Angling Arts

Book Review: Illuminated by Water

North American release:
Illuminated by Water: Fly Fishing and the Allure of the Natural World
by Malachy Tallack
Pegasus Books
352 pages

UK release:
Illuminated by Water: Nature, Memory and the Delights of a Fishing Life
by Malachy Tallack
272 pages

While anglers might want to debate Sir Izaak’s famous assertion that fishing is an art, most readers agree that the best writing about fly fishing is most certainly an art. Malachy Tallack’s Illuminated by Water justifies the latter claim. Subtitled Fly Fishing and the Allure of the Natural World, it’s one of the most appealing angling memoirs I have ever read—and I’ve enjoyed my share over the last half century.

Tallack has fished most of his life, first on secluded locks as a boy growing up on the remote Shetland archipelago, and later on streams and rivers after relocating to the Scottish midlands. However, it’s his gifts as an author—including two works of non-fiction and, most recently, a novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World—and a songwriter with four albums to his credit that shape his memoir. As an author he has learned how to tell an engaging story through plot, character and setting. And as a songwriter he has learned how to distill complex experiences, emotions and philosophical concerns to their essence.

Tallack’s literary background makes Illuminated by Water as much a creative response to books about fly angling as about the practice of fishing. In the process he initiates a series of conversations or dialogues with fellow authors who write compellingly and movingly, eloquently and memorably about fly angling. He demonstrates his insights and sympathies when he contends that Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is not about fly fishing—as do most anglers—but a meditation on beauty. I agree with his assessment.

Tallack is a perceptive and judicious reader. As a result his memoir fits comfortably alongside the work of the literary angling writers he references including Jim Harrison, W.D. Wetherwell, Ted Leeson, Negley Farson and Harry Middleton, in addition to nature writers Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Annie Dillard and fellow Scot Nan Shepherd.

Malachy Tallack

Even when not mentioned directly, the whispers of writers evoked through the coordinates of time and place can be heard by attentive readers. For example, Tallack is obviously casting in the shadow of beloved poet Norman MacCaig and Andrew Greig (author of At the Loch of the Green Corrie and The Return of John Macnab), avid anglers both, when he fishes the sequestered locks of Assynt, in the northwestern Highlands.

In his introduction Tallack distinguishes between two types of angling books: those concerned with How and those concerned with Why. Like most angling books with literary aspirations, it’s clear where his memoir lands. ‘Why is the question that matters most to me, the one to which I keep returning, again and again,’ he writes.

He delineates his approach, which is more discursive than doctrinaire, by stating that his book is ‘an attempt to trace [rise rings], to follow them outwards and see where they go. It is an attempt to grasp some of that meaning and significance.’ As such, ‘it is about beauty, about hope, and about how freedom is sought and sometimes found.’ In other words, it’s neither instructional manual nor angling travelogue.

However fly fishing is regarded—whether sport, hobby, recreation, pastime, obsession or calling—Tallack insists it addresses ethical and aesthetic matters. This imbues Illuminated by Water with a quietly reflective quality in keeping with the meditative tradition represented in the West by such foundational works as A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle and The Compleat Angler. Appropriately, his memoir’s structure embodies the graceful rhythm of forward and backward casts, as chapters alternate between contemplation and action (which Walton identified as the source of angling’s virtue).

The ‘action’ chapters chronicle fishing adventures, past and present, which he often shares with his brother Rory. Although he makes brief excursions to Canada and New Zealand, Tallack remains unfazed by the lure of exotic locales. Instead he finds solace fishing the ‘home waters’ of Shetland and Scotland.

His perspective is unique in a couple of ways. First, while Scotland is celebrated for its legendary salmon, which remain the domain of patrician wealth and privilege, he casts a plebeian line toward ‘brown trout more often than any other species.’ Second, while he has been fishing still freshwater locks since childhood, we accompany him through his apprenticeship on moving freshwater streams and rivers as an experienced angler in his thirties who gamely confronts the challenge of adapting to new techniques and methods.

The ‘contemplative’ chapters explore a range of topics including: the policy and practice of catch and release; the global distribution of brown and rainbow trout through resource management initiatives; the dangers of introducing stocked hatchery fish to wild native fisheries; the role size and quantity play in calibrating angling success; the influence of social class in the history of angling in Great Britain and how it differs from other places including North America; the reasons there are more female fly anglers in North America than in Great Britain and Europe.

Although I’m familiar with these topics, I learned new things from Tallack. Like all good storytellers or musical tale-spinners, he neither preaches nor proselytizes. He’s not interested in winning arguments or attracting converts. Rather his pleasingly conversational tone and pace are as warm as they are causal. Although Illuminated by Water can be read as an introduction to fly angling, it’s not limited to beginners—far from it. It should appeal to experienced anglers who want to dig deeper into the things that make fly fishing so intriguing and fulfilling.

For me, the best parts of his memoir are when Tallack puts on his ruminatingcap and speculates about the ineffable things that veer away from the practical and quantifiable toward the mystery and wonder that separate fly fishing and from such activities as tournament casting and competitive fishing in which bag limits determine success or failure.

With the exception of wading a familiar river and casting to finicky trout, nothing gives me more pleasure than sitting bank side and sharing a dram of malt whisky with my angling companions while wrestling with mysteries contained within our revolving planet. After reading his charming memoir I would like to extend an invitation to Malachy Tallack to join us whenever he can, for my companions and I concur wholeheartedly when he observes, ‘Angling can make the world feel bigger, richer and more complex.’

Scotland inhabits a special place in my heart and imagination. I have spent untold happy hours studying its history, art, music, literature, malt whisky, angling legacy and Celtic spiritual tradition. I have visited my ancestral home twice, travelling its length and breadth. However, I have never fished its burns, rivers or lochs. Because of the common complaints that stalk old age, I have little hope of casting fur and feather on its hallowed waters for the trout I cherish. This awareness had carried with it the sting of loss and regret, since soothed by the balm of Illuminated by Water.

Tallack was one of six finalists shortlisted for the prestigious £1,000 Richard Jefferies Award for the best nature-writing published and nominated in 2022.

This book review was written originally for Classic Angling, Great Britain’s premium fishing journal.

Angling Arts

Book Review: Reading the Water

Reading the Water
by Mark Hume
Greystone Books
276 pages

The worst blasphemy routinely hurled at fly fishing is reducing it to a sport, hobby or pastime. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, consider Mark Hume’s Reading the Water. Subtitled Fly fishing, Fatherhood and Finding Strength in Nature, it’s not so much an angling memoir as an account of life lessons learned through the wisdom of fly fishing. Admittedly this might sound highfalutin to anglers who doubt Hume’s claims. All I can say is: read the book and then judge.

Hume was born in British Columbia, the middle of five sons of English immigrants who were practicing Christadelphians (a sect disavowing selected Christian orthodoxy). His parents met during the Second World War when his mother was a member of the Women’s Land Army and his father was interned as a conscientious objector. They married after the war and moved to Western Canada.

Following his father’s example, Hume has lived most of his life in British Columbia as a journalist on some of Canada’s most respected newspapers. The province has produced numerous angling writers of merit including English-born Roderick Haig-Brown. I believe Hume—who has written four angling books built on environmental themes including River of the Angry Moon and Trout School—is the rightful heir to Haig-Brown. Hume’s knowledge of angling and ecology is extensive; however, it’s the eloquence and grace of his prose that inspires comparison to the writer he honours as ‘The Master.’ To prove my point I quote a lengthy passage that demonstrates Hume’s narrative gifts while capturing the essence of Reading the Water:

When I became a father I knew I would guide Emma and Claire along riverbanks, show them how to wade on rocks worn smooth by fluvial erosion, teach them how to read the water and how to cast with elegance. Those lessons of technique would be relatively easy to give, but I didn’t know if a love of fishing, which had fallen to me as a kind of natural inheritance, could be taught. I thought it important to try, however, because fly fishing for me had become a way of navigating life, and I wanted that for them too. Through an absorbing involvement in nature, fly fishing fosters resilience and inner strength. It can help make a person whole. I felt my daughters should know that, though I wasn’t aware at the beginning of our journey how much teaching them to fish would help me; how I would draw strength from them too.

Hume’s ‘bond’ with fishing was forged when he was seven years old on a mountain stream where he ‘found trout that seemed to be always waiting for me.’ Thereafter he ‘never stopped searching in water, not just for hidden fish but for answers, for emotional renewal and strength.’ Years later, after his daughters were born, he was confident that the knowledge he had learned through ‘the intricacies, rituals and poetry’ of fly fishing could be shared with others.

Mark Hume

Like all good teachers who eventually realize they have learned as much from their students as they have taught, Hume fulfilled the role of mentor by holding onto the belief that, ‘fly fishing is an intensely observational way of experiencing the world and, in that sense, is a spiritual experience.’ Like Norman Maclean in his sacramental A River Runs Through It, Hume observes that the ‘powerful connection’ between faith and water is a form of ‘reverence for the virtues of nature’ that awakens ‘an awareness of what it means to fit in to the universe.’ Casting a fly rod is ‘a state of grace’ that instills in anglers an appreciation ‘that there is something wonderful, magical, revelatory about drawing fish into light’.

I quote generously to rebut anglers who view fly fishing as nothing more than one of any number of ways to catch fish. Equal parts spiritual autobiography and ethical treatise, Reading the Water follows a long tradition from Dame Juliana, through Sir Izaak, to Haig-Brown. As such Hume portrays fly fishing as a path towards awareness of both inner self and outer world with its concomitant responsibilities and obligations:

In my short lifetime I have seen great rivers dammed, entire forests clearcut, species pushed to the verge of extinction and the planet compromised to the point of becoming threatening. And yet, there on the water, reaching down to touch cold-blooded fish, I have always found hope. As my daughters awakened and began to see the Earth changing, I knew they would need that kind of connection to nature if they were going to have faith that the planet could be saved—and restored.

Reading the Water begins as a shaggy Huckleberry Finn adventure tale chronicling Hume’s introduction to various wood scenes and riverscapes that accommodated his piscatorial apprenticeship from catching trout barehanded, through bait with bobber and spin casting, to fly fishing, as his family moved from the fertile Okanagan Valley to the high plains outside of Edmonton and back to the lush majesty of Vancouver Island. ‘I came to believe as if by osmosis that fishing was my calling . . . I searched for mystery in water.’

During adolescence Hume immersed himself in ‘the world of fly fishing’ celebrated in the books of Haig-Brown, who was still fishing and writing from the banks of the Campbell River before its fishery was depleted—something the famous writer and conservationist did not anticipate. Still Haig-Brown’s many volumes ‘shaped my life and later helped shape the lives of my daughters,’ Hume confirms:

. . . I came to appreciate that fly fishing is more than a hobby; I began to realize that it is a spiritual apprehension, central to the lives of its followers. I knew I had to learn how to fly fish if I was to join that community, if I was to fish in a way that honoured the water and the fish . . . You either have this in your soul or you don’t. It is not taught but is awakened. And once aroused, it became a formative force in my life.

