Anything Fly Fishing

Heading to Church

6 Mins read

The spool is emptying in head shaking lurches. I glance out over the white cap, foaming fast water cascading through the causeway and see Ernie’s impressive white church on the bank above the river. Not a denomination but rather an ownership, though Ernie can sermonize on politics and his beloved Philadephia Eagles! This striper is looking for salvation, and definitely emancipation. Then it stops and runs right, laterally into the fastest current. I scramble over the razor-edged, mussel encrusted rocks, moving quickly to my left applying maximum side pressure. Typical heart in mouth stuff. Striped bass are visually much like European sea bass but just bigger and brutish and kinda pissed off. The official Canadian record is 63lbs and the US record is 81lbs. This fish is probably a Canadian fish but I always think of them as thugs from the south side of Boston. Only genetic testing from the scale sample I’ll send off will let us know its origin.

I know it’s a bigger fish as I can’t really control it even with a stout 8wt bent to the stripping guide. These big fish never show themselves in a fight. Each lunge feels like a jab and then they fake and duck and weave. Smaller fish will come up and roll but the big fish like to keep themselves deep. They also shed a 2/0 fly like a sailor spits tobacco. It’s all about unwavering pressure. No respite, no quarter given. I will kill this fish I’ve decided, though I will have great remorse in doing so. I hate to see that filleted carcass. My friend Saburo is a pescatarian whose wife is a vegan and he’s a damn fine fly fisherman who kills and eats his fish. I’m a carnivorous type who likes to release, mainly, though not today.

I think my line might be wrapped around a deep rock as I can’t budge this fish for what seems like a minute. My heart sinks. I scramble upstream and off she heads to church again. Now I’m just getting pissed-off as I appear to be under-gunned, but a 10 wt just seems unsportsmanlike, so I stick with my 7 & 8 weights. I apply maximum side pressure and abruptly I sense her spirit is broken as she stops dead, and we both hold line for what seems like minutes but is probably seconds. Some bluff charges into the current, and a bit of stubborn dead-weighting later the fish is on the rocks. I lift a solid 10-15lbs bass up on the shore. She is spent. I tremble. She dies. Saburo would call this a mighty fish, which carries some import with a Japanese accent.

The Annapolis River was one of eastern Canada’s finest striped bass rivers until North America’s first tidal generating station was installed in 1984 and a causeway severed the river. It killed lots of fish and indirectly an immature humpback whale in 2007. Good people fought the fight to shut it down. Finally, the turbine broke and the station was decommissioned in 2019, however the causeway and sluice gates remain so they can protect properties upstream that were built on the tidal zone when the causeway seemed to be a long term fixture. The causeway and gate system create low river flows, ineffective mixing of salt and freshwater for striped bass egg survival, and higher water temps. All detrimental to successful reproduction. Annapolis bass have not yet been proven to spawn again, though studies are underway.

We are fishing for colonizing fish from other Canadian, Bay of Fundy rivers, and US fish moving north. The Mi’kmaq name for Annapolis Royal, Nme’juaqnek means the place with lots of fish.

One can only imagine how the Mi’kmaq, who were, and are, exceptionally skilled fishers view the decision to harm this bounty by us colonists. From a place of plenty to a place of less. We are really very good at doing that.

Annapolis Royal is by far the most beautiful town in Canada and I’ll fight anyone on that claim. The Annapolis River estuary forms a large protected basin with a narrow treacherous outlet to the Gulf of Maine which includes the Bay of Fundy. Two worn down Appalachian ridges parallel the river, cradling a valley of abundant orchards and forest. The indigenous peoples and the New England Planter settlers valued its mild climate, abundance of fish and game, and I’m sure, its beauty. Whilst waving a fly rod looking at the north mountain range it’s easy to conjure images of Mi’kmaq fishers standing on the rocks with spears and nets harvesting salmon, sturgeon, mackerel, shad and sea bass. The shear biomass of fish must have been stupendous.

Today, I look out on finely restored 18th & 19th Century captains’ houses and fishermen’s cottages that are certainly not owned by seafarers. This was a very wealthy and cosmopolitan little village in the age of sail with ships routinely leaving for British ports, the Caribbean, the American colonies and South America. People here were intimately connected to the sea and the world. How was the fishing when masts and creaking wood filled the harbour? Did men jig for fish off the schooners? Were nets set for salmon? I’ll do some research, though local historians focus more on the conflicts of men than the fortunes of fishers. I have read that a great many barrels of salted fish left this busy port for far flung shores.

Retired urbanites walk their cutely hypoallergenic labradoodles and ask if there are fish in the estuary. I always try to be courteous and thorough in my response. This is Nova Scotia after all. Friendliness is a mandatory requirement, and my natural state. My intention is to educate and inform so this resource is valued. Fish are generally invisible, especially here. I have caught 26” stripers in 2 feet of water with nary a ripple giving them away. It’s hard to protect the invisible. Most people here would be more upset about losing the very impressive French bakery in town, than fish they never see. For the record, I burn off those croissant calories casting heavy sinktips and 6” flies from the rocks, really.

I rather like chatting with local fishers at the casueway. They talk like pirates and have a generosity and openness that is genuinely disarming. Between the cigarette smoke, the cussing, the laughter and the gossip lies local knowledge that is as old and deep as the ties that bind them to this beautiful land. I try to detach and listen. If I’m successful in my self-regulation, I glean nibbles of intel that are always valuable. Subsistence living requires an understanding of the natural world that remote corporate workers waving fly rods might never fully grasp, myself included. The loggers, lobster fishermen, scallop draggers and purse seiners also know their striped bass fishing, and that might be discussed, though trout secrets are barely even whispered and a rare gruffness surfaces when trout locations are inquired upon. Like Nova Scotian families, everyone and everything is connected, related and interdependent. Throw in the decline of the partridge population, the pending deer season, which transcends religious devotion, and the shad run and you have casual bank side discussions that require the undivided attention akin to a court stenographer. Take mental notes!

We all watch the tide charts and many of us are attentive to the barometer. Striped bass are sensitive to barometric pressure, wind, water temperature, moon phases, and the color of your underwear, but really they are just plain grumps, sometimes. Theories abound and everything fishy is up for argument and disagreement. I believe fishers gather to disagree, not to gain consensus. We might nod in feigned agreement to all, but secretly we are thinking that one guy is full of crap and another a wise sage. It’s a bit like a church. Shut up, listen and speak only when you are supposed to. Some sermons are meandering nonsense and others almost Confucian philosophy. In those moments of listening there should be a silence within you that permits your truth to seep in.

My truth is that we know nothing. It’s all beyond us. I enjoy the mystery. Sam, a post doc student at Acadia University told me during a fish tagging session, which is an excuse to angle and call it work, that these striped bass have been recorded moving great distances across the Bay of Fundy at speed and returning in a matter of hours or days. While others stay very local. The scientists don’t really know why. Facts like that sit nicely in my general life view. That’s why waving a stick on a rocky point is as profound for me as kneeling in piety in a pew. My recurring prayer is that the surge of humanity never catches up to this part of Nova Scotia and the stripers spawn, Atlantic salmon run the rivers again and I hook up with a few big nasty stripers that head for church at least a few times a season.

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