The Angler: Keeper of Rivers

The Angler:
Keeper of Rivers

Ehor Boyanowsky

Ehor O. Boyanowsky holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology and is an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University. Positions held in the past include President, SFU Faculty Association and President, Confederation of Faculty of B.C. Ehor is interested in environmental protection, photography and travel. He also enjoys fly fishing and freelance writing.

Abstract

This presentation outlines the aesthetic, spiritual, technical and physical recreational values of sport fishing. The focus is on the total angling experience and the pleasure that it brings to every angler, from the youngster with a bent pin to the sophisticated veteran.

 

…I heard this pool whisper a warning.
I tickled its leading edges with temptation.
I stroke its throat with a whisker.
I licked the moulded hollows
Of its collarbones
Where the depth, now underbank opposite,
Pulsed up from contained excitements-
Eerie how you know when it's coming!
So I felt it now, my blood
Prickling and thickening, altering
With an ushering-in of chills, a weird onset
As if mountains were pushing mountains higher
Behind me, to crowd over my shoulder-
Then the pool lifted a travelling bulge
And grabbed the tip of my heart-nerve,
and crashed,…

From Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan by Ted Hughes

 

Angling is the oldest river recreation. Although its origins are shrouded in the mists of time, references to sportsfishing can be found on Egyptian temple walls, on ancient Greek tablets and in medieval Spanish and English texts. Lest one think that angling is one more obscure activity tantamount, say, to truffle gathering, butterfly collecting or telemark skiing, let me hasten to point out that any other single topic with the exception of mathematics.

This tradition has been generally marked from the publication in 1496 of The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle attributed to Dame Juliana Berners whose apology for the angler returning home fishless "because there be nought in the water" rings as true today…

…he hath his wholesome walk and merry at his ease, and a sweet air of the sweet savour of the mead flowers, that maketh him hungry. He heareth the melodious harmony of fowls, he seeth the young swans, terns, ducks, coots and many other fowls with their broods. Also, whoso will use the game of angling, he must rise early, which thing is profitable to a man in this wise, that is, to wit, most to the heal of his soul. For it shall cause him to be whole. Also to the increase of his goods, for it shall make him rich. Thus have I proved in my intent that the disport and game of angling is the very mean and cause that induceth a man into a merry spirit, which maketh a flowering age and a long.

I do not wish to pretend that to the angler, the actual catching of fish is of little value in itself. In fact the acknowledged father of angling, Izaak Walton, in his classic book, The Compleat Angler published in 1653 stated that he envied not the man who was richer, nor who caught more fish then Walton himself. This envy notwithstanding, a truly sporting angler, as he becomes increasingly successful, will proceed through a series of stages during which, paradoxically, he imposes greater handicaps and restrictions upon himself. That is, as a child or neophyte, the ultimate thrill is to connect with whatever species is available via whatever means: snagging, spearing, bait or artificial lure, that is at hand and condoned. Soon, however, one strives to catch as many fish as possible; then one focuses on increasingly more powerful, glamorous or wily species. Then, penultimately, upon the biggest. In my boyhood in Northern Ontario the progression went from northern redhorse suckers to northern pike to walleyes; from there to lake trout and finally, to muskellunge. I caught dozens of suckers on tiny doughball bait as soon as I started after them as a boy of eight. Beginning as a young man of sixteen, it took me almost three seasons of fruitless casting and trolling to hook my first tiger of the lily pads - a muskie of some six or eight pounds.

Once the angler has developed some feeling of efficiency in being able to catch many, although perhaps, never quite as many of one species as he wishes, he begins to long for a truly large fish. I remember the day it happened to me. In my third season of muskie fishing when each exceedingly rare encounter with a muskie of 4 to 8 pounds was still experienced as a primal thrill, my father, my brother-in-law and I went out on a blustery September day. Etched in my memory are the birches crowning the ridges in trembling fold and fragments of cloud scudding across the sky. WE were elated to discover that the muskellunge were on a feeding frenzy: we landed and released more than a dozen. Since then, the goal has been to capture a truly gigantic specimen, especially if it could be done on the fly. In British Columbia, a child may begin by snagging spawning suckers or even salmon in tiny creeks. While pursuing the spawners he may be alerted to trout feeding on salmon roe, dew worms and insects. Almost surely he will go on to pursue them, perhaps inadvertently putting a serious dent in a local population before, either through example, or through reading articles, catalogues and books, he becomes captivated by the magnificent array of tackle and lures extant in the fishing world. I using bait a child discovers how to become a deadly fish catcher. He finds out what is most effective and how to fish it in certain depths, currents and habitats, he learns a little how to think like a fish.

When he (or, less often, she) turns to artificial lures and flies, however, his universe expands. Not only is he a fish catcher who knows that as a bottom line live prawns, salmon roe, live stoneflies or grasshoppers will catch fish, but he comes to experience the thrill of creation in using his own imitations of these creatures rendered in metal and plastic and feathers. Then he becomes a scholar. He must look more closely to determine what life form occurs naturally on that specific stream: in what size, colour and shape, in its multitudinous possibilities, is the creature that the fish feeds on manifested in that environment. Once he begins to learn this, he explores more carefully each stream, turning over rocks, peering under cutbanks, experiencing a thrill when there are many caddis cases about, suppressing a chill when he finds fewer or none where previously they were plentiful.

