Seasonal rhythms unfold like a symphony performed in praise of our Good Earth. Each of four movements is defined by distinct flora and fauna, weather and constellation, habitat and species, advancing and receding light. Fly anglers refine approach, methods, gear and tackle to the character of each season. It’s not always easy to determine the end of one season and the beginning of another. Fish know, however, guided by instinct born over millennia of advancing and retreating glaciers that serve as their almanac.
Fly anglers accept each season as a gift received in gratitude with its obligation of responsibility and stewardship. This gift exchange establishes a reciprocal relationship with the strength of a sacred bond, which is why fly fishing is a moral Calling. A fly rod is both microscope and telescope that enables anglers to see, appreciate and understand the world more truthfully and more sympathetically than they might otherwise, considering the limitation of their perceptions. Casting fur and feather is a hymnal through which anglers sing the praises of Nature in all her manifest wonder. And therein lies the Mystery.
For fly anglers Spring is not a date on the calendar. It does not announce itself when rivers and lakes shed their hard translucent skin. Rather it arrives on the wings of Hendrickson mayflies in lengthening daylight and rising temperatures, when hope flows through and around the fins of wild trout. Poets and anglers refer to this period of buoyant optimism as the Sweet of the Year. Anglers inhale the rich fragrances of memory and expectation as the sun revives this bountiful planet, marking the starting point of a line tracing an endless circle of birth, maturity, death, rebirth and renewal.
Everything seems possible, brimming with hope, as meadow grasses fold back the brown blanket of winter slumber and awaken in a bouquet of dancing greens celebrating the return of growth and fecundity. Anglers resemble school children released after the last bell of an interminably long day to pursue the promise of freedom and adventure. Anglers wading rivers feel once again the pulse of currents entering their bodies and flowing through their arteries. They become rivers, joining the company of trees which are rivers aspiring to be stars.
Summer is a period of extroversion and expansion as the emboldened sun warms the temperature of streams, rivers and lakes. Fly anglers who avoid fishing before sunrise or after sunset exchange artificial flies tied by the hands of heritage for large gaudy patterns with names evoking a killer instinct. Finicky aristocratic trout give way to the voracious appetites of proletarian black bass. For literary anglers trout retain remnants of the English chalkstream and the New England pastoral. In contrast, bass represent the frontier spirit of westward expansion across a continent seemingly without end.
Many anglers step away from the moving water and banksides of rivers in favour of the placid water and shorelines of lakes. They replace waders and wading boots for canoe and paddle. Fly fishing and canoeing is a ‘hatch’ made in heaven. They share a design elegance which is more than form and function serving the complementary goals of beauty and performance. They share a common ethic and aesthetic. Casting and paddling are liturgical rites practiced in outdoor cathedrals by secular pilgrims devoted to leaving faint footprints wherever adventure takes them.
Autumn is unique in the seasonal cycle because it’s really two seasons in one, variations on a theme. Early on the deepening iridescent colours of trout eager to spawn reflect the vibrant canopy of fluttering leaves and dark earthly harvest: the Three Sisters of squash, corn and beans, gourds, sweet potatoes, turnip, carrots, beets, cabbage, rutabaga, pumpkin, apples and pears. The skies are bright and clear. The sun is still warm as water temperatures chill and aquatic insects recede. This is a glorious season for anglers who value quality of experience above catch limits.
When the Harvest Moon bows to the Hunter’s Moon Autumn quietly slips into Fall, which the rural Scots have long referred to as the back end of the year. The rich spawning colours of trout give way to the cobalt sheen of steelhead under pewter skies and the skeletal architecture of trees. This is the season of migration. Geese and other birds are not the only creatures that travel great distances in response to instinct. Steelhead move from lakes and oceans to their birth rivers, causing anglers to muse that birds are fish that fly and fish are birds that swim.
Rivers might not sleep during the long cold Winter; however, they rest as fly anglers retreat from banksides and find repose at the tying vise or in an armchair with book in hand and dram of malt whisky within reach. Although hardy anglers fish wherever open water awaits, Wintertide is a time of reflection and contemplation, when memories of angling past and anticipation of angling future warm the imagination like a down-filled duvet. The world of fish and water contracts as the darkness of night lengthens and the earth shivers under a blanket in clean pure snow.
Winter is introspective compared to the extroversion of Summer. Anglers take stock and give thanks in peace and quietude. With pen in hand or at the keyboard, writers write. With burin carved into the endgrain of maple, engravers engrave. Both celebrate the practice and the art of fly fishing, acknowledging its history and heritage while paying forward its enduring legacy as best they can with imagination and skill acquired through discipline and labour. This forward and backward motion is the thin black line of creation that gives fly casting its elegance and grace.
Fly anglers are like mayflies that spend the winter as nymphs only to emerge transformed as duns with the return of Spring. They put away the tools of the tying bench and the books of the armchair. They reclaim rod and reel, waders and boots, gear and tackle—talismans all. The conversation begins anew as anglers leave the comfort of the hearth for the hope embodied in blossoming trees and moving water. Sympathetic ears turn to the poetry of trout and the music of rivers. The communion between angler, fish and water resumes as anglers gather in fellowship.
Anglers enroll in a refresher course in the ways of trout, living ancestors who have evolved from the dawning of life on this wondrous planet which now shows urgent signs of chronic stress. Standing again in the cool fresh flow of water, anglers are reminded that fish are not things or objects, but beings, brothers and sisters, who speak a language we can hear when we open our hearts. The communal kinship between all living things has much to teach beyond books and classrooms, provided mind and body, emotion and spirit remain open to the wisdom of all that is precious on this Good Earth.