Contemplative Recreation

Fellowship on the West Branch

‘Are you up for an outing on the West Branch?’ I had written Chris Pibus in an email.

I wasn’t referring to the legendary West Branch of the Ausable, in the Adirondacks, or to the West Branch of the Delaware, in the Catskills, but rather to a modest stream feeding a Heritage River in southwestern Ontario.

‘Absolutely,’ he replied. ‘What day works for you? When can we meet?’ A subsequent exchange of emails set our plans into motion.

All my closest fly angling companions visit this trout stream early in the season. We’ve all enjoyed various degrees of success, so we return season after season with high expectations. Chris and I, however, are the only ones–so far as we know–who dedicate time and effort to what we have come to call the West Branch. It’s our little secret.

Most anglers have secret fishing spots. It’s an enduring piscatorial trope. Anglers often go to ridiculous lengths to protect the identity of these sacred places. If you don’t believe me, read and relish accounts of the antics recorded by the great angling scribe Robert Traver, who dreaded angling interlopers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as if they were carriers of a highly infectious disease.

Occasionally angling companions surreptitiously share a mutual fishing spot after swearing an oath of secrecy. They have good reason to fear the location being uncovered or revealed, either unwittingly or deliberately. A broken pledge opens a door that cannot be closed and through which unwelcome anglers traipse bearing avarice in their hearts coupled with lapses of good sense and conscience.

The curious thing about the secret Chris and I share is that the fishing doesn’t really warrant such confidentiality; evidence accumulated over subsequent seasons confirms it’s less productive than the most generous parts of the stream we all fish in common. In all the times we’ve fished it together, I only once hooked a big brown trout. I was too excited–maybe even shocked–to land him. Sure, the West Branch has its beauty spots, but overall it’s no more picturesque than the rest of the stream.

Why Chris and I guard our secret so tenaciously is anyone’s guess. I have no answer to advance. Still, I suspect it might have something to do with the child-like quality that fly anglers of a certain age seem to possess. Most remember when they were young and had a secret hideout or clubhouse, a retreat, and sanctuary shared with a small select group of friends, compatriots, comrades or confidantes. It’s what boys do–I certainly did. After all, nothing appeals to the imagination like intrigue and benign forms of conspiracy.

NOTE: I have long believed that a writer’s best friend is serendipity–or, a better word, synchronicity. As I was pausing between drafts of this essay I came across a term, heart ground, in Yonder, a collection of personal essays by the fine Kentucky outdoor writer Ron Ellis. He coined the evocative term to describe the ‘sacred ground’ where hunting converges with ‘dogs and friendships.’ It occurred to me that the term heart water can be applied equally to fishing. As I now reflect on the secret of the West Branch that Chris and I share I believe it was inspired by our mutual sense of heart water.

. . . . . . .

I’m a lucky man. One reason is because I have half a dozen companions in what I call a Fellowship of Literary Fly Anglers. I don’t intend this phrase to sound pompous or fatuous. An angler could not find finer friends with whom to share time on the water than Dan Kennaley, Wesley Bates, Doug Kirton, Doug Wilson and Chris.

For them to be accepted in the Fellowship, however, they must read books with as much enthusiasm as they fish. Although our literary tastes vary and we read in subtly different ways, we all agree that fly fishing literature has a long, diverse and rich tradition superior to the writings devoted to any other sport or recreation.

Moreover, we agree that angling books enhance and enrich experiences on the water, much as experiences on the water enhance and enrich reading. For example, I enjoy hosting occasional book club meetings in which the Fellowship convenes for lively discussions about such works as Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ and Ted Hughes’s suite of poems River.

My luck was compounded when I met Chris as a result of my memoir on fly fishing. He decided to reach out after reading Casting into Mystery shortly after it was published early in 2020. We exchanged emails and agreed to meet on the shoulder of a country two-lane hardtop near the Grand River for an evening of bass fishing. One of the things Chris learned from my memoir is that we share an important thing in common. Like my son Robertson, Chris’s son Nat is on the autism spectrum. Chris also has a daughter Caitlin and I have another son, Dylan.

Chris has fly fished since adolescence. He has travelled to many prominent angling destinations throughout Canada and the United States, in addition to Britain, whenever he managed to break away from a busy legal practice as one of Canada’s top intellectual property lawyers. As I write this essay, he has visited Alberta’s Bow River and the legendary Delaware River within a few weeks of one another.

Chris enjoying a can of Swedish wild berry cider

In addition to his worldly travels, Chris has been an occasional visitor to the Grand, which I consider my home water. We shared such a pleasant time on our initial outing we agreed to meet again. He was so impressed with the stretch of river that he returned a few days later with Nat on one of their regular weekend walks. They christened the location Rob’s Pool. (I was moved when Chris relayed this story.)

