Tell That to the Bass
A flimsy 737 is no match for a thunderstorm. The supercell temporarily closed Toronto International so we touched down 45 minutes late, missing our shuttle out of town. With baggage collected, airport navigated and vendor machine snacks consumed, my wife and daughter attempted sleep on threadbare vinyl benches while I attempted staying awake to avoid missing the next shuttle.
“O’Reilly? Blundell? MacKEReth?”
Emphasizing the wrong syllable, like every telemarketer I’d picked up the phone for, a man searched for passengers who waited like zombies in the gloom of a never-renovated bus depot. I had no idea how long he had been there. His mat of dense, dark hair topped a sweaty forehead, prematurely wrinkled by an excess of raised eyebrows, or perhaps, as I remembered on my 10th-grade math teacher, frowns. Large wire-rimmed glasses, circa 1990, focused anxious eyes. A gray bomber jacket covered a solid frame. Our driver, the perfect doppelgänger of Seinfeld’s Newman.
Stepping aboard the minibus an elderly lady already seated looked up from an iPad and smiled. Settling into the seat in front of her, I asked where she was heading. Home she said, returning to her cottage in a nearby town after visiting grandkids in Alberta. Describing the antics of Max, nine, Ruby, five, and Lily, two-and-a-half in detail, she had obviously enjoyed every second of her visit, fading laugh lines and a hint of sadness in her eyes at her leaving them behind confirming it. Another woman, younger, climbed aboard, lace-up boots landing heavily with each footstep. Settling in behind my wife, she dumped a cotton rucksack printed with Aztec designs on the seat alongside her. She had traveled from North Carolina, she said, to attend a blues festival with local friends. Her bohemian dress and Peter Pan demeanor suggested a life filled with whimsical adventure, various recreational substances, and good times.
The rear door of the bus slammed down with a pressure wave, startling my travel-weary composure. Newman bounced into the driver’s seat and scanned the manifest, clunking the minibus into drive. He weaved the bus through gridlock like water down a rock face, trying any shortcut out of town as our delay had left us squarely in Toronto’s peak traffic. We passed the Molson brewery three times—first on the left, then the right, then left again—before merging onto a highway still crawling with commuters as far as the eye could see.
“You know it’s been rated the worst highway in North America?’ a voice from the front bellowed. Nobody responded. My wife and daughter asleep, Peter Pan buried in an ancient, dog-eared paperback, and Grandma practicing the thousand-mile stare through tinted panes toward Alberta. I glanced at the rearview mirror to find Newman’s eyes locked on mine.
“Oh really?” I asked.
“The 401,” he said. “Highest accident rate in North America.”
He asked where I had arrived from. I told him Vancouver, and with the ice now broken summarized the past three weeks since arriving there from the Australian sub-tropics. First, the chaos of suburbia—whirlwind family visits, wedding attendances, parties and barbecues with friends, obligatory one-night stopovers, and reliving old hockey games over ales and rye. Then, under self-imposed exile from the city, native trout in stinging cold snowmelt—stonefly and caddis, crisp mountain air filled with more oxygen than pollutants, wide rivers and freestone streams. Chunky 20-pound Chinooks on auto-pilot making their way upriver for the first, and final, time. Bighorn sheep navigating rocky hills through sparse Ponderosa and sagebrush. Osprey gliding below them over seams and conflicting currents searching for the same thing that I was. Newman recalled his own days in Vancouver, living on the wrong side of the tracks and scraping by on minimum wage. Reminiscing the outdoors lifestyle and the fishing he had left behind, especially the salmon fishing, he spoke with a pang of regret at having to move to Toronto more than a decade ago for reasons that were blurry but somehow involved family. I questioned him about the salmon and steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes tributaries. I’d heard if you hit it right you could experience double-digit days.
