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.
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.
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.