A Fly Fishing Mentor

Posted By on August 4, 2008

Around the time of my voyage down the Kuskokwim, the Seattle-based sport fishing magazine Wild Salmon and Steelhead asked me to write about fishing with my father, the noted fly fisherman, naturalist and author Roderick Haig-Brown. I began by making reference to another towboat.

I had recently traveled down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans on a massive 6200-hp, 180-foot tow boat pushing 900-feet of barges. On a bend above Baton Rouge Captain Vollie McCain showed me how to “flank” the big tow. Backing up on his engines, the captain brought the boat and barges to a standstill in the current and then, with perfect timing and considerable patience, allowed the river’s currents to turn the front end of the tow around the bend. The back end, sitting in the slower water by the point of the bend provided a pivot. My appreciation of the beauty and harmony expressed in this maneuver is rooted in the time that I spent learning river currents from my father. Especially those times that we cast dry flies on to the surface of the crystal clear waters of the little Elk River on central Vancouver Island.

Elk River on Google Earth

Those days that I spent as a young boy on the Elk with this great fly fisherman shaped my appreciation of that wonderful relation that exists between the earth, the water that moves on its surface and the consuming human need to go to those places. The Elk was one of those mountain streams that seem to have been made for the dry fly. Shallow enough to wade across in places, it also had pools with deep waters carved under cut banks. We walked up the bars on the slow side and cast over the deep. Two steps up stream and two casts over the water, gathering the slack in our hands as the fly floated down toward us. As we neared the top of a pool where some faster water would be coming down between the rod tip and the fly, we made little flips of the line to keep the dry fly floating free on the surface with no tell-tale V-lines exposing its artificiality to the fish. This gentle control of lines differed only in scale from the flanking buoys that a Mississippi towboat sets out on short lines from the aft corner of their tow to show if the barges are properly stopped up in the river’s flow.

My favorite part of the Elk was the lower part, where the valley widened out above the swamp in which it joined Upper Campbell Lake. The valley had been logged some decades earlier and was grown back to alder and willow with the beginnings of second growth fir and cedar. In spring, the river flooded and cut new channels through the gravel of the valley floor. I don’t remember how many times we fished that river, but I’m sure we never went there without seeing a black bear. Once one ambled down to the bank just across from where I was fishing, smelling me she raised up on her hind feet to test the air for confirmation. Getting it she turned and walked back into the alders. Another time we watched a bear swim a particularly fast section of the river and then, swinging one great paw up onto a log at the head of a logjam, he pulled himself up out of the water and we marveled at the harmony of animal, water and land. It was that harmony to which my father aspired when he went on the river.

Another time we were surrounded by a herd of the elk that gave their name to the river. We watched as they walked up and over a logged off ridge. Lying on the side of the ridge was a deer giving comparison to their size. Along the river we watched the kingfishers and mergansers and talked about what they would be eating. We watched huckleberries and blackberries ripen. We saw the slide where and otter came down to the river. We talked about the feed that the rainbows and cutthroat would be eating. And yes among all of this there were fish. Firm, cold water cutthroat that would come up from the jade green depths under a cut-bank to look at the first cast of a fly before easing back to the cool security near the bottom to await the next cast. And yes, there was that indescribable connection with all that the river represents when that trout came up to look at the fly on the second cast and then, in a swirl of tail, flashing muscle and white underbelly, dove with it. To have felt the life force of the fish and its home river currents through 30 feet of light line and nine feet of split cane is one of the great joys of my life.

When I look back at family pictures of myself as a child I see that nearly half of them show me with a fishing rod in my hand. As a parent I understand what this means, but as a child I never had any sense that I was being raised to my father’s love of fishing. As a parent I have always admired his restraint and now as my children grow older I think I am coming to understand what I am sure he knew. Fishing in our family was not so much an end in itself. It wasn’t even the means to an end. It was the means to a presence. It was a presence in our environment. It was a place from which we could take some responsibility for that environment through a connection with it.

I think my father’s favourite pool on the Campbell was the Upper Islands where at least half of the river flowed over a long bar connecting two islands. It was a scary place when you were seven or eight and trying to wade through the current behind a six-foot father striding along in felted waders with the pipe smoke trailing aft like a Mississippi steamboat making headway over a shallow. But I followed him there for years because, fishing or not, I knew that this was a special place. It was here that he first showed me the wonder of a gravel-shelled caddis grub under a rock.

Most of us whose fathers are gone have regrets for things we didn’t get to do with them. In my early teens I bought my first proper mask, snorkel and flippers and, along with my friends, started swimming the rapids and pools of the Campbell River. We made a little money salvaging steelhead gear from the river bottom and we swam a lot. In late summer the pink salmon started coming into the river, then the big springs. I begged my father to come swim with me but he didn’t.

A decade later, I was working summers on a commercial fishing boat and going to university in the winter, when he took up skin-diving. It was the logical continuation of the riverine observation that fishing had given him. I went with him a bit but my life was busy with other things and I never really shared the under water with him. But we talked of it. Not only the fish that we saw, but of the feel of the river’s current, how to swim with it while not fighting it. Of the harmony of being weightless and of being connected. I think he fished less after that. I know that he could not see a steelhead lying in the slower waters behind a rock when swimming and then come home to get his rod. I think it is in this urge to be in and of the water that I feel my father’s love and fascination with that wonderful bird the dipper. He never failed to get excited in his calm way when he saw one of the little birds go from rock to creek bottom to rock. He wanted to go there.

But he did fish other streams. When I had finished university and was teaching in a First Nations community along the Chilcotin River in the B.C. interior he came to visit me one spring. He brought along a couple of rods and after I had obliged him to ride horses with me, which he didn’t like, we went down to the river to fish. I had been living there for three years at the time and had camped and ridden my horse along that stretch of river many times. I had watched the people dip net sockeye salmon and I had seen the steelhead fishermen work their way along the shore ice in early spring. I thought that I knew a bit about the river. I think it was May when my father came to visit. The season of the year that is called “Green Grass” time in the cattle country of the Chilcotin. The snows were melting back around Chilco and Taseko Lakes and the river was in freshet. Its normally translucent glacial silted waters were roiling muddy brown. We would catch no fish here to day my father announced, as he tied a fly to the end of his rod’s leader. And we didn’t catch any fish, but we worked our way down those pools, two steps and two casts at a time. I still go back to that stretch of river when I’m up in the Chilcotin because I now know it in a way that only comes from sharing a pool with a master.

Chilcotin on Google Earth

In my favourite of his books, Measure of the Year, he says, “Because I have learned so much of the river through fishing and watching fish, it is difficult to write of it without thinking of fish. From a fisherman’s point of view almost everything about a river is related to fish and fishing. Floods or drought may mean disaster to spawning and hatch, or merely disappointed hopes of good fishing; birds and animals that live along the banks are predators or controls or both; insect life, in the water and out of it, is feed; lime content, temperature, weed growth, log jams, shallows or deeps, all have meaning in terms of fish and fishing. Even trees and brush overhanging the banks, even the work of beavers and muskrats, has bearing. It may seem a narrow view, but the interrelationships are so far-reaching and complicated that it is really comprehensive; if anything is not included, the fisherman is almost certain to include it because observation is one of the keenest pleasures of his sport.”

My father saw moving water as the ultimate expression of the earth force, although he wouldn’t have used those words, he understood it as a spiritual joining of water and land into which animals be they fish or human could interject themselves in their temporal moment. He spent a good part of his life trying to give rational scientific explanation and justification to those ideas. When I go back and read his writing I know that he succeeded in something much more important, he gave poetic voice to the phenomena of river currents and fish.

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