Fishing Log

Good Angling Comes to Those Who Wait

The adage about good things coming to those who wait had not applied to me more directly than when I finally fly fished my hometown river. After all, it had taken me more than the Biblical ‘threescore years and ten’ to cast fur and feather on the Thames.

Originally known as Deshkan Ziibi (Antler River) in the Ojibwe language of the Anishinabek People and Neutrals prior to European contact, it was renamed in honour of England’s historic River Thames by John Graves Simcoe, first lieutenant governor of what was then known as Upper Canada. Although his tenure was brief, from 1791 until 1796, the former British Army general anglicized much of southwestern Ontario through a systematic program of naming and/or renaming–including my hometown of London.

I don’t have much of an opinion regarding Simcoe’s ambitious colonial agenda with two exceptions. Look at a map of the watershed’s web of headwaters and it becomes obvious that the Antler River is a superior name based on topography if nothing else.

Similarly, the Bruce Peninsula’s original name of the Saugeen Peninsula is better based on history and occupation. The Saugeen Ojibway Nation inhabited the area for more than 7,500 years, in contrast to James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin (remembered as Lord Elgin), who was governor general of the Province of Canada for a blink of an Imperialist’s eye, from 1847 to 1854.

The Canadian Heritage River bisects southwestern Ontario while meandering 273 kilometres to Lake St. Clair. Its network of sources, which lie north and east of London, consist of three main tines or branches (north, middle and south). The north converges with the middle and south, which have already merged upriver, in the heart of the city at what is known as the Forks. The stately Middlesex County Court House–constructed over three years commencing in 1827 to resemble an English castle replete with Gothic trappings–and modernist steel-and-glass Museum London stand as vigilant sentinels over this proud municipal site, so rich in history and heritage.

The watershed was formerly enclosed in a dense Carolinian forest, much of which was cleared for agriculture and various forms of development. Steve Leslie, a dear friend who died much too young, referred to this part of Canada as its bellybutton, which has always struck me as an apt description.

As one of Canada’s most southern rivers, many of its aquatic species are not found anywhere else in the country. A number are designated species at risk. Still, it’s home to ninety species of fish spread throughout its multifarious stretches of river and three dammed lakes (Fanshawe, Wildwood and Pittock) which attract a range of anglers irrespective of gear and tackle, ethics and aesthetics.

These include brown, rainbow and brook trout (in cold spring-fed tributaries), smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, redhorse, yellow perch, rock bass, pumpkinseed, bluegill, freshwater drum (also known as sheepshead), black and brown bullhead, Bigmouth Buffalo(fish), white sucker, longnose gar, channel catfish and common carp. When shad and quillbacks are running, muskies can also be found in pursuit of a hearty meal of baitfish.

I spent the first twenty-one years of my life within a few blocks of the Thames. Until I was ten it was an easy walk to one branch. During my late teens and early twenties I worked in an appliance factory, long since gone, that stretched for many blocks along its banks. Although I shudder to think of the toxins it dumped into the river over its century of operation, my mom’s side of the family formed a four-generation employment legacy. My great-grandfather, grandfather, mom Barbara and her sister, Aunt Pat, and her husband, Uncle Ivan, all worked there in addition to my brother Steve, cousin Brad and me. Familial nepotism was common in those bygone days.

For the remaining eleven years, before heading off to university, my family lived a couple of blocks from the Forks in London West (once known as Skunk’s Hollow). Our small bungalow was a baseball’s throw from Labatt Park, the longest continuously operating ballpark in the world which still bears the name of the homegrown brewery that was one of the city’s foundational employers before being sold to American interests. I crossed the Dundas Street Bridge almost every day for four years while attending high school at H.B. Beal (where I majored in mechanical drafting) and working part-time as a bellhop at a venerable downtown commercial establishment, the Hotel London.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the Thames, like many rivers throughout southern Ontario, was polluted beyond redemption and, therefore, uninviting to anglers. I can remember as a youth avoiding wet wading in what was roundly condemned as ‘an open sewer.’

Most of the fishing I did in my early years was not done on the Thames. Rather it formed an integral part of camping trips with my closest friend, Billy Everett, and his parents, Len and Selina. They were avid anglers (although Bill abandoned the activity in adulthood). What little fishing I did on the Thames, beyond city limits, was in the company of my dad or Uncle Ivan.

My dad, Bob, was naturally competitive but hardly aggressive. As a youngster he was accomplished enough on the accordion (a popular instrument at the time, before it was turned into a relic by the electric guitar in the 1960s) to regale students at public school assemblies. Teachers fondly remembered his performances years later. As a teenager he was a Yo-Yo champion who toured southwestern Ontario. I remember being amazed into a stupor when he did tricks for my brother Steve, sister Brenda and me. Both he and mom were above average recreational bowlers.

From his youth, through adulthood, to his maturity, the thing that gave my dad the most intense pleasure was dancing, whether at the annual Fireman’s Ball, end-of-season bowling and baseball parties or family weddings. Regardless of the occasion it wasn’t long before his suit jacket and tie were discarded; he usually took an extra shirt so he could change sometime during the evening. And he wasn’t done until he had danced with every woman at the event, saving the last dance for mom.

Dad was a career firefighter. While he loved sports—he coached championship fastball and basketball teams and was a fan of all major league sports—he had no interest in hunting and fishing; golf was his great enthusiasm, which I did not share. Still, I remember him taking me to the Thames a few times when I was young. I’m sure he drilled colleagues at work who were outdoorsmen about promising locations which rarely fulfilled youthful expectation.

Uncle Ivan, who was born and raised on a farm, fished before marrying Aunt Pat. He once travelled by train to James Bay, which I revered as the height of angling adventure. He died of complications from congenital heart disease while still in his early forties, a condition that was unfortunately passed down to his son Brad. Uncle Ivan—a quiet, reserved, creative, deeply intelligent man whose wry sense of humour was reflected in his love of the British comedy troupe Monty Python–bequeathed me his fishing tackle and .22 rifle.

I especially cherished the latter because he had replaced its original stock with one he handmade out of Honduran mahogany. I oiled it religiously to nourish its rich reddish-brown lustre. In Grade 8 woodworking class I made a gun rack, first for my BB gun and pellet rifle, and later for my .22 and twelve-gauge, pump Winchester shotgun purchased with my bellhop wages and tips.

