Fly anglers have long been described as crazy. But is it going too far, is it lunacy, to suggest that there could be a very thin sliver of silver lining in the dark pandemic cloud that has blanketed the planet?
Let me make my case without sounding too self-centred and irresponsible. It has been two years since I last joined Dan Kennaley and his wife, Jan, at their lovely island cottage in northeastern Muskoka, bordering the Haliburton Highlands.
Dan first invited me to the cottage a dozen years ago and I have enjoyed a few days there in all but one year when Dan and Jan went on an RV adventure across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains of America and Canada. I was envious because Dan and Jan traced the steps of some of my favourite writers: Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Norman Maclean, Thomas McGuane, Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, A.B. Guthrie Jr., James Galvin, Joe Wilkins . . . You get the idea.
Some years at the cottage we pursued the spirit of Tom Thomson on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Whatever day trips we made, however, we always spent an evening on a secluded lake no more than a few kilometres from a busy two-lane highway perusing black bass from Dan’s red fibreglass canoe, christened the ‘Greg Clark’ in honour the legendary Canadian newspaperman and angler who befriended a young Ernest Hemingway and gave the famous Mickey Finn streamer its name.
Two year ago Dan reported that the land surrounding the lake had been sold to a person with ‘deep pockets’ who intended to build four cottages overlooking our small slice of paradise. In all the years we had fished the lake we had it completely to ourselves. Only once had we encountered anyone else—which turned out to be a quartet of young women from the Big City in search of a friend’s cottage.
To my pleasant surprise and deep gratitude, there was no evidence of construction when we arrived at the lake amid dark storm clouds. I suspect the delay was the result of the pandemic—ergo the very thin sliver of silver lining. I confess that only a fly angler might be crazy enough to view such a thing in this way given what COVID-19 has done the global social, medical, cultural, political and economic orders.
Although the pandemic has wrought chaos, including serious illness and death, for most of the people around the world, excluding the very richest and privileged of course, it had impacted little on my fly fishing. I prefer to fish in places devoid of other anglers. Therefore it was easy to follow COVID protocols with my two regular angling buddies: Dan, who has joined me in retirement; and Wesley Bates, the renown engraver who was my creative partner on our book Casting into Mystery. Believe me, it has not been lost on any of us how fortunate we have been to be able to enjoy our shared passion during such troubling and uncertain times.
Since I started fly fishing with Dan more than 15 years ago our annual practice has been to fish for trout in late April, through May and June, until air and water temperatures conspire to make it inappropriate to fish for trout except for at daybreak and into the darkness of the night. Neither of which Dan and I do.
When bass season opens at the beginning of July I exchange my three- and five-weight Sweetgrass bamboo rods for my five-weight Winston and seven-weight Scott graphite rods. Similarly I replace my fly boxes of dry flies, wet flies and nymphs for streamers including Woolly Buggers and poppers.
Anglers living in the Grand River watershed are blessed with an abundance of piscine riches. Not only does it boast a brown trout fishery in its tailwater protected by tall limestone cliffs, it offers an exceptional smallmouth bass fishery when it broadens and winds its way through a pastoral landscape including Mennonite farm country and Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest indigenous reserve.
My summer on the Grand River was something of a good-news, bad news story. While I caught fewer smallmouth bass, the ones I caught were larger including the biggest—and most beautiful—smallie I have ever landed on the heritage river that meanders through my home in Waterloo. It stretched the tape measure to seventeen inches. Luckily my oldest son, Dylan, was my fishing partner and he was able to snap a photo on his cellphone to verify my good fortune—if not my angling prowess.
I subsequently caught six Grand River smallies (including a pair of ten-inchers and an eleven-incher) the first time I went fishing with Chris Pibus, a like-minded literary angler who introduced me to a wonderful fly angling mystery, Death on a Cold, Wild River, set on Ireland’s myth-haunted west coast and featuring Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr. The series is written by Bartholomew Gill.
Taking Dan’s canoe off the top of his four-wheel drive Subaru was easier than in the past. Because of an unexpected gift, he had a cream-cloured, sixteen-foot Prospector made of kevlar, a wonderful synthetic material half the weight of his sixteen-foot fibreglass. In light of my two minor heart attacks and Dan’s single minor heart attack, we both were grateful for the reduced weight.
