Fishing Log

Don Quixote & Sancho on the Grand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silken Lines and Silver Hooks by W. Sherwood Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing Log

State of Hex Hatch Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few of my tentative observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ol’ Man Brown

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

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

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

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

Fishing Log

Fishing Through the Pandemic: Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September Trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing Log

Fishing Through the Pandemic: Summer

Fly anglers have long been described as crazy. But is it going too far, is it lunacy, to suggest that there could be a very thin sliver of silver lining in the dark pandemic cloud that has blanketed the planet? Let me try to make my case without sounding self-absorbed, callus or irresponsible. It has been two years since I last joined Dan Kennaley and his wife, Jan, at their lovely island cottage in northeastern Muskoka, bordering the Haliburton Highlands.

Dan first invited me to the cottage a dozen years ago and I have enjoyed a few days there in all but one year when he and Jan went on an RV adventure across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains of America and Canada. I was envious because they traced the footsteps of some of my favourite writers: Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Norman Maclean, Thomas McGuane, Ivan Doig, Wright Morris, Kent Haruf, William Kittredge, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, A.B. Guthrie Jr., James Galvin, Joe Wilkins . . . You get the idea.

Some years at the cottage we pursued the spirit of Tom Thomson on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Whatever day trips we made, however, we always spent an evening on a secluded lake no more than a few kilometres from a busy two-lane highway perusing black bass from Dan’s red fibreglass canoe, christened the ‘Greg Clark’ in honour the legendary Canadian newspaperman and angler who befriended a young Ernest Hemingway and gave the famous Mickey Finn streamer its name.

Two year ago Dan reported that the land surrounding the lake had been sold to a person with ‘deep pockets’ who intended to build four cottages overlooking our small slice of paradise. In all the years we had fished the lake we had it completely to ourselves. Only once had we encountered anyone else—which turned out to be a quartet of young women from the Big City in search of a friend’s cottage.

To my pleasant surprise and deep gratitude, there was no evidence of construction when we arrived at the lake amid dark storm clouds. I suspect the delay was the result of the pandemic—ergo the very thin sliver of silver lining. Although the pandemic has wrought chaos, including serious illness and death, social isolation and economic hardship for most of the people around the world, it had impacted little on my fly fishing. I prefer to fish in places devoid of other anglers. Therefore it was easy to follow COVID protocols with my two regular angling buddies: Dan, who has joined me in retirement; and Wesley Bates, the engraver who was my creative partner on our book Casting into Mystery. Believe me, it has not been lost on any of us how fortunate we have been to be able to enjoy our shared passion, our joy, during such troubling and uncertain times.

Since I started fly fishing with Dan more than 15 years ago our annual practice has been to fish for trout in late April, through May and June, until water temperatures make it cruel and deadly to fish for trout except for at daybreak and into the darkness of the night. Neither of which Dan and I do.

When bass season opens at the beginning of July I switch my five-weight Sweetgrass split-cane rod for my five-weight Winston and seven-weight Scott graphite rods. Similarly I replace my fly boxes of dry flies, wet flies and nymphs for streamers, including Woolly Buggers, and poppers.

Anglers living in the Grand River watershed are blessed with an abundance of piscine riches. Not only does it boast a brown trout fishery in its tailwater protected by handsome limestone cliffs, it offers an exceptional smallmouth bass fishery when it broadens and winds its way through a pastoral landscape including Mennonite farm country and Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest indigenous reserve.

My summer on the Grand River was something of a good-news, bad news story. While I caught fewer smallies, the ones I caught were larger including the biggest—and most beautiful—bronzeback I have ever landed on the heritage river that meanders through my home in Waterloo. It stretched the tape measure to seventeen inches. Luckily my oldest son, Dylan, was my fishing partner and he was able to snap a photo on his cellphone to verify my good fortune—if not my angling prowess.

Grand River smallmouth bass

I subsequently caught six Grand River smallies (including a pair of ten-inchers and an eleven-incher) the first time I went fishing with Chris Pibus, a like-minded literary angler who introduced me to a wonderful fly angling mystery, Death on a Cold, Wild River, set on Ireland’s myth-haunted west coast and featuring Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr. The series is written by Bartholomew Gill.

Taking Dan’s canoe off the top of his four-wheel drive Subaru was easier than in the past. Because of an unexpected gift, he had a cream-cloured, sixteen-foot Prospector made of kevlar, a wonderful synthetic material half the weight of his sixteen-foot fibreglass. In light of my two minor heart attacks and Dan’s single minor heart attack, we both were grateful for the reduced weight.

