Theoretically, you could ease the isolation of COVID-19 and the loneliness of social distancing by taking up fly-fishing. Not spin casting, or trolling, or bobbing or jigging: fly-fishing, in which a person standing in a river attaches a man-made fly or some other imitation of what a fish eats and, by cleverly casting it onto the water, attempts to persuade the fish to take the bait – only to release the fish back into the water to spawn and be fished again.
Theoretically, you could edge out from under the long mental duckbill visor of the pandemic by grabbing a fly rod and making your way to a nearby river. There, theoretically, you could enjoy solitude, nature and the meditative pleasure of seeking a living thing you cannot see but know is there. This would be a calming experience in the middle of a confounding global pandemic that has infected more than 26 million people worldwide, killed almost 865,000 of them, and shows only stuttering evidence of being brought under control. Cases are up in the five biggest provinces, and are surging across university campuses and Europe.
The good news is that the fatality rate has dropped sharply, and that the world knows a great deal more about treating the coronavirus than it did six months ago. But in our scolding push to eradicate the coronavirus, we seldom mention the good news.
Fly-fishing is an escapist alternative to facing such realities. My only caution, should you chose to take up the sport and pastime in today’s apocalyptic atmosphere, is to remember what happened to Simon Peter and his fellow disciples when they went fishing in John 21:3: “They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.” It takes a miracle from Jesus Himself before they net a single fish, and even then He has to return from the dead to help them.
There was nothing religious about the stripped down fly-casting lessons Rob Cesta gave me early one morning on the Humber River, the ferric semi-freshet that bladders down the western hip of Toronto into Lake Ontario. Mr. Cesta had outfitted me with waders and boots and an 8 weight rod and line – ”an easy-casting line,” he said, despite evidence to the contrary – and was trying to teach me “functional fly casting, rather than proper fly casting.” At that point I had been reading about fly casting for weeks and still had no idea what he was talking about.
Mr. Cesta owns Drift Outfitters and Fly Shop, downtown Toronto’s only extant fishing tackle store. Before he owned the store he was a chef. For a man who makes his living selling fishing tackle, he has an iconoclastic opinion of casting an artificial fly through the air and landing it on the water in such a way that a fish wants to eat it: he thinks technique is more important than gear. As a beginner, I was obviously disappointed to learn this. “Flies don’t matter,” he said. “What matters is the fly in the water, and its location and presentation. And confidence, confidence, confidence.”
It was a dull overcast morning in the middle of the city. We were fishing a hundred yards from a hotel parking lot. We started with a fly that had no hook, to save my ears and back.
In 90 minutes, Mr. Cesta taught me the basics: the pick-up and lay-down cast, how to shoot fly line, a roll cast (for tight spots where a cliff or a tree prevented a full backcast) and a false cast (so I could change the direction of my cast in the air, ha ha ha ha ha ha). I tried to remember everything he said, but at that point I didn’t know you have to perform these acts thousands of times before your muscles remember them as well.
The last thing he explained was how to fight a fish, although here his tone felt more theoretical: having watched me cast, the odds of my hooking a trout or a salmon on a fly may have seemed equivalent to my winning the LottoMax, another catch I have been dreaming about lately. Let me tell you right here, dear reader: This story does not have a surprise ending.
Before COVID-19 struck last winter, you could stop by Drift’s downtown Toronto store any time and become embroiled instantly in a conversation about fishing. These days there’s a limit of two masked and separated customers in the store at a time, and a 30 minute maximum stay. For a fly-fishing person, 30 minutes in a tackle store is nothing more than a cruel glimpse of paradise.
I once dropped by Drift to think about buying a pair of waders and ended up watching Chris Krysciak, a competitive fly-fisherman who works in the store when he isn’t fishing 100 days a year, tie a hairwing version of a nighthawk salmon fly on a small double hook. Mr. Krysciak started fishing at 3. He began tying flies at 8; that was 13 years ago. He grew up in Richmond Hill, a landlocked suburb of Toronto.
The nighthawk started out as a winding of red thread, which was the head of the fly, followed by some silver tinsel and some yellow silk floss and some golden pheasant crest (farmed) and grade-A jungle cock, a bit of red wool, a pluck of ostrich feather, some ovalized tinsel, some flat tinsel, a sprig of black bear hair, a collar of black hen and some speckled hen for the throat, and a single feather of Eurasian kingfish for the fly’s cheek, “just to give it that little bit of blue.” Salmon see green and blue and black most readily when they come out of the ocean to swim up a river to spawn.
He gave it a whip finish and a touch of lacquer to hold it together, and was done. The whole process took fifteen minutes. The fly looked like a miniature trophy. It was an admission of defeat (it could never be the real thing) but also a beautiful human imagining of a surprising level of detail in an object no bigger than a dime.