As we were transporting our gear and tackle to the canoe, I reminded Dan of a previous outing on a nearby lake where we encountered a common snapping turtle of unusual curiosity who seemed very keen to make our acquaintance. Let me digress with a remembrance of our close encounter with the ancient creature, otherwise known to biologists as Chelydra serpentina.
At the outset, I must acknowledge that this was one the most awesome encounters with wildlife I have ever experienced while fly fishing. And I mean awesome in the dictionary sense of an extremely impressive experience inspiring intense admiration, apprehensive and fear.
We were minding our own business, casting nymphs and streamers to small- and largemouth bass, when we spotted the beast slowly, silently and surely making his way towards the canoe. He was huge, at least the size of a vintage snowshoe. He came to within a metre of the gunwale. (By the creature’s size, it was obviously male.) Dan put down his rod and grabbed his digital Nikon and started snapping photos in rapid succession as the native, freshwater reptile edged closer . . . and closer . . . and closer.
Dan, who has retained a childlike curiosity which I admire, was oblivious to the turtle’s encroaching proximity. I, on the other hand, was quickly growing unsettled. My internal anxiety barometre was rising. I had often seen snappers from a distance sunbathing on rocks, taking life easy. Minding their own business. This ancient soldier was too close for comfort.
Although called the common snapping turtle, there was nothing common about this guy. To my mind he was a menacing, cold-blooded, evil-eyed reptile, an anthropological relic from the Age of Dinosaurs before an asteroid struck our defenceless planet 65 million years ago, causing the Great Catastrophe. His gnarly head and thick crenated carapace (upper shell) seemed to be carved out of the same precambrian rock that comprised and defined the landscape in which we were fishing. I knew that snappers in nearby Algonquin Park have been known to live more than a century and, while this guy’s age was indeterminate, I would bet my pension cheque he was older than my sixty-plus years.
Although snappers display a combative attitude on land, they are more passive in the water. They are more likely to retreat than advance, surrender rather than engage, even though they are apex predators after surviving the egg stage of their life cycle. Not this malevolent guy. Whether curious or in the habit of being fed by misguided canoeist (we were fishing in early July on a popular canoe route).
When he was no more than an extended neck from the canoe panic took hold. I set down the rod and picked up the paddle, and started making for the far shore and the unsuspecting bass we would hopefully meet along the way.
‘Put your camera away and pick up a damn paddle,’ I wailed somewhat childishly. Dan responded with a bemused chuckle.
Things were more tranquil on this evening in late August. We welcomed no visitors, the lake was ours and ours alone. In this part of Ontario bass fishing tails off as summer greens ready for the transformation to autumn rusts, oranges and yellows. Still the conditions (meaning fewer of mosquitos) make for delightful respite on the water. Even when the dark clouds burst they dropped a soft steady shower of warm rain, so gentle we did not bother with rain gear.
We each caught a half dozen small- and largemouth bass of modest size (ten-to-twelve-inch range). We tried poppers to no avail, just because they offer so much pleasure under optimum conditions. They work best on still placid water at twilight, not when the lake surface is shattered by falling rain, even gently falling rain.
Not to be discouraged, Dan had success with a chartreuse Woolly Bugger that our angling buddy Craig Wardlow showcased with good results on an earlier outing. I boasted I had no such gaudy fly in my box. Instead I had an even gaudier lime-green (chartreuse is too elegant a word) nymphy-thingamajig tied by a fellow member of KW Flyfishers from some kind of cheap synthetic fabric salvaged from a kitchen mop. I was conflicted, pleased but vaguely dismayed, when the bloody thing actually worked, proving that black bass have unrefined dietary tastes.
It hit Canada early in 2020, a winter like no other, at least in my lifetime, one year shy of three score and ten. Not since the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 had the world been in the clutches of such a pernicious pandemic as COVID-19. People around the world were sick and dying, medical resources were stretched to the limit, friends and families were separated and isolated. National economies tanked as governments locked down countries—including Canada, Britain and the United States—in a desperate attempt to contain the virus. Fear and anxiety, uncertainty and desperation disrupted the social order, as emotional and psychological fabrics frayed.