As we were transporting our gear and tackle to the canoe, I reminded Dan of a previous outing on a nearby lake where we encountered a common snapping turtle of unusual curiosity who seemed very keen to make our acquaintance. Let me digress by recalling our close encounter with the ancient creature, otherwise known to biologists as chelydra serpentina.

At the outset, I must acknowledge that this was one the most awesome encounters with wildlife I have ever experienced while fly fishing. And I mean awesome in the dictionary sense of an experience inspiring intense admiration, apprehensive and fear.

We were minding our own business, casting nymphs and streamers to small- and large-mouth bass, when we spotted the beast slowly, silently and surely making his way towards the canoe. He was huge, at least the size of a traditional snowshoe. He came to within a metre of the gunwale. (By the creature’s size, it was obviously male.) Dan put down his rod and grabbed his digital Nikon and started snapping photos in rapid succession as the native, freshwater reptile edged closer . . . and closer . . . and closer.

Dan, who has retained a childlike curiosity which I admire, was oblivious to the turtle’s encroaching proximity. I, on the other hand, was quickly growing unsettled. My internal anxiety barometre was rising. I had often seen snappers from a distance sunbathing on rocks, taking life easy. Minding their own business. This ancient soldier was too close for comfort.

Although called the common snapping turtle, there was nothing common about this guy. To my mind he was a menacing, cold-blooded, evil-eyed reptile, an anthropological relic from the Age of Dinosaurs before an asteroid struck our ‘wandering planet’ (in the words of W. B. Yeats) 65 million years ago, causing the Great Catastrophe. His gnarly head and thick crenated carapace (upper shell) seemed to be carved out of the same Precambrian rock that comprised the landscape in which we were fishing. I knew that snappers in nearby Algonquin Park have been known to live more than a century and, while this guy’s age was indeterminate, I would bet my pension cheque he was older than my sixty five-plus years.

Although snappers display a combative attitude on land, they are more passive in the water. They are more likely to retreat than advance, surrender rather than engage, even though they are apex predators after surviving the egg stage of their life cycle. Not this malevolent guy. Whether curious or in the habit of being fed by misguided canoeist (we were fishing in early July on a popular canoe route).

When he was no more than an extended neck from the canoe panic took hold. I set down the rod and picked up the paddle, and started making for the far shore and the hospitable bass we would hopefully meet along the way.

‘Put your camera away and pick up a damn paddle,’ I wailed somewhat petulantly. Dan responded with a bemused chuckle.

Encounter with the Numinous

Afterwards, over a dram of 15-year-old Dalhwinney single malt, Dan and I reflected on our close encounter. In hindsight I interpreted my anxiety through the prism of mythology and poetry. After all, I was not the first person to cower when confronted by the luminous.

I recalled that the turtle is a sacred figure in Amerindian symbolism, representing Mother Earth as expressed orally through various origin stories. Turtle Island is the name many Algonquian-speaking peoples use to refer to the continent. (It was on their ancentral land that we were fishing.) More generally, turtles are emblematic of good health and long life, perseverance and protection encompassing environmental respect and stewardship. I also knew that Gary Snyder, one of my favourite American poets, paid homage to Turtle Island in a book of poems and essays published in 1974. He fused the creation myth with a holistic vision of humans living in harmony and peaceful coexistence with the earth and all its creatures.

Things were more tranquil on this evening in late August. We welcomed no visitors, the lake was ours and ours alone. In this part of Ontario bass fishing tails off as a canopy of summer greens prepare for the transformation to autumn rusts, crimsons, oranges, yellows and golds, the season when nature comes closest to alchemy. Still the conditions (including no black flies and fewer of mosquitoes) make for delightful respite on the water. Even when the dark clouds burst after an hour or so, they dropped a soft steady shower of warm rain, so gentle we did not bother with rain gear.

We each caught a half dozen small- and largemouth bass of modest size (ten-to-twelve-inch range). We tried poppers to no avail, just because they offer so much pleasure under optimum conditions. They work best on still placid water at twilight, not when the lake surface is shattered by falling rain.

Not to be discouraged, Dan enjoyed success with a chartreuse Woolly Bugger that our angling buddy Craig Wardlaw showcased with good results on an earlier outing. I boasted I had no such ugly fly in my box. I had an even gaudier lime-green (chartreuse being too elegant a word) nymphy looking thingamajig tied by a fellow member of KW Flyfishers from some synthetic micro-fibre salvaged from a dust mop. (I learned later that the eye-sore is known as a Mop Fly, which originated with competitive fly anglers, and shares the dubious distinction of San Juan worms and other tasteless specimens that are nonetheless fish magnets.) I was conflicted, pleased but equally dismayed, when the bloody thing actually worked. Still it would be rude for an angler who shares his Scottish ancestors’ love of haggis to castigate black bass for their unrefined dietary tastes.

