Solitude is one of the most precious gifts fly fishing provides. Still many anglers find solace in the companionship that accompanies the contemplative recreation. That’s why like-minded fly anglers form a bond which I prefer to call a fellowship.
It gave me deep satisfaction to introduce a couple of fly fishing friends who I suspected would hit it off because of shared interests beyond casting a line on the water. However, I had no idea how much Wesley Bates, the artist with whom I collaborated on Casting into Mystery, had in common with Doug Wilson.
I met Doug fifteen years ago when I joined KW Flyfishers. He left the club following medical problems that required open-heart surgery. (So happens both Wesley and I suffer from compromised hearts.) Doug—a professional photographer who spent recent years as chief executive officer and president of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory—and I renewed our acquaintance when he purchased a copy of Casting. Since then I have become good friends with both Doug and his wife Lynda, a fine writer.
After Wesley arrived in Waterloo from Clifford, we loaded our gear into my Jeep and headed to Doug’s home in Kitchener. We were on the road within minutes of Doug adding his gear to what was already packed away. I was content to drive to the Grand River for an evening pursuit of smallmouth bass as two new friends soon began sounding like old friends getting caught up after a long separation.
I was eager to introduce Wesley and Doug to a stretch of the Grand my longtime angling companion Dan Kennaley showed me shorty after I started fly fishing. Dan grew up in the area and knows the piece of river well. After parking on the shoulder of a county two-lane and gearing up, we made our way to the river along a hydro right-of-way. Our amiable conversation continued unabated.
I was dismayed when we arrived at the river. The ribbon of forest that borders the watercourse had changed dramatically since I last visited the previous year.
The Grand River Conservation Authority had cut down numerous mature ash trees that had succumbed to the dastardly emerald ash borer. Originally from Asia, the voracious beetle arrived in southwestern Ontario in 2002, spreading to the Grand River watershed in 2010. Depending on the size and health of an ash tree, it takes two to five years for it to die from the lethal infestation, the result of larvae tunneling under its bark and cutting off the supply of nutrients and water. The tree dies slowly (and painfully?) from inside out.
Although the conservation authority intends to replant new trees where necessary it’s impossible not to regret the devastation caused by yet another invasive species taking hold across southwestern Ontario. It’s similarly impossible for anglers not to view the rapacious bug in the same light as Asian carp, an invasive species threatening fresh water fisheries throughout the Great Lakes region.
Still it was a lovely day waging the tail of July. Comfortable temperatures, low humidity and clear skies combined to make it as close to perfect as an angler could hope. The water was a tad high and chocolatey, but very fishable.
The waterway was brimming with avian activity. Over three hours I saw a great blue heron—a pair customarily nests along this stretch—a couple of kamikaze kingfishers, five or six cedar waxwings flitting acrobatically between a line of cedars and an aerial insect field floating above the river, an osprey flying reconnaissance and a small flock of noisy Canada geese downriver.
After exchanging thoughts and opinions on fly selection, Wesley, Doug and I leisurely spread out, each solitary but within view of one another. Our only interruptions were pleasantries exchanged with occupants of occasional water craft, including kayaks, sharing the river.
A couple of incidents occurred that caused me to contemplate elements of the sublime and the ridiculous. Although it’s debatable who first recorded the observation—Napoleon Bonaparte or the French statesman Talleyrand—few would argue, including fly anglers, that the noble and magnificent things in life are rarely far from things that are trivial and laughable.
The former involved a gorgeous young woman clad in a skimpy bikini paddling in the bow of a passing canoe. She was hot as a pink bass popper. Doug later quipped that she reminded him of the curvaceous silhouette adorning the mud flaps of Freightliner transport trucks.
Any misunderstanding, however, was averted by her bare-chested boyfriend paddling in the stern. He was ‘ripped,’ resembling a linebacker who spends untold hours in the weight room.
The latter involved a large family of errant inflatable tube enthusiasts who, unbeknown to me, brushed against my backside, almost catapulting me into the river. They were apologetic beyond courtesy, making the incident delightfully amusing.
As Doug later observed, not without a note of bemused astonishment, ‘When I noticed the raft of novice paddlers clumsily floating down the river I thought to myself, this isn’t going to end well. With the whole river to themselves how they managed to pick you off, Rob, is beyond me. The scene played out in slow motion. I thought you were going to leave Wes and me to fend for ourselves after being scooped up and carried away to Dunnville (located at the mouth of the Grand).’
Despite these encounters with the sublime and the ridiculous it was a tranquil evening with few distractions. Rather, the sun sat low in the Western sky, casting a warm pale glow over the river. For the most part we were immersed in pastoral quietude, briefly punctuated by the urgent bawling of a cow from across the river reminding the farmer of milking time.
Wesley and Doug each caught a pair of smallies between six and eight inches, average for this stretch of river. I caught seven, six of which were comparable in length. It was gratifying to catch at least one fish on each of the five flies I used—a variety of Woolly Buggers in addition to a Full-Motion Hex designed and tied by Steve May, a fellow member of KW Flyfishers.
The highlight was landing an eleven-incher on a Mickey Finn, so named by legendary Canadian outdoor writer Greg Clark. (His fishing stories are collected in Fishing with Gregory Clark and Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing.) It was the first fish I had ever caught on the famous baitfish imitation made primarily from yellow and red bucktail. Although the streamer fly is not as popular as it once was, it’s still lethal. More important from where I cast, is the way it connects me directly to a tradition I cherish.
We three gathered bankside as the sun receded, turning the sky myriad shades of grey highlighted with nuanced flesh tones. Shadows lengthened on the water. Each of us sat on a large boulder as Wesley retrieved a flask of Islay single malt from a leather satchel and poured drams into white porcelain egg cups which he substitutes for traditional Glencairn whisky glasses.
The conversation continued to flow. Wesley and Doug discussed the art of wood engraving and people they know in common in the independent bookmaking trade from Nova Scotia to Kentucky—and many places in between. They discovered they had frequented the same pub in Hamilton in earlier carefree days. Gentlemen both, they agreed not discuss girlfriends from long ago but not forgotten.
We toasted the day, the river, the bass and, most importantly, the circle of fellowship to which we had pledged allegiance.
The Irish refer to such informal conversation among friends as Craic (pronounced ‘crack’). It’s a term I think fly anglers should adopt to convey the sense of companionship and camaraderie that informs bankside discourse, especially when rods are set aside in favour of a dram or two.
Doug captured the spirit of the Craic when he later observed: ‘All-round great time. Wonderful conversation and some serious laughs. I think, if people could have only heard us, we would have probably solved some of the world’s most pressing problems.’
When we returned to the Jeep the planet Venus was peaking over the treetops in the West, creating the false impression of marking where we had spent a few happy hours on the Grand River chasing what anglers affectionately call bronzebacks.