This is as close as I can come to being
salmon, the river’s silver soul
& as the white spray rises round me
I know what it is to be
the object of the fisherman’s desire,
the subject of the artist’s flying brush
— “Canoeing the Rapids,” a poem in Earth Day in Leith Churchyard, a collection of poems in Search of Tom Thomson by Bernadette Rule
A paradox runs through the history of fly fishing in Canada.
Roderick Haig-Brown is undoubtedly the country’s most famous fly fisherman—at least among those who cast fur and feather. Although revered in the international fly fishing community as one of the recreational sport’s great literary figures, his reputation among general readers in the country to which he immigrated from England in 1931 faded after his death in 1976. This is true despite his oeuvre extending beyond works on fly fishing (1).
On the flip side of the cultural coin, Tom Thomson is one of Canada’s most famous artists—if not its most famous artist (2). He is also the country’s most notorious artist due to the intricate web of mystery surrounding his premature death at the age of 39 (3). Forever associated with the Group of Seven, he died three years before Canada’s legendary artistic collective officially formed in 1920. Although revered as the Group’s elder brother in the national consciousness, Thomson remains scarcely known outside of Canada, except by gallery and museum curators, art historians and cognoscenti (4).
Like Vincent van Gogh, Thomson was all but obscure when he died under suspicious circumstances in July 1917 while paddling on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Despite selling a handful of paintings during his lifetime, his reputation gained momentum steadily over the last century (5). He is now celebrated as one of Canada’s most accomplished and influential artists across a wide range of disciplines. His fame and celebrity extend beyond the borders of visual art. He reigns as a folk legend, heroic artist, mythic cultural figure and icon of Canadian identity (6).
Artistic achievement aside, Thomson is generally regarded as an accomplished fisherman and canoeist. Although he fished with live bait and hard lures, as was customary at the time, there is historical evidence that he caught fish on artificial flies. By virtue of his unparalleled stature as an artist, he is ipso facto Canada’s most famous fly angler—at least outside the circle of recognition of fly anglers. As we shall see, there are tantalizing suggestions among early biographers that he tied his own flies, perhaps even to match the hatch years before it became common practice in North America.
Thomson is the spiritual guide of the Canadian ‘wilderness tradition’ (7). He and the younger painters who comprised the original Group of Seven canoed and fished during sketching trips into the Canadian Shield. In so doing, they paddled into the very heart of the Canadian soul. This tradition extends back to early European contact with indigenous peoples. It encompasses the exploration of the country and exploitation of its natural resources through westward expansion and frontier colonization. It bridges English and French, Hudson’s Bay traders and coureurs de bois, and includes Grey Owl, an English-born con artist and publicity hound named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney who reinvented himself as a First Nations man (false), conservation pioneer (true) and nature writer (true). There is speculation—cultural wish fulfillment without proof—that Thomson and Grey Owl crossed paths—or paddles—at some point in their lives.
Fishing played a significant role in shaping Thomson, both the man and the artist. Like the narrator in A River Runs Through It, he grew up in a fishing household. He fished before he painted. Early biographers paint a picture of a man who lived to fish as much as he lived to paint. He first visited Algonquin Park, before he had any inkling of himself as a serious artist, to fish as much as sketch. He fished until the day he died. He carried his love of, and devotion to, fishing to the grave—wherever that might be located.
Biographers paint Thomson as a shy, reserved introvert who preferred his own company to the company of others. The solitary ritual of fishing served his temperament, reflected his personality and most assuredly defined his artistic practice. I believe his art would have been much different had he not been a passionate and dedicated fisherman.
Although not known as an especially literary artist (few of his letters have survived), biographers agree Thomson’s favourite books were Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. His final five decisive years—grounded on his visits to Algonquin Park, the greatest single factor determining the arc of his maturity as an artist—reflect the contemplative philosophies espoused by both writers.
Painting with Fur & Feather
As both a fisherman who paints and a painter who fishes, Thomson shared much in common with American artist Winslow Homer (8). Born in 1836, Homer first visited the Adirondacks to fly fish and paint in 1870. He was 34, about Thomson’s age when he first visited Algonquin Park. Homer continued visiting upstate New York regularly until his death in 1910. Fishing generally, and fly fishing specifically, became an enduring theme and subject—making him one of the most accomplished angling artists in the history of the recreational sport.
As part of the generation that preceded Thomson’s, Homer was a Realist who was primarily a figurative painter influenced by the French Barbizon School. In contrast, Thomson was essentially a landscape painter influenced by French post-impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts movement and northern European symbolism. Despite differences in influence, both developed distinctive, highly personal styles after beginning careers as commercial artists. Both were notoriously reticent about their art. And both painted en plein air before working up canvases in the studio—Thomson in Toronto and Homer in New York City.
In Nothing If Not Critical, the late Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes—himself a fly angler and author of A Jerk on One End—wrote insightfully about Homer and his influence on American sporting art:
. . . one sees his echoes on half the magazine racks of America. Just as John James Audubon becomes, by dilution, the common duck stamp, so one detects the vestiges of Homer’s watercolours in every outdoor-magazine cover that has a dead whitetail dropped over a log or a largemouth bass. . . Homer was not, of course, the first sporting artist in America, but he was the undisputed master of the genre, and he brought to it both intense observation and a sense of identification with the landscape—just at the cultural moment when religious Wilderness of the nineteenth century, the church of nature, was shifting into the secular Outdoors, the theatre of manly enjoyment. (9)
Change a few words and these observations about Homer apply equally to Thomson (10).
