Renaissance fly fishing

Published on May 24, 2014
Laurence Kiernan doing justice to a fine Ponoi salmon. — Photos by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram

I’m writing as usual on Sunday morning, stimulated by strong coffee and a sound night’s sleep. That’s how I kick-start the tiny creative zone in my otherwise too analytical brain.

I suppose I spent more than a reasonable share of time doing physics problems and figuring out stuff with numbers and equations.

Nowadays, I’m muscling up my right brain, pondering over photographic images and writing about camping, fly-fishing, hiking, and all that good ol’ outdoorsy stuff.

Actually, science, in the past few years, seems to have debunked the long-winded and rambling “left-brain logical vs. right-brain artsy creative personality” debate. It’s my experience in science that simplified views of the world are generally and eventually proven to be nonsense.

So, there you go. All those years categorizing folks as left or right minded only to find out in the 21st century that it’s a bunch of hogwash. Oh well, at least it teaches us not to get too cosied up to dogma about this or that, and always maintain a questioning outlook on the world around you. Don’t be fearful of snipping off that Blue Charm and trying a no-name pattern of your own creation.

It really matters not if this business of left vs. right brain has any merit or not in many contexts. Physiology aside, no matter where in the noggin the neurons fire, some folks are better at handling numbers, formulas, physics, chemistry and calculus, while others excel when writing poems and music, or painting beautiful images. At least that’s how it seems with many people.

But categorizing with rigour is always a precarious oversimplification of complex human skill and talent. Albert Einstein was an accomplished violist and Leonardo da Vinci was a very skilled engineer.

Maybe we need to take a step back in time, to a world void of digital and specialists. In Renaissance times, art and science were mutual pursuits, a continuum of knowledge — analog, you might say.

Art or science?

To the question of the day: is fly fishing art or science? Or, in the naive 1990s brain division theory, left or right brained? Is there a simple answer? I suspect not.

Let’s take a look at the vocations of some folks who choose fly fishing as an avocation and see what light that sheds on the murky mix of line weights, rod actions and mysterious fish sense.

Chasing both silver fish and flashy stories has taken me to some pretty exotic locations, and I’ve met some very interesting and eccentric characters along the way. Were they the analytical or artistic sort? How did they punch the clock to provide for families, pay for kids’ educations and finance globetrotting angling addictions?

You know what? Upon giving this some thought, I think the renaissance folks had hit the nail right on the head. The artistic and analytic are often two sides of the same coin, inseparable. Fly fishing is proof positive; brain scientists just got carried away with pigeonholing stuff.

I met Bernie Scalin in the midst of an amazing setting, photographing the sunrise over the Caribbean from the deck of my duplex cabin in Belize. Bernie, my duplex neighbour, observed with interest and sipped his morning java, while I fiddled with filters and shutter speeds, trying to capture art with pixels and electronic sensors.

Bernie asked where I was from and I responded between frames. He got pretty excited and animated about me being from Newfoundland. I can’t recall exact words but paraphrased roughly, “isn’t that the damnedest thing; neighbours on a remote island off the coast of Belize and neighbours in the Maritimes.”

Bernie, a native of Chicago, now lives in Cape Breton, right next door from the perspective  of Central America. What a coincidence; not a lot of folks from either Newfoundland or Cape Breton fish for bones, permit and tarpon on Turneff Island off the coast of Belize. We later checked and we were the only ones in the camp logbook.

Veteran angler

Satisfied that I’d done some degree of justice to the rising sun, I sat to drink my own coffee and chat with Bernie. He looked like a veteran, and being a bonefish novice it sure wouldn’t hurt to chat with this guy for a bit.

What an interesting character. He knew all things technical about saltwater fly fishing, and was more than happy to share with a greenhorn. Bernie had grabbed an elusive opportunity to fish for tarpon in Costa Rica, on the spur of the moment many decades previous. He was a fly-fishing pioneer.

I could have yarned with Bernie all day, but we had to go catch some fish. We chatted again over a traditional chicken dinner. I love the way they use mesquite seasoning in  Belize. I described to Bernie every detail of catching my first bonefish, routine to the hardened salty, I’m sure.

After nearly 30 years of snagging bones, he politely tolerated my over enthusiasm and went on to explain more of the finer points to me.

Bernie, technician extraordinaire, was retired when I met him, but what did he do for a living? He earned his keep on Earth as a graphic artist for the Rothman tobacco company, back in the bad old days when the smoke folks displayed all those artsy posters and billboards.

Russia rendezvous

Last summer, I journeyed to Russia’s Kola Peninsula to fish the Ponoi River, one of the finest salmon rivers on our planet. I met up with Laurence Kiernan, a boy from Dublin now living and working in Munich, Germany.

Laurence holds a PhD in physics and works in the patent office in judgment of emerging digital TV technology. You can’t get more technical than that. You’d almost be tempted into thinking this guy’s a nerd. Oh, how stereotypes may lead you astray.

Laurence and I hit it off and decided to partner up and spend the week fishing together. We drank a wee bit of vodka together, as well. He was the only soul in camp who could interpret every word of my Newfoundland accent when I indulged a little too excessively. Remember, he’s Irish.

You would expect Laurence to be a whiz on the technical side of the fly game. And he certainly lived up to and exceeded that expectation. In addition, Laurence has a sixth sense about catching fish. He can read water and somehow mysteriously knows the best places to swing a fly.

I paid attention and learned much from him. This kind of knowledge is tough to define; it’s art, the mysterious, wondrous side of angling.

Laurence is also a most accomplished fellow at the bench, not pressing weights, but creating beautiful fish offerings from feather, fur and tinsel. I was very impressed and snagged a few fish with gifts he kindly bestowed upon me.

Laurence is also hardcore to the bone, fishing all night long, casting long days on little sleep, while still socializing as expected with fellow anglers. He’s a fishing Category 5 hurricane — no nerd in any respect.

I rest my case: fly fishing is a renaissance sport, Both Leonardo and Danny DeVito would be proud.

What was it Danny said in that movie? Something like, “He wrote plays. Plays …? You know, like TV without the box.” He was telling someone about Shakespeare.

Anyway, all sorts of folks may take up and find success in angling: plumbers, bluegrass singers, carpenters, movie stars and rocket scientists. The rod, line and hook renders us all equal.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at, or follow on twitter @flyfishtherock.