Fly-obsession is a recognized phase in the education of any fly-fishing fledgling, especially if you’re a terrible caster: You think the fly will save your sorry soul on the water. It will not, but you wouldn’t know that to judge from fly-fishing history and literature and lore and practice. Trout and salmon flies have been around since at least the 1400s, but it wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s time that they became a fetish, after a sportsman named George Kelsun produced The Salmon Fly, with 251 patterns for making them.
Flies are a bottomless subject, hence an excellent distraction during the winter or while quarantining. There are literally countless kinds: wet ones and dry ones, big ones and small ones, streamers and bombers, flies resembling mayflies and duns, for trout, for salmon, for tarpon, for bass, for Spey rods and switch rods in salt water and fresh, to cite a mere handful of beginner distinctions. (And I’m not even mentioning midges.) Their names are varied and sometimes vaguely vibrator-esque: the Spin Hula Dancer, the Woolly Bugger, the Copper John, the Dahlberg Diver, the Stimulator, the Rusty Spinner and even the Rusty Rat, a Canadian fly. (I could go on.)
The famous but now-slightly old-fashioned Wulff flies – the Grey, the Black, the Grizzly – were invented by Lee Wulff, who developed an entire philosophy and system and school of casting and fish husbandry, much of it while fishing for salmon and trout in Canada. (He helped create Gros Morne National Park and invented the fishing vest.) He was married four times. His last wife and widow, Joan, is a champion fly-fisher who runs her own school of fly-fishing (she once cast a line a record 161 feet): she was heart-broken when Mr. Wulff died landing his own plane. The hugely popular Lefty’s Deceiver, on the other hand, is a big long streamer wet fly dreamed up by Lefty Kreh, one of the most famous fishermen in history: The U.S. Postal Service put it on a stamp. By the time he died two years ago, Mr. Kreh had established his own counter-Wulffian school of full-body fly casting, reportedly after he blew out a shoulder and had to relearn to cast with his other arm. If Wulff was the model of the romantic noble sexy fly-fishing rogue (if such a thing exists), Mr. Kreh represented a more down-to-earth ideal – the wily suburban redneck fatso journeyman who nevertheless catches tons of fish. They each have their disciples to this day.
“You can get really lost in this stuff,” Mr. Krysciak said to me that morning in the store. “And no one really needs to know any of it.” This is possibly why it’s so appealing. He has won the Slovenian national fly-tying championship, and tied for third in the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s 150th anniversary fly-tying competition, but even he doubts flies matter much. “There are other factors that are more important.” Those factors would include being able to cast. “Your line is much more important than people believe,” he said, “if it’s too stiff or too visible or too floaty.” Present even a vaguely approximate fly well, and the fish will probably bite. Wash your hands and wear a mask and stay two metres from others, you probably won’t get sick.
Last June I was invited to fly-fish for Atlantic salmon at the Kedgwick Salmon Club on the Kedgwick River, a tributary of the more famous Restigouche, one of the fabled New Brunswick-to-Quebec salmon runs that, long ago, when there were a lot of Atlantic salmon, established Canada’s reputation as a fishing Eden.
The camp had been the fishing lodge of a Canadian paper company before a group of business executives bought it for $2-million and repurposed it as a private club in 2007. One of the founding members, an Ottawa stockbroker named John Berryman, has fished for years with the same group of buddies on the first weekend of the salmon season: the salmon are just coming back into the river from the sea at that point and are too scarce for most members to want to fish. When one of his pals dropped out last summer, Mr. Berryman asked if I wanted to come along. I told him I didn’t know how to fish; he told me to come anyway.
It was the kind of place that fixes itself in your mind as a formative memory, like that Grade 2 teacher you had who wore the high heels. Like Miss Purdy. I won’t tell you, at least not here, about the luxuries of the lodge – about the Dover sole and handmade lobster ravioli and crisp Chablis served with iceberg wedge salads. I won’t tell you about the company, all smart, charming wealthy white men who were nonetheless outwitted and humbled by salmon every day. Every conversation they had eventually came back to fishing. I won’t go into how, when Ron, the mining magnate, finally landed the group’s first salmon on Day 2, a 35-pound monster on a Green Highlander with a sinking tip (in a pool I had fished the previous day), everyone wanted to kill him, and I won’t tell you how Dave, the tall stockbroker, then tried to get Mr. Berryman to write a clause into the club’s charter limiting the amount of time someone could talk about a fish he’d caught. I won’t tell you how – not just relieved and happy, but somehow forgiven – Dave looked two days later when he landed a 20-pounder of his own, on a Red Squirrel fly but without the aid of a sinking tip. The group caught four salmon in three days, releasing them alive in their continuous and possibly futile effort to bring Atlantic salmon back from endangered species territory.
