Fishing Log

Return to the Secret River

American outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie said it best in his story ‘Now, In June’ when he declared that no time is better for trout fishing than early June. He added that trout waters are personal places. Both observations pierce the centre of the angling bullseye.

It was a couple of weeks before festive midsummer when I spent my most memorable, most magical day on the Secret River. Following a couple of days of scorching temperatures and suffocating humidity, the afternoon was cool, clear and fresh, making for a perfect outing on the secluded, pristine headwater in southwestern Ontario.

I left Waterloo and picked up Doug Wilson in Kitchener before heading to Clifford, an hour’s drive in light mid-week traffic, to pick up Wesley Bates at his studio/gallery. We had been planning this trip for months and a seemingly interminable winter transformed us into exuberant colts tasting freedom in spring pastures. The joy of anticipation doesn’t evaporate with maturity if one is lucky. And we three counted ourselves lucky, despite recent trials that made us yearn even more for the calm healing of baptismal waters.

A couple of months earlier I had contracted Covid-19. Thanks to two vaccinations and a booster, the symptoms were relatively mild and short-lived. However, the virus caused troubling cardiac complications that required hospital care. Although my recovery left me with a deep sense of gratitude, I was still anxious.

Doug and his wife Lynda were recuperating from another kind of emotional tribulation. A couple of weeks previously a devastating storm cell swept through their neighbourhood causing heavy damage. They lost a century old maple tree, four mature junipers and a screened pergola that provided respite on hot summer days and evenings. The loss of the maple was especially painful because it was expected to anchor a transformation of their backyard from manicured lawn and tidy flower beds to a scruffy woodland garden of native plants, shrubs and trees. Doug admitted the whole episode had left him disoriented and listless.

Wes’s complication was not traumatic but no less real. He was immersed in a flurry of engraving commissions for publishers that had shoved fishing to the back burner during prime-time trout season. He was eager to turn up the heat from the simmer of vocation to the boil of avocation.

Thomas Wolfe famously opined that you can’t go home again. Still, one of the best things about fishing is that you can return to a ‘home’ stream, river and lake. They not only lay down the welcome mat, they extend the hand of renewed friendship and companionship. The conversation picks up where it last left off. The passage of time, whether of short or long duration, contracts and intensifies. The past becomes present, in anticipation of the future. Memory and experience coalesce. Everything is poetry and grace.

After parking the Jeep in a small meadow enclosed by trees, we geared up while discussing the insects we expected to welcome our arrival. I led our motley trio of angling pilgrims through the enchanted cedarwoods to the river of mystery.

‘Words escape me,’ Doug whispered upon seeing the rushing, roiling water for the first time. ‘I’m gobsmacked.’

‘I’ve always imagined it’s like walking into Eden,’ I replied. ‘This is where it all begins, the source, the alpha. It’s where I want my ashes spread at the end.’

Since this introduction to the Secret River was an initiation for Doug, a rite of passage that would strengthen friendship and angling companionship, Wes and I agreed we should all fish together. We wanted Doug to share the essence of what we had come to cherish about this most intimate of waters.

Doug Trouting on the Secret River

We entered the sacred water, our ears tuned to the whispering promise of rising trout–rainbow, brown and, best of all, speckled which I prefer to call brookies. We waded no more than half a mile–there was no need to venture any farther. We all caught trout, mostly rainbows as pugnacious as banty roosters between four and nine inches in length. It felt right for Doug to catch the only brownie, a healthy nine-incher. They weren’t big, but they satisfied our collective need as predators armed with graphite or bamboo sticks. We either saw or momentarily hooked bigger fish but they outsmarted our piscatorial wits. Still, we caught enough that we lost count which is success by any standard. Once I caught three trout on three consecutive casts. Doug also brought to palm fish on back-to-back casts. None of us fished a riffle, run or pool without being rewarded.

The watercourse was enlivened by a choir of mellifluous songbirds, each trying mightily to outperform its neighbour. Their sweet musings were occasionally interrupted by the impatient squawking of blue jays. Between casts I was reminded of a story by Gene Hill, the American outdoor writer who combined the ideals of gentleman and sportsman in articles that blended outdoor sport with reflection and meditation. In ‘A Listening Walk’ he observes that, ‘Few things in nature have idle tongues.’

At one point I was pleased to be joined by a pair of cedar waxwings, one of my favourite species. Later I was spooked by a great blue heron flying low over the river in search of fishing grounds more to its liking. I could have touched the surprisingly graceful airborne creature with the tip of my seven-foot, nine-inch Sweetgrass rod.

But what made this day so special, so unforgettable, so magical was the preponderance of mayfly activity and resulting frenzy of rising rainbows. Like most fly anglers, I’m fascinated by mayflies, not so much in and of themselves, but as a critical element in the practice of catching fish by matching the hatch. But this was different. This hatch demanded our full and complete attention. We detected at least three different species in varying size, colour, profile and habit.

The first were tiny Blue-wing Olives. Sometimes referred to as the Fisherman’s Curse—with good reason–they are so small as to be virtually un-fishable. At least by me.

These tiny bugs were joined by larger, meatier Grey Foxes, an important mayfly on this stretch of river spanning mid-May through mid-June. It’s a pattern I fish regularly—most often with a comparadun tied by my longtime angling companion and mentor Dan Kennaley–until the arrival of the ever-dependable Isonychia (sometimes called Lead-wing Coachman, Slate Drake and, best of all, White-gloved Howdy) which arrive in early June and remain until near the end of the season in September due to their unique double-peaked emergence period.

Most magical of all were the magnificent Green Drakes, the largest mayfly native to the headwater, save for the giant Hexagenia. In more than fifteen years of fishing the Secret River I had never seen so many Green Drakes at one time. I was enthralled with the sheer abundance of the afternoon hatch. The large insects, with their creamy green bodies, spotted venational wings and long triple tails—were graceful fliers. They would flutter before descending in a languid downward sweep, like divers gliding from a high platform, before recovering and ascending again. They repeated this aerial ceremony multiple times.

Throughout the afternoon and early evening into dusk we often felt like we were wading and casting amid a delicately winged snowstorm. Scanning downriver as the sun slowly retreated in the west, the mayflies looked like an illuminated plethora of delicate, acrobatic diamonds dancing in the air above a sheen of glittering, shimmering water. It suggested an illustration in a storybook, a pastoral fairyland whose entry is gained through imagination alone.

When fly anglers think of rises, they usually envision dimples on the liminal surface; concentric riseforms that gently expand outward; and sipping, slurping, or even gulping and gurgling, fish. But what we witnessed was something different–much different.

Hundreds of raucous, rowdy, ravenous, rainbows were jumping, twisting and leaping, resembling frenetic children in a nautical field of trampolines. Believe it or not, the voracious eating frenzy reminded me of videos I have seen of Asian carp. I saw one piscine gymnast jump in pursuit of a meal three times in rapid succession, impersonating a flat stone skipping across a placid lake. None of us had ever seen anything like this wondrous spectacle before. We were thankful to serve as witnesses for one another. Otherwise, nobody—I mean NOBODY–would believe what we were seeing with our very own eyes. Wes, Doug and I were captivated beyond physical activity.

Casting to rising trout during a hatch is one of the most incandescent and illuminating moments in fly fishing. Like a great short story–whether written by Ivan Turgenev or Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver or William Trevor, Alice Munro or Alistair MacLeod–it is a concentrated distillation of experience that contains the whole of fly fishing within the transitory moments of the hatch. It is exhilarating because it is so brief, so fleeting, so evanescent within the current of time. Yet, paradoxically, an angler becomes so immersed in what he is doing that he becomes visually impaired. Focusing so intently on catching fish, he becomes oblivious to the miracle of the flickering moments in which he is an active participant.

So instead of competing with nature’s cyclical ritual of mating dance and death, we put our rods away and sat spellbound on the bankside–that sacred place according to the ancient Celts where earth meets water and air. We agreed that there are times when it is enough to watch nature do her thing, to surrender to the wonder of it all and to yield to the sense of gratitude that wells within a beating breast.

‘Look at that,’ Wes chortled, pointing to an especially rambunctious, pint-sized rainbow. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. They act like they’re on testosterone hormones or steroids or something.’

A portrait of incredulity was painted on Doug’s face, as he sat, shaking his head amid rich belly laughs.

Some anglers fish to get away from things: the worries, concerns and fears that claw at the most resilient of spirits. Others fish to enter into things, which begins and ends with nature. This is how nature replenishes, rejuvenates and renews as a healing balm. I know this truth because I have experienced it in the fibre of my being–as have most anglers. It has cured me from what had hitherto ailed me. It’s why fishing transcends mere sport, hobby, recreation or pastime.

Friendship and companionship are bonds of fellowship through which anglers honour the sacred act of fishing which enhances and enriches lives, and makes whole what otherwise would remain fractured and broken. This is why the ceremonial practice has been celebrated down through millennia in art, music, literature and mythology, in addition to varied spiritual and wisdom traditions. Norman Maclean acknowledges this in A River Runs Through It when he famously writes that there is no distinction between religion and fly fishing.

I opened my flask of malt whisky, the primary export from the rugged isle of Jura off Scotland’s west coast. The rich aromas of chocolate, walnut and citrus, followed by the flavour of coffee, licorice, salted banana and brown sugar and capped with the lingering whiff of campfire smoke provided the toast to a magical day on the Secret River with dear friends and angling companions.


Too enthralled to share anything beyond delight and amazement while sitting riverside, my thoughts returned to mayflies when I got home and was enjoying a nightcap dram of Jura, which had the desired effect of encouraging reflection and appreciation.

Mayflies are the oldest surviving winged insects on the planet. Predating dinosaurs, they emerged 350 million years ago. More than three-thousand species now live in the world’s besieged freshwater streams and rivers, ponds and lakes. More than three hundred are found in Canada.

Aristotle labelled the small, delicate, fragile, graceful, soft-bodied insects ‘ephemera’ (meaning ‘living a day’) in recognition of their brief life span as adults. As such they are symbols of both the transitoriness and the transience of existence, turning fly anglers into metaphysicians.

Mayflies have inspired writers and artists since the first known reference to the bugs appeared in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem and earliest surviving literary work of consequence dating from 2100-1200 BC.

High Renaissance German artist Albrecht Dürer engraved The Holy Family with the Mayfly, in which an insect sits at the clothed feet of the Virgin Mary who, in turn, is holding an adoring Christ Child. In my memoir Casting into Mystery, Wes made wood engravings of various aquatic insects including mayflies, both nymphs and adults, as well as artificial flies that imitate stages of the insect life cycle.

Mayflies are a foundational link in the freshwater food web. Nymphs consume algae, plant matter and decaying leaves. The nutrients and energy nymphs and adults possess are passed on when they are eaten by such higher predators as trout and bass, in addition to dragonflies, snails, water beetles, spiders, frogs, lizards, bats and birds including swallows and cedar waxwings.

Mayflies require cool, clean water to survive. This makes them one of nature’s most sensitive ecological sentinels. They are barometers of the condition of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in which they live. Warm water, pesticides and herbicides, silt resulting from deforestation and development combined with toxic pollution, force them to move to cooler, cleaner habitat, or worst, kill them off.

These miniature creatures are urgent indicators of environmental change. Unfortunately, they are victims of the trends they embody and enact — and are disappearing at a disturbing rate which is causing grave concern among scientists and environmentalists, not to mention fly anglers.

When nymphs transform from subaquatic creepy crawlers, clingers and swimmers and take flight as elegant, graceful balletic adults, they offer a sublime spectacle during a hatch or spinner fall. Frenzy clouds of the critters hover and flutter in the air above the water as they search for mates, copulate and lay eggs on the liminal surface—before dying. Males die immediately after copulation while females expire after depositing eggs.

I would not be the first fly angler to assert that, in their own unique way, mayflies are as beautiful as the more common butterflies or moths as they transform through four stages from egg to caterpillar or nymph, pupa or dun (subimago) and finally to adult (imago in the case of mayflies).

English poet Ted Hughes, one of the twentieth century’s great nature poets, memorably described the mating ritual in ‘Mayfly’, one of three poems he wrote inspired by the insect, as a ‘sacrament of copulation’. In the uncollected poem he likens a hatch to Titania and Oberon ‘dancing’ in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the forest in Midsummer’s Night is a place of romance, magic and transformation.