After receiving a fly rod for his sixteenth birthday, Hume fished through his teens for trout, steelhead and salmon among other sports species, before abandoning the activity during his twenties as he travelled about, advancing his career on various newspapers. He married and divorced in quick succession before marrying Maggie, a fellow journalist with a deep love of nature. Despite how good life was with his wife and daughters, Hume was stalked by ‘a distant, unfathomable feeling of despair.’ However, he found solace when he started teaching his daughters, born four years a part, ‘to read the water, to know the natural world.’

The annual family camping trips provided settings for fly fishing instruction. When each of the girls were big enough to manage a nine-foot rod, the initiation commenced. ‘A gifted fly rod is a wonderful thing to have, because a fly rod is as much a talisman as it is a tool,’ Hume observes. ‘When you fish with it, you fish with the love of whoever gave it to you. It becomes infused with memories . . . .’

Angling literature boasts many fine accounts of the piscatorial dynamic between fathers and sons. There are far fewer examples of stories and books celebrating fathers and daughters, which makes Reading the Water as unique as it is exceptional. Readers come to know Emma and Claire as individuals as they acquire not only the methods and techniques, but the ecological aesthetic informing fly fishing. Both learn well from their father, eventually becoming accomplished anglers who cast in time to their own individual rhythms. Following their dad’s example, they attain a ‘higher level of understanding’ after falling under the spell of tying their own flies.

Much has been made of fly fishing’s therapeutic qualities—and deservedly so. Various recovery programs confirm how military veterans and first responders, as well as cancer survivors, benefit from its healing powers. Less acknowledged, however, are the restorative powers of fly fishing in coping with less violent forms of trauma including such common experiences as loss, sorrow and remorse. After all, grief is grief.

Hume discovered that casting a fly line was an efficacious way of dealing with the emotional challenge of his parents’ divorce, including the isolation of his mother and the estrangement of his father. He spent many years in search of surrogate father figures who he found through fly fishing including Haig-Brown and Father Charles Brandt, a trained ornithologist and former Trappist monk who was ordained as a hermit priest while living a half century on the Oyster River. More recently fly fishing played a significant role in Hume’s recovery from prostate cancer.

Although I have read most of Hume’s books and some of his newspaper articles, we have never met. Still, while reading his memoir, I felt like we were sharing the same stretch of holy water, not because of the activity but because of how we view it as a spiritual practice. Although religious sustenance ‘for some is revealed in a bible . . . for others it lies in the cast fly, or in the eye of a fish cradled in their hands,’ Hume offers. ‘In such moments it is possible to experience a meditative state, to reenter the natural world, to understand again how the earth dreams. And that is worth knowing, worth teaching.’

To declare his assertion of faith, Hume has given fly anglers and non-fly anglers alike Reading the Water so they might make up their own minds. All I can say is: Amen.

This book review was written originally for Classic Angling, Great Britain’s premium fishing journal.

Angling Arts

Book Review: Headwaters

by Dylan Tomine
Patagonia Books
256 pages

Call me a crank with a tender tummy, but destination angling memoirs make me queasy. It’s not because I lack a bulging bank account or connections with gear manufacturers and tackle retailers. Nor is it my lack of media credentials to fulfill a tacit quid-pro-quo contract of complementary travel, accommodation and angling access in return for glowing advertorial reportage aimed at anglers with deep pockets. After all, the monetization and commercialization of angling has been around for a while. Still, the thought of the last wild game fisheries becoming celebrity playgrounds for the rich and famous saddens me beyond words.

My squeamishness is not limited to ethics, honed over four decades as a newspaperman when so-called ‘freebies’ and chequebook journalism were condemned. I simply have no interest in tourist accounts that exploit cliches and stereotypes, punctuated with a few obsequious details in the name of local colour. I don’t need to have preconceptions confirmed by cursory observations in the field. After all, when an angling scribe gains exclusive access to a desirable fishing destination—invariably located in one of the few remaining wild places on our beleaguered planet—a reader usually gets what he expects: spectacular fishing amidst spectacular scenery, complete with obligatory rustic inconvenience serving as humorous foil, charmingly eccentric guides and, last but not least, delicious local cuisine and beverages served after an unforgettable day on waters that have never seen an artificial fly.

Despite these reservations, there are a few writers who circumvent the globe in search of angling adventure and exotica who I find irresistible, for two essential reasons. First, they pierce the superficial and obvious with insight, sympathy and precision, guiding a reader to what D. H. Lawrence called ‘the spirit of place’. Second, they write beautifully, what Hemingway termed ‘grace under pressure.’ Some of the writers I have in mind include Thomas McGuane (The Longest Silence), Philip Caputo (In the Shadows of the Morning), David Profumo (The Lightning Thread) and Charles Rangeley-Wilson (Somewhere Else and The Accidental Angler).

To this select company I would add Dylan Tomine on the strength of his accomplished sophomore memoir Headwaters. Subtitled The Adventures, Obsession and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman, it follows his earlier memoir, Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table. He was born, raised and continues to reside in the American Pacific Northwest while devoting his life to outdoor pursuits. Formerly a fly fishing guide, he’s a conservation advocate and trustee with The Wild Steelhead Coalition, a documentary film producer (Artifishal, DamNation and Chrome) and a freelance writer (The Flyfish Journal, Fly Fisherman, Fish & Fly, Wild on the Fly, Adventure Journal, The Drake and New York Times).

Comprised for the most part of previously published magazine articles and arranged chronologically, Headwaters boasts a rich brocade of narrative threads: one chronicles angling adventures in far-flung places including the Russian Arctic, Argentine Patagonia, Christmas Island, Outer Banks, Japan, Cuba, Alaska and British Columbia; the other traces experiences closer to home, where his angling ‘affliction’ began in childhood on the Skykomish River and has been sustained through adulthood. For as he writes, ‘Fishing was never a sport, a pastime or hobby. It was, and continues to be, who I am.’

Dylan Tomine

A self-confessed ‘steelhead bum,’ Tomine also fishes with equal enthusiasm for various freshwater game fish including trout, salmon and bass, in addition to numerous saltwater species. Tying these narrative threads together are sundry illustrations of pencil drawings by Frances B. Ashforth and brief diary entries tracing his growth from obsessive and fanatical angler to conscientious and enlightened angler as he introduces his son and daughter to the activity that has shaped, and continues to define, their father. These are not gratuitous character sketches to flesh out the memoir, but rather reveal the quality and nature of the person casting the fly rod, thus enriching and enhancing a reader’s appreciation of Headwaters.

Tomine gained my respect by acknowledging that his globe-trotting adventures came in part by virtue of his being a fly fishing ambassador for Patagonia. His incredulous response to good fortune, not to mention modesty and self-deprecating humour, made it easy for me to accompany him on his travels as he eloquently examines the good, the bad and the ugly. Likewise I eagerly succumbed to his intoxicating prose:

Why, as several friends have asked, would anyone want to travel so far to fish a huge river in a place famous for wind, for fish that aren’t necessarily any bigger or more numerous than you find somewhere closer to home.

Why, indeed? Any angler worthy of the title would applaud his answer:

Maybe it’s because the Rio Santa Cruz is an adventure unlike any other in fly fishing, with an opportunity to pioneer a section of river that’s hardly been fished, in a breathtakingly isolated setting. There are literally hundreds of runs and pools on this river that remain untouched, and it would take a lifetime to fish and name them all. Or it could be the fish themselves, a unique run of introduced wild Atlantic steelhead that are just now in the process of evolving and filling their niche.

Considering my reservations about travelogue angling memoirs, it should come as no surprise that the essays I most admire are ones devoted to Tomine’s home waters, which reside in his heart, if not his soul, because they are native grounds to dramatically declining populations of wild steelhead. The intimacy and deep affection with which he describes these waters and their native fish is matched by the passion, knowledge and eloquence with which he defends them against ‘the same old man-can-do-better-than-Mother Nature hubris.’

His anger is palpable when he deplores the arrogance and vanity that fuels ‘the mistaken idea that we (can) somehow, in the face of all our habitat destruction, engineer our way to abundant trout and salmon.’ As our endangered planet suffers the consequences of climate change, extreme weather, over-fishing, mismanaged fish stocking, toxic salmon farming, migration of invasive species and construction of dams, Headwaters becomes essential reading for all who cast pole or rod, a reminder that angling is an imaginative act, an ethical practice, an imperative of conscience, an obligation of stewardship. As such, his first-hand account, accumulated over many years, is a compelling companion to Tucker Malarkey’s Stronghold, which examines the Pacific Rim wild salmon fishery.

When an angling writer turns his pen (or keyboard) to the possible extinction of wild native fish, a solemn patina is unavoidable. Tomine is no exception as his memoir deepens and grows richer, sadder and more poignant, approaching requiem, if not eulogy—a remembrance of things as they once were and are unlikely to be again.

This book review was written originally for Classic Angling, Great Britain’s premium fishing journal.

Angling Arts

Book Review: The Magic of Fishing

The Magic of Fishing
By John Moorwood
Great Northern Books
238 pages

As a newspaperman for four decades, I shared many a pint with colleagues who waxed poetic about writing books—you know, something they would toss off during idle hours in the unspecified future. Seems copious libation makes writers of us all. While most never got around to it, a few did, with mixed results. Many anglers cast comparable dreams of turning memorable fish into memorable words.

In the preface of The Magic of Fishing, English writer John Moorwood confides that he had always wanted to write a book to ‘celebrate my lifelong passion for fishing.’ He didn’t get around to it for many years because of ‘other priorities, like sleeping.’ We’ve all been there. However, count me as one of many readers delighted that he finally put pen to paper (or sat down at the keyboard).

The Magic of Fishing is aptly titled, for as Moorwood explains: ‘Magic is one of the few words that does justice to the sheer joy of one of the Earth’s most popular and ancient pastimes.’ Few anglers determined ‘to lose oneself in the landscape’ and ‘connect with something hidden and unpredictable’ would disagree.

The memoir echoes with the cadences of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The first part is a portrait of the angler as a young man, equal parts coming-of-age story and angling apprenticeship chronicle.

Fishing stories are often built on a foundation of nostalgia. Moorwood is no exception. As a young lad he was fortunate to have a mentor to serve as guide, instructor, confidante and companion. He acknowledges his good fortune in the person of his kind, patient, loving grandfather who was wise enough to extend his teachings beyond the how, when and where to include the more elusive whys and wherefores. A reader can feel the deep affection shared between the generations in the following passage: ‘Everything was glowing with an early evening radiance, including Granddad’s face as he handed me a packet of hooks before returning to his basket to light his pipe.’

Moorwood also understands that sympathy is the line that binds angling friendships. While fishing is by nature a solitary, private activity, it’s enriched through fellowship with other like-minded people. He invites readers to join in the camaraderie and congeniality offered by a couple of fishing organizations: first, the Dronfield Woodhouse Sports and Social Club in his birthplace of Sheffield; later, the Woking and District Angling Association after he moved south to work in Surrey.

