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Angling with a poet laureate

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Something to read on a Sunday morning....







Paul Quarrington


Published on Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 3:12PM EDT


Last updated on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009 3:29AM EDT



My name is Paul, and I'm an Angling Addict.


My story proceeds like many another. I began taking little trout from a stream near my parents' house, I ended up spending thousands of dollars battling gear-mangling tarpon off the coast of Cuba. There are many others like me, including, you might be surprised to learn, Ted Hughes, the late former poet laureate of England.


I know of Hughes and his angling addiction because his friend – and enabler – Ehor Boyanowsky has written a lovely book about it, Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts: In the Wild with Ted Hughes. The “silver ghosts” is a reference to their drug of choice, the steelhead. Taxonomically speaking, this species is a bit confusing. It is often referred to as the “anadromous rainbow trout,” that 50-cent word indicating that the fish goes both up and down (and down and up) the river. The fish leaves the stream and enters the ocean, where it gets big. It then comes back upriver, and runs a gauntlet of angling addicts.



Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts: In the Wild with Ted Hughes, by Ehor Boyanowsky, Douglas & McIntyre, 196 pages, $28.95


Unlike salmon – other salmonids, I should say, as the fish was reclassified into that family 20-odd years ago – the steelhead is not so intent on spawning that it auto-digests. The fish – as silver as chrome metal – remain muscular and acrobatic, indeed, after they've done their procreative business, as they put out to sea once again, there to become even bigger. All of this means, of course, that the steelhead is highly addictive.


Boyanowsky – co-author of The Pocket Guide to Fly Fishing for Steelhead, former president of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia, and also a criminal psychologist and professor at Simon Fraser University – details his first meeting with Hughes, at a poetry reading at the University of British Columbia. A discussion of fishing – angling addicts have a way of finding one another – leads to their first expedition on the legendary Dean River. These fishing trips become regular, Hughes finding reasons and chances aplenty to visit British Columbia.


Oh, which reminds me: There are, in fact, steelhead in Ontario, plenty of 'em, although some people (and I'm forced to conclude that Boyanowsky is one of them) deny this. The biggest platform for their objection is that a B.C. steelhead “smolts,” which is to say, adjusts its own biochemistry to deal with salt water. Eastern steelhead – which enter the Great Lakes from their home rivers – don't do this, because they have no reason to. The fish are, however, genetically identical.



“ Hughes was a private and circumspect man, and Boyanowsky is very respectful of this ”



And as long as I'm at it, let me just complain about one other facet of Boyanowsky's, um, snobbery. There, I've said it. He's a very good writer and I'm sure he's an accomplished angler, but from time to time he represents the least attractive of the snooty fly fisherman's biases, that taking a fish on a dry fly is intrinsically superior to any other method. A dry fly sits on top of the water, you see. Other flies sink beneath the surface, and there has been whining and name-calling between the two camps for decades. To me, this is as foolish and wrong-headed as the feuding between Bele and Lokai on Star Trek episode #70. (Both aliens are half-black and half-white, the coloration divided neatly down the middle, but Lokai is white on the right side … well, you get the idea.)


Besides, Boyanowsky is not above tying on streamers and chucking them from a rowboat at a moving shoal of coho salmon. Not that I'm criticizing the practice, I'm just pointing out that it goes to show: You do what you gotta do.


Mmm. This represents quite a bit of carping on my part, which may just be sour grapes given the wonderful fishing that Hughes and Boyanowsky share. Not to mention the many fine meals and bottles of claret and single malt. One of the most engaging parts of the book deals with the trip to England – fishing the “Major's Pool,” for example – wherein Hughes is more given to considerations of writing, his daily schedule, the essays of Lorca etc.


This book is not written for people who are looking for dirt on Ted Hughes. Despite his scholarly and poetic achievements (his Collected Poems runs to 1,333 pages), he is associated mostly with tragedy, in particular the suicide of Sylvia Plath in 1963, to whom he was married at the time. Hughes was a private and circumspect man, and Boyanowsky is very respectful of this. If Ted Hughes mentioned a few things as he sat by the river, his friend, for the most part, allowed things to pass without specific mention and note.


This is, after all, a book about fishing, and in detailing this we get a sense of Hughes without any really sharp psychological insight. As I say, I count this as one of the book's charms. However, I found myself wondering, often, what lay behind the Angling Addiction. There is some mention of an older brother, apparently quite an angler and nimrod, and perhaps there is some clue as to his “problem” right there.


But toward the end of the book, Hughes opens up, quite wonderfully, about fishing and its rewards. He gives us large dollops of wisdom, in particular this sentence: “Any form of fishing provides that connection with the whole living world.”


Paul Quarrington is a novelist, musician and fishing enthusiast whose books include Fishing With My Old Guy and From the Far Side of the River. He will receive the Matt Cohen Award today at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

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Decent reading I'm sure but his adulterous life led his wife to suicide thus depriving their children of a mother...not on my Christmas list for sure. Sorry, it's how I feel about that.

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