He shrugged. “It’s just not the same here,” he lamented. At that moment, briefly exercising the same thousand-mile stare I had seen on grandma, Newman failed to notice the traffic stopped in front of us. At the very last second his consciousness almost audibly clicked in (or maybe that was the brake lever), skidding wheels and a sideways slide into the left lane miraculously avoiding a collision by inches and almost creating another. One commuter laid on the horn for several seconds, as if the time of the blast correlated to her level of rage.
“See what I mean?”
Exiting the highway shortly thereafter, Newman turned the bus down a maple-shaded street and stopped in front of a small cottage. The place looked impeccable and I couldn’t help noticing a slight spring in Grandma’s step as she navigated cobble and concrete to the front door.
After arriving at our third temporary home in a week, my wife’s Uncle Dick and Aunt Maggie, our gracious hosts, poured on the bend-over-backward hospitality for us and a revolving door of friends and relatives, typical of Canadian culture. After four more days of handshakes, catch-ups, barbecues, pool parties, and reliving hockey games, I would get the chance to fish again. Well, almost. I had spent longer than I should have trying to purchase a provincial fishing license online, so Dick offered me a lift into town to buy one from the government office. I was surprised when he threw me a loosely fitting matte black helmet and wheeled his 80-cubic -inch Harley Davidson from the garage.
Despite having grown up with motorcycles, I had always disliked these machines. Sure, I appreciated the engineering, the black and the chrome, and had nothing against the culture the brand had created. I just couldn’t stand the noise. During a working holiday in my younger years, I lived for a short time on the second floor of a suburban Vancouver apartment above a perpetually busy intersection. My roommate, who owned the apartment, was the most frugal person I had ever met or an extreme tight-ass if we cut to the chase. I could live with the niggling comments of using too much toilet paper or toothpaste, the measuring of laundry detergent after each load, a mild irritant. But not paying to fix the thermostat on a furnace that blasted enough heat to wilt saucepan handles and curl CDs into corn chips was too much even for this thermophilic Australian. Nights were spent in the cool respite of the balcony where sleep was unsuccessfully attempted above the ceaseless cacophony of under-muffled V-twin engines at full throttle racing nobody at every green light.
The experience left me with habits of high-octane coffee consumption, lunchtime naps, and a mental inability to remain calm when I hear that damn noise. I was reluctant to mount Dick’s bike out of principle but promised myself to always embrace the culture of a new place. When in Rome, after all.
The ride into town was, I had to admit, enjoyable. At each stop sign Dick would point out a local feature, recount the history of a building, or tell of some scandal so common in every small town, frequently apologizing for the scenery and joking ‘this is no British Columbia’. I’m not sure why he felt personally responsible for the geography. He needn’t have worried, the low rolling hills and open woodland, quaint architecture in lazy one-stoplight towns, I found it all fascinating. During the return journey, passing by a rusting iron-clad building surrounded by earthmoving machinery and gravel piles, Dick pointed, shouting something ineligible, lost in the wind. I nodded and shouted “yeah” in false acknowledgment, allowing my mouth to open for the split second it took for a hefty insect to hit the back of my throat at 50 mph and explode in a sour, crunchy mess. Why trout went nuts for these things I had no idea.
The range hood light was all that lit the pre-dawn darkness as I waited the following morning, head throbbing from Aunt Maggie’s oh-so-strong rum and cokes a few short hours earlier. Hot coffee soaked into me like a puddle into a dropped newspaper. The screen door scratched open and filling the frame stood an almost naked Uncle Dick—body still dripping from the hot tub, horseshoe mustache steamed limp, skin blushed and dusted with white hair. He looked a little like Santa but with a dark side. That member of the Claus family nobody spoke of.
“Ya ever seen the Northern Lights?” he questioned casually.
I hadn’t. Growing up in South Australia I had once seen the southern lights, Aurora Australis, one clear winter night while dredging waterholes in otherwise dry creek beds, with heavy streamers, for nocturnal brown trout. Dick turned and wandered back outside, casually pointing skyward as he disappeared into the darkness. I followed, coffee in hand, to find fingers of pale blue light waving like kelp in a subtle current, filling the southern Ontario sky to the northern horizon, where they hid behind conifers and cornfields. I stood transfixed for minutes, absorbing the wonders of the phenomenon, recalling the blood-red spirits of my youth dancing above reed beds and antipodal browns, accepting the display as a good omen, for today we would be targeting the same species.