As he becomes alarmed, he looks for explanations, hoping he won't find them: changes in water colour and clarity, specks of scummy foam, proliferations of algae, of silt where rocks once glowed under foot. Finding nothing else he suspects invisible chemical menaces. Are the stoneflies still there? They are the first to perish when water quality declines. His eyes scour the banks. Has a copse of trees been cut rendering the stream bottom glaringly naked to the sun where once a shady arbour protected? Has a hillside been denuded where the roots of trees previously stood guard against the savage runoff of the rainy season? Is the stream itself thin and desiccated where previously it ran full-fleshed over gravel and boulders? Does that suggest someone somewhere is siphoning off the lifeblood of the river? Do they have a right to do this? Who has permitted this thing?

As the angler works his way along the river, plumbing the depths with his lure or dropping his fly across the current, in that special time when everything is right, he enters into synchrony with his environment. He experiences the thrill of rhythm sounded out by the rising and dipping of birds, of rustling branches reaching over river banks of slowly shifting gravel and earth, and by the myriad life forms under the panoply of moving water. He, himself, is the product of a thousand year quest. To greater or lesser extent, he is many things in addition to the hunter after his quarry. He is, in the rod he uses deftly, an athlete. If he ahs built it himself, he is an artisan. If he has created the lure, or tied the flies, or communicated his experience to many others, he is an artist. If he has studied the stream to create these lures or flies, he is a naturalist. If he is thrilled by the wildness that remains, making certain his presence does nothing to diminish the place, he is an environmentalist. If he is outraged by any signs of despoilation he does see and takes any action at all, he begins to repay his debt to nature. He becomes the river's, and in a small but important way, his brother's and his son's keeper. Any one of these alone is worthy of a lifetime's pursuit.

If he is suddenly jolted out of his reverie by a bolt of silver flashing across the stream to the sound of his reel whirring uncontrollably, he becomes again the wide-eyed little boy who watched the trout engulf his dew worm. If it is a wild thing, a fish living and growing and procreating there, or a salmon or steelhead returning to its native stream, not at the sufferance of man,. But because this earth is still working fine on its own, the river is still pure enough, the ocean is still generous, and the man can still come here and connect with this powerful, wondrous creation of the forces governing the earth, he is a happy man indeed. Should he successfully subdue the fish, he may gaze upon its shimmering flanks in the pellucid shallows to be overcome with the same awe a father experiences when he first looks upon his newborn child. A confirmation that all is well.

To close, I would like to take you through four seasons of steelhead fishing. It is worthy of note that the first, "Winter Solstice," describes a place that may be unique. We take a trek up a river that comes closer to providing the wilderness experience than most one would find a thousand miles from the nearest city, and yet it is only 15 minutes from Vancouver's core. It is the Seymour. Such a place must be cherished and preserved not just for the great fish that return each year to spawn, though they are there and wonderful to fish for, but for the startling, other worldly quality one encounters as he enters its bower…

 

Seasons of the Steelhead

I. Winter Solstice

The rains of November have come and gone
The river swelled and surged and
subsided.
We rose in the dark, stoked with coffee
and eggs and rashers of bacon
To head up, past the gate into the lost
world of the watershed.
Silence, but for the soft murmur of our
boots in the downy snow
And the rhythmic panting of the setters
forging ahead.

The last pool before the canyon is
suffused with cathedral lighting.
Here, I watch the fly fluttering, gaudy
as its Davie St. namesake
Caressed by the current, engulfed by the
gloom.
The sinking head wafts down to the
boulder waystations
Nothing.

So we push on, higher, into the remote
reaches.
Past rosehips glowing dimly like failing
Christmas lights
Past a mighty salmon, transformed by
death into a mid winter gargoyle
To the island pool, resplendent in a
filigree cloak of hoar frost.
Once more the iridescent Hooker vanishes
into the riffle
And halts.

A mailed fist bursts through the leaden
surface, brandishing a challenge.
The ratchet chatters, the rod arcs and
the river erupts again in the distance.
I stumble after, over icy stones, trying
its will, conceding line, winding hard
Down the run, past the cribbing, through
the chute.
A miracle; it is suddenly before me.

An argentine phantom suspended in the
stream
The fly glowing in its jaw - a
treacherous jewel.
My friend twists out the barb.
Back into the river, pause, vanish.

The light is fading too fast; the
gatekeeper will be miffed.
We trudge downstream, reliving the
winter run
Looking forward to an open fire, a
warming brandy and a hot meal.

 

II. The Rites of Spring

A time for the Island, thrumming with
the exultation of rebirth.
The hillsides are drenched bloodred with
salmon berries.

But too soon we are speeding through the
ravaged belly
Averting our eyes, shamed by its
visage of the rain shadow.

The cavernous saloon resounds with the
clamour of subcultures.
Cowhands and Indians, a raucous gang of
railroaders
And a number of the Thirteenth Tribe:
Wanderers who mark the season by the
river they're on.
Wintle, Winters, Lemire, Kambeitz and
Maisonpierre
Gentle, jovial, taciturn, sage and
arrogant by turn
Skilled devotees f the art of
steelheading.

Last night's puddles splinter under our
cleats as we approach.
Far out in the glide, colossal forms are
porpoising in the half light
Dawn cracks across the peaks
Igniting the yellow hills.
The hissing of lines caresses a silence
Shattered by an express train thundering
upstream.
And Hamill ululating above the din.
His rod high he is fast to an underwater
locomotive
Steaming downstream: an apposition of
forces.

The monster vaults clear far below him
I wind in and mince my way to shore
along the ball bearing bottom.
This river is unforgiving, and the
primal battle has begun.

 

Ehor O. Boyanowsky