It is inconceivable that Thomson was less enthusiastic about fishing than Homer. In contrast to his American counterpart, however, he painted few angling pictures (11). One notable exception is The Fisherman (12). The late Toronto painter Harold Town dismisses the painting—in Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Shore, co-written with David Silcox—because of the awkwardness of the figure. He was not a fly fisherman. While Thomson was a clumsy figurative painter at best, this particular figure clearly portrays a fly angler in the process of playing a sizeable fish—perhaps a giant brook trout for which Algonquin Park is celebrated—by elevating the rod above his head to maintain a tight line after it is hooked.
Celebrated Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye observed in The Bush Garden, his groundbreaking study of the Canadian imagination, that Thomson’s ‘sense of design [was] derived from the trail and the canoe’ (13). I contend that his sense of colour was derived, in part, from fish he caught in Algonquin Park. The deep richness that defines his paintings is drawn from the vermiculations and haloed spots of wild brook trout. Moreover, I suspect that many of the places he depicted in paintings resulted not from sketching expeditions, but from fishing outings. He painted where he fished as much as, or even more than, he fished where he painted.
Fishing even played a role in the mystery surrounding Thomson’s death. He was reportedly going fishing on the day he disappeared. The importance of fishing to him is indisputable. Most of the extant photographs of the artist connect him to fishing in one way or another. Long before catch-and-release became an ethical imperative, Thomson is often pictured with heavy strings of fish including brook trout and lake trout. But determining whether he cast fur and feather in addition to bait and hard lures has proven less conclusive—despite compelling historical evidence.
A Skeptic in Every Creel
Award-winning Canadian journalist and prolific author Roy MacGregor is the leading skeptic to cast doubt on Thomson’s being a fly angler—at least occasionally (14). Born in Whitney and raised in Huntsville in the immediate vicinity of Algonquin Park, he spent his youth, and has spent his summer vacations as an adult, in the area, which he knows intimately. His father worked in the park and, over the years, he interviewed many old-timers who knew Thomson, or were contemporaries. On the strength of his writing about the artist, spanning speculative fiction, critical commentary and journalism, he is acknowledged as an authority. His opinions carry weight. However, when it comes to Thomson being a fly fisherman, he proves less reliable.
In Northern Light, his highly speculative and controversial study of the artist, MacGregor does not assert that Thomson did not fish with flies. Rather he implies the artist did not fly fish on the basis of anecdotal knowledge of Algonquin Park and a superficial understanding of the recreational sport.
MacGregor seems torn in regard to Thomson’s abilities as an angler and canoeist. Early on he describes a young Thomson as ‘a fine fisherman’ (15). However, he later reports that some park locals ‘openly disparaged [Thomson’s] skills with paddle and fishing rod’ (16). His opinion remains ambivalent: ‘My own sense is that he was just fine as a woodsman and, by comparison with others moving about Algonquin Park in those years with canoe and backpack, he was an excellent swimmer’ (17). Opinion in the park concerning Thomson’s skills as an outdoorsman was divided, warranting close scrutiny. On the face of it, men who lived and worked in the park should have been in a position to assess Thomson’s woodcraft. But this assertion is not as definitive as it might sound.
Given the time and place, it is easy to imagine Thomson being viewed by park residents as an outsider, an interloper. Although rural born and bred, he would have been dismissed as a city slicker from Toronto, an effete artist whose unconventional work ethic prompted suspicion. To tough, untamed, poorly educated, unsophisticated, labourers—whether loggers, miners, rangers, guides, forest-fire fighters, trappers, hunters, hotel operators or even poachers—his artistic temperament and habits would have been ridiculed. The fact that he was a tall, handsome bachelor would have made him attractive to women living in the park and vacationing. Hard-working men who feared him as a threat would have happily painted a target on the artist’s back. (18)
Thomson’s abilities as an angler and canoeist were complicated by the fact that the legend of the Artist as Master Woodsman was embellished by friends and champions soon after his death (19). In Northern Light MacGregor observes that Thomson has been a subject of ‘romancing . . . some justified, some strained, that continues to this day’ (20). This is true. The myth-making machinery of transforming the artist into a cultural hero was initiated during the First World War, a time of political turbulence and societal transition when Canada was developing a nascent True North Strong and Free national identity. The question of why Thomson did not serve in the war, as had other Group of Seven members, remains shrouded in contradiction which complicates how he is viewed.
However, it is McGregor’s romanticization of fly fishing that entangles his interpretative leader in wind knots. He begins by referencing a famous photo of Thomson—reproduced on his book’s cover—that misidentifies a spoon, likely made by the artist, as an artificial fly (21). He implies that this redundant editorial error somehow proves that Thomson was not a fly fisherman. Of course, it proves nothing of the kind; only that the artist sometimes used spoons, which is not in dispute.
McGregor affirms ‘anyone who has done much fishing in this part of the country’ (22) would recognize the terminal tackle as a spoon. Of course, this knowledge is not confined to those who fish in the park. It would be clear to any angler who ever tossed spoons manufactured by Len Thompson and Williams, not to mention Eppinger’s Dardevle, among others.
MacGregor’s inference that Thomson was not a fly fisherman is expressed in a mere three sentences:
Fly fishing, with its artistic swirls and its own poetic language, is much more esoteric than simply dropping a weighted, triple-hooked, metal lure off the back of a boat or canoe and hauling it about the deep waters in hopes of a strike. Fly fishing, however, which lends itself magnificently to the cowslip-shouldered streams of Britain and the wide, shallow rivers of Atlantic Canada, is largely a futile exercise. The small hooks of flies that must be tossed back and forth would become hopelessly tangled in the tangle of vegetation that encroaches on Algonquin waterways and surrounds the deep lakes where lake trout hide (23).