Later, I fished the Thames with my Uncle Jim, who had a vintage sixteen-foot cedar strip boat with a stubborn Johnson outboard motor, and his brother, my Uncle Doug.

In Lines on the Water, the memoir that has influenced my own angling writing more than any other book, David Adams Richards confides that his father wasn’t a fisherman. Fortunately, when he was young and eager he found a teacher, a mentor, a wise old fisherman. Alvin Simms (no relation to the waders manufacturer) was a solitary neighbour who worked in the woods during the winter and lived in a tent during the summer. Still, he taught the neophyte angler the ways of fish and fishing, not to mention the infinitely more perplexing ways of men.

Richards pays his teacher the ultimate compliment when he writes that Simms was ‘as unconsciously a part of the river as any man’ with whom he had ever fished.

While I’m thankful to have had adults who took me fishing throughout my youth, in my most formative years I did not find a teacher or mentor, even though there was someone who could have played the role—if only I had mustered the gumption to request his guidance and wisdom. I knew him as Uncle Tony, despite not being related by blood.

Tony Molino was a middle-aged widower when I met him through the Everetts. Uncle Tony’s landlord, Ruth, was a close friend of Selina’s and I often tagged along when they visited Ruth and Tony on Saturday nights to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada—in those distant days a ‘sacred’ national ritual.

As it turned out, my dad had known Tony for many years, having worked together—along with entertainment legend Gordie Tapp (Country Hoedown in Canada and Hee Haw in the U.S.)–at the renowned Scott McHale shoe factory. Tony–who attended public school with the famous musical Lombardo Brothers (Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians provided the orchestral backdrop to New Years’ celebrations for years)–was the only one of the three who remained there until retirement.

Because of his deliberate quiet manner, horn-rimmed glasses and grey hair parted down the middle of his head, Uncle Tony seemed quintessentially old, even though he was in his fifties when I would have benefited most from his arcane knowledge of fishing. People said he could ‘smell’ fish. Whether he targeted bass, pike or any other game species, it didn’t matter. He always caught fish. Whenever he joined us on a day’s outing he would invariably venture off by himself with his trusty bait-casting rod and precious tackle box. Uncle Tony epitomized solitary angling.

I now know through the piscatorial classroom of trial and error that Uncle Tony ‘read’ the water, even if I can’t recall him ever opening an instructional fishing book or perusing a popular outdoor magazine of the day like Field and Stream. Rather he gained his ‘fish sense’ through experience and close observation, fortified with a powerful dose of natural intuition—or maybe even predatory instinct.

When he wasn’t casting from some lone riverbank, Uncle Tony was warm and gregarious. He never declined an invitation to a party. Whether in a kitchen or parlour, on a porch or around a campfire, he was at the centre of festivities, strumming on his pint-sized, four-stringed banjo-ukulele with the index finger of his right hand while drawing on a vast repertoire of popular songs from the 1920s, ‘30s and ’40s. A light drinker and a hearty eater, he derived his greatest pleasure—when he wasn’t fishing–from the shared communal merriment of song.

. . . . .

The world of fly angling is a fecund garden of aquatic delights, which for most of us is both interesting and rewarding. Talk to a fellow fly angler for the first time and, before long, you’re merrily sharing mutual connections and associations, if not confidences.

I reconnected with Doug Kirton a few years ago, when I emailed him to inquire about donating some etchings to the University of Waterloo Art Gallery. He mentioned he was thinking about retiring from teaching, adding that he was toying with the idea of taking up fly fishing after reading my memoir Casting into Mystery. I encouraged him to follow his bliss and suggested we get together the following spring for some basic casting instruction.

I had last talked to Doug about fifteen years previously for a newspaper review I wrote on an exhibition the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery mounted after he had been hired a few years earlier by the University of Waterloo. Having completed a bachelor’s degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and a masters in fine art from the University of Guelph, he became an associate professor, eventually being appointed chairman of the fine arts department.

Rob (left) and Doug

Doug has always maintained a studio in addition to teaching and he continues to balance a range of outdoor activities with a busy art practice. His recent work–which is represented by London’s Michael Gibson Gallery–explores the natural and social landscapes—a conversation he has been conducting with himself on canvas for forty years. Fly fishing has since become a persistent voice in that engaging visual discussion.

I was delighted to reconnect with Doug. Not only had we grown up in the same neighbourhood, we also went to the same elementary school. Empress Avenue Public School–which my dad and his brothers and sisters attended before Steve, Brenda and me–is long gone. Four years younger than me, Doug and Steve were classmates. Doug remembers me coaching him and Steve softball when I was a wily fourteen-year-old veteran in Grade 8 and they were aspiring ten-year-old infielders in Grade 5.

When we met up for a couple of hours of lawn-casting, he mused, ‘Just think, when we were kids you coached me baseball, now you’re coaching me fly fishing.’

Since then, we have become regular angling companions, mostly for brown trout on the Grand River tailwater and for smallmouth bass on the middle Grand. Doug has been a quick, eager and willing learn. Like most accomplished artists, regardless of field or discipline, he possesses a creative drive that’s equally obsessive and compulsive. All of which makes his enthusiasm intense and infectious. I thought of Doug when I read Rick Bass’s description of Russell Chatham in The Traveling Feast when he writes, ‘His deepest vice is fishing; other than painting, it’s his greatest obsession. . . .’

Upon reflection I think Doug approaches fly fishing as he approaches painting. Irrespective of subject, whether urban or natural, as an artist he must exert or impose his creative will in order to transform and transfigure reality into created image. Interestingly, I think this is what competitive anglers have to do, whether participating in America-style bass tournaments or English-style match fishing. Of course, fly fishing is not exempt from competitions.

I suspect Doug has adopted this approach to fly fishing through long habit, and success, in his art practice, coupled with the fact that he came to fly fishing only a few brief years ago and, therefore, brims with youthful enthusiasm that belies his years. (Good on him!)

In contrast, I have come to approach fly fishing with less will and more acceptance–going with flow, to repeat a hackneyed cliche. When you focus on outcome, as painters and competitive anglers do, success is determined solely by quantitative results. As a recreational fly angler confronting the reality of abbreviated days on the water, this doesn’t work. This is not a value judgment, but a recognition that there are alternate ways of viewing and responding to fly fishing. It’s dependent on an angler’s personal definition of bliss. Is fly fishing sport or recreation, active or contemplative? This question has caused debate among fly anglers since Sir Izaak Walton raised the issue. There is no right or final answer.

