Fishing Log

Wild Headwater Angels

In ’Sons’, an essay collected in The Longest Silence and Live Water, a handsome limited edition volume, Thomas McGuane refers to brook trout as ‘water angels and part of the first America, the one the Indians owned.’

I was blissfully in the company of water angels while sharing my favored headwater late one afternoon with Wesley Bates. We were on the river as southwestern Ontario was creeping up on midsummer. Although we had no rain for three weeks, moderately seasonable daytime temperatures and cool overnight temperatures made for hospitable fishing conditions. The water was cold and clear; consequently, the brookies were happy and content.

This marked the fifth season Wes and I had been fishing the headwater together, a ritual we initiated after starting work on my angling memoir Casting into Mystery. Wes, who I reintroduced to fly fishing after a long absence, contributed forty beautiful wood engravings to complement my essays.

I cherish brook trout, or speckled trout, above all other fish. They bring back fond childhood memories of heading up to the northern-most reaches of southern Ontario with my closet friend, Billy Everett, and his parents, Len and Selina, to visit his Uncle Fred and Aunt Pat, who worked a four-hundred-acre, hardscrabble, marginal farm, three-quarters of which was Canadian Shield forest–which Uncle Fred referred to as ‘the bush.’

The ice-cold, spring-fed streams (Uncle Fred called them ‘cricks’) that meandered through the dense bush were home to untold thousands of brookies, whose ancestors survived the last ice age. We fished with long bamboo poles and garden worms attached to small hooks tied to the terminal end of black braided line purchased for a couple of dollars at a hardware store in nearby South River, located on Highway 11, the second longest highway in the province. Tom Tomson used to pass through the village on his annual trips to Algonquin Park to paint, fish and earn a few dollars guiding and doing some Ranger work.

It was the nineteen sixties–which have receded farther into the past than calibrating the years would indicate–so it was customary for us to catch a hundred fish in a day. We subsequently gutted and bathed the fingerlings in flour spiced with salt and pepper before browning them to perfection in cast iron skillets brimming with bacon fat on a stove heated by hardwood cut and split by Uncle Fred. I have tasted nothing more delectable in all my years, perhaps because we ate them for breakfast, accompanied with thick, heavily buttered slices of freshly baked bread. No vinegar, lemons, tartar sauce or, heaven forbid, ketchup, was necessary. Talk about the stuff of dreams.

When it comes to vermiculated, gem-like brook trout, size doesn’t matter. Neither does the capacity of the figurative creel now that I adhere religiously to a catch-and-release ethic and aesthetic. One of my favourite descriptions of ’spring-fed’ brookies is captured by Dana S. Lamb in On Trout Streams and Salmon Rivers when he delineates their colours as ‘chocolate brown and vermilion spots and butter yellow and ivory white.’

Similarly, whenever I’m fortunate enough to hold one in my wet palm, I recall Greg Brown’s ‘Eugene,’ his anthem which, in my view, is the best song ever written about fly angling. Truer words were never sung as when Brown rumbles, in a walking-blues, bass-baritone resembling a pickup on a dusty country sideroad, that brookies are ‘God’s reminder that creation is a good idea.’

Wild Headwater Angel

I felt intense gratitude after landing ten brookies, two of which measured eight inches with another measuring seven inches—more than respectable lengths on this hallowed stretch of precious headwater. Embraced in the arms of joy and casting my seven-foot, nine-inch Sweetgrass bamboo rod, equipped with Orvis CFO reel, I imagined myself as a holdover from the Pleistocene Period–a living, breathing fossil merrily wielding a fly rod.

After leisurely and methodically fishing a quarter mile of alternating riffles and pools festooned with rugged deadfall and cedar sweepers, Wes, who felt equally joyous, and I decided to call it a day. We followed our ritual of finding a comfortable seat amidst the tall grass along the riverbank as daylight gave way to the soft, muted tones of dusk.

We quenched our thirst with cans of wildberry cider imported from Sweden, while munching on hearty sandwiches of ham, beef and turkey breast Wes prepared on Gluten-free buns (in accordance with his dietary preference), garnished with avocado and bean sprouts, topped with Gouda cheese. We enjoyed mixed nuts and sour pickles on the side. As darkness deepened, I retrieved my flask of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon. Its rich amber hue gave off a whiff of fruit, orange blossom honey, dark chocolate, marzipan and toasted oak, followed by a pleasing taste of vanilla, burnt caramel, hazelnut, apple and spices, capped with a long luxurious creamy finish.