Since then, we have fished many times together for bass on the middle Grand and trout on the tailwater, in addition to a productive tributary we especially like. I have also introduced Chris to my favorite southwestern Ontario headwaters which, thankfully, sustain populations of brook trout—at least for now. We soon developed a custom after returning to our vehicles wherein I provide Swedish wild berry cider to complement Portuguese custard pastries Chris buys fresh from his favourite neighbourhood bakery.

Chris is a careful, attentive, methodical, generous fly angler with a keen eye for places where fish like to hang out. He seldom leaves the water without landing a few. Still, when fish refuse to cooperate, he harbours neither grudges nor ill feelings.

While I prefer dry flies and swinging nymphs and streamers downstream and across, Chris prefers high sticking nymphs when he isn’t casting dries. Unlike me, he ties his own flies, having met such legendary tiers as Fran Betters over the years. However, his tying isn’t as obsessive as it is for many anglers who have been fly fishing for as long as he has.

I was delighted to accompany Chris when he landed a beautiful brown trout on water in which they are much less common than more abundant rainbows. Conversely, he witnessed my landing of sixteen smallmouth bass within a couple of hours on the Grand. We also fished the tailwater on a memorable occasion when I caught nine brown trout before encountering a pair of beavers—man, were they big–on our way back to our vehicles.

Chris is one of the most literary members of our Fellowship of Literary Fly Anglers. Like me, he has a master’s degree in English literature, which he attained while completing a law degree from the University of Toronto after graduating with a bachelor’s from McGill, in his native Montreal. He comes from a family of teachers, a generation removed from farms in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. I find this interesting because, of the many lawyers I met over a forty-year newspaper career including stints as a crime and court reporter, Chris strikes me as the least lawyer-like and the most teacher-like, even professorial, of the lot.

Although I suspect Chris was prepared to access a tough and resilient resolve when needed in his professional life, his nature is quiet, reserved and gentle—even patrician. He exudes a sense of gravitas without seeming to exert any effort. This is balanced with a love of storytelling shaded with wit and humour. I know from our many discussions about books, not to mention the books we’ve recommended to each other and exchanged, that his literary knowledge is as deep as it is wide, astute as it is enthusiastic.

It gives me deep delight to know that Chris and his wife, Penny, honour a ritual of reading favorite books aloud—which I uphold as a gesture of love. Childhood sweethearts who met in elementary school, started dating in high school and are still together more than a half century later, they have just completed Robert Fagles’ celebrated translations of Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.

Generally fly anglers take one of two approaches when fishing with a companion. Either they go their separate ways, agreeing to meet up at a specific place, at a specific time; or they accompany one another on the water. Most often Chris and I choose the latter. Again, there are two general approaches. Either the anglers remain quiet for the most part, concentrating on the task at hand. Conversely, companions are downright chatty, which describes Chris and me. No topic is off limits when we are casting lines on the water.

Fly anglers almost always share common interests, but oftentimes fall short of seeing eye to eye–or, should I say, cast fly to fly-when it comes to values. Chris and I don’t have that problem. I feel like we were destined to become friends and angling companions.

Regardless of our wide topics of discussion, books are never too far from our conversation, whether gearing up, casting on the water, resting momentarily on a bankside log, removing our gear or enjoying a late supper. Of course some of our book talk focuses on angling literature, but not all. We share many favourite authors and some favourite national literary traditions including Irish, Canadian and American. We take great delight in comparing our experience of a book we have read recently to our experience of reading it as young men.

Neither Chris nor I have examined our conduct on the water extensively; however, I have a strong sense that we approach fishing less competitively than some of the other anglers comprising our Fellowship. Don’t get me wrong; Chris likes to catch fish as much as I do. After all, while we both believe that fishing is about more than catching, we agree that never catching any fish isn’t really fishing either. It’s an exercise in escapist masochism masked as benign futility.

Still, when all is said, we share the belief that books and companionship are important and vital to fishing. For me, they are as significant as catching fish. And I know Chris feels much the same way, despite his half century of casting artificial flies.

I know this because, since his reluctant retirement, Chris has embarked on an exciting creative journey of transforming his most memorable experiences on the water into autobiographical stories of deep feeling and uncompromising merit. Most involve companionship in one form or another.

I’ve enjoyed accompanying Chris on his literary journey as a sympathetic first reader and editor. He has repaid me the compliment by playing the same role in what the beloved Canadian writer W.O. Mitchell called a creative partnership. In the first year of retirement he has had essays accepted for an anthology of Montana nature writing and for the American Fly Fisher, an esteemed journal published quarterly by the Museum of American of Fly Fishing. I eagerly anticipate publication of some of his essays and stories in a book.

. . . . . . .

The frustration inherent in fishing is that anglers can’t always count on catching anything. It so happens that the last time Chris and I visited the West Branch our best intentions were hijacked by water flow conditions beyond our control.

