Updated January 12, 2010

The Less Familiar Roderick Haig-Brown

All fly fishers know of Roderick Langmere Haig Haig-Brown. He is remembered for his 25 books, including A River Never Sleeps, his series of the Fisherman’s seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter and the later posthumous work Bright Water, Bright Fish. He is remembered as a passionate conservationist, a vocation found far in advance of its time. It is remembered by some that he was a magistrate.

But of the essential man, the everyday, Haig-Brown, the family man, the farmer, little is common knowledge. Born in 1908 in Lancing, Sussex, England, the first defining occurrence for him was the death of his father, Alan, in 1918 during the First World War. He was but 10 and the family then, as later, was large, enveloping and upper crusty. Came with the tragedy was the practical problem of his mother, Violet Pope, in a time before Women’s Liberation; little chance she had of raising income and thus her family. [Image 429]

Fortunately, her father, Alfred Pope, [Image 453] was exceptionally well off – the family had bought into brewing – and Roddy, sisters and Mum went to live with him at Wrackleford, Dorchester. Fortunately for the boy, the estate had 3,000 acres and ten miles of pretty good trout stream along the Frome. There he learned his fishing craft. Unfortunately for the headstrong, wayward boy, the boys’ public school, Charterhouse, claimed some years of his life. Haig-Brown was shot out from the establishment when he was 17, as he didn’t accept well the discipline meted out for going on a drunken London larker. He described the school thusly: “How absolutely too damn awful for words.” And carried his ferret in his pocket.

Soon he set his sights on coming to North America, land of change, opportunity and wilderness. He didn’t want to have a profession, a Colonial Civil Service indenture favoured by his family. No, he wanted to be a writer, and from his early teens kept voluminous diaries, letters and lists. When he arrived on the Pacific coast he took up work in the logging sector, as a scaler for his uncle, near Seattle, Washington. His first fateful meeting of his ultimate and singular love of his life occurred because he was a booky guy, and an acquaintance sent him to Hartman’s where he met Ann Elmore. She, again far before its time, held a summa cum laude English degree from Berkeley, CA and was at the head of her class, hence the work she took up. The meeting did not at first yield a relationship, though they did keenly note one another and exchange letters. Roddy went back to England because his mother asked him to come home after an eighteen month absence. There he had his first book: Silver, The life Story of an Atlantic Salmon, accepted for publication.

On his return to North America, drawn by the fish of Vancouver Island’s grand Nimpkish River, he was indeed a young buck [Image 439]. Not much later, the somewhat shy, diffident lad and Ann [Image 371], who made the first move to smooch his tongue-tied attempts, fell in love. She was from a family of a well to do physician, and her mother a socialite, was active and outgoing, so Ann had a background much like his own. At the time it was common practice for the lady of the house, her mother, to work in the gardens with the hired help and this was the source of Ann’s love of gardening, a passion the couple shared all their lives. Soon they moved to Campbell River on Vancouver Island BC in 1934. It was a little backwater town that had little to recommend it other than Painters’ Lodge where Hollywood stars like John Wayne and Bob Hope would come to fish for Tyee salmon. Today, one can still fish the Tyee Pool from a gillie-rowed lapstrake dory using prescribed spoon or wooden plug for entrance into the esteemed Tyee Club [Image 451].

Despite Ann and Roderick’s backgrounds, the young couple were quite poor, an issue that would help define both as adults.

Dec 24, 2009

Have a Haig-Brown Christmas

I was standing by the Nimpkish River last week at 11 below. The fish were huddled among the bottom rocks trying to keep from freezing to death, something I was doing quite well. The Spey line crossing my rod hand’s stripping finger left a line of white with each strip. I put my rod butt down and snapped the ice-balls from the 13 line guides. In the few minutes it took to do this, my waders froze and I found I could hardly bend my knees to move back into the water.

The Nimpkish was one of Rod Haig-Brown’s most favourite rivers, a goodly portion of his young life being spent on the bottom end, working for Wood & English Logging Co. He was 19 and there were no roads. So he came up with the tide and moved up on foot through the lower canyon. His A River Never Sleeps has a tale or two of this; his long-time friend Van Egan has now revealed more in a neat, numbered edition from Canwest: Shadows of the Western Angler.

Of Haig-Brown’s favourite rivers (many others cannot be mentioned in print, only pass from mouth to ear down the generations): the Stamp, the Campbell, the Nimpkish, I was on the last, thinking about the usefulness of Van Egan’s book. It has several maps, and two of the lower Nimpkish, where it has a canyon character and broad tidewater estuary. These were drawn by Roddy and given to his friend.

The two hand-drawn maps have not seen wide distribution until now. The lower Nimpkish is the place where Rod dumped on a winter trip at Siwash Rock. He offered up the vastly understated: “Too bad for me, I lose my gumboots”, before being swept away (and later rescued); it was so as it was first intoned by a native on losing his wife and children at that spot. A sad thing

You must have this book and the maps. This one gives the trail access, the railroad line, and Lansdowne Farm. Drawn in 1962, it notes, the ‘new bridge’, which is the highway bridge one crosses just before Port McNeill today. And there is a map of the Island Pools. The Campbell has to be considered one of the most difficult rivers to wade. That is because of the high gradient, the algae, the lack of silt under the rocks and that most rocks are at least basketball size. Though 100 kg or more, they move when you put your foot on them. A tough day on the feet.

Most logging damaged rivers change almost every rain. But the Campbell has a dam above to prevent the silt and gravel passing down. And so, much of it looks today, 55 years later, almost as it did in the drawing. But not quite. The perilously slippery crossing to the Upper Island Pool is still there, but the good steelhead run immediately below has been somewhat filled in. And the Upper Island has narrowed, but its run has deepened, so that your fly is taken in a curve and deposited in the absolutely best looking water as though you were a magician. The pool of the Lower Island Pool is pretty much as it is today. And of course, the spawning channel with its fist-sized gravel is not the major challenge it was in years past – at least until the rains begin.

I will return to the Nimpkish with Haig-Brown’s map. I will take what is today a rather pudgy fly compared with what he made and called the Brown and Yellow Bug. It is known today as the Steelhead Bee, but our copies are not as malnourished as in the days he and Van Egan tied them. Do pick up this book, and perhaps in July you will find yourself with your dry flies and #4 weight rod to fish the lake’s exit for drop down cutthroat and rainbows. Not as I was the other day, worrying about the ice on my line hitting the ice-balls and chipping the running line coating, rendering it waterlogged. Sit by the fire with your favourite line, read the book and plan your trip north.