Understandably and appropriately the focus remained on medical and public health concerns as governments and public institutions scrambled to save lives and find both a cure and a vaccine. As unemployment soared emergency financial compensation became a priority.
In the midst of urgent crisis management I continued to worry about the pandemic’s root causes which I believed involved the dysfunctional relationship between humanity and the planet—a full-blown ‘ecocrisis’. (I first read the term in Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness.) I feared that until humanity curtailed environmental destruction and ecological degradation, there would be more pandemics to complement the escalating natural disasters (drought, famine, hurricane, tornado, flood, wildfire, earthquake, avalanche, tsunami) that have become increasingly catastrophic.
The way I saw it, the pandemic exposed humanity’s fatal flaw—its egocentric and anthropocentric vulnerability. Through what can only be described as lethal arrogance, humanity refused to acknowledge itself as an integral part of the planetary community of life. Moreover, it refused to recognize that its very survival depended on the health and sustainability of ‘the entire world biotic environment,’ in the words of Roderick Nash in Wilderness and the American Mind. What was needed was a biocentric worldview.
The coronavirus was a poignant reminder that humanity, as one gossamer thread in the magical and mystical web of creation, had abused and violated the delicate and fragile balance that supports the crucible of life. The porcelain network of living things and natural systems had been shattered.
It was against this foreboding backdrop that I eagerly awaited the opening of trout season on the fourth Saturday of April. Traditionally a coming-out party for fly anglers who resemble rambunctious school children released at recess, the pandemic heightened expectations. Although the province was shut down by government fiat, the season opened as usual—albeit under unusual conditions. Parks and conservation areas were closed, as were marinas, boat launches and public access points to recreational water. Strategies to ‘flatten the curve’ of pandemic infections and deaths, such as wearing masks and social distancing, remained in effect.
Still I was eager to get out on the water for no other reason than to assert a semblance of normality. I yearned for the familiar, the ordinary, the commonplace. Even the uncertainty of catching a trout was reassuring. There is something about moving water and the rhythms of casting a bamboo fly rod that relaxes the body, soothes the mind and comforts the soul. John Burroughs, one of America’s great nature writers, recognized the ‘salutary ministrations’ of water and angling. In his essay ‘Speckled Trout,’ published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870 and collected in Locusts and Wild Honey in 1879, he writes:
I have been a seeker of trout from my boyhood, and on all the expeditions in which this fish has been the ostensible purpose I have brought home more game than my creel showed. In fact, in my mature years I find I got more of nature into me, more of the woods, the wild, nearer to bird and beast, while threading my native streams for trout, than in almost any other way.
A fews days after the season opened my fly angling buddy Dan Kennaley and I were bound for the headwaters of the Saugeen River through the rolling moving shapes of the southwestern Ontario countryside. A mere ninety-minute drive from my home in Waterloo, it is one of my favourite places on our ‘good green earth’ (the phrase recurs throughout Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass).
I enjoy fishing from a canoe on tranquil northern lakes; however, I cherish wading rivers. There is something magical about fishing in water that flows forever onwards from place to place and around the next bend rich with the potential for wonder. The sense of freshwater motion is hypnotic and therapeutic, as my metabolism fuses with a force greater than myself. In syncopation with the rhythms of moving water I am transported out of my subjective body into an awareness of the objective natural world, of which I am an integral part. Through imaginative sympathy I become river.
When this mysterious transfiguration occurs, a river not only acts as a backdrop or setting, it assumes a role in an unfolding narrative. For my part, I am not a player on the stage of nature but an active participant in the drama of Creation.
Although I regularly fish the tailwater of the Grand River, I much prefer headwaters in all their riparian splendour. Here the mystery is deeper, darker, more profound. Ted Williams—not the Boston Red Sox legend but the journalist who wrote about outdoor sports and conservation for such magazines as Audubon and Gray’s Sporting Journal—referred to fishing such ‘secret, timeless’ places as ‘rivertop trouting.’ (I love the phrase.)
Dan and I met in the village of Arthur, but breaking with our habit of loading our gear and ourselves into one vehicle—during which we routinely engage in our deepest conversations—we drove separately to our destination on the Saugeen headwaters.