Mayflies are among the most vulnerable of the world’s insects because of their need for cool, clean, well-oxygenated water. As such, they are ‘canaries in the coal mines’ of freshwater ecosystems.

Fly anglers and angling scribes have been praising and celebrating mayflies, and other aquatic insects including caddisflies and stoneflies, for centuries. The first known description of fishing with artificial flies comes from Claudius Aelianus, a Roman author and teacher. In the second century he described anglers on a river in Macedonia tying red wool and rooster feathers onto hooks as a means of catching fish.

Mayflies played a major role in the history and evolution of fly fishing including one of its most hotly contested and celebrated controversies. In England during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Victorian anglers followed rigid codes regulating the proper way to tie flies and cast to fish on hallowed chalk streams. Anglers restricted themselves to matching the hatch by imitating mayflies rising upstream—in accordance with the dictates of Frederic Halford. Until GEM Skues entered the debate it was condemned as dishonourable to fish for trout downstream with wet flies imitating nymphs. Happily, since then, fly fishing has reached a compromise—which appeals to me, while I prefer dry flies–that favours matching technique to weather, water and riverside conditions.


After writing the above in a state of lingering disbelief, I emailed it to Wes and Doug. Following are their responses which confirm the improbable words I wove together in a tapestry of wonder and awe:

Wes wrote:

‘When I finally put my head down on my pillow, settled and closed my eyes, inside my eyelids were those thousands of insects, some rising, some descending, others just floating in the golden light. What a marvellous experience to see what we saw. Our day on the Secret River will be with me forever.’

Doug wrote:

‘A warm and beautiful tribute to companionship and the bond angling and witnessing one of nature’s miracles forms. I’ve been walking around in a daze for the last few days. I can’t, nor do I want to, shake the trance I find myself in after that magical day. Hundreds of thoughts have been racing around in my head. Memories I replay, thoughts I’d like to share in a letter I have been composing in my head ever since we said good night on that extraordinary day. I’ve found myself tearing up from time to time as I relived those mystical moments on the water. Thank you again for the honour of sharing your Secret River.’  

Fishing Log

Duffer’s Night Out–or the Hex Hatch Hex

Duffer. The most dreaded word in the fly fishing lexicon, conjuring images of incompetence and clumsiness, even folly. There exists in the contemplative recreation a fine 7X leader between success and failure. So it isn’t surprising that the notion is a small tributary in the great river of fly angling literature. It’s a recurring subject, character, theme and motif in the narrative vest or tackle box of angling writers who cast a humorous line on the water.

Andrew Lang

I first encountered the concept in Andrew Lang’s essay ‘The Confessions of a Duffer,’ collected in Angling Sketches, originally published in 1891. While some men ‘are born duffers,’ the great Scottish scholar, man of letters and angler opines, others ‘become so by an infinite capacity for not taking pains. Others, again, among whom I would rank myself, combine both these elements of incompetence.’

Lang elaborates: ‘Nature, that made me enthusiastically fond of fishing, gave me thumbs for fingers, short-sighted eyes, indolence, carelessness and a temper which (usually sweet and angelic) is goaded to madness by the laws of matter and of gravitation.’ I sympathize with Lang’s response to the question of why, if an angler is so inept, he even bothers to fish? ‘Perhaps it is an inherited instinct, without inherited power . . . [a] passion without the art.’ Lang concludes: ‘My ambition is as great as my skill is feeble.’

Later, I happened across the idea in Hugh Tempest Sheringham’s essay ‘The Duffer’s Fortnight,’ collected in Trout Fishing: Memories and Morals, published in 1915. The celebrated English angling journalist noted the fortnight coincided with the traditional ‘mayfly carnival’ that heralded the birth of trout season around the first of June. This was when ‘the duffer could show himself an angler.’ With its origin ‘lost in the mist of antiquity,’ he goes on to suggest the term eventually flipped topsy-turvy to include ‘the angler who proves himself the duffer.’ Quite ingeniously Sheringham’s satirical line alights on the whole damn pool of fly anglers irrespective of talent, skill and experience.

Sheringham took up the cause of the Duffer again in 1915 when Fishing: Its Cause, Treatment and Cure was first published. The collection of essays might well be subtitled The Duffer’s Bible, so thoroughly does it delineate in painstaking detail the ignominious trials of the ‘angler.’ It’s difficult to select a quote to give readers the book’s flavour, so abundant is its pathetic riches. However, here is a lengthy passage that must be offered in full to convey a full appreciation of Sheringham’s self-appointed. Taking umbrage with the old saw that ‘The first cast is the one that catches the fish,’ he opines:

This maxim for the dry-fly man is very misleading. The first cast generally does not reach the river at all, being intercepted by a thistle. The second cast is blown askew, the third falls awry, the fourth goes agley, the fifth is intercepted by another thistle (or the same one), the sixth wraps round the top of the rod, the seventh results in a crack in mid-air, the eighth is spent in putting on a new fly, and the ninth is spoilt by another thistle (new flies dearly love thistles, much as children in their Sunday best love mud and thorns). After this, however, things begin to improve. The axiom should run: ‘The tenth or eleventh cast is the one that puts the fish down.’

Like so much of the lore, lures and allure of fly fishing, the concept waded the Atlantic. I found evidence of it in Maine’s beloved piscatorial tale-spinner Walter Macdougall through his stories featuring the irrepressible fishing guide Dud Dean.

I also met the Duffer, in one form or another, in some of Canada’s worthiest fly fishing humourists including Stephen Leacock, Greg Clark, Mordecai Richler and Paul Quarrington.

Often celebrated as Canada’s Mark Twain (with a softer edge), Leacock maintained a trout pond (at considerable cost according to Robertson Davies) at his beloved summer home on Old Brewery Bay, outside of Orillia, Ontario. A lifelong fishing addict, he was a devoted fly angler who tied his own flies. Margaret MacMillan reports in her biography of the writer, published in the Extraordinary Canadians series by Penguin Canada, that Leacock was passionate about fishing ‘as much for the rituals with which he surrounded it as for the fish themselves.’ As a budding angling memoirist, I subscribe wholeheartedly to Leacock’s approach to the contemplative recreation.

Stephen Leacock

Over his long writing career, including publication of the classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock filled a ditty bag of stories on angling manners, morals and mores—almost all of which involved soul-quenching quantities of distilled spirits: ‘The Old, Old Story of How Five Men Went Fishing,’ collected in Frenzied Fiction and originally published in 1919; ‘Why do we fish?’ and ‘When Fellas Go Fishing,’ collected in My Remarkable Uncle and originally published in 1942; ‘What Can Izaak Walton Teach Us?’ collected in the posthumous Last Leaves; and ‘My Fish Pond,’ originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936 and released in 2020 in a limited edition, privately printed pro bono publico by Eildon Chapbooks.

In addition to being one of Canada’s most accomplished novelists and contentious journalists, Richler was an enthusiastic fan of numerous sports including hockey, baseball, boxing and billiards. In later years he took up fly fishing in response to ‘the feeling of having arrived’, son Noah speculates, in addition to reflecting ‘his love of the Canadian outdoors’ which he conveys in a couple of his novels, Barney’s Version and Solomon Gursky Was Here. Although Richler was generally viewed as a staunchly urban writer, whether his setting was Montreal or London, he took the advice of one of his most famous fictional characters (Duddy Kravitz) and purchased rural property overlooking a Laurentian lake.

Richler reluctantly plays the role of Duffer Abroad expressed through his trademark sardonic humour in ‘An Incomplete Angler’s Journal’ contained in Dispatches from the Sporting Life, a posthumous collection of sports essays and excerpt from St. Urbain’s Horseman published in 2002. The essay recounts a trip the author made with his wife in September, 1988 in pursuit of salmon in Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish Highlands. With one exception, he doesn’t have anything good to say about either the cuisine or the weather, let alone the fishing. However, he lauds the single malt, especially eighteen-year-old Macallan, which, in agreement Kingsley Amis, a noted tippler, he praised as ‘about the most delicious malt ever.’

The Duffer casts his rod and reel in Clark’s comic yarns devoted to fishing in all its guises, collected in Fishing with Gregory Clark and Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing, not to mention other volumes. Clark would stop at nothing in his pursuit of finned creatures—the bigger the better. His confession in ‘The Frying Pan,’ a yarn at the expense of an esteemed Quebecois fishing guide, reveals the inner duffer hidden within the breast of every fishermen. ‘Now, I am not a great fly fisher, nor even a particularly good one,’ he confides. ‘But I am a tremendously lucky one. It may be I have loved fly fishing so ardently and so long, it likes me in return. Such things may be.’ I think Clark—who is credited with naming the famous Mickey Finn streamer fly—is onto something.

Quarrington, who was a better fly angler than he ever deigned to admit in print, carried the Duffer torch with pomp, pride and defiance in Fishing With My Old Guy and From the Far Side of the River: Chest-Deep in Little Fish and Big Lies. Ditto for his Duffer-in-arms, Jake MacDonald, author of Houseboat Chronicles: Notes from a Life in Shield Country and With the Boys: Field Notes on Being a Guy, and editor of Casting on Quiet Waters: Reflections on Life and Fishing.

Perspicacious readers will sense where I’m going with this line of piscine inquiry. I too have worn the leaky waders of a duffer. It’s not something of which I’m proud, but rather I acknowledge it in the name of truth and honesty as an intrepid fly fisherman obliged to write about his misfortune. After all, disgrace and shame are but a cast away. They are the bane of fly anglers, constant nemeses that stalk rivers, lakes and streams. Worse than mosquitoes, black flies and those pesky miniature flying pests known colloquially as no-see-ums.

Readers do not have to be obsessive anglers to take unbridled delight in the antics of a duffer. To find yourself playing such a role is another matter, however. For starters it’s not even mildly funny. It exceeds frustration; the word ‘humbling’ comes to mind.

Through the contemplative recreation I have learned it is better to anticipate than to expect. Expectation is a dangerous condition for fly anglers. Failing to achieve it leads to a sense of failure, resulting in despair. Anticipation is a fish of another creel. When unfulfilled, it is merely disappointing, like forgetting to fill your flask with malt whisky before leaving for the river. Still, separating expectation from anticipation offers little consolation to an angler wearing the scarlet letter of duffer.

Comedic tale-spinning aside, most fly anglers are not duffers all of the time; however, there are precious few who are not duffers some of the time. I fall somewhere in the latter category—at least as I see it. For example, I have caught my fair share of trout (rainbow, brown and brook) on a certain headwater in southwestern Ontario which I cherish beyond all other waters. Although none have exceeded twelve inches, they have given me existential satisfaction and an abiding sense of deep contentment.

Still, there is a piece of this generous headwater that has defeated me, casting me repeatedly in the role of duffer. And it is to this piece of piscatorial paradise that the following woeful angling tale unfolds.

It occurred over two seasons during the annual Hexagenia Hatch at the height August. A year after my introduction to this awe-inspiring mayfly ritual of procreation before death, Ken Robins invited me back to his stretch of hallowed river. I was both thrilled and anxious, more than a little trepidatious. I tried in vain to scratch any itch of expectation.

Things did not begin well, which should have been a forewarning. Having visited Ken’s riverine property twice the previous summer, I was confident I knew where I was going. I was wrong. Upon arriving where I thought the gate to Ken’s place should be, it was not to be found. Moreover, stranded on a gravel concession road, I could go no farther because the bridge traversing the headwater was closed, complete with a posted sign warning vehicles and pedestrians not to cross. Evidently I had made a wrong turn (or two) somewhere along the way–an angling pilgrim without a compass, as it were.

I was an hour late already, and was at a loss, when, as if by magic, my cell phone came to life. It was Ken’s partner Lilianna asking where I had gotten myself. I explained my location and she passed the phone to Ken. Following his directions, I was on my merry way.

Arriving late did not prevent me from eagerly fishing new water for ninety minutes before supper. My effort was rewarded with three chub, totaling twelves inches. Not the start I wanted, but no matter. I was here for monster trout that would be gorging on large delectable Hexagenia mayflies on the edge of darkness.

During supper Ken and Lilianna regaled me with details involving a huge trout so stream-smart they christened him Einstein. This quick-witted leviathan would be my quarry. Like a boxer in training, I began exercising my mental angling muscles, such as they are. From what my hosts had said, I knew this wily bastard would employ every artful trick in a trout’s tactical tool box to evade my fly. After failing to land a monster on my two visits the previous summer, I was determined to enact Rob’s Revenge.

