It was during a lovely evening on the banks of one of my favorite Southern Ontario trout streams that I became acquainted with Heracleum mantegazzianum (for those with less than a fleeting love of Latin, the Giant Hogweed). The Giant Hogweed is a perennial plant. It’s one merit, if any are to be found, is that it is related to the carrot family. It is esteemed as a garden ornamental in Southwest Asia, but in my opinion, is neither beautiful nor endowed with any ability to stimulate adoration. In North America, Giant Hogwood is invasive. The plant can grow to the towering height of 5 meters, whereupon it literally chokes out much smaller, native plants. It is covered with stiff hairs and is filled with toxic sap that upon skin contact and sunlight exposure causes severe dermatitis, and in the case of eye contact, at least temporary blindness. Divine Providence was truly misguided in placing Hogweed anywhere in our environment, most especially near the banks of a trout stream! But, lest you think my story relates to skin irritations and the like, read on, for it is far more sinister.
By the time I arrived at the river it was near sunset, a bit breezy, no threat of rain and conditions promised a spectacular red sunset. The perfect evening for fly fishing! I was seated on a soft tuft of grass alongside the river bank. My Montecristo, which I enjoy occasionally, was drawing well and I was happily enjoying the scenery, admiring the beautiful late spring flowers, and the waning melodies of native songbirds. My spirits were high, I was at peace with the world. Entranced by the serenity of my surroundings, I was totally oblivious to the several Giant Hogweeds around me.
An emergence of yellow and orange Cahills was beginning. A more beautiful mayfly begs to be seen – a yellow- to sulfur-tinged body, hosting the same color variations in it’s legs, wings and tail. My imitation, tied on a size #16 dry fly hook was in perfect color and proportion to match the natural insect. I was ready, prepared for action! As perfection would have it, about 8:30 PM the rise began. I first saw his frog-colored snout break the water close to the far bank, sending out that addictive, concentric rise form that raises your blood pressure. His tail gently followed. From its size, I could tell he was a big fish, probably at least 4 pounds. I extinguished my half-finished Montecristo, saving it for the celebration that was surely to come. I rose and carefully waded into casting position. All the while, he continued to rise and I muttered to myself, "Now, I have you". I was so intently focused on the rising fish that I did not notice the Giant Hogweed lurking on the bank directly behind him. From my position, it was an easy cast, only about 20 feet. I pulled a length of line from my fly reel, swished it back and forth a few times, then delivered a perfect cast. But alas, fate was against me. As I released the line, an errant puff of wind carried both fly line and fly into the bank behind the fish directly into, yes, you guessed it, Hogweed! I gently flicked my line, attempting to release the fly. Hogweed bowed, appearing almost thankful that I had graced it with my first cast, but would not release the fly. I tightened my line and gently pulled a little harder, but the more I tugged the more Hogweed bowed, now no longer graciously, but in a sinister, taunting way. Since I did not want to place undue strain on my beautiful, split-bamboo fly rod, I waded over to where my fly was impaled and in the process, watched my splendid fish flick his tail and bolt for cover. Hogweed had most of my leader and fly wrapped around one of its leaves in twists and turns more complex than ever a human could conjure. Resigned, I cut off the fly and along with it a good portion of Hogweed for which I felt no concern whatsoever.
