Night of the Giant Hogweed

 

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.

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We interrupt this marriage to bring you the fishing season!

 I consider myself to be a good husband to my devoted wife and a good role model to my three children. I am a good citizen and obey the law (with the exception of a couple of minor speeding tickets over the years, in particular, one awarded to me on Father’s day while driving my family to a get together in Toronto!). I gave up the nasty (and costly) habit of smoking cigarettes about 30 years ago and aside from enjoying a beer or glass or two of wine at suppertime, which I understand is good for you, I don’t think that I have any really bad habits. It’s my nature to keep busy and for most of the year, I have several hobbies that I pursue either alone, or with family and friends. Everything is HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY right? Well, not so fast! Let me continue.

     I do have to admit that I am concerned about my level of involvement in one particular “hobby” - I like to fish. Well, you’re probably thinking that this seems relatively harmless. I mean, I’m a reasonably well-adjusted guy, so if I like to fish, what’s the problem? When I tell people that I like fishing, they think it’s great! They ask me about it - how long I’ve been doing it, where do I go, what do I catch, what equipment do I use (I tell them that I prefer fly fishing, but often lie about where I go). From the outside, it sounds like a great past-time, just one of those things that some guys like to do, that’s all. Hey, Jesus’s disciples were fishermen, so there’s also that connection to a higher power - right! As I write this, I’m actually wondering what the heck I’m worrying about, that my level of anxiety is unwarranted. After a quick headshake though, reality sinks in and I realize that I’m just kidding myself - I’m hiding the real truth! The description of fishing that I provide to most people falls far short of reality. Since part of my intention was for this essay to be therapeutic, let me be perfectly clear about the situation as I see it. When the best of the fishing season arrives, I don’t just fish occasionally, say like, once a week. No, the reality is, that I need a fix during at least some part of the day! It’s really crazy. I live and breathe fishing - I would fish 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until total exhaustion deprived me of activity whereupon I would need a couple of hours to rest! I ask you, is this normal? Does any rational person behave this way?

     Now, to be honest, at its peak, my obsession is temporary, affecting me for only a few months, sort of like a seasonal disorder or something. But, during that time, I become increasingly concerned about how my obsession affects those close to me. My kids are now grown up, so they aren’t witness to the full extent of my affliction (when they were young and still at home, I only fished occasionally, so I wasn’t this incapacitated). In my current state, it’s my dear wife that bears the brunt of my obsession with fishing – our marriage is temporarily interrupted!

     Admittedly, my wife has been very patient with me. Perhaps she feels that because I’ve been cooped up over the long winter, I just need to get out. My wife doesn’t fish, so I’m also doing something that she doesn’t really understand. Although she seems ok with me going and says she doesn’t really mind, I am suspicious that she is really trying to clue me in to the fact that she doesn’t like me spending those countless hours in piscatorial bliss, and this definitely causes me anxiety. You can tell that I’m concerned about this. I’ve watched Dr. Phil on TV and he says that it’s really helpful to communicate your problem to people close to you (it’s kind of psychological I guess - if you can help them relate to your problem, it helps them understand and makes you feel better). Easier said than done! I’ve spent considerable time explaining to my wife why I consider it a huge “challenge” to outwit a fish whose brain is the size of a small pea (in my view, a display of manliness), why I need to spend hours fishing, sometimes in the dark with a light and occasionally in terrible weather, why I might really need to buy just “one more item of fishing equipment” and why I spend hours tying trout flies that I can only see with my 10X magnifiers! In my frequent conversations with her, I occasionally see her eyes beginning to narrow and strain with that yearning desire to understand, to realize my true problem and this definitely encourages me - I am finally getting through to her. I have her understanding and support and at long last, my worries will be over. I can finally come to terms with myself! Then, suddenly a vague, distant look crosses her face - I’ve lost her! I know the meaning of this look well because it’s the same one I get when I see her watching reality television - you know the one, with those three sisters. So, I’m left with this lingering sadness knowing that she really doesn’t fully understand my fixation with fishing.