We arrived mid-afternoon to a location we had not fished for at least three years. It felt good to be back. I last visited the rugged stretch with my youngest son, Robertson, and caught a half dozen wild brownies within half an hour of leaving for home at suppertime. That remained my most memorable outing on the river until my return this pandemic spring.
It was a lovely day, featuring a warm invigorating sun and deep azure skies with minimal cloud cover. Sunlight can be an angler’s foil, but in spring it is less troublesome, especially in the midst of afternoon mayfly hatches. While we were gearing up at the shoulder of the gravel road, a conservation officer pulled up in a black pickup.
‘Just checking on anglers and turkey hunters,’ he said.
‘I don’t have a fishing licence because I left sixty-five in the rearview mirror,’ I offered. ‘But I have my driver’s licence.’
He chuckled. One of the few benefits of growing old is not having to purchase a fishing licence in my home province of Ontario.
‘Good luck, gentlemen, and stay safe,’ he said before driving off.
As we made our way down a steep bank to the river we were greeted by a couple of kingfishers rattling from tree to tree. I chose to interpret the unscheduled meeting as a fortuitous omen. In contrast to some anglers, I am not especially superstitious, but it seems foolhardy not to embrace Lady Luck when she comes calling in the guise of a pair of winged piscine marauders.
While walking along the bankside I was delighted to see a profuse bed of Trout Lilies, one of my favourite herbaceous woodland wildflowers, with their yellow blossom (they can also be white) which seem to curtsy in modesty despite their distinctive green leaves with brown mottled spots resembling the vermicular marking of brook trout. The plant is both medicinal and edible (in small quantities) which can be eaten either on the trail or in spring salads. Like the fish that gives its name, Trout Lilies are simultaneously hardy and fragile—and ancient.
The water was a tad high and fast. Since we had not had rain in the past few days, we credited the roiling water to the runoff of recalcitrant snow overstaying its welcome in deep bush.
Dan and I both tossed black wooly worms with short maroon tails downstream and across. I caught three brook trout between seven and nine inches, before switching to a Hendrickson emerger and getting a solid hit which I was unable to set. Dan caught one brownie after I left for home, which saved him from the pungent fragrance of skunk which lingers long after an angler retires from the river—with fly rod tucked between his legs.
Later in the week I drove to Clifford to join up with Wesley Bates, the artist with whom I worked on our fly angling book Casting into Mystery. Respecting pandemic protocol I remained in my Jeep while following him in his car to a provincial highway, then I took the lead en route to the river.
As I was driving I noticed a full moon floating faintly over the centre of the gravel road high in the clear blue sky. I thought of the lunar phantom as a fellow wayfarer guiding me to the pot of piscatorial gold at the end of the aquatic rainbow. Of course, seeing the ghostly moon during the day is not exceptional. Still I am always intrigued by the occurrence, especially in relation to fishing.
My fascination with the moon goes back to early childhood. I remember laying across the back window of my dad’s Plymouth V8 sedan when he was driving my mom, brother and sister home after an evening out, usually visiting friends or relatives. As I remember it, stars were always winking at me from a canopy of deep darkness. Looking back, I can say with absolute certainty that I never felt safer and more secure as the moon seemed to follow my family home as I snuggled under a cozy quilt of slumber.
I do not put much stock in newspaper horoscopes, but as someone who takes seriously the wisdom tradition of the ancient Celts, I cannot dismiss the significance of the stars and the planets, the days and the elements, under which a person comes into this world. Born under the Northern cardinal sign of Cancer, which is associated with water and ruled by the moon, I have always felt an intuitive, emotional pull toward both natural forces.
The moon has long been connected to behaviour, both natural and human. The ebb and flow of the earth’s great tides are obvious, as is the influence on the mood and behaviour of humans. My sister was a nurse for four decades, much of which was spent working in hospitals throughout the night. She often talked about how the behaviour of patients was affected by full moons.
Both the moon and water are feminine symbols representing the rhythm of time as embodied and enacted in natural cycles. Moreover, both moon and water are connected to fish and fishing. Unlike many anglers, I never fish in accordance with monthly solunar tables. Getting out on the water whenever possible has always been more important than increasing the probability of catching fish. Still I cannot resist falling under the enchanting triune spell of moon, water and fish contained within the mystery of fly angling. If I prefer the spell of romance to science, so be it.