Rob in 1973
Before the Appearance of the Duffer

After supper Ken took me to the riffle where I could expect to find the brainy predatory beast. He told me to sit on a specific boulder and keep a sharp eye out and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. I did as he had instructed—or so I thought. I chewed gum to pass the time as the curtain of darkness fell on the enchanting riverscape.

Einstein, however, was nowhere to be found, failing to rise on this evening of great expectation. Not to be deterred I stood and moved gingerly to a position from where I could cast to ‘smaller’ trout—which might well have been as big as, or bigger than, any trout I had ever caught.

I cast to multiple rises with a juicy Hex pattern tied by Ken to match the specifics of this particular hatch, on this particular stretch of river, at this particular time of year. I was sure Ken’s fly would be the ticket, transporting me to piscatorial glory. It was not to be. Although glory exceeded my grasp, I refused to retreat to defeat and despair.

Instead I switched to a fetching Hex dry fly tied by Steve May—a contract tier for the venerable Orvis Company and a former fishing guide who really knows his stuff. I reasoned that the resident trout had grown accustomed to Ken’s fly. I would outfox (or rather out-trout) them with an irresistible killer fly they had never seen before. Such are a duffer’s well laid plans. Turns out deceit and deception were cards I did not hold in my hand.

I didn’t get a nibble, let alone a strike or a take, after thirty minutes of futility. As every fly angler knows, nothing pricks the heart like rejection.

When it grew too dark to see, and after putting down every fish within casting distance, and beyond, I returned to our rendezvous site at Ken’s picnic table and joined Lilianna. Like me, she came to fly fishing late in life. What she surrendered in years, however, has been more than made up for in delight, which is infectious. To listen to her talk about fishing is to hear the voice of a young girl enthralled with the bounty and wonder of nature. Rapturous is not too strong an adjective to describe her joy.

Turns out Lilianna had gotten her fly line hopelessly entangled (a situation I know well), forcing her to leave the river prematurely—but not before winning the right to do so. While fishing a few hundred feet downriver from me, she landed a gorgeous nine-inch brook trout and a magnificent nineteen-inch brown trout. She snapped photos on her cellphone before releasing the beautiful creatures to the depths from whence they came. Just looking at her phone caused my eyes to well up, reminding me that a fly angler’s tears are as bittersweet as a baby’s.

Ken didn’t do as well as Lilianna; however, he did better than me a little way upriver from where I had intended to debate Einstein. It was the same old tale grown weary—at least from my vantage point. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s hapless Ancient Mariner: Trout, trout everywhere, nor any bite to take.

Ken sympathized, pointing out that I had left the boulder ten minutes too soon. Had I waited, he surmised, Einstein would likely have made an appearance, rising brilliantly to the occasion. Even worse, Ken was beginning to feel bad for not putting me onto a memorable trout. Seems like the Fishing Goddess, that fickle mistress with a sick sense of humour, was playing me for a duffer. I was chum in her hands.

A couple of days later I received an email from Ken. I record it here in its entirety. It speaks for itself.

Hi Rob:
We went up to the headwater yesterday, added gravel to the spawning bed, pruned some tree branches and then fished. I went to the riffle and sat on the rock [the same one I sat on]. The Hex came on at eight and a couple of smaller trout started rising fifteen minutes later but I stayed on the rock. Then, at eight-thirty [about the time I had left the rock], an explosive rise happened in the middle of the river, just upstream of me and opposite the lower log jam. After two more big rises, I waded across and started casting.

As before, Einstein unconventionally moved around rising, making it difficult to target him. He rose in an area about four feet across and eight feet up and downstream. After a number of casts to various rises, he stopped, probably because my line landed over him as he moved around. I backed down about ten feet and waited. After a couple of minutes he started rising again. He took my second cast. I finally landed him, an eighteen-and-three-quarter-inch male in full colour. He did not reach the magical twenty-inch mark, so he is still swimming around in the riffle.

I am sorry you did not get to catch him, but he was not the twenty-plus inch brown we thought, so you couldn’t have achieved that milestone.

 Always the angling gentleman, Ken tried his best to paint a happy face of encouragement over my mask of duffer. He concluded by noting:

Also, Lilianna caught the nine-inch brook trout again at the same location. She said there were many larger trout rising that rejected her fly. She even saw one of them come up and examine her fly before backing down. Such is fly fishing when trout have been feeding on the same fly for weeks.

All a duffer can do is read and weep. And, ever the optimist, wait on next season. And be comforted by Andrew Lang’s soothing words: ‘I would as soon lay down a love of books as a love of fishing . . . . For fishing is like life; and in the art of living, too, there are duffers, though they seldom give us their confessions. Yet even they are kept alive, like the incompetent angler, by this undying hope: they will be more careful, more skillful, more lucky next time.’

In his email Ken captured the spirit of Lang’s sentiment in three magical words: Maybe next year.

Fishing Log

The Craic is as Good as the Bass

Solitude is one of the most precious gifts fly fishing provides. Still many anglers find solace in the companionship that accompanies the contemplative recreation. That’s why like-minded fly anglers form a bond which I prefer to call a fellowship.

It gave me deep satisfaction to introduce a couple of fly fishing friends who I suspected would hit it off because of shared interests beyond casting a line on the water. However, I had no idea how much Wesley Bates, the artist with whom I collaborated on Casting into Mystery, had in common with Doug Wilson.

I met Doug fifteen years ago when I joined KW Flyfishers. He left the club following medical problems that required open-heart surgery. (So happens both Wesley and I suffer from compromised hearts.) Doug—a professional photographer who spent recent years as chief executive officer and president of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory—and I renewed our acquaintance when he purchased a copy of Casting. Since then I have become good friends with both Doug and his wife Lynda, a fine writer.

After Wesley arrived in Waterloo from Clifford, we loaded our gear into my Jeep and headed to Doug’s home in Kitchener. We were on the road within minutes of Doug adding his gear to what was already packed away. I was content to drive to the Grand River for an evening pursuit of smallmouth bass as two new friends soon began sounding like old friends getting caught up after a long separation.

I was eager to introduce Wesley and Doug to a stretch of the Grand my longtime angling companion Dan Kennaley showed me shorty after I started fly fishing. Dan grew up in the area and knows the piece of river well. After parking on the shoulder of a county two-lane and gearing up, we made our way to the river along a hydro right-of-way. Our amiable conversation continued unabated.

I was dismayed when we arrived at the river. The ribbon of forest that borders the watercourse had changed dramatically since I last visited the previous year.

The Grand River Conservation Authority had cut down numerous mature ash trees that had succumbed to the dastardly emerald ash borer. Originally from Asia, the voracious beetle arrived in southwestern Ontario in 2002, spreading to the Grand River watershed in 2010. Depending on the size and health of an ash tree, it takes two to five years for it to die from the lethal infestation, the result of larvae tunneling under its bark and cutting off the supply of nutrients and water. The tree dies slowly (and painfully?) from inside out.

Although the conservation authority intends to replant new trees where necessary it’s impossible not to regret the devastation caused by yet another invasive species taking hold across southwestern Ontario. It’s similarly impossible for anglers not to view the rapacious bug in the same light as Asian carp, an invasive species threatening fresh water fisheries throughout the Great Lakes region.

Still it was a lovely day waging the tail of July. Comfortable temperatures, low humidity and clear skies combined to make it as close to perfect as an angler could hope. The water was a tad high and chocolatey, but very fishable.

The waterway was brimming with avian activity. Over three hours I saw a great blue heron—a pair customarily nests along this stretch—a couple of kamikaze kingfishers, five or six cedar waxwings flitting acrobatically between a line of cedars and an aerial insect field floating above the river, an osprey flying reconnaissance and a small flock of noisy Canada geese downriver.

After exchanging thoughts and opinions on fly selection, Wesley, Doug and I leisurely spread out, each solitary but within view of one another. Our only interruptions were pleasantries exchanged with occupants of occasional water craft, including kayaks, sharing the river.

A couple of incidents occurred that caused me to contemplate elements of the sublime and the ridiculous. Although it’s debatable who first recorded the observation—Napoleon Bonaparte or the French statesman Talleyrand—few would argue, including fly anglers, that the noble and magnificent things in life are rarely far from things that are trivial and laughable.

The former involved a gorgeous young woman clad in a skimpy bikini paddling in the bow of a passing canoe. She was hot as a pink bass popper. Doug later quipped that she reminded him of the curvaceous silhouette adorning the mud flaps of Freightliner transport trucks.

Any misunderstanding, however, was averted by her bare-chested boyfriend paddling in the stern. He was ‘ripped,’ resembling a linebacker who spends untold hours in the weight room.

The latter involved a large family of errant inflatable tube enthusiasts who, unbeknown to me, brushed against my backside, almost catapulting me into the river. They were apologetic beyond courtesy, making the incident delightfully amusing.

As Doug later observed, not without a note of bemused astonishment, ‘When I noticed the raft of novice paddlers clumsily floating down the river I thought to myself, this isn’t going to end well. With the whole river to themselves how they managed to pick you off, Rob, is beyond me. The scene played out in slow motion. I thought you were going to leave Wes and me to fend for ourselves after being scooped up and carried away to Dunnville (located at the mouth of the Grand).’

Despite these encounters with the sublime and the ridiculous it was a tranquil evening with few distractions. Rather, the sun sat low in the Western sky, casting a warm pale glow over the river. For the most part we were immersed in pastoral quietude, briefly punctuated by the urgent bawling of a cow from across the river reminding the farmer of milking time.

Wesley and Doug each caught a pair of smallies between six and eight inches, average for this stretch of river. I caught seven, six of which were comparable in length. It was gratifying to catch at least one fish on each of the five flies I used—a variety of Woolly Buggers in addition to a Full-Motion Hex designed and tied by Steve May, a fellow member of KW Flyfishers.

The highlight was landing an eleven-incher on a Mickey Finn, so named by legendary Canadian outdoor writer Greg Clark. (His fishing stories are collected in Fishing with Gregory Clark and Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing.) It was the first fish I had ever caught on the famous baitfish imitation made primarily from yellow and red bucktail. Although the streamer fly is not as popular as it once was, it’s still lethal. More important from where I cast, is the way it connects me directly to a tradition I cherish.

We three gathered bankside as the sun receded, turning the sky myriad shades of grey highlighted with nuanced flesh tones. Shadows lengthened on the water. Each of us sat on a large boulder as Wesley retrieved a flask of Islay single malt from a leather satchel and poured drams into white porcelain egg cups which he substitutes for traditional Glencairn whisky glasses.

The conversation continued to flow. Wesley and Doug discussed the art of wood engraving and people they know in common in the independent bookmaking trade from Nova Scotia to Kentucky—and many places in between. They discovered they had frequented the same pub in Hamilton in earlier carefree days. Gentlemen both, they agreed not discuss girlfriends from long ago but not forgotten.

We toasted the day, the river, the bass and, most importantly, the circle of fellowship to which we had pledged allegiance.

The Irish refer to such informal conversation among friends as Craic (pronounced ‘crack’). It’s a term I think fly anglers should adopt to convey the sense of companionship and camaraderie that informs bankside discourse, especially when rods are set aside in favour of a dram or two.

Doug captured the spirit of the Craic when he later observed: ‘All-round great time. Wonderful conversation and some serious laughs. I think, if people could have only heard us, we would have probably solved some of the world’s most pressing problems.’

When we returned to the Jeep the planet Venus was peaking over the treetops in the West, creating the false impression of marking where we had spent a few happy hours on the Grand River chasing what anglers affectionately call bronzebacks.

Fishing Log

Midsummer Trout

It was early evening on the longest day of the year, celebrated by the ancients as the Feast of Midsummer.

I was on my way to do the kind of fly fishing I most cherish: rivertop trouting. The term was coined by Ted Williams—not the Boston Red Sox legend and dedicated fly fisherman but the esteemed outdoor, angling and conservation writer—who assigned such fishing to ‘secret, timeless’ places.

And that was exactly where I was headed.

I turned off the asphalt two-lane on to ‘a wagon-rutted road’ (in the words of Jesse Winchester) and was greeted by a furry, four-legged, tail-waging guardian as I cautiously drove pass the landowner’s house. I parked my Jeep in a small meadow bejeweled with a profusion of rhinestone butterflies and moths.