Chris fishing the West Branch

Granted we weren’t optimistic after arriving streamside at the apex of July. In contrast to much of the world which had recorded historically high temperatures causing extensive drought and wildfires, Southwestern Ontario had received substantial rainfall during the previous few days. So, it wasn’t unexpected when a cursory examination from a bridge overlooking the stream verified elevated water levels.

Anglers put their faith in hope with the desperation of addicts craving the next fix. Burton L. Spiller muses on this affliction of optimism in Fishin’ Around when he writes, ‘There is, I think, some merit in looking on the negative side of a forlorn hope, for in summing up the possibilities of failure one stands an infinitely better chance to succeed.’ Accepting Spiller’s advice, we gamely agreed to defy probability and investigate the West Branch. After slogging through tall, tangled, overgrown vegetation and negotiating a series of spider-webbed canopies, we crossed the magical portal to the stream.

Not surprisingly, but no less disappointingly, it was too high for us to safely traverse the ten metres to the other side, from which we customarily commence casting. We hummed and hawed, compared notes, and finally, with no reasonable option before us, turned around and trundled back with our fly rods tucked between our legs.

In momentary weakness, we reviewed the prospects of calling it quits. Then we reconsidered and decided to test our fortune on the section of stream we generally fish with our other angling companions. Although pleasant enough, it didn’t reward our aspirations. Chris landed a small rainbow in an inviting run, while I came up empty handed—in a word I was skunked.

After ninety minutes of futility, we hightailed it to a favourite pub boasting a charming view of the Grand River in a nearby town. As usual we ordered plates of Lake Erie perch and chips with homemade coleslaw, washed down with a chilled pint of craft ale for me and an Arnold Palmer (a combination of lemonade and iced tea) for Chris. And good conversation. In contrast to the wily fish we pursue with fly rod and reel, we can count on good conversation–always.

Contemplative Recreation

Dreaming about the Holy Water

Fly angling and writing are two current seams in the same river–at least for me. When I finally fulfilled a dream sustained over six decades of fishing the Holy Water of the Au Sable River, ‘Up North’ in Michigan, it was as much for its rich literary and angling heritage as it was for its exemplary fishing.

I booked reservations at Gates Au Sable Lodge not only because of its reputation for hospitality and accommodation but because its owner, Josh Greenberg, is a fine writer who has published an eloquent memoir, Trout Water. Josh has intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the Au Sable gained through many years of living in the area and guiding on the river. But what I most admire about his book are the anglers–both companions and mentors–he remembers and honours with such compassion and depth of feeling. His extensive library housed at the lodge–impressive for the quality as well as the quantity of its editions–pleased me as much as the opportunity to catch trophy trout.

Dylan (left) and Dad

My dream of fishing the Au Sable began taking shape in the 1960s when Cable TV came to my hometown of London, Ontario and I started watching Michigan Outdoors on Channel 7 out of Detroit. Hosted by Mort Neff, the show originated in 1951, airing in prime time on Thursday evenings. These many years later I watch Michigan Out of Doors on PBS with amiable co-hosts Jimmy Gretzinger and Jenny Olsen Ciolek. The show has become an entry in the album of memories I have cherished throughout my life as a loyal fan of the Tigers, Pistons, Lions and, especially, the Red Wings.

I have long treasured a small, tattered black and white photograph of a smiling five-year old boy standing in front of the Christmas tree. I’m smiling because Santa left me a Detroit Red Wings jersey (red with its distinctive white winged wheel), red pants with white stripe down the sides, gloves, shin pads and red socks with horizontal white stripes around the calves, along with a hockey stick and pair of skates. I’m happy because Santa knew my hero was Gordie Howe. The player who eventually became known as Mr. Hockey was my first hero and the primary reason I have always loved the sport.

As much as fly fishing has brought my eldest son Dylan and me closer together, hockey provides the vocabulary of love that binds me to my youngest son, Robertson, who like his dad played the game in his youth and remains devoted to what is known as Canada’s national pastime.

When I was ten years old I was devastated to watch the Red Wings lose to the Chicago Blackhawks at the Olympia. History repeated itself half a century later when I saw the Red Wings lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs when I took Robertson to a game in the final season of the Joe Lewis Arena. We have plans to take in a rematch at Little Caesars Arena.

My dream of fishing the Au Sable seemed to alight on dead water when I phoned Josh in early spring to make reservations. ‘Sorry we’re booked through June,’ he apologized.

I told him I was hoping to realize a dream I had guarded since childhood and that I wanted to share it with Dylan, who had recently taken up fly fishing. Josh hesitated momentarily before confirming that he had a cancellation for the last week in June.

‘That’s wonderful because it would fall on my seventy-second birthday,’ I chirped.

‘Seems like it was made to be,’ Josh replied. ‘See you then.’

. . . . . . .

