Anything Fly Fishing

The Otter

7 Mins read

I have found the place that I want to dig in, dig deep and immerse myself. I want a baptism, a conversion, a rebirth so I can feel that I belong to this place. Though, I know I cannot be one of them, a local. I have the wrong name, the wrong birthplace, and definitely the wrong accent. However, I will plant myself here until my end. I have never felt the tug of belonging as I feel here. The north Atlantic on either side triggers a genetic memory that I cannot ignore. With its heritage, gentle wildness, wet climate and sparse population, Nova Scotia has a decidedly Gaelic mindset, with close historical and cultural ties to the western and northern reaches of the British Isles. Note, MacDonald is the most common surname in the province. Myths and legends are acknowledged and plainly accepted. There is a lot of history here in the Maritimes where Europeans first contacted Indigenous North Americans 1000 years ago. The melding of cultures, blood and land is in plain sight.

This land is rugged, green, moist, gentle, impenetrable in places, generous, and then, as if on a whim, unforgiving, but always seductive. Hurricanes and nor’easters blow through our old houses and having a generator set is not an optional luxury. This is southwestern Nova Scotia, the land of native brook trout, or speckled trout, as many Canadians and some Americans prefer to call them. They belong here. Yes, they are a char, and they are our trout. French Canadians call them omble de fountaine, char of the fountain or spring. A fittingly beautiful name for the most beautiful fish.

I have a favorite little brook tucked into this area riddled with wetlands, fens, ponds, lakes and rivers, which are interconnected arteries scratched like scars into the land by retreating glaciers. The brook is part of the headwater of the Medway system in southwestern Nova Scotia. The river courses through rough boulder fields with a lot of old submerged timber, which means that classic nymphing runs are few and far between and euro nymphers might leave in despair. You can nymph, but dangling a dropper under a Wulff might be your best choice.

The tannic waters flow through hard rock, granite and quartzite, with low mineral contributions. This means that they are not the most fertile of streams. Meadow sections and fens help to supplement the meager pickings with welcomed hatches and nursery habitat for juveniles. Our trout rarely grow to 20”, though they do exist, and they would be 6–7-year-old fish living in more fertile waters than is common. My little stream cannot boast such monsters, though I live in hope.

The fish are small in my brook, with 14” being a trophy. I have brought my sons here. They are good fishermen. They aim for big rivers and big fish. They are strong waders and good casters. Their youth impels them to challenge the world. My little brook was not totally lost on them, maybe somewhat inconsequential, not memorable, and nothing to brag about in their estimation. I knew that they were too early in the journey to fully appreciate the gentle beauty of my little brook. I too, once only dreamed of and chased big fish in big brawling rivers. I remember years of casting to carefully selected large wild trout and scornfully dismissing anything under 16”. And, this was prior to the scourge of social media where braggarts and trolls now intertwine in a sad dance of codependency. I’m glad my big fish arrogance didn’t have a public airing. Now, my sense of being in place, grounded where I need to be, at peace and present with beauty is more important than the plunder. What changed? Maybe, it was that with age I realized that fishing, like most of what we do in life, is actually frivolous. Though, it is definitely less frivolous than the many games people play in life and business. Are not all major league sports frivolous? Is that why the TV pundits compensate for that by wearing finely tailored suits, and deliver their endless drivel with embarrassing attempts of instilling gravitas? Sport is a frivolous billion-dollar business. Not fishing though! We connect with the life force and that’s pretty damn serious. Use that line with spouses, bosses, or down the pub.

It was on a warm spring afternoon in a slow meadow glide bordered by soft springy banks, lichen-covered rocks and shaded by stately hemlocks that I was startled to see a large wake heading straight upstream towards me. The brook being no more than 15 feet across, the bow wave looked freakishly large and out of place. I was quite perturbed until an otter popped up a few feet away from me and fixed me with a long look of acute annoyance and chattered angrily. I was so affected by its expression that I involuntarily apologized for being there, and promptly left. Definitely the rudest Nova Scotian I have met to date, and clearly xenophobic! To be told so bluntly that I was an interloper, an outsider, or a ‘come from away’ as we are called here, was hurtful. I removed myself to the old logging bridge and contemplated what the otter really meant. Was it that this is not my brook, these are not my trout, this is not my land? The truth hurts. Maybe I should bring an offering to the otter. Sardines and crackers should do it.

