The man largely responsible for my introduction to the world of fly fishing was none other than Paul Bean, a fly tier of great international renown whose exquisitely crafted flies – sporting names like the Princess Diana, Lady Rosalyn, or Redford - graced the walls of such sporting luminaries as Prince Philip, former first lady Rosalyn Carter, as well as actor Robert Redford. As one would expect, these are not your normal, everyday store bought flies that one could order online, say at a Cabela’s or Orvis, or find in any fly shop. These were commissioned flies by wealthy patrons directly through Paul and sometimes waiting periods could be up to a year. What made Paul and his flies unique was that they were perfect artistic recreations of old British Atlantic Salmon patterns dating back centuries, researched himself through archival information found within the dusty shelves of old and forgotten librairies in English Counties, and that he was probably the only human being alive that possessed this wealth of self-taught knowledge. The flies are fully functional and you can fish with them but most of them lie protected as both works of art and as investments behind ornate glass frames that hang on study or office walls, often accompagnied, like Paul was during most of his life, with one of his wife Maureen’s beautiful watercolors depicting scenes of the salmon fisherman’s life. These creations were labors of love and often required hundreds of hours spent hunched over a table in his workshop, seeking for universal truth in the perfection of a salmon fly. He only cranked out a handful of these precious creations each year and despite prices in the thousands of dollars they were always quickly scooped up by discerning collectors across the globe.
Paul lived near us in the Eastern Townships in Quebec and had also been a friend of my father since the post-war years where they had opportunity to conduct some business together. Paul was the owner of PBS sports, a small cottage tackle company that produced mainly spinners for trout fisherman and allowed him a modest enough income to spend a few months each year salmon fishing in the Gaspé with his wife. He had also made my first fly rod, a first for him as well, and a personal source of great pride in his accomplishment. It was a two-piece eight weight medium to fast action Lamiglass graphite blank with half wells cork grip and a cherry wood reel seet garnished with german silver rings. It was his first attempt at rod building and my father had bought it as a gift for me on my thirteenth birthday, most likely in the hope that this would perhaps divert me from adolescent delinquency while at the same time instilling in me something valuable about the life lessons of nature. The years following were some of the best times of my life and with that rod were laid out my first flies on the waters closest to my home.
Witht the rod came a few courses of instruction and he proved to be a patient teacher despite the inadequacies of his young pupil. The Gospel according to Paul, at least with regards to basic casting mechanics, involved locking the elbow to the side of the body, keeping the thumb aligned with the rod shaft for both power and control, moving the rod from a ten to one o’clock position on an imaginary clock, and counting down the cast – one two three one. It was the metronome method, sparse and Presbyterian in nature, inflexible as a sermon, a militaristic lesson in basic fundamentals. It was all pretty traditional stuff but when it came to fishing his approach was anything but conventional, at least in those unenlightened days, where nobody fished with a fly for anything other than trout or salmon. It was a time whan the sport was slightly more elitist and aristocratic and limited in its scope of vision as to the other fly fishing opportunities that today we take for granted. Paul was a pioneer, a heretic to the faith and like Socrates corrupting the youth of Athens, taught me that all other fish as well, in fresh or salt water, could also be taken on a fly. This was mighty forward thinking back then.
There were three types of casts we practiced – single and double hauls, as well as the roll cast, useful in tight quarters where a backcast was out of the question or when fishing a short or sinking line. Distance was less important than accuracy and stealth. Twenty-feet was all you needed was a mainstay of Paul’s casting catechism – always fish the water at your feet he would say. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to what’s going on in the water. A drag free drift when fishing dry flies was paramount to success and the drift on a shorter cast line was much easier to mend and control than a long one. Cast three or four times over the the same water and shuffle two steps downstream without kicking up too much of the riverbed! Repeat the process. He was like a drill sargeant from the House of Hardy.
Interspersed with the casting lessons, were random discourses on fish conservation, habitat, biology, old fishing trips, tales of great fish and salmon camps, the life lessons of the Great Depression and War, anectotes about his great friend and legendary salmon guide Richard Adams, reel maker Stan Bogden, and almost anything else regarding the fishing life and the human condition in general. Paul had no formal education but could talk intelligently about any subject. On these hot summer afternoons, as he told me all these things, cicadas filling the air with their constant buzzing, time seemed to stand still and we were the at the epicenter of the Universe. He was a great mentor and shared his knowledge of the sport with selflessness, honesty, and passion, as it should
Another thing he told me, something that was not entirely understood at the time, was that there was a dark period in his life following some unspoken tragedy or hardship where he had simply lost interest in the sport and had given up fishing for a few years. He mumbled something about not being able to hook or land fish, had lost his patience and sense of childlike wonder, no longer enjoyed the experience and eventually walked away from the sport that had become such a huge part of his life. It was later learned that it was my uncle Mort that first convinced him to tie bass flies and then succeeded in getting him to wet a line again with some of the great smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Massawippi in North Hatley, where Paul had lived for most of his life. A solid friendship developed between them and at one point they had even acquired the rights to a lake Desmarais near town which they stocked with brook and rainbow trout and fished for years almost every night after work. While most of the family thought that Mort would never amount to anything other than a financial burden to those around him, the fact of the matter is that were it not for him, Paul Bean may never have begun tying flies. And as he told me all these things, mostly in small dribs and drabs, random and imperfectly communicated thoughts that wafted skyward uncertainly like the flight of ephemera, and amidst poorly cast lines that landed in spaghetti loops at my feet, the one thing my soft adolescent brain could not understand was why anyone would ever want to stop fishing. There are so many reasons why people fish – the real mystery is perhaps why more or all people don’t fish.
It took me years to understand what Paul had been trying to communicate to me, that there was a dark side of the human condition that dictated that there were sometimes events in a person’s life that were beyond their control, and so totally overwhelming and devastating to their existences that nothing could ever be the same again. Many years ago, soon after my father had passed away after prolonged illness, my own fishing universe suddenly began to unravel. Nothing felt right, my timing was off and couldn’t manage a decent cast, lacked the confidence and patience so neccesary to the success of the endeavor, and when I did succeed in my deceptions, never managed to get a good hook in them and lost far too many a good fish in the process. Something important was lacking and I couldn’t understand what was going on and became increasingly frustrated and impatient, which served only to exacerbate the problem and bring me back full circle. Gradually, the trips became less frequent and then one day stopped altogether for just over a year. After a quasi religious twenty-five year quest for the Holy Grail of Fishing, the rod was wrapped in its corduroy sheath, placed in the shiny aluminum tube, and unceremoniously stuffed into the dark recesses of a basement closet. It was during this sabbatical that was fully comprehended what Paul had tried in vain to communicate to me so many years earlier. That how most of life, like the fine art of casting, was such a slippery thing to come to grips with and give meaning to as we stumbled along its path, even though it all boiled down to just a few basics like locking your elbow to the side and counting down the cast – one two three one. Then slowly shuffle forward without mucking things up too much. Then repeat again…