What Doug doesn’t pick up on the water, he learns through power reading books, magazines and websites and viewing YouTube videos. My curmudgeonly ‘coaching’ includes reminding Doug to simplify what he has gleaned from fly angling professionals, some of whom have a stake in selling gear and tackle. This is a constant source of amusement between us, which gobbles up large chunks of amiable conversation en route to angling destinations.

I did not come to fly fishing until my fifties. Doug resisted the contemplative recreation until his sixties. Like many fisherman we transitioned from spinning rods and hard lures. So we’re both proof that old anglers can learn new tricks and that it is better late than never to cast a fly line on the water. If this makes us cliches in chest waders, so be it. Without fly fishing we would not have reconnected and our lives would have been equally reduced. 

. . . . .

Throughout my youth I fished the Thames variously with bait-casting (the backlashes and bird’s nests still disrupt my slumber), spin-casting and open-faced spinning rods. I didn’t use a fly rod until a couple of weeks after my seventy-second birthday, as southwestern Ontario was slowly ascending the summit of summer.

I first raised the possibility of fishing my hometown river with Paul Noble a couple of years earlier, but our conflicting angling schedules foiled our best intentions. I had met him when he gave a presentation on angling opportunities afforded by the Thames for KW Flyfishers. I had suggested the topic to the executive–with an ulterior motive. I wanted to fish the river with someone intimately familiar with its character, moods and quirks, so I could then write about the experience. Fortunately, club member Steve May suggested Paul to President Dan Kennaley who, in turn, contacted and offered Paul an invitation.

Southwestern Ontario had weathered some serious rainfall, replete with thunderstorms and hail, during the week leading up to the Sunday Paul and I had arranged to meet for an evening’s fishing. Despite a forecast of thunderstorms through the afternoon into late night, we stuck to our rods, so to speak.

After enjoying supper at the Malibu Restaurant, a traditional family eatery that has been serving home-cooked meals in East London for many decades, we headed to the Thames. We went together in my Jeep because Paul’s Jeep blew an engine a few weeks previously when he and some buddies were on their annual fishing trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior—celebrated universally as an angling paradise.

On the way I quizzed Paul about his sporting life—like all old newspapermen my interviewing impulses have not dimmed.

Paul on the Thames

Born and raised in London, Paul attended H.B. Beal’s acclaimed BealArt (a decade after I graduated) before attending the Ontario College of Art. His parents were inveterate recreational campers so his love of the outdoors came honestly and has neither faltered nor faded.

He started spin fishing under his father’s guidance when he was in elementary school; by his early teens he had taken up the fly rod, which means he’s been casting artificial flies to game fish for half a century. He has been a keen hunter equally as long for turkey (with bow and arrow as well as shotgun), deer, rabbit, squirrel and upland birds.

Paul belongs to numerous outdoor organizations including Thames River Anglers Association, Western Ontario Fish & Game Protective Association, Forest City Fly Fishing Club and Crumlin Sportsmen’s Association. He is also a member of Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters and KW Flyfishers.

He plays an active part in the Anglers Association’s operation of a trout hatchery, with browns in late fall and rainbows in spring. It also raised brookies until the program was cancelled after donor streams started developing self-sustaining populations.

Paul is a passionate conservationist as well as a sportsman. He was part of a small group of Angling Association members who, with the support of concerned citizens including First Nations’ representatives, lobbied city council to decommission the controversial Springbank Dam in west London. Since its removal in 2019, populations of native fish and aquatic species have increased, as expected.

One of Paul’s closest fishing companions was the late Ian Colin James who lived in London for many years. Before his untimely death, Ian had become one of Canada’s most prominent fly anglers through the allure of his personality as well as his angling prowess. Paul cameoed in Ian’s entertaining memoir Fumbling with a Flyrod.

Thirty minutes after leaving the restaurant we arrived at a spot northeast of the city that local anglers celebrate as the most scenic stretch of the Thames. Getting to the river was tricky and it took some slogging because of the outgrowth of shoulder-high vegetation including stinging nettles and toxic giant hogweed. Although I have a general idea of where we were, I’ll never be able to find my way back without Paul’s guidance. He lived in a house overlooking the road from which we accessed the river for twenty years, so knows the area like the back of his casting hand.

By the time we made it to the river it looked like we were going to get soaked. Dark menacing thunderheads approached from the west; however, they circumvented us without a peep or a drop. More significantly, the threat of foul weather triggered the bite. Later Paul observed that the fishery was prone to ‘turning off and on like a light switch.’ And, as we were about to discover, the piscatorial switch was definitely ON.

We entered the river at a lengthy riffle and made a few casts to find our rhythms—at least I did. Then Paul suggested we mosey down to the tail of the riffle. ‘It’s usually a hot spot,’ he noted.

Talk about understatement. After he advised me to stop—perhaps ordered is the more accurate word–I made my first deliberate cast.


I was into my first fish–a good ‘un’.

Even acknowledging the effect of the current, I wrestled with the tumbling, brawling, broad-shouldered brute for a good ten minutes, at least. The weight-forward, floating fly line was as taut as piano wire. It felt like a steelhead or carp. Or an old rubber boot. After I wrenched it out of the current, it torpedoed for the weeds nestled alongside the riverbank and, in the process, won my admiration for its stamina, perseverance and creativity.

It was a smallmouth bass. Long celebrated, pound for pound, as one of the world’s great fighting fish regardless weight classification. It was a handsome mottled greenish-bronze with dark vertical bars running down its sides, a reminder of its pedigree as a proud member of the sunfish family.

I played it longer than I had ever played a bass–in river or lake. It was a tug-of-war on the water; give and take with me surrendering most of the give. The struggle gave my throbbing, arcing eight-and-a-half-foot Winston five-weight a vigorous workout.

To cut to the figurative creel, I caught three feisty smallies on my first four casts. But, hey, who’s counting? The first was a healthy fourteen inches, one of three I landed of at least that length out of the eleven I caught. For his part, Paul caught ten, the largest an impressive eighteen inches.

On three occasions Paul and I landed double-headers, amid joyous squeals of delight. I tried to get a snapshot of him a couple of times but couldn’t get my camera out of my shoulder bag due to a rapacious smallie striking my Full-Motion Hex, one of my go-to bass streamers invented and tied by Steve May. It has everything I admire in a fly–lethal beauty, without contradiction. And, happily, discerning bass share my taste.

I checked the beguiling blonde Hex repeatedly and, although the dressing was frayed and the hook was twisted out of shape, I continued using it, fearful that changing flies might break the spell. Like eccentric hockey goalies, fly anglers are superstitious critters. Moreover, there’s few things more satisfying than retiring a battle-scarred fly that has served with distinction.

When it comes to hard lures a Rapala is just a Rapala. In contrast, every tattered and battered handmade fly becomes a memory word on which stories are built–whether a fish tale recalled over a pint or a dram, an anecdote recollected among companions in front of a hearth or around a campfire or, more formally, a poem, a prose vignette, short story, novel or memoir. I knew before I left the Thames that this fly would be a foundational brick on which to erect something lasting.

Rob on the Thames

It was crazy fun. We were acting like kids in a school yard during spring recess after a long cold winter.

‘The catching is getting in the way of fishing,’ a grieving Paul feigned.

It might have been my best river bassin’–ever. I’ve caught more bass on the Grand River–which after twenty years I call my home water–in a single outing. Landing somewhere between sixteen and thirty smallies might not be routine, but it’s not unusual either. But never have I caught so many over a foot long.

Throughout the frenzy we caught our fish in a couple of metres of water while standing within thirty paces of one another. Paul caught fish that were almost at my feet.

‘The bass are using you as structure,’ he chirped.

After ninety minutes of piscine nirvana the bite stopped as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had begun, just as Paul had predicted.

‘We can’t stop at ten apiece,’ he said. ‘One of us must catch one more. Let’s give it another ten minutes.’

As if to balance some kind of natural scale, Paul’s last fish was his biggest, whereas my last one was my smallest, pushing the tape measure to six inches—barely.

Did I mention the beautiful scenery? Scanning the riverscape, ribboned with assorted deciduous trees and conifers of every imaginable hue of green, we could have easily been ‘Five Hundred Miles’ (to quote the popular folk song) from a city of nearly half a million people instead of a few kilometres. We were joined by an osprey and a heron, suggesting that this smallmouth harem (the biggest bass are female) wasn’t exactly a secret.

The angling muse willing, I hope to fly fish my hometown river again. I would love to catch a brown, rainbow or brookie, a prospect that was inconceivable when I was a youngster growing up in the Forest City.

Should I never fly fish the Thames River again, I will remember this occasion in the shadow of my seventy-second birthday as a tribute to all those I loved who played a role in introducing me to my hometown river. Or, as the late, great London poet James Reaney wished of his hometown river in ‘To the Avon River above Stratford, Canada’:

‘To flow like you.’

Fishing Log

Wild Headwater Angels

In ’Sons’, an essay collected in The Longest Silence and Live Water, a handsome limited edition volume, Thomas McGuane refers to brook trout as ‘water angels and part of the first America, the one the Indians owned.’

I was blissfully in the company of water angels while sharing my favored headwater late one afternoon with Wesley Bates. We were on the river as southwestern Ontario was creeping up on midsummer. Although we had no rain for three weeks, moderately seasonable daytime temperatures and cool overnight temperatures made for hospitable fishing conditions. The water was cold and clear; consequently, the brookies were happy and content.

This marked the fifth season Wes and I had been fishing the headwater together, a ritual we initiated after starting work on my angling memoir Casting into Mystery. Wes, who I reintroduced to fly fishing after a long absence, contributed forty beautiful wood engravings to complement my essays.

I cherish brook trout, or speckled trout, above all other fish. They bring back fond childhood memories of heading up to the northern-most reaches of southern Ontario with my closet friend, Billy Everett, and his parents, Len and Selina, to visit his Uncle Fred and Aunt Pat, who worked a four-hundred-acre, hardscrabble, marginal farm, three-quarters of which was Canadian Shield forest–which Uncle Fred referred to as ‘the bush.’

The ice-cold, spring-fed streams (Uncle Fred called them ‘cricks’) that meandered through the dense bush were home to untold thousands of brookies, whose ancestors survived the last ice age. We fished with long bamboo poles and garden worms attached to small hooks tied to the terminal end of black braided line purchased for a couple of dollars at a hardware store in nearby South River, located on Highway 11, the second longest highway in the province. Tom Tomson used to pass through the village on his annual trips to Algonquin Park to paint, fish and earn a few dollars guiding and doing some Ranger work.

It was the nineteen sixties–which have receded farther into the past than calibrating the years would indicate–so it was customary for us to catch a hundred fish in a day. We subsequently gutted and bathed the fingerlings in flour spiced with salt and pepper before browning them to perfection in cast iron skillets brimming with bacon fat on a stove heated by hardwood cut and split by Uncle Fred. I have tasted nothing more delectable in all my years, perhaps because we ate them for breakfast, accompanied with thick, heavily buttered slices of freshly baked bread. No vinegar, lemons, tartar sauce or, heaven forbid, ketchup, was necessary. Talk about the stuff of dreams.

When it comes to vermiculated, gem-like brook trout, size doesn’t matter. Neither does the capacity of the figurative creel now that I adhere religiously to a catch-and-release ethic and aesthetic. One of my favourite descriptions of ’spring-fed’ brookies is captured by Dana S. Lamb in On Trout Streams and Salmon Rivers when he delineates their colours as ‘chocolate brown and vermilion spots and butter yellow and ivory white.’

Similarly, whenever I’m fortunate enough to hold one in my wet palm, I recall Greg Brown’s ‘Eugene,’ his anthem which, in my view, is the best song ever written about fly angling. Truer words were never sung as when Brown rumbles, in a walking-blues, bass-baritone resembling a pickup on a dusty country sideroad, that brookies are ‘God’s reminder that creation is a good idea.’

Wild Headwater Angel

I felt intense gratitude after landing ten brookies, two of which measured eight inches with another measuring seven inches—more than respectable lengths on this hallowed stretch of precious headwater. Embraced in the arms of joy and casting my seven-foot, nine-inch Sweetgrass bamboo rod, equipped with Orvis CFO reel, I imagined myself as a holdover from the Pleistocene Period–a living, breathing fossil merrily wielding a fly rod.

After leisurely and methodically fishing a quarter mile of alternating riffles and pools festooned with rugged deadfall and cedar sweepers, Wes, who felt equally joyous, and I decided to call it a day. We followed our ritual of finding a comfortable seat amidst the tall grass along the riverbank as daylight gave way to the soft, muted tones of dusk.