Wesley was taken in by the raw beauty of the stretch of river he was experiencing for the first time. The water was still high, the result of rain showers over the past couple of days. I gave him a black woolly worm and we spent the afternoon casting downstream and across—to no avail as it turned out. We both had a couple of strikes, enough to excite expectations, but our courtship with trout ended in rejection. If comparing angling to courting strikes jaded readers as corny, I defer to no less an authority than Burroughs who likens a stream to a paramour in ‘Speckled Trout’:
Then what acquaintance [an angler] makes with a stream. He addresses himself to it as a lover to his mistress; he wooes (sic) it and stays with it till he knows its most hidden secrets. It runs through his thoughts not less than through its banks there; he feels the fret and the thrust of every bar and boulder. Where it deepens, his purpose deepens; where it is shallow, he is indifferent. He knows how to interpret its every glance and dimple; its beauty haunts him for days.
Admittedly wooing might sound antiquated in terms of contemporary vernacular. However, considering its connotation of something that puts people in danger of making fools of themselves, the word certainly applies to fly fishing.
True to angling form I made a beeline to the very spot—under identical conditions at the same time of day with the same fly—I caught the trio of vibrant brookies a few days previously. But this time, nothing, zilch, nada. I am constantly amazed, and sometimes more than a little miffed, by this eternal fact: fish are not always where they are expected to be, even supposed to be, at least according to an angler’s best (?) judgement.
A few hundred metres downriver from where I was casting, a quartet of turkey vultures were slowly circling what I suspected was some sort of appetizing carrion. I knew they were adults because of the grey flight feathers under their long, broad wings.
I view these familiar raptors as totems for fly anglers. You would be hard pressed to find homelier creatures. Yet when they are in their element, floating effortlessly on a cushion of air, they are as graceful and elegant as a bushy Elk Hair Caddis dry fly floating on a cushion of foaming current. If I were to confess that I aspire to cast like a turkey vulture, I would not mean it disparagingly.
As is our custom, we hapless pair of spurned anglers ended our outing by sitting on the bankside—that magical thin place between earth and water which the Celts revered as sacred because it is where the barrier between the earthly realm and the spiritual realm is thinnest. I poured ruby tinged hues of liquid amber from a flask into a couple of stainless steel demitasses.
Matured for twelve years in American bourbon and Spanish sherry oak casts to achieve a balance of Christmas fruit, vanilla and spice, Abelour remains one of my favourite Speyside malt whiskies. (Confession: despite diligent effort spanning five decades, I have yet to find a single malt I disliked.)
We savoured the drams as our talk drifted towards the pandemic. Wesley admitted he had been feeling out of sorts lately.
‘I’ve felt back-watered or eddied working in my studio and trying to keep my focus which is always being challenged by the flotsam of life. Not unique, I know, but very distracting and frustrating. I really needed these few hours on the river.’
‘I like your description of ennui which is both accurate and poetic,’ I replied. ‘I was wrestling with motivation during the past few weeks. Writing became a challenge. The creative juices started flowing after Dan and I got out on the water. It was as if a tap had been turned on.’
About a week later Wesley and I returned to replenish ourselves in the natural pulse of moving water. We arrived about 4 pm, only to discover that Wesley had left his five-weight at home—an eventuality ALL fly anglers suffer at one time or another. If it’s not the rod, it’s the reel, the vest containing fly boxes or the wading gear.
‘If I had drawing materials with me, I would have been content to sketch,’ he offered before jumping in his car and making the unplanned return trip.
As I made my way down the bank I glimpsed a flash of deep blue fleeing deeper and vanishing into the cedar brush—an Indigo Bunting. The intense beauty of the bird brought to mind the intense beauty of brook trout, which caused me to reflect further on the similarities between birds and fish—at least the most beautiful among them. I have often thought of birds as fish with wings, and fish as birds with fins.
