Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Kids, they sat there waiting. Just three—an unbalanced number. One can talk to the other two but not with complete comfort lent by another on the periphery. They checked their phones nervously, sipped drinks and chatted half-heartedly, saving the fully robust body and flavor of spirited camaraderie for the arrival of the fourth. One fretted over a woman gone silent. The others sat idly by, grave in muted support, each on the cusp of change.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    The hallmark neon glow of a Mexican restaurant sign cast an electric hue onto the glass table, feigning the air of the high school Friday night lights, less the buzz. It was close to closing time, perhaps a bit past, but the group had held the doors unlocked before, and the owner and waiter are accommodating. Perhaps they empathize with the romanticism of the ritual. Maybe they’re just polite.

    The fishing in the rural countryside during the summer months is best at dusk — and the sun sets late. So, dinner is set aside, displaced by fishing, and either takes an early hour or a late one. Late is the preferred option, as it provides a time for reflection. Food tastes better with the mind stimulated by the spirit of activity and even more when it is heading to a hungry stomach.

    A bell sounded faintly as the expected fourth in the party cracked wide the restaurant’s front door. Two of the heads at the booth against the outside window swiveled, and the third looked welcomingly on. Changed from wet shorts and a dirty fishing shirt, he celebrated the novelty of a cool summer night in the South with weathered blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a seasoned trucker hat that tamed dirty brown hair, greased by humidity and the seemingly vaporous concoction of fish slime, pond water, and algae.

    He wore a retired, victorious confidence like that old fishing shirt. He’d spent years fishing the same pond the four fished that evening, casting poppers with a fly rod from a canoe or from the bank long into the night, listening for the telltale splashes of feeding largemouth to alert him of their presence on the end of his line.

    Taking the inside position at the booth, he assessed the attitudes of the others, as they were altered slightly after leaving the carefree world of the evening’s fishing and entering the world of the continuous ebb and flow of issues, problems and solutions. One continued, still, to glance at his phone nervously, worried over the stance of a girl on a recent dispute—his heart and mind battling with neither gaining the upper hand for any long interval. The other, a periodically ill-tempered but altogether nice guy reassured the other, comfortable in his own relationship with a girl, whose fickle deviations are met with his scoffs and temperamental dismissals. The other, more reserved and whose demeanor most closely matched that of the fourth’s, had no horse in the race, and so interjected none.

    By the dictation of the culturally instituted formula for success, the four were staring down the beginnings of college educations. Having completed the seemingly monstrous task of surviving 13 years of school, a short period of irresponsible and unhindered celebration was followed by a heavy sense of the unknown. School was a known. Leaving home wasn’t. By pure necessity of physical distance, some girls would be left behind in a hazy memory of life’s summer. Others would be clung to until strife and stress eventually eroded affection. Families and familiar places would become distant relatives and vacations. Local ties, as they were then, though they forwardly denied it, would be lost.

    The fourth worried, then, over no such things, but had previously, and knew fully of their power. He too would lose a girl, would move away and be distanced from all things familiar. But he had spent the evening teaching the kid whose demeanor most closely matched his own how to cast a fly rod and the student learned and caught fish. A large fish fell to his own efforts in the last shade of light before darkness. The fish sounded and buried itself in weeds, requiring a wading retrieval, as he had performed dozens of times before.

    In those moments he found comfort, ambition and fulfilled purpose—and a dream for a lifestyle built around those ideals. Unsure of the path forward but intent on the end goal, he made the decision to delay formal education and revel in fish, personal realization and what opportunities might come.

    The waiter delivered food and all deep-thought processes were derailed. Smiles were passed around. Life went on.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Adventure-scarred canoes lashed to its pontoons, a fully-loaded DCH-2 Beaver circled one of northwest Ontario’s thousands of jagged lakes to point its propeller parallel along its length. As it began its descent, the unbroken amalgam of boreal forest and shimmering water was transformed from a glorious abstract painting to a very real and intoxicating—almost threatening—wilderness. Like a seafood-zeroed raptor, the collective eyes of the four anglers aboard dilated.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The night before, in a pine-panelled cabin owned by Wilderness North, a Thunder Bay-based outfitter, Mark Melnyk, the operation’s Chief Fishing Officer (CFO), weaved a suspiciously lofty description of the fishery we were set on.

