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.
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:
‘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.’
‘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.’