How the Son of a Legendary Musician, Hoagy Carmichael Jr., Found his Passion on a Famous Canadian River
Photos: Paul Orenstein
Growing up in Beverley Hills, Hoagy Carmichael Jr. never thought he’d trade in his golf clubs for a fishing rod.
“Let me put you in the river: You’re standing in your waders, the water is going through your legs and it’s a wonderful, cool feeling. And I point to a spot by the pool, and what you see is the head of a fish coming up and the fin going back down in the water. And we have a fly on now, and you throw it, and it goes right in front of that fish. But he doesn’t take it. You make another cast, and he still doesn’t take it, but he comes up. And now, we wait five minutes, and we throw it out there again, and doggone if he doesn’t take it…”
The scene on the river is described by one of the world’s foremost fly fishermen. But given that said fisherman is also Hoagy Carmichael Jr., 70, son of the legendary composer, singer and pianist, you can imagine the smoky voice that gives the words an air of Hollywood magic. After all, the scene he described is straight out of a movie; I can’t help but conjure up images of A River Runs Through It, where a young Brad Pitt cast his line so ethereally.
But in this case, the river Carmichael is describing runs through the province of Quebec. The Grand Cascapedia is 40 miles of bending and twisting water that cuts through the wilderness on the border with New Brunswick. It is a legendary and hallowed waterway, and its banks have played host to royalty; Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, spent many a summer here; American dynasties, the Vanderbilts among them, built camps along its shores; and a host of politicians and celebrities have graced its waters. But to hear Carmichael talk, it was the other way around; the river graced the lives of those storied visitors.
For his day job, Carmichael manages his father’s extensive song catalogue and is chairman of the American Tap Dance Foundation. So how did a son of Hollywood royalty, raised in California in the famous city he jokingly calls “the Hills of Beverly,” come to spend a few weeks every summer at a river in eastern Canada? First, he had to discover the sport. He had been in Montreal for Expo 67 and, on the drive back stateside, he and his companion, a woman he was involved with at the time who happened to love fishing, stopped in Vermont at the Batten Kill River. “I threw a fly at a trout for the first time in my life,” he explains. “Where I grew up, we certainly didn’t have trout or anything — we didn’t even have water out there. When I came east, I was a golfer, but I fell in to this and it turned my head.”
That initial introduction created a lasting impression. “It’s a lot more interesting to me to think about flies, entomology, reels and all the literature that goes with the sport instead of sitting around and talking about your golf game,” he explains. “I was a hell of a good golfer, and I gave it up in 1969.”
His newfound passion became an all-consuming one. He began to study it, reading every book he could get his hands on and, when those weren’t enough, he wrote his own: A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod, with Everett Garrison, an engineer who began making rods in 1927 and was the first to apply mathematics to their design. “I published that at a time when no one wanted to publish it,” Carmichael says. “It’s become the bible on how to make rods.”
For years, Carmichael made his own bamboo rods, and they have since become collector’s items, selling for up to US$8,000. “It’s part of learning and understanding the sport,” he says. “I probably know as much about antique fishing tackle as anyone alive. I make reel parts, I have a shop and I work on rods. It’s all part of it.” While he no longer makes rods, he and his wife, Charmaine, run a tackle business on eBay called lordfly44.
In order to pursue the fish, he became a world traveller, touring rivers in Norway, South America, Scotland and in other countries. But when it came to the famous Grand Cascapedia River, with its limited fishing rights being granted to regulars, it was hard for the new kid to get the invite. “I knew it existed. I had friends who would drive me crazy about stories of the river,” he explains, a note of excitement in his voice. But that changed in 1985 when a friend called him up and told him a spot had opened. “I could barely stand up I was so excited. I got there a day early.”
Carmichael begins each glorious day of his yearly two-to three-week trip on the Grand Cascapedia around 8 o’clock in the morning. He loves to wade and does so as much as he can. Once he’s in place, the sport becomes part spiritual and part art. “You try to read the water,” he explains. “You look and say, ‘There’s oxygen going in the air. There’s a deep hole at the bottom. That looks ‘fishy.’ That’s an expression we use a lot, fishy. You see if you can spot a fish or two rolling or coming up. The Cascapedia happens to have very large fish.” There are trout, but what the river is known for is Atlantic salmon — which can weigh up to 50 pounds. While to many people, that size salmon brings to mind images of grilling over an open fire, for Carmichael, the sportsman and environmentalist outweigh the gourmand. When asked if he eats his catch of the day, he replies with a resounding “No. I always put them back.” His explanation is simple. “The fish are a declining resource. A friend of mine once wrote, ‘Let me find a good fish and, if I do, I’ll get a thousand dreams. And if I catch him, I’ll let him go.’ It’s not about killing or taking it home. It’s about the experience of trying to figure out how to catch them. For me, in trout fishing, once I catch them, it’s over. Not in salmon fishing because they’re so big and strong. But once I touch them, it’s over. The next thing is to get them back safely, swimming away.”
As any true fisherman should, Carmichael knows his prey. And it’s his knowledge of the life of the salmon that has garnered his respect and compassion. “They start as an egg and they hatch out. They become things called fry and, in the second year, they leave the lake and end up in enormous schools and go as far as Greenland. And they hang out in Greenland for a year or two, and then they swim all the way back and find the exact river that they were spawned in to spawn again. It’s a remarkable thing that a fish does this. It comes all this way, it finds that river and it goes up and has finally made it. And then what? I’m going to catch it and hit it over its head?” Carmichael sits on the international advisory board for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the conservation and wise management of wild Atlantic salmon and their environment. And it is their environment along the Grand Cascapedia that is under threat from runoffs from nearby farms, pollutants from fish farms and global warming.
To help drive awareness of the issues, Carmichael became involved in the Cascapedia River Museum and gives a talk there every year. The museum opened in 2000 and is regarded as the finest Atlantic salmon museum in the world. A large part of its work is educating the public, and the staff regularly entertains school children who feed the fish, clean the tanks and learn about the salmon and their ecosystem.
Carmichael has also written the definitive book, The Grand Cascapedia River: A History, Volume I, with Volume II set to be published in 2010. In recognition of his expertise in the sport, he has been inducted into the Catskill Museum Fly Fishing Hall of Fame and was awarded this June with the Medal of Honor by the Anglers’ Club of New York. In its 100-year history, the organization has awarded the medal only nine times.
Over the years, his passion for the Cascapedia has become a family affair. He began taking his son, Ben, when he was six. He’s now 24. “He started playing with pollywogs. Instead of squeezing them in his hand, he would return them to the river,” Carmichael recalls proudly. “And he’s now at Oxford for two years, and what’s his field? The environment.” His six-year-old daughter, Anesha, will be making her first trip to the river this summer. His wife, Charmaine, will join them, but she can mainly be found reading or practising yoga at the camp.
After 40 years of fly-fishing and traversing the banks of the Grand Cascapedia, family extends beyond his immediate one and to the people he’s met along the way. “You have to understand that when you go to a place like this, the fishing is only a part of it. It’s the people. It’s the valley,” he says. “I’m able to drive by a place, and I have all sorts of images in my head because I know what went on there. And I have three or four favourite guys who I stand on the river with — and it doesn’t matter to me if I’m fishing or not. We’re fishing, we’re joking, we’re looking for fish. It’s not just standing in the water and throwing the fly. That’s a small part of it.”
This summer, Carmichael is once again heading up the Interstate for the 10-hour drive to the Grand Cascapedia. The river has become part of his soul: “It’s a passion that has given me a core that I didn’t have growing up in those Hills of Beverly.”
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2009 issue with the headline, “On The Fly,” p.81.