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The River

I’ve been thinking a lot about the river lately. When I say the river, I mean the river I always just called the river because it was a go-to haunt for me for so long. It has a number of stretches, if I can call them that, stretches which each have their own personality, and at different times I developed an affection for different parts of the stream. The river is divided by The Escarpment, where there is a significant falls. Below the falls there is a stretch of pocket water, kind of a canyon stretch, strewn with boulders, and below that a meadow stretch, and then a long forested stretch, a village stretch, the forks and several more accessible stretches further downstream.

For a few years, I spent a lot of time above the Escarpment. In those days it seemed I knew every rock up in there, and with each visit I logged the changes in my head. One of the reasons I liked it was that back then, I could pop up after work and cast a fly for a few hours without seeing another soul. Like everyplace else, it’s hardly ever like that anymore. One afternoon, I was on the stream and it was one of those days in which there wasn’t much doing, no bugs emerging, no trout rising, but still a perfect day to be standing in the middle of a river. I heard the unmistakeable sound of aluminum on rock. Turning upstream, I saw two guys paddling toward me in a canoe. They stopped to talk.

Where you headed, boys?
Down to the lake. We figure we can just get there by dark.
Have you been down the river this way before?
No, but we’ve got a good map.
You know about The Escarpment right?
Huh?
The falls.
Oh, there’s a falls down there?
Yes, a big one. And if you manage to scramble down the canyon on the other side without wrecking your canoe, you’ll have to try to walk it through the canyon stretch.
You think that will be hard?
Yes, it will be hard.

I don’t think they believed me about the falls and all, because they continued on their way. This, however, wasn’t the craziest thing that happened that season. A few weeks later, I was in almost the same spot when I again heard the unmistakeable sound of aluminum on rock. This time it was a 16 foot car-top boat manned by 4 intrepid sailors.  These guys figured they could drift and pole their way all the way to the lake. Again they thought they could accomplish this in a few hours. I suggested to them that they consider stopping above the falls – one of them could hike back and get their vehicle – because there was no way in our lifetime they were going to get that scow down to the lake, at least not in one day. They laughed at me, convinced I was being a smart Alec. I often wondered what they thought when they came to The Escarpment and looked at the falls and the water below.

The river can be stingy with its trout. They’re there, and I’ve had my moments, but I’ve had plenty of days in which I’ve not seen a sign of a trout. I always considered that a good thing. If it were too easy, lots of people would show up. The emergence of “the other river” helped, in that it provided an alternative place in the area for fly fishers to go, rather than on the stream I preferred to fish. The other river is not a natural trout stream but holds trout because of a bottom release dam that cools the water. Like other tailwaters, there are lots of insects and the trout grow big and the fishing is technical. The trout are more selective and less opportunistic. It became kind-of famous over the years, and has even graced the pages of glossy fly fishing magazines. I sometimes go there and it has its charms for sure (and yes I’ve caught some huge brown trout there), but on the other hand there is an algae bloom that clouds the water, and at times, chunks of unattractive organic matter come floating down from the dam release.  I’ve mentioned in this blog that I haven’t been fly fishing so much in the last couple seasons, but it’s the river, and not the other river, that I’ve missed.

I have a strong childhood memory of being on the river with my dad. I was just a boy, maybe 10 or 12. In those days we used spinning rods. My dad was an unrepentant bank-napping worm-plonker, and a very good one at that. Also in those days we had never heard of “catch and release”. It was more about “catch and cook for dinner”.  We walked into the river at one of the lower trouty stretches. Now this was back around 1970 or so. There was nobody around. My dad was explaining to me how the really big trout liked to live in “bomb shelters”, jam-ups of logs where they could hide, places that offered a lot of protection but at the same time access to plenty of tasty insects. He was showing me how he liked to drift a worm deep under the logs. He liked the worm to float naturally, and he usually didn’t weight his line. As he explained this a trout grabbed and stole his worm. And again. He hooked the trout with his third worm. It was blind luck that allowed him to get that trout out from that bomb shelter but somehow he did. I remember trying to net the trout for him. I was just a kid and not very good at this and everytime I got near the trout with the net it took off for another run. My dad was shouting, head first, head first, get in front of it, which I tried, finally netting his fish successfully. This was one of those trout you measure in pounds instead of inches. It was maybe 4 or even 5 pounds, a brown trout, golden, spotted, and it had a hooked lower jaw.  I had no idea catching a trout this size from that river, even back in the day, was a rare event. At that time I thought my dad could do anything (like other kids, I noticed that my dad got a lot less smart as I grew older into my late teens, and then remarkably, became smarter again as I matured into my 20s).

That day on the river with my dad was a very special one for me. For some reason though, we didn’t go back there together. Instead we took to fishing an interesting pond for chunky brook trout, but that’s another story.  By the time I was in university, I had mostly lost interest in fishing. That interest wasn’t rekindled until the 80s became the 90s and I met East Texas Red, who mentioned to me that he was thinking of taking up fly fishing. I had done a wee bit of fly fishing before but I didn’t know much about it. I recall when I was a kid, my brother Salvelinas Fontinalis had a fly tying desk in the basement. I loved all the bits of fur and feathers tucked away in cigar boxes. There were little scissors and other specialty tools, and a vice that always had a half finished fly in it. It was mysterious and I liked it because it was mysterious. Later, I learned to tie flies pretty well, and even today many of the flies in my boxes are my own ties.

I’m thinking about all this and writing about it, because this afternoon I’m going to head up to the river. I can’t decide which stretch just now. As I sometimes do, I’ll decide when I get there. I’m looking forward to getting lost in the stream.

3 Comments

  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    I started fishing the river in about 1959. One truly remarkable thing is how little it has changed over the past 5 decades. Oh to be sure it has changed a bit but nowhere near to the extent that other streams have changed. These days there are brook trout upstream from the escarpment and downstream from the escarpment where the water is a bit warmer there are brown trout and some rainbow trout. Back in the 60’s the water was cold enough to support brook trout for about 10 miles below the escarpment. You could also keep and eat the trout you caught. These days most of the river is regulated as catch and release water. Interestingly we caught about the same number of trout in the same places back then as we would today. The current catch and release rules pretty much guarantee a stable or even growing trout population. Back then though Ontario had an effective Ministry of Natural Resources and a stocking program which kept the trout population topped up. There was a sort of stigma attached to catching the stocked trout and if we were in an area where we started catching them we would simply start walking to move out of the area. There were very big trout in the river back then but they got that way by being very careful and very smart. I think today there are many more big fish in the river simply because the mid sized trout are not becoming supper.

    Surprisingly the public has access to almost as much of the river now as we had 50 years ago. In this age where land owners have no tolerance for folks who want to enjoy our natural resources that is almost miraculous. I live further north within walking distance of 2 trout streams. Back in the 60’s you could fish anywhere on those streams and be welcome. In fact there were a couple of farmers who became annoyed if you didnt pull in to their barnyard and let them make breakfast for you. Today there is basically no access at all to these rivers. Still, the river of our youths is accessible. There was more water 5 decades ago, it was maybe 4 or 5 inches deeper year round, and it was a bit colder, and it was a bit wilder. But today the river is still there and it is still healthy and it is still a joy to fish.

    • There are still brookies in the meadow stretch (a few years ago, I caught a 15 incher) and I’ve caught the odd one through the woodland stretch as well.

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