As we sat, seduced by the aerial mating dance of Grey Fox and sporadic Green Drake mayflies, our talk flowed freely, punctuated with laughter. Wes confided that he and his wife, Juanita, were planning to downsize, which effected not only domestic accommodation but studio space. Wes would have to close his storefront gallery housed in an elegant two-storey, century-old building on the main street of Clifford, a few miles west of where we were fishing.

Cynics who hold to the notion that men don’t, or can’t, reveal their emotions and feelings, not to mention fears and apprehensions, have not communed riverside in a fellowship of angling companions, dram in hand, as the blanket of darkness quietly descends.

The edge of water and land, like the edge of light and dark, were revered by my ancestors, the ancient Celts. I believe my love of bankside fellowship results from a faint residual trace of these threshold experiences buried deep within my innermost being. As American poet Michael Garrigan reminds us in ‘The Poet Sits on a Ledge and Writes a Letter,’ all edges are altars. For me, banksides are altars to companionship and to story. More directly and immediately, I’m sure my emotional attachment to this liminal experience is an outgrowth from my youth, during which I was surrounded by storytellers: my maternal grandfather, my best friend’s mom and my dad’s two youngest brothers.

. . . . . . .

It was through my Grandpa McLean that I learned storytelling was a form of love. Being the eldest son of my grandfather’s eldest daughter, thereby making me his eldest grandson, gave me a leg up on his affections. I knew until the day he passed a painless death in his mid-eighties that I was the favoured one.

I was close to my grandpa from early childhood and that never changed. He didn’t drive, so on Saturday mornings I would accompany him on the bus to the market, butcher shop and seafood store (he loved homemade oyster soup) in downtown London. For much of his life he was a weekend drinker, so I also went with him to the liquor store, where he picked up a bottle of what he always referred to as ‘medicine.’

My grandfather was that rare man, a drinker who didn’t turn nasty or mean, abusive or violent. Just the opposite. A few swigs of Canadian rye whiskey (Black Velvet) out of the bottle brought out the innate kindness that was less overt during the work week–he worked half a century in the same factory as his father–during which he never touched a drop. He had one treasured song, ‘Heart of My Heart’ written in 1926, wherein he found solace when his thoughts occasionally turned melancholy. Its lyrics capture the essence of my grandpa.

Heart of My Heart, I love that melody
Heart of My Heart brings back a memory
When we were kids on the corner of the street
We were rough ‘n ready guys
But oh, how we could harmonize . . . .

Known as Freddy to most everyone, my grandfather was both a gentleman and a gentle man—these are not one and the same. Like his father, known as Fred, my grandpa was born in London, so his ties to the city were strong.

One of the things I most cherished as a youngster was sitting on the front porch watching the world—or at least the neighbourhood–go by at a more leisurely pace than today’s frenzy and mania. He and my grandmother lived in Old London East next door to a corner variety store on a busy street, so both vehicular and human traffic were busy by the standards of the day. Few people passed by without stopping to shoot the breeze with my grandfather. And he seemed to be constantly waving at drivers in passing cars.

What I loved most, and still remember in vivid detail, are my grandfather’s memories, reminiscences and anecdotes about the city he so loved. His intimate knowledge of place was reflected in his unerringly accurate topographical recollections. I accompanied him as we walked along city streets while he identified every commercial, retail or industrial establishment along with all the domestic residences that existed half a century earlier. I never grew weary of his local travelogue vignettes. He held me in the warm embrace of his imagination for the few hours between the end of supper and preparations for bedtime.

He was a natural talespinner who enjoyed recalling stories that gave him pleasure and delight. He would chuckle and shake his head while telling me of youthful shenanigans, such as stealing tires repeatedly from a local junk yard under the cover of darkness, only to sell them back to the owner the next day.

His pride of place and devotion to home, which was overt, palpable and enduring, was passed down to me.

I can think of no one in my life circle less outdoorsy than Grandpa MacLean. The closest he got to nature was watching a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard from his perch at the head of the kitchen table. He wasn’t interested in sports, save for his beloved Montreal Canadiens. Still, he taught me something that has influenced both my angling and my writing—the significance of local place. I never saw him read anything but the daily newspaper, which he devoured front to back, so he would have never heard of Henry David Thoreau. Yet he shared the spirit of local place with the Transcendental mystic, who spent most of his life observing and sauntering (his favourite word) within walking distance of Concord, despite taking a handful of notable journeys.

Fly anglers trustingly put their faith in the long drive or costly fly in, not to mention around the next bend, the far shore or distant lake? The esteemed outdoor writer Burton L. Spiller referred to this devotion to the back of beyond in Fishin’ Around as ‘the far horizons [that] always seem the fairest.’ More recently, Ron Ellis titled his book of outdoor essays Yonder in recognition of ‘the yonder to which [sportsmen] journey.’