I geared up—waders, wading boots, fly box-stuffed vest, Polaroid shades and oilskin hat bedecked with partridge, bluejay and downy woodpecker feathers (all retrieved from the forest floor). I assembled my Sweetgrass five-weight bamboo rod and placed my copper-plated Orvis CFO in the reel seat. I unfurled line and drew it along with a 6X tapered leader through the snake guides to the rod tip. I decided to delay tying on a fly until I got to the river and checked out the insect activity.

This ritual served as preparation for the communion between angler and river I was about to receive.

The sense of anticipation rose within my body, remnants of a joy I remembered from childhood. I sauntered along a cedarwoods path, acknowledging a tree with roots suggesting the bent knees and voluptuous thighs of a Henry Moore sculpture. Suddenly, as if by magic, the freestone headwater opened up before my eyes–literally. I stopped and breathed deeply, immersed in the sensual immediacy of my surroundings. I placed my rucksack, containing a flask of single malt and tin of salted nuts, in riverside grasses. These treats were for later.

For me, this stretch of Southwestern Ontario headwater is a holy place: source, alpha, first cause and garden before the fall.

Southwestern Ontario Headwater, photo by Chris Pibus

I was reminded of Odell Shepard, a Pulitzer-winning scholar of New England transcendentalism whose appreciation of fly fishing set the standard to which I aspire. Fly angling literature in the modern era would be poorer were it not for the literary scholars who put perspicacious pens to paper.

In his lovely memoir Thy Rod and Thy Creel, Shepard writes of watching another fly fisherman on one of England’s hallowed rivers:

. . . while I stood and watched this expert angler it was suddenly borne in upon me that here was a mystery of which I knew almost nothing whatsoever, that here was a sport carried to the verge of art and well beyond the boundaries of scholarship. I saw that trout-fishing might amount to a good deal more than merely ‘catching a mess of fish.’ It had a code, a technique, a tradition, a history.

Although academia displaced the church somewhat in twentieth century fly angling literature, spirituality was not forsaken—far from it. Ecumenical and intellectual elements coalesced in the best writing devoted to the contemplative recreation. In A River Runs Through It, one of the great works in fly angling’s rich literary history, Norman Maclean—who shared his love of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets with the Blackfoot River—casts a graceful line across the parallel currents of clergy and clerisy.

With Shepard’s words whispering in my ear, I gazed on what my angling companions, Dan Kennaley and Wesley Bates, and I call ‘the big pool.’ This is where the big trout in this part of the river reside. I fought the temptation to cast a line. I would not fish it now; instead, I would save it until returning at eventide. Delaying the gratification that accompanies the potential of landing a big fish is a ritual my companions and I follow religiously.

I have been fishing this headwater, which is no more than ten metres wide, since I began fly fishing more than fifteen years ago. Dan introduced it to me. He and a couple of longtime angling pals have been coming here for four decades. Because it wanders through private property few anglers gain access. It is as close to an earthly paradise as I’m able to imagine.

I stepped into the water and moseyed downriver to where I intended to initiate my solitary piscatorial adventure. I took my time, enjoying the wade. The water was a bit stained but visibility was good; its temperature was cool and refreshing, making for contented trout which, if all goes well, would make for a contented angler.

A gentle breeze came from the direction in which I was headed. I was not aware of any breeze at the meadow but welcomed it here. It would keep the mosquitoes at bay without being strong enough to complicate casting. I began looking for friendlier aquatic insects: mayflies and caddisflies, the occasional stonefly—the food of trout.

I came to a small island and made a series of short casts to small pools that usually hold trout. I had a couple of hits but my zeal got the best of me. Even failing to set the hook proved satisfying because there were fish where I had expected. Reading the water is an imperfect science, equal parts observation, experience and intuition. It also involves something anglers seldom acknowledge: the hospitality of fish who welcome into their home strangers waving long wimpy sticks.

When I fish the headwater with Dan, he bushwhacks downriver and wades his way back to where we gather at the big pool. Wesley and I fish closer together, exchanging ideas on methods and techniques. In the absence of both companions, I decided to explore a flourishing current seam and pool downriver from where I customarily fish.

Rocks haphazardly traverse the river, creating a natural ledge that causes water to burble and gurgle in a long luxurious seam. It is shielded from the sun for much of the day by cedars and overhanging willows that suit resident trout. Adjacent to the broiling seam is a pool where pods of accommodating trout hang out.

This stretch of headwater is a bug factory that attracts silky cedar waxwings. Sporting rakish black masks, these handsome birds (one of my favourite species) gather in the cedars when not performing dazzling aeronautics above the river in pursuit of flying insects, their thin, high-pitched whistles piercing the air.

Southwestern Ontario Headwater, photo by Robert Reid

My game plan was to start at the tail of the pool, slowly and systematically working my way up to its head immediately below the ledge. I would repeat the strategy with the fecund current seam.

I took a moment to consider the fly I would tie onto my tippet. Isonychia mayflies were flying about and floating on the water after depositing eggs. Although sparse they were thick enough to make the decision for me.

Known variously as Lead-wing Coachman, Dun Variant, Slate Drake, Slate Dun or, most whimsically, White-gloved Howdy, Isonychia are a model of dependability on rivers across southwestern Ontario from June through September because of what I call a ‘double-header’ hatch (an early one starting mid-June and a late one starting at the end of August, depending on location). Not surprisingly fly anglers are enamoured of this meaty mayfly. And I’m no exception.

I selected a fly to match the hatch—one of Dan’s expertly tied comparaduns, a lethal dry fly inspired by Fran Better’s legendary haystack pattern. I stripped out line and made a few tentative casts. Like a relief pitcher in the bullpen, I was warming up in preparation of the precision yet to come (or so I hoped).

Soon I fell into a rhythm (physical) that carried me to my happy place (mental). My conversation with the river continued on amiable terms. Not all of my casts were perfect which, for me, is to be expected. Still a good cast is a beautiful thing. It accounts for much of fly fishing’s elegance and grace, not to mention mystique. It is as close as fishing gets to ballet on water.

I was immersed in the sounds of the headwater—a natural symphony of insects and birds, wind caressing leaves and polyphonous current. The river slowly seeped into my bones. I relaxed, feeling at peace with myself and the world around me, of which I became an integral part.

I was blessed on this evening in the month of my seventieth year on the lip of the summer solstice.

Suddenly the line twitched and tightened. I flicked the tip of my Sweetgrass and it began humming a sweetly pleasing note. The dance on water began. Time stopped and space contracted. It was me and the trout embraced in ‘the still point of the turning world,’ in T. S. Eliot’s words.

Playing a fish is a choreographed pas de deux. I wanted to prolong the dance but I also wanted to land her (for purposes of this essay she will be a hen) before she became fatigued. Catch and release is more than an ethic, it is an act of devotion on the altar of preservation. I knelt down into the water.

‘My God, she’s a brookie,’ I whispered. ‘What a beauty.’ I wet my hands, cupped her in my palm and turned her upside down to relax her before carefully removing the barbless hook from her pouting lip. I returned her to the water until she revived and, within a flash, was gone.

Headwater Brookie, photo by Robert Reid

A brook trout—or speckled trout or speck—is a miracle. Holding one, if only momentarily, connected me to raw, fierce, wild nature. It was both a gift and a privilege.

I was lucky on this night—Shepard observes that fly fishing depends on ‘a very large element of chance and uncertainty’—as shadows lengthened on the water and darkness fell softly as a mourning veil.

I left the river after catching and releasing a dozen trout. As it turned out, the big pool did not deliver on its promise. No matter. The tally: nine rainbows and two browns, all ranging from six to eleven inches, in addition to the lone, ten-inch brookie. When it comes to rivertop trouting size is of little consequence.

I sat bankside overlooking the big pool, taking deep delight in occasional riseforms (taunting reminders that trout always enjoy the last laugh). A constellation of twinkling fireflies pierced pinpricks of yellow luminescence in a curtain of deep dark indigo.

My Celtic ancestors venerated riverbanks–where earth meets water–as liminal, luminous places. In honour I poured a dram of 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, a distillers vintage from 1990, double-matured in oloroso sherry wood and bottled in 2005. Derived from the Gaelic word Dail Chuinnidh (meaning ‘meeting place’), it serves as a bridge between Highland and Speyside whiskies, offering a light fruit and honey character with classic heather and a wee trace of peat.

It was the perfect malt whisky to savour at this perfect place. Although a solitary outing, I was never alone on the headwater.

I toasted angling companions, all of whom I have shared bankside drams: Gary Bowen, the university pal who reintroduced me to fishing after a thirty-five year hiatus; Dan, a fly angling mentor who became a dear friend; Wes, a creative collaborator who helped me become a published author after four decades as a professional journalist; Chris Pibus, a longtime fly angler I met through my book before discovering we shared a love of literature, art and trout streams (who gifted me the Dalwhinnie); and Dylan, my eldest son who took up fly rod and reel after discovering, as his dad had before him, that an Adam’s dry fly is a prescription to mend a broken heart.

I felt a deep sense of thanksgiving as I made my way through the cedar forest back to the Jeep. While taking off my gear I was serenaded by the urgent throb of a drumming ruffed grouse engaged in his annual mating ritual, a warning to other males and an invitation to females.

Thinking of Shepard once again, I took solace from his observation that no activity ‘carries one so far toward the secret heart of nature as angling.’

Fishing Log

Whiteman’s Creek Legerdemain

For most of my seventy years I never gave much thought to the greening month of May. Even acknowledging that it arrived on the heels of the austerity of March and the promise of April, it was not until I started fly fishing that May acquired meaning and significance for me.

Although trout season opens on the fourth Saturday of April, things really don’t get hopping until the first or second week of May when warming temperatures, increasing daylight and declining river flows trigger bug hatches. High fast water, which can be dangerous to wade for old-timers like me, and chucking streamers, woolly buggers and such questionable synthetic thingamajigs as San Juan worms and Mop flies are not my idea of a good time.

It was the first day of May–May(fly) Day, celebrated by the ancient Celts as Beltane in recognition of both the apex of spring and the coming of summer, and associated with fertility. My angling buddy Dan Kennaley and I hit Whitman’s Creek, a rite of renewal and regeneration we have enacted regularly over the past few seasons.

In real life I have shunned long courtships. Viewing the midway from atop the Ferris wheel has bestowed abundant thrills before the inevitable descent and accompanying heartbreak. Likewise, I usually fall in love with rivers at first blush, with the exception of Whiteman’s. For many years I was unimpressed with her charms, failing to see her for what she is: a beauty.

Rob Holding a Whiteman’s Rainbow

For a small river, Whitman’s abounds in trout including rainbow and steelhead, the latter of which spawn in the river, surprisingly large resident brown trout and the occasional brook trout. It also has smallmouth bass. It flows into the Lower Grand River between Paris and Brantford through the 266-acre Apps Mill Nature Centre.

Dan is fond of the ‘creek’ because it evokes pleasant memories of growing up in Brantford and in the nearby countryside, where he first learned to fish.

I was more conflicted towards the tributary before affection finally won me over. It is where I joined Dan and Jeff Thomason on my first outing as a fly angler. That single fact is enough to make the ‘creek’ special. However, it is also where I suffered my first fly fishing indignity–the first of many. The humiliation involved filling my waders and vest with cold water, causing me to dry off by stripping down to my birthday suit so the smirking sun could dry off my clothes and gear.

Things went better on this Saturday, despite cool temperatures and strong winds that conspired to bring rain showers which, as it turned out, never materialized. Dan and I together could have counted on the fingers of our hands the few light raindrops that fell.

Dan added some birds to his seasonal list, while I took delight in a couple of spotted sandpipers, birds I had not seen for many years, in addition to a pileated woodpecker (quite rare) and red-tailed hawk, a pair of Eastern kingbirds and multiple blue jays, black-capped chickadees, red-winged blackbirds and grackles.

I know grackles get a bad rap because of their gluttony and aggressiveness. To my way of thinking, grackles are no more rapacious or aggressive than fish. Similarly, to my eye, the males’ iridescent emerald-blue head, dark bronzy body and purple-tinged wings make them striking specimens.

