By Greg Clark, May 4, 1946
“Pull up here!” commanded Jimmie Frise, his leg already swung overboard from the open car.
“There’s much better fishing,” I protested, as I slowed, “about half a mile farther down.”
“Here’s the place,” announced Jim, excitedly, and he was grabbing for his fly rod to set it up.
“If we park here,” I muttered, “we’ll block the trail.”
“Last season, just about this time of year,” cried Jim, pointing up his rod, “I took five trout of over a pound each. And I must have lost 20. Twenty good ones.”
I backed and forwarded the little touring car until it was hinched well up against the side of the woods road.
Right below us, the beautiful river flowed in all its early May glory. The floods had long since passed, the river was getting down to normal. Its color was not too clear. It was just right.
Where Jimmie had ordered us to halt, an ideal trout-fishing stretch of water hastened and paused, boiled and simmered, for a length of maybe 300 yards. There were shallow, swift bouldery passages, where the water tumbled and raged amid boulders the size of a piano. Then there were pools, where the water rested and whirled, the white foam making that tactical shade under which big trout love to hide.
Jim jointed up his rod with trembling hands. He fastened on his reel. Threaded his fat fly line up through the guides. Linked on a nine-foot leader to which he had already tied a good big streamer fly, a badger streamer with crimson body.
And before I had my rod out of its case, Jim was sliding down the bank towards the stream.
Before I had my line threaded through the guides, he was hip deep in the bouldery section.
And just as I was tying on a Clark’s Ghost – a fly of my own design, a streamer made of silvery gray feathers and silver body – I heard a muffled shout above the low roar of the river. And there was Jim, leaning back picturesquely, his nine-foot rod bent in a gorgeous arc, and a big trout rolling and threshing in the fast shallow water 40 feet down stream from him alongside one of the foaming boulders.
I leaned my rod against the car, seized my landing net and skidded down the bank.
It is hard to any which is the more delightful experience in trout-fishing: to catch a trout yourself, or to sit in a grandstand seat on the river bank and watch a friend catch one.
At first thought, you are inclined to favor catching the trout yourself. There are not many experiences in life to equal it. But they are impossible to remember. You are too excited to remember. In my lifetime, I have caught more than my share of trout. But when I try to recapture the picture in memory of any of the greatest fights, the picture eludes me. It begins, all right, with me at the business end of the rod. But almost imperceptibly, the moving picture of my memory begins to slip and fade; and it is my wife or Jim or old Skipper Howard I see in memory, making one of the epic captures I have witnessed.
The First For 1946
Jim stood with feet braced, his rod arched high, his left hand drawing in line as the trout gave ground. You don’t wind your reel while fighting a trout with a fly rod. You draw the line in and give it out, the slack falling into the boiling water at your feet. The trout was a 16-incher – a good pound and a half. With the current helping it, it would take runs down stream that almost stripped off the 90 feet of line Jim had on his reel. Then it would rest; and Jim, with arched rod, would persuade it up through eddies and slack stretches.
But in the end, the trout’s greatest advantage, the swift current, becomes its deadly enemy.
I saw its orange-edged white belly flash more often, as it rolled in the slashing current. Finally, Jim was able to draw it a good 30 feet without much resistance. And in another minute, he had it within 20 feet of him. I waded into a quiet spot. Jim led it skilfully over towards me. I sank the landing net in the pool. Jim drew the trout over the net. I lifted.
And there was trout Number One for 1946 – pound and a half, sleek, fat, lithe, brightly colored, it’s tiny red spots margined with iridescent blue, its white snow-white, its orange margins smoked with black. Surely the most beautiful animal on earth.
I left Jim with his prize and clambered up the bank to get my tackle organized. In an instant I, too, was in the stream; and, working pretty well side by side, we fished that 300-yard rapids for two solid hours.
At this early season of the year, the trout are not as wary as they become later, when the water falls low and clear. After their long winter fast, the trout are hungry and on the make. The water is rough and not too clear. Anything attractive in the tumbling water is likely to induce even an adult trout to make a strike. They inhabit the wildest water, partly to capture the Insects and minnows washed down in the current, partly also because those small creatures are helpless and easy prey in the broken water. But I think a good-sired trout likes to glory in his strength in that swift current. What an ordeal of strength it must be for a trout to maintain his position in that bullet-fast water, full of a thousand twists and turns of current. Not for an instant can the trout relax his muscular effort. If he did, he would be swept down stream a hundred yards in a few seconds. Yet, hour after hour, a big trout will rise and slash at his feed in one raging area few feet square.
In two hours, Jim had seven trout, the best one the first one, the 16-incher, I had five, one of them almost the mate to Jim’s.