It was imperative for me to share the fulfillment of my long-held dream with my eldest son. I introduced him and Robertson to fishing when they were boys. For ten days at the height of summer over several years, my wife Lydia and I rented a rustic island cottage on a small shallow lake in the Kawarthas, a hundred kilometres northeast of where I attended university in Peterborough. The lake, known locally as Bass Lake—appropriately, as it turned out—supported healthy populations of smallmouth and largemouth bass, as well as panfish.

I usually fished alone by canoe in the afternoons while the boys remained with their mom and our black lab Leia (named by Dylan after the Star Wars princess) at the cottage. Swimming off the dilapidated dock, tent-building with fallen evergreen branches and target shooting with Dylan’s pellet rifle were usually on their agenda.

In the evenings, after early barbecue suppers, I fished with my sons from a fourteen-foot aluminum boat, powered by a touchy four-horsepower Johnson outboard motor. We tossed crankbaits, jerkbaits, even spinnerbaits, not to mention plastic leeches and minnows, soaked in some magic elixir advertised to transform bass into ravenous gluttons.

Although Dylan was barely in his teens (Robertson is four years younger), both boys learned to cast and how to handle fish after they hit. The other photograph I most cherish shows Dylan in the stern of the boat smugly holding a fourteen-inch smallmouth by the lip, while Robin struggles mightily in the bow trying to grasp with both hands his sixteen-inch largemouth by the tail. The joy is palpable.

Dylan roll casting on the Holy Water

I had barely started fly fishing, let alone pledge allegiance to the catch-and-release ethic, so it was catch-and-eat. The boys loved chowing down on nighttime snacks of fresh bass fritters—dipped in egg yolk and rolled in cornmeal before being deep fried to a crispy golden brown in hot oil.

At the time Dylan was studying karate—at which he grew proficient, eventually attaining a black belt and competing in Kyoto. He acquired the habit of wearing a patterned kimono while fishing. I wonder whether the philosophy he learned through the ancient Japanese martial art will ever be transferred to fly fishing, which he took up a couple of years ago just as he turned thirty. Conversely, Robertson has yet to show the slightest bit of interest.

Dylan decided to take up the contemplative recreation not because of any deep passion for fishing, but because he wanted to investigate why it had hooked his dad at the meridian of life. I also believe it came from a desire to stay connected with me after Lydia and I separated and subsequently divorced while Dylan was attending university.

I find this interesting because the practice of catching fish is not primarily what attracted me to fly fishing. Rather, I was drawn to the recreational sport because of its long tradition of literature, visual art and music. This cultural tradition is a direct outgrowth of the history of fly fishing which, in turn, has been shaped and influenced by the writing, art and music it has inspired. It is toward this convergence of cultural currents that I cast my imagination.

. . . . . . .

Despite its long smooth glides, its gravel bottom stretching for miles, its proliferation of cedar sweepers where the big trout lie, its quietude, serenity and beauty that rewards contemplative wading, I knew the Au Sable’s fishing would be challenging, both for me and for Dylan. But my dream would not be denied. As expected, we arrived at the height of the legendary Hexagenia limbata hatch, which Josh evocatively describes in his book as the ‘hex fermata.’

I had no interest in blind-casting my seven-foot, nine-inch, five-weight Sweetgrass bamboo rod to the sound of large voracious trophy Brownies in tar-black darkness while nursing a tender knee awaiting transplant surgery. I also knew that Dylan wasn’t up to the task, just yet. I reasoned that tossing Isonychia dry flies to modest Brookies and Rainbows in the gloaming would be the ticket.

The weather, however, had other plans. The river was pounded by four inches of rain the day before we arrived and was drenched again at the mid-point of our stay by torrential rain accompanied by hail.

None of this mattered. Not one iota.

Josh had assigned Mark Hendricks, an experienced guide who was a retired firefighter from Detroit, to instruct Dylan on the intricacies and nuances of fly fishing. In his youth Mark was a promising hockey player–so good in fact that he won a scholarship to Boston College only to be derailed by a couple of knee surgeries–the Bobby Orr curse. My dad was a firefighter for thirty-five years, so Dylan and I really hit it off with Mark. I told him that all I expected was for my son to return home a better fly angler than he was when he left. And, like a long fine cast, Mark delivered with generosity, humour and grace.

However, it was the literary and fly angling connections to the Au Sable that made the dream-come-true adventure significant and memorable. After all, anglers inclined to cast their imaginations on literary waters feel right at home in a place where the most popular craft ale is Two Hearted IPA.