I recall grackles being favourite birds of one of my childhood friends, Norm Harris. We used to spend a lot of time exploring nature along the flood plain of the south branch of the Thames River—known appropriately if viewed aerially, as Deshkan Ziibi [Antler River] in the Ojibwe language spoken by the Anishnaabe people—in our hometown of London, Ontario. Like my dad, Norm’s father was a firefighter and for many years Norm worked with my younger brother, Steve. As a youngster a couple of years older than me, Norm trapped muskrats and other fur-bearing animals within city limits, which I savoured as a constant source of amazement.

Dan and I both enjoyed a pleasant and fulfilling day. He caught fourteen rainbows over seven hours of angling and birding, beginning with the lovely cinnamon Bi-visible he ties before switching to a hybrid nymph of some kind. His fish of the day was the mythic one-that-got-away.

‘Don’t know what the one really good fish (italics mine) was that I lost,’ Dan explained. ‘Could have been a brown, but might have been a steelhead. I did catch a couple of small rainbows in the same run where I lost the good one.

‘I hooked and lost it on the way downriver and, of course, I tried the spot on the way back up. Sure enough I got a hit on my nymph again and, thinking it might be the good one, I set the hook hard, only to propel a poor innocent six-incher over my head into the vegetation behind me.’

I emphasized with my angling companion. This happens to all fly anglers. Anyway sympathy is the fly line that binds all angling friendships.

I caught ten rainbows over three hours, seven of which were no larger than fingerlings with the exception of a six-incher, seven-incher and nine-incher. All caught on one of Dan’s cinnamon Bi-visibles, an impressionistic dry fly that is productive during the Hendrickson hatch, the first major hatch in southwestern Ontario.

Dan refers to his Bi-visible as brown, conceding that the tightly palmered hackle feathers and tail fibres are reddish-brown. I think my description is more poetic (laugh). I admire the fly because, in addition to being an early season trout magnet (especially on waters where trout tend to be naive), it is easy to see on the the water because of its Size 12 profile, buoyancy (it is bushy) and dashing white hackle collar. Its high visibility benefits angler and trout equally, even on rough water.

I have never been a fan of tiny flies–for me this means Size 18 which I admit is not close to tiny for proficient technical anglers–tied on wispy leaders longer than nine feet and thinner than 6X. As I have gotten older, and my eyes have aged in consort with my body, I have come to praise bigger, bushier flies, provided they work. I know there are ‘tricks’ that make small flies easier to see–small strike indicators and fluorescent ‘strike putty’ and such–but I prefer a clean line devoid of any remnants of worm-chucking (just kidding).

Look closely and see a Whiteman’s Brown Trout
landed and photographed by Chris Pibus

My biggest ‘bow was rewarding for the unique circumstances in which he was caught, which I will describe momentarily. The others were gratifying for a reason that does not get the attention it deserves. In terms of fly angling glory, there is nothing more esteemed than casting upstream, targeting and catching specific rising trout. If the angler ties the dry fly, so much the better.

What is not acknowledged enough, in my opinion, is the way I caught all my trout: by reading the water, thinking like a trout, and casting to places where trout are expected to be holding. Even when the fish does not eat the fly, catching a glimpse of the approach and rejection is exciting, as is flubbing the hook set. I don’t see why this methodology is not as strong a connection between angler and fish as when an angler knows, in advance, where a fish is rising.

I know such acclaimed angling writers as Tom Rosenbauer have written comprehensively about this topic (I recommend his Orvis Guide to Reading Trout Streams and Orvis Guide to Prospecting for Trout). However, I stand by my opinion, at least in terms of the long history of dry fly angling literature.

My biggest trout was even more special. Dan and I had just mused about how we have reached the age where prospecting water includes ascertaining whether there are any natural benches suitable for sitting and resting, maybe even reflecting and contemplating (like Thoreau sitting on a pumpkin). These might include boulders, raised grassy riverbanks suitable for sitting while dangling ‘wadered’ legs in water, or sweepers and deadfall sufficient to bear an angler’s weight.

No more than ten minutes after chatting with Dan I came across a half-submerged tree trunk laying parallel and adjacent to a rushing current. I sat down, resting comfortably, and casually started what fly anglers refer to as a parachute cast downriver in the current seam caused by the trunk and a rocky ledge over which water was swirling.

By stopping my fly rod high over my head, allowing the fly to float gently onto the water, and then lowering my rod tip, the fly drifted naturally in the current a fair distance. I extended the drift by flipping out more line with the tip of my seven-and-a-half foot, three-weight bamboo rod. It didn’t bother me that the dry fly eventually sank. I simply stripped in more line and raised my rod, then lowered it and let more line drift along, allowing the sunken fly to drift subsurface even farther in the current.

After repeating this a of couple of times, the nine-incher gobbled the fly. I set the hook and brought him into my wet hand, released the barbless hook and returned him from whence he came, no worse for wear. I found the whole thing immensely gratifying, confirming that age need not be a handicap—provided nature offers a helping hand.

Unfortunately Dan had moved off, downriver, and missed my best impression of angling legerdemain. I was so pleased with our outing I was eager to introduce Whiteman’s Creek to Chris Pibus, my newest angling companion, in addition to a couple of fly fishing apprentices I have taken under my rod, Doug Kirton, to whom I coached baseball fifty-five years ago, and my eldest son, Dylan. My youngest son, Robertson joined the fun with his spinning gear equipped with a small modified (single barbless hook) Rapala. Fly angling is cloaked in the intrigue of secret places but, at my age, sharing the bounty with dear angling companions is part of the satisfaction.

The lovely day on the water got me pondering on the hour-drive home. As I contemplated what I had learned in seventy years, I began musing about what fish have taught me, a more satisfying preoccupation:

• Fish have given me the gift of surprise and joy, wonder and bliss, sometimes not without apprehension or even fear.

• Fish have grounded me in a particular place despite my living in an increasingly rootless world.

• Fish have helped me feel a strong bond to a larger community at a time when people feel increasingly alienated and isolated from nature.

• Fish have inspired wonder and awe. They have given me the keys—humility and respect—through which to open the door onto mystery.

• By allowing me to participate in their lives, if only briefly, fish have nourished, enriched and enlarged my kinship to fellow creatures with whom I share common origin in the stew of our mutual primordial beginnings.

When people ask me why I fly fish, invariably adding without my prompting that they would find it interminably boring–in short, a waste of time–and more than a little cruel, I am rendered speechless. Very occasionally words fail me.

Fishing Log

Sweet o’ the Year

When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale. 
                                                     — William Shakespeare

Everybody knows William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in English; however, everybody might not know he is one of the language’s great nature writers. One of his delightful bucolic phrases—‘the sweet o’ the year’—appears in his late romance The Winter’s Tale. At least two authors I admire adopted it for book titles: English rural writer H. J. Massingham in 1939 and American angling writer R. Palmer Baker, Jr. in 1965.

The Sweet of the Year
by R Palmer Baker, Jr

I have long associated the opening of trout season on the fourth Saturday of April with the sweet o’ the year. For the past twenty years or so it has arrived the same way—with a phone call from my angling companion Dan Kennaley: ‘Are you up for an outing?’ he asks.

‘Absolutely,’ I reply. ‘Where and when do you want to meet?’ Like many fly anglers, we routinely answer a question by asking another question.

Outings begin long before I wade into a river, even before I gear up. They begin when I slide behind the steering wheel of my Jeep. After turning the key in the ignition I insert a compact disc (one of the reasons I bought the vehicle was because it came with a factory installed CD player).

On the day I’m recalling as though it were yesterday, Neil Young is heartsick over a town in Northern Ontario–a poignant song of remembrance that mines the desperate helplessness we all suffer at one time or another. Lost in a dream of tender heartache, I crossed the threshold onto another season of piscatorial promise.

I hit the two-lane, driving through the southwestern Ontario countryside—renamed Sowesto by artist Greg Curnoe. This is prime farm country, home to Old Order Mennonites who settled the area in the first decades of the nineteenth century, finding sanctuary, via Pennsylvania, from religious persecution in their homelands of central Europe. With my window rolled down I inhaled the fragrance of spring as farmers in field after field harrowed and manured in preparation of planting.

The transition from white winter monochrome to vibrant shades of green was invigorating. The passing rural scene included horse and buggies and kids on bicycles returning home from school. A stately red-tailed hawk sat atop a hydro pole in anticipation of an early supper which I decided to interpret as a lucky omen—I would become fish hawk.

I met up with Dan on quiet cul-de-sac where we usually parked. We carefully made our way to a favourite place on the Grand tailwater. The river was a tad high but not enough to hamper wading—an issue that has become more acute with Dan’s sciatica and my arthritic knee. Growing old has become a nemesis we battle as a team.

An encouraging number of Hendricksons were fluttering about, some females bulging with egg sacs. Others were floating on the water, forming a flotilla of diaphanous sailboats. It appeared the hawk had been a fortuitous sighting—or so I thought.

As close to a dry fly purist as I know, Dan tied on a cinnamon Bi-visible, invented in the 1920s by legendary Catskill angler Edward Ringwood Hewitt. In Dan’s estimation the quantity of mayflies nullified the challenge of cocoa-stained water. I tied on a black woolly worm with maroon tail, an early season overachiever championed by Craig Wardlaw, another fly angling buddy.

Dan had no success. I had no success. Nary a rise, nary a bite. Half an hour later Dan swallowed his pride and tied on—you guessed it—a black woolly worm with a red tail. Nothing. I tied on a yellow bodied nymph, an early season feathered trout magnet recommended by Ken Collins, founder of Grand River Troutfitters. It teased a nudge out of a lackadaisical fish lounging in the tail of a riffle.

The absence of trout did not reflect the abundance of fauna on the river. It was a vernal menagerie: Canada geese, including fuzzy goslings; emerald-headed mallards; dipsy-doodling cliff swallows inhaling fluttering insects; and a gangling blue-gray heron apparently enjoying better luck stalking downriver. The activity was capped by a reconnoitring osprey coasting down the watercourse in search of what neither Dan nor I could find.

The cause of a momentary thrill occurred when I saw a huge brown trout somersault out of slick water between a couple of parallel current seams to snatch a bug out of the air. I began casting my yellow nymph to the spot where the trout had cleared water. I cast again and again and again . . . .

Not seeing any rises or not catching any fish are equally bad. But they pale in comparison to the frustration of almost catching a big fish. I cannot say for sure it was the twenty-four inch brownie I watched another fly angler land the year before, but it probably was for the simple reason that I was casting to the exact same spot.

The angler, who I remembered shaking like he was chilled, confessed that the monster was the biggest brownie he had ever caught. Speechless, all I could muster was an idiotic nod of acknowledgment. I had never obsessed over a fish before—except for this one—the stuff of legend landed almost exclusively on the tailwater after dark on big bushy flies cast by bold anglers wearing headlamps; certainly not in broad daylight.

To make an agonizing story as brief as possible, the brownie ate my fly, I set the hook and started stripping in line. After a couple of strips I decided to be extra diligent, so I hefted my five-weight Winston to ensure a solid hook set. BAD idea. I inadvertently pulled the hook out of his mouth, freeing the finned beast who impersonated a torpedo launched from a nuclear submarine. I feared my knees were going to give out. I felt sick to my stomach.

There is a devastating moment in catching a fish, especially a big fish, on a fly rod which is simultaneously exhilarating and calamitous. It is a reminder that arrogance has no place, that humility is the just reward. If an angler forgets or misplaces humility he opens himself to profound disappointment. It’s like a boxer getting knocked out after letting his guard down. Jim McKay, host of the long-running ABC sports show, The Wide World of Sports, called it the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

For the briefest of moments I felt very very good about myself for hooking the bruiser. But within a blink, I was done, beaten, on the mat, down and out with no place to hide. It was over.

This happened a few seasons back during my angling apprenticeship, when I was trying my best to earn membership in the fellowship of fly anglers. The brownie endures in my memory archive as a symbol of pure potential, the promise of attaining the unattainable.

Dan and I both surrendered without a fish that day. To soothe our bruised egos we retired to a local pub. We enjoyed range-fed chicken wings and homemade fries cut from fresh potatoes, washed down with a couple of pints of Maclean’s Lager—while toasting the great writer Norman.

‘You know,’ I said between refreshing sips, ‘I’ve always been in awe of Herman Melville for transforming a white whale into literary myth while sitting at his writing desk on a farm miles inland from the fathomless depths of the North Atlantic. To me his achievement proves that, with skill and imagination, anything’s possible.’

