The Western Angler

Columnist Rob Brown finds a couple of rare books in Prince George

Prince George has been Big-Boxed. You know the phenomenon: giant warehouse outlets for largely substandard goods manufactured at great expense to all of us by underpaid workers in the Peoples’ Republic of China are crammed into giant rectangular buildings located on the outskirts of town, then sold cheaply by people who make less than they should and who, in too many cases, lack adequate benefit packages. This unsatisfactory and blatantly unsustainable phenomenon is an inescapable result of the whacked out economic theories of Frederic Hayek and Milton Friedman as embraced by Maggie Thatcher’s Tories in Britain, and later by Ronnie Reagan’s Republicans on this side of the sea then aggressively marketed, packaged and sold to promote globalization by admen in the hire of the corporate ruling elite.

Big Boxes are hard on a city’s core. They become gangrenous from lack of cash flow and begin to fester. Shops close. Money lending shops open. Good will shops proliferate. The crime rate rises. I’m sure that numerous papers have been written on the subject by urban geographers and that there will be many more to come.

As I walked along the main streets of PG recently, I noticed that the indomitable spirit of small business has not been completely flattened. Small restaurants serving excellent food had sprung up. A chocolatier has opened a cafe not far from the needle exchange. Quirky gifts can be found at Homeworks, and a few blocks later a boxed set of Roderick Haig-Brown’s A River Never Sleeps and The Western Angler, on display in the window of a used books store appropriately named The Final Chapter (which, I later learn, is the only one in downtown Prince George) caught my eye.

A week earlier I was pleased to have found a hard bound reprint of Fisherman’s Summer – one of the seasonal quartet of angling books by Haig-Brown – for sale in the Prince Rupert museum. I read and reread all four of those works over 30 years ago. I also read and studied A River Never Sleeps, but, surprisingly, I hadn’t read The Western Angler, the book actually intended to be a guide to anyone intending to fish for the gamefish of this province, albeit in 1939, when the book was written.

I entered the store, picked up the boxed set from the stand inside the window, and took it to the counter where I was greeted by the proprietor whose love of books was soon apparent and infectious.

“I’ve never seen Haig-Brown’s books boxed in a set before,” he said.

My interest in the natural world proven by my purchase, he waved me behind the counter and pulled a beautifully bound tome of what must have been a few thousand pages in length from a side self.

“Look at this,” he said leafing through plate after plate of beautiful wildlife illustrations reminiscent of the best work of Charles Audubon.

“What is it? Who wrote it?” I asked.

“That’s the amazing thing,” he replied. “It’s a government report written in the 1800s on the wildlife found in a number of states in the Eastern US.”

I left the nicely appointed and lovingly tended book store and made for my hotel where, after watching Germany slaughter Brazil in the semi-finals of the World Cup, I left the bar for my room where I lay down on the bed and began The Western Angler.

“Acknowledged by the angling fraternity of all North America as the greatest writer on angling since an old chap called Izaak Walton,” read the blurb on the back cover written by the late Gregory Clark, a pretty fair outdoors writer in his own right.

A few pages in, I understood that this was not an exaggeration. Like all fine writers, Haig-Brown strains at the limits imposed by the intent and form of the work and transcends them. There are exciting descriptions of leaving Seattle and Vancouver with the sedan filled with rods and tackle bound for the lakes of the interior in search of Kamloops Trout and of running out of paved road somewhere near Rosedale on what was then a very long trip. When he finally arrives at the lakes, Haig-Brown describes great angling with now legendary figures like Bill Nation and Tommy Brayshaw, whose exquisite drawings grace the book. The fishing is done with silk fly lines, with Devon Minnows that are cast on lines of gut spooled on Silex reels. The writing is elegant, the reasoning taut and all of it is enhanced by the patina of time. 

In 300 pages Haig-Brown manages to describe the game fishes of B.C. and their life histories, describe the tackle in vogue for each species at the time the book was written, outline how to fish lures and flies, list prominent fly patterns and give their dressings, and still make time to for insightful, often brilliant, discussions and reflections on fisheries management, habitat protection, the impacts of forestry and commercial fishing on the salmon resource, and how sport fishing tourism might properly be prosecuted.

Seventy years later, it is clear that Haig-Brown was prescient. The last two essays in the book, “The Future” and “The People’s Right to Fish” are must reading for anyone who angles.