Catching sight of a bird is like catching a fish. Your optic nerve is triggered, you process the information rationally, then you identify the bird—all in rapid succession. Similarly, when a fish hits, your muscle memory is activated, you react instinctively or intuitively, then the analytical part of your mind kicks in.
A slow day or evening on the water is often enriched by a bird sighting, especially when it involves one of my favourite species: a cedar waxwing, evening grosbeak, cardinal, blue jay, osprey, kingfisher, cliff swallow, woodpecker, hawk or eagle. No wonder so many fly anglers are also birders—Dan being one example. He even carries a small pair of binoculars in his fishing vest to afford him a closer look at birds as well as hatches and rises.
The water was lower and clearer than it had been so I tied on one of Dan’s cinnamon Bi-visibles. It proved the ticket. Before Wesley returned I caught three brookies from the same area I caught the three brookies previously with Dan.
Since my fragile heart has drawn the curtain on my streamside Habanas (I now carry a spray vial of Nitroglycerin in my vest instead of a lighter), I seldom sit and attentively watch a river do its thing in time with its own pace and rhythms. Waiting for Wesley, however, I decided to do just that.
Soon I saw a rise a few metres upriver. I slowly moved into position, cast at the riseform and slurp. Lifted my Sweetgrass bamboo rod. Curvaceous arc. Pleasing throb. Before I knew it I was seeing a world in the palm of my wet hand—enough to make William Blake smile.
Short while later: I sat down again on the tree trunk extending over the water, I saw another rise a few metres upriver along the same foam line. I slowly moved into position, cast at the riseform and slurp. Lifted my rod. Curvaceous arc. Pleasing throb. Blakean reprise.
Short while later: I returned to the tree trunk extending over the water. I saw another rise a few metres upriver along the same foam line. I slowly moved into position, cast at the riseform and slurp. Lifted my rod. Curvaceous arc. Pleasing throb. Blakean reprise.
I have caught my share of fish, but seldom have I caught fish so systematically and with such precision and concision–where execution follows intent with the finality of a shotgun blast. For me, this was a true American Sportsman moment (remember the ABC outdoor show that aired Sundays from 1965 to 1986 hosted by Curt Gowdy?). I was reminded of two experiences from my adolescence when I hunted. Once when out with my dad’s younger brothers, Uncle Jim and Uncle Doug, I heard a woodcock take hurried flight from a thicket behind us. I turned around, calmly took aim and brought the bird down. Another time I was hunting partridge with my close friend Billy Everett when I took a clean deliberate shot that decapitated the bird. There was not one single pellet in the meat we later enjoyed.
I wanted to introduce Wesley to some generous water downriver and, considering it was edging closer to the gloaming and the evening hatch, I was optimistic when he returned and we ventured to what for him was pristine water.
I lost a good fish after it made a frantic beeline under a submerged log. It never ceases to amaze me how a creature with a brain the size of the head of a two-inch common nail is so sly and evasive. Afterwards I caught an accommodating brookie before getting my Bi-visible irrecoverably snagged high in at the grasping branches of a tree. I switched to a Hendrickson Parachute dry fly.
I decided to leave Wesley to his own devices and head back upriver to my ‘honeyhole’. My faith was rewarded with a reprise of three more brookies including a robust nine-incher. Satisfied beyond words I returned to the Jeep and removed my gear.
When Wesley joined me as the sun slipped behind the jagged line of cedar tops in the West, he announced that the five brookies he landed comprised his best outing—ever. He was ecstatic and I was deeply pleased for my angling companion and creative partner.
Usually we sit at bankside to enjoy an evening dram, but we changed things up a bit to celebrate our good fortune by sitting on the tailgates of our respective vehicles. When it comes to whisky improvisation Wesley is unsurpassed. Using a maple syrup bottle with a stopper lid as a flask, he poured a couple of golden drams into a pair of sterling silver accordion cups. The eight-year-old Islay Mist was a tasty blend of venerable Laphroaig softened by a bouquet of Speyside malts and grain whisky.
Thoughts of the pandemic drifted away as we savoured the soil and water of a distant land, home of my ancestors, and toasted one of Creation’s most exquisite creatures.
‘So long as we have brook trout we are not forsaken,’ I said, breaking what Walt Whitman described as looking ‘up in perfect silence at the stars.’