When we weren’t casting lines on the river, Dylan and I went on short jaunts to Walloon Lake and Horton Bay (pop. 512) to trace Ernest Hemingway’s faint footprints. The original family cottage has been renovated so extensively that it bears little resemblance to anything the writer would recognize. Similarly, the quaint hamlet of Hemingway’s day has become a millionaire’s row of summer estates. Still, I was delighted to meet a direct descendent of a family Hemingway mentions in one of his Nick Adams stories in the Red Fox Inn Bookstore, which specializes in all things Hemingway including books and memorabilia. She was a sweetheart who mused about the writer as if she had known him personally so many years ago.

Dylan and I travelled to Mayfield in honour of Leonard Halladay, inventor in 1922 of the classic Adams dry fly (a versatile, impressionist trout deceiver I use religiously). Hallady named the fly after Charles F. Adams, a lawyer from Ohio and longtime angling buddy who first cast it on the nearby Boardman River, another one of northern Michigan’s celebrated trout waters. Heading down the road to the public library in Kingsley to see a display–featuring a rare original Adams fly tied by Halliday along with some archival photographs–was akin to worshipping at a shrine. It was heartwarming to meet a young library technician who took such pride in the display while outlining the importance of Halladay to the area. ‘He put us on the map,’ she enthused.

We made the rounds of Grayling, the epicentre of where the late, esteemed Jim Harrison was born and lived off and on for many years before he joined fellow Michigan-born writer Thomas McGuane in Montana and began dividing his time between Big Sky Country and Arizona borderlands. We visited Lovells Museum of Trout Fishing History, on the Au Sable’s North Branch, where we learned about George Griffith, writer, conservationist, inventor of the Griffith’s Gnat midge pattern and one of sixteen founding members, as well as a director, of the inaugural chapter of Trout Unlimited. (Is it any wonder Doug ‘Grizzly Bear’ Peacock–Vietnam War veteran, eco-author, filmmaker, wildlife activist and inspiration for Edward Abbey’s George Washington Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang–was born and raised a couple of hours drive south of here?)

Lovells Museum of Trout Fishing History

I talked to a bookish fly angler at the lodge about Michigan poets Michael Delp and Chris Dombrowski, naturalist and angling writer Jerry Dennis and mystery writer Ronald Weber. He told me about plans the Lodge had of hosting a fly angling writers’ symposium which, sadly, had to be postponed because of the Covid pandemic. Michigan continues to produce a new generation of angling writers as confirmed by Callan Wink who, like Harrison, McGuane and Dombrowski, lit out for Montana to write while working as a fishing guide.

Before turning in every night, I read a few pages of Cold Hearted River, angling mystery writer Keith McCafferty’s homage to Hemingway, portions of which are set on the comely Au Sable. As a teenager Keith spent his summers doing reclamation work on the river to protect and safeguard its trout fishery.

It was impossible for me to wade into the Au Sable without feeling the friendly presence of these literary angling companions, past and present, directing my casts to where wily trout aught to be. By viewing fishing this way the magic never evaporates because success is not measured by the number and size of fish caught, but rather by the richness and depth, texture and colour, mood and atmosphere of the experience. Who needs fish when warmed and comforted under a duvet of mystery?

What I will remember most affectionately, however, are the late evenings Dylan and I spent sitting on a bench overlooking the river, enjoying fine Honduran cigars and ten-year old Ardbeg–revered as the peatiest, smokiest and most complex of all the Islay malt whiskies, despite its subtle notes of natural sweetness–listening to a softly cooing owl and a pair of serenading whippoorwills while talking about the things fathers and sons contemplate in a land where lifelong angling dreams really do come true.

Contemplative Recreation

Flowing Water

running, rushing
always in a hurry, over
stones, around boulders,
punctuating the riverbed—
grace notes etched in memory.

Vowels and consonants
swaying, dancing,
constantly caressing,
sweet melodies
and words of praise,
never ceasing
to enchant and delight
in wonder and in bliss.

Breathing, beating heart
while casting
to river rhythms and rhymes
alive in the moment
eager to join trout or bass,
always singing
in a chorus of joy,
variations on a theme
around the next bend—
ever-onward in remembered song.

Rob on the Grand
Photo by Chris Pibus
Contemplative Recreation

A Fly Angler’s Almanac

The Calling

Seasonal rhythms unfold like a symphony performed in praise of our Good Earth. Each of four movements is defined by distinct flora and fauna, weather and constellation, habitat and species, advancing and receding light. Fly anglers refine approach, methods, gear and tackle to the character of each season. It’s not always easy to determine the end of one season and the beginning of another. Fish know, however, guided by instinct born over millennia of advancing and retreating glaciers that serve as their almanac.

Fly anglers accept each season as a gift received in gratitude with its obligation of responsibility and stewardship. This gift exchange establishes a reciprocal relationship with the strength of a sacred bond, which is why fly fishing is a moral Calling. A fly rod is both microscope and telescope that enables anglers to see, appreciate and understand the world more truthfully and more sympathetically than they might otherwise, considering the limitation of their perceptions. Casting fur and feather is a hymnal through which anglers sing the praises of Nature in all her manifest wonder. And therein lies the Mystery.

