Friday, April 29, 2011

Trout Hopener 2011

In early May 1997, when my good friend Ed pulled a shining chrome hen from the upper reaches of the Ganaraska river, I couldn't believe my eyes. Neither of us could. But it was a late spring and, as I recall, I heard stories that year of guys catching drop-back steelhead well into June.

I'll never forget the one Ed missed that same year, large and dime-bright, which vaulted several times and snapped off his entire rig like gossamer. May Chrome lightning, literally out of a bottle!

This past Friday morning, I thought I was onto a similar, though smaller combatant. In the gray early morning light, it was obvious to both Dan and I that she was particularly bright, and the delicate blush of fresh pink on her sides was easily visible at every leap. I lost count of her aeronautics after about the sixth jump, and she will be one of those fish that I'll be talking to my sons about someday, when they've experienced their their fair share of fighting with feisty lake Ontario steelhead. As it is, she was either freshly spawned out or a rare, almost fully recovered, drop-back.

But as it was in 1997, so it may be in 2011, it seems. To many it may feel as though the fish have all gone back to the lake, but I think that this view would be mistaken. As such this year's opener is in stark contrast to last year's, when bass were already present in systems where they often don't appear until late May. This year, it seems that the progress of the steelhead run is about where it would normally be in the first week of April. I certainly hope to tangle with a chrome fish or two before the weekend is over, anyway.

It's funny. Last year, the hot sunny weather (and pneumonia) conspired against me when the opener rolled around, and this year the cold rainy weather, Easter and the Royal Wedding have turned the same trick on me. Whereas I cursed the dry weather we had last year, I was almost ready to do the same for the wet weather we've had this year. And as for the other interferences in question, to quote the wise Wallacio, "Easter on the opener should be banned!" Hear, hear! And let's add Royal Weddings to the list. Honestly, a gentleman - a Prince no less - should know better than to cast aside his bachelor status at such a time as when trout bite best! The nerve! As he will soon discover, a husband and father can do nothing on his own without the assistance of his wife; and similarly may his wife some day be as enchanted by the prospect of some royal wedding or other when for all the world he would rather have gone fishing!

Another contrast between this year's opener and last year's are the invariably cloudy water conditions. Fish could see your offering coming for miles, last year, but on both times I was out I had to count on good piscatorial feeding reflexes to carry the day. Certainly fish weren't seeing our baits until they were a few inches from their faces. Then, to the strong side of the ledger, the crowds of fishermen have dissipated with the decrease in water visibility. Amazingly, sections of river that looked like circus bivouacs last year, now sit entirely deserted.

This was certainly the case for Dan and I on Friday. There were no cars parked in any of the usually popular spots, and we had miles of river to ourselves. The visibility was quite poor, thanks to the recent monsoons that have battered the countryside, but we happily made do amid the early morning birdsong - always so sweet in April - and scents of wet cedar on a cool, fresh breeze. A few short minutes after I released then hen that I referred to above, Dan mentioned that someone was coming through the woods, on the other side of the river. I was somewhat disappointed, as I was really enjoying not having to share any of the pools or runs that were available in this stretch of river. First I heard him coming through the bush, then I saw a pair of waders, obviously Simms, and the flash of a centrepin reel. At least, I thought, it looks like someone who understands how to fish them and he probably won't bother us. Then I saw a gray coat and a black cap. The black cap swivelled left, then right, as the man surveyed the river before him. Then I did a double-take; Bill?

Bill! This was a pleasant surprise indeed. For a second I felt like I was in a scene from the Lord of the Rings, where the hobbits re-unite. Frodo! Bilbo! Merry! Sam! This is a very legitimate way of feeling about it, actually, since Bill is always a great guy to fish with. He's always happy to be out, always in a good mood no matter what the circumstances, so you can never be unhappy when you see him show up. How fortuitous that what we had talked about planning in the past should happen entirely by accident, namely fishing an Eastern Lake Ontario tributary together! He lives in Barrie, so it's not as though it's a short drive for him.