I would be the first to acknowledge that wilderness angling is marvellous adventure–for those who can afford it. And I consider myself fortunate to have cast a line on such ‘sacred’ waters as the Beaverkill, Delaware and Willowemoc in the Catskills, the West Branch of the Ausable in the Adirondacks and the Au Sable ‘Up North’ in Michigan, not to mention untold rivers and lakes across Northern Ontario and angling hot sports in the southern Ontario regions of Parry Sound, Muskoka and the Kawarthas.

Still, most of my angling takes place within a ninety-minute drive of where I live in southwestern Ontario. The Grand River, my home water, flows through the City of Waterloo, my home. By adapting my Grandpa McLean’s love of his hometown, I discovered that angling paradise lies within easy reach. This is because, like so many important things in life, angling is an inner journey–equal parts mind and heart, emotion and intuition–sustained by imagination and observation, enriched by memory and companionship, preserved and protected by story.  

But there’s something else—something vital and essential. All human beings search for love, a basic need of existence. Most find it, if only for a while. I have loved and I have been loved, but it hasn’t always held. I was one of the lucky ones, however, because I have known deep within my heart throughout my life that my Grandpa McLean’s love never faltered, never wavered, never dimmed. It remains always and forever—a green light inextinguishable.

. . . . . . .

Since I was a disillusioned, defiant Cub Scout, camping with my friend Billy Everett and his parents, Len and Selina, was my introduction to the outdoors, which has given shape to my life. When Len was at work in the city as a firefighter, like my dad, Billy and I would spend our evenings cleansed in an aura of campfire under a symmetry of silent white stars. Against a snapping, crackling soundscape of burning black ash and white elm, yellow birch and red maple, Selina wove her narrative magic.

Billy and I listened spellbound to stories Selina told and retold about Uncle Fred, her dearest brother, and Aunt Pat lighting out for the West Coast, where he landed a job operating a bulldozer during construction of the ALCAN (Alaska-Canadian) Highway. She recalled Aunt Pat wielding a cornstalk broom to fend off a curious grizzly. She told us of her eldest brother, Norm, repairing the radiators of cars employed by Al Capone to transport bootleg Canadian whiskey across the border. (Should this sound far-fetched, all I can say is there are tales scattered across southwestern Ontario, including Kitchener’s historic Walper Hotel, involving the notorious bootlegger’s exploits during Prohibition.) She also regaled us with tales of when she was a young WAC (Women’s Army Corps) during the Second World War, when Len was serving overseas. (I recall a photograph of her taken at the time and it seemed to me a portrait of young beauty and high spirits.)

Selina had an artful way of giving shape and substance to the adventure, intrigue and romance of life that appealed mightily to hungry developing imaginations. I remember, as if it were yesterday, her leisurely, richly detailed delivery, punctuated by draws on her ever-present cigarette and sips of Cinci cream larger, formerly made by the Carling O’Keefe Brewing Company. She preferred to drink her beer out of the bottle. ‘Like a baby, I’m bottle fed,’ she would quip when asked by a host if she would like a glass for her beer.

Selina was both a devoted gardener and a fine cook. If I close my eyes and cast my memory back, I can taste the luscious tomato sandwiches she prepared for Billy and me. She would go to her garden, pick freshly ripened hothouse tomatoes the size of softballs. She then cut thick juicy slices before placing them between slices of generously buttered white bread that had been delivered fresh earlier in the day, as had the milk she served in large sweaty glasses. Billy and I never ate raspberries out of bowls because at the height of summer, whenever the mood struck, we raided the raspberry bushes and ate till we were sated.

She served battered English-style fish and chips every Friday; her handmade meatballs enhanced mundane spaghetti and tomato sauce; her Yorkshire pudding and roast beef (impregnated with fresh garlic) followed both the letter and the spirit of her mom’s recipe. In contravention of gender domestic roles, Selina reigned supreme over the barbecue. She disdained lighter fluid so, instead, split cedar kindling with a hatchet before building a tepee under newspaper in the bed of the barbecue. She purchased fresh meat daily from the neighbourhood butcher, so the thick, T-Bone steaks and shoulder pork chops were second to none. She watched over them with the concentration of a surgeon in the operating room, while her old dog, Mugs, looked on in the role of sous chef. Selina followed two strict rules: turn the meat over only once and hold off on the seasoning until the steaks or chops are just about done. When it came to frying on the gas stove in the kitchen, she insisted on properly seasoned cast iron skillets, which she never placed in soapy water but, rather, wiped out while still warm with a tea towel saved for that single purpose.    

