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.
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. Ted Williams—not the Boston Red Sox legend but the outdoor sports and conservation writer—called fishing in such ‘secret, timeless’ places ‘rivertop trouting.’ (a phrase I love.)
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.
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.’