When daffodils begin to peer, With heigh! the doxy over the dale, Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year; For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale. — William Shakespeare
Everybody knows William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in English; however, everybody might not know he is one of the language’s great nature writers. One of his delightful bucolic phrases—‘the sweet o’ the year’—appears in his late romance The Winter’s Tale. At least two authors I admire adopted it for book titles: English rural writer H. J. Massingham in 1939 and American angling writer R. Palmer Baker, Jr. in 1965.
I have long associated the opening of trout season on the fourth Saturday of April with the sweet o’ the year. For the past twenty years or so it has arrived the same way—with a phone call from my angling companion Dan Kennaley: ‘Are you up for an outing?’ he asks.
‘Absolutely,’ I reply. ‘Where and when do you want to meet?’ Like many fly anglers, we routinely answer a question by asking another question.
Outings begin long before I wade into a river, even before I gear up. They begin when I slide behind the steering wheel of my Jeep. After turning the key in the ignition I insert a compact disc (one of the reasons I bought the vehicle was because it came with a factory installed CD player).
On the day I’m remembering as though it were yesterday, Neil Young was yearning for a town in Northern Ontario–a poignant song that mines the desperate helplessness we all suffer at one time or another. Lost in a dream of tender heartache, I crossed the threshold onto another season of piscatorial promise.
I hit the two-lane, driving through the southwestern Ontario countryside—renamed Sowesto by artist Greg Curnoe. This is prime farm country, home to Old Order Mennonites who settled the area in the first decades of the nineteenth century, finding sanctuary, via Pennsylvania, from religious persecution in their homelands of central Europe. With my window rolled down I inhaled the fragrance of spring as farmers in field after field harrowed and manured in preparation of planting.
The transition from white winter monochrome to vibrant shades of green was invigorating. The passing rural scene included horse and buggies and kids on bicycles returning home from school. A stately red-tailed hawk sat atop a hydro pole in anticipation of an early supper which I decided to interpret as a lucky omen—I would become fish-hawk.
I met up with Dan on quiet cul-de-sac where we usually parked. We carefully made our way to a favourite place on the Grand tailwater. The river was a tad high but not enough to hamper wading—an issue that has become more acute with Dan’s sciatica and my arthritic knee. Growing old has become a nemesis we battle as a team.
An encouraging number of Hendricksons were fluttering about, some females bulging with egg sacs. Others were floating on the water, forming a flotilla of diaphanous sailboats. It appeared the hawk had been a fortuitous sighting—or so I thought.
As close to a dry fly purist as I know, Dan tied on a cinnamon Bi-visible, invented in the 1920s by legendary Catskill angler Edward Ringwood Hewitt. In Dan’s estimation the quantity of mayflies nullified the challenge of cocoa-stained water. I tied on a black woolly worm with maroon tail, an early season overachiever championed by Craig Wardlaw, another fly angling buddy.
Dan had no success. I had no success. Nary a rise, nary a bite. Half an hour later Dan swallowed his pride and tied on—you guessed it—a black woolly worm with a red tail. Nothing. I tied on a yellow bodied nymph, an early season feathered trout magnet recommended by Ken Collins, founder of Grand River Troutfitters. It teased a nudge out of a lackadaisical fish lounging in the tail of a riffle.
The absence of trout did not reflect the abundance of fauna on the river. It was a vernal menagerie: Canada geese, including fuzzy goslings; emerald-headed mallards; dipsy-doodling cliff swallows; and a gangling blue-gray heron apparently enjoying better luck stalking downriver. The activity was capped by a reconnoitring osprey coasting down the watercourse in search of what neither Dan nor I could find.
The cause of a momentary thrill occurred when I saw a huge brown trout somersault out of slick water between a couple of parallel current seams to snatch a bug out of the air. I began casting my yellow nymph to the spot where the trout had cleared water. I cast again and again and again . . . .
Not seeing any rises or not catching any fish are bad enough. But they pale in comparison to the frustration of almost catching a big fish. I cannot say for sure it was the twenty-four inch brownie I watched another fly angler land the year before, but it probably was for the simple reason that I was casting to the exact same spot.
The angler, who I remembered shaking like he was chilled, confessed that the monster was the biggest brownie he had ever caught. Speechless, all I could muster was an idiotic nod of acknowledgment. I had never obsessed over a fish before—except for this one—the stuff of legend landed almost exclusively on the tailwater after dark on big bushy flies cast by bold anglers wearing headlamps; certainly not in broad daylight.
To make an agonizing story as brief as possible, the brownie ate my fly, I set the hook and started stripping in line. After a couple of strips I decided to be extra diligent, so I hefted my five-weight Winston to ensure a solid hook set. BAD idea. I inadvertently pulled the hook out of his mouth, freeing the finned beast who impersonated a torpedo launched from a nuclear submarine. I feared my knees were going to give out. I felt sick to my stomach.
There is a devastating moment in catching a fish, especially a big fish, on a fly rod which is simultaneously exhilarating and calamitous. It is a reminder that arrogance has no place, that humility is the just reward. If an angler forgets or misplaces humility he opens himself to profound disappointment. It’s like a boxer getting knocked out after letting his guard down. Jim McKay, host of the long-running ABC sports show, The Wide World of Sports, called it the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
For the briefest of moments I felt very very good about myself for hooking the bruiser. But within a blink, I was done, beaten, on the mat, down and out with no place to go. It was over.
This happened a few seasons back during my angling apprenticeship, when I was trying my best to earn membership in the fellowship of fly anglers. The brownie endures in my memory archive as a symbol of pure potential, the promise of attaining the unattainable.
Dan and I both surrendered without a fish that day. To soothe our bruised egos we retired to a local pub. We enjoyed range-fed chicken wings and homemade fries cut from fresh potatoes, washed down with a couple of pints of Maclean’s Lager—while toasting the great writer Norman.
‘You know,’ I said between refreshing sips, ‘Ive always been in awe of Herman Melville for transforming a white whale into literary myth while sitting at his writing desk on a farm miles inland from the fathomless depths of the North Atlantic. To me his achievement proves that, with skill and imagination, anything’s possible.’
It was dark as I headed home. Farmers were still hard at work. Powerful halogen lights from gigantic tractors (obviously they were not Old Order) illumined massive orange dust clouds. I thought of Stephen Crane’s description of a ‘red sun . . . pasted in the sky like a wafer’ as tractors resembling mechanized phantoms of the field went about the business of filling tummies.
In a voice so sweet, so fragile, so vulnerable, Neil Young sang of watching Mother Nature on the run–sadly, still running half a century later. My dear friend Steve Leslie, who passed much too young, once described this part of the country–our birthplace and home–as ‘Canada’s bellybutton,’ a term of many meanings I cherish.