We quenched our thirst with cans of wildberry cider imported from Sweden, while munching on hearty sandwiches of ham, beef and turkey breast Wes prepared on Gluten-free buns (in accordance with his dietary preference), garnished with avocado and bean sprouts, topped with Gouda cheese. We enjoyed mixed nuts and sour pickles on the side. As darkness deepened, I retrieved my flask of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon. Its rich amber hue gave off a whiff of fruit, orange blossom honey, dark chocolate, marzipan and toasted oak, followed by a pleasing taste of vanilla, burnt caramel, hazelnut, apple and spices, capped with a long luxurious creamy finish.

As we sat, seduced by the aerial mating dance of Grey Fox and sporadic Green Drake mayflies, our talk flowed freely, punctuated with laughter. Wes confided that he and his wife, Juanita, were planning to downsize, which effected not only domestic accommodation but studio space. Wes would have to close his storefront gallery housed in an elegant two-storey, century-old building on the main street of Clifford, a few miles west of where we were fishing.

Cynics who hold to the notion that men don’t, or can’t, reveal their emotions and feelings, not to mention fears and apprehensions, have not communed riverside in a fellowship of angling companions, dram in hand, as the blanket of darkness quietly descends.

The edge of water and land, like the edge of light and dark, were revered by my ancestors, the ancient Celts. I believe my love of bankside fellowship results from a faint residual trace of these threshold experiences buried deep within my innermost being. As American poet Michael Garrigan reminds us in ‘The Poet Sits on a Ledge and Writes a Letter,’ all edges are altars. For me, banksides are altars to companionship and to story. More directly and immediately, I’m sure my emotional attachment to this liminal experience is an outgrowth from my youth, during which I was surrounded by storytellers: my maternal grandfather, my best friend’s mom and my dad’s two youngest brothers.

. . . . . . .

It was through my Grandpa McLean that I learned storytelling was a form of love. Being the eldest son of my grandfather’s eldest daughter, thereby making me his eldest grandson, gave me a leg up on his affections. I knew until the day he passed a painless death in his mid-eighties that I was the favoured one.

I was close to my grandpa from early childhood and that never changed. He didn’t drive, so on Saturday mornings I would accompany him on the bus to the market, butcher shop and seafood store (he loved homemade oyster soup) in downtown London. For much of his life he was a weekend drinker, so I also went with him to the liquor store, where he picked up a bottle of what he always referred to as ‘medicine.’

My grandfather was that rare man, a drinker who didn’t turn nasty or mean, abusive or violent. Just the opposite. A few swigs of Canadian rye whiskey (Black Velvet) out of the bottle brought out the innate kindness that was less overt during the work week–he worked half a century in the same factory as his father–during which he never touched a drop. He had one treasured song, ‘Heart of My Heart’ written in 1926, wherein he found solace when his thoughts occasionally turned melancholy. Its lyrics capture the essence of my grandpa.

Heart of My Heart, I love that melody
Heart of My Heart brings back a memory
When we were kids on the corner of the street
We were rough ‘n ready guys
But oh, how we could harmonize . . . .

Known as Freddy to most everyone, my grandfather was both a gentleman and a gentle man—these are not one and the same. Like his father, known as Fred, my grandpa was born in London, so his ties to the city were strong.

One of the things I most cherished as a youngster was sitting on the front porch watching the world—or at least the neighbourhood–go by at a more leisurely pace than today’s frenzy and mania. He and my grandmother lived in Old London East next door to a corner variety store on a busy street, so both vehicular and human traffic were busy by the standards of the day. Few people passed by without stopping to shoot the breeze with my grandfather. And he seemed to be constantly waving at drivers in passing cars.

What I loved most, and still remember in vivid detail, are my grandfather’s memories, reminiscences and anecdotes about the city he so loved. His intimate knowledge of place was reflected in his unerringly accurate topographical recollections. I accompanied him as we walked along city streets while he identified every commercial, retail or industrial establishment along with all the domestic residences that existed half a century earlier. I never grew weary of his local travelogue vignettes. He held me in the warm embrace of his imagination for the few hours between the end of supper and preparations for bedtime.

He was a natural talespinner who enjoyed recalling stories that gave him pleasure and delight. He would chuckle and shake his head while telling me of youthful shenanigans, such as stealing tires repeatedly from a local junk yard under the cover of darkness, only to sell them back to the owner the next day.

His pride of place and devotion to home, which was overt, palpable and enduring, was passed down to me.

I can think of no one in my life circle less outdoorsy than Grandpa MacLean. The closest he got to nature was watching a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard from his perch at the head of the kitchen table. He wasn’t interested in sports, save for his beloved Montreal Canadiens. Still, he taught me something that has influenced both my angling and my writing—the significance of local place. I never saw him read anything but the daily newspaper, which he devoured front to back, so he would have never heard of Henry David Thoreau. Yet he shared the spirit of local place with the Transcendental mystic, who spent most of his life observing and sauntering (his favourite word) within walking distance of Concord, despite taking a handful of notable journeys.

Fly anglers trustingly put their faith in the long drive or costly fly in, not to mention around the next bend, the far shore or distant lake? The esteemed outdoor writer Burton L. Spiller referred to this devotion to the back of beyond in Fishin’ Around as ‘the far horizons [that] always seem the fairest.’ More recently, Ron Ellis titled his book of outdoor essays Yonder in recognition of ‘the yonder to which [sportsmen] journey.’

I would be the first to acknowledge that wilderness angling is marvellous adventure–for those who can afford it. And I consider myself fortunate to have cast a line on such ‘sacred’ waters as the Beaverkill, Delaware and Willowemoc in the Catskills, the West Branch of the Ausable in the Adirondacks and the Au Sable ‘Up North’ in Michigan, not to mention untold rivers and lakes across Northern Ontario and angling hot sports in the southern Ontario regions of Parry Sound, Muskoka and the Kawarthas.

Still, most of my angling takes place within a ninety-minute drive of where I live in southwestern Ontario. The Grand River, my home water, flows through the City of Waterloo, my home. By adapting my Grandpa McLean’s love of his hometown, I discovered that angling paradise lies within easy reach. This is because, like so many important things in life, angling is an inner journey–equal parts mind and heart, emotion and intuition–sustained by imagination and observation, enriched by memory and companionship, preserved and protected by story.  

