Thanks to the genius of Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and the artistry of such musicians as Pete Seeger, Roy Clark, J.D. Crowe, John Hartford, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Jens Kruger, Alison Brown and Rhiannon Giddens, the much-maligned banjo has carved out a permanent place in roots music, past and present. In Canada we have Chris ‘Old Man’ Luedecke and Chris Coole carrying forward the banjo tradition.
Over the years I had the pleasure of watching Chris Coole, a clawhammer banjo player and guitarist, perform many times in different folk, old-time and bluegrass music configurations. But it wasn’t until quite recently I discovered he is an avid fly angler. When I learned he had recorded a couple of CDs of original music inspired by ‘the fishing passion’ I contacted him to asked whether I could discuss his recordings—The Tumbling River and The Road to the River—in Casting into Mystery. He not only sent me the CDs but we exchanged lively emails sharing our mutual passion. When singer/songwriter Juanita Wilkins (who happens to be Wesley Bates’s wife) told me Chris had posted a Facebook account of fishing dureing the pandemic in the summer of 2020 at the family cottage, I asked if I could post it on the Casting Into Mystery website. Again, he agreed, for which I’m deeply grateful. Following are his words:
Anybody who knows me very well knows that I love to fish, and thanks to the traveling nature of my life the past 15 years, I’ve been lucky enough to cast a line in some pretty amazing places. A seven-piece collapsible fly rod is just slightly behind ‘banjo’ on my checklist whenever I pack to go on tour. By the end of a ‘normal’ year it’s not uncommon for me to hold fishing licenses for seven or eight different provinces and states. I even got to fish for brown trout in Tasmania a couple years back (‘Oh the places you’ll go,’ as Dr. Seuss would say.)
Had this year gone as planned, I would have had trips to British Columbia, Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan, not to mention several jaunts down to New York State to fish in the Catskills with my pals (and fishing mentors) Joe Hendricks, Joe Marinzel, Bob Hutton, and Glenn Carson. But, of course, this year didn’t go as planned for anyone, and I found myself off the road and spending most of my time teaching banjo into my computer (which I enjoy, and for which I’m grateful).
If you have to be stuck in a city, Toronto isn’t the worst place to be stuck. It’s a multicultural city with friendly people, a great arts community, lots of green space and amazing food (when the restaurants aren’t shut down). Once you get beyond the inevitable urban sprawl, it’s not long before you get into the Southern Ontario countryside, which is a very beautiful part of the world.
I’ve lived here all my life. My folks have a cottage about 2 ½ hours east of the city on Belmont Lake. It’s been in my family since the ’40s. My great grandfather built one of the first cabins on the lake, and then his son-in-law (my grandfather) bought the land next to it, which he severed and gave to his kids. This is a common story in Ontario. It harkens back to a time when there was enough land around that middle-class people could still afford to get a little piece of paradise outside of the city (this also owes to the fact that there are something like 250,000 lakes in Ontario). I say this not to dismiss my privilege, but to give it some context—of course, we’re in a moment where many of us are coming to realize that to even be part of the ‘middle-class’ brings with it some BIG privilege and no small part of luck . . . but that’s another subject.
Growing up, I spent every summer on Belmont Lake pretty much from the day after school got out, until Labour Day Weekend. My cousins and I were free to run wild, which meant we were either in the forest making forts or on the lake chasing fish from morning till night. Reflecting back, that time had more to do with shaping my values as an adult and the paths I choose than anything I ever learned in school or in my life afterward.
As I got older, life made my time up on the lake more infrequent; first, it was summer jobs, then scraping around the city as a struggling (but busking, happy and often drunk) artist in my 20s, then touring in my 30s and 40s (still happy, and progressively less drunk). I’d get up the odd time in the spring and fall, but sort of lost touch with it. I’ve been especially absent in summers due to the festival season and teaching at music camps.
Had I not been absent from social media the past 15 years I could have put on a pretty good show. As I mentioned before I’ve been fishing in some amazing places and would probably have posted ‘grip and grin’ shots from some destinations that most people only dream of fishing, or at least have to wait till they retire before they make their pilgrimage. In the context of sport fishing, it was downright glamorous.