John Moorwood

The second part of this charming ‘ode to angling’ follows the author as he negotiates the vicissitudes of carving out a career (with its inevitable ups and downs, successes and setbacks) while becoming a husband (twice over) and a father. Fate arrives as an unexpected guest to many anglers. It so happens a couple of periods of unplanned unemployment not only rekindled Moorwood’s love of fishing, they gave him time to reflect upon and to record his experiences on the water, spanning nearly half a century.

Readers accompany Moorwood as he fishes numerous rivers, lakes and reservoirs including the River Trent as a youth and the River Wey as an adult. Although I’m not keen on fishing competitions of any kind, my bias didn’t prevent me from pulling for him as he competes in ‘match fishing’ and develops a taste for ’specimen hunting.’

I remained at his side with every cast as he observes: ‘Fishing always inspires hope — a lovely, uncertain yet wishful belief that today might just be the day. And while I have no doubt that golfers, rugby fans and keen flower arrangers can wake up and pray for a perfect sequence of events, I’m less sure they can touch the all-consuming anticipation of a young angler.’ The only thing I might add is that any angler devoted to the recreation is forever young.

The Magic of Fishing should appeal to anyone bitten by the piscatorial bug, irrespective of age, background or experience. Moorwood reminds me of the sleepless nights I suffered as a child as I eagerly anticipated a morning on the water (or, being Canadian, on the ice with a hockey stick instead of a rod). Although I’ve never visited England, I identify with his experience because the emotions and feelings he evokes transcend time and place, geography and landscape.

Similarly it didn’t matter that I’m a committed fly angler who fishes primarily for trout, steelhead and bass, while Moorwood is a bait fisherman who fishes primarily for ‘course fish.’ Although I’m an uncompromising purist when it comes to single malt whisky—neat or, when necessary to enhance its essentials, a drop of spring water—when it comes to fishing I believe purity is not only overrated but a divisive encumbrance. For example, while I was thrilled when my eldest son, Dylan, retired his spinning rod for a fly rod, I urged him to fish whenever and wherever he could, with many different anglers regardless of gear or tackle, as a means of learning as much about the ways of water, fish and angling as possible. So it didn’t surprise me that I would connect sympathetically with Moorwood because he was able to articulate the essentials that define the practice of fishing with such clarity, lucidity and precision.

A Sheffield-born communications director who lives in Surrey, Moorwood is not a prose stylist in the narrative current of fellow Brits Chris Yates (a writer he admires), Luke Jennings or Charles Rangeley-Wilson. His approach is more prosaic than literary, in keeping with his professional background. This isn’t a value judgment, just an observation.

Fishing in all its myriad forms and methods is not an escape, as many non-anglers mistakenly assume. Rather it offers a means of engaging with life. The mystery of water, fish and angling provide a pathway to the more inscrutable mysteries of life. Moorwood writes affectionately of extended family, encompassing grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses and children, as he does about friends, colleagues and angling companions, both peers and elders. He celebrates the joy and happiness that blossom from the seedbed of love.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.’ This certainly applies to stories about fishing. This truth is based on the fact that sooner or later all anglers, even those who pledge allegiance to catch-and-release, confront death through the very act of fishing. Accordingly Moorwood mourns the loss that accompanies separation and death with deep feeling and eloquence.

What I appreciate most about The Magic of Fishing is its implicit understanding that fishing provides the solace and the space (emotional, mental, spiritual) necessary to coming to terms with grief, one life’s great challenges. Like the finest angling literature, the memoir is rubbed with a soft elegiac gloss that persists without overwhelming. At one point he confides ‘fishing saved me.’ I know from personal experience that this gift can be true.

I’m reluctant to end on a sour note. Still, while I was pleased Moorwood visited Ontario, my home for most of my seventy-plus years, I can assure readers there are no ‘snow-capped mountains’ in the province, as he attests. I suspect he observed the Niagara Escarpment when he fished the Beaver River. Also, while steelhead are indeed ‘a hard-fighting cousin of the brown trout,’ it might have been more helpful for British readers to know they are migratory rainbow trout.

This book review was written originally for Classic Angling, Great Britain’s premium fishing journal.

Angling Arts

Creative Partners & Angling Companions

A person doesn’t have to peer through the lens of hindsight to see it was inevitable that Wesley Bates and I would work together—someday. Call it fate or destiny, luck or fortune or even synchronicity, one thing is clear: it was neither coincidence nor accident that Casting into Mystery came into being. That’s my story and I’m confident Wes agrees.

I first met Wes in 2001 after he was appointed artist-in-residence at Joseph Schneider Haus, a historical museum in Kitchener, Ontario. I was an arts reporter on the local newspaper and, because I interviewed him and examined the exhibition that comprised a mid-career overview, I knew something he had no way of perceiving. We were creative trout swimming in parallel currents.

I liked Wes immediately. Warm and self-deprecating, modest and articulate, he talked insightfully not only about his engraving method and process, but about the tradition out of which his practice evolved. Although he is adept with brush and pencil, his reputation rests primarily as a master wood engraver. He revealed none of the hesitancy about inspiration and influence, interpretation and meaning that was fashionable among many of the artists I was writing about at the time.

Of course Wes knew nothing about me. However, I was able to determine from his work and his thoughtful answers to my questions that we shared an interest in many of the same things which reflected compatible sensibilities and tastes, attitudes and values. I was not surprised to learn later that we were carved by common experiences.

Wes (left) and Rob Gearing Up

Despite the objections of modern critical theory concerning ‘biographical fallacy,’ a lifelong study of the arts has taught me that it’s impossible to separate the artist from the art. I have come to know Wes well enough to assert that his art extends from the man and the experiences that shaped him. Were Wes not the artist he is, there would have been insufficient compost for a creative partnership to grow into companionship and fellowship between us.

We are baby boomers born a year apart. Our hairlines have enjoyed fuller days and we are troubled by some of the same medical maladies including finicky hearts and insomnia. Our politics and social values are sympathetic, leaning progressively to the left.

Our fathers were career public servants—Wes’s dad was a Mountie, my dad a firefighter. We both graduated from small liberal arts universities located in smaller communities—Wes graduated from Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick and I graduated from Trent in Peterborough, Ontario. I, too, lived in New Brunswick while attending graduate school.

Although we have lived in many villages, towns and cities throughout our lives, we have always been drawn to rural and wilderness areas. Born in the Yukon, Wes was raised on the Prairies (including the same town celebrated in Wallace Stegner’s masterwork Wolf Willow). He lived in Hamilton before moving to Clifford, Ontario, in the area of the headwaters of the Saugeen River, where we fly fish for trout and enjoy a dram of malt whisky on the riverbank as eventide falls like a comfortable blanket beneath a frieze of bejeweled stars. I was born in London and worked in Strathroy, St. Thomas, Timmins, Simcoe and Brantford before landing in Waterloo (where I have lived in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo).

We look back on comparable early jobs. Wes paid the bills as a bartender and I lugged suitcases as a hotel bell hop. Later we toiled in manufacturing settings. We both worked for newspapers—me as a full-time reporter and Wes as a freelance graphic artist and cartoonist before he assumed the risk and uncertainty—not to mention freedom—of balancing a commercial art business with an independent Letterpress studio and gallery. In 1980 he founded West Meadow Press.

On the commercial side, he has completed commissions for mainstream publishers, engraving images for books by such prominent Canadian writers as Stephen Leacock, W.O. Mitchell, Timothy Findley, Stuart McLean, Don McKay and Dan Needles, among others. On the boutique side, he has published limited edition books including broadsides and artists’ books. He also wrote two illustrated books–The Point of the Engraver and In Black & White: A Wood Engraver’s Odyssey–about his career as a wood engraver. Out of the Dark, his latest book of engravings, is published by Porcupine’s Quill which released Casting in the spring of 2002.

Wes and I have both been married twice, our second wives are/were younger and creative—mine a graphic artist and Wes’s wife, Juanita, a songwriter, vocalist and musician. Wes and I love acoustic roots music as listeners and musicians. Wes plays bouzouki in a band and I play guitar as a respite from the world’s troubling vagaries. We even have the same ‘fashion’ sense. Our closets are interchangeable with brushed-cotton shirts in natural colours; pants of denim, corduroy or khaki; and brown loafers.

Wes’s primary artistic expression is visual, even though he is a fine prose writer. Still I relate to what I view as essentially a literary sensibility. The influence of literature runs deep in his work, from European commedia dell’arte to the British rural tradition of writing and visual art.

Wes’s reading is board and deep. Our personal libraries contain similar kinds of books: art history, literature, nature writing, poetry, essay collections and fly fishing memoirs. Many are the very same books. There’s as many books in Wes’s studio as art supplies and engraving tools, along with Challenge Proof printing press, thirty typefaces, Guillotine paper cutter and trim saw (for cutting wood blocks). We collect books with the enthusiasm of schoolboys trading hockey cards.

I believe creative people fall within two camps: early risers and midnight riders. Wes and I are creative nighthawks. I picture him working into the wee hours, wholly in the present. As the world contracts, distractions recede as the edge of darkness lengths.

In my imagination I picture him nestled in his studio behind the storefront galley in a historic two-storey on Clifford’s main street. He’s hunched over the leather engraving pad placed on his cluttered desk. A vintage snake-neck lamp shines directly from overhead. With burin in his left hand, he carves the end-grain of hard maple, establishing a direct connective tissue among creative imagination, optic nerve and dexterous left hand. (He could just as easily be an angler sitting at a vise tying an artificial fly.) Acoustic music is playing softly in the background, offering a semblance of company.

After first meeting, Wes and I remained in contact intermittently through email for about fifteen years. I had purchased one of his engravings of a fly fisherman landing a trout in a pastoral setting combined with an engraving of an artificial fly. And I hoped my interest would spur him to engrave more images based on fly angling themes. He told me he was slowly, painstakingly developing a graphic story combining fly fishing with ecological themes. I was unsure whether fly fishing was a visual trope in a rural tradition or whether it was something in which he actively participated.

At some point I visited Wes and Juanita to write a newspaper profile on her in anticipation of a concert she was giving in Kitchener. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that acquaintanceship grew into friendship.

The previous year I had started a blog about fly fishing and other passions in response to my retirement from four decades of newspaper work. After some time I began fantasizing about publishing a memoir or essay collection. I had a specific format in mind—an organic blend of text and image that would complement one another like current seams in a river. This led naturally to thinking about the possibility of working with Wes.

The seeds of Casting into Mystery were sown when I met up with Wes and Juanita in Waterloo. I had suggested to the co-owner of Princess Cinemas to invite Wes to the screening of Look & See, a documentary on the life, writing and influence of Wendell Berry. Wes had not only engraved images for a number of the celebrated American agrarian writer’s books, he actually appears in the film. He even designed the movie poster.

After the screening we adjourned to a nearby brewery pub. Between sips to wet our whistles, Wes asked if I would consider working together on a book devoted to fly fishing. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was contemplating the exact creative partnership I had envisioned.