When trout fishing I choose to fish slow old American graphites and classic English reels, my wife tacitly accepts the lie that buying old tackle is cheaper. It’s definitely more fun to search for. While I quite like new technology, for trout I assiduously avoid modern tackle and any level of sophistication. The idea of what a rod and reel should look like is deeply ingrained and I care not to change that image. It’s truly not nostalgia, I just like how the older gear looks and feels, and the idea that the people who built it drove to work in a Ford F100, or a rattling, series Land Rover, and fished their local streams after work. Well, okay it’s nostalgia. Faster, more modern rods definitely have their place when I’m chasing stripers in the estuary, chucking Clousers and 7” deceivers on sinktips. Little streams though don’t need any technology past 1980, or even 1940. An 80-year-old cane rod, silk line and a classic Little Marryat dry would work just fine. Tackle companies want you to believe that trout have changed over the past 100 odd years. But they haven’t. They didn’t get the message.

Specks are supposed to be somewhat gullible. Happily splashing up to any bit of fluff dancing on the surface down a glittering seam. But, these wild fish will rarely return to a missed fly either wet or dry. You get one chance at them. I have yet to see another boot print on my little jewel of a brook. Yet, these trout act like they are in a highly pressured public water on the outskirts of a major city. Skittish and wary. More like wild chalk stream browns, if such animals actually exist anymore. Traditional drys and wets in small sizes are all that’s needed. With no one around to pose for, not that I care to, I can fish simply and carefully, quietly approaching pools and runs, watching and waiting. I like to sit and watch. Some tea, a snack and my imaginary ciggie break.

A pool, run, or riffle can be quite generous in giving up its secrets if you allow it to. Which reminds me of an interrogation technique where silence is used to extract the truth.

Downstream the lake and the bigger river below it tempt with larger fish, and sometimes I might furtively venture that way, though a strange melancholy that accompanies infidelity nags at me when I stray. What we have is often more beautiful than what we desire, though familiarity is supposed to lessen the excitement, it doesn’t. There is still a lot of stream to explore. I plan to camp one night by the river, hopefully out of the otter’s neighborhood, and listen to the nocturnal movements. I will sleep on spongy sphagnum moss and pray that the blackflies do not devour me in the night.

Once I was settled out of the otter’s domain, a trout dimpled the surface in the head of the deep pool that was guarded by a massive granite boulder downstream right. The boulder created a current seam that was quite tricky to fish, as the water folded and increased speed as it wrapped around. There are two approaches that can work here. One is a classic downstream drift of a wet fly like a size 16 march brown that can dangle and then be lifted to induce a take and the other an upstream dry fly flick between bracken, larch and red maples. The trouble with the upstream cast being that the deep slow water allows the trout such a wide angle of vision they see too much, and I will inevitably lose a fly in the cover. So, I cheated, in my mind at least it was cheating. I drifted an Adams with a soft hackle hare’s ear dropper downstream. The trout took the dropper as the seam picked up speed by the boulder, lifting the dropper in the current. It fought valiantly, no lethargy or lack of endurance. The speckled trout here are known to travel many miles during the season to find cold water refuge and forage. They have long slender bodies, oversized tails and are in beautiful athletic condition. One small jewel from the stream, maybe 12”, dark and iridescent, ancient genes and totally of this place, unlike me. I release it carefully.

More hot tea with honey from my flask and I sit and contemplate my next move. The boggy section where you have to choose footfalls carefully was a slight detour on my way back to the truck. Two or three feeding trout occasion the bank on the left, hard up against the sedge and alders. It’s a pain to fish and a laborious trek picking your way hummock to hummock, eventually dropping quietly to your knees under the alders. I amble up to get a look. Sure enough a fish rises tight to the bank. Decision made. My effort is rewarded with a plump, healthy 10” speck that bolts from my hand. I’m connecting to this land with every native I touch. I’m getting closer to belonging, but I’ll never actually get there. Satisfied I start my slow, bumpy ride home down the logging road to my old drafty house by the sea. It’s spring, the striped bass will be dropping back soon from the river and feeding in the bay, but troutlings fill my head and they will take precedence for another couple of months. This is a lovely place to be.

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