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From rebel to pillar

By Malcolm Greenhalgh

In this appreciation of Roderick Haig-Brown, Malcolm Greenhalgh glories in the descriptive writings of a fascinating angler

Early in 2010, the editor asked me to list six favourite fly-fishing books and give reasons for my choice. I made one great error of omission, for I overlooked what is amongst the best ever ‘good reads’ in the world of fly fishing. At the 2008 British Fly Fair International, British Columbian fly tyer, Wally Novak, presented me with a Roderick Haig-Brown centenary medal which I now proudly wear in my ancient tweed fishing hat. This event took me back over half a century when, as an early teenager, I often dreamed of being in the Canadian wilderness, chopping down giant pines to build my log cabin, setting trap-lines in the winter, catching king salmon and sockeyes in the summer, and shooting grizzly bears and wolves in the fall. Amongst the handful of volumes that fed my dreams was one that I found on the shelves of fishing books in Preston’s Harris Public Library. It was called A River Never Sleeps, and it was written by a man with a posh English, hardly Canadian, name: Roderick Haig-Brown.

As I read his book I quickly realised that Haig-Brown was indeed English, and that he came from a well-heeled family. In the second paragraph of the book he talks of holidays away from school, that in the Christmas holidays pheasant and partridge shooting were reserved for his ‘elders and betters’, but that he was permitted to shoot snipe and wild duck in the water-meadows. When he was the age that I was when I read the book (‘the enthusiastic age of twelve or 13," as he put it), Haig-Brown fished a chalkstream in Dorset for dace and, a few paragraphs later, we are off to Washington State, and then into the Boys’ Own stuff in British Columbia.

“I went to work at a logging camp ... plenty of steelhead talk ... mixed in with hunting talk of bears and cougars.” He describes how he “met a female bear and cub along the trail.” Then he made supper over an open fire, rolled into his blanket and slept under the stars by Deer Creek, where he caught fish called dolly varden. Dolly varden? A mysterious-sounding fish for a 13-year-old in England in 1959, as A River Never Sleeps has no nice photographs of the fish, so that the mind must manufacture the pictures as the words are read. It is much easier when the talk is of cutthroat trout, for we can visualise them as a sort of trout with a red throat.

Haig-Brown’s vivid account of catching dolly varden and steelhead in the winter months, when “my partners and I were busy with a series of trap lines,” wafted me far from school, Latin prep and simultaneous equations. Eric Twelves, my school pal, and I did our best to emulate him and other British Columbian outdoorsmen. We set our trap-lines in the woods and hedgerows around school. We skinned the field mice, voles and shrews that we caught, and treated the skins with borax; there were no cougars in rural England, and myxomatosis had wiped out most of the rabbits. We then offered the service to our school mates of covering their sheath-knife sheathes with the skins, with legs, feet and tails still attached. In today’s English namby-pamby, health-and-safety, politically-correct age, boys are prosecuted for carrying knives. Not when I was a lad. Then, every boy had either a sheath-knife on his belt or a Boy Scout’s knife fixed by a special clip to his Boy Scout’s belt. Just how does a 13-year-old cut a staff from a coppiced hazel, or the wings from the dead birds he finds on his country meanderings if he hasn’t got a sharp knife? Or perhaps 21st century boys don’t have country meanderings?

A good fishing book should be so evocative that, having read it, all you want to do is go fishing. For instance, when I first read Sidney Spencer’s two classics, Salmon and Sea Trout in Wild Places, and Newly from the Sea (which were on my list of six favourite books), I wanted to get to a wild loch as soon as I could. After reading Hugh Falkus’ Sea Trout Fishing in a cold winter’s weekend (ditto), I found it difficult to wait for summer, when I could wade deep in a darkened river, armed with a big Mallard & Silver. The same with A River Never Sleeps. But would I ever be able to fish for steelhead, dolly varden and cutthroat? I had to wait almost 30 years before I was able to travel to British Columbia and fish its mighty rivers.

Over the years I began to wonder how Haig-Brown came to live close to the western seaboard of North America. Reading between the lines, I guessed that he had blotted his copy-book back at home. But then I dug deeper and found out the truth. Roderick Haig-Brown was born on February 21, 1908 in Sussex. His father, Alan, a teacher and prolific writer, was sadly killed ten years later in the Great War. Subsequently, Roderick and his two sisters were taken by their mother, Violet Mary, to live with their grandfather, Alfred Pope. Pope was a wealthy brewer who had retired to a country estate in Dorset, which included a beat of the River Frome. Amongst his friends was the great writer Thomas Hardy, though Haig-Brown was then less interested in great literature than in hunting, shooting and fishing. With the exceptions of partridge and pheasant (see above), he was free to indulge himself in field-sports when not at his public boarding school, Charterhouse.