     I know other guys who are also affected by the same problem. For example, a guy I occasionally meet on the river and not currently with a steady partner, but dating, relayed this sad story about his girlfriend at the time, asking if he wanted to go to the movies. When he told her that he couldn’t go because he was going fishing that evening, she replied in the astonished and rather unsympathetic voice, “but, why do you have to go? You were just out fishing last week!” HE WAS JUST OUT FISHING LAST WEEK – CAN YOU BELIEVE IT! This guy needs to fish every day! This is just one of a number of truly sad stories that I could relay to you. So aside from my several equally addicted fishing buddies, I have begun to accept the reality that I really have no one to talk to about this. Like them, I too suffer in silence.

     I’m beginning to think that my current level of involvement in this fishing thing is a serious problem and that it may not be good for me. I try to rationalize my behaviour to lessen my concern (you know, if you try hard enough, you can rationalize just about anything!) - I keep telling myself that it’s a healthy sport, you get outside, get lots of good exercise, discover new places, meet people, take in the beautiful surroundings, breathe fresh air, but still it doesn’t seem to help reduce my level of concern. What is a guy to do? I know that what I’ve described sounds rather hopeless, that I’ve fallen into a rabbit-hole too deep to climb out. Don’t worry though, I’m a resilient sort. I’m taking positive steps toward self-improvement. I’ve joined a peer help-support group. During fishing season, we pack up our fly rods and head to the river for daily meetings to work out issues of concern. I told my wife that I’m scheduled for another therapy session today!

The allure of the dry fly for trout

In my area of Southern Ontario, the magnificent blossoms of the stately magnolia make their first appearance in late April and early May. They are a welcome site for those of us who have been counting the days until winter relinquishes its chilly grip. For fly fishers, they signal that the spring trout season is upon us! Spring is a wonderful time. Warm sunlight and spring showers awaken the landscape with plants and foliage displaying simultaneous shades of green. Delicate spring flowers and lilies whose petals are brimming of white, gold, purple and blue make their appearance. The musical sounds of returning songbirds, drumming of roughed grouse and the translucent beauty of reflected sunlight from pools and riffles adds to the splendor of the spring morning. Life within the streams and rivers is awakening too. For the winter-weary fly fisher, the emergence of the first denizen of spring, the olive-bodied duns of the Hendrickson mayfly, Ephemerella subvaria is a welcome site indeed.

      Over the long winter months, I have been perfecting my imitations of the Hendrickson dry fly and snowy winter nights have been spent thinking about the allure that constitutes dry fly fishing. There are many attractive aspects to fishing with a dry fly and I imagine the exceptional day during a Hendrickson hatch when they all come together, when everything that you do aligns perfectly with the nature of your surroundings. On this day, you have left your ineptitude at home and your timing is perfect! Dry fly fishing is like no other form of fishing. You watch the feeding trout from your vantage point; you have the best view of all and the whole game is visible. You see the fish, you follow his every rise to the emerging Hendrickson duns - your eyes never leave him as you follow his every motion. On this occasion, he does not break his regular pattern of feeding, which would indicate that you have likely alerted him and put him down. As you watch him, you can see that he is hungry, but particular. You judge your timing to be right and offer him your best imitation, one carefully considered and crafted over the long winter months. Your cast is perfect! Your rod, line and fly are an extension of your arm, moved by your muscles, signals from your nerves and instructions from your brain. How surely you throw, and how delicately your fly lands on the water, wings upright, mere inches above the feeding fish. You have an extraordinary sense of power and confidence. Your anticipation of the outcome heightens! You watch as your fly floats delicately toward him. The fly approaches his position and you see the rise and the take – he has been deceived with your imitation and the battle is on! Just like a Shakespearian play, the whole drama has played out before your eyes. You play the fish expertly; your fine split-cane rod absorbs the runs and airborne acrobatics of your hooked prize, protecting the delicate tippet against breakage. After a worthy struggle, he succumbs, this beautiful creation of nature – the trout. You admire his large size, which is an added attraction, for dry fly fishing is more appealing when fish run large. A big fish is a prize. He does not get that way by being careless, a big trout has survived by being crafty - his wariness and cunning grow with his size. You take a quick photo then gently release your trophy back to his lair.

Today, I am heading out to my home river, hopefully for this perfect day!