General readers, impressed with McGregor’s credentials, might well find his description of fly fishing credible. Fly anglers not so much; they would find his piscatorial idyll less persuasive. While MacGregor’s familiarity with the area and general knowledge of fishing are incontestable, his appreciation of fly fishing is superficial at best, relying on a string of cliches. For example, he seems unaware that early American and Canadian streamer flies, designed to look like swimming baitfish, were tied for trolling on lakes as well as stripping through deep pools in streams and rivers.
MacGregor acknowledges the grace and rhythm, some might even say the poetry, associated with casting a fly rod. However, he is describing one classic component—casting a dry fly with a floating line upstream at rising trout on a river which has become a popular stereotype. He ignores wet flies, bead-head nymphs and streamers that are cast across and downstream.
Fly fishing has not always been as ethical as purists would like. Some fly anglers in Thomson’s day would have had no qualms about combining artificial flies with live bait. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” Nick Adams uses grasshoppers on his fly rig. On a personal note, in the 1950s and 60s a friend’s father routinely placed the fins of the first brook trout he caught on the hooks of his flies to tip the scales of success. I doubt Thomson would have been averse to such practices—especially in an age of catch-and-eat.
Waxing poetic about trout and salmon fishing, MacGregor overlooks that fly anglers target less-revered species including bass, pike, muskie, walleye, even panfish and carp, not to mention a host of salt-water species. They also cast flies on sinking tip or full-sinking lines with tungsten split-shot, from canoes, kayaks, drift boats and john boats, not to mention such classic regional adaptations as Adirondack, Au Sable, MacKenzie boats, in addition to motorized boats.
MacGregor insists that the small hooks used in fly dressings would get entangled in Algonquin Park’s dense vegetation. Granted fly anglers use small hooks. But they also use large, nasty looking hooks for streamers designed for monster gamefish, both fresh and saltwater.
Thomson might have rigged up two or more flies by attaching dropper flies. This practice is prohibited in regulated catch-and-release areas where single, barbless hooks are mandatory, but is permitted in Algonquin Park to this day.
All fly anglers know the frustration of getting hung up on vegetation, not to mention swimming and flying critters and pieces of anatomy. Ouch! But this annoying eventuality is not confined to Algonquin Park. Vermont’s Battenkill, to name but one American river, is as densely overgrown as any river in the park.
MacGregor concludes with a thumb-nail film review of A River Runs Through It. ‘Had Norman Maclean been writing about trolling, rather than fly fishing . . . it’s doubtful that he would ever have found a publisher—and unimaginable that Robert Redford and Brad Pitt would have turned the book into a classic movie’ (24). His appreciation of the film is as shallow as his portrait of fly fishing. He seems unaware that legendary editor Charles Elliott at Alfred A. Knopf, among a host of other editors, rejected the novella before the University of Chicago Press agreed to publish its first work of fiction in 1976. It gained appreciative readers through word of mouth rather than through publishing-house advertising and promotion. Its release escaped the notice of many prominent reviewers and was misunderstood and under-appreciated by others.
Fact is, the film is a classic not because it celebrates fly fishing—recognizing that its scenes on the river are glorious. Rather it reflects many of the qualities that distinguish the elegiac novella, a compelling portrait of a multi-generational family at a time of transition as the wild frontier was becoming settled. It is a coming-of-age story built on timeless, universal themes: family and home, innocence and experience, rural and urban, devotion and obsession, love and desire, life and death, joy and sorrow, faith and despair, loss and grief.
Equal parts spiritual autobiography and wilderness prayer, it is an artistic paradox. While it is arguably the most eloquent fictional expression of fly fishing in world literature, it has as much to do with the contemplative recreation as Moby Dick has to do with whaling or The Old Man and the Sea has to do with bottom fishing by hand for blue marlin. Entertaining as it is, the film is not as rich as the novella, a blend of metaphysical reflection, high plains pastoral, novel of rural manners and Shakespearean tragedy in pioneer dress.
Two Photos Worth a Thousand Words
BEFORE reviewing documentary and archival material that supports Thomson being an occasional fly fisherman, at the very least, consideration must be given to a couple of photos reprinted in Northern Light.
The first is a photo depicting a well-dressed woman holding a fishing rod and a string of fish (25). MacGregor argues persuasively that the woman was long mistaken for Winnifred (Winnie) Trainor, the woman some people believe to have been the artist’s fiancée. He fails to identify the mystery woman, who remains unknown to this day. Interestingly MacGregor does not consider what the mystery woman is holding in her left hand—a bamboo fly rod. He obfuscates further by not properly identifying the object, passing it off generically as a ‘fishing pole.’ Presumably someone as knowledgeable about fishing as MacGregor would not only acknowledge the difference between a fishing pole and a fly rod, he would know that it is a faux pas in fly angling circles to call a fly rod a fishing pole.
Although I have no idea of the woman’s identity, I cannot resist pondering who she was and what her relationship was to the photographer. Is it possible the woman caught the fish, with Thomson acting as guide? This is unlikely, however, considering women did not fly fish in significant numbers until after the First World War, by which time the artist was deceased. (Despite a few notable exceptions in the history of the contemplative sport—including the shadowy figure of Dame Juliana Berners in the fifteenth century and Maine’s Cornelia ‘Fly Rod’ Crosby in the nineteenth century—women were long considered bad luck on streams and rivers, as they were on ships at sea.) The more probable explanation is that the photo was a good-natured ruse, a trophy shot for a holiday album. I believe the fish were caught by the owner of the fly rod and the man holding the camera: Tom Thomson (26).