The sun’s soft glow soon flooded the sky. Dick, now dressed, began packing the truck. Cody and Dean emerged simultaneously from the carport, a random selection of gear as disheveled as they, rolled into the rear of the truck. Cody, Dick’s son, worked on a medicinal marijuana farm. His perpetually bloodshot eyes and easygoing disposition suggested he enjoyed the fruits of his labor and probably brought his work home with him. His deep green rod of no particular brand, built with pragmatic functionality and dubious build quality, was scuffed and taped from a lifetime of use. Cork grip polished and aged in sweat, river mud, and fish slime. For Cody, it was simply a necessary tool to get the job done, nothing more than a nine-pound hammer. Dean, a hospital janitor and Dick’s son-in-law, had been camping in the backyard with his family and was along for the ride with his spin rod, curious yet unfamiliar with the intricacies of fly fishing. I laid my unblemished new rod alongside Cody’s. Eyebrows were raised. Dick let out a whistle.
“That’s a pretty fancy rod for around these parts. I hope you know how to use it.”
I felt embarrassed.
Never one to flaunt sexy brand names, I had recently purchased the rod with money acquired from an insurance claim after my garage had been robbed. Most of my fly fishing gear, carefully gathered over two decades, had vanished overnight including my favorite five-weight. Determined to get the best rod I could afford, I sacrificed replacing my old acoustic guitar allowing just enough funds for what one gear reviewer claimed was “the best five weight ever made.” Alongside Cody’s, my rod looked as sterile as a surgical scalpel fresh from the autoclave. Character it would earn in the years ahead, but for today, it would have to get by on its good looks and that sexy brand name. I hoped I knew how to use it.
On the way to the river, blue sky opened up cornfields peppered with brightly painted barns and phallic-looking grain silos. Mennonite men handling single furrow plows worked fields behind Clydesdales, their children, faces dusty, smiled through paneless windows of horse-drawn carriages on their way to school. The culture, as unfamiliar to me as interstellar aliens, piqued my fascination.“They don’t like to be photographed,” said Dick, preempting my actions. I relaxed the hand on my camera committing the experience to memory, rather than memory card, wondering if these people were just as curious of the fast-paced, tech-dependent masses.
Metallic hoof beats continued over the bridge that morning as we fished the slightly turbid waters of a lowland river, named by Mennonites after a similar river in Pennsylvania, for browns. Two chewed corn cobs eddied around my legs as I cast and stripped a woolly bugger through the tail out of a pool lined with cattails interspersed with gravel bars. Dean, with his spin gear covered the bridge pool below me while Dick cast his nymph into the head of the same pool I fished with the casual contentment of a man simply enjoying the outdoors and a morning joint. Covering the bank opposite me was Cody. Wading the current and slippery boulders as confidently as a goat on a willow limb, his unwavering concentration seemed to pierce the surface film seeing what we couldn’t beneath the muddy water. Striking at something imperceptible, he buried the hook into the mouth of a silvery trout of around three pounds, playing it confidently and efficiently, twisting the fish free and never once removing it from the water. Without need for commendation and high fives, he cast again with the stoic concentration of a tournament poker player. Dean briefly hooked then lost another shortly after, and by mid-morning with a total of one fish landed we hit the tracks for home.
Cumulus clouds rolled in from the great lakes that afternoon, the air still and thick with a familiar humidity. Dick cooked wild turkey poppers on the barbecue with a side of fiddleheads for supper. He waxed apologetically about the fishing. “The dog days of summer,” he said. “You need to come back for steelhead season,” He scratched his head. “We could give them bass ponds a try, if you want,” he mumbled. “It’s nothing special though.”