It was dark as I headed home. Farmers were still hard at work. Powerful halogen lights from gigantic tractors (obviously they were not Old Order) illumined massive orange dust clouds. They looked like mechanized phantoms of the field. I thought of Stephen Crane’s description of a ‘red sun . . . pasted in the sky like a wafer.’

In a voice so sweet, so fragile, so vulnerable, Neil Young sang of watching Mother Nature on the run–sadly, still running half a century later. My dear friend Steve Leslie, who passed much too young, once described this part of the country–our birthplace and home–as ‘Canada’s bellybutton,’ a term of many meanings I cherish.

Fishing Log

Henry & Neighbourhood Creeks

Seems so long ago, the spring before coronavirus announced itself like a dreaded phone call in the dead of night. When hope and possibly and renewal were seasonal gifts, as dependable as a birthday card from a loved one.

In Becoming a Fly Fisher John Randolph observes that fly fishing is a paradigm that gives form and meaning to life. I agree. The contemplative recreation—not to mention writing about it—establishes a bond between practice and place. For anglers with deep pockets fly fishing is all about exotic locales in pursuit of exotic gamefish, requiring either fat wallets or generous expense accounts. In contrast, mine is a modest proposal, confined almost exclusively to an area less than two hours by car in any direction from my home in Waterloo, Ontario.

On this afternoon in early May I wanted to shift my piscatorial paradigm by reducing my parameters to within a few of blocks of my apartment. The idea of doing something different came to me over the winter on my daily walks throughout the Neighbourhood of Poets—so named because of streets honouring Shakespeare, Marlowe, Longfellow, Browning, Keats and Coleridge. I decided to celebrate the opening of trout season by casting a line in the Land of the Lawnmower.

With fly rod in hand and a couple of dependable flies (an isopod and pheasant tail nymph) in my pocket, I walked up the street bearing the name of the greatest angler of words in the English language. My goal was humble—toss a fly into a stream that meanders through the neighbourhood from a small reservoir in a small park. And see what, if anything, happened. I recalled the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau. While most readers associate the Concord mystic with Walden Pond, he was one of the first North American writers to recognize the importance of what are now called urban green spaces.

When most people contemplate the natural world, they think of vast remote tracks of wilderness or national and provincial parks. The municipal equivalent are designed primarily to accommodate sports and recreation with baseball diamonds, soccer pitches, tennis courts, swimming pools and playground equipment. Then there are the municipal gardens, home to manicured lawns, ornamental shrubs transplanted from distant lands and colourful annuals developed in greenhouses.

I appreciate these aesthetic amenities; they warm hearts, exercise imaginations and comfort souls. We need them to preserve our collective sanity. But my preference lies elsewhere, especially as urban green spaces retaining a whiff of the wild are as threatened as dinosaurs on the cusp the meteorite collision that changed everything 65 million years ago.

I am talking about the small shaggy unkempt ribbons of seemingly insignificant brush that accompanies and protects urban creeks and streams, as well as rough scruffy copses and groves that separate strip plazas, clusters of big-box stores, sprawling malls, pricey highrise condos and acres of paved parking lots. These untended sanctuaries are home to all manner of native flora (including white, pink and red trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily and lily of the valley) and fauna. They protect rabbits, skunks, groundhogs, squirrels, tree frogs and raccoons, even fox, deer and coyotes—and many sundry creatures.

After all, the earth’s natural wealth accrues through both small donations and large capital investments. All deposits accumulate and yield ecological stability and viability.

It amazes me how much wildlife thrives under our noses and beyond our dark blinders—much of it nocturnal. My twenty-five year old son, Robertson, prefers to take his daily ninety-minute walks in the wee hours, usually between 1 and 2, because he craves ‘the solitude and serenity.’ He routinely happens upon all of the creatures listed above, and more, which adds to his delight. He has said repeatedly that our neighbourhood is ‘a playground for critters.’ (Late last winter we welcomed a great horned owl who liked to perch after dark in a nearby spruce and rouse us with a string of hoooot hoot hoots just before daylight peeked over the eastern skyline.)

The best way of protecting and preserving these small oases of biodiversity is to leave them alone, let them be, so they can go about their business unhindered, in accordance with their will and inclination.

Our neighbourhood abounds in small inconspicuous streams and creeks. They are reminders that, of all the natural resources North America has squandered since European contact, the most indecent, disgusting and regrettable is freshwater. These systems are so precious because life perishes without them. Freshwater has been monetized and monopolized by the engines of corporate capitalism which place short-term profit above long-term sustainability. The loss of freshwater is both genocide and suicide because it threatens every living thing on this fragile planet.

I was not expecting to catch any fish. I did not even know whether any species had the audacity to inhabit this tiny discreet creek. I could have phoned the conservation authority for information, but I did not want to spoil the potential for surprise that accompanies the unknown. After all, the venture was really about the fun of the unexpected.

From what I knew about reading water, it was possible, if not probable, that some miniature piscine species found this urban trickle hospitable. So instead of the limestone cliffs and pastoral farmland that provide picturesque backdrops for much of my fishing, I settled on backyard lawns and gardens, sheds and patio furniture, plastic wading pools and swing sets.

I wish I could report that my neighbourhood creek contained undiscovered, pint-sized speckled gems. But, alas, these are such stuff dreams are made on. Instead I caught a four-inch chub on my seven-and-half-foot bamboo rod crafted by a nameless artisan without pedigree sometime within the last half century.

I neither cast a graceful wet fly downstream in the classic manner, nor did I employ an efficient high-stick nymphing technique imported from Eastern Europe. I dapped, a technique remembered from childhood when I fished for wild brook trout in a northern ‘crick’ with a bamboo pole, black braided line and wiggly worms dug from the garden. But I need not apologize. This was pretty much how Dame Julianna Berners (had the mystery nun ever existed), not to mention Izaak Walton and his adopted son, Charles Cotton, fished English chalkstreams.

Because the stream is shielded by a scraggly band of mixed trees and vegetation along each bank, I shared the water with a pair of mallards. They did not welcome the intrusion—and let me know it. Still I enjoyed their company. Best of all, I saw a variety of birds, including purple and gold finches, yellow-breasted warblers, red-winged blackbirds and ruby-crowned kinglets, none of which are viewed from my ground-level apartment patio. I also saw familiar friends bluejays, black-capped chickadees and cardinals. A female goldfinch was so friendly she seemed eager to alight on my fly rod—just to say hello.

I had so much fun I decided to prospect another small local stream after supper. It always looked fishy to me. I approached the water at access points to limit my impact on bankside vegetation and made short casts with a soft-hackle wet fly tied by the late Ian Colin James. Cyclists, joggers, pleasure walkers, mothers pushing baby strollers and pairs of young lovers sauntered by on the trail. It resembled a scene from Casting in the Park with Rob, with a nod to Stephen Sondheim.

I did not expect to catch any trout. And I didn’t. Still I landed a half dozen chub in less than an hour. After the winter layoff on the heels of ending the previous year by casting streamers to Grand River smallmouth bass and Bighead River steelhead, it was nice to tone up my more nuanced trout hook-set muscle memory. And, best of all, no passport was required.

Since writing this story two short years ago I am distressed to report that our neighbourhood creek is now under attack—from the municipality and the University of Waterloo, across from which my apartment is located. The university is clearing fields and wetlands to construct buildings to accommodate ever-increasing enrollment. Even more troubling, the municipality is straightening out a naturally meandering creek located in a park, of all places. In the process it is transforming the creek into little more than a culvert. At the same time, it is cutting down bankside trees and removing vegetation that protected the creek and its inhabitants, replacing both with cut stone and lawn. It’s enough to make mild-mannered Henry pen an angry proclamation of Civil Disobedience.

Fishing Log

Don Quixote & Sancho on the Grand

This story is set in ‘once upon a time’—BCE or Before Coronavirus Era.

Most fly anglers have secret places. Anglers hold these locations close to fishing vests, like card sharks in high-stakes poker games. These are places of solitude and serenity, with enough resident fish to reward attentive effort and patience. These ‘hidden’ places are sometimes shared with family or with a closed circle of angling companions who swear an oath of secrecy. Dan Kennaley and I have exchanged pledges concerning a couple of piscine gardens.

I recall one time when the location of one of our secret places was compromised. Dan and his brother, Martin, were on their annual trouting adventure in Upstate New York—the West Branch of the Ausable to be exact. Feeling a tad out-of-sorts I decided to spend a few peaceful hours on the Grand River tailwater while awaiting Dan’s return so we could resume our pursuit of early season trout.

I waded to our secret spot and began casting a Hendrickson nymph alongside a current seam where I knew brown trout, some of respectable size, liked to set up house. It was lovely and tranquil in early June. I was alone with my solitude, glad in the glory of the day.

After half an hour or so I heard a commotion downriver. A pair of fishermen were heading my way, thrashing about in their waders and cavorting with every clumsy step. The leader was forging ahead while carrying a rod in each hand. His buddy, following some distance behind, was struggling mightily with a rod in one hand and a large cooler in the other. For some reason, I thought of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on an angling quest. As they got closer, I detected the sound of beer cans sloshing among chunks of ice.

I don’t want to sound like a fly fishing snob. However, I assumed the intrepid intruders were hard-lure spincasters who, either deliberately or unwittingly, wandered into a restricted angling area (no live bait, catch and release with single barbless hooks). To my surprise, they were carrying fly rods.

‘Catch anything,’ the angler I have named Don inquired upon his approach.

He was not dressed like a ‘typical’ fly fisherman. His chest waders had boots attached. Sans vest and hat, he was wearing a T-shirt boasting a screenprint graphic celebrating an English heavy metal band. His biceps, one of which sported a bold tattoo, confirmed that he was as familiar with barbells as he was with fly rods.

Bulging biceps aside, he had a small fly box tucked into one short sleeve. This reminded me of my childhood in the 1950s when duck-tailed greasers carried packs of filterless cigarettes the same way.

‘Not so far,’ I replied—honestly as it turned out.

‘I caught a twenty-six-incher two nights ago on a Hare’s Ear [nymph],’ Don boasted with unabashed braggadocio, pointing to a riffle a few metres upriver. Although I had no reason to doubt him, I could not vouch for his veracity either. In fairness, I once witnessed trout of comparable size being caught along the same piece of tailwater.

‘Wow, that would be a monster on this river,’ I replied with thinly disguised mock admiration.

Sancho eventually arrived. I smiled and quipped, ‘I see you’re carrying the heavy luggage.’ He nodded with a smile under a sweaty brow.

The two fishermen continued upriver and set up shop on a tiny island adjacent to the riffle that had reputedly delivered the monster. I heard the cooler lid being opened and the refreshing sound of a couple of beer tabs being released. Shfish! Shfish! I imagined thick foamy suds slowly dripping down the frosty sides of the tall-boys.

I resumed casting. A couple of minutes later, I heard a loud bark. It was Don. ‘Fuck, I broke the tip of my fucking rod. I am always doing that. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.’

I could sympathize, even empathize. I suffered the same indignity a few years previously while gearing up for steelheading. And Dan used a fly rod an inch or two shy of nine-feet for many years after suffering the same mishap.

I resumed casting once again, but the spell of serenity had been shattered. Dan’s and my secret place had been exposed, our lost paradise found out. After a few minutes of billowing frustration I headed back to the Jeep–with, I readily concede, visions of cold beers dancing in my head.

Like most things in life, fishing is diminished by prejudice, stereotype and cliché. There are fly anglers who view spin and bait fishermen as lesser subspecies of anglers. Conversely, there are spin and bait fisherman who view fly anglers as effete tweedy elitists. Neither bias withstands serious scrutiny.

Most fly anglers are not pompous twits with a fetish for Latin entomology. Likewise, most anglers who toss crankbaits from high-octane bass boats are not rednecks in ball caps. And I have seen enough of life to know there are worse things than relaxing under riverside trees and dangling worms with sinkers and bobbers during long lazy summer afternoons—especially if the fisher is joined by his or her grandson or granddaughter.

In A River Why David James Duncan plays with angling stereotypes through the protagonist’s parents. Gus’s father (an English aristocrat who answers to Henning Hale-Orviston and is known to his son as H2O) is an elitist fly angling scribe. In piscatorial contrast, Gus’s foul-mouthed American mom, known affectionately as Hen (as in female steelhead), is an unrepentant bait-tosser who out-fishes her husband by ‘drowning’ worms.