MacGregor continues casting into a pool of irony concerning another famous photo reprinted in Northern Light which provides visual verification that Thomson fished with a fly rod—at least sometimes. The photo, taken by Lawren Harris, shows the artist (dressed like a lumberjack in a wool toque, wool pants and knee-high moccasins) standing on an outcrop of rock and casting into the rushing water below the dam at Tea Lake (27). Considering his familiarity with fishing in a general sense, MacGregor should recognize that Thomson is holding a fly rod. Moreover, he should recognize that the artist is stripping in line in accordance with fly casting practice.
Most baffling of all, however, is the caption beside the photo—Tom Thomson fly-fishing—which contradicts MacGregor’s textual inference that the artist was not a fly fisherman. One wonders if this is simply an editorial error that escaped the writer’s attention at the proofreading stage or retribution from the fly fishing gods?
Fly Fishing tradition in Algonquin
What is most disconcerting about MacGregor’s inference that Thomson was not a fly fisherman is the archival documentation he either ignores or dismisses. For instance, it is hard to believe he is unfamiliar with John D. Robins’s The Incomplete Anglers—either the original 1943 edition or the 1998 Friends of Algonquin Park second edition reprint.
Robins, an enthusiastic champion of Canadian art, was a close friend of Lawren Harris. His memoir is illustrated by Franklin Carmichael who, like Harris, was a founding member of the Group of Seven. It chronicles a fishing adventure by canoe Robins—an English professor along with Northrop Frye at Victoria College at the University of Toronto—made with his brother Tom. Although Tom fished with live bait exclusively, the author was a devoted fly angler. The memoir’s references to the recreational sport are too numerous to delineate. In an early passage Robins lists the flies he intends to purchase including such classic patterns as Silver Doctor, McGinty, Caddis Drake, Parmachenee Belle, Royal Coachman and red hackle.
‘I was prepared to worship fly fishing with a pure, exclusive devotion and leave the worms behind. I supposed that true angling aristocrats would be puzzled by the mention of worms in connection with fishing. But [brother] Tom swore that he would have nothing to do with flies,’ Robins writes. (28).
The Incomplete Anglers confirms that by the 1940s fly fishing was a well-established tradition in Algonquin Park, practiced long before the Robins brothers’ canoe trip. As we are about to discover through archival and documentary sources, it not only took place in the park when Thomson was there, it was practiced by the artist.
Thomson would have been introduced to fly fishing as an occasional guide when wealthy Americans traveled north to enjoy a Canadian ‘wilderness’ experience. American anglers would have been familiar with the fly angling tradition emerging in Pennsylvania, the Catskills, the Adirondacks and Maine, not to mention salmon fishing in Quebec and New Brunswick.
The summers Thomson spent in the park from 1912 through 1917 overlapped with what is celebrated as the golden age of American fly fishing; when Theodore Gordon was popularizing the sport; when Hiram Leonard and Edward Payne were designing and manufacturing split-cane bamboo rods; when Edward vom Hofe and Charles F. Orvis were setting a high bar for fly reels; when Mary Orvis Marbury was collecting American fly patterns for her seminal book Favourite Flies & Their Histories.
In his 1996 pictorial history Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and Other Mysteries, S. Bernard Shaw refers to Joseph Adams. The pompous English fly angler and columnist for the prestigious sporting magazine The Field visited Algonquin Park in 1910 for the sole purpose of fly fishing. Shaw records: ‘[Adams] hired park ranger Mark Robinson, an excellent man well acquainted with the forest, to guide him on an expedition to the Oxtongue River to fly fish for brook trout . . . He had great success . . . catching trout with his ten-foot cane-built rod and gut [line] casting [a] Silver Doctor and March Brown’ (29). At one point Robinson and his client met up with Tom Salmon, a ‘famed fly-caster’ of the day (30). A mere two years later Thomson made his first trip to the park.
Adams would have come to Algonquin steeped in English fly fishing tradition, including the concept of matching the hatch, as well as the heated debate, raging at the time on both sides of the Atlantic, over the supremacy of dry fly versus wet fly, spearheaded by Frederick Halford and G.E.M. Skues. The origins of matching the hatch extend back to at least 1643 when Gervase Markam recommended catching flies that were hatching and then imitating them. The concept did not gain traction, however, until 1836 when Alfred Ronalds published The Fly Fisher’s Entomology. An aquatic biologist and illustrator, he applied scientific nomenclature to insects of interest to fly anglers and, in the process, established a link between entomology and fly fishing. North American fly anglers had to wait a century until Preston Jennings published A Book of Trout Flies in 1935.
The debate of whether Thomson ever waved a fly rod over wily trout would have been solved had many of his personal belongings not mysteriously disappeared upon his death. A candidate for light-fingered culprit is Shannon Fraser, owner of Mowat Lodge where Thomson routinely stayed and one of a number of locals suspected of either accidentally killing or deliberately murdering the painter. Remnants of fly tying material would have settled the matter. But these—provided they existed—disappeared along with Thomson’s hand-painted dove-grey canoe, pair of paddles (one of which was distinctive) and fishing tackle, not to mention many of his oil sketches on small boards.