Which brings me to this summer. Thanks to the situation the world finds itself in, I’ve probably spent more time on Belmont Lake than I have in the past thirty summers combined (in fact I’m on the dock typing this right now). I’ve been poking around the islands and weed beds of my youth, catching bass, pickerel (walleye), pike and crappie and generally having the time of my life. It’s felt like getting reacquainted with an old friend.
I’ve had some wonderful days fishing this summer, but by far the coolest one was being able to take my cousin’s kids, Addison and Archer, out in early August. As they skillfully and playfully caught sunfish by the dozen, I realized they are the fifth generation of my family to fish on this lake. They were fishing in the same weed beds that their great-great-grandparents had fished, and had shown my Uncle Art (their grandpa), who had shown them to me. That kind of unbroken chain is almost non-existent in our modern lives (at least in mine); and I’m grateful to have had a chance to experience it, and gain an awareness of it.
So here’s my ‘grip and grin’ photo for this summer’s fishing (although there’s no gripping, just grinning). It may not be a 20-inch brown trout from the Catskills, a wild cutthroat from the mountains of B.C. or an arctic grayling from the Yukon River, but it’s turned out to be more meaningful than all those combined.
Note – Inevitably, someone is going to ask if we ate those fish, and the answer is obviously, YES. Only a maniac would kill a fish and not eat it. Also, in case you didn’t figure it out, a ‘grip and grin’ is a photo of an angler, usually with a stunned smile, holding a fish looking even more stunned.
I first met the Juno Award-winning songwriter Garnet Rogers in 1984 or ’85 at the Brantford Folk Club. His brother Stan had died in June of 1983 in a plane fire in Cincinnati and Garnet was honouring the concert commitments confirmed before Stan’s death. I interviewed Garnet many times over the years. I wrote profiles—I was one of the first journalists he told about writing his own material—reviewed concerts and new album releases as well as his memoir, Night Drive, spanning the years he spent on the road with his brother. I asked Garnet if he would read Casting into Mystery in draft form with the aim of writing a blurb because I admired his songwriting, including wordcraft, so much. Also, he had also written ‘Shadows on the Water,’ a deeply moving song tribute to his late friend, Bill Morrissey, who was an avid fly angler, as was Greg Brown, a close friend of both Garnet and Bill. Instead of knocking off a few words for a back cover blurb, he passed along a lovely meditation on family, music and fly fishing. Whether he knows it or not, Garnet has the soul of both a poet and a fly angler.
‘A fly rod is equal parts compass and passport,’ writes Robert Reid in Casting into Mystery.
I come from a family of passionate, nearly rabid fly fishers. I have a blurry black and white photo of my maternal grandmother, standing up in a canoe built by her son on a lake in Nova Scotia, sometime before the Second World War. She is smiling and proudly holding the string of a half dozen trout she had caught that summer evening in the lake behind her home.
One of my aunts kept a careful log of every trout she ever caught. She would note the time and place, the fly she used. Then she would trace the fish on paper, paint it in watercolours and carefully store it away so this elegant creature would never be forgotten—or simply thought of as ‘lunch’.
A cousin, an avid catch-and-release guy, told me last year that he took 104 trout out of the water at his camp back of the beyond in Nova Scotia’s Guysborough County. It broke the record for one day’s fishing at the camp–held since 1903–where careful logs have been kept since before the turn of the last century. He fishes with his father’s gear, in the single-seat cedar and canvas canoe his dad built some forty years ago. It weighs a mere sixteen pounds, and Steve has been known to cast his line in the middle of a portage, holding the delicate craft over his head, while carefully setting the fly where only he, apparently, can see the furtive, graceful movement of his quarry beneath the lambent surface of the evening water.
Like I say . . . passionate.
Oddly, despite having spent much of my life in the woods, and near what the author calls ‘Sacred Water,’ the bug never bit me; however, having read Casting into Mystery, written by Reid with evocative engravings by Wesley W. Bates, I understand better than ever the allure and the magic that lies waiting for the dedicated angler.