Silken Lines and Silver Hooks by W. Sherwood Fox

I returned to the newly re-christened not-so-secret piece of tailwater a few times throughout the season—sometimes with, and sometimes without, Dan. The most memorable was the last outing on the cusp of the autumn equinox, a time of magic and synchronicity that invites connection and correspondence.

I tied on an Elkhair Caddis, a popular fly pattern on the Grand because of its healthy population of caddisflies. I cast upriver to a riffle between a pair of weeping willows that stand guard as sentinels over the swirling water. (Yes, this was the riffle where Don allegedly caught his monster.)

I held my breath as a fish broke the surface and inhaled my fly. Time slammed on its brakes and skidded to a sloooooow-motion stop. The world contracted with the snap of a rubber band. My sense of reality was suddenly heightened. My five-weight Sweetgrass bamboo rod arced elegantly, my Cortland double-taper line tightened and my vintage Orvis CFO reel sang a sweet clickety-click melody.

I had hooked a nice brownie. After landing it, I wet my hands and quickly measured the beauty: fourteen inches. A far cry from twenty-six inches, but still breathlessly lovely.

Allowing for the poetic license allowed anglers who equate every inch of fish with two inches of what-might-have been-could-have-been-should-have-been wishful thinking (an exaggeration, perhaps), it conceivably could have been the same brownie Don caught with the Hare’s Ear. After all, I have long taken to heart the words attributed to W. Sherwood Fox in Silken Lines and Silver Hooks when he asks, ‘Are all fishermen liars or do only liars fish?’ only to reply, ‘Of all the liars among mankind, the fisherman is the most trustworthy.’ (I believe this assertion also holds true for angling writers.) No wonder John Gierach, perhaps the world’s most popular contemporary angling writer, titled one of his books All Fisherman Are Liars.

I released the fish, feeling a deep sense of gratitude. The previous day I had exchanged emails with Dan, who was in America’s Big Sky Country with his wife Jan, fishing and attending the annual Norman Maclean festival. They had toured various landmarks associated with the author of A River Runs Through It, including the cabin his father built at Seeley Lake, his family home in Missoula and the Presbyterian church where his father had been preacher—all of which were featured in Robert Redford’s film, starring Brad Pitt as a tragic Hamlet waving a fly rod.

This would have been serendipity enough. Yet it so happens I was reading J. I. Merritt’s Trout Dreams. The book contains an essay on the filming of A River Runs Through It along with thirteen profiles of legendary fly anglers including Al Troth. Living at the time on the Beaverhead River in Dillon, Montana, the eccentric perfectionist invented the Elkhair Caddis, that most Western of dry flies so lethal on the Grand tailwater.

Fishing Log

State of Hex Hatch Grace

A trout river at night is different from the same trout river during the day. The water turns from tea-stained translucence to dark-roasted opaqueness. Currents that had previously caressed begin to push and pull. What was familiar in daylight becomes less predictable at nightfall; even the water seems to deepen. In response, anglers become more cautious, more vulnerable.

The nocturnal Hexagenia hatch is different from any other mayfly hatch at any other time of day. In Fly Fishing the Grand River, Ian Martin and Jane E. Rutherford describe the Hex as ‘the Boeing 747s of the mayfly world’ that make ‘fools’ of both ‘full-grown anglers and full-grown trout.’ The convergence of these two natural phenomena—darkness and hatching insects—makes for a strange, exciting, slightly spooky experience.

I know this thanks to Ken Robins, a lifetime member of KW Flyfishers who invited me to a beloved piece of headwater he has cared for lovingly and respectfully for more than four decades. (It will remain nameless to protect the privacy of Ken and his family.) It is where he, his late wife, current partner, twin daughters and, predictably, grandchildren fish for trout on the fly. Their wilderness sanctuary revolves around a trifecta of trout—brook, brown and rainbow.

I made two trips to Ken’s secluded slice of piscatorial paradise over a single summer which turned out to be mirror images of one another. I arrived in the afternoon and fished for a couple of hours (with meagre results), enjoyed an outdoor supper with Ken and Lilianna and, on the cusp of eventide, set my sights on a monstrous brown trout—I will call him Ol’ Man Brown—that inhabited a dark seam tucked between a half-submerged log and a shingled limestone outcropping.

It was August and the Hex were hatching. Not the ones that comprise the Bacchanalian Bug Bash celebrated annually on Michigan’s legendary trout rivers, but the smaller Hex (H. autocaudata) that grace select stretches of select rivers across southwestern Ontario. Ken is on familiar terms with both species, having visited the Au Sable regularly from about the time he purchased his headwater property.

A few kilometres east of Grayling, Michigan, past Burton’s Landing, is the start of the regulated fly fishing only, catch-and-release section of the Au Sable which is known as the Holy Water. The term applies more solemnly to the section of headwater meandering through Ken’s property—it is where the ashes of his late wife, Sue—a fellow fly angler who was dedicated to introducing women to fly fishing—were scattered.

Looking back on my introduction to the Hex hatch, and writing this essay in response a few months later, my mind detours as I reflect on time in relation to fly fishing and aquatic life including fish and insects. Synchronistically I later came across Janet Lembke’s River Time, a tidal memoir about her life on North Carolina’s Lower Neuse River.

The book gets its title from her sense of time as defying the mechanisms of human invention and following, instead, ancient ‘aboriginal rhythms.’ River time acquires it rhythms from the migrating patterns of birds, fish and animals, the cycle of the sun and the moon, the changing seasons and the dance of heavenly constellations that choreograph the passage of birth, growth, death and regeneration.

Here are a few of my tentative observations:

• Time is linear, but not unidirectional. Like the river in Margaret Laurence’s final novel, The Diviners, it is fluid, flowing back and forth between present and past, present and future. When I fish a river the experience is enriched by memories of previous outings and by the promise of the joy that is yet to come.

• Time is elastic. It stretches when I am impatiently awaiting the opening of trout season or my next outing with a fellowship of companions. It contracts when I am fishing during a hatch when fish are voracious and manic. It stops momentarily when a fish honours me by selecting my fly for its next meal.

• Time is vertical and horizontal. When standing waving a fly rod (vertical) in a river (horizontal) I am reminded of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow when he describes a person standing on the flat prairie as ‘a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.’ Seems to me this great writer’s words are an evocative definition of a fly angler. Nor is it surprising that he enjoyed fishing and wrote about it with insight and eloquence.

• Time is chronological and geological. Rivers were symbols of the passage of time long before tools for measuring it were invented. As such, they are an enduring literary trope. I witness the remnants of geological time in the compressed layers of limestone cliffs that adjoin many rivers in southwestern Ontario. I am amazed by the fact that my Winston fly rod and Orvis reel, made with the technology and materials that put a man on the moon and landed a robotic rover on Mars, connect me directly to the Devonian Period—the Age of Fishes—more than 400 million years ago. (More significant to fly anglers, trout and grayling populations were distributed throughout North America during the Pleistocene Epoch which began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago.)

• Time is cyclical as enacted in the life-and-death ritual of insects that aerially copulate like crazy before laying eggs on water and dying in a spinner fall, their flesh becoming aquatic nourishment. Water evaporates and becomes clouds, which drops as rain on streams, rivers and lakes, closing the circle of renewal and regeneration.

• Time is transformative, a record of mutability and mortality. While the Book of Genesis says, for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return, for mayflies it is for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.

• Time is literary, simultaneously literal and metaphorical, actual and metaphysical. Like a fly angler casting forward and backward from the stationary present, a writer describes the past and the future contemporaneously with the present, in the Eternal Now. I do my best to inhabit both spaces/places with grace, imagination and humility.

Mayflies (order Ephemeroptera) extend from an ancient lineage of aquatic insect extending back more than 300 million years, predating the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era. Yet their lifespan is infinitesimally brief. While these living fossils survive as nymphs from four months to two years, adults live from a couple of hours to ten days, depending on species.

The Hexagenia is one of the most widespread genera throughout North America, reaching its greatest density around the Great Lakes. Significantly, for anglers and non-anglers alike, it is a natural indicator of ecosystem health and water quality because of its low tolerance for pollution. Anglers revere it as a major food source for large ravenous trout that dine after dark.

The Hex are more plentiful than they once were on the headwater, offering reassurance for Ken, who observed, ‘it is the only hatch that lasts in good numbers for four weeks.’ In addition to his firsthand anecdotal knowledge of the insect, he wrote a renowned three-part series about Ontario mayflies in 1984 for Ontario Fisherman Magazine. This is how he explained to me the difference between the insects in southwestern Ontario headwaters from those found elsewhere:

They are different species. Michigan’s Hexagenia limbata was miss-named for many years as the Michigan Caddis Hatch. You still hear that name but the error has been pretty much corrected. The H. limbata is the biggest species and is the one you hear so much about with cottagers complaining about them. They have been known as shad flies or Erie flies. My dad said that when the shad fly hatch was on in Lake Erie, everyone quit fishing for bass and walleye because they couldn’t be caught then on bait or lures.

In Michigan, tackle shops sell live Hex nymphs for bait, they are that big. I have been immersed in their spinner falls way up north on the Albany River watershed (flowing into James Bay) where I caught my largest walleye on a dry fly. On Michigan rivers, they hatch soon after dark in late June and early July. Their spinner falls start around midnight, which gives rise to all the stories of the biggest browns coming up for them.

On the piece of headwater we fish the Hex is a smaller species, but not by much. It hatches in August, a few during a dull, cloudy day but most at night. The spinner fall happens in the last hour or so before dark—much better than waiting until midnight. 

I had witnessed thin sporadic H. autocaudata hatches occasionally on other rivers, including the Grand, but nothing like I did on this flourishing headwater. The stretch that snakes through Ken’s property is pristine, save for subtle restoration features he has constructed such as gravel redd beds, artificial weirs and protective fish shelters based on designs he encountered on the Au Sable. A retired high school math teacher with the mind of a biologist, he is a devoted riverkeeper. Wearing snorkel gear, he has even explored the headwater’s piscine secrets in its deepest pools.

On this night of high anxiety I sat bankside waiting on the magic spell between waning light and approaching darkness which my Celtic ancestors exulted as the gloaming. Then, as if by magic, a thick blizzard of fluttering insects suddenly arose.

Shortly thereafter Ol’ Man Brown began rising with bold impatient swirls, splashes and slurps from his aquatic lair. Etiquette be damned; this guy had an insatiable feedbag on that defied polite table manners.

The trout’s ritualized gluttony—there is no other term for it—was both indecent and scintillating. For some reason, it reminded me of the old epic tales—Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps—when the hero returns from his quest to boast of his adventures while gorging the night away. The pool was transformed into a great feast in a great hall. Even stranger, I was a troubadour poet, my fly rod my pen. I was writing my own epic story.

My heart started beating faster, echoing against my ear drums. I grabbed my five-weight Winston with a big bushy dry fly already tied on to a tapered 4X leader. I carefully made my way to a large submerged boulder I had reconnoitered earlier to act as a stable casting platform.

I stood waist-deep in flowing water, my heart still pounding. It was enchanting, not to mention a little unnerving—at least for me. It was as if I had waded through a portal and entered a mysterious aquatic realm.

Immersed in a frenzy of synchronized mating–I swear I could hear them going at it–I was overwhelmed by a spell of the wondrous, the miraculous. I was hexed. There is a word for this experience in many spiritual traditions: awe. Josh Greenberg, a lodge owner who knows the Au Sable as well as any angler and writes brilliantly, describes this occurrence in his angling memoir Trout Water as the ‘hex fermata.’

Fly anglers equate big bugs with big fish. Ken is no stranger to large trout. He wrote a couple of articles on brook trout for The Fishing Book, a chronicle of sportfishing in Ontario, and for Fly Fishing Canada: From Coast to Coast to Coast, a compendium of essays by members of the Outdoor Writers of Canada. He also enjoys the distinction of having a painted silhouette of a trout he caught in 1978 mounted on the Wall of Fame in Dan Bailey’s fly shop in Livingston. ‘It was a good era to be fishing in Montana,’ Ken recalls with customary modesty.