Selina also had a good voice for singing old songs and ditties around a campfire. However, her real gift was whistling. She was an uncommonly lovely, almost otherworldly, whistler with a rich melodious alto vibrato. More important, she never failed to encourage Billy and me–I mean encourage in a deeply heartfelt way–when we were drawing or colouring at the kitchen table, which we did frequently when we were stuck indoors for some reason, usually inhospitable weather.

Like my grandfather, who she knew because they lived around the corner from one another, Selina was a true storytellers who could weave a narrative spell. I became a writer in no small measure because of her talespinning around the campfire which harked back to distant preliterate times when people passed down stories orally from generation to generation to illumine the dark mysteries of life.

As I cast my mind back, I’m sure Selina appreciated creativity in a way that other adults I knew didn’t. I recall her telling Billy and me that she had heard on the radio Albert Einstein’s famous assertion that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I later learned that the great mathematician believed this because ‘knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’ I have no idea whether Bill (the ‘y’ is long gone) remembers his mom telling us about Einstein’s claim. All I can say is that it stuck with me all these many years. The proof lies in my lifelong devotion to celebrating the creative imagination as it manifests itself in the arts.

. . . . . . .  

I see from the perspective of old age that I began honing whatever skills I possess as a storyteller in my teens. I had never been a reader, a consequence of stuttering as a child (requiring speech therapy) and undergoing remedial reading assistance in the early grades of elementary school. Nonetheless, for some unknown reason, by Grade 10 I had latched onto the idea of spending my life writing about the arts—for which I had absolutely no background. After all, I had never attended a theatre performance or concert or entered an art gallery. Television was my only cultural handmaid.

Things changed when my dad’s second youngest brother, my Uncle Jim, along with his wife and two daughters, moved next door to my family on a quiet street in Old London West, not far from the forks of the Thames River.

Despite our age difference, which exceeded a decade, we became close companions. His best friend had been struck and killed by a car some years previously and Jim never quite recovered from his grief. Still, he guided me through the threshold into manhood. Like his younger brother, my Uncle Doug, Jim enjoyed the outdoors and sports. I was green, so admired their knowledge and experience. They were as much big brothers as paternal uncles.

I remember Jim instructing me on how to break in a new baseball glove and how to distinguish between a slider and a curve ball. Doug was such a good hockey player that when he graduated from elementary school—neither uncle graduated from high school–the teacher who coached the senior hockey team invited him back as his assistant. He was what used to be called a scrapper with a short fuse, causing him to joke that he played hockey so he could fight legally.

Jim and I spent many evenings playing darts indoors during the winter or horseshoes in the backyard during the summer. We also golfed, he more seriously than I due to my abject disinterest of the game, which remains to this day. What I treasured most then–and cherish most in remembrance–are the cool, crisp autumn days of hunting rabbits or upland birds, accompanied by Jim’s frisky beagle, Amber. Jim had a handsome Browning over-and-under sixteen-gauge shotgun, while Doug favoured a cheap Cooey single-shot .410 gauge from Canadian Tire. I loved my Winchester twelve-gauge pump which I purchased with money earned from my first job. (The second item of importance I bought was an Italian-made Eko acoustic guitar.)

One of my most memorable experiences in the outdoors was when we were hunting birds on my Uncle Stan’s farm (his wife, Kay, was a sister to Jim and Doug). I heard a woodcock whistling like a firecracker rocket from a dense thicket behind us. I swivelled ninety degrees, raised my gun and downed the bird in a single shot—all within a brief millisecond or two. It was absolute luck, yet my sense of pride remains to this day. It was my greatest shot, ever. In hindsight, I realize it marked an initiation of sorts. ‘What the hell,’ Jim snapped with a laugh, ‘Do you think you’re Curt Gowdy on Wide World of Sports?’

Another time while hunting rabbits on my Uncle Stan’s farm, Doug’s young beagle, who had yet to make the transition from unbridled enthusiasm to woodland knowledge, somehow got tangled up in a swampy area and drowned. When we found her, Doug wept openly and without apology. She was his last beagle.

I remember years previously when our family rented a cottage for a week one summer on the Bruce Peninsula–long known to its original inhabitants as the Saugeen Peninsula. I was four which would have made Doug about ten. While near-sighted because he refused to wear prescription glasses, he was a sharp-eyed fisherman. He rose before everyone else and tramped among nearby trout streams. Once he had used all his worms so reverted to catching brook trout on bubblegum. When he was a teenager he loved horses so much he hired out as a stable boy on a local equestrian farm.