But there’s something else—something vital and essential. All human beings search for love, a basic need of existence. Most find it, if only for a while. I have loved and I have been loved, but it hasn’t always held. I was one of the lucky ones, however, because I have known deep within my heart throughout my life that my Grandpa McLean’s love never faltered, never wavered, never dimmed. It remains always and forever—a green light inextinguishable.

. . . . . . .

Since I was a disillusioned, defiant Cub Scout, camping with my friend Billy Everett and his parents, Len and Selina, was my introduction to the outdoors, which has given shape to my life. When Len was at work in the city as a firefighter, like my dad, Billy and I would spend our evenings cleansed in an aura of campfire under a symmetry of silent white stars. Against a snapping, crackling soundscape of burning black ash and white elm, yellow birch and red maple, Selina wove her narrative magic.

Billy and I listened spellbound to stories Selina told and retold about Uncle Fred, her dearest brother, and Aunt Pat lighting out for the West Coast, where he landed a job operating a bulldozer during construction of the ALCAN (Alaska-Canadian) Highway. She recalled Aunt Pat wielding a cornstalk broom to fend off a curious grizzly. She told us of her eldest brother, Norm, repairing the radiators of cars employed by Al Capone to transport bootleg Canadian whiskey across the border. (Should this sound far-fetched, all I can say is there are tales scattered across southwestern Ontario, including Kitchener’s historic Walper Hotel, involving the notorious bootlegger’s exploits during Prohibition.) She also regaled us with tales of when she was a young WAC (Women’s Army Corps) during the Second World War, when Len was serving overseas. (I recall a photograph of her taken at the time and it seemed to me a portrait of young beauty and high spirits.)

Selina had an artful way of giving shape and substance to the adventure, intrigue and romance of life that appealed mightily to hungry developing imaginations. I remember, as if it were yesterday, her leisurely, richly detailed delivery, punctuated by draws on her ever-present cigarette and sips of Cinci cream larger, formerly made by the Carling O’Keefe Brewing Company. She preferred to drink her beer out of the bottle. ‘Like a baby, I’m bottle fed,’ she would quip when asked by a host if she would like a glass for her beer.

Selina was both a devoted gardener and a fine cook. If I close my eyes and cast my memory back, I can taste the luscious tomato sandwiches she prepared for Billy and me. She would go to her garden, pick freshly ripened hothouse tomatoes the size of softballs. She then cut thick juicy slices before placing them between slices of generously buttered white bread that had been delivered fresh earlier in the day, as had the milk she served in large sweaty glasses. Billy and I never ate raspberries out of bowls because at the height of summer, whenever the mood struck, we raided the raspberry bushes and ate till we were sated.

She served battered English-style fish and chips every Friday; her handmade meatballs enhanced mundane spaghetti and tomato sauce; her Yorkshire pudding and roast beef (impregnated with fresh garlic) followed both the letter and the spirit of her mom’s recipe. In contravention of gender domestic roles, Selina reigned supreme over the barbecue. She disdained lighter fluid so, instead, split cedar kindling with a hatchet before building a tepee under newspaper in the bed of the barbecue. She purchased fresh meat daily from the neighbourhood butcher, so the thick, T-Bone steaks and shoulder pork chops were second to none. She watched over them with the concentration of a surgeon in the operating room, while her old dog, Mugs, looked on in the role of sous chef. Selina followed two strict rules: turn the meat over only once and hold off on the seasoning until the steaks or chops are just about done. When it came to frying on the gas stove in the kitchen, she insisted on properly seasoned cast iron skillets, which she never placed in soapy water but, rather, wiped out while still warm with a tea towel saved for that single purpose.    

Selina also had a good voice for singing old songs and ditties around a campfire. However, her real gift was whistling. She was an uncommonly lovely, almost otherworldly, whistler with a rich melodious alto vibrato. More important, she never failed to encourage Billy and me–I mean encourage in a deeply heartfelt way–when we were drawing or colouring at the kitchen table, which we did frequently when we were stuck indoors for some reason, usually inhospitable weather.

Like my grandfather, who she knew because they lived around the corner from one another, Selina was a true storytellers who could weave a narrative spell. I became a writer in no small measure because of her talespinning around the campfire which harked back to distant preliterate times when people passed down stories orally from generation to generation to illumine the dark mysteries of life.

As I cast my mind back, I’m sure Selina appreciated creativity in a way that other adults I knew didn’t. I recall her telling Billy and me that she had heard on the radio Albert Einstein’s famous assertion that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I later learned that the great mathematician believed this because ‘knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’ I have no idea whether Bill (the ‘y’ is long gone) remembers his mom telling us about Einstein’s claim. All I can say is that it stuck with me all these many years. The proof lies in my lifelong devotion to celebrating the creative imagination as it manifests itself in the arts.

. . . . . . .  

I see from the perspective of old age that I began honing whatever skills I possess as a storyteller in my teens. I had never been a reader, a consequence of stuttering as a child (requiring speech therapy) and undergoing remedial reading assistance in the early grades of elementary school. Nonetheless, for some unknown reason, by Grade 10 I had latched onto the idea of spending my life writing about the arts—for which I had absolutely no background. After all, I had never attended a theatre performance or concert or entered an art gallery. Television was my only cultural handmaid.

Things changed when my dad’s second youngest brother, my Uncle Jim, along with his wife and two daughters, moved next door to my family on a quiet street in Old London West, not far from the forks of the Thames River.

Despite our age difference, which exceeded a decade, we became close companions. His best friend had been struck and killed by a car some years previously and Jim never quite recovered from his grief. Still, he guided me through the threshold into manhood. Like his younger brother, my Uncle Doug, Jim enjoyed the outdoors and sports. I was green, so admired their knowledge and experience. They were as much big brothers as paternal uncles.

I remember Jim instructing me on how to break in a new baseball glove and how to distinguish between a slider and a curve ball. Doug was such a good hockey player that when he graduated from elementary school—neither uncle graduated from high school–the teacher who coached the senior hockey team invited him back as his assistant. He was what used to be called a scrapper with a short fuse, causing him to joke that he played hockey so he could fight legally.

Jim and I spent many evenings playing darts indoors during the winter or horseshoes in the backyard during the summer. We also golfed, he more seriously than I due to my abject disinterest of the game, which remains to this day. What I treasured most then–and cherish most in remembrance–are the cool, crisp autumn days of hunting rabbits or upland birds, accompanied by Jim’s frisky beagle, Amber. Jim had a handsome Browning over-and-under sixteen-gauge shotgun, while Doug favoured a cheap Cooey single-shot .410 gauge from Canadian Tire. I loved my Winchester twelve-gauge pump which I purchased with money earned from my first job. (The second item of importance I bought was an Italian-made Eko acoustic guitar.)

