Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Fly-fisherman's Utopia

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I explore the alluring wilderness of a northern coast,

enjoy fly-fishing in brilliant sunshine alongside an iceberg,

and pay homage to the most beautiful fish in the world.

In the early hours of a fine sunny Sunday morning in the early summer of 1954 our research vessel lay peacefully anchored amid the scattered coastal islands scattered off the northern Labrador coast.

After a week or two of charting the offshore waters of central Labrador our expedition now awaited the ice fields ahead to open up sufficiently to allow us to round Cape Chidley, pass west of the Button Islands, then through Hudson Strait and across the northern part of the Bay to the, at that time totally unpopulated and pristine, region of Rankin Inlet.

Though our ship, the M.V. Theron, was well suited to its role as a compact Arctic research vessel it was in fact a small, sturdy, ice-strengthened sealing vessel built of steel, and on annual charter to the Canadian Hydrographic Service.

Cradled on the Theron’s foredeck were three hydrographic sounding launches, each equipped with a depth-recording echo sounder. During charting operations each launch was manned by two surveyors and four seamen.

On that lovely Sunday morning, a day which was to become especially memorable for me, nobody then aboard the Theron, including myself, knew that we were headed for a very special place — the Mirage Islands. This because at that time those islands did not exist in name, nor had they yet been mapped, nor were they to be so for another three months—before I myself would discover them and delineate and position their shores, and, chart in detail their surrounding waters. Then, a year later, after formal approval by the Canadian Board on Geographical Names, this magical group of low-lying islands would be officially christened with the name I chose for them—the name that still appears on modern maps and charts of northern Canada

But for the present, on that particular bright Sunday morning, of which I write, I was intrigued only by the lonely northern Labrador coast which lay half a mile away. Studying the view in detail through my binoculars from the ship’s upper deck made me eager to land ashore and explore its wild, tumbling streams with my fly rod in hand. Less than an hour later in company with the ship’s young chief engineer, a good companion and fellow keen angler, I landed ashore at the mouth of a broad-running river.

But truly contemplative sport fishing being by nature a personal affair my fellow angler and I soon parted company. After pulling our dory high up the rock-strewn beach we each wandered away intent on secret and solitary exploration. For myself I moved off in the warm sunshine along the remote and completely uninhabited shoreline in a southerly direction.

Half way around a protruding bend in the coastline, as I made my way along the shore, my attention was taken by several arctic terns wheeling and diving in frenzied flight. Looking at them through my binoculars I was unable to see the object of their excitement still hidden by yet another jiggle in the coastline.

My curiosity heightened when through my glasses I saw an osprey dive down among the wheeling terns. Not only was it a rare sighting of a fish-hunting osprey at a location well north of its normal range, but an osprey in the company of terns? And why were they all engaged in that one particular spot along a lonely northern shore?

A few minutes later, as I made my way along the beach the puzzle was solved by a dramatic revelation. For here I came across a slender but active little stream. It was fast flowing down the beach from a thicket of dense spruce trees. At the ocean’s edge its fresh waters met and then gently overrode the salt seawater of the gradually rising tide. The resulting interacting rivulets, sparkling in the sun, presented an enticing and, for the angler irresistible, setting.

But what was most extraordinary about the scene was the fact that just offshore, in but a few fathoms of water, was what was left of a bungalow-sized bergy bit—a miniature iceberg fully hard aground in shoal water. To add to this fascinating happening, that small weathered remnant of a once mighty iceberg still retained a long and broad wafer-like tongue of smooth, flat ice stretching inshore a hundred feet or more. In appearance that ice-block-built bungalow was as if fronted by its own pristine white lawn of translucent green-edged ice. Intriguingly, its flat surface was gently washed over by but a single foot of turquoise-tinted seawater. It was a dazzling tableau rendered in a most extraordinary mixture of natural colours.

It was towards the edges of the barely sunken wafer of ice that the terns were concentrating their attention. Performing the aerobatics and sudden turns in direction for which the species are so known—and probably for which, unwittingly, so aptly named. Observing their occasional quick snatch at the water’s upper few inches I again brought my binoculars into play and was fascinated to see that shoals of very small fish were swarming along the edge of the ice-tongue. Occasionally they could be seen swimming across and over the top of the ice, there to glitter silvery in the bright sunshine. At these times their numbers seemed to miraculously double in an instant on account of each fish having its ultra-sharp black shadow projected in silhouette onto the pure white screen of ice so closely below.

