November 18, 2022
By Ross Purnell
When I was 13, I didn’t play team sports. I was more interested in the river that flowed under the freeway just a couple of miles from my house. I could ride my bike there quite easily, and spent many days just throwing rocks, floating sticks and, of course, fishing. In those days I had a spinning rod, a bobber, some lead weights and a jar full of bright red salmon eggs. In order to afford all that swag, I procured a part-time job at a pet store taking care of aquariums full of tropical saltwater and freshwater fish. When I wasn’t feeding goldfish to piranhas, scooping fish for customers or provoking the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens), I was down at the river trying to catch trout.
Unfortunately, I was terrible at it. The Bow River was nothing like an aquarium; it was a vast galaxy of unknowns, at times roiled with sediment and dangerously deep and fast, at other times dark and mysterious. Little of what I saw ever translated into usable information, and as a result I plunked away uselessly for many summers, and only occasionally caught Rocky Mountain whitefish.
That started to change when I got my driver’s licence and was allowed to ramble about in my mother’s green 1976 Ford Granada. One of my first stops that summer was a small store I found listed in the Yellow Pages under the fishing category. Inside those magical doors were rods and reels, the likes of which I’d never seen before; bins of impossibly small and fuzzy lures; shelves of fat fishing lines; and what looked like wetsuits of all sizes and colours hanging by their suspenders. “Are they swimming with the fish, or trying to catch them,?” I wondered?
I quietly bought a magazine with an article about the Bow River and left the shop. But I went back to Country Pleasures many times just to listen to the banter between the shop owners and their customers.
There seemed to be three proprietors. Two of them made me a little nervous. I feared that if I asked the wrong questions, they’d find out I was an imposter, and throw me out of the clubhouse forever. But one of the shopkeepers seemed to enjoy it when people asked stupid questions – not so he could ridicule them, but as sort of an icebreaker to get a conversation started. He’d say things like “I thought the same thing but found out…” or “It sure seems like that, but…” I was comfortable talking to him because he admitted to asking stupid questions himself at one point or another, and was happy to share what he’d already learned.
I was a broke teenager, and not a good customer, but then again, I don’t think Jim McLennan was ever much of a salesman. He was born to be a teacher, and that’s what he’s done in his long career of guiding, writing, filming and instructing. I was just one of thousands he’s helped along the way.
When I was still a teen, he directed me to the books, magazines and VHS tapes that helped me make giant leaps forward. For me, he was the curator of all fly-fishing knowledge – a librarian of sorts. He loaned me VHS tapes such as Fly Fishing Alberta Canada’s Bow River with Lefty Kreh and The Essence of Flycasting with Mel Krieger. He also gave me book recommendations and sold me Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.
By the time I reached university, I was, like most other kids my age, just trying to figure out what to do with my life. I skipped a lot of classes to go fishing. I read and reread everything Jim McLennan wrote in Fly Fisherman and The Alberta Fishing Guide. And then in 1987 Jim published the award-winning book Blue Ribbon Bow, and I was powerfully struck by the true relationship between trout streams and fly fishers – they need us to survive, but in many cases, we need them even more. Not just to catch fish, but to find ourselves.
Jim has always been able to artfully provide instruction, entertainment and humour, but most important, he’s been able to inspire us. In all of his writing from Blue Ribbon Bow to the Trout Tracks book you hold in your hands now he’s able to masterfully inch us toward a higher purpose and give us a clearer understanding of our role as fly fishers.
In this book of essays, Jim writes about getting a thank you from a homeless man who claimed, “Fly fishing saved me.”
I think that sentiment resonates with most of us. Fly fishing certainly saved me, or created the person I am today. To a large degree, my life outdoors was predicated and modelled on the things I read in books and magazines – and most of those aspirations came from the keyboard of Jim McLennan in the most formative period of my life.
When I finished Trout Tracks I was again inspired, and also overjoyed to think that there’s a new generation of fly fishers coming into our sport right now, just as I did so many decades ago. And I’m grateful we have Jim McLennan to lead them.
$22 | rmbooks.com