    A spiderweb’s wispy vein of a massive watershed, the river is accessible only by bush plane and canoe.

    “You’ll need a five or six weight,” said Melnyk, stolidly. “Start with 3X tippet…Big foam hoppers…There are brook trout over five pounds.”

    Mark Taylor, Chris Hunt, Paul Smith, and I chuckled nervously, pointing the hoppy contents of tall Northern Loggers down our gullets, attempting to marry dumfounded excitement with realistic caution.

    When the Beaver found its feet on the water, we lost the reigns on our expectations.

    Joe Boyce and Keith Missewace, Canadian natives of the Objibwe Nation—our river guides—freed the canoes from their lashings. We piled out of the aircraft, tossing gear into the boats, and splashing into the cool water of the rocky lake. 

    We rigged rods. Five- and six-weights for the brook trout. Finishing with staunch tippets and large, brightly colored grasshopper patterns, we formally entered the fantasy Melnyk sold us the night before.

    Chris and Mark piled into one canoe with Joe. Paul and I filled out another, with Keith in the stern. Joe ripped the chord on a four-stroke bolted to his square-stern. Paul and I reached out and grabbed Joe’s aluminum walls, and the gas-propelled craft carried us down lake towards the outlet.

    Water began to flow and our canoe complex disassociated as the head of the river came into view. A scraggly, moss-covered white cedar arched over a shallow riffle. Joe, the elder of the two guides by about two decades, in the lead, stepped out of the canoe and strung the craft with a rope through the riffle to a gravel bar. Keith, 21, followed suit.

    Canoes grounded, we stepped out picked our positions.

    Chris got into position first, at the head of a long, sweeping run that trotted slowly down the outside bend of the river. Presenting downstream, he hooked up quickly, but lost the fish as suddenly.

    Mark waded the inside bank to position himself halfway down a swifter, shorter run with a soft pillow behind a rock in the center. Paul cozied up to Chris, casting downstream. I, looking for room, found it behind the rock that Mark wasn’t fishing.

    I slapped the foam on the water as hard as I could to alert the fish of its sudden faux turmoil, and, with the rod tip high, began skittering the hopper in short, four-inch jaunts in between pauses.

    On the second cast, I watched as a royally large and crimson belly rose to the surface, propelled like a rocket ship by ivory-tipped fins. An aggressive, splashy surge sucked down my fly.

    I set the hook without hesitation, fully prepared, as I should have been fishing such a spot—a textbook trout feeding lie, though one that I have fished time and time again to no avail on less-fertile rivers. My six-weight flexed. The trout ripped line from my hand.

    Joe sided up to me slowly, standing to my left. Relatively unenthused, the net held slackly by his side, he nudged me.

    “You just made me $10,” he said, with a devious grin.


    “I bet Keith you’d catch the first fish. You had the right spot.”

    A resident of Fort Hope, Joe has fished this river his whole life. It’s a four-hour boat ride and some sustenance pike fishing that separates him from his home, but he makes the trip a few times a year to fish for ‘brookies,’ anyway.

    $10 didn’t sound like much—not compared to the thrill of catching a foot-and-a-half-long brookie on a skated fly, but size alone didn’t speak to the true value of what Joe netted a few minutes later.
The brook trout we had traveled by land and air and water to discover swam through the heart of a virgin ecosystem, unadulterated, unaltered by human industry. A wild place intact. Joe’s, and Keith’s, backyard. Their birthright and spiritual endowment.

    A few moments after releasing my first fish, running about 18 inches and three pounds, Chris hooked into and landed a fish approaching 24 inches and six pounds.

    It was then evident that the two Objibwe fishermen were trading nominal sums of a far more bountiful fortune.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian