Victorian Fly Fishers

Excerpt from “Victorian Fly Fishers on the Nipigon,” Ontario History, Autumn 1999, Volume XCI Number 2

The Fly and the River

by Mark Chochla



            The Nipigon River is fifty kilometres long and is broken by several waterfalls and rapids. Nineteenth century anglers concentrated their fly-fishing efforts on the rapids and fast water at the base of falls for two reasons: they were places of great beauty and they were easy to fish successfully. Native guides were well aware that stealth, fly presentation, and long casts were not necessary in these noisy, fast-moving waters. They also knew that a fly fisher had the best chance of success in these locations.

            Devotees of the fly arrived on the river with two types of wet flies: small drab trout flies developed on the rivers of England or New England, and the large colourful flies used to fish the lakes of Maine for landlocked salmon. Nipigon brook trout ignored the small subtle flies; according to angling writer, Henry Vail, they were not even noticed by the “uneducated Nipigon trout.” He found the brook trout’s preference for the large gaudy flies remarkable and stated, with some exaggeration, “I believe that the trout of the Nipigon would rise freely to a moderate-sized canary bird if it could be properly cast.”

            By 1884, Charles F. Orvis of the Manchester, Vermont, fishing tackle company was supplying sportsmen with large brown, grey, or red hackled flies along with landlocked salmon patterns such as Paramacheene Belle and the Nipigon standard – the Silver Doctor. Between 1860 and 1890 a revolution was taking place in the sport of fly fishing. The dominance of the wet fly that was fished below the water surface was being challenged by the dry fly that was fished on the surface. Developed on the quiet chalk streams of southern England, dry-fly fishing became increasingly popular in Great Britain and North America by 1900. On the Nipigon, however, dry flies were not used in the nineteenth century because of the very nature of the river. Fast currents, gusting winds, and the size of the Nipigon made dry fly angling relatively unproductive and were therefore unappealing.

            Yet dry-fly fishing continued to grow in popularity owing, in part to the spectacular strikes that dry flies could elicit from trout. Anglers experimented with dry flies on the Nipigon and began to have success. By 1913, dry-fly fishing was being promoted there. Moreover, dry flies were being used on fast water, thought by earlier anglers to be unlikely dry-fly water: “In some pools such as Robinson’s Pool and the fast water at Victoria Camp at Virgin Falls the big fish are taken with the fly on the surface. To take six, seven or eight pound trout with a fly in fast water is exclusively characteristic of the Nipigon above any other trout water.” As always, anglers were also cautioned to avoid the delicate gut leaders typically used for dry-fly fishing; the Nipigon was not a delicate river or a typical river.


Camping and Native Guides

by Mark Chochla


            The most distinguished fishing part outfitted by Robert Crawford, chief trader at Red Rock’s Hudson’s Bay Post, was Lord and lady Dufferin. The governor general and his wife had only been in Canada for two years when, in the summer of 1874, they toured Lake Superior on the steamship Chicora. Lord Dufferin was an experienced fly fisherman and Lady Dufferin was enthusiastic about the Nipigon. When the Chicora docked at Red Rock warf, an exuberant vice-regal party rushed to the store to outfit themselves with everything from blankets to trout flies. The next morning, after a sound sleep, the party met their native guides, who then paddled the five-canoe flotilla upstream. Lady Dufferin’s canoe sported a Union Jack on the bow and led the party up-river, over the lower portages to the trout pools. The vice-regal travelers experienced the river, as would many others in the nineteenth century. After ascending the river by canoe, portaging by foot or ox cart (later horse cart), the weary tourist welcomed a good night’s sleep on a bed of fir boughs under a canvas tent. The angler was awakened by the smell of morning coffee and greeted by a hearty breakfast at the campfire. A day of traveling and fishing also included a shore lunch of trout, a large evening meal, and a bonfire before bed.

Camping on the Nipigon could hardly be described as “roughing it.” There were “folding cots, folding wash basins that stand waist high, enameled butter dishes that pop out at every meal … great loads of canned goods, lanterns with glass chimneys, fresh eggs in immense crates big enough to carry the chickens that laid them all, canopies for the dining table, folding chairs with high backs for you head, glass bottles of tomato catsup and other liquid condiments and hundreds of other knick knacks which no experienced woods traveler ever expects to see anywhere but in a sporting goods dealer’s catalogue.”  Tourists had such genteel camping experiences because of the physical efforts of their native guides. In account after account, the guides received praise for their knowledge, intelligence, strength, cooking skills, and desire to give satisfactory service. “I once timed an Indian guide whom I accompanied over this mile and a half [portage],” wrote a sports angler. “He covered the distance in twenty-five minutes, never stopping, while I weighed down with a couple of rods and a few light traps, came puffing and panting inside the distance flag. His load was a full one hundred and fifty pounds.”

            Sportsman Charles Hallcock was impressed with the punctual arrival of Pooray, his native guide, who exhibited a flair for motivating his party of angers. Pooray brought a four-and-one-quarter pound brook trout, “which caused our eyes to dilate and our nerves to thrill with pleasurable anticipation … the genuine Salmo Foninalis [brook trout] gleaming in royal splendor.” The Nipigon River guides were native and Métis men of considerable intelligence and education. Some guides participated in sportsmen’s shows which were held in larger North American cities to market and promote the Nipigon sport fishery. Several guides received special mention. Andrew Laxie, a tall and handsome man and the mayor of Red Rock, was “one of the most innately refined and cultured companions any man could ask, besides being a master of woodcraft.” The Bouchards, a famous family of Métis guides, also worked the river and the remarkable “Old Johnny” Bouchard cooked and portaged for tourist anglers at age eighty-two. The most noble and renowned family of the region was the de Larondes. They could trace their ancestors back to Tours, France, in 1599 and they had been involved in the Nipigon fur trade for about eighty years. Charley de Laronde, an experienced, insightful guide, was “cautious enough to be trusted amid the danger … and knows the spot in which to drop your lines.”

            Once the tourist’s canoe entered the wilderness, the tourist placed his/her trust in the guides to provide food, lodging, transportation, and a pleasant and safe vacation. This lack of control by the tourists over the pace of travel and deportment of the guides was sometimes a cause for concern by some writers of tourist guidebooks. Nonetheless, the native presence was part of the romantic attraction of Nipigon and Lake Superior tourism. There was timelessness about this region’s dark, mysterious forest and secret waterways which were know only by the land’s original inhabitants. The Victorians assumed that native culture would be altered beyond recognition by European civilization and so should be experience before it was lost.


Women Fly Fishers of the Nipigon River

by Mark Chochla


            Most anglers were men but women anglers were a common sight on the river. Lady Dufferin was not the first woman to fish the Nipigon. She notes in her journal that a woman was part of a group of American fishermen camped on the opposite side of the river. Canadian angler W.F. Whitcher advised sportsmen to include “wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts” on their Nipigon fishing trips so they could “participate in the inspiriting pleasures” of such expeditions.

            In August 1888 a young woman of thirty-two named Elizabeth Taylor, a “soft-voiced, bespectacled” and “gentle and frail little creature,” challenged herself to a Nipigon adventure. She held romantic notions about outdoor life and Indians and in a letter sent home to friends in St. Paul, Minnesota, she admitted that “I felt as if I had always been a wild Indian of the forest.” During the thirteen-day, ninety-six kilometer trip, Taylor was entranced by the “spicy odour of cedar and hemlock,” the “bell-note” of the white-throated sparrow, the splash of the trout, and the sensation of swift currents. She was the first female angler to make such a long journey on the river and during the adventure; she developed an extraordinary relationship with Joseph, her native guide.

As they approached Virgin Falls, Joseph impressed Elizabeth as a “man of sentiment” when he broke into song: “Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast / The rapids are near, and the daylight’s past.” On the way back down river, again at Virgin Falls, Elizabeth caught her first fish with a fly rod:

"The canoe was lunging and tossing. Joseph was in a state of great excitement for fear that I should lose him [the trout] … the strong current was helping the trout …and a canoe load of fishermen was watching me from a little distance. I felt like a young lawyer or actor appearing for the first time … If I hadn’t been catching a trout, I should have been dreadfully afraid of the rapids, which were roaring so close that I could just hear a voice above the noise calling … “Hold up your rod, Miss Taylor!” I held it up, though I was sure it would break, and I caught that trout and he was landed with one triumphant swoop of the landing net by Joseph, who threw an exulting look over the other guides."

Elizabeth Taylor, 1888


There was now a bond between Elizabeth and Joseph. Each needed something that the other could help provide. Joseph needed the approval and respect of his fellow guides and Elizabeth needed to challenge herself and to outdo the male anglers on the river. At Camp Victoria, Elizabeth hooked and lost a five-pound brook trout. “Never shall I forget the look of reproach and deep disappointment on Joseph’s face,” wrote Elizabeth, “as he turned to look at me … I had lost my opportunity of “beating the record,” and Joseph his chance to triumph over the guides.”

            Before he ran the Victoria Rapids, Joseph asked Elizabeth, “Will you go down with us?” She seemed hesitant so he said, “The gentlemen hardly ever go down these rapids.” This settled the question: Elizabeth went down the rapids. As Joseph pushed off, Elizabeth waved to some fishermen friends above the rapids. As she crouched low in the canoe and grasped the thwarts, the canoe surged up and down through the boils and standing waves. Once in quiet water, “Joseph stated his quiet approval, ‘You are brave,’ and I felt he had forgiven me for losing the big fish,” wrote Elizabeth.

            When they returned to Red Rock, Elizabeth said that she had “a perfectly beautiful time, I never spent a happier 13 days in my life.” She desperately wanted to go out again and Joseph offered to take her without pay, but propriety made that impossible. Joseph asked for a photograph of her “for memory sake.” As she watched the next canoe of fishermen ascend the Nipigon, Elizabeth wished that she had “been a boy so she could have gone too.



Additional reading about Women Fly Fishers