Engraving of Fly Fisherman by Wesley Bates


For fly anglers Spring is not a date on the calendar. It does not announce itself when rivers and lakes shed their hard translucent skin. Rather it arrives on the wings of Hendrickson mayflies in lengthening daylight and rising temperatures, when hope flows through and around the fins of wild trout. Poets and anglers refer to this period of buoyant optimism as the Sweet of the Year. Anglers inhale the rich fragrances of memory and expectation as the sun revives this bountiful planet, marking the starting point of a line tracing an endless circle of birth, maturity, death, rebirth and renewal.

Everything seems possible, brimming with hope, as meadow grasses fold back the brown blanket of winter slumber and awaken in a bouquet of dancing greens celebrating the return of growth and fecundity. Anglers resemble school children released after the last bell of an interminably long day to pursue the promise of freedom and adventure. Anglers wading rivers feel once again the pulse of currents entering their bodies and flowing through their arteries. They become rivers, joining the company of trees which are rivers aspiring to be stars.

Engraving of Bass by Wesley Bates


Summer is a period of extroversion and expansion as the emboldened sun warms the temperature of streams, rivers and lakes. Fly anglers who avoid fishing before sunrise or after sunset exchange artificial flies tied by the hands of heritage for large gaudy patterns with names evoking a killer instinct. Finicky aristocratic trout give way to the voracious appetites of proletarian black bass. For literary anglers trout retain remnants of the English chalkstream and the New England pastoral. In contrast, bass represent the frontier spirit of westward expansion across a continent seemingly without end.

Many anglers step away from the moving water and banksides of rivers in favour of the placid water and shorelines of lakes. They replace waders and wading boots for canoe and paddle. Fly fishing and canoeing is a ‘hatch’ made in heaven. They share a design elegance which is more than form and function serving the complementary goals of beauty and performance. They share a common ethic and aesthetic. Casting and paddling are liturgical rites practiced in outdoor cathedrals by secular pilgrims devoted to leaving faint footprints wherever adventure takes them.

Engraving of Swallows by Wesley Bates


Autumn is unique in the seasonal cycle because it’s really two seasons in one, variations on a theme. Early on the deepening iridescent colours of trout eager to spawn reflect the vibrant canopy of fluttering leaves and dark earthly harvest: the Three Sisters of squash, corn and beans, gourds, sweet potatoes, turnip, carrots, beets, cabbage, rutabaga, pumpkin, apples and pears. The skies are bright and clear. The sun is still warm as water temperatures chill and aquatic insects recede. This is a glorious season for anglers who value quality of experience above catch limits.

When the Harvest Moon bows to the Hunter’s Moon Autumn quietly slips into Fall, which the rural Scots have long referred to as the back end of the year. The rich spawning colours of trout give way to the cobalt sheen of steelhead under pewter skies and the skeletal architecture of trees. This is the season of migration. Geese and other birds are not the only creatures that travel great distances in response to instinct. Steelhead move from lakes and oceans to their birth rivers, causing anglers to muse that birds are fish that fly and fish are birds that swim.

Engraving of Heron by Wesley Bates


Rivers might not sleep during the long cold Winter; however, they rest as fly anglers retreat from banksides and find repose at the tying vise or in an armchair with book in hand and dram of malt whisky within reach. Although hardy anglers fish wherever open water awaits, Wintertide is a time of reflection and contemplation, when memories of angling past and anticipation of angling future warm the imagination like a down-filled duvet. The world of fish and water contracts as the darkness of night lengthens and the earth shivers under a blanket in clean pure snow.

Winter is introspective compared to the extroversion of Summer. Anglers take stock and give thanks in peace and quietude. With pen in hand or at the keyboard, writers write. With burin carved into the endgrain of maple, engravers engrave. Both celebrate the practice and the art of fly fishing, acknowledging its history and heritage while paying forward its enduring legacy as best they can with imagination and skill acquired through discipline and labour. This forward and backward motion is the thin black line of creation that gives fly casting its elegance and grace.

Engraving of Fly Fisherman by Wesley Bates

Spring Redux

Fly anglers are like mayflies that spend the winter as nymphs only to emerge transformed as duns with the return of Spring. They put away the tools of the tying bench and the books of the armchair. They reclaim rod and reel, waders and boots, gear and tackle—talismans all. The conversation begins anew as anglers leave the comfort of the hearth for the hope embodied in blossoming trees and moving water. Sympathetic ears turn to the poetry of trout and the music of rivers. The communion between angler, fish and water resumes as anglers gather in fellowship.