If I was happy to see Bill, Dan was ecstatic. They talked about all manner of northern Ontario fishing trips together as the morning wore on. They're on the same wavelength where that's concerned and they've already been on a good, long trip together. Also, Dan is a pretty open-hearted guy and he really appreciates friendly and positive chaps like Bill.

As for me, I gave them both a short recount of opening day on the past weekend. Khalid and I had combined for only 4 fish between the two of us, and we didn't find them where we had expected them. Hindsight being 20/20 we probably should have strayed from fish to find more fish, since our productivity really dwindled after we moved from our initial starting point. Mind you, we went from a crowded little spot to large areas of no fishermen at all. The fishing was slower there but not entirely unsuccessful, so you take the good with the bad. And then finishing the day with a Flor de Oliva - which I so rarely get to sample - was the icing on the cake for me.

The next day, on a completely different river, was much more favorable for Khalid. In the span of about two hours, he and his daughter landed two fish and missed another four, and all of them in water that most people quickly glanced at then moved away. The secret? He'd found the right seam at the right depth, in a perfect spot for fish to come and rest; and feed.

Dan and Bill listened to me patiently enough, but by the end of my spiel, they went back to talking about Thunder Bay and Nipigon, coasters and giant pike. It's very interesting stuff, but given my circumstances - and my natural tendency anyway - I'm a poor or average specialist in floatfishing our little rivers here in southern Ontario. I just don't have the time to engage in omnivorous fishing activities, so I tend not to have much to contribute once the discussion meanders away from great lakes steelhead.

As I randomly amble along for this particular post, I finally come to a point where I can put my reader(s) out of his/her/their misery. A coda: the best part about this >year's opener is hope. It's not the opener, then, but the "hopener." Unlike many more recent opening seasons, this one promises to be a long one. If not, and should the weather suddenly turn hot and dry, then at least it was not over in only a week and anyone who pays close attention, wherever they fish in Ontario, has an excellent chance of hitting real paydirt.

Here's to hope!


Saturday, April 09, 2011

Peace, Love and Happiness

It's very early, it's dark and I'm still groggy. I dress up as quickly as my sluggish fingers allow, wash my hands, rinse my face, suck my contacts into my eyes, tip-toe downstairs and find the cell phone. I text,

I'm up.

Within seconds the cell phone chimes, new message.

Me too.

Good. Disaster number one has been averted. Memories of the beginnings of our last two trips can now be erased. Twice Jean-Pierre and I have gone fishing together for the day, and twice I've woken up late, and twice I didn't deserve the patient friend waiting at the doorstep. I've scoured all the synonyms for "idiot," and I would say that on two occasions my favourite self-descriptor would be "muttonhead." I like that one.

But this time, the muttonhead is up on time. My things go into the car, I go through the list one last time - rods, reels, waders, boots, coat, cigars, brandy, beer, salami, cheese, grapes, roe, roe, more roe... I've got it all. I drive to JP's. He's waiting at the door, and five minutes later we slip smoothly out onto the road.

A few hours pass. Obviously, we're excited, so we talk a lot. Mostly our conversation is not fishing related. JP is a ravenous conversationalist and topics range from shot patterns to kids, to politics and sports. I eat it up, and before you know it, the drive is over and we are here. We park the car, and we're the first ones. Nice. A few minutes later, two retired gentlemen show up. We shoot the brown stuff while we all put on our waders and get set to go. I notice that I forgot to bring my famous red hat. The two retirees go up river, we go down.

Jean-Pierre starts fishing first. I have a technicality to take care of, shot not properly balanced, float too small, hook too dull; so I set up and within a few minutes I am ready to cast. Up it goes and down, swinging close to shore. It's deep here, I notice, as the float sails peacefully without the slightest hiccup. But there's bottom now, no. That's not bottom! I set the hook, two head-shakes, maybe three, and the fish is gone. Too bad I missed it but what a harbinger! It's gonna be a banner day!