It was at Charterhouse that Haig-Brown disgraced himself. He was caught, sneaking out of school in the evening, to visit local hostelries. So he was expelled. It is likely that eventually his family would have wanted him to take a post with the Civil Service or a commission in the army, but he was then too young to apply. So, as we learn from page 149 in A River Never Sleeps, he was sent for a year to study history (only history?) with Dr TH Davies, rector of the parish of Headbourne Worthy near Winchester and close to one of the greatest chalkstreams, the Itchen. The rectory had its own glebe of “strategically placed fields and of good variety, ranging from marsh and meadowland to the high ground near the school and the narrow wood along the Pilgrim’s Way.” He and his host’s son, Denis, had this as their own shooting, and they enlarged it following negotiations with neighbouring farmers. “Within a mile of the rectory flowed the Itchen, one of the finest trout streams in England. Unfortunately, there was very little we could do about that.” Very little? They poached it!

I would guess that Haig-Brown’s knowledge of history was not overly enhanced in his time with Dr Davies, and it seems that his family had had enough. So they packed him off to a relative who lived in Washington State from where, after his US visitor’s visa had expired, he moved across the border to Canada, settling on Vancouver Island. There he worked as a logger, trapper and commercial fisherman. Encouraged by his family, he returned to England in 1931 where, at the age of 23, he wrote his first book, Silver: The Life Story of an Atlantic Salmon. Yet he found it difficult to settle in England and, late in 1932, he returned to Vancouver Island. Two years later he married Ann Elmore, and the pair settled for the rest of their lives by the Campbell River.

From being a bit of a rebel, Haig-Brown now became a pillar of British Columbian society. He was a magistrate for the town of Campbell River for over 30 years, was on the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission, served as Chancellor of the University of Victoria (1970-73), was member of the Federal Fisheries Commission, trustee of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and was actively involved in the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited. He was also active in the fight to prevent the over-exploitation of the rivers and forests of British Columbia. In recognition of this work, the government established the Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Kamloops, and also named a mountain on Vancouver Island Mount Haig-Brown after him and his wife. He died on October 9, 1976.

For the world’s fly fishers, Haig-Brown will long be remembered for his writing. Although A River Never Sleeps (first published 1946) is his best-known and arguably his finest fishing book, others should not be overlooked. I especially enjoy his quartet, Fisherman’s Spring (1951), Fisherman’s Summer (1959), Fisherman’s Fall (1964) and Fisherman’s Winter (1954). The latter is interesting in that it is primarily a pioneering account of trout fishing the cold rivers of Chile and Argentina in the early 1950s, almost half a century before the region became a major fly-fishing/tourist venue for northern hemisphere anglers. But I think that, following A River Never Sleeps, the book which includes some of Haig-Brown’s best writing is Return to the River (1941). This book exhibits fully his power of description, and is about the life history of the Chinook salmon. Read the second paragraph of the book:

“The river in its mild flood was impressive. It had run through the mile-long canyon, turbulently over its bed of boulders and against the steep rock sides, and now it came from the narrow mouth of the canyon, flurried white between the tall grey walls by a ledge of rock that ran out from the far bank. In the moment of sudden release it spread into a great wide pool, the white of its hurry lost in a current-creased surface. There were deep eddies on either side, under the lee of the rock walls, but the river slid on between them, forcing them apart, confining them above itself, until it had spread to a fan at the tail of the pool and claimed the whole wide bed for its flow. Then it was broken and white again in the long rapid that hurried down to the next pool.”

Anyone who has ever fished big, powerful rivers can visualise Haig-Brown’s river from this description. It is, as I said earlier, evocative writing and needs no pictorial illustration. The whole of Return to the River is of this quality. Perfect description takes us there, as we sit back in our armchair, reading and perhaps sipping something amber-coloured from a glass.

Similarly, in A River Never Sleeps, which takes us month by month through the fly-fisher’s year. Let me give you just one instance, and then you must enjoy the rest by yourself. Haig-Brown is writing of the thousands of small lakes on Vancouver Island and along the coastal strip of the British Columbian mainland:

“It is a great moment when you come down through the woods to such a lake. You stand there and look at it, judging its shore line, measuring its islands, noticing a deep bay here, a sloping beach there, a rocky bluff on the other side; it is untried water then and looks full of promise. Every windfall, thrusting out into the water, may be the haunt of a big fish; the shallow water behind the island, where the lily pads show, will surely be a good place for the fly; the mouth of the stream at the head will be worth trying; the deep, still water may hide anything, even a short, thick ten-pounder, perhaps a whole dozen of them. True, that miracle never happens, but a man would be a queer sort of fisherman if he did not let his mind play with the idea of it at every sight of a new water.”

He’s right. Often I have clambered over a heather-capped Scottish moor or Irish bog to a loch I have never before seen. I know that there will be lots of three-to-the-pound, red-spotted, yellow-bellied, torpedo-shaped brownies that will fight like tigers. There always is. But surely there will be a few pounders, two-pounders, even the odd three-pounder ...?

Or try this: “March is a good month for fishing beaver ponds ...” Beaver ponds! Yes. Beaver ponds with “hog-backed eighteen inches [of cutthroat trout that] weighed three pounds; and five others exactly like him came in the next dozen casts.”

I can’t wait to get there!

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