Wes told me he had cast the idea at a couple of other writers without success. Moreover, I was delighted to learn that he was a lapsed fly angler who had taken up the contemplative recreation many years earlier when he and his dad canoed the lakes of interior British Columbia. He confirmed with no small measure of pride that he still possessed the fly rod his parents gave him as a Christmas gift.

Our intent and working method quickly and effortlessly took shape. We agreed our approach would be somewhat unique, resembling two fly anglers in a canoe, paddling together but casting independently from bow and stern. We knew instinctively it was about finding a synchronized creative rhythm. Wes’s engravings would not be conventional illustrations; rather they would comprise a graphic narrative that enhanced and enriched the prose narrative.

Wes with Headwater Rainbow

Although we worked separately, we cast our sympathetic imaginations into the same creative pool. Most of our informal book talk took place when we got together to toss fur and feather. We fished my home water (tailwater of the Grand River) and Wes’s home water (headwater of the Saugeen).

We exchanged ideas in support of our piscatorial project as we drove together to our river destination, shared stretches of water and toasted the poetry of rivers and the grace of trout over a dram or two or three. We took deep delight in sharing the very experience we were celebrating through word and image in Casting into Mystery.

Wes and I approach fly fishing much as we approach artmaking. We don’t treat the contemplative recreation as a form of aquatic calisthenics. Rather, we take our time, preferring a systematic rather than haphazard technique. Wes fishes through the eyes of an artist, as I fish through the eyes of a writer. Both are aware of the contours of rivers, trees and plants, birds and animals, and clouds swimming high amidst the currents of air.

We share the principle that catching fish isn’t the primary objective. However, just because we are not competitive doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the sweet joy of catching fish. We do. The more the better. Still, when we wade a river we enter a sanctum sanctorum that inspires us to reflect on the essence of things and to give thanks to our place in the world of nature.

It is enough to be wholly in the present, embraced as we are in the tender arms of mystery, for which we feel profound gratitude.

I don’t know whether writing and engraving share qualities with fly fishing or whether fly fishing shares qualities with writing and engraving. I suspect it’s a creative river that flows both ways, like the river in The Diviners, Margaret Laurence’s last novel. This I know. Writing has taught me to be a better and more appreciative fly angler, as fly angling has taught me to be a better and more appreciative writer. I won’t speak for Wes; but I bet my cherished Sweetgrass bamboo fly rod he acknowledges the same about fly angling and engraving.

Those who would like to read more about Wesley Bates can check out Carving Towards the Light, an essay I first wrote in 2001 and revised for my blog in 2017.

Angling Arts

Rivers, Canoes & Fly Fishing

To my way of thinking, and imagining, the canoe is intimately connected to my deep love of fresh water—streams, rivers and lakes—and fly fishing. When fishing large rivers or lakes, a canoe is a fly anglers best companion—with apologies to kayaks, float tubes and inflatable pontoons.

The canoe has paddled its way into the Canadian heart, imagination and psyche. I cannot imagine the Great White North sans canoe. Its deep roots penetrate the cultural, recreational, spiritual and mythic bedrock of the country and, consequently, remain a central element of history and geography, heritage and legacy, character and identity. It is not an exaggeration to refer to this vast country as Land of the Canoe.

The canoe is more than an effective means of transportation—a harmonious blend of form and function, design and craft, beauty and utility—ideally adapted to the landscape. It played a critical role in nation building by shaping the country through exploration and settlement, trade and commerce, war and recreation, sport and art.

It links First Nations people with European pioneers. Once a means of survival, it is now a tool of pleasure and relaxation, adventure and solitude. In extreme whitewater forms, it is an adrenaline rush of high emotion that sends heartbeats and metabolisms racing—infectious and obsessive, if not addictive.

Those who glance at a map of southwestern Ontario might conclude, erroneously, that Waterloo Region neither hears nor heeds the call of either the canoe or the fly rod. Situated equidistantly between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, the region appears landlocked and water starved.

A closer look reveals a different topography. As the Psalmist writes, its cup runneth over. The historic, heritage Grand River—my home water—has a watershed boasting myriad navigable tributaries and reservoirs. The Conestogo River joins the Grand at the village of Conestogo just north of Waterloo. The Eramosa River joins the Speed River in Guelph. The Speed River joins the Grand in Cambridge. The Nith River and Whiteman’s Creek join the Grand in Paris.

The Grand River Conservation Authority owns and manages no fewer than seven dams and reservoirs including: Shand Dam (built 1942), Luther Dam (1952), Conestoga Dam (1958), Laurel Dam (1968), Shade’s Mill Dam (1973), Woolwich Dam (1974) and Guelph Dam (1976)

Then there are the many rivers no more than a couple hours’ drive from my home in Waterloo: Maitland, Saugeen (main as well as Beatty and Rocky), Bighead, Nottawasaga, Beaver, Sydenham, Credit, Humber, Avon, Ausable and Thames, not to mention their numerous tributaries. Southwestern Ontario might not be Algonquin Park, Kawartha Lakes, Muskoka, Haliburton, Algoma or North of Superior, but it is far from an arid wasteland—for both canoeist and fly angler.

Waterloo Region and surrounding area have outfitting rentals and retailers, tackle stores, fly shops, guides, instructors, manufacturers of custom canoes and personal flotation devices (which used to be called lifejackets) and clubs, not to mention writers and artists associated with all things canoe and and fly fishing. For a number of years the region has played host to the KW Canoe Symposium, an annual celebration of the canoe. Princess Cinemas, the region’s premiere independent cinema, has presented for a number of years both the annual Paddling Film Festival and International Fly Fishing Film Festival.

Canoeing and fly fishing are two of the most intimate ways of learning about the character and personality, texture and tone, mood and atmosphere of a lake or a river. When it is not possible to be on the water, an armchair can be a place of understanding and appreciation so long as the angler or canoeist sitting in the chair has a book in hand–and perhaps a dram of malt whisky within reach. I have come to know the Grand River through paddle and fly rod. I have also learned about my home water through books spanning a wide range of subjects, expressed through prose, poetry and image. Following are four books that have meant the most to me, in addition to books about other places that speak to me with singular eloquence.

The Grand River

Because of my deep affection for the Grand River I am especially fond of The Grand River, a book of text and image produced by the brother-and-sister creative partnership of artist Gerard Brender à Brandis and writer Marianne Brandis, both of whom live in Stratford, Ontario.

Designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1984, the Grand courses through three hundred kilometres of southwestern Ontario from Luther Marsh in the highlands of Dufferin County, to Port Maitland on the north shore of Lake Erie. The river connects some of the province’s most alluring ecosystems, from the Elora Gorge to one of the country’s few Carolinian forests.

The Grand River

The river has also played a vital role in the area’s history, extending back 11,000 years to when indigenous people settled along its banks, through colonization by European missionaries, religious outcasts, refugees, military, disinherited farmers in search of land, labourers in search of jobs and settlers in search of homes. Formed when the last glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, the Grand continues as a significant player in a post-industrial, multinational and transglobal landscape that supports a million residents in 40 municipalities.

Subtitled Dundalk to Lake Erie, The Grand River celebrates the waterway’s many moods, textures and colours. The creative travelogue is anchored by fifty-eight highly stylized wood engravings, accompanied by a series of short, meditative essays.

Marianne Brandis ruminates on the notion of riverness before exploring the river’s geography, history and ecology. She recalls some of the influential people who set down roots in the watershed, and examines various preservation and remediation strategies. Her narrative is a fusion of convergences, connections and conversations between history and geography, country and city, agriculture and industry, recreation and labour.

Gerard Brender à Brandis’s images combine numerous portraits of the river with images of flora and historical architecture, from the covered bridge at West Montrose and William Lyon Mackenzie King’s childhood home at Woodside in Kitchener, to the Alexander Graham Bell Homestead in Brantford.

The river portraits are self-explanatory, reflected through their titles: A Shining Ribbon of Water, Bankside, Fields Sloping to the River, The River Silenced by Winter, Spring Thaw Luther Marsh, Lake Belwood, Eroded Rocks Near Fergus, Elora Gorge, Near Inverhaugh, Remnants of a Bridge and Grand River at Doon, among others. I have canoed and fly fished at many of these locales.

Although the images are representational, serving as historical documentation, the engraver’s concerns are not restricted to verisimilitude. He carves his images in his cottage studio from en plein air sketches. The process of transformation from drawing to engraving entails innumerable aesthetic decisions. No line is left to chance. The prints are meticulously detailed, even delicate, revealing what I can best describe as an old-world pastoral sensibility. While static, many convey a sense of movement, whether flowing water, rustling leaves or clouds in breezy skies.

While turning the pages of The Grand River readers accompany brother and sister, artist and writer, on a leisurely journey through the seasons from the Grand’s headwaters to its mouth. Past and present meet at the river, representing the flow of time, the life cycle of those who lived along its banks and the timelessness of art and story.


Subtitled A Folk Ecology, The Grand River Watershed is a collection of ecologically based poetry written by Karen Houle, a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph. She has published two previous poetry collections, Ballast (1995) and During (2000).

The Grand River Watershed

Following in a tradition that includes such eco-poets as American Gary Snyder and fellow Canadian Don McKay, Karen Houle transcends the languages of science (geology, entomology, anthropology, archeology, biology, ecology, botany) and humanities (geography, history, philosophy, journalism) to offer a rich postmodern poetry that celebrates the relationship between natural history and metamorphosis, ecology and transformation.

Those who think they already know the Grand by walking its riverside trails, canoeing its aquatic paths or casting fur and feather at its species of gamefish will be delightfully surprised to see with new vision through Karen Houle’s mysterious poetic lens.

Her poems are not always easy and accessible; they remind us of the adventure of exploration. Her Grand River is a complex web of relationships, of which humanity is but one of many pieces in a dynamic puzzle of animate and inanimate pieces.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

All aquatic ecosystems have their secrets. I believe rivers are the most reticent and taciturn of all, which contribute to their engaging intrigue. Unlocking their secrets takes time, determination and effort, whether walking, wading or paddling or any combination of the three. Fly fishing is simply the most direct, most immediate key.

Learning about the Grand River—which I consider my home water even while preferring other headwater trout rivers–has been a work in progress, sometimes frustrating, at other times rewarding, not always satisfying but always pleasurable.

I have a confession to make. While the vast majority of fly fishing books are in one way or another instructional, intended to show how to practice the recreational sport, I have sought, and found, enrichment and enlargement primarily in other types of books. My personal library brims with some of the best technique/method manuals written by some of the most esteemed fly anglers in the last half century, a veritable Who’s Who: Joe Brooks, Ray Bergman, Lefty Kreh, Vincent Marinaro, A. J. McClane and Charles Waterman, among others. Still, in the still quiet hours of contemplation and reflection, I turn to the storytellers, whether they express themselves through creative non-fiction, memoir, short story, novel or poetry. Their names are too many to name here.

Nonetheless, I have been fortunate to find a couple of guides who have written books that have helped me solve some of the Grand’s most guarded secrets. They have not always given me the answers I sought, but they have always pointed me toward the right questions. I am also delighted to call them friends. I cannot imagine any fly angler who wants to enjoy a level of the enjoyment that accompanies success without seeking advice from this pair of Grand River Companions.