Fishing Log

Fishing Through the Pandemic: Spring

It had been a year like no other–at least in my lifetime–one year shy of seventy. Not since the Spanish influenza of 1918 had the world been in the clutches of such a pernicious pandemic. In the midst of this deadly health crisis I continued to worry about root causes which I believed involved the dysfunctional relationship between humanity and the planet—a full-blown ‘ecocrisis’. (the term is Max Oelschlaeger’s in The Idea of Wilderness.) I feared that until humanity curtailed environmental destruction and ecological degradation, there would be more pandemics to complement the escalating natural disasters that have become increasingly catastrophic.

The way I saw it, the pandemic exposed humanity’s fatal flaw—its egocentric and anthropocentric vulnerability. Through what can only be described as lethal arrogance, humanity refused to see itself as an integral part of the planetary community of life. Moreover, it refused to recognize that its survival depended on the health of ‘the entire world biotic environment,’ in the words of Roderick Nash in Wilderness and the American Mind. What was needed was a biocentric worldview.

Headwater Saugeen Brookie

It was against this foreboding backdrop that I eagerly awaited the opening of trout season on the fourth Saturday of April. Traditionally a coming-out party for fly anglers who resemble rambunctious school children released at recess, the pandemic heightened expectations. Although the province was shut down by government fiat, the season opened as usual—albeit under unusual conditions. Parks and conservation areas were closed, as were marinas, boat launches and public access points to recreational water. Strategies to ‘flatten the curve’ of pandemic infections and deaths, such as wearing masks and social distancing, remained in effect.

Still I was eager to get out on the water for no other reason than to assert a semblance of normality. I yearned for the familiar, the ordinary, the commonplace. Even the uncertainty of catching a trout was reassuring. There is something about moving water and the rhythms of casting a bamboo fly rod that relaxes the body, soothes the mind and comforts the soul. John Burroughs, one of America’s great nature writers, recognized the ‘salutary ministrations’ of water and angling. In his essay ‘Speckled Trout,’ published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870 and collected in Locusts and Wild Honey in 1879, he writes:

I have been a seeker of trout from my boyhood, and on all the expeditions in which this fish has been the ostensible purpose I have brought home more game than my creel showed. In fact, in my mature years I find I got more of nature into me, more of the woods, the wild, nearer to bird and beast, while threading my native streams for trout, than in almost any other way.

A few days after the season opened my fly angling buddy Dan Kennaley and I were bound for the headwaters of the Saugeen River through the rolling southwestern Ontario countryside. A mere ninety-minute drive from my home in Waterloo, it is one of my favourite places on our ‘good green earth’ (a recurring phrase throughout Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass).

I enjoy fishing from a canoe on tranquil northern lakes; however, I cherish wading rivers. There is something magical about fishing in water that flows forever onward, around the next bend, rich with the potential for wonder. The sense of motion is hypnotic and therapeutic, as my metabolism fuses with a force greater than myself. In syncopation with the rhythms of moving water I am transported out of my subjective body into an awareness of the objective natural world. Through imaginative sympathy I become river.

Although I regularly fish the Grand River’s tailwater closer to home, I much prefer headwaters in all their riparian splendour. Here the mystery is deeper, darker, more profound.

Dan and I met in the village of Arthur, but breaking with our habit of loading our gear and ourselves into one vehicle—during which we engage in wide-ranging conversations—we drove separately to our destination on the Saugeen, which gets its name from the indigenous people who fished and hunted its wilds. We arrived mid-afternoon to a location we had not fished for at least three years. It felt good to be back. I last visited the stretch of river with my youngest son, Robertson, and caught a half dozen wild brook trout within half an hour.

It was a lovely day, featuring a warm invigorating sun and deep azure skies with minimal cloud cover. Sunlight can be an angler’s foil, but in spring it is less troublesome, especially in the midst of afternoon mayfly hatches. As we made our way down a steep bank to the river we were greeted by a couple of kingfishers rattling from tree to tree. I interpreted the unscheduled meeting as a fortuitous omen. I am not especially superstitious, but it is bloody foolhardy not to embrace Lady Luck when she comes calling in the guise of a pair of winged marauders.

While walking along the bankside I reveled in bed of Trout Lilies, a herbaceous woodland wildflower with yellow or white blossoms that curtsy in modesty despite their distinctive green leaves with brown mottled spots resembling the vermiculations of brook trout. And like the fish that gives its name, Trout Lilies are simultaneously hardy and fragile—and ancient.