Celebrated Fly Fisherman
Although the evidence of Thomson’s being a fly tier is less conclusive, there is intriguing documentation confirming that he tied his own flies based on observation of insects two decades before Jennings published his Book of Trout Flies in 1935, not to mention nearly four decades before Ernest Schwiebert published Matching the Hatch in 1955 or more than half a century before Art Flick published the Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations in 1969.
I start with a couple of biographical connections that, while admittedly anecdotal, remain intriguing. First is Alexander Young, the maternal grandfather of Group of Seven founding member A.Y. Jackson. Young was a noted entomologist as well as an avid fly fisherman. His knowledge of insects could have been passed on to Thomson. Even if Thomson and Young never met, Jackson, who like most of the Group fished, might well have informed his creative and angling companion about his grandfather, perhaps while sitting around the campfire after a day’s painting or fishing, glowing pipe in one hand and tin cup of whiskey in the other.
Perhaps more conclusive is a family connection. When Thomson moved to Toronto in 1905 to embark on a career in commercial art, he enjoyed the company of a relative known as ‘Uncle’ William Brodie. Brodie, who might have been a cousin, was a prominent naturalist specializing in entomology. He helped establish the Toronto Entomological Society in 1878 and, from 1903 until his death in 1909, was director of the Biological Department at the Ontario Provincial Museum (later the Royal Ontario Museum). The time Thomson spent outdoors with Brodie nurtured the aspiring painter’s passion for nature. The entomology he learned from Brodie would have served him well fly fishing and tying artificial flies.
Thomson’s early biographers associate the painter with fly fishing. It is perplexing that MacGregor ignores these documentary confirmations. Perhaps he dismisses the biographers as “romancers.” Yet fly fishing was not romanticized when the biographies were written. Not only was the contemplative recreation viewed simply as another way of catching fish, spin casting rods and reels became all the rage following the Second World War.
Ottelyn Addison, in collaboration with Elizabeth Harwood, observes in Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years that, ‘Thomson was a fly fisherman of exceptional skill’ (31). In addition to trolling for lake trout from his canoe, he ‘often cast for speckled trout’ (32). The daughter of Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson (a close friend of Thomson’s who spearheaded the search for the artist after he went missing), Addison was a keen naturalist who spent her early summers in Algonquin Park and returned often as an adult. She bases her book on her father’s diary and she certainly would have recognized the difference between fly angling and fishing with hard lures and live bait.
Addison continues: ‘[Thomson] knew trout have to be down in the cold water in summer; he looked for rocky shelves where they loiter; he studied their habits, observed them feeding’ (33). Fly anglers will recognize this behaviour. She goes on to write that, ‘[Thomson] made his own lures from bits of metal, feathers and beads, watched what the fish were taking and painted his own bugs’ (34). She confirms that Thomson handmade a variety of lures including spoons and plugs, as well as artificial flies, based on observation of the habits of trout. This sounds very much like matching the hatch.
Addison also quotes Park Ranger Tom Wattie recalling that Thomson ‘could cast his line in a perfect figure eight and have the fly land on the water at the exact spot planned’ (35). In addition to being a park ranger who ‘knew [Tom] well’ (36), Wattie was a fisherman who would have been familiar with fly fishing. His description of the artist might resemble purple prose—think of the Brad Pitt character casting long graceful loops in A River Runs Through It (37). But the bamboo rods back in the day tended to be longer and softer—’wimpy’ is a word sometimes used—than they are today which, from my perspective, makes Wattie’s observation even more credible.
Finally, an endnote in The Algonquin Years includes a March 16, 1913 letter from Leonard Mack, a self-described ‘fishing companion’ of Thomson’s who refers to a fishing trip the previous summer: ‘I was under the impression that we took a photo of you fly casting from a rock on Crown Lake but perhaps we used your camera’ (38).
The piscatorial plot began thickening years earlier with Audrey Saunders’s Algonquin Story, originally published in 1946 with subsequent editions printed in 1998 and 2003. Saunders was not an amateur literary dilettante, but a pioneer in both oral history and Canadian Studies who taught in Montreal at both Dawson College and Sir George Williams University (now Concordia).
She refers to the photo of Thomson at Tea Lake Dam (mentioned earlier): ‘Although there is no date to indicate when the photograph of Tom Thomson fly-fishing at the bottom of a lumber dam was taken, there is no doubt that this shows one of his favourite pastimes in the Park. There are many stories of the good fishing to be found near the old dams, and certainly, the intent of concentration expressed both in Tom’s face, and in his stance on that particular occasion, are eloquent of his interest in the art of angling’ (39). It is a stance any fly angler would recognize as his or her own.
Saunders’s book features an archival photo, circa 1911, with a caption ‘Fishing trip in Algonquin Park,’ that shows one of six men (fourth from left) holding two fishing rods, one of which is clearly a fly rod (40).
Even more significant is her assertion: ‘Tom’s skill at fly casting won him the admiration of the guests at Shannon’s [Mowat Lodge]’ (41). She concludes that, ‘[Thomson] made his own flies and bugs, watching to see what insects made the fish rise, and painting his own imitations on the spot’ (42). This sentence closely resembles Addison’s earlier observation. It is difficult to determine whether Addison drew on Saunders’s comment (without attribution) or whether both writers came to similar conclusions independently. Both might well have based their statements on independent primary sources.
However a reader chooses to interpret the observations of these writers, the underlying fact is that Thomson—who fished with natural bait and hard lures when it suited his needs or when conditions dictated—not only made his own hard plugs and spoons, but tied his own flies. The reference to the artist observing insects that made fish rise and then painting pictures of them on the spot—presumably so he could tie flies later to match the hatch—would place him at the forefront of what became one of the most significant developments in fly angling, not only in the twentieth century, but in the long history of the recreational sport.