Fishing Ontario’s Grand River Country

The second edition of Fishing Ontario’s Grand River Country provides a thumb-nail history of the Heritage river and outlines the Grand River Fisheries Management Plan. Revised, updated and edited by Stephen May, the new volume supersedes the original, published in 1990. The earlier book, written by Liz Leedham with Jim Reid, sold out a number of years ago.

Few authors are better suited to write about the multi-species fishery. A member of KW Flyfishers, Steve May served as both a Stewardship Coordinator in Waterloo Region and as an urban fisheries technician for the Ontario natural resources ministry. He is a former professional guide and instructor with Grand River Troutfitters and remains a contract fly tier for Orvis.

Fly Fishing Ontario’s Grand River

Early in his professional angling career he produced Bob Izumi’s Real Fishing, Canada’s longest running angling television show. He has published articles in Canadian and International fly fishing publications including Canadian Fly Fisher, Fly Fisherman and Fly Fusion.

The book breaks down sections of the river, from its headwaters in Luther Marsh through its mouth on the north shore of Lake Erie, in addition to its tributaries. It serves as an invaluable guide to fishing all gamefish species including hatchery raised brown trout, and native smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, perch, crappie, channel catfish and carp.
The book includes a new hatch chart and more detailed text in recognition of the increase of hatchery raised brown trout in the tailwater and the introduction of browns in the Conestogo River. ‘We weren’t stocking browns in the Conestogo River twenty years ago, walleye have improved in the reservoirs (Belwood and Conestoga lakes) and smallmouth bass have improved in the middle and lower sections of the Grand,’ Steve May confirms.

With a forward by Bob Izumi, the book brims with coloured photographs and includes seven maps detailing public access points and conservation areas.

Fly Fishing the Grand River

The husband-and-wife team of Ian Martin and Jane E. Rutherford share a love of fly fishing with a professional interest in aquatic insects. Fly anglers who fish the Grand River—myself included—are deeply grateful for their co-authorship of Fly Fishing the Grand River. Subtitled The Angler’s Vest Pocket Guide—in the tradition of such books as Art Flick’s Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations and Thomas Ames Jr.’s Hatch Guide for New England Streams—I am happy to call it the ‘Grand River Bug Bible.’

A founding member of KW Flyfishers, Ian Martin is an environmental biology and statistical consultant, while Jane Rutherford is a retired biology professor who taught at Wilfred Laurier University. They live atop a high limestone cliff overlooking the Grand tailwater and enjoy additional piscatorial solace in a modest salmon camp in Quebec.

Fly Fishing the Grand River

They spent five years researching insects and other invertebrates in the tailwater’s renowned brown trout fishery in preparation for Fly Fishing the Grand River.

The guide contains comprehensive information about the insects that inhabit the river, concentrating on hatching cycles. It features black, actual-size silhouette drawings (think of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides to birds), colour photographs, hatch charts, fly tying strategies, bibliography and topographical map. It also offers practical on-river knowledge and advice gleaned from fly fishing the Grand, and many other rivers, for many years.

Fly Fishing the Grand River is a little book with encyclopedic gravitas. It is a must-have guide for anglers who fish southwestern Ontario waters who share insects and hatches with the Grand. The book benefits from the contributions of some of the Grand’s most accomplished fly anglers including Neil Houlding, Ted Shand and Dave Whalley, among others.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

River-Places is one of Waterloo Region’s most handsome locally produced books about canoes and paddling craft, featuring poems by Bruce Lumsden and serigraphs by David Hunsberger, both of whom live in Waterloo Region. Both have been enthusiastic naturalists and canoeists for many years.

Bruce Lumsden’s poetry is direct and immediate. It is accessible lyric storytelling; a reader does not need an English degree to understand and appreciate it. He welcomes readers on an emblematic canoe trip which is a memory composite of many trips over many years. We join him as he heads north by car and leaves the ‘quite desperation’ of civilized society in the rearview mirror.


Readers accompany the poet and his companions after they hit the water, set up camp and enjoy a meal around the campfire, run rapids and wash out, portage and backpack, eventually returning home refreshed and restored. We share in the daily rituals and camaraderie that give deeper meaning to wilderness travel and exploration. We experience nature through the poet’s experience—from dawn to dusk to dawn, in all weathers. Occasionally he expresses thoughts and feelings that transcend the existential rituals of paddle and canoe.

David Hunsberger’s serigraphs are not inspired by specific poems. Rather the relationship between word and image is developed sympathetically and symbiotically. The highly stylized prints give readers a concentrated, intimate look at nature—its waters and shorelines, trees and plants, rocks and skies, not to mention the play of light and shadow that animates a world alive with wonder and mystery.

Reminiscent of the paintings of Tom Thomson, an obvious mentor to both poet and printmaker, David Hunsberger’s perspective on the landscape comes most often from the stern of a canoe while tracing the shoreline on a river or lake.

the river

A number of Canadian authors have written about rivers, from Hugh MacLennan (The Rivers of Canada) and Roderick Haig-Brown (Pool and Rapid: the Story of a River and A River Never Sleeps) to David Adams Richards (Lines on the Water) and Roy MacGregor (Original Highways). Subtitled Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada, MacGregor’s book includes a chapter on the Grand River titled ‘Return to Splendour’

Whether these works portray a single river or survey numerous rivers, the bodies of water are presented not only as settings, but as characters with personalities and temperaments. One of the most intimate portraits of a river with which I am familiar is Helen Humphreys’s the river (no capitals in title).

Rivers flow through her imagination like arteries through her body. She first waded into the prose of rivers with The Frozen Thames, a collection of vignettes that pays tribute to England’s famous river drawn from events that occurred each time it froze over between 1142 and 1895.

With the river Helen Humphreys paddles—imaginatively speaking—closer to home. For more than a decade she has owned a modest waterfront property on the headwaters of the Napanee River, in eastern Ontario not far from her home in Kingston.

With the eye of a visual artist, the lyric gifts of a poet (she has published four collections), the curiosity of a Victorian naturalist (many of her seven novels feature historical settings in her birthplace of England) and the attention to detail of a biologist, she celebrates the body of water that is closest to her heart and imagination—some readers might go so far as to say her soul.

the river

The book is equal parts natural history, biology, botany, geology, history, anthropology, geography, archeology, meteorology and historical fiction inspired by actual people and events. The literary miscellany incorporates fictional and non-fictional narrative, poetry, archival photographs and illustrations, paintings, drawings, maps, lists, found objects and featured photographs. It brings to mind the kind of minutiae and paraphernalia found in an artist’s notebook. Fly angling historians might draw comparisons to Muriel Foster’s Fishing Diary, compiled and illustrated between 1913-1949, and first published in Britain by Michael Joseph Ltd., in 1980.

This is nature filtered through the lens of culture, where ecology and philosophy intersect with art through poetic description and meditation. the river is a tactile, sensuous book that appeals to the senses, evoking the sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of the river and its immediate environs. Day and night, subsurface and surface, aquatic and terrestrial, flora and fauna meet at the convergence of water, earth and sky.

In her introduction Helen Humphreys asks: ‘How can we know anyone or anything?’ This beautiful book answers her rhetorical question with eloquence and elegance. For, as romantically anachronistic as it might sound, the river is a love letter to a watercourse that is as intimate and welcoming as home and family. It is a reminder that we must never grow weary of, or jaded by, such deep affection for our Good Green Earth and the intricate dynamism of all living things.

Angling Arts

A River Runs Through Tom

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.

The Fisherman (collection of the Edmonton Art Gallery)

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.

Tom tying on a spoon, often misidentified as a fly

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.

Unidentified Mystery Lady

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?

Tom Fly fishing at Tea Lake Dam

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.

The Incomplete Anglers

‘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.

Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years

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).

Algonquin Story

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 107.
  10. 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.
  11. 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).
  12. 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.
  13. Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Toronto: House of Anansi Press 1971), p. 200.
  14. 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.
  15. Roy McGreg, Northern Light (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2010), p. 16.
  16. Ibid., p. 302.
  17. Ibid., 302.
  18. 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
  19. 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 . . . .’
  20. Ibid., p. 302.
  21. 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.
  22. Ibid., p. 302.
  23. Ibid., p.302.
  24. 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.
  25. 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).
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. John D. Robins. The Incomplete Anglers (Whitney, Ontario: The Friends of Algonquin Park, 1998), p. 8.
  29. S. Bernard Shaw, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and Other Mysteries (Burnstown, Ontario: General Store Publishing House,1996), p. 83.
  30. Ibid., p. 83.
  31. Ottelyn Addison and Elizabeth Harwood, Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1969), p. 19.
  32. Ibid., p. 20.
  33. Ibid., p. 19.
  34. Ibid., p. 19.
  35. Ibid., p. 19.
  36. Ibid., p 19
  37. 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.
  38. Ibid., p. 88.
  39. Audrey Saunders, Algonquin Story, Third Edition (Whitney, Ontario: The Friends of Algonquin Park, 2003), p. 180.
  40. Ibid., unnumbered (National Archives of Canada)
  41. Ibid., p. 179.
  42. Ibid., p. 179.
  43. 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.

Angling Arts

Fly Fishing Mysteries

I wrote a chapter in Casting into Mystery, ‘Books for a Winter’s Night,’ that surveys contemporary fly fishing mystery writing. What follows is an updated and expanded examination of what continues as a vibrant sub-genre of a popular form of fiction. Almost immediately upon release of Casting I either found or was introduced by other literary anglers to mystery writers who deal with ‘outdoor’ themes including fly angling. This remains a highly personal survey of fly fishing mysteries I have read and enjoyed rather than a comprehensive critical bibliography

Literature is a great river, as long and broad as it is deep. If mystery fiction is a tributary, then fly angling mysteries comprise a cold clear feeder stream. Interestingly fly fishing and mystery fiction flow from sources dating back to the late Medieval period between 1000 and 1500, commonly known as the Age of Chivalry.

The nineteenth-century American writer and fly fisherman Washington Irving seemed to be intuitively aware of the link between chivalry and fly fishing when he wrote in ‘The Angler’, from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayton, Gent that: We took rod in hand and sallied into the country, as stark mad as was ever Don Quixote from reading books of chivalry.’ If there is one literary figure to whom fly fishermen can relate, it is Miguel de Cervantes’ early seventeenth-century creation Don Quixote. If there is a better description of fly fishing than at tilting at windmills I have not heard of it.

The mystery–and its genre offsprings: political thriller, crime novel or police procedural and suspense novel–are modern narrative adaptations of the romance, the popular literary form that gave expression to the moral code that defined writing in the Age of Chivalry.

The shadowy figure of Dame Juliana Berniers, herself enshrouded in mystery, is alleged to have been born in 1388. The Boke of Seynt Albans, (Book of Saint Albans)–which contains the ‘Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle’ (‘Treatise on Fishing’)– was printed in 1486. The Treatise is essentially a moral code or philosophy of living applied to angling, which undoubtedly influenced Isaak Walton when he wrote his own moral code of angling. First published in 1653, The Compleat Angler is the most frequently reprinted book in the English language except for a couple of other narrative moral codes, the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress.