I won’t go into all that here. What I will tell you is that I had the privilege of fishing nearly 20 miles of private river for 3½ days, all morning and again till after sunset in the evening, in a hand-straked motorized canoe driven by a guide named Francois Leblanc, who had worked and fished those parts his entire 60-odd years. I must have hooked his jacket 40 times, and my own another 20. It never seemed to bother him. Once in a while he would show me how to cast; he made it look as easy as watering the garden.
For three days Mr. Leblanc and I fished pool after pool. There were 59 pools on the club’s stretch of river, each of which had a name – Upper Trout, Slough Gundy, False Alarm – that made them seem more personal. We never fished the same water twice. Every 50 casts or so Mr. Leblanc would change my fly. I felt like an inept pasha. Whenever I got especially frustrated, Mr. Leblanc would say something like “I love the sound of the bird.”
On the fourth and last day we came to Mac’s Pool, where Mr. Leblanc tied on a Green Highlander he had made himself, using red squirrel hair instead of pheasant crest. “It’s a bright fly for a bright day,” Mr. Leblanc said.
Mac’s Pool was in Section 6 of the club’s stretch of the Kedgwick, and lay under a steep rocky drop that blocked the wind. I thought I was casting well and drifting my fly across the current just as Mr. Leblanc had instructed when I actually did the unthinkable and hooked a salmon. It felt like a moving van on the end of my line. The van would pull, and then stop, and then move on, and then stop again. It drove away, backed up, drove away again. I tried to keep the line tight. Ninety seconds went by, but it felt like half a day. Then the fish spat the hook out of its mouth; I guess I forgot to set it. I can’t remember because I thought I was having a heart attack.
Last Sunday, as school approached, as the pandemic ripped through Spain (again) and California and Texas (still) and edged back up in Canada (higher numbers of cases, declining number of deaths), some pals took me fly-fishing for bass on the Grand River in Paris, Ont.
Bass are gregarious fish: They would be the superextroverted non-mask wearing party animals of the piscatorial world. Or so the Quiet Expert implied when he lent me a rod and some waders. The Quiet Expert was the first person I ever knew to take up fly-fishing, back when he was a teenager. We put on our masks, jumped in my car at 4 p.m., drove west for an hour and a half toward Brantford, and parked down a winding road in a conservation area. I am not allowed to reveal a more specific location than that.
The Quiet Expert tied a yellow and white rubber thing called a popper onto the leader of my weighted fly line. It looked like one of Spongebob Squarepants’s cartoon friends. We joined two pals and waded into the river. Then we started casting.
The outing wasn’t any more elaborate than that. It was still one of the finest evenings I’ve had since the start of COVID-19. There was occasional conversation about bass and their habits. There was some slagging of the boaters who drifted by, fish-disturbing louts that they were. My casting had deteriorated even from its New Brunswick nadir a year before. I could occasionally get the line out 30 feet; I needed to get it out 50 feet to where I could see bigger bass jumping along the edge of the main current. Eventually I hooked a fish and reeled it in. It was five inches long. It may have been the smallest smallmouth bass ever seen by the human eye.
Eventually one of my pals waded over and gently suggested I was using too much wrist, and bringing the rod too far back, and waiting too long before I threw it forward. He made me do it a few times his way, and then said, “you’ve got it,” and my casting improved immediately. By then, naturally, because this is the way fly-fishing works, it was too late: The fish had gone to bed. I stayed out in the water anyway. The evening was one of those blue topaz summer gloamings with a handful of dark silver clouds and a full moon pimping across the sky.
I was making my way unsteadily back to shore in the dusk 10 minutes later, trying not to fall into the river, when I had what by my standards was a major revelation: Fly-fishing, I suddenly thought, is very, very hard. It is especially hard to do well, and impossible to do perfectly. It encourages the will to mastery – I have read everything there is to read about the caddis fly! – and then relentlessly demonstrates that the will to mastery never translates into results you can be proud of. It humbles you into admitting you know much less than you think, that what you do know is often useless, and that you need the help of others. (Hence the vast and ancient literature of fishing.) In other words, it encourages longanimity, by which I mean the forbearance to shoulder insults and injuries patiently, without becoming bitter and bigoted and bad-tempered like, say, the President of the United States.
Fly-fishing, in other words, is like the pandemic. It isn’t going to get any easier any time soon, and it is never going to be a breeze. But the longer and more steadfastly you try, the more you realize you actually aren’t doing too too badly, given how hard it is to reach the fish in the first place.
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