The nearest and thinnest edge of the ice tongue was hardly half a dozen feet from the stony beach over which the small freshwater stream ran down so merrily. As I moved forward I could see that the circumstances of this mixing of fresh and salt waters, combined with the presence of the solitary stranded piece of polished ice was a compelling source of attraction for a variety of fishes, large and small.

By now either because of my disturbing presence or having taken their fill the terns had departed. And of the wandering osprey there was no sign. But fish were still there in plenty. Now, at close range, I was amazed at the many species and sizes I could plainly see.

The small fish which had been the target of the terns I reasoned to be capelin. But also I saw cod, large and fat from also feasting on the same abundance, and one or two other slimmer streamlined fish I thought to be mackerel.

Of most importance I saw several salmon. Those kings and queens of fishes had been drawn to the river’s sweet outflow and the coolness of the shiny bergy bit as much as by the swarms of capelin. It was probably the same story for the odd whitefish I could see. Incongruously one solitary flounder made its flat undulating way through the shallow water atop the brilliant and barely submerged flat ice sheet, the flounder’s dark upper sides making it extremely and dangerously conspicuous.

It must have been the allure of warm sunshine on the water surface juxtaposed with icy layers underneath that beguiled this diverse collection of fish life to mingle together in one magical place of pristine congress. It was as if a fine display of marine fish life was presented in brilliant, captivating, live action over some supernaturally-produced observational light-table, producing an encyclopaedic life-sized diorama of cold-water fish life. As if, perhaps, a museum showcase had been spiritually designed and created.

Especially enticing amid all this wonderful abundance were a dozen or two beautiful speckled, or brook, trout. Of differing sizes they also sported different background hues to their coloured markings. Some had evidently been out to sea for a week or two or longer and had taken on a distinctive silvery tinge. Others, just arrived down from the freshness of the nearby stream and the high inland lakes, were typically coloured with darkly mottled upper parts and sides speckled with lustrous halos of blue surrounding brilliant red and orange spots.

It was the sight of those most lovely of chars, as such they truly are, that finally tempted me to set up my lightweight bamboo rod and cast a brightly-coloured, silver-shanked fly out over the foreshore to alight just inches inside the blue and white spectrum of the ice edge. With the aberration of time so often experienced in such situations, I saw as if in slow motion, but in reality very swiftly, the black shadow of one of the larger brook trout advance to meet the much smaller speck of shadow cast by my fly. As the two shadows met I gave a gentle twitch to my rod and he was on. Off he went away from me, streaking across the smooth ice tongue, twisting and turning and so indistinct against the sparkling sunlit ice sheet that it was just his sharp-edged shadow I played until he went off to one side into deeper water. After some minutes I had him back over the ice sheet and finally coaxed him to the gleaming stones and pebbles at my feet. I gazed at him in admiration and respect for a few moments, then gave him slack, With a toss of his head he loosened the barbless fly in his mouth and spat it out. Carefully, I displaced several of the larger pebbles upon which he rested until he could fully regain his upright posture and slowly he made his way into deeper water. Whereupon, untouched by my hands during the whole episode of our encounter, he sped away in a flash, leaving but a colourful memory in his wake. I imagined him hiding down below, shaking his head to recover his wits and wondering at the meaning of it all. Exactly as I was doing myself, sitting on a small boulder on the shore, meditating and smoking a pipe of tobacco. Just as that classical angler of all time, Izaak Walton, reports he himself had so often done three-hundred years before me, sitting and smoking his clay pipe on the banks of the River Lee just north of London, during the troubled times of England’s only civil war and during Oliver Cromwell’s turgid years of boring Commonwealth.

But I thought, complacently to myself, I was at least one up on old Izaak Walton. Sitting there on my rock, fifty-five years ago, on the lonely Labrador coast in 1954, on that fine day of which I write, it was then 300 years since Izaak Walton had written his wonderful treatise, The Compleat Angler, concerning his reflections on the ‘Contemplative Man’s Recreation'. Because I thought, a little smugly, old Izaak, unlike myself, had never had a chance to angle for and admire the beautiful speckled or brook trout. After all they are only truly native to north-eastern North America waters.

Especially those of eastern Canada.

And Izaak Walton had angled only in England.

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