The old priest wrote the letter to Aunt Peg by hand. “You are of Clan Ian Roudh (Red John),” the letter starts. The direct family line in America went through Ian Liath (Grey John), who emigrated from the Highlands to Canada in 1786. He was a Gaelic poet.
The script is still strong on the faded photocopies, made of the original sent by Father Ewan to Aunt Peg in 1955. “He came from Knoydart,” the letter continues, “on the west coast of Scotland.” It’s part of an area known as the Rough Bounds.
I remember viewing the rugged, empty hills from my own trip to Scotland, on the way to the Isle of Skye. The land looked muscular, with protruding rock and muted vegetation and dark, cold waters. The rolling clouds and chill wind added to the sense of untamed foreboding. And emptiness.
“There are few if any of our people in the Highlands,” wrote Father Ewan. “You know why.” He was speaking of the Highland Clearances, when the British Lords drove the people out of the hills and replaced them with sheep.
True, our clan migrated down from Ontario into the States, overtly retaining their Catholocism and, maybe subconciously, the imprint of Knoydart.
“Our people did better in this country,” wrote Father Ewan. And that sentence stuck. We are here now, in cities and towns and interconnected. Are we meant to seek areas away from comfort? Sometimes it’s necessary to put the laptop down and find out.
A canal runs along the berm separating wilderness from civilization, but that demarcation is lost on the alligators. They migrate out of the swamp and into the canals and the farm ponds until a dog goes missing and someone calls for their removal.
We rode a gas-powered cart along the edge of the canal in search of largemouth bass and we saw the white underbelly of a floating alligator that was missing its head. My friend speculated that some crackers had done it, on a midnight joyride. The odor of decay wafted over the area and in the morning heat we moved on.
Another canal ran parallel, about a half mile to the east, abutted by a series of horse paddocks. The horses mostly worked the fields with their heads down, swatting their hind quarters with their tails. At dusk they’d move into the stables to feed. As with pool tables, swimming pools and Irish pubs, it’s better not to own a horse but to have a good friend who does. I had been offered the opportunity to ride the trail along the swamp’s edge, but chose to go fishing instead.
Bass are not too hard to find in the backwaters and if you make enough casts one of them is going to take a pass at a popper. Just don’t bend down for too long on release, lest you present a canine profile to the local reptiles.
On the whole, fish that jump after the hookset are more entertaining than those that do not. Still, the idea of it, though sometimes effective, doesn’t make much sense for the fish. If someone were to hook me through the lip and try to pull me around by my face, the last thing I’d do is jump into the water. Where I can’t breathe.
A more learned person than me might be able to biologically vet it as part of the fight or flight process. Which brings around another thought about angling: Are we really fighting fish? Everything the fish is doing, once hooked, pertains to flight–trying to get away from the opposing force by whatever means possible. Fight has nothing to do with it.
Maybe the whole verbiage around it needs to be recalculated. “That fish gave a great flight.” Or, “that fish made a phenomenal effort to escape.” Because it’s not a binary relationship between noble adversaries, it’s a one-way transaction between hunter and hunted. With catch-and-release as an escape clause.
Save The River, the organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the St. Lawrence River, is offering the above pretty awesome Michael Ringer print to anglers who catch, then release their muskie.
That’s way better than a skin mount. Or pretty much anything you can do with a dead muskie.
The land used to be pastureland, purchased by my father’s family in 1841 to graze dairy cows. In the early 1900s they converted it for recreation, building cottages along the banks of the river in sight of the rapids that existed before construction of the Seaway.
Two islands that were named for dad’s ancestors have been disappeared under the surface since the Authority raised the water levels for the shipping channel. A hazard to navigation buoy marks their presence.
My grandmother planted pine trees in the boggy land between the road and the river and they’ve grown tall in the decades and harbor deer and the occasional family of red foxes.
A nesting pair of bald eagles has made a home in the islands across the river and loons come in the spring before the boat traffic gets too heavy. Wild turkeys run on the islands too and when the great blue herons spread their wings overhead they look like flying dinosaurs.
The water is as clear as it has ever been and you can see the pike waiting in ambush or the bass hugging structure by the dozens or the giant carp or the chub schooling on the shoals like bonefish. Put in the time, you think, and they’ll be there. They’ve adapted and survived over the centuries but you can never shake the feeling that at any moment one doomed freighter can take it all away.
There is always that moment, upon first contact, where it feels like it’s going to be a much bigger fish. These panfish with their broad profiles are wont to do that, to turn against the pull and create drag…like a drift anchor. The Mayans down in Florida do it and then they wedge their bodies into the weedy growth on bottom and it’s like pulling a stuck Danforth. Hope the knot’s 100 percent because it’s a shame to lose a fly to a bastard little widebody.
Overall, going sideways would be a pretty good life lesson if you’re inclined to think of it that way…fight the power in panfish metaphor. I’m not so inclined; I’ll take the jumping bass and whatever meaning goes with that.
The convenience store at the gas station had an aromatic little kitchen tucked into the corner, behind the registers, so there was no way to resist buying an empanada.
I have heard two working theories about the prevalence of spices in meat dishes of tropical origin. But whether the spices harbor antibiotic properties or trigger cooling perspiration seemed beside the point: I’d already built a sweat from walking the canal perimeter.
I like to fish the culverts and the dead ends where the water is a mirror that shatters upon impact, after the fish jumps out of it to escape what’s fighting against it only to be pulled back under by gravity. Five minutes later it is a mirror again. (Thank the miracle of surface tension.) The next interruption comes from the far gentler landing of a size two ensconced in craft fur. It causes tiny ripples to pulse outward in concentric circles.
Fresh water is the most under-appreciated aspect of the Florida experience. (They wanted to drain the entire swamp in the 19th century, the sonsabitches.) But there’s also food. Key lime pie made with real key limes, moros y cristianos, ropa vieja, country grits and collard greens, Bahama bread and cracked conch and grilled pompano that your neighbor gave you.
The trick to Cuban coffee is the espuma–the foam they make with sugar and a little just-percolated espresso. This little cafe next to a barbershop in Miami Beach makes it perfect. They pass it over the counter with four plastic shot glasses but I just drink it straight from the styrofoam cup.