood. My hands and feet have hot pockets inside. So does my camera bag to keep the battery in my Nikon operating.
I am prepared for the cold. I am not prepared for Florent Hébert.
When I meet him, the temperature is minus-10 Celsius degrees (14 Fahrenheit) and Massawippi Lake is as rigid as bone. Hébert is the ice-fishing guide at Manoir Hovey, which has beckoned travellers for more than a century to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a pastoral region southeast of Montreal. It is a popular destination for weekend getaways and ski holidays. And fishing lessons, as Hébert shows.
He is a ruddy-faced wit with a boat full of stories, including the one about the fish who saved his life. Hébert was 12 years old and in a boarding school in Montreal’s Westmount area when he would swim over to a small island, get into mischief with an Indigenous boy he had befriended, and return with several fish caught on First Nations territory. He showed them off to his schoolmates, bragging about his forbidden fun. When the school found out about what he did, he was called in for discipline. He expected to receive corporal punishment. Instead, a member of the rotary club that funded the school asked where Hébert found the fish and then requested he take a group of his friends out to catch them.
The fish hooked Hébert on a path. “That first small-mouthed bass kept me out of trouble. To this day it is sacred to me,” says Hébert, who grew up to become a chef and strict proponent of catch-and-release programs.
At Manoir Hovey, Hébert creates an experience that sinks the popular image of ice fishing. It is neither lonely nor uncomfortable. There are no claustrophobic huts parked on the ice, no pail of bloody worms to bait the lines.
“He knows this lake inside and out. I’ve seen some of the fish he catches with the guests and they come back with this four-foot pike and it’s incredible to see it and to see how much they smile,” says Manoir Hovey general manager, Jason Stafford. “I’ve never heard a guest who did a half day or spent time with him and didn’t find it unique. There’s not too many people who travel around with pizza on skis.”
Retired from commercial kitchens, Hébert sets up a wood stove on the Massawippi tundra and cooks pizza for his clients, who sit around a warm hearth once they’ve set their rods and await for a tug from beneath. The scene, with elegant Manoir Hovey in the backdrop on a hill overlooking the activity, is about as glam as ice fishing can get.
Perhaps for that reason Hébert’s activities attract as many women as men.
“Women are into fishing big time now,” Hébert tells me. “I’m getting at least three times more business because of it. They’re competing with men and often outdoing them, because women are better at listening to instructions.”
He began noticing the growth in interest from women about eight years ago when the Food Network aired more reality-TV fishing programs. It’s a trend that has been noticeable throughout North America. The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, which tracks activity among Americans in the sport, says female participation has reached 31 per cent of fly fishers. In Canada, the number is about 25 per cent, according to statistics from the Department of Fisheries.
During my visit with Hébert, the number was roughly evenly split among the eight participants, all guests at Manoir Hovey. Once the tour ended, guests retreated to their stately rooms of the Relais & Chateaux property. The hotel has 36 rooms and suites spread through seven buildings. It features English-style gardens that make it a popular wedding choice in the summer, as well as clay tennis courts. Among its other options for guests is a winery-and-cheese tour into the culinary-rich Eastern Townships. Many upgrades have been made to the hotel in the past couple of years and new chef Alexandre Vachon is a brilliant talent. Stafford says the activities such as ice fishing and Hébert’s warm-weather fly-fishing symposium are meant to immerse guests in the culture of the region.
Such experiences not only make an activity like ice fishing, which may seem intimidating, more approachable, it also creates a lasting connection to the Eastern Townships. Stafford says 75 per cent of his hotel’s guests return at least once more and several have been coming to Manoir Hovey for generations. Once you’ve arrived and ventured out onto the lake to observe the sun setting and feel the unique embrace of winter, which at once can be thrilling and life-affirming through the alertness you feel with each cold breath bombarding your nostrils and shiver brought on by the wind, the lure of Quebec is easy to understand.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MANOIR HOVEY
Location: 575 Rue Hovey, North Hatley, Quebec (see map below)
Nightly Rates: A weekend night in the winter starts at around $200 for a standard room, according to the property’s booking engine. Culinary and activity packages are available.
Menu Prices: The eight-course Discovery Menu costs $139 (add $70 for wine pairing). The a-la-carte menu’s entrees range from $22-$45 each.
COVID-19 Protocols: The hotel has a healthy and safety page with a thorough description of the measures it takes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including what guests can expect during check-in and cleanliness efforts throughout their stay.