Contemplative Recreation

From Banjo to Fly Rod

Thanks to the genius of Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and the artistry of such musicians as Pete Seeger, Roy Clark, J.D. Crowe, John Hartford, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Jens Kruger, Alison Brown and Rhiannon Giddens, the much-maligned banjo has carved out a permanent place in roots music, past and present. In Canada we have Chris ‘Old Man’ Luedecke and Chris Coole carrying forward the banjo tradition.

Over the years I had the pleasure of watching Chris Coole, a clawhammer banjo player and guitarist, perform many times in different folk, old-time and bluegrass music configurations. But it wasn’t until quite recently I discovered he is an avid fly angler. When I learned he had recorded a couple of CDs of original music inspired by ‘the fishing passion’ I contacted him to asked whether I could discuss his recordings—The Tumbling River and The Road to the River—in Casting into Mystery. He not only sent me the CDs but we exchanged lively emails sharing our mutual passion. When singer/songwriter Juanita Wilkins (who happens to be Wesley Bates’s wife) told me Chris had posted a Facebook account of fishing dureing the pandemic in the summer of 2020 at the family cottage, I asked if I could post it on the Casting Into Mystery website. Again, he agreed, for which I’m deeply grateful. Following are his words:

Anybody who knows me very well knows that I love to fish, and thanks to the traveling nature of my life the past 15 years, I’ve been lucky enough to cast a line in some pretty amazing places. A seven-piece collapsible fly rod is just slightly behind ‘banjo’ on my checklist whenever I pack to go on tour. By the end of a ‘normal’ year it’s not uncommon for me to hold fishing licenses for seven or eight different provinces and states. I even got to fish for brown trout in Tasmania a couple years back (‘Oh the places you’ll go,’ as Dr. Seuss would say.)

Had this year gone as planned, I would have had trips to British Columbia, Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan, not to mention several jaunts down to New York State to fish in the Catskills with my pals (and fishing mentors) Joe Hendricks, Joe Marinzel, Bob Hutton, and Glenn Carson. But, of course, this year didn’t go as planned for anyone, and I found myself off the road and spending most of my time teaching banjo into my computer (which I enjoy, and for which I’m grateful).

Chris Coole ‘grip and grin’

If you have to be stuck in a city, Toronto isn’t the worst place to be stuck. It’s a multicultural city with friendly people, a great arts community, lots of green space and amazing food (when the restaurants aren’t shut down). Once you get beyond the inevitable urban sprawl, it’s not long before you get into the Southern Ontario countryside, which is a very beautiful part of the world.

I’ve lived here all my life. My folks have a cottage about 2 ½ hours east of the city on Belmont Lake. It’s been in my family since the ’40s. My great grandfather built one of the first cabins on the lake, and then his son-in-law (my grandfather) bought the land next to it, which he severed and gave to his kids. This is a common story in Ontario. It harkens back to a time when there was enough land around that middle-class people could still afford to get a little piece of paradise outside of the city (this also owes to the fact that there are something like 250,000 lakes in Ontario). I say this not to dismiss my privilege, but to give it some context—of course, we’re in a moment where many of us are coming to realize that to even be part of the ‘middle-class’ brings with it some BIG privilege and no small part of luck . . . but that’s another subject.

Growing up, I spent every summer on Belmont Lake pretty much from the day after school got out, until Labour Day Weekend. My cousins and I were free to run wild, which meant we were either in the forest making forts or on the lake chasing fish from morning till night. Reflecting back, that time had more to do with shaping my values as an adult and the paths I choose than anything I ever learned in school or in my life afterward.

As I got older, life made my time up on the lake more infrequent; first, it was summer jobs, then scraping around the city as a struggling (but busking, happy and often drunk) artist in my 20s, then touring in my 30s and 40s (still happy, and progressively less drunk). I’d get up the odd time in the spring and fall, but sort of lost touch with it. I’ve been especially absent in summers due to the festival season and teaching at music camps.

Had I not been absent from social media the past 15 years I could have put on a pretty good show. As I mentioned before I’ve been fishing in some amazing places and would probably have posted ‘grip and grin’ shots from some destinations that most people only dream of fishing, or at least have to wait till they retire before they make their pilgrimage. In the context of sport fishing, it was downright glamorous.

Which brings me to this summer. Thanks to the situation the world finds itself in, I’ve probably spent more time on Belmont Lake than I have in the past thirty summers combined (in fact I’m on the dock typing this right now). I’ve been poking around the islands and weed beds of my youth, catching bass, pickerel (walleye), pike and crappie and generally having the time of my life. It’s felt like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

I’ve had some wonderful days fishing this summer, but by far the coolest one was being able to take my cousin’s kids, Addison and Archer, out in early August. As they skillfully and playfully caught sunfish by the dozen, I realized they are the fifth generation of my family to fish on this lake. They were fishing in the same weed beds that their great-great-grandparents had fished, and had shown my Uncle Art (their grandpa), who had shown them to me. That kind of unbroken chain is almost non-existent in our modern lives (at least in mine); and I’m grateful to have had a chance to experience it, and gain an awareness of it.

So here’s my ‘grip and grin’ photo for this summer’s fishing (although there’s no gripping, just grinning). It may not be a 20-inch brown trout from the Catskills, a wild cutthroat from the mountains of B.C. or an arctic grayling from the Yukon River, but it’s turned out to be more meaningful than all those combined.

Note – Inevitably, someone is going to ask if we ate those fish, and the answer is obviously, YES. Only a maniac would kill a fish and not eat it. Also, in case you didn’t figure it out, a ‘grip and grin’ is a photo of an angler, usually with a stunned smile, holding a fish looking even more stunned.  

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