One of my most memorable experiences in the outdoors was when we were hunting birds on my Uncle Stan’s farm (his wife, Kay, was a sister to Jim and Doug). I heard a woodcock whistling like a firecracker rocket from a dense thicket behind us. I swivelled ninety degrees, raised my gun and downed the bird in a single shot—all within a brief millisecond or two. It was absolute luck, yet my sense of pride remains to this day. It was my greatest shot, ever. In hindsight, I realize it marked an initiation of sorts. ‘What the hell,’ Jim snapped with a laugh, ‘Do you think you’re Curt Gowdy on Wide World of Sports?’

Another time while hunting rabbits on my Uncle Stan’s farm, Doug’s young beagle, who had yet to make the transition from unbridled enthusiasm to woodland knowledge, somehow got tangled up in a swampy area and drowned. When we found her, Doug wept openly and without apology. She was his last beagle.

I remember years previously when our family rented a cottage for a week one summer on the Bruce Peninsula–long known to its original inhabitants as the Saugeen Peninsula. I was four which would have made Doug about ten. While near-sighted because he refused to wear prescription glasses, he was a sharp-eyed fisherman. He rose before everyone else and tramped among nearby trout streams. Once he had used all his worms so reverted to catching brook trout on bubblegum. When he was a teenager he loved horses so much he hired out as a stable boy on a local equestrian farm.

Jim drove a four-wheel Datsun pickup and had what would now be considered a vintage sixteen-foot cedar strip boat with a temperamental Johnson outboard motor, small enough to launch into parts of the Thames River west of London or the lower Maitland and Saugeen rivers; large enough to fish Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Georgian Bay. Once I accompanied my uncles to Port Elgin for a day of bass fishing at the mouth of the Saugeen. When we arrived after three hour’s drive Jim asked Doug if he had packed the gas can for the outboard.

‘No,’ quipped Doug. ‘I thought you did.’

‘I thought you did, you stupid bugger,’ Jim replied with a smile and a head shake.

That was it. No anger, no recrimination, no finger-pointing, no blame game. We all laughed before one of us suggested we salvage the trip in a local watering hole, where we passed a few hours before returning to London by exchanging tales about misadventures in the field and on the water.

We were inveterate hard-lure spin fisherman, but I discovered that Jim had owned an old Canadian-made Algonquin, seven-weight, fibreglass fly rod and vintage Pflueger Medalist reel because I was given them by Doug after Jim died and I had made the transition to fly fishing. I cherish both as keepsakes.

During the last four years of high school and a couple more years during which I worked full-time before going to university, Jim and I spent most of our weekends together. We tipped back bottles of Molson’s Export ale while debating and philosophizing about all manner of things, spanning the frivolous and to the serious, the inconsequential to the weighty.

He was the first person to accept me, and take me seriously, as an adult, as we listened to Gordon Lightfoot albums on continual rotation from early evening, through the long night, to the dawn’s growing light. I was learning the guitar so I could play one of Canada’s great songwriter’s complete repertoire, which I eventually did, and subsequently taught Jim to play the instrument. I remember him happily strumming away on ‘Did She Mention My Name.’

My adolescent dream of writing a critical study on Lightfoot’s music was an incentive for studying English at university, which subsequently whet my appetite for the arts, leading to a newspaper career including three decades as an arts and entertainment reporter. Without this journalistic foundation I would have never considered, let alone written, a memoir devoted to my passion for fly fishing.

I wish I had done a lot more fishing and hunting with my uncles, but I had started working part-time as a bellhop at a hotel in the heart of London before my sixteenth birthday and had worked weekends through high school. Then it was off to university and graduate school in different cities, before marriage and a series of reporting jobs on six newspapers across the province. Before I knew it, I was forty years old, divorced and remarried with the first of two sons on the way.

A fire, deliberately ignited in an adjacent apartment a week before Christmas, consumed all of our possessions including my three-thousand volume personal library. It was a devastating midlife disaster for my wife, Lydia, and me. We lost everything. Turns out, the fire cast a long dark, shadow on our marriage, which we were never able to crawl out from under. Consequently, we divorced eighteen years later. There had to have been a bond, however, because we remain friends, despite our intermittent partners, after fifteen years–and counting. Usually we hug and kiss when we depart; it’s fine with me if her lips are the last ones to ever touch mine.

Fishing and hunting had become a memory until I resumed fishing light spinning tackle at fifty–thanks to a Father’s Day gift from Lydia and our sons Dylan and Robertson. I picked up a fly rod a few years later, finally acting on what I had been eagerly reading about over the past quarter century. I deeply regret the years of missed opportunity, which remain unrecoverable. Fortunately, retirement has given me time to fly fish and to write about my bliss on the water, a reprieve and a respite bestowed by the angling muse.

. . . . . . .

Sadly, Selina and Jim suffered painful endings. Selina’s lifelong addiction to filter-less, roll-your-own cigarettes put her on oxygen during her last years. Meanwhile, Jim’s addiction to alcohol eventually corroded his judgment, which he deeply regretted when we last spoke before he died in hospital, a place he had always feared and avoided.

For his part, Doug has been suffering through his declining years bedridden, the result of heroically waging war against a battalion of aggressive cancers which I believe were caused by exposure to lethal industrial toxins when he was a young man working in a paint factory and later when he installed carpet and synthetic flooring. A weaker man would have relented long ago. However, as diminished as his world has become, and despite the pain he has endured, Doug–tough, resilient and defiant–defends an uncertain life rather than surrender to a certain death.

I carry with me the sorrow of the passing of Grandpa McLean, Selina and Jim, forever grateful for the creative tools they helped me acquire to build a modest bungalow of literature, which has not only sheltered my imagination but enriched and enlarged my life. In the long, lonely, solitary hours that haunt people of a certain age, when sleep remains sullen and evasive, I pray, perhaps naively, that fly fishing and a love of brook trout, in all their ferocious beauty and porcelain fragility, will protect me from dark tempestuous waters.

Fishing Log

Brown Beauty

I’ve long subscribed to the wisdom of aging gracefully and with dignity. Wish I could say the same about my beleaguered body.