The water was a tad high and fast. Dan and I both tossed black Woolly Worms with short maroon tails downstream and across. I caught three brook trout between seven and nine inches, before switching to a Hendrickson emerger and getting a solid hit which I was unable to set. Dan caught one brownie after I left for home.

Rivertop Trouting Photo by Chris Pibus

Later in the week I drove to Clifford to join up with Wesley Bates, the artist with whom I worked on our fly angling book Casting into Mystery. Respecting pandemic protocol I remained in my Jeep while following him in his energy-efficient hybrid car to a provincial highway, then I took the lead en route to the river.

We were accompanied by a full moon floating faintly over the centre of the gravel road high in the clear blue sky. I thought of the lunar phantom as a fellow wayfarer guiding me to the pot of piscatorial gold at the end of the aquatic rainbow. Of course, seeing the ghostly moon during the day is not exceptional. Still I am always intrigued by the occurrence, especially in relation to fishing.

My fascination with the moon extends back to early childhood. I remember laying across the back window of my dad’s Plymouth sedan when he was driving my mom, brother and sister home after an evening out, usually visiting friends or relatives. Stars would wink at me from a sea of deep darkness. I can say with certainty that I never felt safer as the moon guided my family home.

I do not put much stock in newspaper horoscopes, but as someone who takes seriously the wisdom tradition of the ancient Celts, I cannot dismiss the significance of the stars and the planets, the days and the elements, under which a person comes into our beleagured world. Born under the Northern cardinal sign of Cancer, which is associated with water and ruled by the moon, I have always felt an intuitive, emotional pull toward both natural forces. I can also get a tad cranky if life’s petty demands keep me off the water.

Unlike many anglers, I never fish in accordance with monthly solunar tables. Getting out on the water has always been more important than increasing the probability of catching fish. Still I cannot resist falling under the enchanting triune spell of moon, water and fish contained within the mystery of fly fishing. If I prefer the spell of romance to the dictates of science, so be it.

Wesley was impressed with the piece of river he was experiencing for the first time. It had rained over the past couple of days, and the water was still high. ‘Such raw beauty, I love it,’ Wesley said while tossing a black Woolly Worm downstream and across—to no avail. We both had a couple of strikes, enough to excite expectations, but our courtship with trout ended in rejection. If comparing angling to courting sounds corny, I defer to no less an authority than Burroughs who likens a stream to a paramour in ‘Speckled Trout’:

Then what acquaintance [an angler] makes with a stream. He addresses himself to it as a lover to his mistress; he wooes (sic) it and stays with it till he knows its most hidden secrets. It runs through his thoughts not less than through its banks there; he feels the fret and the thrust of every bar and boulder. Where it deepens, his purpose deepens; where it is shallow, he is indifferent. He knows how to interpret its every glance and dimple; its beauty haunts him for days.

‘Wooing’ might strike a jaded ear as hackneyed in contemporary vernacular. However, considering its connotation of something can reduce people to fools, the word certainly applies to fly fishing.

True to angling form I made a beeline to the spot I caught the trio of brookies a few days prior. But this time, nothing. A few hundred metres downriver, a quartet of turkey vultures were slowly circling, laughing derisively (or so I imagined).

As is our custom, we hapless pair of spurned anglers ended our outing by sitting on the bankside, revered by the Celts as that magically thin and sacred place between earth and water, the material and the sacred. I poured ruby tinged hues of liquid amber from a flask into a couple of stainless steel demitasses. Matured for twelve years in American bourbon and Spanish sherry oak casts to achieve a balance of Christmas fruit, vanilla and spice, Abelour is one of my favourite Speyside malt whiskies. We savoured the drams as our talk drifted towards the pandemic. Wesley confided that he had been feeling out of sorts lately.

‘I’ve felt back-watered or eddied working in my studio and trying to keep my focus which is always being challenged by the flotsam of life. Not unique, I know, but very distracting and frustrating. I really needed these few hours on the river.’

‘I like your description of ennui which is both accurate and poetic,’ I replied. ‘I was wrestling with motivation during the past few weeks. Writing became a challenge. The creative juices started flowing after I got out on the water. It was as if a tap had been turned on.’

A week later Wesley and I returned to replenish ourselves in the natural pulse of moving water. We arrived about 4 pm, only to discover that Wesley had left his five-weight at home—an indignity all fly anglers suffer at one time or another. If it’s not the rod, it’s the reel, the vest containing fly boxes or the wading gear.

‘If I had drawing materials with me, I would have been content to sketch,’ he offered before jumping in his car and making the unplanned return trip as hastily as safety allowed.