Gervase Markham, an English mercenary who was a prolific poet and writer when he wasn’t hiring out his military skills, was an avid fly fisherman who edited one of numerous reprints of the Book of Saint Albans. In 1614 he penned The Pleasures of Princes, or Good Men’s Recreations, which documents his thoughts on fishing (including its virtues and moral responsibilities) and cockfighting. Interestingly he acknowledged the relationship between angling and writing, when he observed: ‘Any angler must be a scholar and a grammarian, able to write and discourse on his art in true and fitting terms.’ (I have tried with my modest talent to put this sage advice into practice.)

Fly angling mysteries follow two parallel currents: fly angers who write fiction; and fiction writers who write about fly fishing. Further, those who write fly angling mysteries follow two parallel currents: those who employ fly fishing as a simple plot device, a means to propel the action, and as a picturesque setting; and those who weave elements of fly into theme and form, plot and character, and weave landscape into the narrative flow. James Lee Burke is an admirable example of the former, while Keith McCafferty and John Galligan are admirable examples of the latter.

Finally I use the phrase ‘fly angling mystery’ because I am as enthusiastic about the contemplative recreation (to paraphrase Walton) as I am literature. My use of the phrase spans a range of ‘outdoor’ mystery fiction set in rural locations, including wilderness. Inveterate sleuths work as game wardens; forest, park or river rangers; conservation or fish and wildlife officers; small-town police officers or private investigators who moonlight as avid anglers. Some might not even be in law enforcement, but rather earn their living as fly shop and fishing lodge owners or professional fishing guides. Although fly angling mysteries feature the formal and thematic conventions that define the genre, they often incorporate issues that arise directly out of setting, especially ecological and natural resource issues.

Fly angling mysteries have been around for a while. In 1925 Scottish novelist, historian and politician John Buchan— who served as Canada’s Governor General from 1935 to 1940 as Lord Tweedsmuir—published John Macnab, an entertaining blend of mystery, poaching adventure and Highland period piece. Scottish writer Andrew Greig, a literary fly angler, reimagined Buchan’s novel in 1996 in The Return of John Macnab.

Such classic mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Caroline Graham fished the pools of piscatorial murder and mayhem long before contemporary crime writers cast their lines. The first contemporary fly angling mysteries I read were David Leitz’s Max Addams novels including Casting in Dead Water, Dying to Fly Fish and Fly Fishing Can Be Fatal. Max, a fishing lodge owner in seeing New England, never goes looking for murder; murder always finds him.

Like an angler in unfamiliar water, I began prospecting for fly angling mysteries in bookstores, both new and used, as well as angling websites and online book retailers. I assembled a collection of mysteries to complement my fly fishing library encompassing novels, story collections, poetry, essays and memoirs, in addition to vintage instructional non-fiction.

As a writer William G. Tapply was a double-haul caster. A fine crime novelist (his Brady Coyne series takes place in Boston and throughout New England), he also was an excellent outdoor writer of both memoirs and instructional books. Although fly angling recurs in the Coyne mysteries, it beats at the heart of his last three novels featuring Stoney Calhoun, a fishing guide with a mysterious past who lives in Maine (Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost, Dark Tiger).

John Larison is a river steward, guide and teacher in Oregon who has written a couple of mystery novels set in the Northwest including Northwest of Normal and Holding Lies. Another Oregon writer, Warren Easley, has written a pair of mysteries (Matters of Doubt and Dead Float) featuring Cal Claxton, a former L.A. prosecutor who practices law so he can fish more.

Wisconsin’s John Galligan is a college writing teacher who developed a series (The Nail Knot, The Blood Knot, The Clinch Knot, The Wind Knot) featuring a peripatetic fly fisherman named Dog who goes in search of fish and finds murder. Wyoming’s David Riley Bertsch’s Jake Trent series includes Death Canyon and River of No Return. California-based short-fiction, outdoor writer Jim Tenuto’s Blood Atonement features Montana fly fishing guide Dahlgren Wallace.

Michigan’s Joseph Heywood has written a dozen novels in the Woods Cop series, including Ice Hunter, Blue Wolf in Green Fire, Chasing a Blond Moon, Running Dark, Dark Roe and Strike Dog in addition to the intriguing fly fishing fantasy novel The Snowfly. Ronald Weber, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, has written a trio of mysteries set in Northern Michigan and featuring a male newspaperman and female natural resources officer: Aluminum Hatch, Catch and Keep and Riverwatcher.

Fly angling mystery writers are not limited to men.

Nevada Barr is undoubtedly the best-known female outdoor mystery writer. After graduating with a master’s degree in theatre, Barr worked in theatre, television and film before following her husband’s commitment to the environmental cause. She switched careers and worked as a park ranger prior to resigning to write full time when her books gained commercial success. Barr’s fictional sleuth, Anna Pigeon, is a law enforcement ranger with the United States National Parks Service who travels from park to park across America, solving murders which are often related to environmental issues. After releasing close to 20 titles she has yet to devote a mystery to fly fishing. She is overdue.

Wisconsin’s Victoria Houston is a prolific female mystery writer who gives fishing—with live-bait and hard-lure as well as with fur and feather—a prominent role in her fiction. Her Loon Lake series features retired dentist/fly angler Paul Osborne who is routinely deputized by police chief/fly angler Lewellyn Ferris.

Mary Alice Monroe is a popular writer who explores ‘women’ themes rather than a mystery writer. Although Time is a River is not a conventional mystery, it contains elements of the ‘supernatural.’ Recovering from two kinds of trauma, breast cancer and her husband’s infidelity, Mia Landan flees her Charleston home for the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she takes refuge in a neglected cabin inherited by her fly fishing instructor. Memory and fly angling help Mia find forgiveness and achieve redemption.

If you are a reader who subscribes to the notion that fly anglers are ethically purer than other kinds of anglers prepare yourself for a reality check from Beth Groundwater. Wicked Eddies, the second instalment in her Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure series, paints a portrait of a fly fisherman who is not only a cheat and a liar, but as despicable a human being as a reader can imagine.

There are many more fly fishing mystery novels. These are simply the ones I’ve collected, read and enjoyed. For anglers eager to dip the toes of wading boots into fly fishing mystery I suggest Hook, Line & Sinister. The collection of short fiction is edited by T. Jefferson Parker and features stories by such prominent mystery writers as Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, Houston and Tapply.

Although not primarily a fly fishing mystery writer, James Lee Burke is one of America’s most accomplished crime novelists. He is also a fly angler who writes brilliantly about the recreational sport. I devour any novel that has the slightest taste of fly angling, whether it involves Louisiana sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux or former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland.

I enjoy authors who are not specifically fly fishing mystery writers but set their crime novels in wilderness areas, featuring protagonists who are forest rangers, conservation officers or game wardens. Box’s Joe Pickett series is set in Wyoming and offers an occasional fly fishing cameo. Box, a fly angler, has written about fly fishing elsewhere including a story in his story collection Shots Fired. I would like to see more of it in his books, maybe even a mystery that revolves around the sport.

Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series, which is set in Maine, is equally accomplished. Given that he is a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream I am surprised the sport has not found its way into any of his close to a dozen mysteries. I’d say it’s about bloody time, Paul.

Ernest Hemingway was not the first, nor will he be the last, newspaperman to write exemplary fiction about fishing generally and fly fishing specifically.

Carl Hiaasen was born, raised and educated in Florida, where he has lived all his life. A longtime newspaperman at the Miami Herald, where he is a columnist, he started writing novels in the early 1980s. His 1987 mystery Double Whammy is a weird and wonderful criminal romp covering sex, murder and corruption on the professional competitive bass-fishing tour.

John Sanford is one of America’s most popular and most prolific mystery writers, with no fewer than three longstanding interconnected series on the go. He was known by his birth name, John Roswell Camp, when he was a newspaperman who started at the Miami Herald before being nominated and eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize.

My favourite series features Virgil Flowers (known not aways affectionately as ‘that fucking Flowers’). Flowers might not be a fly fisherman but I know of no more obsessive a fisherman in mystery fiction. Seldom does the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator go on a case somewhere in rural Minnesota without hauling a boat behind his pickup, just so he can grab a few hours fishing for bass, muskie or some other northern gamefish. In Rough Country, the third novel in the series, Virgil is dragged away from a muskie tournament to solve a murder at a remote lodge that caters to women attracted to other women.

Bartholomew Gill was the pen name of the late Mark C. McGarrity, an Irish-American mystery novelist and newspaper feature writer and columnist reporting on nature and outdoor recreation for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. He wrote sixteen Peter McGarr mysteries. In Death on a Cold, Wild River the chief superintendent of the Irish Police’s elite Murder Squad investigates the suspicious death of a famous fly angling writer, guide and fly shop owner (who happens to be an old flame). The action unfolds in what has become known as Yeats’ Country on Ireland’s myth-haunted West Coast. Death on a Cold, Wild River is a fly angler’s feast with a buffet of salmon fishing and fly tying served with a dram of ancient Celtic mythology. Deeelicious!

William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series features an ex-sheriff of Tamarack County, nestled in the Boundary Waters of the Quetico-Superior Wilderness with its two-million acres of dense forest, whitewater rapids and uncharted islands on the Canadian-American border. I don’t know whether Krueger is a fisherman or fly angler but I would like to see more of the sport in his mysteries, given how important it is to the area in which his stories are set.

I would like to mention a trio of novels by literary authors that weave fly fishing into mystery narratives. The Trout, by Irish novelist Peter Cunningham, is a story about the dark stain the Roman Catholic Church casts across Ireland. The novel–which begins in Ontario’s Muskoka before shifting to Ireland, with a detour to Michigan–is punctuated with lovely passages, set pieces really, about fly fishing for trout.

Peter Heller’s The Painter is an accomplished novel built on a foundation of the mystery genre featuring Jim Stegner (perhaps a nod to Wallace Stegner?), a man who cannot avoid trouble. It is also a meditation on love and loss, authenticity and celebrity, obsession and inspiration, passion and violence, not to mention the redemptive power of art and fly fishing.

Jim is not inherently bad. After all, he is a successful, self-taught artist—the darling of critics because of the blue-collar, outsider status. He is also a determined fly angler. Fly fishing for wild trout runs through The Painter like a Montana spring creek, where much of the action takes place.

Jim is big and burly, with a thick, grey beard. The locals call him Hemingway because he looks so much like the famous writer. He is popular with sexy women; he is comfortable with kids. He is a good friend to good men. However, he can be violent when pushed, capable of shooting a sexual predator point-blank or killing in cold blood two brothers who happen to be irredeemable poachers.

A reformed alcoholic and gambler, and two-time loser at marriage, Jim controls his incendiary temper through painting and fishing. He is attuned to the melody of trout rivers, through which he communes with his dead daughter.