The fact that Thomson was a fly fisherman when it suited his purposes is incontestable, verified on the basis of archival evidence. By virtue of his stature as Canada’s most famous artist, he is also the country’s most famous fly angler who might well have tied flies to match the hatch before it became common practice in North America (43). Although he is justly celebrated for painting such iconic pictures as Northern River, The Jack Pine and The West Wind, it seems undeniable that a river did run through Tom Thomson.
Endnotes & Footnotes
- Roderick Haig-Brown was a prolific author who published twenty-eight books in many genres. His subjects spanned fly fishing, nature, conservation, history, geography, rural matters, literature, biography, legal affairs, education, biographical essay, adult novels and works for young readers. Selected volumes include: fly angling classics (A Primer of Fly Fishing, A River Never Sleeps, The Western Angler, Bright Waters, Bright Fish and four-volume The Seasons of a Fisherman); animal stories (Panther and Return to the River); novels (Timber and On the Highest Hill); essay collections (Measure of the Year and Writings & Reflections). Haig-Brown won a Governor’s General Award, Canada’s longest continuous literary award, for Saltwater Summer, one of three angling memoirs to win the award in the non-fiction category including The Incomplete Anglers by John D. Robins and Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi by David Adams Richards.
- Unless otherwise indicated the opinions expressed in this essay are mine, developed over 30 years as a professional arts writer who reviewed exhibitions, read and reviewed books, interviewed artists, curators and art historians and wrote about Tom Thomson, in addition to lecturing on the artist at universities, museums, art galleries and fly fishing clubs. My opinions have been shaped by many books (including exhibition catalogues) on Thomson. The artist has been written about more than to any other single Canadian artist irrespective of creative discipline. Selected works include A Treasury of Tom Thomson, The Art of Tom Thomson, The Best of Tom Thomson, Tom Thomson: Trees, Tom Thomson: The Last Spring, Northern Lights: Masterpieces from Tom Thomson & The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson: Design for a Canadian Hero by Joan Murray; Tom Thomson (volume 2 in the Gallery Canadian Art series) by R. H. Hubbard; Canadian Art: The Tom Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario by Jeremy Adamson and Katerina Atanassova, et al.; Tom Thomson: An Introduction to His Life and Art by David P. Silcox; Tom Thomson: The Silence and The Storm by David P. Silcox and Harold Town (1977, revised and updated 2017); Inventing Tom Thomson by Sherrill E. Grace; Tom Thomson: Artist of the North by Wayne Larsen; The Real Mystery of Tom Thomson: His Art and His Life by Richard Weiser; Tom Thomson by William Holmes (Vancouver Art Gallery); The Group of Seven ReImagined edited by Karen Schauber; Thomson, edited by Dennis Reid and published in conjunction a a major retrospective exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario, coordinated by Charles C. Hill. Many books about the Group of Seven incorporate a consideration of Thomson including The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David P. Silcox; A Like Vision: The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by Ian Dejardin and Sarah Milroy; The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation by Charles C. Hill; The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson: An Introduction by Anne Newlands; Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King; and Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art edited by John O’Brien and Peter White.
- The suspicious circumstances surrounding Tom Thomson’s death remains Canada’s most celebrated and enduring mystery. It has laid the foundation for a publishing cottage industry including The Tom Thomson Mystery by William Little; Who Killed Tom Thomson? by John Little; Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring by Neil J. Lehto; Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him by Roy MacGregor; Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter by Jim Poling Sr.; The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction by Gregory Klages. The best place for a reader to start an investigation into Thomson’s death is the website Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, maintained as part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project sponsored by University of Victoria, the Université de Sherbrooke and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The mystery begins with the how, when, where and why, not to mention who, of Thomson’s death, whether deliberate or accidental murder, manslaughter, foul play, misadventure or accident. One theory has Tom falling out of his canoe and striking his head while standing astern and urinating. But, like riseforms on a placid lake, the mystery expands outward to encompass where his corpse is buried (in the family plot in Leith cemetery, outside of Owen Sound, Ontario or in an unmarked grave in Algonquin Park where he was initially buried) and where his hand-painted, dove-grey canoe, paddles and fishing tackle disappeared after his body was recovered, not to mention many small oil sketches.
- In recent years a couple of exhibitions have heightened the international profile and reputation of The Group of Seven and, by extension, Tom Thomson. In 2013 England’s Dulwich Picture Gallery organized Painting in Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. In 2016 popular American comedian/actor/banjoist/art collector Steve Martin curated The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Despite these exhibitions Thomson and the Group remain relatively unknown outside of Canada, which is especially ironic considering their importance to the history and development of Canadian culture.
- There were occasional exceptions. In 1913 the Ontario government purchased Northern Lake for $250, obviously a large sum at the time. Thomson’s developmental arc as a painter was short and meteoric, paralleling the five years he spent making regular trips to Algonquin Park from 1912 until his death. Most of the fifty canvases and four hundred oil sketches known to exist were completed during this period. His practice was to work up full-scale paintings in his small studio shack in Toronto during winter months. His years visiting the park not only accounted for his most concentrated period of fishing, it was likely when he started fly fishing.