As I made my way down the bank I glimpsed a flash of deep blue fleeing deeper into the cedar brush—an Indigo Bunting. The bird’s beauty got me thinking about the beauty of brook trout. It was a small whimsical leap to reflect on the similarities between birds and fish. Marc Chagall-like, I imagine birds as fish with wings, and fish as birds with fins. No wonder so many fly anglers, including Dan, are enthusiastic birders. He carries a small pair of binoculars in his vest to afford him a closer look at birds as well as hatches and rises.

Catching sight of a bird is comparable to catching a fish. Your optic nerve is triggered, you process the information rationally, then you identify the bird—all in rapid succession. Similarly when a fish hits, your muscle memory is activated, you react instinctively or intuitively, then the analytical part of your mind kicks in–provided you are not daydreaming, a common angling hazard to which I often fall prey.

The water was lower and clearer than it had been so I tied on one of Dan’s cinnamon Bi-visibles. It proved the ticket. Before Wesley returned I caught three brookies.

I was sitting on a fallen tree trunk extended over the river when I saw a rise along a foam line a few metres upriver. As stealthily as possible I moved into position, cast at the riseform and slurp. Lifting my sweetly singing five-weight Sweetgrass rod, there was a curvaceous arc and pleasing throb. Before I knew it I was seeing a world in the palm of my wet hand—enough to make visionary poet William Blake smile.

Short while later: I returned to the tree trunk and saw another rise a few metres upriver along the same foam line. I slowly moved into position, cast at the riseform and slurp. I lifted my rod in a curvaceous arc and pleasing throb. Poetic reprise.

Short while later: I returned to the tree trunk again extending over the water. I saw yet another rise a few metres upriver along the same foam line. I slowly moved into position, cast at the riseform and experienced one more poetic reprise.

I have caught my share of fish, but seldom have I caught multiple fish so systematically and with such precision–where execution follows intent. For me, this was an American Sportsman moment, recalling the ABC outdoor show that aired Sundays from 1965 to 1986 hosted by Curt Gowdy.

I wanted to introduce Wesley to some generous water downriver and, considering it was edging towards the gloaming and the evening hatch, I was optimistic when he returned and we ventured to what for him was pristine water.

I lost a good fish after it made a frantic beeline under a submerged log. It never ceases to amaze me how a creature with such a tiny brain is so sly and evasive. Afterwards I caught an accommodating brookie before getting my Bi-visible snagged high in the grasping branches of a cedar. I switched to a Hendrickson dry fly

I left Wesley to his own devices and returned upriver to my ‘honey hole’. My faith was rewarded with a three more brookies including a robust nine-incher. Satisfied beyond words I walked to the Jeep and removed my gear.

When Wesley joined me as the sun slipped behind the jagged line of cedars in the West, he confided that the five brookies he landed comprised his best outing—ever. He was ecstatic and I was pleased for my angling companion and creative partner.

We celebrated our good fortune by sitting on the tailgates of our respective vehicles and sipping a dram of single malt. When it comes to whisky improvisation Wesley is unsurpassed. Using a maple syrup bottle with a stopper lid as a flask, he poured a couple of golden drams into a pair of sterling silver accordion cups. Thoughts of the pandemic drifted away as we savoured the soil and water of a distant land, home of my ancestors, and toasted one of Creation’s most exquisite creatures.

Brook trout were the fish I loved first and remain the fish I love most. They are the fish I feel most privileged to catch. But they are fragile. Like canaries in coal mines, brookies are extremely sensitive to rising average water temperatures resulting from climate change. They also have a lower tolerance for pollution than other species. The prospect of a world without brook trout—which folksinger Greg Brown describes in his fly angling ode ‘Eugene’ as ‘God’s reminder that creation is a good idea’—reduces me to tears.

When I think of brook trout, especially ones that inhabit headwaters in my birthplace and home in southwestern Ontario, I think of my favourite book to come out of Maine, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, her collection of loosely connected narrative sketches first published in 1896. In it she writes:

If there is one way above another of getting so close to nature that one simply is a piece of nature, following a primeval instinct with perfect self-forgetfulness and forgetting everything except the dreamy consciousness of freedom, it is to take the course of a shady brook trout. The dark pools and the sunny shallows beckon one on; the wedge of sky between the trees on either bank, the speaking, companioning noise of the water, the amazing importance of what one is doing, and the constant sense of life and beauty make a strange transformation of the quick hours.

‘So long as we have brook trout we are not forsaken,’ I confided to Wesley before taking the advice of Walt Whitman by gazing ‘up in perfect silence at the stars.’