But to make up for my failure to beat him, I had at least LOST the biggest one. And Jim had been right there to see it. As we waded down, level with each other, I had cast a long throw into a black eddy beside one of the big boulders. The fly had dragged through one of those little foam puddings. Something half the size of a cocker spaniel had humped up. I struck to set the hook. The small pool exploded. Up in the air leaped a dark, glistening trout of at least two pounds. It went around the boulder. And my line and leader, minus fly, sprang back through the air.
If you can’t CATCH the biggest trout – at least LOSE the biggest!
“Let’s break off, Jim,” I said, as I waded ashore to put on a fresh streamer fly. “How about some sandwiches?”
So Jim wound up his line and came ashore, too, and sat down on the rocks beside me.
He emptied his creel on to a flat stone and lined his seven beautiful trout out, according to seniority. I handed him my creel; and the 12 made a beautiful display.
“After lunch,” I stated, “we’ll fish the rapids half a mile below here and catch another dozen.”
“We’ll eat six for supper tonight at the hotel,” decreed Jim, leaning down on his elbow to sniff the sweet, strange smell of trout.
“Tomorrow,” I outlined, “we’ll fish these same two stretches of the stream. I don’t think we can do any better anywhere in Ontario.”
“I wonder,” sighed Jim, as I busied myself with my fly box, “I wonder how many years these same rapids have produced trout for anglers?”
A Bit of History
“Well, Jim,” I informed him, “I’ve got an old book at home called the ‘Sportsman’s Gazetteer’ by Charles Hallock, an American. It was published in 1877 – that’s 70 years ago. At the back of the book, he gives details and routes of where to go fishing all over America, including Canada. And in the Ontario section, he mentions and describes this very river. Hallock probably shed this very rapids.”
“Seventy years isn’t so much,” suggested Jim.
“But Muskoka was by then,” I cried, “a thoroughly opened up and exploited tourist region. Hallock speaks of Muskoka as a most popular sportsman’s region. He describes what he calls the Northern Lakes. Simcoe, Cochochong – that’s the way he spelled Couchiching – Muskoka and Rosseau. He gives the routes for getting there by train and boat and gives the names of the sporting good dealers and outfitters in Gravenhurst and Bracebridge.”
“We’ve been hoicking trout of here,” mused Jim, “a long time.”
“Hallock,” I said, “speaks of fishing the Nipigon. He describes how to get there and he calls Port Arthur ‘Prince Arthur’s Landing.'”
“The Nipigon!” cried Jim. Do you mean to say the Americans were going to the Nipigon in 1877! Why, I haven’t been there yet.”
“Aw, listen,” I protested. “I’ve got another old book at home by Charles Lanman, the private secretary of Daniel Webster. In 1842, a hundred and four years ago, Lanman made a tour of Lake Superior in a birch bark canoe and fished the Nipigon and wrote it up just about the way the railway tourist departments write it up today.”
“That,” said Jim, “sort of takes away from the adventure of being here. I hate to think of a whole century of sportsmen fishing this stream ahead of me. I like to feel like an adventurer…”
“Well, I like to marvel,” I submitted, “at the eternal bounty of wild nature. To think of this Muskoka river giving us a catch of trout like that…”
And we both centred our gaze on the broad white stone on which reposed, in artistic array, our 12 beautiful trout.
“I hear,” said Jim, “that the tourist invasion of Canada this season is going to be the biggest ever.”
“Canada, in pre-war years,” I advised, “used to average $300,000,000 a year from the American tourists. This year, I hear they expect $500,000,000.”
“That’s a lot of dough,” murmured Jim.
“Why,” I exclaimed, “it’s possibly our richest industry. I mean, it brings in all that cash. The cash is left here. And nothing is taken out of the country but a few snapshots!”
“And a few fish,” corrected Jim, lovingly smiling at the trout.
“The Yanks,” I pursued, “bring in $500,000,000 cash. They leave it here. Unlike the manufacturing industry, or the agricultural industry, nothing leaves the country. That is nothing of importance.”
“But,” pointed out Jim, “a lot of fish leave the water – for keeps!”
“Mmmmmm,” I mmmed.
“If $500,000,000 worth of Americans come up here this summer,” demanded Jim, “how much are the fish worth that these Americans take out of our waters?”
“They don’t all fish,” I pointed out.
“Okay, then say $250,000,000 worth of them do,” proposed Jimmie. “Now, what does that make our fish worth – to us?”
I looked at the white stone with the 12 trout.
“Would the Americans come up here,” demanded Jim, if we ran out of fish? Suppose we fished so hard ourselves and let the Americans fish so hard that we all got ahead of the fish and ran out of them?”
“Do you think that’s possible?” I asked, “when this one little river, described by Hallock 70 years ago, can still produce for us a catch like this?”
“Well, I think we Canadians should all worry about it,” submitted Jim.
