Anything Fly Fishing

Reason to Believe

6 Mins read

There were many long nights, unable to move. I willed myself to dream of being able to walk and wade a trout stream. Sinking deep inside myself to filter out the beeps, gurgles, groans and muffled conversations of the ward. My intent was to channel all I had left cerebrally, into the ability to just twitch a toe. It was a metaphysical challenge, trying to fire neurons down my spinal cord, to my toes, fingers, and sense my extremities again. “You won’t walk again,” he said, “or if you do it won’t be much at all.” He went on to tell me I was the worst of 1000 data points. I had become a data point. Surgeons live in their science. I was left in my silence. Only the thought of fishing could alleviate my dark despair. I also knew that if I could wade a stream again, I would be physically able enough to be of use to my family.

My first roommate in that Halifax hospital was a loud man full of pain and anger. My relief when he left was without trepidation for who might come next, as no one could be worse. I am not a conventionally religious man, so I have no one to thank but the great spirit for who arrived in the neighboring bed. His name was Jason and he was a 6’2” queer drag queen who became my emotional savior. He was shocking, outrageous, hilarious and incredibly kind. He also hailed from Cape Breton, which for any fly angler should be, well, really important. Though it must be said that Jason did not fly fish, though I’d welcome the opportunity to take him. The ensuing hilarity would probably land me back in hospital.

Once visited, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia doesn’t leave you. It is the home of the famed Margaree River – Atlantic salmon, searun brookies and cèilidhs. There is magic in those hills where Gaelic is still spoken and the people are tough as nails but as sweet as honey. The connections to rivers and fish continued to present themselves as if I was being beckoned back to the water. My physio told me that she was from Cape Breton too and her father fished the Middle River. Even the porter who wheeled me down to rehab fished the Margaree. I had my wife bring me a fly box so I could gift him some flies, as anglers do, and should. It was understood by all that my motivation to walk again was driven by my desire to fish. There was no confusion or derision from them, as they knew a man who was compelled to fish when they saw one, and I was hardly unusual in that desire for a Cape Bretoner to recognize. After all, fishing is a necessary pursuit.

Fly fishing here in Maritime Canada is old and ingrained in the culture. The first documented fly fisherman in North America was a British officer stationed across the Cabot Strait in Newfoundland. Salmon fishing regulations stipulate fly only and for many older fishers it is the only method that they have ever used. Fly fishing is approached with pragmatism here as it is effective in killing trout and salmon, though salmon can no longer be legally kept. We don’t tend to equate fly-fishers as meat fishers anymore, but that local heading to his truck with his limit of brookies probably caught them on a skillfully drifted Carter’s bug. The Gore-Tex clothed C&R sanctimony gets old, even for a staunch conservationist like me. I particularly like the way they grin when showing off dead trout without a glimmer of conscience. Are salmon still illegally killed by a green machine or a general practitioner? I’d hazard a guess that the game wardens haven’t let their guard down. Traditions die hard here, I like that.

After a couple of months I was home at the other end of the province from Cape Breton. Stuttering steps and a shaky equilibrium kept me off the rivers but I looked, longingly. Most of our rivers down in the southwest are a tangle of rock and roots that can be tough going. No gravel bars and wide sweepers here. It’s tight going, where you line a rod for roll casting and spend minutes just trying to figure how the hell you are going to get a fly out to the rise. Even the meadow sections are a minefield of holes hidden between hummocks. Hardly the terrain for safe spinal cord recovery.

In time, my improved mobility allowed brief forays on the more accessible streams and a few diminutive trout were captured, though I ached to be alone on a wild river, deeper in the woods, where glinting riffles empty into shadowy pools, and trout with some heft might come to hand. After a local fishing association meeting a smiling man sidled up to me and generously whispered a location with just enough inferred promise to warrant a sortie. The road was overgrown, rough and narrow. Early spring growth scraped, scratched and snapped against my old truck. I forded a small rivulet and climbed up over clanking basketball-sized boulders to a modest hill, and then the road ended. The forest looked young, probably 30 years of regeneration after logging. Sugar maples, birch and aspens mixed with evergreens provided a canopy for ferns and lichens. It had a healthy, natural unmanaged look to it. I could not find an obvious trail, however surprisingly I had two bars of cell service so Google Earth became my navigator. It was a glorious day, in a glorious forest, in glorious Nova Scotia and it was glorious to move again. In short order I picked up the remnants of a game trail and after a few corrections and some careful trekking I glimpsed a shining pool through the trees. That moment is ingrained in my mind.

From the trail, as I rested against a birch, I could already see 2 or 3 trout rising, confidently feeding in that lazy, unpressured way wild fish do. It was a large circular pool about a quarter acre in size with a tumbling inlet and an outlet that plunged down a canopied chute. The scene was like an illustration in a 1950’s fishing magazine. The pool was dark and deep beneath wisps of rising morning mist. I was half expecting to see a man in rubber hip waders, wearing a red plaid mackinaw and a fedora casting a bamboo rod. Happily, I was alone, and I knew I would stay alone. My sine waves flattened. I went down and sat on the root ball of a large dead cedar and watched the proceedings. A speckled trout (brook trout) rose right in front of me, hard against the bank in the nearside seam created by the inlet. I could have dapped a fly without moving from my seat, though I didn’t. I didn’t care to upset the balance, just yet. I wanted to be invited, to feel welcomed. I’m not sure that I have ever waited to fish so long. I sat for 15-20 minutes at peace, watching wild trout feeding in peace. I was lost in a quiet world.

This stretch of stream is called a run. The connecting rivers between lakes are called runs, as in Bob’s Lake runs, though that’s not its actual name. There’s lots of these runs in southwestern Nova Scotia. It’s fun walking from one lake to the next, fishing as you go. The runs also have these peculiar circular pools interspersed along them. I find this geography intriguing. It’s a tremendous trout habitat and adds variety to the fishing. The river was generous and it drew me in. I worked up to the lake picking up fish as I went and found an old stone wall. No obvious sign of a homestead, though the forest I’m sure has it concealed. It must have been abandoned many years ago. I suspected that a rudimentary mill was built there as the wall continued across the other side of the stream. The pool below it looked like a sure bet, and it was. I watched as a nice fish shot up and hammered my marabou muddler with surprising aggression. I then explored the outlet of the lake with an Ausable Wulff, skating and twitching it to call in a fish, and it worked. Skating anything bushy for specks brings out the prey response in them. I know this gives them a reputation for being easy, but it also works for landlocked Atlantic salmon, so it is not really fair to dump on my beloved speckled trout.

This section of runs quickly became quite special for me. They were generous and I was grateful. This was the fishing I dreamed of in the ward. Not monster browns, Atlantics or bonefish, but regular 10-14” native specks, nestled in the gentle beauty of an Acadian forest. It was all I had hoped for. I was profoundly moved by the privilege of fishing such a place and enjoying the reflective solitude. This is the essence of what drove me to walk again.

On my slow way up the trail, I got lost twice, and it was while orienteering back to the truck that I decided that I’d take my sons to Cape Breton and fish the Margaree early for trout. The stream had justified my reason to believe.


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