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.’