Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I had fly fished more frequently this season than ever before, resulting from circumstances that had nothing to do with the virulent global virus. Happily my two regular streamside companions were available more often. My longtime angling buddy Dan Kennaley had retired from his day job and my creative collaborator Wesley Bates was able to steal time from the studio to join me on the water.
I was fortunate compared to most people during dangerous and uncertain times. I was retired and I was allowed to do what I enjoyed most, fishing the rivers of Southwestern Ontario for trout and bass. Most times I shared the water—apart but not separate—with Dan, Wesley or Chris Pibus, an angler I met through publication of Casting into Mystery, my fly angling memoir enhanced with Wesley’s wood engravings. Occasionally I fished by myself, alone but not lonely.
September has always been one of my favourite months of the year, going back to when I was a child and excited by the prospects of a new school year, a feeling I carried with me through graduate school where I studied a subject I have cherished throughout my life: English literature. My anticipation was re-ignited when my sons, Dylan and Robertson, started elementary school.
Because of the pandemic I abandoned the tailwater of the Grand River for headwater rivers that attracted fewer anglers. But, in hindsight, there was a deeper reason I now struggle to describe. I was drawn to wild brook trout, the species I love most. I had lost the desire to fish for the tailwater’s hatchery raised brown trout, which for some obscure reason I connected with the pandemic. Rather I felt a powerful need to connect with the primordial, the uncontaminated. I was in search of purity, if not purification. Does any of this make sense?
Still, to draw the curtain on the season, I felt compelled to return to the Grand. Returning to a place you have fished before is like reuniting with an old friend and getting caught up on the things shared in common. If you are lucky enough to have caught fish, the reunion is deeper, more intimate. The conversation picks up where it was left off earlier. Time collapses, distance contracts and the past flows into the continuous present.
Unlike those who do not fish, I had the solace of rivers to comfort and console as the world unravelled at the seams before growing weary of it all. Many times over the season my thoughts turned to Henry David Thoreau, a literary companion who is never far from my mind—not to mention my heart. I often recalled a favourite passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that never fails to lift my spirits, help me recharge and keep me grounded in the promise of tomorrow:
Trees were but rivers of sap and woody fibre, flowing from the atmosphere, and emptying into the earth by their trunks, as their roots flowed upward to the surface. And in the heavens there were rivers of stars, and milky ways, already to gleam and ripple over our heads. There were rivers of rock on the surface of the earth, and rivers of ore in its bowels, and our thoughts flowed and circulated, and this portion of time was but the current hour.
Written while he was living ‘deliberately’ in a modest cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, where he remained from July 1845 through September 1847, Thoreau’s philosophical memoir documents a boating trip he made in August 1839. His first published work is informed by a companion seldom mentioned, but who remains a constant presence in the spaces between and around the words. Henry’s dear brother, John, accompanied him on the river trip, only to die of lockjaw in 1842. Henry was devastated. He was never free from the grief that accompanied his brother’s death—not unlike the untold millions who lost loved ones from complications from the pandemic.
At this ‘current hour’ in September I was driving through Mennonite farm country to the Grand not only for the first time in more than a year, but to fish a stretch of tailwater I had not visited in a couple of years. I had the late Guy Clark on the CD player and grew pensive as I recalled a September almost twenty years previously. A native Texan who carved song lyrics out of poetry, he was as much a storyteller as a musician. He wrote poignant odes about old friends, building boats, last gunfighters, waltzing fools, homegrown tomatoes, pawnshop guitars and favourite pictures, not to mention Randall knives, Hemingway’s whiskey and Picasso’s mandolin. And, of course, ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train’ which pretty much sums up the human journey.
I had the pleasure of reviewing most of Clark’s albums and a couple concerts over thirty years of newspaper arts reporting. Once I had the honour of interviewing him over the phone on a day seared into American consciousness: September 11, 2001. When I asked him if we should postpone our talk for another time, he hesitated a moment before relying, ‘No, this is what we do, we should keep on doing it.’ Good advice in bad times, or so I have come to believe.
My spirits lifted when I parked the Jeep and geared up. I spent the first hour reacquainting myself with the hydrology of a piece of water I have come to embrace with affection. Little had changed which was reassuring. I began fishing familiar riffles, which I especially enjoy because it demands casting precision and disciplined line management. Eventually I meandered downriver. As I was casting at the tail of another riffle, I noticed a pod of trout rising in soft water farther down. My heart quickened. The pulse of anticipation flowed through my blood vessels like an electric current.
Carefully and quietly I moved to where I could cast to the slurping brownies. It was an open place. Across from me was a tall bare limestone cliff, about thirty metres in height, with its layers of geologic history compressed under the weight of time. My thoughts turned fanciful as I imagined the earth as a planetary salmon swimming in deep dark intergalactic seas and the river as a filleting knife that sliced and carved that which nourished and sustained all living things.
A chrome-plated crescent moon rose in the eastern sky as a pale slumbering sun tucked itself into bed in the West. Cliff swallows performed aerial acrobatics in pursuit of insects. A great blue heron, a keen and proficient fish hunter, kept a close eye on my movements. It was chilling off and it occurred to me, more than once, that an extra layer would have been nice.
I replaced a Prince nymph with an Elk Hair Caddis. After a few casts that were snubbed I replaced my 5X leader with a longer and finer 6X leader and tied on a smaller Elk Hair pattern. Caddisflies are the most common insect on the tailwater.
One of the things I enjoy about fly angling is the simultaneous engagement with both sides of my brain. The analytical left side reads the empirical signs provided by nature. The intuitive right side interprets signs beyond the experiential. The first is logical and methodical; the second is intuitive and creative.
Finally I was ready for action, the game was on. My excitement rose as I set my sights on a specific brownie. I cast across, overshooting the feeding lane by a metre and ahead of the riser by a couple of metres to give me sufficient time to mend the line and draw the fly into the path of the feeding trout. The fly was easing along at the same speed as the foam bubbles carried by the current and was heading towards the recurring riseform. For me, this is what fly fishing is all about—its essence.
The fish struck but I flubbed setting the hook. ‘Damn, damn, damn,’ I hissed between clenched teeth. I regrouped, took a deep breath. Patience and persistence defined my game plan. I cast again. I fell into a pleasing rhythm as I cast yet again as careful as I could manage. I reminded myself to take it slow and easy, easy and slow.
Suddenly another hit. The line tightened and stiffened as if aroused. It cut the water like a Buck knife and vibrated like a Martin guitar string. I could feel the fish through my wrist, telegraphed along my Winston Boron five-weight, which was curved in a gracefully throbbing parabola.
I set the hook, caught in a web of mystery. My terrestrial world of consciousness connected to the unconscious aquatic world through rod, line and fly. The elements of air and water merged. I was giddy with delight, my heart thumping against my chest.
I stripped in line and brought in the twelve-inch brownie. From his size I knew he had survived at least one winter in the Grand. I knelt in supplication, wet my hands and cradled it in my palm. This is the sacred moment, a blend of enchantment and joy. Not only was I connected to raw ferocious beauty, I was holding a species with which I shared origins at the dawning of life on what W. B. Yeats called our ‘wandering earth.’
While he was in the water I got my Pentax out of my vest before gently placing the trout on riverside pebbles. I carefully released the single, barbless hook from the side of his lip with hemostats and quickly pressed the camera shutter. Then I eased him into the water facing upstream and re-oxygenated his gills while cupping him in my hands before releasing him into the flowing river from whence he came. He took off like a halo-spotted mini-torpedo, fierce in his pursuit of regained freedom.
When I hook a fish I pass through the threshold of mystery. A beautiful creature materializes out of the invisible. This is why fly fishing turns skeptical anglers into believers in awe of the miraculous and the marvelous—perhaps even intimations of the divine. This is when fly fishing and poetry share a common language.
One of the things that sets fly fishing apart from other methods of fishing is that how a fish is caught matters. This is not a question of technique or style, but of morality. This is why I believe fly angling is a calling rather than a sport. This makes a fly angler, to paraphrase Nick Lyons in Confessions of a Fly Fishing Addict, both a hunter and an aesthetician. After all, are not fish both prey and objects of veneration as many ancient wisdom traditions maintain?
This leads to another element that distinguishes fly fishing. Convention dictates that anglers prefer catching fish to not catching fish. Certainly more and bigger fish is the goal of most anglers regardless of terminal tackle. But, as difficult as it is for some people to understand, catching fish is not what fly fishing is about in its essence. I believe this with absolute conviction.
Even the most competitive fly fishermen—this is more a male trait than a female trait—concede that being skunked on the water does not necessarily spell failure. If quantity and size were the primary forces driving an angler, he (or she) would employ more effective methods of filling the creel, stringer, cooler or boat reservoir. Casting dry flies at rising fish is unquestionably the most challenging of all forms of fishing—therein lies its greatest virtue.
Considering the assault on our fragile planet waged by accelerated climate change, pollution and population pressures, I contend humanity has reached the point where it is morally responsible to affirm catching fewer fish than catch limits allow. This is especially urgent for wild trout. Like canaries in coal mines, trout are 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 trout—which American folksinger Greg Brown affirms ‘are God’s reminder that creation is a good idea’—reduces me to tears.
Although most fly anglers practice catch and release, I believe it is time for the angling community at large to take this pledge. I concede there is room for constructive debate between catch and release and responsible catch and eat. It is complicated by heritage, tradition, ethics, custom, ritual and ceremony. I speak only for myself when I defend the ethical imperative of releasing that which I catch while thinking about my sons and their children I’m unlikely to know, who I fear will not have the angling opportunities I have been privileged to enjoy.
I could have stayed longer and drifted into the darkness of eventide, maybe even caught another brownie or two–anglers are never without hope. But I decided to leave. Sometimes it is enough to accept what the river provides without asking for more, simply to reciprocate with humility and gratitude.