The Hope of Spring Fishing

Story and Photography by Mark Hume

One spring there was a wolf pack, running a moose down out of the foothills of the Rockies. That year we arrived after a six hour drive to find the lake was still frozen. The candle ice broke softly against itself as the days warmed. No trout anywhere. No open water. But it was a great trip, full of howling and the harsh breathing of a moose, running for its life.

Another spring, on Vancouver Island, we  crawled out of frosted tents to fish each day until dark, where a creek dropped its heavy, cold water into the lake. Using Muddler Minnows, we caught big cutthroats with green backs, then drove into Campbell River, on northern Vancouver Island,  to watch the Stanley Cup finals on a  TV screen in a bar.  That was a Canadian spring: trout, occasional snow flurries, and play-off hockey.

“Fishermen are searchers,” Roderick Haig-Brown once wrote. “It is true we search for fish, at times with great diligence. But we search also. . . for experiences; and there are no greater experiences than the seasons, varied and repeated year after year in our special comings and goings.”

And no season is more varied, more moody, more full of surprise than spring. More full of promise, did I forget that?

If you fish, spring seems to swell up inside you. Every day you see signs that others miss. A cloud of Mayflies dances high overhead. Others are looking at the swans on the park pond. You are squinting to make out the color of the insects. Somewhere, you know, trout will be feeding.

Finally you slip away from the city. Going up over the Coquihalla the snow is lying low on the mountains.  But it’s gone by the time you drop down to Merritt, into country that holds some of the world’s great trout lakes.  It’s late to be starting, you think, summer’s almost here. The first day starts with bright sun, but then dark clouds gather over the lake. Hail lashes down, rattling off your fishing rod. You can see your breath – and you sure don’t want to. Hands become clumsy from the cold. You wonder, why the hell am I doing this? Then you see a trout swirl on the surface and forget everything else – for four hours.

“Once I made to myself a vow that I would never again fish in British Columbia in the spring,” Steve Raymond, a Seattle  author wrote  in The Year of The Angler. “So many spring trips had been miserable, with freezing cold and snow at night, hard rain and sleet by day, with vicious muddy roads and fishing that was terrible as often as it was good.”

He goes on to say that’s a promise he’s never kept. And for good reason. The fishing in British Columbia in the spring can be cruel – but it can also be matchless.

Raymond writes about coming to a small lake in the Merritt area one spring in mid-May. There was still snow on the ground. It was too early to fish, really, but he’d driven all that way. . And he had the need.

“I felt a warm, happy feeling such as one has when greeting an old, dear friend after a long absence,” he wrote of seeing the lake.

He makes the first cast: “Suddenly there was a vicious strike and a great trout shot straight upwards, its bright sides flashing in the sun.”

In that one moment all the vicious, muddy roads, the cold hands and terrible disappointments are suddenly forgotten. Once you have a nice fish, everything is OK. It is not that fishing is a drug that brings on amnesia, although there are addictive qualities to it, it’s just that when it works it is so good there isn’t room for thoughts on much else.

People who fish whenever they can call themselves hardcore. And they can never fish enough.

“One of my greatest passions in life is fishing,” writes James Prosek, in his beautiful book of art on trout. “For me it’s more than a pastime or hobby; instead it is a way of life, and an escape.”

Many find that escape in the intense focus that’s needed to tune in to nature and simply figure out what’s happening in the water, and why?

Campbell River poet, Van Egan, explains the joy of problem solving in his book, Waterside Reflections:

“On a river with Rod (Haig-Brown) you could depend on a day of fully sharing all the possibilities and problems encountered. There was no competition. Each pool or run was met more as a team effort, the prospects discussed, the approach agreed on, the successes or defeats usefully dissected. One late winter afternoon Maxi and I met Rod in the Lower Island Pool of the Campbell River. He had moved a fish on a fly, or thought he had, but could not get a repeat. Rod asked Maxi to try with her float rod and gob of roe. The float went down first pass through and Maxi had a fine winter steelhead. Rod’s satisfaction was as great as if he had caught the fish himself.”

Van is gone now, but his love of fishing  lives on because of his writing.

Says Vancouver writer and broadcaster, Rafe Mair, in The Last Cast – Fishing Reminiscences: “Fly-fishing is a hell of a good way to spend one’ leisure hours.”

Mair’s book takes its title from a day on which everything went wrong – except the last cast, on which he caught such a beautiful, big trout, that all the mistakes and frustrations were immediately forgotten.

“I fish because I love it, and all history, to say nothing of common sense,  tells me that it is a perfectly natural and proper thing to do.”

In Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis,  former New York Times editor, Howell Raines, writes that the sheer physical pleasure of catching a fish is one of the reasons he does it.

“But what is there about catching a fish that seems magical in the psychological sense?” he asks.

“The appeal is the same as that which resides in pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  We have reached into a realm over which we have no explainable mastery and by supernatural craft or mere trickery created a moment that is as phenomenal on the hundredth performance as on the first.

“Fish in the water represent pure potential. If the water is not clear, we do not know if they exist at all. To get them to bite something connected to a line and pull them into our world is managing a birth that brings these creatures from the realm of mystery into the world of reality. It’s a kind of creation.'”

In trying to explain why people fish, Gordon Davies writes in The Living Rivers of British Columbia & Yukon: “Possibly it is ‘uncertainty’ that hypnotizes us and won’t let us leave. With every cast we tempt the unknown.”

Escape. A search for experience. A hypnotic interaction with nature. Whatever you want to say, it is clear that fishing is no ordinary sport. It is part recreation – and  part religion.

For those who don’t fish, but who love people who do, it is a mystery. They can suffer it with humor or anguish – but they cannot extinguish it.

Better is to join in.

After  Robert Redford turned Norman Maclean’s great book, A River Runs Through It, into a movie, fly fishing underwent a popularity boom. Fly fishing classes suddenly  were booked solid.   Seduced by the graceful beauty of fly casting, the students  wanted  to become  part of it. And many did, boosting participation in the sport across North America. Many didn’t stick, but many did.

For those who stayed, and for those joingning now, I can only say that ahead  for them lie many vicious, muddy roads that lead to cold, fishless places full of terrible disappointments. But if they persist they will eventually arrive at a place of addictive bliss. The line will go where they want it too. And, if they look hard enough and long enough, the mystery will become clear – allowing them to look, for the first time, through the water and into the heart of the fish.

If they are lucky, they’ll get to that sacred place this spring. I hear the big ones are biting again.