Anglers enroll in a refresher course in the ways of trout, living ancestors who have evolved from the dawning of life on this wondrous planet which now shows urgent signs of chronic stress. Standing again in the cool fresh flow of water, anglers are reminded that fish are not things or objects, but beings, brothers and sisters, who speak a language we can hear when we open our hearts. The communal kinship between all living things has much to teach beyond books and classrooms, provided mind and body, emotion and spirit remain open to the wisdom of all that is precious on this Good Earth.

Contemplative Recreation

Eye to Eye into the Soul

Fly anglers well versed in the ways of trout agree that stealth is a path to success. If you can see the trout, the trout sees you, goes the warning.

As a result, anglers exercise caution when wading–no noise, no disturbing wake, no stumbling and bumbling that kicks up riverbed detritus. Anglers are careful not to cast shadows that alarm wary trout. Blending in is the ticket, including inconspicuous clothing. I have heard that some anglers worry their silver- or gold-plated reels give them away. I have also heard that some anglers reject brightly coloured fly line for the same reason. Anglers cast gently so as not to arouse suspicion and trigger fear—artificial flies must fall on the water like whispers on the wind.

This advice makes abundant sense if the objective is to catch fish. But what if catching fish is not the only goal? What if a large part of the reason for fly fishing is connecting with nature, establishing a bond or kinship with fellow creatures with whom humans share this good green earth?

If William Shakespeare is right—if ‘eyes are the window to [the] soul’—is eye contact between angler and trout such a bad thing? Is it to be avoided at all cost? Or does the experience of profound intimacy, of deep connection, have value—at least for the creature holding the fly rod? Or is such fancy or whimsy akin to angling heresy?

I started musing about eye contact with trout while reading Harry Thurston’s A Place Between the Tides. Subtitled A Naturalist’s Reflections on the Salt Marsh, the memoir records recollections of his childhood farm life after he, his wife and daughter move to the Old Marsh on the banks of Nova Scotia’s Tidnish River. I came to the book after reading Thurston’s more recent book Lost River, subtitled The Waters of Remembrance. I think of it as A River Runs Through It meets The Mountain and the Valley. I was deeply impressed with his angling memoir and was delighted to discover that I had his earlier offering in my library, which like the later book is about memory, family and nature, written with both beauty and grace. Although I had not set aside time to read it, I quickly remedied the oversight. Needless to say, I enjoyed the book immensely.

In A Place Between the Tides Thurston references theologian Gary Kowalski’s book, The Soul of Animals, which posits that humans come closest to touching the inner lives of other animals through the eyes. In his celebrated book Kowalski argues that animals are not insensitive creatures devoid of feeling and intellect but thinking, sentient beings with an inward, spiritual life. Thurston riffs on this theme by recalling a close encounter he experienced with a red fox, which he named White Face, who for a number of years raised a family in a den close to his house.

This got me contemplating four separate instances in my life when I had intimate encounters with wildlife.

The first instance also involved a red fox, one in a leash that lived most of a year in a small copse of conifers and hardwoods behind my apartment. On one of my daily evening walks I came across three young ones cavorting like exuberant puppies. Two ran off upon my arrival, but one stayed behind. He/she stared a me for what seemed like long minutes, rolled over a few times, sat on his/her haunches, stared at me, scratched his/her ear, rolled over a few more times, sat again on his/her haunches and stared at me yet again. I have had dogs most of my life (a spaniel, a rough collie, a Lab and a pair of Labradoodle sisters) and to me this was an invitation to play, pure and simple. He/she did not move off until a car sped by, breaking the spell. Regardless, I can recall thinking at the time that we had established a meaningful bond, if only momentarily.

Engraving of a hummingbird
by Wesley W. Bates to illustrate a poem by Gary Leitz (Larkspur Press)

The second instance involved one of nature’s most incredible birds. I was sitting on the porch one afternoon enjoying a cup of coffee when a ruby-throated hummingbird swooped down and darted toward the feeder in anticipation of some sweet concoction. Instead of sticking his/her long slender beak into the red and yellow tulip-shaped receptacle, he/she turned and stared at me for what seemed like an unusually long time. At first I thought he/she might be getting a reflection off my eyeglasses. Regardless, he/she remained in stationary flight pattern before dipping into the receptacle and darting off. Again, the experience made me think I had bonded with the critter.

The third instance involved one of nature’s most awesome birds. It happened when I returned home from an afternoon of canoeing with Lois Hayward, my partner at the time. I was sitting on the porch enjoying a cold beer when a peregrine falcon swept onto a branch and perched in a Norway maple in front of me. He/she was magnificent. We exchanged stares—his/her piercing eyes seemed to burrow into my eyes—for a good five or ten minutes. I knew it was a falcon because I had read in the local paper that a pair had nested atop the twenty-storey Sun Life Financial headquarters, located on the boundary of Kitchener and Waterloo, no more than a mile or two, as the falcon flies, from where I was living. It was amazing; it actually gave me chills. Again, I felt as if I had bonded with another creature.