Take my left knee, for example. It started with acute pain that occasionally interrupted my sleep. The ailment was diagnosed as osteoarthritis. A round of physiotherapy gave me five or six years of intermittent discomfort. I was fitted for a brace which I continue to wear on long walks or hikes and on fishing outings.

Then, one late autumn day I was carrying groceries in a parking lot when my knee gave out—collapsed is the most accurate word—and I fell, scattering bags, packages and cans in every direction. I was fortunate not to fracture a wrist or an elbow. This unexpected occurrence began happening with uninvited regularity. Another round of physio didn’t help much so, after consultation, my doctor agreed to refer me to an orthopaedic clinic for knee replacement surgery. I was put on a list, as they say.

Photo by Doug Wilson

A few months later, at the height of spring in the heart of Canada’s lone Carolinian forest, I was making my way towards a Southwestern Ontario river–small enough to be called a creek—in pursuit of wily trout. After negotiating a modest slope down to the water, I decided not to open my wading staff, thinking I would do it when I had entered the river.

Bad mistake. As soon as both feet hit the riverbed my left knee collapsed and down I went, not deep but enough to soak me from shoulders to soles. Of course, my waders filled, ensuring that I was drenched inside and out.

While unintended, it was baptism in the season of renewal and rebirth, when hope replaces the long dark winter of melancholy and uncertainty.

My angling companion, Doug Wilson—co-founder and president of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory who I first met at KW Flyfishers–asked if I was OK while offering an extended hand.

‘I’m embarrassed but, otherwise fine,’ I replied.

‘Do you still want to fish?’ he asked.

‘Yup,’ I confirmed. ‘I’m choosing to interpret this mishap as a lucky omen. The trout will see me as a fellow aquatic denizen and will look kindly upon my humble offering of Mr. Adams.’

Doug asked where I intended to fish and I told him I would start a few yards downriver, which had been altered over the previous winter after a small dam or weir had been removed. The new riffles looked like a trout factory to me—but, of course, I didn’t reveal my hand to Doug as he sauntered farther downriver.

Most shrewd anglers agree you must venture beyond the heavy angling traffic of easy access points to get to good fishing. This is generally sound piscatorial advice. But the opposite can be equally true.

I have found that anglers who are too obsessively focused on catching fish to the exclusion of everything else often race pass promising water on the hunt for what they expect is more productive aquatic pastures by virtue of being farthest away. This, of course, is a riff on the old chord about the water being bluer on the other side.

But I digress.

I made my first cast. My beloved seven-and-a-half-foot Sweetgrass bamboo rod shivered, eliciting a smile on my face as I landed my first small rainbow. On subsequent casts a pair of ’bows charged my perky Adams simultaneously. Shortly afterwards another couple hit my fly in quick succession as it floated diagonally across the river.

Within half an hour I had landed seven ’bows before moving off the riffle. The more trout I caught, the drier I seemed to get.

After a couple of hours, I had caught eighteen spunky rainbows between four and eight inches in length, which I considered a better than average day on a river I had been fishing for close to twenty years. A week previously, for instance, I caught nine ’bows, the largest of which was a pleasing ten inches.

This adventure, however, had a special surprise for me.

Much of the river ranges between knee deep and waist deep. However, there are a few deeper pools that top the height of my chest waders. I know this from personal experience. During my fly-fishing apprenticeship on a distant opening day (last weekend in April) I tried to rescue an errant fly grabbed by the clutching branches of a fallen tree extending from the opposite bank. I not only failed to recover my fly, but discovered how difficult it is to navigate a riverbed after your waders fill with ‘cool, clear water’ (to quote the timeless Sons of the Pioneer song).

On this warm, sunny day I approached one such pool and cast into a column of roiling water, nudging my fly to float along the current and veer seductively toward the seam between faster and slower water.

Suddenly my Sweetgrass yawned and dipped toward the river’s embrace. My copper-coloured English-made Orvis CFO reel released five-weight double-taper line with a gleeful clickety-clack as the fish plunged deeper into the dark depths.

I knew I was into a bigger fish. Barely could I contain my joy. I had been waiting many seasons for this moment of bliss to carry me away.

It had to be a brownie—just had to be. I knew the river was home to a small, robust population of large brown trout in addition to abundant rainbows and a few precious brookies. I had witnessed angling companion, Chris Pibus, land a big brown a couple of seasons previously. And a week after this outing my longtime angling partner Dan Kennaley caught of trio of browns all exceeding twelve-inches.

Finally I saw a video of Doug’s son, Adam, landing a pair of browns while his young son, Parker, shadowed his father and watched spellbound. ‘Is this a delicate one, Daddy?’ Parker whispered. (He had been instructed not to touch fish his dad caught because they are ‘delicate.’)

A couple of times over the years I had what I suspected were large browns strike my fly. But, sadly, had failed to set the hook, causing a moment of exhilaration to evaporate like raindrops on a hot campfire grill.

Not this time. This was different, my hook set wasn’t about to betray me or forsake me.

I played the fish—which turned out to be a thirteen-inch Brown Beauty. Its creamy yellow belly reminded me of freshly churned butter. It’s blue, black, vermilion and burnt orange spots on a Stirling silver background resembled gemstones dancing in sunlight as I cradled the creature in the wet palms of my hands.

Doug arrived in the nick of time. A former National Magazine Award winner who taught photography and photojournalism at Conestoga and Mohawk colleges, in addition to publishing in Harrowsmith, Equinox and Canadian Heritage magazines and illustrating To Market, To Market, the Public Market Tradition in Canada, he snapped a couple of photos on his cell phone before I gently coaxed the brown back from whence it came.

Photo by Doug Wilson

My confidence in good luck blossoming from the riverbed of misfortune restored, we decided to call it a day. As Doug and I retraced our steps along the riverbank towards our parked vehicles, my eye glimpsed a lone kingfisher in hurried flight low over the water, its stubby, rounded wings whirring rapidly, no doubt intent on a late supper.

We decided to retire to a nearby village pub to enjoy plates of Lake Erie perch and chilled pints of craft organic beer. I wanted to express my gratitude for a memorable day on the water by treating my friend to a celebratory meal.

‘If I smell like a river,’ I confided to the waitress after entering the pub, ‘it’s because I got a soaker while fishing.’

She laughed heartily as she escorted us to a booth before asking, ‘How was it, the fishing?’

‘Wonderful,’ I replied. ‘Simply wonderful.’

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.