There are still a few things I don't like about my rig, so I fix them, and I start fishing again. "Drifting, drifting, endlessly drifting." I look around. The water is like glass. There is as much wind as in a closed room, and even the lake is flat, like a giant window gazing down into the deep blue. Clouds move slowly across the sky as the sun rises, peeking now and then between them, casting ever brighter beams into the high, green, and gradually clearing water. There are all kinds of ducks everywhere. Buffleheads and mergansers cruise the edges of the current at the far side of the river. Every now and again, a few of them fly away and I see flashes of blue on the backs of the mergansers' wings. I keep on fishing.

Suddenly my float starts to shake. It looks like the offering below is skidding across a bed of gravel. But there's no gravel, there. So the rod swings back, and the hook sets into a heavy jaw. The fish is no slouch. The head-shakes are large and strong. It zags a bit across the current, comes up, then blisters down. I hold on. The new Rainshadow XST is performing as advertised - almost too well. It's easy to tell when the fish will turn, and that's what I make it do. It gradually comes closer, and I can see him. Big male, maybe 10lbs. Hard to tell, because the glimpse is brief. He turns again and this time he smokes me for more than 50 feet. I turn him up again, and now I can feel him ebbing. He comes back up against the current much easier this time. Finally, I swing him out and slightly further up, then quickly in and on shore. A few quick pictures and I opt to cradle him for a bit in the glacial water, enjoying the feel of life returning in him. At last, when my hands can't take the cold anymore, I let go and watch as he smoothly disappears into the flow.

My hook is bent and my leader is wrecked, so I sit down and take my time re-rigging. It's a fine, rare morning and I want to absorb as much of it as I can. The fish has already set much bad luck to rights, and I know that even though I should catch little or nothing the rest of the way, I will be content. And I know that such quiet mornings, as still as a baby's sleep, are equally fleeting.

One of the older gentlemen pops around the corner, and we talk a little bit more. He remarks that he has no taste for centrepin reels, preferring bottom bouncing and chucking lures. Could never get into those damn things & 'd rather feel the hit than watch one ' them goofy floats go down. Somehow, he manages to express this in a way that doesn't offend me in the least. To each his own, eh. He settles in lower down in the drift, then gradually works his way to the mouth.

An hour passes, maybe two, during which no fish are caught. But as the old fellow comes back up river, just as he crests a great big rock to look down on how we're doing, my float gives a savage spike. I set the hook and a rainbow trout comes up almost immediately. It shakes its head a lot, quick shakes, not big ones. It occurs to me that I've got it well positioned to just tow it in, before it can swim down to capitalise on the force of the current. I clamp on the reel and go for it, and just like that she's on shore. No release this time.

No eggs either. When we clean the fish later, we find not even the barest trace of an ovary. Strange. Must be a "croker," or at the very least a fall spawner. It yields beautiful, bright orange fillets that look better than the most expensive Sashimi. Half of it has a date with JP's freezer, the other half with my barbecue on Sunday. It's been a little more than a year since I kept a steelhead for the table, and I think that to keep one for that purpose, from time to time, far from being non-conservationist, rather does them homage.

And that's all there is to tell about our piscatorial success, sadly. On a freak accident, I missed another one which took my entire rig when I set the hook. I had probably scythed my line on a rock, after I caught the croker, and there had been just enough power left in the mainline to allow me to cast. Then, shortly before we left, Jean-Pierre had a wicked hit. He set the hook, had too much slack, reeled in frantically and set the hook again. The fish shook its head, bob, bob, bob, swing! and the hook was free. That in itself guarantees him a guided trip to one of my eastern Ontario favourites, come opener: the rivers are smaller here and the drift is much less technical. Nonetheless, he came about 6 feet of line and 1 second short of having the best piscatorial battle of his life, though he doesn't know that yet.

A couple of hours after lunch, we debate: where should we go? up river, down river? Then there's another text message on Jean-Pierre's cell phone,

Daddy, when are you coming home?

That's the end of it. The rods are packed in, and we change into our non-fishing clothing.