After taking a few deep breaths and wiping the sweat from my forehead, I was ecstatic to see another fat monster feeding profusely not 25 feet in front of me. Hallelujah! The fish gods are with me, I would get another chance. Unfortunately, my fly was considerably disheveled from the mishap with Hogweed so I opened my fly box to grab a new fly, but in my haste, deeply impaled the hook in my finger. Fortunately, my hooks are barbless, so with a bit of tugging and unrepeatable mutterings (that seemed to help), I removed the hook from my now-bloodied digit. Although irritated, I was finally able to steady my shaking hands long enough to tie on the new fly. This time, my first cast was perfect, the drift heading straight for the feeding trout. My heart was racing and my nerves tingling at the thought of him moving toward the surface for my fly, but the excitation of the moment passed without incident. I gathered the line and recast, hoping for another perfect drift. Just as I released the fly line, another gust of wind came up. I wouldn’t have minded if the wind had assisted in the fly’s delivery, but it was against me again, this time carrying my fly directly into a Hogweed branch that extended over the river. Hogweed could have been gracious by cutting me some slack and letting my fly slip from its branch into the water. But no, it displayed sheer unwarranted malice, my fly and leader wrapping around its branch like the tentacles of an octopus strangling its prey. Thankfully, my second bout of (unrepeatable) profanity was heard by no one. Yet again, I was forced to wade across the stream to retrieve my fly and for a second time, watch my trophy trout hightail for cover. When I finally reached the forsaken plant, I disentangled the mess with measured force, consistent with Hogweed’s lack of good behaviour. While there, I had the rather uncomfortable feeling that the Hogweeds were watching me, growing larger, but dismissed this as delusional paranoia.
Approaching darkness made me keenly aware of the narrowing window of opportunity for tying into something other than a Hogweed branch. I scanned the water for a rising fish. As I couldn’t see or hear anything, I proceeded to walk down the path along the riverbank, but stumbled over a tree branch and smacked my knee on a rock. Wincing in pain, I managed to get up, but with considerable difficulty. Now, completely muddy, with a throbbing knee and mosquitoes chomping at my neck and face, I vowed to get a fish, any fish, somewhere, along the river. As I hobbled along, I heard the familiar "slurp" of another rising fish about 30 feet from where I had fallen. I flicked on my headlamp (realizing then, it probably would have been useful a few moments ago) and tied on a new fly. I pulled some line from my fly reel and swished it back and forth a few times. Then, just as I began my forward cast, the line pulled tight. I turned and to my horror, saw that it was lodged in the middle of a clump of Hogweed! May I be forgiven for the terrible things that I said at that moment. May they not be held against me. Had the plant possessed even the slightest auditory capacity, it would have withered into a green, sappy blob. I was at my wits end with this horrid plant. I removed the knife from my fly vest and turned to confront the monster now silhouetted against the skyline. I severed my fly from the clutch of its spikey branches, but feeling only partially satisfied, proceeded to swipe madly back and forth hacking the plant to bits. This primordial action brought me considerable relief. Content that my obliteration of the beast would prevent further assault, I returned to the waters edge, thankful to hear that fish were continuing to rise. With the aid of my light, I tied on another fly, but in my haste, dropped my still-opened fly box. I watched in shock as a considerable number of my best flies floated away down the river. Incensed, I made a quick grab for the fly box, which in turn sent the cell phone in my shirt pocket along the same direct path into the river. Water is not kind to cell phones! My forehead
was dripping with sweat now, and again, I found myself screaming unrepeatable profanities. I was a complete mess, guilt stricken and ashamed at how little I resembled esteemed fly fishers who display coolness under pressure. I struggled to gather my composure, for there was little time left - the rise was waning fast. I swished out some line and made yet another cast to a rising fish. This time my cast was perfect, the fly dropping gently into position. As the fly floated toward the fish’s position, the line stopped and tightened. A take! I was ecstatic. As I lifted the rod and gained some line, I could feel the weight. At last, a good fish. My spirit soared, I was where I wanted to be! But then came the sinking sensation of weight, without any struggle. There was only dead weight at the end of my line. NO FISH! I had snagged a floating branch of Hogweed! At this point, the rise was over and the night late. I was beaten, totally defeated by this spikey, sappy green monster - four "catchable" trophy trout had been lost, my finger bloodied, my knee smashed, my flies lost and my cell phone ruined. My mind was made up, I would exact my revenge then and there.
A couple of nights later, I had recovered from my ordeal and was back at the river with renewed confidence for a better evening. I chanced upon a couple of other fly fishers and after extending cordial greetings as is customary among the fraternity, they offered up the strangest of observations. Two nights earlier, from a distance down the river, they had witnessed the strangest of sites, a pagan ritual of some sort, they reckoned - a single light moving erratically up and down the river, back and forth across the meadow, pausing every now and then to the sound of thrashing and faint, indiscernible mutterings.