I know better the connection with, and the reverence for, trout. The deep connection with the river and the delicate ecosystems that support not only fish, but every living thing an angler might see during a day on the water. The zip and ratchet of the reel as the line runs through it. The graceful curve of that line as it arcs and flashes and snaps through the air. The waiting, the careful watching, the ever so gentle tug telegraphing along the filament as the fish makes up its mind. The setting of the hook and the sudden living bond with the yet unseen fish that is frantically spooling out yards of that precious line as he makes his bid for freedom. The camaraderie between brothers and sisters who share his passion. The tall tales in fire-lit cabins. The grateful taste of a rare single malt that warms toes nearly frozen from a day in the river. It’s all here.
‘The rod is equal parts compass and passport.’ Yes, that fly rod. Reid writes: ‘The rod comes alive in my hands. I feel the transference of energy, of soul, from rod to body’.
I once played violin for a living. And the feel of a hundred-year-old Italian bow, lovingly and expertly carved from rare Pernambuco wood from the forests of Brazil, strung with prepared horsehair from Russia, and drawn across the strings of a finely crafted old-French violin that has been both your closest companion and bitterest enemy over the years; to produce music, some good, some bad, has to be very much like the hopeful experience of dropping a fly into that precise spot on the river, using a split-cane rod, made from bamboo from a tiny region of China, and in the end, feel that same energy transference. You feel the bond, not only to what you are trying to catch, and a love for the secret universe it inhabits, but with the stranger whose expert hands so carefully made this frail, yet supple, connection to the eternal.
It is a lucky soul, a blessed soul, who can find poetry and love and wonder in the quotidian. Had he never set pen (a fountain pen, of course) to paper, Reid would have been one of those luckiest of people, seeing, as he does, with such a keen, detailed and loving eye.
I have never met Jerry Kustich, but I know him like a close friend, thanks to his quartet of angling memoirs: At the River’s Edge, A Wisp in the Wind, Around the Next Bend and Holy Water. In no small part, Casting into Mystery is a dialogue between myself and the angler/writer I met through Jerry’s fine books. In my estimation his place is secure among the top shelf of contemporary literary fly anglers. Because I admire his writing so much I contacted Jerry in Maryland, his current retirement home, to ask if he would consider reading my book in draft form. Further, I asked if he would give me permission to quote from his writing. I am deeply grateful he agreed to both requests. Jerry has been an enthusiastic, ongoing supporter of Casting and we have exchanged some wonderful emails in which he has offered both praise and advice. Below is an overview of the emails of encouragement I received from Jerry. In addition he passed along ‘Fishing the Gloaming’ in response to some of my observations about fly fishing embodying and reflecting the attitudes and values of Celtic spirituality.
A reader can pay a writer no greater compliment than actively participating in, and engaging with, the text. I received this compliment from Jerry, beginning with his initial email in response to Casting:
‘Wow, that is spectacular work (referring to Wesley Bates’s engravings). And from what I have been reading so far, your words and his art are a perfect blend. This book will be a classic.’
A few days later I received another email:
‘I have read through much of your book and it is enthralling on many levels . . . wonderful work in fact.’
His third email was longer and more comprehensive. He responded to comments in Casting based on observations he made in his books about the Grand River watershed. In fact he fished my ‘home water’ many years before I did:
‘I am honoured to be mentioned several times, and even quoted a couple. Whether or not I deserve it is one thing, but I sure do appreciate it. You did capture my small contribution to the fly fishing world nicely.
‘My brother and I were smitten by the Grand in the 90s. We both stalked the water looking for rising biggish fish, and it seemed we always managed a nice 20-incher or so. I was using a seven-and-a-half-foot bamboo one year during the Grand Gathering (an annual bamboo rod-building event) and one of the biggest browns I ever hooked rose to take my evening spinner . . . it broke off immediately. I don’t think I could have landed it on the small rod. Also, we fished the lower Grand in June for nice-size sipping rainbows below Whiteman’s (Creek) . . . we had a couple of great experiences there. I had a couple chances to fish it for steelhead . . . got a couple, but my brother still spey fishes there when he can get away (from New York State).’
It was not long before I received another enthusiastic email:
‘I feel compelled to write you a follow-up. I have been re-reading your manuscript and mulling over many sentences word for word. In many ways, this is an incredible piece of work from a perspective that has never yet been explored–the mystery of everything related to fly fishing through the cumulative insights of numerous anglers, naturalists, philosophers, writers, etc. And tied together by your own astute and, at times, inspired thoughts and observations in beautiful prose that flows like the mystical waters you seek to understand. Everything I wish I could have written in my stories you have captured in your work. For years I have sought the perfect sentence and wish I could write one, but I feel I found several in your manuscript.’
Jerry is being customarily modest here. He is an eloquent writer who casts to the deeper meanings embodied and reflected in experience, both on and off the water, and expressed through elegant words. His memoirs served as a model for my own literary efforts. Jerry understood that Casting was as much about the literature of fly flying as the practice of fly fishing. Books served as a connecting link between our approaches to our mutual passion.
‘Though I have read several of the books and authors you cite, I do not come close to reading them all. In addition to the meditative aspects of what you write, your book is a wonderful compendium of so many other works anglers should consider reading. Lately I have had a few health issues, not the least of which is a painful bout of something in my right wrist which makes fishing impossible. I am hoping it will pass, but the doctor told me to lay off casting. That said, being an armchair angler has much appeal these days.
‘Your chapter on fly fishing and canoeing is an exceptional blend I have never considered. I used to canoe an old Coleman as a simple means of accessing fishing water . . . so much so I wore a hole in my keel dragging it to access sites. Now I have taken to the kayak for the same reason of solitude and quietude, while casting a fly into waters seldom touched. Catching a fish seems secondary to the overall experience.
‘Also the chapter about the Celtic way touched me greatly . . . the concept dovetails nicely with the spirit of North American natives which has always touched me as well. The concept of gloaming—that thin line between sunlight and darkness—spoke to me because it is the the sense I religiously seek when I go fishing these days. The Celtic concept of autumn and fall is a revealing distinction I had never considered either.’
Jerry recalled meeting Ian Colin James, one of the most colourful fly anglers Canada (by way of Scotland) has ever produced.
‘Your memorial for Ian Colin James struck me because I met him at a Grand Gathering in 2000 (seems so long ago yet the new millennium seems like it happened yesterday) and bought a signed copy of his book. We talked at length about his exploits catching gar on a special caddis he ties. I will have to look up some of the other Canadian writers you tout. When I moved from my home of 30 years in Montana, I unfortunately sold many of my books in an estate sale, but Fumbling with a Fly Rod made it through . . . since I had the good sense to save a few. It still sits on my shelf along with a few other significant works.’
Jerry touched on our shared ‘love’ of fly fishing mysteries. He also offered some literary recommendations which I have endeavoured to investigate.
‘I love the fly fishing mysteries as well, and I will have to look up a few that I missed. I had the opportunity to read John Galligan’s manuscripts . . . he wanted a fly fisher’s perspective. I met (Bill) Tapply on a beach in Florida a year or so before he passed and read all of his mysteries. I’ll dig into some of the others you mention.
‘I am not sure you are still looking for future reading, but there are a few books I’d recommend, if you have not yet read them. Scott Waldie was a good friend and he wrote an acclaimed three-volume series of life in the fictitious town of Travers Corners, Montana. The town bore a close resemblance to Twin Bridges (where we lived), but he claimed there was no connection (Ha!). Did you ever come across Muriel Foster’s Fishing Diary? It is a unique reproduction of her fishing log, notes, fish caught and artwork all done in her favourite Scottish rivers. Simple, but beautiful . . . it impressed from the day I got it.’
I read Waldie’s gentle trilogy with great pleasure a number of years ago—Canadians might think of Stephen Leacock meets W. O. Mitchell–and I share Jerry’s appreciation of Foster’s Victorian Naturalist-influenced diary, complete with calligraphic handwriting, line drawings and small watercolour illustrations.
‘My friend Norm Zeigler was an outdoor editor for Stars and Stripes in Germany until he contracted Lyme’s. He wrote a collection of stories based on his outdoor assignments in Europe entitled Rivers of Shadows, Rivers of Sun. A good way to fish Europe without leaving one’s chair.
‘The last two years my brother and I helped publish two books Strong is the Current by Joel Spring and The River King by Robert Romano, Jr. Joel’s book is a collection of fishing/kayak stories he wrote about Lake Ontario while dealing with the death of his daughter. Romano’s book is a novel taking place in the Rangeley region of Maine. He has written three other acclaimed titles as well. Recently I read Carp are Jerks by a young guy (early forties) that represents a movement of reflective younger anglers who are not all about Facebook shots. Also, I reviewed a book of realistic fictional stories by Richard Dokey entitled Fly Fishing the River Styx. I like finding books that are off the beaten path of established writers.’
I am very fond of Dokey’s story collection, which straddles Ernest Hemingway and Norman Maclean. For a philosophy professor, he writes with the crystalline clarity of a mountain trout stream. Highly recommended.
Although I have completed university level courses in religion and have attended seminars and retreats and conducted lectures in Celtic spirituality, I remain an enthusiast compared to Jerry’s background which includes time in a seminary.
‘Finally, your book takes me back to my college/theology days when I routinely mulled over many philosophers and theologians seeking the meaning of life, God and the universe. Everyone came at those mysteries with unique points of view that patch-worked a fuller, but very tiny, glimpse into eternal realities. You have done that with your book . . . and to a degree have added to the broader quest for meaning those thinkers from the past sought.’
His closing comment pleased be intensely. Slàinte, Jerry:
‘I wish I could share a dram with you one day . . . we could talk for hours . . . of that I am sure.’
He followed up a couple of days later in response to my asking his permission to use our email exchange to cast some light on my book:
‘I am committed to helping you get the word out as much as possible since your book so much expresses what I have been trying to say for years. Actually, I am astounded, and a bit surprised, by the number of writers, poets and musicians you have found who express many of the concepts that have flashed through my head and that I have failed to find appropriate words. The motivation behind my writing has always been to address the dearth of contemporary fly fishing essay collections that delve into the deeper realities of why we fish. Although I sought balance between story and introspection, in the end my intention was to make the reading angler look deeper into his/her soul. What you present is an epic journey into the core essence of an angler’s being.’
Despite our different approaches, which reflect our personalities and experiences on and off the water, our literary goals are remarkably synchronistic in the meaning Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (who coined the term) intended.
FISHING THE GLOAMING
These days there are several new angling writers worth reading, and I have always enjoyed books that have vicariously taken me on fishing trips of the mind, trips that I will never have the opportunity to take. This summer it was my privilege to write a blurb for a wonderful book by Canadian writer Robert Reid entitled Casting into Mystery. The book (reviewed on the Sweetgrass Newsletter) weaves the author’s in-depth perspective on how fly fishing impacts his life with insights and quotes from naturalists, philosophers, poets, songwriters and other angling authors about fishing and the natural world. He also delves into the spiritual realm of nature including the Celtic Way, which is reflective of his own Scottish heritage. After my second time reading through his manuscript, my mind began to drift to bygone days.
For some reason, I have always been consumed by fishing until absolute darkness. As the ashen hues of twilight dissolve into the black of night I have often felt engulfed by a web of peacefulness. Since few anglers out West fish up to dark, my aloneness during that time evokes a sense of complete oneness with my surroundings. According to Reid, Celtic lore defines that thin line of time experienced between sunset and total darkness as ‘the gloaming.’ A culture totally absorbed in nature, the traditional Celts believed ‘the gloaming’ was a holy period where our profane world connected to a sacred ‘other-world’ as the awakening of nightlife merged with the mystery of life beyond. Relating this belief to fishing, I found the concept of gloaming particularly enlightening.
Watching and waiting in eager anticipation, a river comes to life as darkness descends. Almost magically so, an ensemble of insects engage in a ritualistic dance celebrating the cycle of life while one by one trout awaken and start to rise in mystical cadence to the music of the river. As an angler trying to immerse myself into the rhythm of the moment, at one point it happens. Like that precise instant when a person falls asleep, time and eternity become one while the enchanting flow of water crosses that thin line of gloaming as if to catch glimpse of the ‘other-world’ to which the Celts refer. I cast, and then cast again in a meditative state hoping never to wake up. But upon my return to ‘our profane world’ there is a sense that I have been touched by something special beyond catching a few trout.
Whenever I pursue salmon, steelhead, stripers or trout, I love to fish the gloaming. And though I am not on trout water as much these days, I just close my eyes. Recalling the words of country songwriter and singer Tim Ryan, I am somewhere on a river at twilight.
I know the sound a river makes
Flows through my memory everyday
Carries me home when I’m far away
I know the sound a river makes