Exhaustion, stress, confusion even, these things lead us out onto the fishing zones. And we enjoy friendship there, focus on simple things - a float drifting down the river - hope of fish, and wonderment of nature. But love calls us back home. Love always calls us back.

And isn't that, finally, the point?


Sunday, April 03, 2011

Eternally springing hope

All of my outings this Spring have been less than stellar. In fact, I believe that I have caught one fewer fish than the number of times I've been out fishing. There are a lot of reasons for my continued failure, but they are all starting to sound like excuses.

So, one of two things has happened. Either I've again run into a string of bad luck or, as I get older, a veil is slowly lifting from my eyes, to reveal how incomplete a fisherman I truly am.

It's easy to blame things on luck, or circumstance, and most of the time this is probably the right approach to take. It's certainly the simplest and it's usually true enough. But blaming oneself, or worse - one's skill - is an approach that requires a personal admission of guilt and, more delicately, clear identification of past mistakes. Without first knowing that you did something wrong, you can live in ignorant bliss. Knowing you committed an error, and exactly what it was, you can at least hope to fix it. But knowing you fouled things up, without being quite sure how or even what it is you fouled up, is a lonely and confusing state. This is, in a nutshell, the fisherman's eternal dilemma and even the best among us go there sometimes.

I'm sitting in that place right now, as I type. Did the cup get smaller as I've grown older? Have I forgotten what I knew? Did I just
think I knew it, but had it wrong all this time? Was I luckier than I am now? The truth is, I don't know.

This past Saturday had its little insight. After watching Mike catch most of the fish, as I often do anyway, I finally followed his lead, tied on one of René's white bunny jigs with chartreuse collar, and I jigged it in a patch of slow moving water. After a short while, I felt the pull as a fair-sized fish engulfed what it had taken to be a shiner. I set the hook, a short battle ensued, pictures were taken and the fish released.

The crux is that I felt, at the time, that this was in fact Mike's fish - or René's - rather than my own. You can see it in my face, in the picture: I look like the guy at the pageant who gets to kiss his sister. I was looking back on the past 3 or 4 outings, poor performances all, letting them weigh in on the moment in a way I shouldn't have. Not just because every fish is a gift, but because of what James Reimer said.

The emerging number one goalie of the Toronto Maple Leafs was being interviewed, on Hockey Night in Canada recently, and Glenn Healy brought up the inscription on the back of the goalie's mask:

Obstacles are the things you see when you lose sight of the goal.

Notwithstanding the
jocular over-simplification or the possibly accidental double-entendre (haha, the "goal" is behind him), it is really true. In other words, not catching a truckload of fish is the thing the Average Steelheader sees when he loses sight of the goal, which is of course, fishing. Granted, the object of fishing is to catch fish, but the object of the angler is to find opportunities to go fishing. It's more than just avowing that fishing is its own reward, though it usually is. It's about learning, always being willing to learn.

And finally, it's about learning the art of sacrificing;
one's hours and minutes, one's day, one's season, for the very noble purpose of learning even more about fishing. I can take it a step further and say that it's about accepting that learning wasn't even what you thought your goal was for the day, when you got up in the morning and drove out in the pre-dawn blackness. That is, doubt the validity of your choice, but not the validity of your actions.

I've seen some pretty spectacular things so far. Rivers at opposite ends of the spectrum: one near flooding (in which I still managed to hook a couple of fish) and one that literally had its flow "cut off" in the middle of the day - a sure sign that the steelhead gods were telling me to begone. I've fished with Jean-Pierre and Mike (and hopefully soon with Wallacio) and enjoyed good conversation and companionship as a result. And I've fished in times and places that I hadn't fished before, so that my repertoire has grown.

The best part is that Spring has just begun, with lots of time left for a good numbers day or two. Balanced with the future successes that the lessons of the past few weeks will bring, not to mention respite and a clearer mind (and heart) as a result, I don't feel so badly about having been such a "rube," anymore. Against the vast tome of nature's reality, we are all ignorant. But does that really matter? No.

Let's go fishing!