Jim drove a four-wheel Datsun pickup and had what would now be considered a vintage sixteen-foot cedar strip boat with a temperamental Johnson outboard motor, small enough to launch into parts of the Thames River west of London or the lower Maitland and Saugeen rivers; large enough to fish Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Georgian Bay. Once I accompanied my uncles to Port Elgin for a day of bass fishing at the mouth of the Saugeen. When we arrived after three hour’s drive Jim asked Doug if he had packed the gas can for the outboard.

‘No,’ quipped Doug. ‘I thought you did.’

‘I thought you did, you stupid bugger,’ Jim replied with a smile and a head shake.

That was it. No anger, no recrimination, no finger-pointing, no blame game. We all laughed before one of us suggested we salvage the trip in a local watering hole, where we passed a few hours before returning to London by exchanging tales about misadventures in the field and on the water.

We were inveterate hard-lure spin fisherman, but I discovered that Jim had owned an old Canadian-made Algonquin, seven-weight, fibreglass fly rod and vintage Pflueger Medalist reel because I was given them by Doug after Jim died and I had made the transition to fly fishing. I cherish both as keepsakes.

During the last four years of high school and a couple more years during which I worked full-time before going to university, Jim and I spent most of our weekends together. We tipped back bottles of Molson’s Export ale while debating and philosophizing about all manner of things, spanning the frivolous and to the serious, the inconsequential to the weighty.

He was the first person to accept me, and take me seriously, as an adult, as we listened to Gordon Lightfoot albums on continual rotation from early evening, through the long night, to the dawn’s growing light. I was learning the guitar so I could play one of Canada’s great songwriter’s complete repertoire, which I eventually did, and subsequently taught Jim to play the instrument. I remember him happily strumming away on ‘Did She Mention My Name.’

My adolescent dream of writing a critical study on Lightfoot’s music was an incentive for studying English at university, which subsequently whet my appetite for the arts, leading to a newspaper career including three decades as an arts and entertainment reporter. Without this journalistic foundation I would have never considered, let alone written, a memoir devoted to my passion for fly fishing.

I wish I had done a lot more fishing and hunting with my uncles, but I had started working part-time as a bellhop at a hotel in the heart of London before my sixteenth birthday and had worked weekends through high school. Then it was off to university and graduate school in different cities, before marriage and a series of reporting jobs on six newspapers across the province. Before I knew it, I was forty years old, divorced and remarried with the first of two sons on the way.

A fire, deliberately ignited in an adjacent apartment a week before Christmas, consumed all of our possessions including my three-thousand volume personal library. It was a devastating midlife disaster for my wife, Lydia, and me. We lost everything. Turns out, the fire cast a long dark, shadow on our marriage, which we were never able to crawl out from under. Consequently, we divorced eighteen years later. There had to have been a bond, however, because we remain friends, despite our intermittent partners, after fifteen years–and counting. Usually we hug and kiss when we depart; it’s fine with me if her lips are the last ones to ever touch mine.

Fishing and hunting had become a memory until I resumed fishing light spinning tackle at fifty–thanks to a Father’s Day gift from Lydia and our sons Dylan and Robertson. I picked up a fly rod a few years later, finally acting on what I had been eagerly reading about over the past quarter century. I deeply regret the years of missed opportunity, which remain unrecoverable. Fortunately, retirement has given me time to fly fish and to write about my bliss on the water, a reprieve and a respite bestowed by the angling muse.

. . . . . . .

Sadly, Selina and Jim suffered painful endings. Selina’s lifelong addiction to filter-less, roll-your-own cigarettes put her on oxygen during her last years. Meanwhile, Jim’s addiction to alcohol eventually corroded his judgment, which he deeply regretted when we last spoke before he died in hospital, a place he had always feared and avoided.

For his part, Doug has been suffering through his declining years bedridden, the result of heroically waging war against a battalion of aggressive cancers which I believe were caused by exposure to lethal industrial toxins when he was a young man working in a paint factory and later when he installed carpet and synthetic flooring. A weaker man would have relented long ago. However, as diminished as his world has become, and despite the pain he has endured, Doug–tough, resilient and defiant–defends an uncertain life rather than surrender to a certain death.

I carry with me the sorrow of the passing of Grandpa McLean, Selina and Jim, forever grateful for the creative tools they helped me acquire to build a modest bungalow of literature, which has not only sheltered my imagination but enriched and enlarged my life. In the long, lonely, solitary hours that haunt people of a certain age, when sleep remains sullen and evasive, I pray, perhaps naively, that fly fishing and a love of brook trout, in all their ferocious beauty and porcelain fragility, will protect me from dark tempestuous waters.

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