Heeding Ken’s advice, I gave Ol’ Man Brown time to cruise away from the dark seam to a deep, black India-ink pool in the centre of the river. I did not have to worry about getting my backcast snagged in riverside cedars or grasping sweepers and deadfalls because I was positioned midstream and facing upriver at the tail of the pool.

Growing too dark to see clearly, I continued casting not so much by sight as by a combination of sound and memory of distance stored while I sat bankside watching the edge of darkness advance. I hastily stripped in line as my big gaudy fly was propelled towards me by a roiling current produced by a rocky ledge above the pool. It resembled a dead drift on roller skates.

The Hex hatch blizzard ended as suddenly as it had begun—magically. The exhilarating frenzy gave way to a stillness that grew in intensity as I bent back my head and gazed heavenward, through the cedar tops, into a dense canopy of distant dying stars. A warm bliss washed over me.

I did not catch Ol’ Man Brown, let alone land him. Yet I recalled at one point feeling something vague and unspecified, as if my fly had brushed a phantom that was more a whisper or a kiss than a shudder. Ken speculated afterwards that my fly likely grazed the monster’s hooked jaw, his prominent kype preventing him from chomping down on my feathered morsel.

Ol’ Man Brown

Both Lilianna and Ken hooked and/or caught Ol’ Man Brown, which Ken measured at twenty-two inches, a giant in a headwater no more than ten or twelve metres wide. He estimated that the wily veteran was six or seven years old. Ken later photographed the fish after he had vacated his comfortable den to rest in ‘some glassy water above a rock weir’ on what might have been a final spawning run.

‘He looks long and thin because of the refraction of light at such a low angle of incidence, an effect that causes the object to appear thinner and at a shallower depth than he really is,’ Ken said. ‘He’s in just over a metre of water in the photo. I have never seen a brown trout with such a red belly, and half way up its sides’.

If Ken was correct about Ol’ Man Brown bussing my fly, and had I been able to land him, it would have been the largest trout I ever caught—the elusive fish of a lifetime—excluding lake trout bagged on spinning tackle on Saskatchewan’s Lac La Ronge, twenty years previously when I returned to fishing after an inexplicable absence of thirty-five years.

No matter. Whether my fly actually touched Ol’ Man Brown’s hook-billed jaw is not as important as holding out the possibility that it could have, might have. I take solace in the fact that fly fishing is more about pursuing a quarry than landing a trophy—a vow I pledge repeatedly and remain obliged to believe as an act of faith in a state of Hex hatch grace.

Fishing Log

Fishing Through the Pandemic: Autumn

Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I had fly fished more frequently this season than ever before, resulting from circumstances that had nothing to do with the virulent global virus. Happily my two regular streamside companions were available more often. My longtime angling buddy Dan Kennaley had retired from his day job and my creative collaborator Wesley Bates was able to steal time from the studio to join me on the water.

I was fortunate compared to most people during dangerous and uncertain times. I was retired and I was allowed to do what I enjoyed most, fishing the rivers of Southwestern Ontario for trout and bass. Most times I shared the water—apart but not separate—with Dan, Wesley or Chris Pibus, an angler I met through publication of Casting into Mystery, my fly angling memoir enhanced with Wesley’s wood engravings. Occasionally I fished by myself, alone but not lonely.

September has always been one of my favourite months of the year, going back to when I was a child and excited by the prospects of a new school year, a feeling I carried with me through graduate school where I studied a subject I have cherished throughout my life: English literature. My anticipation was re-ignited when my sons, Dylan and Robertson, started elementary school.

Because of the pandemic I abandoned the tailwater of the Grand River for headwater rivers that attracted fewer anglers. But, in hindsight, there was a deeper reason I now struggle to describe. I was drawn to wild brook trout, the species I love most. I had lost the desire to fish for the tailwater’s hatchery raised brown trout, which for some obscure reason I connected with the pandemic. Rather I felt a powerful need to connect with the primordial, the uncontaminated. I was in search of purity, if not purification. Does any of this make sense?

Still, to draw the curtain on the season, I felt compelled to return to the Grand. Returning to a place you have fished before is like reuniting with an old friend and getting caught up on the things shared in common. If you are lucky enough to have caught fish, the reunion is deeper, more intimate. The conversation picks up where it was left off earlier. Time collapses, distance contracts and the past flows into the continuous present.

Unlike those who do not fish, I had the solace of rivers to comfort and console as the world unravelled at the seams before growing weary of it all. Many times over the season my thoughts turned to Henry David Thoreau, a literary companion who is never far from my mind—not to mention my heart. I often recalled a favourite passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that never fails to lift my spirits, help me recharge and keep me grounded in the promise of tomorrow:

Trees were but rivers of sap and woody fibre, flowing from the atmosphere, and emptying into the earth by their trunks, as their roots flowed upward to the surface. And in the heavens there were rivers of stars, and milky ways, already to gleam and ripple over our heads. There were rivers of rock on the surface of the earth, and rivers of ore in its bowels, and our thoughts flowed and circulated, and this portion of time was but the current hour.

Written while he was living ‘deliberately’ in a modest cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, where he remained from July 1845 through September 1847, Thoreau’s philosophical memoir documents a boating trip he made in August 1839. His first published work is informed by a companion seldom mentioned, but who remains a constant presence in the spaces between and around the words. Henry’s dear brother, John, accompanied him on the river trip, only to die of lockjaw in 1842. Henry was devastated. He was never free from the grief that accompanied his brother’s death—not unlike the untold millions who lost loved ones from complications from the pandemic.

At this ‘current hour’ in September I was driving through Mennonite farm country to the Grand not only for the first time in more than a year, but to fish a stretch of tailwater I had not visited in a couple of years. I had the late Guy Clark on the CD player and grew pensive as I recalled a September almost twenty years previously. A native Texan who carved song lyrics out of poetry, he was as much a storyteller as a musician. He wrote poignant odes about old friends, building boats, last gunfighters, waltzing fools, homegrown tomatoes, pawnshop guitars and favourite pictures, not to mention Randall knives, Hemingway’s whiskey and Picasso’s mandolin. And, of course, ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train’ which pretty much sums up the human journey.

I had the pleasure of reviewing most of Clark’s albums and a couple concerts over thirty years of newspaper arts reporting. Once I had the honour of interviewing him over the phone on a day seared into American consciousness: September 11, 2001. When I asked him if we should postpone our talk for another time, he hesitated a moment before relying, ‘No, this is what we do, we should keep on doing it.’ Good advice in bad times, or so I have come to believe.

My spirits lifted when I parked the Jeep and geared up. I spent the first hour reacquainting myself with the hydrology of a piece of water I have come to embrace with affection. Little had changed which was reassuring. I began fishing familiar riffles, which I especially enjoy because it demands casting precision and disciplined line management. Eventually I meandered downriver. As I was casting at the tail of another riffle, I noticed a pod of trout rising in soft water farther down. My heart quickened. The pulse of anticipation flowed through my blood vessels like an electric current.

Carefully and quietly I moved to where I could cast to the slurping brownies. It was an open place. Across from me was a tall bare limestone cliff, about thirty metres in height, with its layers of geologic history compressed under the weight of time. My thoughts turned fanciful as I imagined the earth as a planetary salmon swimming in deep dark intergalactic seas and the river as a filleting knife that sliced and carved that which nourished and sustained all living things.

A chrome-plated crescent moon rose in the eastern sky as a pale slumbering sun tucked itself into bed in the West. Cliff swallows performed aerial acrobatics in pursuit of insects. A great blue heron, a keen and proficient fish hunter, kept a close eye on my movements. It was chilling off and it occurred to me, more than once, that an extra layer would have been nice.

I replaced a Prince nymph with an Elk Hair Caddis. After a few casts that were snubbed I replaced my 5X leader with a longer and finer 6X leader and tied on a smaller Elk Hair pattern. Caddisflies are the most common insect on the tailwater.

September Trout

One of the things I enjoy about fly angling is the simultaneous engagement with both sides of my brain. The analytical left side reads the empirical signs provided by nature. The intuitive right side interprets signs beyond the experiential. The first is logical and methodical; the second is intuitive and creative.

Finally I was ready for action, the game was on. My excitement rose as I set my sights on a specific brownie. I cast across, overshooting the feeding lane by a metre and ahead of the riser by a couple of metres to give me sufficient time to mend the line and draw the fly into the path of the feeding trout. The fly was easing along at the same speed as the foam bubbles carried by the current and was heading towards the recurring riseform. For me, this is what fly fishing is all about—its essence.

The fish struck but I flubbed setting the hook. ‘Damn, damn, damn,’ I hissed between clenched teeth. I regrouped, took a deep breath. Patience and persistence defined my game plan. I cast again. I fell into a pleasing rhythm as I cast yet again as careful as I could manage. I reminded myself to take it slow and easy, easy and slow.

Suddenly another hit. The line tightened and stiffened as if aroused. It cut the water like a Buck knife and vibrated like a Martin guitar string. I could feel the fish through my wrist, telegraphed along my Winston Boron five-weight, which was curved in a gracefully throbbing parabola.

I set the hook, caught in a web of mystery. My terrestrial world of consciousness connected to the unconscious aquatic world through rod, line and fly. The elements of air and water merged. I was giddy with delight, my heart thumping against my chest. Although proficient, I am not accomplished enough to take casting a dry fly to specific rising fish for granted. Gratification is such an intoxicating tonic.

I stripped in line and brought in the twelve-inch brownie. From his size I knew he had survived at least one winter in the Grand. I knelt in supplication, wet my hands and cradled it in my palm. This is the sacred moment, a blend of enchantment and joy. Not only was I connected to raw ferocious beauty, I was holding a species with which I shared origins at the dawning of life on what W. B. Yeats called our ‘wandering earth.’

While he was in the water I got my Pentax out of my vest before gently placing the trout on riverside pebbles. I carefully released the single, barbless hook from the side of his lip with hemostats and quickly pressed the camera shutter. Then I eased him into the water facing upstream and re-oxygenated his gills while cupping him in my hands before releasing him into the flowing river from whence he came. He took off like a halo-spotted mini-torpedo, fierce in his pursuit of regained freedom.

When I hook a fish I pass through the threshold of mystery. A beautiful creature materializes out of the invisible. This is why fly fishing turns skeptical anglers into believers in awe of the miraculous and the marvelous—perhaps even intimations of the divine. This is when fly fishing and poetry share a common language.

One of the things that sets fly fishing apart from other methods of fishing is that how a fish is caught matters. This is not a question of technique or style, but of morality. This is why I believe fly angling is a calling rather than a sport. This makes a fly angler, to paraphrase Nick Lyons in Confessions of a Fly Fishing Addict, both a hunter and an aesthetician. After all, are not fish both prey and objects of veneration as many ancient wisdom traditions maintain?

This leads to another element that distinguishes fly fishing. Convention dictates that anglers prefer catching fish to not catching fish. Certainly more and bigger fish is the goal of most anglers regardless of terminal tackle. But, as difficult as it is for some people to understand, catching fish is not what fly fishing is about in its essence. I believe this with steadfast conviction.

Even the most competitive fly fishermen—this is more a male trait than a female trait—concede that striking out on the water is not necessarily losing the game. If quantity and size were the primary forces driving an angler, he (or she) would employ more effective methods of filling the creel, stringer, cooler or boat reservoir. Casting dry flies at rising fish is unquestionably the most challenging of all forms of fishing—therein lies its greatest virtue.

I realize many anglers, irrespective of tackle, practice catch-and-release. But I would like to address anglers who adhere to regulated catch limits. Considering the assault on our fragile planet waged by accelerated climate change, pollution and population pressures, I believe we have reached the point where it is morally responsible to catch fewer fish than even catch limits allow. What I am advocating is a less-is-more ethic (to quote the great modernist architect Mies van der Rohe). Not only is less fish more; less fish is better.

I believe it is time for the angling community at large to take this pledge. I concede there is room for debate between catch-and-release and responsible catch-and-eat. It is complicated by heritage, tradition, custom, ritual and ceremony. I speak only for myself when I defend the ethical imperative of catching fewer fish in addition to releasing those I catch in deference to my sons and to their children, who I fear will not have the angling opportunities I have been privileged to enjoy.

I could have stayed longer and drifted into the darkness of eventide, maybe even caught another brownie or two–anglers are never without hope. But I decided to leave. Sometimes it is enough to accept what the river provides without asking for more, simply to reciprocate with humility and gratitude.