“You have bass ponds here?”
“The ones we passed on the bike yesterday,” he continued. “I pointed the damn things out to you.”
Of course. Behind the rusty building and gravel piles lay several ponds shimmering under the northern sun. “Largemouth or smallmouth?” I asked.
“Both,” he replied.
It took a moment for the gravity of that to sink in. Smallmouth bass remained a mystery to me despite the years I had fished BC where I first learned of their existence, and where they can be found hiding in the shadows of a limelight stolen by the salmonids. Largemouth I had known of since childhood from leather-bound encyclopedias and yellowing magazines. Photographs of crazed anglers with oversized trucker caps at the helm of slick skiffs fitted with outboards previously seen only on competition ski boats. Gaudy concave-faced poppers held out to cameras with green fish hanging by a bloodied jaw from treble hooks. Bass—the hero sportfish of Middle America immortalized in rubberized singing wall mounts and every other country song since the mid ’90s.
Hell yes, I wanted to give them bass ponds a try.
The truck zigged and zagged on two-lane roads separating farmland from forest and crops from creeks. Descending a hollow near our destination the air became noticeably colder and Dick pointed to some woods where Turkeys can be found in the fall. We approached the boom gates of the working rock quarry, Dick got out and spoke to the gathering of men surrounding the weighbridge office. Said he had permission from the big boss. They pointed him in the right direction and wished him luck, settling back into their conversation and beers. It was 7 p.m. at the end of the working week.
Before us lay half a dozen man-made ponds extracted from rubble below the water table and connected by a network of two ruts on levee banks. Dick parked his truck in the middle and told us to pick a pond.
“Any one?” I asked.
“They all have fish,” he continued, pointing to the right. “That’s where Cody hooked a big pike one time that jumped clean out of the water ‘fore it threw the hook.”
“I’ll try that pond,” I announced more than a little selfishly.
Cody and Dean marched ahead to ponds further on, Dick cracked a beer and surveyed his surroundings, silhouetted against a sinking sun, leaning on his vehicle in a pose befitting a tough truck commercial. I slid down the steep six-foot bank to the glassy surface of the pond to find the water disappointingly muddy but still fishable. An excavator at the far end of the pond, semi-submerged in suspended animation, hinted at recent mining activity and a hasty shutdown when the five o’clock whistle blew.
Not knowing any better, I tied on a long olive streamer and cast along the edge of a weed bed that dropped off into what I imagined to be deeper water. Fully expecting a ravenous strike on every cast, I became increasingly disappointed as each retrieve remained unmolested. My method soon became mindless and mechanical. I feigned a lack of concentration in a reverse psychological attempt to induce a strike knowing steelhead like to play this exact mind game with me through their cruel powers of telepathy, attacking at the exact moment I lack any mental capacity to react. It didn’t work. The fish damn well knew I was faking. The deep honk of a horn drew my attention back to the truck. Still silhouetted, Dick waved his arms, gesturing me back. I reeled in reluctantly, scrambled up the bank thinking I’d blown any chance of catching a bass as I trudged back. To my surprise, the truck was vacant when I arrived. Upon the tailgate lay an open fly box, an uncracked can of Michelob Ultra 4.2 and a piece of card torn from an old pie box with the inscription: “Cody’s onto fish—come to the end pond.”
With renewed enthusiasm, I stole a bigger yellow streamer from the fly box, swapped spools from five weight floating line to six weight sink tip, cracked the beer, and walked off as fast as I could, trying desperately not to look desperate.
Cody was playing a fish as I arrived at the water’s edge. Reaching down for the leader with one hand, he dropped the butt of his fly rod into the crumbling gravel bank with the other, using it as a leaning staff, preventing him from joining the fish in the warm water. “Largemouth?” yelled Dick. Cody set the fish free, again without removing it from the water and said “yip” just loud enough for us to hear. “That’s his third,” said Dick and before I could turn to acknowledge his achievement, Cody was casting again. No tailing loops, no unnecessary back casts, shooting line to the required distance, any distance, to get the fly into the water, the only place it would catch fish. That deep green rod was as much part of his body as the arm that held it and he used it as elegantly as an eagle uses its wings proving even a nine-pound hammer can be a thing of beauty when swung from the right hands.
