In angling, at best, we just barely scratch the surface. We stand in the river or on a beach, yet remain on the outskirts, dashing in here or there, each new piece of understanding simply another layer beneath which we find more layers and yet more.
Of any angler past or present, Roderick Haig-Brown certainly came closer than most to discovering the deeper secrets of the world under water. He systematically explored the rivers, streams, and estuaries around his adopted home in Campbell River, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. His writings record a lifetime of insights into the rhythms, patterns, and surprises of river life.
I recently spent two weeks on Vancouver Island, a copy of Fisherman’s Fall often open on my lap as I drank coffee each morning, doing my best to learn and see and hear the way Haig-Brown did. I waded through thousands of pinks on the Campbell, swam with Chinook salmon on the Stamp, and watched coho chase my fly in an estuary I stumbled upon by accident, and which I’ll leave unnamed.
For a two week trip, I didn’t fish incredibly hard or even that often. It wasn’t a fishing trip–it was a vacation and there was hiking and snorkeling and surfing to be done as well. But I did sit on the side of the Gold River beneath a rain canopy and read about Haig-Brown raising summer steelhead nearby on his Steelhead Bee; I pulled out my tying kit and wrapped a few up of my own, small flies with light wings and tails and bodies of brown and orange floss, tied slim because of the low water, tied with orange because of the huge October caddis flying around my headlamp as I tied them. I fished the flies the next morning and though I didn’t find a summer run in the low water, I watched yearling steelhead dash repeatedly at the fly, observed their rises intently, marveled at their tenacity and abandon and absolute determination.
And I thought of Haig-Brown, in his study overlooking the Line Fence Pool on the Campbell, watching the coho and steelhead fry in his aquarium, giving them funny names like “Number 1.” I thought of him with mask and snorkel on, drifting over spawned out pinks in the eddy near his home or watching the coho yearlings rise to insects. I imagined him sitting on a rock, changing flies, watching the water flow by, unraveling the mystery as best he could. Peeling back the layers. Scratching at the surface.