“Nature is to prolific,” I assured him. “Nature can stage such a wonderful come back. I bet if an atomic bomb were to eliminate the human race at one fell swoop, nature would have this country back on a paying basis as far as nature is concerned – in 10 years. Boy, what a trout stream this would be in 10 years, if we could only eliminate the human factor!”
“That’s an idea,” breathed Jim slyly, again feasting his eyes on our trout.
“Here we are,” I expounded, “seated beside a beautiful trout stream. It has yielded us a lovely catch, despite all the years it has been fished. A few yards away, up the hill there, is our motor car, in which we can travel, almost as swift as thought, from the great city to this paradise. True, the wild creatures have mostly gone. The deer are gone. The ruffed grouse, the beaver, the otter. All the original Inhabitants of this country have been subdued and driven off by mankind. But what we want- the trout – are still here.”
“What lords of creation we humans are!” cried Jim.
A Trick of Nature
“The earth, and the fulness thereof, is ours!” I quoted. “We have learned how to rid the world of the things we don’t want, and to keep and maintain the things we do want. I think Canada’s $500,000,000 a year tourist business is safe. If the worst comes to the worst, we have learned how to grow fish in hatcheries. If, by any chance, we let too many tourists into the country, why, all we’ve got to do is spend a few millions of that annual $500,000,000 on new hatcheries, grow trout by the billion, pour them back into the streams, and there we are! Good for $500,000,000 a year indefinitely …!”
Jim gazed out over the lovely leaping water. He gazed at the trout on the stone.
“I don’t know,” he reflected slowly, “sometimes I think nature is bigger and more astonishing than we imagine. I think nature can and will play tricks on us that we don’t know she has in her bag of tricks. Just about the time we think we’ve got nature eating out of our hands, boom, she will…”
We both heard a loud report. Above the roar of the stream, it sounded like a shot. Up the hill. We both harked.
And, above the swish and rear of the stream, we heard another loud bang.
“Jim,” I scrambled to my feet, “that’s up by the car!”
“Hey!” cried Jim.
So we hastily gathered our gear and scrambled up the bank and along the bush road to the little car.
“What scoundrel…” I roared, “would do a thing like that!” Both our front tires were burst!
Both our beautiful new synthetic tires were not only flat, they had large holes ripped out of them.
I got down and examined them.
“Why, Jim,” I shouted, straightening up and looking angrily up and down the road and into the brush, “somebody has deliberately torn these tires… they’re chewed …”
Something stirred in the trees and we both looked up startled.
There sat two porcupines in neighboring trees, gazing down at us in that shoe-button, sap-headed, smirky expression porcupines use.
They looked pleased and a little startled.
“Jim,” I gasped, “the porkies chewed our tires …”
“What a depraved taste,” said Jim, reaching for a rock.
“But…but …” I cried outraged, “we’re miles from any help!”
Jim shook the trees and the porkies climbed as high as they could and then fell out and scuffled away into the underbrush.
“Imagine porkies,” I raged, “chewing tires…”
“Porkies,” said Jim, “will try anything once. Axe handles, privy seats, cardboard cartons, anything. I suppose these two porkies were a committee designated by the tribe to investigate the eating properties of our latest addition to Man’s conveniences.”
“Maybe it was the salt, off that dusty piece of road back near Bracebridge,” I suggested. “The highway department puts salt on the dusty roads…”
“Well…” smiled Jim, far away. “I was just saying nature has a few tricks up her sleeve…”
Now, it’s not easy to leave a touring car alone on a lonely bush road. You can’t lock it up. We had to cache all our tackle and other valuables in the woods, hoping the porkies wouldn’t find them and chew them up. Then we started to walk the six miles back to the nearest farm on the bush road.
There was nobody home at the farm but a couple of fierce dogs. We had to walk another two miles. We got the nearest village service station on the phone to try and get us two new tires. They said they would do their best as soon as they could leave the gasoline pump, which was very busy today. Maybe towards evening.
“You can contribute the cost of the two new tires,” explained Jim, “towards that $500,000,000 tourist income.”
So we walked the eight miles back, arriving late in the afternoon. And we fished the same rapids over again, with only three small trout that we threw back.
“I guess we’ve cleaned them out for the next 70 years,” said Jim, very gloomy.
And it grew cooler. And we went and sat in the car for fear of porkies eating our other tires. And the relief party arrived about an hour after dark.
Editor’s Notes: I actually have a colour image of this illustration, as seen at the top of the page. Most images were in colour after 1935, but my primary source (microfilm) does not show this. The microfilmed version is shown at the end.
Greg loved fly fishing, as can be seen in his descriptions in this story. He and Jim seem a little unconcerned about disappearing nature, but I suspect that is likely not true. Sportsmen (hunters and fishers) like them were some of the first conservationists as they realized that their sporting activities could not continue if all of the animals were killed or all of the fish caught. This brought about some of the first conservation organizations, like Ducks Unlimited.