- Thomson casts a long, double-haul shadow across arts and culture in Canada encompassing visual art, prose narrative (novel and mystery), memoir, critical commentary, cultural history, poetry, music (classical, operatic, jazz, electronica, rock and acoustic), theatre, dance and cinema (documentary and feature film). He has inspired more artists and influenced more cross-disciplinary works than any other single artist in any single creative field. It is beyond the scope of this essay to document the many ways Thomson has exerted an impact on the generations of Canadian artists who followed him, whether adopting, adapting or challenging his vision. Rather, the following is a selective list of artists in other disciplines who have in one way or another responded to Thomson—the man, the artist and the art. He has inspired numerous songs: ‘Tom Thomson’s Mandolin’ by singer/songwriter Mae Moore; ‘Three Pistols’ by the Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip. He has also provided inspiration—along with the Group of Seven—for full-scale albums: Turpentine Wind, an acoustic/electronica song cycle written, produced and performed by Kurt Swinghammer; Northern Shore by The Skydiggers, a folk-rock band; Sonic Palette, a suite of song and instrumental music written and performed by the Algonquin Ensemble, a folk/classical string ensemble; Music Inspired by the Group of 7 (not forgetting Tom Thomson), a suite commissioned by the National Art Gallery of Canada in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Group of Seven written and performed by The Rheostatics, a popular Toronto folk-rock band since disbanded; Walking in the Footsteps, a song suite celebrating Thomson and the Group of Seven written and performed by folksinger Ian Tamblyn. Thomson also left his mark on literature including: Earth Day in Leith Churchyard, a poetry collection devoted to the artist by Bernadette Rule; Tom Thomson’s Last Bonfire, a mystery by Geoff Taylor; Tom Thomson’s Last Paddle, a mystery for young readers by Larry McCloskey; The Missing Skull, a mystery by John Wilson; Tom Thomson: My Last Spring, a fictionalized diary by Tim Bouma; The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, a graphic novel by engraver George A. Walker. Other writers have titled books in tribute to Thomson including: Tom Thomson in Purgatory, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poetry collection by Troy Jollimore, a Canadian-born philosophy professor at California State University; Tom Thomson and Other Poems, a selected works including poems about Thomson by George Whipple; Tom Thomson’s Shack, a collection of short meditative narratives by Harold Renisch. Thomson’s reach extends to the performing arts to embrace Northern River, a one-man folk operetta written and performed by acoustic musician David Archibald; Songs in the Key of Tom, a folk musical written and performed by David Sereda and later expanded into The Woods Are Burning with poet Anne Michaels and blues artist Ken Whiteley; The Threshold of Magic, a one-man show of song and music created and performed by Jeffery Bastien; Colours in the Storm, a folk musical by playwright Jim Betts; Group of Seven Nutcracker, an adaptation of The Nutcracker created and produced by Toronto-based Ballet Jorgen; The Far Shore, a feature fictionalized biopic film by visual artist/filmmaker Joyce Wieland; Dark Pines, a TV documentary investigating Thomson’s death directed by David Viasbord; West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson, a documentary on the artist’s life and art produced by White Pines Pictures.
- Although the term ‘Canadian wilderness tradition’ is mine, interested readers can get a sense of the concept by referring to these selected literary anthologies: Treasures of Place: Three Centuries of Nature Writing in Canada edited by Wayne Grady; Northern Wild: Best Contemporary Canadian Nature Writing edited by David R. Boyd; Marked by the Wild: An Anthology of Literature Shaped by the Canadian Wilderness edited by Bruce Littlejohn and Jon Pearce; Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems edited by Nancy Holmes. Margaret Atwood’s Survival, a groundbreaking thematic study of Canadian Literature influenced by the teaching and writings of Northrop Frye, is one of many critical studies that explore the relationship between Canadian literature and wilderness. Strange Things, Atwood’s study of the imaginative mystique of the Northern Wilderness, picks up where Survival leaves off. Other seminal critical studies that explore similar thematic geography include: Canada and Idea of North by Sherrill E. Grace; Butterfly on Rock by D. G. Jones; Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction by Laurence Ricou; Harsh and Lonely Land: The Major Canadian Poets & The Making of a Canadian Tradition by Tom Marshall; The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction by Margot Northey; The Northern Imagination: A Study of Northern Canadian Literature by Allison Mitcham. There are many others.
- Of the academic studies devoted to Winslow Homer, the two I found most helpful in terms of the intersection of man, artist and fly angler are: Winslow Homer: Art and Angler, by Patricia Junker and Sarah Burns, with contributions by William H. Gerdis, Paul Schullery, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. and David Tatham, published in conjunction with the exhibition, Casting a Spell: Winslow Homer, Artist and Angler, co-organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and Amos Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 2002; Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks, by David Tatham, published by Syracuse University Press, 1996.
- Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 107.
- In addition to the similarities between Thomson and Homer, there are similarities between Adirondack State Park (constituted in 1892) and Algonquin Provincial Park (established in 1893), including their shared history of logging, hunting, fishing and trapping, and recreational tourism in an era of expanding urbanization and industrialization when people sought refuge in a quasi-religious “wilderness” experience. Interestingly, another painter associated with the Adirondacks, Rockwell Kent, knew and influenced Lawren Harris, one of Thomson’s closest creative companions. Although Homer was far more famous in his lifetime than Thomson, the latter continued to play a much larger role in Canadian arts and culture today than Homer ever did in American arts and culture.
- Thomson painted a blurry, unspecified figure of fisherman in Little Cauchon Lake (circa. spring 1916). It is impossible to determine whether the figure was intended to be a fly angler. He also painted Autumn, Three Trout (circa. fall 1916).
- The Fisherman (winter 1916-17) is in the permanent collection of the Edmonton Art Gallery. I have been unable to identify the fly fisherman, if in fact the painting is based on an actual angler. I like to imagine it as a self-portrait: the fly angler as artist and the artist as fly angler.
- Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Toronto: House of Anansi Press 1971), p. 200.
- In addition to working as a feature writer and columnist at such major Canadian newspapers as The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post and Ottawa Citizen in addition to Maclean’s (Canada’s national magazine), McGregor has written more than fifty books including: A Life in the Bush (a memoir built on an affectionate portrait of his dad), Escape (a search for the soul of Canada), The Weekender (a cottage journal), Canadians (a portrait of a country and its people) and Canoe Country (an exploration into the making of Canada), not to mention Shorelines (reissued as Canoe Lake), a fictional account of the alleged romance between Thomson and Winnie Trainor (a distant relative of MacGregor’s). His most recent non-fiction book is Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada.
- Roy McGreg, Northern Light (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2010), p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 302.
- Ibid., 302.
- The impressions of Tom Thomson expressed here are based on a pair letters written to Darcy Spencer, a former scoutmaster living in Kitchener, Ontario. In the 1970s Spencer exchanged correspondence with Jack Wilkinson, longtime operator Kish-Kaduk Lodge on Cedar Lake, in Algonquin Park. In the letters, which were not made public previously, Wilkinson offers recollections of being a child in the park when the artist was alive. I made aware of the letters in January 2011 when I wrote a story in the Waterloo Region Record in advance of an exhibition, Searching for Tom—Tom Thomson: Man, Myth and Masterworks, organized by THEMUSEUM, in Kitchener, Ontario. An article related to the letters is posted as ‘Epistles from the Grave’ on my blog at www.reidbetweenthelines.ca
- Some posthumous champions, such as Dr. James MacCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and staunch supporter of Thomson and the Group of Seven, had a financial interest in enhancing the artist’s reputation. Others—including family, a few discerning art critics, gallery curators who challenged public sentiment by purchasing paintings and founding members of the Group of Seven—were motivated by either familial love or appreciation for his artistic talent, which was still developing when he died. Members of the Group erected a memorial cairn in honour of their creative companion on Hayhurst Point, overlooking Canoe Lake. The inscription, written by Group founding member J. E. H (Jim) MacDonald, reflects both heartfelt regard and mythologizing zeal: ‘To the memory of Tom Thomson artist, woodsman and guide who was drowned in Canoe Lake July 8th, 1917. He lived humbly but passionately with the wild. It made him brother to all untamed things of nature. It drew him apart and revealed itself wonderfully to him. It sent him out from the woods only to show these revelations through his art and it took him to itself at last. His fellow artists and other friends and admirers join gladly in this tribute to his character and genius . . . .’
- Ibid., p. 302.
- Tom Thomson on Canoe Lake. circa 1916 (Archives of Ontario), a photo taken by Maud Varley, wife of Group of Seven founding member Fred Varley. The misidentification of the caption accompanying the photo has been repeated by successive writers, editors and publishers obviously unfamiliar with angling gear.
- Ibid., p. 302.
- Ibid., p.302.
- Ibid., p.302. There is a dearth of critical commentary devoted to Maclean’s fictional autobiography; however, those seeking critical appreciations can do no better than two essays: Wendell Berry’s ‘Style and Grace,’ collected in What Are People For, and Wallace Stegner’s ‘Haunted by Waters: Norman Maclean, collected in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. A more personal insight is offered by his son, John Maclean, in his memoir Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River, published by HarperCollins, 2021.
- The photograph of a woman, wearing a wedding band and holding a stringer of fish in one hand and a bamboo fly rod in the other, long misidentified as Winnifred (Winnie) Trainor taken by Tom Thomson, circa 1916 (National Archives of Canada).
- Thomson was an avid photographer. While a few of his photos remain extant, he is known to have lost many negatives in a canoe mishap.
- Photo of Thomson at Tea Lake Dam taken in 1916 by Lawren Harris. (National Archives of Canada). Thoreau MacDonald, son of J.E.H. MacDonald and a fine printmaker and illustrator in his own right, based a later well-known drawing on the photo.
- John D. Robins. The Incomplete Anglers (Whitney, Ontario: The Friends of Algonquin Park, 1998), p. 8.
- S. Bernard Shaw, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and Other Mysteries (Burnstown, Ontario: General Store Publishing House,1996), p. 83.
- Ibid., p. 83.
- Ottelyn Addison and Elizabeth Harwood, Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1969), p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p 19
- Jason Borger, son of prominent fly angling writer Gary Borger’s son, did almost all of the on-screen fly casting for the actors in the cinematic adaptation of A River Runs Through It.
- Ibid., p. 88.
- Audrey Saunders, Algonquin Story, Third Edition (Whitney, Ontario: The Friends of Algonquin Park, 2003), p. 180.
- Ibid., unnumbered (National Archives of Canada)
- Ibid., p. 179.
- Ibid., p. 179.
- While I stand by my contention that Tom Thomson is Canada’s most famous fly angler, Canada has produced other significant artists, as well as prominent public figures, committed to catching fish with artificial flies. An incomplete list includes: writers Stephen Leacock, W. O. Mitchell, Ethel Wilson, Mordecai Richler, David Adams Richards, Paul Quarrington, Helen Humphrey, David Carpenter, Jake MacDonald, Wayne Curtis and Harry Thurston; playwright Dan Needles; newspapermen Greg Clark, Bruce Hutchison and Charles Lynch; broadcaster/storyteller Stuart McLean; sports writer Stephen Brunt; country songwriter Paul Brant; acoustic musician Chris Coole.