Of course, this is not unusual, my friend Sherry Wolf has regaled me with tales of intimate confrontations she has experienced with both deer and coyotes while walking in a forest close to her home. Her two male shih-poos, the tenderhearted Miko and the feisty Hagrid, have had similar experiences with deer he seems determined to befriend, suggesting that this is a common cross-species experience.

Before any reader gets the erroneous impression that I am advocating some sort of anthropomorphic Bambi meets fly angler in the Wonderful World of Disney, let me stress that an encounter with the wild is fraught with potential danger, as Sherry well knows. Here is a series of texts, not uncommon by any stretch, detailing a confrontation with a pair of coyotes:

‘Ran into two coyotes in the forest at 6:30 pm., They followed us. I came around a corner [on the path] and both dogs took off like maniacs. I thought it was a deer. Then I saw his tail. I put the dogs on leashes and threw big branches and large sticks at him as he sat about ten feet away, staring.

‘So there we were,’ she continues. ‘Crap, I thought, there must be another one behind us. And, sure enough, there she was two feet away. She did not budge, sat perfectly still. When I threw a large stick at her, she just smelled it and stared at us. So I had to back up out of the forest holding the boys on leashes and carrying a big stick.’

A day later she received this text from a mutual friend who was walking his dog in the same area in the forest.

”Just returned from a walk [about 3 pm] and had a close encounter with aggressive coyotes. Charged at us with teeth bared. Didn’t follow but watched us for awhile. Think they have a den in the area.

Wesley Bates tells of an encounter he had with a red-tailed hawk that habitually cruised the Hamilton neighbourhood where he lived at the time. ‘I think it had an aerie in the Catholic church steeple a block over from my third-floor apartment,’ he said. ‘I witnessed him take a pigeon in mid-flight and devour it on the top of a streetlight pole just ten feet from my window. The hawk gave me a good look over as I gawked at him.’

It just so happens I was reading Le Anne Schreiber’s Midstream, her ‘intimate journal’ of loss (death of her mom) and discovery (moving from New York City to a century home in the country and taking up fly fishing) when I was writing this story. Schreiber recalls walking on a nature trail and confronting a whitetail buck that ‘stood his ground.’ ‘Staring straight’ at one another in a mutual ‘glare’ for ten minutes or so, he eventually bounded away, leaving Schreiber in a state of exhilaration. She confides that, for the first time in her life, she felt ‘an animal was treating me like a fellow creature.’ YES, that’s it, EXACTLY!

The final instance of intimate contact took place on water and unfolded as a prolonged dance between me and a great blue heron. One evening I was fishing the Grand River tailwater for hatchery raised brown trout. Unlike some anglers who view herons as a predatory threat to fish stocks, I admire them as minimalist precision anglers who feast on small fish. I view this as natural adaptability and selection; survival of the fittest in its most elegant form.

Engraving of a heron
by Wesley W. Bates in Casting into Mystery

Of course, herons are pure stealth. They stand absolutely still, like a blade of tall grass on a windless day. They patiently wait for a meal to swim within striking distance of their S-shaped necks which, like coiled springs, are unleashed at high speed in the blink of an eye. After spearing their piscine morsel, they lift their heads back to swallow, with great shakes of apparent satisfaction to assist digestion.

On this evening the heron played out this ritual repeatedly, leap-frogging over me whenever I passed him/her while casting mid-river as I diligently made my way upriver. We continued this dance as two partners too shy to embrace, but eager to keep moving in syncopated rhythm, for more than an hour.

What does this have to do with fly fishing? Thurston speculates in A Place Between the Tides that the boundary between ‘watcher’ and ‘watched’ is fuzzy, that animals watch humans as much as humans watch animals. This natural bond or kinship complicates the relationship between predator and prey, even when applied to anglers and trout. If this is true in the complex web of life, then I believe humans have a moral obligation to respect all species other than themselves. This implies a reciprocity of ethical responsibility anglers are obliged to assume when fishing for trout—which applies equally to all anglers and to all species of fish.

I am not advocating that fly anglers avoid or discard all tactics designed to assist in the catching of trout—or of any other species. Only that they open their minds and hearts and imaginations to seeing nature in all her complexity and fragility and vulnerability. With this visionary perspective comes acceptance that anglers are not separate and apart from nature, but are threads woven into the intricate fabric of all living things.

In this way fly fishing, to paraphrase the Bard, holds ‘a mirror up to the Mystery of nature.’

Contemplative Recreation

From Banjo to Fly Rod

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).

Chris Coole ‘grip and grin’

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.  

Contemplative Recreation

Soul of a Poet & Fly Angler

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.

Garnet Rogers

‘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.

This book is the proof.

Contemplative Recreation

‘Fishing’ with Jerry

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.

Anler with fish

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.


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

May the gloaming be with you.