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Middle Age Bulge

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We All Gather At The River

I swore I would never be one of those guys. You know the ones I mean, the fishermen who are nestled in their lawn chairs, rods firmly planted in holders, doing pretty much nothing except for keeping their eyes on the tips, waiting for any sign of a nibble.

“That’s not real fishing,” I used to say to myself, desperately casting my yellow and black five of diamonds over and over again, trying to find something, anything, that might want to come out and play. Back in those days, I would try a couple of lures, get disheartened, then pack up and head home, skunked again.

Everything changed when I finally broke down and bought a pickerel rig and a tub of frozen minnows, figured out how to get it set up, and tossed it into the water. BAM!! I had one on the line right away, then another, and another. I had seen the light. I was an instant pickerel rig convert. I’ve have had my rod in the holder and my eyes on the tip ever since. I’ve also bought more tubs of minnows than I care to admit.

“Many of us would probably be better fisherman if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect” – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Fishing has grown into my primary Zen activity, precious hours when I get to commune with nature, the sound of the river, and the anticipation of a good fight. Though a solitary pursuit, fishing attracts all kinds of participants, faces of all ages and races that, over time, become familiar and friendly. Minnows get shared, along with tips and techniques, fish tales and the excitement that occurs when one of us catches a big one.

There is something alluring about the river’s edge. Many times I’ve been quietly fishing away on the shore of the Clearwater River, near the entrance to the Snye, when people wander over and start chatting.

“What kind of fish can you catch here?” they always ask.

“Oh, walleye, pike, goldeye and burbot,” I say. “I’ve also seen guys catch the odd lake trout.”

I’ve had many great exchanges as folks gather at the river, with people of all ages and from all over the world.

Last October - on Thanksgiving Sunday actually - I was all by myself on the shore of the Clearwater, enjoying some late season walleye action when three fellows approached. A 69-year-old father of 12 from New Brunswick, a Portuguese father of a yet unseen 4-week-old baby who was on the other side of the world with his mother, and a young father of several children from Toronto, originally from Uganda. What an unlikely trio, three very different men sharing the common experience of working in the oil sands, far away from family on the holiday. Instead, they were enjoying some fellowship at the river, sharing their stories with me, and supporting each other in a way that was absolutely beautiful. That was a uniquely “Fort McMurray” moment.

It was nice to get the rig back in the water this spring after what had been an extra long winter. I waited until about 10 days after the river broke to go down to my favourite early season spot at the end of the road past the water treatment plant. The ice had been pushed right up to the sides of the banks and was still five to six feet deep. That didn’t stop us diehards though. We just climbed over and onto the rocky beach.

I pulled out my pickerel rig, put the minnows on the two hooks, and cast it out into the mighty Athabasca. BAM!! I had one on almost immediately. It was a 50 cm walleye to start the season, the first hour of which also produced a couple of burbot and two more walleye, one that was 68 cm, or about 8 pounds.

The guys fishing next to me gathered around to admire the catch. One insisted on snapping a picture to capture the moment. I gently put the beautiful fish into the water, and happily watched her swim away, heading up river to spawn.

Russell Thomas writes a regular blog at and can be followed on Twitter @rvthomas67.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.