Equally seductive is Heller’s subsequent mystery The River, a canoeing misadventure set on a legendary river with a sinister history that feeds into Hudson Bay in the Northwest Ontario. Two college pals, one from Vermont and one from Colorado (both fly fishing meccas), learn a great deal about themselves, and one another, when they paddle into whitewater murder fuelled by wildfire–literally.

Raymond Carver remains a giant among American short story writers. He was also an avid fly fisherman who wrote excellent poems about rivers and angling. He has fun playing the angling mystery genre in his story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’.

The satirical tale tells of a group of buddies who go fishing for a few days, discover the corpse of a murdered woman and decide not to report the grisly finding to police until the conclusion of their wilderness trip. (I suspect only a fly angler would find this convincing or credible behaviour.) Their tardiness causes all kinds of grief for the narrator who falls under the crosshairs of his astonished and disbelieving wife.

I suspect Richard Dokey, a philosophy professor and longtime fly angler based in California, had a Carver in mind when he wrote some of the collected in his ‘Hemingwayesuqe’ Fly Fishing the River Styx.

J. Michael Stewart returns to the place where he was born and raised for Smoke on the Mountain. Atlanta attorney Cody McAlister seeks refuge from the creeping alcoholism that accompanies a job that no longer satisfies and an ugly divorce by escaping into the Smokey Mountains on a backcountry fly fishing trip. The mystery is not what brings him to the edge of death—a bear on a bloody rampage—but whether he will be found, rescued and saved in time.

Stewart’s tale of wilderness survival hinges on the primeval fear aroused by nature’s most menacing, vicious and bloodthirsty creatures. Gossip, prejudice and ignorance, not to mention legend, folklore and myth, conspire as much as animal psychology, wilderness behaviour and sensational media accounts to create stories that raise hair on the back of necks, palpitate hearts and interrupt sleep.

Angling Arts

Our Man in Montana

I have never met Keith McCafferty; however, I gained a sense of the writer through his eight acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery novels. I subsequently read a small sample of his outdoor journalism with deep pleasure. When Casting into Mystery was released in the winter of 2020 I sent Keith a copy because he was the focus of a chapter on fly fishing mysteries. Keith’s enthusiastic support of my angling memoir has been deeply gratifying. He graciously introduced me to a number of literary fly anglers, including poet Keith Shein and angling Renaissance man Henry Hughes, who have been supportive of Casting. Keith and I have exchanged emails and talked on the phone. He is a natural raconteur of wide outdoor experience. This is an expanded and updated version of my observations on Keith’s mystery writing. I also offer snapshots of his excellent outdoor journalism.

The Bangtail Ghost is the most recent novel by my favourite fly fishing mystery writer, Keith McCafferty.

Montana’s Gravelly Range is put on high alert when paw prints and a single incriminating whisker are found at the scene of grisly violence which suggests that a woman has been mercilessly attacked and carried away. Tracks lead to a pile of gnawed bones and scattered remains. Yikes!

However much strife, conflict and violence occur in nature—what Tennyson memorably called ’red in tooth and claw’—man proves infinitely more ferocious, malevolent and dangerous in Keith’s eighth novel.

Keith—our Man in Montana—lives in Bozeman and he knows the state like the back of his hand not only by writing about it but by fishing and hunting it extensively. He began his writing career as a crime reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, where he met his wife, the award-winning journalist Gail Schontzler. Before turning his pen to mystery fiction he was an accomplished outdoor writer and outdoor skills editor for Field & Stream. He is a recipient of the prestigious Traver Award for angling literature and was a National Magazine Award finalist.

The outdoor journalism I have read of Keith’s compels me to place him squarely in the tradition of the best American outdoor sports journalism. To my mind, he is a link in the chain of legends beginning with the Pulitzer-winning Walter Wellesley ‘Red’ Smith and Cecil Whittaker ‘Ted’ Trueblood (who served as editor of Field & Stream from 1941 to 1982) and continuing through Ted Williams (not the Boston Red Sox legend but the outdoor and conservation journalist), James Babb and John Gierach. Likewise, he is a model for the most promising outdoor writers of a new generation including Noah Davis. In my estimation, it is time that a collection of Keith’s outdoor journalism be published. Admittedly I build my case on a small sample size but it is sufficient to confirm and verify the quality of his magazine writing.

The Philosopher’s Stone

is an account of one of three trips Keith made to British Columbia’s Thompson River, reputedly ‘the world’s most dangerous steelhead river’. Readers who take comfort in the stereotype of the fly angler as a briar pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed dandy on a pastoral English chalkstream had better prepare for a rude awakening. Keith presents steelheading not only as an obsession but as an addiction that threatens livelihood, family and health. It is serious stuff, even deadly.

Throughout the article, a blend of memory and celebration, Keith finds new and fresh ways of expressing the commonplace. A fly fisherman wades ‘into a pool where the river caught its breath before roaring away in a series of stunning rapids.’ (Italics mine). He conveys a powerful sense of steelheading on the Thompson as perilous as mountaineering or whitewater kayaking that touches ‘a measure of wildness missing for our lives.’ Always the conservationist, he mourns the tragic decline of the North American West Coast steelhead fishery caused by persistent manifestations of human hubris, ignorance and wilful stupidity.

Keith puts readers in the waders of steelhead fly anglers through direct and immediate sensory descriptions of a specific place. We are in the river alongside him as he casts repeatedly, until his arm and back ache, on the cusp of oblivion—his ‘heart . . . riding with the fly.’

’Fishing here is like an agnostic’s prayer,’ he writes, ‘like hoping there is a reason to hope.’ I know of no better description of the heroic futility of steeheading. After hundreds of casts during extreme weather, he confesses, ‘having done no more than shake the Thompson’s muscular hand.’

I will leave it to readers to discover whether Keith leaves the river for the last time victorious, ’turning lead skies and gunmetal water into Thompson gold.’

The End of the Road

is an account of permit fishing on the flats off Key West. When my thoughts turn to the southern-most tip of Florida, I think of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; Tom McGuane’s exuberant psychedelic satires Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama; and Guy de la Valdene’s auteur cult classic Tarpon, featuring Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison and McGuane in addition to painter/writer Russell Chatham—a Wild Bunch of literary fly anglers if ever there was one. I also think of Keith’s fin-de-siècle essay about catching wily permit.

Key West has undergone a facelift in recent years, but Keith recalls it as ‘the end of the road in the way that the darkest bar is the end of the day . . . a place where shattered lives exhaust their final hours, where fortune tellers manufacture hope for the hopeless for a ten dollar bill, where men who can’t recall when it all went wrong lean in 2 a.m. shadows among six-toed cats that are scarcely more than shadows themselves.’

Keith with a permit

Turns out, fly fishing the flats for permit is not a whole lot better:

‘Key West marks the end of the road for the young in spirit and the heaviest of heart, it also is the last stop for the intrepid angler who can’t rest until he has taken all the world’s great gamefish. Long after most fishermen have boated their first tarpon, after the bonefish has made its last run and the Atlantic salmon is hand-tailed in the gloaming of the castle ruins, the permit dangles just out of reach, flashing its mirrored sides like a tropical jewel.’

Why are permit so difficult to catch? Because, ‘what they don’t spot as a phoney, they sense as counterfeit.’ In other words, good luck, chump. First we accompany Keith and a his oldest angling companion Mo as they warm up on tarpon, described as ’the most masochistic experience I’ve had holding a rod, not because tarpon are difficult to catch but because after the first few jumps it’s just your muscles against theirs, and then after a half hour or so it’s your heart against theirs . . . .’ Keith recognizes that, at bottom, fly fishing is about heart and nothing but heart.

Dead Man’s Fancy and the Kispiox Kiss

is an account of a steelheading trip Keith makes alone. ‘Everywhere you looked, the land was burnt,’ he writes, recalling “A Big Two-Hearted River’. He misses his son who could not accompany his father because his wife is due with their first baby. Memory is as smooth as the peppermint Schnapps and hot chocolate he sips—a tradition he shared with his father many years previously on Michigan trout streams—after setting up camp along an abandoned railroad line. A sense of time passing and loss are everywhere present.

His thoughts turn to Nick Adams, who ‘also had crossed through a burned-over country to get to a river . . . True, he was shell-shocked from the war and looking to nature for the restoration of his soul, while all I suffered from were the overloaded circuits of the era and a father’s loss as children leave home to start adult lives. But it was the same feeling of solitude and holding tight to yourself that makes brothers of all men who sleep alone in wild places, and with the coming of night I felt the absence of my son all the more.’

Keith loses some fish and he catches some fish. However, it is the aching closeness he feels for his father and his son—angling companions always and forever—that marks the trip as a success. ‘When I broke camp the next afternoon I was feeling considerably better about life.’

Three Elk Nights

is an account of backcountry elk hunt with his brother Kevin in the high country of the Crazy Mountains. Keith tells us a great deal about elk hunting, some of which challenges conventional wisdom. It is also a poignant story about brothers that reads like a short story rather than a hunting tale for the hook and bullet press. While readers might assume that elk hunting is about ‘caliber and high power glass,’ Keith argues it is actually about ‘climbing through snow wondering if you’re old enough to worry about heart attack, fourteen-hour nights, fingers too cold to do what you tell them to do and feet that freeze in the sleeping bag.’

After locating elk beds in the bowl of a distant basin, Keith feels ‘the old blood, that hunter’s pulse as strong under the pallor of modern skin as it was when the Paleo-Indians crossed from Asia to the Americas during the last ice age.’

He fires and the elk drops, eventually. Readers who have never hunted might find it difficult to accept that killing a wild animal possesses elements of ceremony and ritual because of the deep spirituality attached to it. ‘I squatted beside it and kissed it on the top of its head before Kevin walked up,’ Keith writes. ‘It is no small thing to take a life and I felt the regret I always do. The measure of it grows bigger each year I hunt and I know it is emotional, and not rational, for the elk lived wild and was killed cleanly and would feed many people.’

All ethical hunters are philosophers. Through hunting, Keith becomes an integral part of ‘the bloodstream of the mountain.’ What a lovely phrase.

‘I long ago concluded that the purpose of life was to grab as much of it as you could and pass it on to the next generation,’ Keith writes, ‘that living life meant giving life. But life is also present in death, which is something hunting makes you aware of. Jays and crows were already stripping the meat from the skeleton of the elk I’d shot. Porcupines would grind the bones. When the ground thawed, decomposition would return nutrients that spread from the elk to other living things and back into the soil. The tender sedges that formed the basis of the mountain’s food chain would unfurl, and the cycle would be complete. It wasn’t a justification for killing–for that I needed also to eat the meat–but taking part in nature’s chain of life had connected me with my hunting ancestors and brought me closer to the heartbeat of the earth.’

Since the publication of The Royal Wulff Murders in 2012, Keith has hooked the lip of my imagination. Cold Hearted River, his sixth Sean Stranahan mystery in as many years, is in my opinion his best.

The novel is a fictional murder mystery wrapped around a real-life literary mystery. Its title will tip off most readers because it is a pun on ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ Yes, the literary mystery involves none other than Ernest Hemingway, the writer who transformed fishing into a literary art form.

