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Livin' on the fly: a P.E.I. fly fisher's guide to COVID-19

Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows.
Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter



GREEN MEADOWS, P.E.I. — I parked beside a quiet section of the Morell River and was handed a pair of chest waders by Cameron Ross.

"Welcome to my office," he said, smirking. "I've made a lot of money here over the years."

The Souris man has been fly fishing since he was 17. After his long career as a paramedic suddenly came to an end about eight years ago, he was encouraged to make a business of taking people on personalized fly fishing tours across any and all of eastern P.E.I.'s lakes, rivers, streams and brooks.

He called it On The Fly P.E.I.

"Went better than I thought it would, actually," he said. "My passion kind of became my living."

Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

While he occasionally deals with accomplished clients looking to experience what he dubs the country's "best-kept secret" for fly fishing, he estimates about 80 per cent have never donned chest waders before in their life. I was among the majority who were there to learn.

Fly fishing, I learned, is the method of using artificial bait – called flys – rather than live bait to catch fish.

"OK, so it's fooling the fish," I said. "And they fall for that?"

"They fall for that. Hopefully."

Ross and I were after salmon that fall evening. He taught me the basics of how to cast my line before we jumped into the river and got started.

And then we just stood around and talked.

Between the tips, tricks and techniques, Ross shared there were plenty of stories of his past clients. Such as a 10-year-old girl who caught a 20-inch trout despite wearing men's-sized waders or a man from New York who was just thrilled to be immersed in nature – something he wasn't nearly as used to back home.

"He never landed a fish, but he had lots of chances," Ross said. "Told me he had the best day of his life."


Cameron Ross' fly fishing tips:

  • To cast your line, flick it above your head until the fly is at the apex of its ascent, wait for a second, then whip it back down in front of you.
  • River fish tend to hang out near big rocks, fallen or dead trees, or in springs so they can rest, avoid the heat and predators.
  • They also face into the current so water can better get into their gills. So, cast your line so that the fly floats down the current to where the fish might be.
  • Reading the river's flow, inferring where the fish are, and moving stealthily is key.

Most of his clientele is American as the rivers in the U.S. are often overcrowded and P.E.I.'s fish would be considered trophy-size in comparison. Ross' wife usually chips in by baking homemade snacks, and typically he would have guided 80 to 100 people by this point in the tourism season, he said.

"How many this year?" I asked.

"I think you make number five," he replied. "Tourism is not the business to be in during COVID, I'm afraid."

Around us, the current continued to bubble down the river while the trees all along it changed colours ever so gradually. The fish hid in their nooks, seemingly aware that our flys were just tricks.

Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It was already a bad year for fly fishing because of the hot, dry summer, causing the fish to be stressed. So as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Ross figured On The Fly was on its way out, he said.

"The market has pretty well died on it, and I'm not getting any younger."

"Tourism is not the business to be in during COVID, I'm afraid."

- Cameron Ross

The 62-year-old was hoping to keep sharing his passion until he retires, but he has other skills he can rely on until then, namely carpentry. He's open to guiding occasionally, however he doesn't see tourism bouncing back soon and he's used to sudden life changes, he said.

"I could spend more time with my grandkids. Go fishing with them instead."

We trekked up and downstream a few times to try our luck, and once the sun set we waded out of the river, trudged back through the woods and returned to our vehicles. It was there in the dim light protruding from Ross' SUV he delved a bit more into what fly fishing is for him.

Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cameron Ross fly fishes recently on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

While there are rivers across P.E.I. which Ross thinks fondly of, there are roads he still drives down where he flashes back to the tough ambulance calls he once responded to as a paramedic, he said.

"You have good ones, you have bad ones," he said. "If I had a bad call, I'd just go fishing."

Despite fly fishing being quiet and repetitive, it would take his mind off the bad calls. Then, when one more bad call took place about eight years ago, he was encouraged to talk to someone about it.

"And that was it. That was my last day of work. I was done," he said. "(And) it was scary. You know, 'what am I going to do'?"

"That's interesting," I said, "because it seems like you're kind of in a similar position now."

"I am, yeah. Once again. And it is scary."

Guardian reporter Daniel Brown fly fishes on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Contributed
Guardian reporter Daniel Brown fly fishes on the Morell River in Green Meadows. - Contributed

But for Ross, it's life events like the pandemic that put living into perspective. Being thrust into uncertainty isn't easy, but over time he's discovered how to adapt to it with the same peacefulness that he feels when he's out fly fishing in the quiet of nature, he said.

And with that, we parted ways and I headed home with one of Mrs. Ross' blueberry scones in hand. 

Neither of us had caught a single fish, but perhaps that's never what I was there to learn. Perhaps fly fishing is the kind of thing you do that, even when it doesn't pan out the way you hoped or planned, is worth doing simply for its own sake and one day at a time.

"That's why they call it fishing, not catching," Ross said.

Daniel Brown is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government. 

Twitter.com/dnlbrown95

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