This pond, much clearer with well-defined, healthy weed beds, rocks and drop-offs, looked fishy. I tied the new fly on and cast out over the weed bed, landing the fly, leader and sink-tip in a sloppy pile 30 feet out. Eyebrows were raised. Dick let out a whistle. I felt embarrassed. Muscle memory still tuned to the floating line, it took some time to adjust to the heavier sink-tip. “I’ve got a six-weight rod in the truck,” laughed Dick.
Thankfully, I did manage to gain a modicum of casting technique, at least competently enough to catch fish. In all, 11 bass were landed that evening— a mix of largemouth and smallmouth, a couple of each species coming to my hand. The fish had a practical beauty about them. Stout and purposeful bodies in understated green, bronze, and olive livery. Perfectly suited to an industrial pond. I had read of John Gierach fishing similar places in his home state of Colorado, old quarries with numbered ponds filled with bass. I struggled with the paradox of the mining industry being good for fish habitat, yet here it was carved literally from the soil. The bass lived fully up to my expectations. Hard hitting, hard fighting, the images of explosive attacks on the surface popper Dick was using were etched into my memory forever. I was grateful to have caught them.
Convening back at the truck I couldn’t contain my satisfaction. I mentioned if I had ponds like this in my backyard I’d fish them all the time. Dick quickly reminded me of the saltwater fishing available in my backyard—acres of flats and estuaries where tropical and temperate fish mingle in an incredibly diverse piscine soup. “I’d kill for flats like yours,” he quipped.
Hypocritically, I hadn’t fished my local waters nearly as often as I claimed I would fish theirs. Most of the time I would dream about fishing somewhere else, usually mountainous and cold. I suppose wanting whatever is out of reach is what makes us all human, so easily forgetting that everywhere is a destination—even home. Packing the rods away in the twilight, Cody noted the big yellow fly on my hook keeper. “You’ve been using a pike fly,” he chortled. “Well,” replied Dick, before I could respond, “I guess he didn’t tell that to the bass.”
The northern lights never showed again that night, obviously due to my lack of success on trout. Bass, it seems, just don’t have the same celestial pull as their adipose fin sporting brethren. It didn’t matter, for the warmth of a glowing fire pit and joviality of a rediscovered fishery was enough to keep everyone in high spirits. That, and Maggie’s inverse ratio rum and cokes. As the locals playfully argued over what home water they would fish next, Dick’s words back at the truck got me thinking of my own home and how I should really get to tying a few more crabs and Clousers.
The following morning, Newman waited for us in the driveway to begin the blur of seemingly interminable hours that comes with any return journey from the opposite side of the globe. Driving back to the airport, we talked about Ontario and the idiosyncrasies that make a place unique: the smells, the grit beneath feet that technology has yet to capture. For despite the filtered images on social media of exotic locales and attention-starved neo-heroes extreme sporting in increasingly sacred places, the true essence of somewhere new still cannot be experienced fully until it is visited in the flesh.
When he asked about the fishing I told him the trout had been scarce but the bass were kick-ass. We pondered the hundreds, if not thousands, of bass habitats stretching from Canada to the Mexico border—one of which, a pond, he said, was just three blocks from his house. He hadn’t fished it in a while, but the rekindled flame of enthusiasm that comes from talking shop seemed to infect him, and I knew that would soon change.
I hadn’t noticed the bus had stopped until the hiss of the pneumatic door caught my attention followed by the familiar sound of heavy boots and the thud of an Aztec-printed rucksack on an empty seat. A burned-out Peter Pan slumped alongside it. Leaning her head against cold glass and closing her eyes, she sported the contented look of someone who had an unforgettable time over the past few days, but was glad to be going home.