Keith shares some commonalities with the author known as ‘Papa’ which, at least for me, increase the novel’s interest quotient. Both writers are connected to Northern Michigan. Hemingway spent the summers of his youth there. The region provides the setting for some Nick Adams stories, including the masterful ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, as well as his first novel, the sophomoric satire Torrents of Spring.

Keith also spent the summers of his youth there, vacationing from Ohio with his family. Like Hemingway, it is where he learned to fly fish. He recalls one memorable summer in a Field & Stream article, ‘Wishing Tree: Fly Fishing Michigan’s Au Sable River,’ a reminiscence of the state’s Holy Water. Some of his personal story, which took place when he was twenty and worked on stream restoration, is given fictional shape in Cold Hearted River.

The connection between Keith and Hemingway, however, runs deeper. Keith knew the famous writer’s oldest son Jack Hemingway (a better angler than his father) for more than three decades when they were both contributing editors for Field & Stream. In his preface to Cold Hearted River, Keith recalls a ‘blustery November day’ when the two were steelheading on a section of the Thompson River known as the Graveyard. His colleague recounted the story of his famous father’s steamer trunk being lost or stolen in 1940, en route from Key West, Florida, to Ketchum, Idaho.

The trunk reputedly contained all of the author’s fly fishing gear, including bamboo rods and reels from England’s House of Hardy—and maybe, just maybe—an unpublished manuscript. (Hemingway’s only surviving fly rod, a Hardy ‘Fairy’ model, is on permanent display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing.) Of course, it is well known that in 1921 Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, lost a bag containing the manuscript and all the carbon copies of his first novel on a Parisian train.

Hemingway never fly fished after his fly gear was stolen. I believe it is possible to trace the beginning of Hemingway’s creative decline to when he gave up fly fishing and, instead, pursued celebrity through salt-water antics.

Keith confides that he had no intention of doing anything creatively with the tale of the missing trunk until Gail persuaded him to set a novel in northwestern Wyoming, where Hemingway spent five summers and autumns late in his life fishing, hunting and writing. This backstory sets up a compelling mystery. Keith builds a fictional mystery on the foundation of a literary mystery. A reader can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins.

Keith’s assessment of Hemingway, which he expresses through a character in the novel—a retired English professor who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to ‘Papa’—is perspicacious. I agree with his observations:

Hemingway the person is among the most misunderstood, vilified, and yet the most celebrated Americans of his generation, and I would venture among the most iconic figures of the twentieth century.

Keith shrewdly puts his finger on the paradox that was very much the man. (Interestingly, his evaluation applies equally to another giant in twentieth century literature who, like Hemingway, was an obsessive angler. I am talking about Ted Hughes, the English poet who was married to Sylvia Plath when she, infamously, committed suicide.)

Keith acknowledges the dichotomy at the heart of Hemingway’s public persona. He sketches a portrait of a complicated man who was a complex artist—these character traits are not the same, nor are they interchangeable—who became a grotesque poster boy for American machismo:

He defined the American male, was labeled a misogynist, yet his relationships were with strong women and he championed their accomplishments. He could be shy behind his glasses, or generous and instructive. A bully and a bore, but by and large his friends forgave him his transgressions, because most of the time he was simply the best company you would ever find. His intelligence and enthusiasm were piercing lights to which people couldn’t help but gravitate.

I agree with Keith that Hemingway was a pathologically shy man who hide behind a braggadiocio facade. He questions the simplistic explanation of Hemingway’s mood swings as bipolar disorder. He suggests–rightly, I believe–that the paranoia and delusions of grandeur that dogged the writer to the grave were symptoms of schizophrenia, and that the brain trauma he suffered in an airplane crash in Africa caused psychological damage that led to diminished creativity.

Keith has transformed his home in Montana into a major character in his mysteries, along with the recreational sport itself. In The Royal Wulff Murders we learn Sean is an ex-private eye who moved to Montana from New England to purchase a new lease on life. He unwittingly becomes involved in murder after a good ol’ boy fishing guide reels in the corpse on the Madison, a legendary trout river. As events unfold Sean crosses paths with Velvet LaFayette, a Southern belle who pays the bills as a nightclub singer, and Martha Ettinger who emits a slow, amorous burn beneath her sheriff’s badge.

Keith proved himself an accomplished fiction writer right out of the gate. The setting for his mysteries was well-defined and his characters were not only fleshed out, they demonstrated potential for growth, like a good investment portfolio. Sean had sufficient emotional depth and intellectual breadth to carry a series. The Royal Wulff Murders brims with enough suspense and fly fishing lore to lure anglers and mystery fans alike—which is maintained throughout the series.

By his sophomore release, The Gray Ghost Murders, Keith had become my go-to fly fishing mystery writer—the literary equivalent of a pheasant-tail nymph or Woolly Bugger. The novel is held together by a pair of mystery threads as artfully tied as a Victorian salmon fly.

Keith is not one to back away from controversy, which should be of interest to fly anglers specifically and to outdoor enthusiasts generally. In The Royal Wulff Murders he introduces readers to the urgent danger of invasive species to trout streams throughout the West—which, by the way, extends to game fisheries across North America. In Dead Man’s Fancy he examines the politics of reintroducing wolves in the West. He sets A Death in Paradise, his seventh instalment in the series, in Montana’s Smith River Canyon. Referred to as ‘America’s Sistine Chapel’ because of its grandeur and beauty, environmental groups have listed it as the country’s fourth most endangered watershed due to threats from copper mining in its headwaters.

Admittedly, the extent to which Keith devotes himself to fly fishing varies from novel to novel. As a literary fly angler I prefer the novels in which the recreational sport is most prominent. I realize he–not to mention his publisher–wants to reach as wide an audience as possible, including female mystery aficionados who don’t give a cul de canard about the arcane intricacies of fur and feather. However, I note that female fly anglers constitute the fastest growing fly angling demographic in America, which bodes well for maintaining a certain level of fly angling in the Sean Stranahan series. Two things remain certain: no mystery writer knows more about fly fishing, or writes more eloquently about the sport, than Keith McCafferty.

I would love to travel to Montana to meet Keith, share stories over a dram of malt whisky or a glass of luscious Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Even better, I would love to spend a few hours with him on one of his favourite trout streams. But, alas, it is unlikely we will meet, especially as the world stumbles under the heavy burden of a deadly pandemic. Still I have his mysteries and sincerely hope that someday I will have a collection of his outdoor journalism so that I might keep in touch with Our Man in Montana.

Angling Arts

Sweetgrass Arts & Crafts

After Casting into Mystery was release in the winter of 2020 Jerry Kustich, cofounder of Sweetgrass Rods, asked me to write an essay for the bamboo rod-building company’s monthly newsletter. The following is adapted from a chapter of the same title in the fly angling memoir.

Retirement is a significant signpost along the road of life. In the spring of 2015, I marked half a century in the workforce. I thought a Sweetgrass bamboo fly rod would provide the ideal way of celebrating the milestone.

A Sweetgrass rod appealed because I believed the shop carried forward the aesthetic and philosophy that defined Arts & Crafts artisans whom I had long admired, both in England where the movement originated through the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin, and in America, where it flourished among New England craftsmen. It surprises me that angling historians have not made the connection between such Arts & Crafts practitioners as furniture maker Gustav Stickley and pioneer bamboo rod maker Hiram Leonard.

I have never visited the Sweetgrass shop in Twin Bridges, MT. However, Jerry Kustich paints an affectionate portrait of his fellow Booboys in his quartet of angling memoirs. His portrait, coupled with the philosophy and pledge of social responsibility espoused on the shop’s website corroborate my intuitive impression.

The Arts & Crafts movement prospered between 1880 and 1920, which coincided with the golden age of fly fishing in America. I have always interpreted this not as historical happenstance, but as creative synchronicity.

I view the Sweetgrass shop as a guild of artisans who share common values through mutual beliefs and communal, co-operative labour that are not only principles of vocation but avocation. Work is not separate from life, but integral to life. As such, the cycle of manual labour includes periods of rest and play–especially fishing

The belief in hand craftsmanship as practiced by the Glenn Brackett and the Booboys stresses the inherent beauty of materials (including Tonkin bamboo) and the importance of work as a meaningful and purposeful process of inherent value. They celebrate the joy of work through work.

The importance of nature that underlies and informs every aspect of the making of a Sweetgrass rod cannot be overstressed. Nature is not only a design principle, but a principle of living which is more essential than a lifestyle choice. A Sweetgrass rod reciprocates its debt and obligation to nature through the ethos of simplicity and integrity, utility and beauty.

Acquiring a Sweetgrass rod would be an extravagance beyond what I had ever spent on any single item, with the exception of cars, houses and orthodontics for my sons. But I knew the rod would be worth every penny—and more. It would be something to cherish, an heirloom.

When my dream of owning a Sweetgrass first took shape, I had no immediate prospects of retirement. I was expecting to work for at least three years beyond ‘normal’ retirement at age sixty-five.

But fate had other plans. A couple of months after giving voice to my dream, the newspaper for which I worked for three decades offered a buyout too good to refuse. As well, my sons Dylan and Robertson had just graduated from university and college.

Sweetgrass Logo

Unbeknownst to me, the stars drifted into alignment when I visited a fly shop located on the tailwater of the Grand River, in southwestern Ontario. I wanted some Cortland 444 double-taper fly line for my Orvis CFO reel to use with my worse-for-wear Granger and Montague bamboo rods.

Before loading the reel, shop owner Ken Collins went into an adjacent room, saying he had something he wanted to show me. I recognized the Sweetgrass insignia on the cap of the cream-coloured tube before he opened it. My mouth opened in surprise. ‘So you know Sweetgrass?’ he asked with a grin. I nodded— idiotically I’m sure.

He released the rod from the sleeve, revealing a blonde, seven-foot, nine-inch, three-piece, five-weight. He assembled it and passed it over. I was gobsmacked. Imagine, I was holding a sweetly singing Sweetgrass. Light, yet supple, it was like an extension of my right arm.

Before leaving I confessed that I could not ignore the synchronicity of the rod finding its way into my hands. Although Ken had been given the rod to sell on his website, he handed me a business card and told me to talk to its owner.

I called a few days later. A devoted outdoorsman, he knew a lot about Sweetgrass. He met Jerry at a Grand River bamboo rod builders’ gathering. He even visited the Sweetgrass shop. He confirmed that Glenn had built the blank—a signature, hollow-fluted, hexagonal classic from a modern master.

I refused to haggle. He quoted an amount, I accepted, recognizing a fair price for a priceless objet d’art. He said he was pleased the rod was going to someone who would appreciate it as ‘a superb fishing instrument’. The agreement was struck ten days after my sixty-fourth birthday and a month after I had waded into the serene waters of retirement. I put a cheque in the mail; however, he insisted I pick up the rod as soon as I was able, confirming there are still agreements between gentlemen within the fellowship of fly anglers.

To see the actual essay check out the April 2020 Sweetgrass Newsletter.