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A Yankee Notebook

May 20, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I know just when this annual spring passion was born – not the date, but the situation. Great-Gramma Lange had taken my sister and me on our weekly walk to Washington Park, just two blocks from our home in Albany, New York. What marvels were there! – a giant bronze statue of Moses smiting the rock on Mount Horeb to get water for the Hebrew children; weird trees that we were told had been saplings replanted with their branches in the ground; and big, articulated swings that six kids could get into, sitting back to back, and get flying up to an exciting nearly horizontal.

The pièce de résistance was the lake, a long, narrow impoundment – we’d call it a pond here – with a spectacular yellow stucco boathouse, an arched steel footbridge across a narrow neck, and a perimeter walk at water level. At one time, long before mine, it had been a popular site for Sunday afternoon rowing. The old photographs of graceful lapstrake rowboats, ladies in full skirts and bonnets, and oarsmen in derby hats were straight out of Renoir.

But for me, the main attraction was the fish. Over the years, unwanted goldfish had no doubt been dumped into the lake, and grown to carplike proportions. They cruised, fluorescent orange, a few inches below the murky green surface and scooted away when people got too close. But down at the east end, where the gravel walk sloped most gently into the lake, tiny sunfish hovered in no more than three inches of water, waiting for bits of popcorn tossed them by passersby. Seized by a primeval instinct, I rummaged through my grandfather’s store when we got home and tied up a fishing rig with a bent pin and several feet of string. Rolled wads of white bread served as bait, and an empty Mason jar as a live well.

The sunnies were ridiculously easy to catch. I transported them home, the Mason jar stashed beside my sister in her stroller, and fed them bread. They soon turned translucent and died, and soon after smelled pretty bad. Down the toilet they went. Their deaths planted the germ of a lesson that took about fifty years to flower, but for the time being I was a committed fisherman.

During World War II in Syracuse, Onondaga Park was only three blocks away. It was alive with sunnies, perch, smallmouths, and suckers. I brought home the largest perch, the bass, and the suckers. As long as I cleaned them, my mother would cook the first two, but she wouldn’t do suckers. Instead, I buried them in the back garden, where they attracted and fed a tremendous crop of earthworms – just what I needed for further forays. Unfortunately, a few neighbor dogs also discovered the buried corpses, and returned home happily redolent of eau du poisson mort.

From hand-lining, it was but a small (but expensive, for me) step up to a solid steel bait-casting rod and my first level-wind reel. No one who’s fished only with a modern spinning reel can possibly appreciate the multiple backlashes and time spent straightening hopelessly tangled woven fishing line snarls that occurred when the flung lure slowed down and the spinning spool didn’t. A quick and sensitive thumb was the only preventive between distance and disaster. But it now became more fun to catch fish than by simply hauling them in hand over hand. I laid off the suckers and started amassing colorful plugs, spoons, and poppers, then made in molded plastic.

And then one fateful weekend I got to try fishing for trout, invited by a friend’s father, who’d noticed my enthusiasm. That was it; I never looked back. There followed another progression: from tickling under the bank, to worms on hooks, to spinners,. The pinnacle of my spinning happened to coincide with the early days of our marriage, when Mother and I often dined in the evening on a few rainbows I’d just caught in the Ausable River down behind the house.

Then I traded my diuretic beagle dog to Gib Jacques for a run-of-the-mill old H-I fly rod and a tiny reel that was good only for storing line. It took decades after that to work myself up through esoterica like tapered lines; sinking tips; improved drag systems; slow-, medium-, and fast-action rods of different weights; hundreds of flies; and finally, tying my own flies. My pals and I fished for a dozen species of salmonids – brook, brown, rainbow, and lake trout; golden, cutthroat, and blueback trout; Dolly Varden and bull trout; Atlantic salmon; and at the very best moments of those years, Arctic char, an anadromous brook trout on steroids. Somewhere in all that, I quit killing fish.

One fishing writer has said that he fishes for trout because they live in the most beautiful places on the globe. Which they do: From the Titcomb Lakes in the Wind River Range (goldens) to Pelican Creek in Yellowstone (cutthroats); from brawling boreal rivers (big brookies) to icy Adirondack ponds (little brookies) to northern Maine (bluebacks, if you can find them), you’re surrounded by often breathtaking scenery. Last week Professor Shewmaker and I fished for rainbows in our favorite local pond, delighted to find it active, but even more delighted to be fishing together again after years of stalking the hatches in past times. This coming weekend I’ll help introduce several Dartmouth students to fly fishing in the logging woods of northern New Hampshire. And a few weeks after that I’ll be fishing the Missouri River for the first time with another old friend. I can’t really afford most of it, but there can’t be many years of it left.

So I fish whenever I can with the thinning numbers of my old pals, reflect again as I do that the charm of it lies in infinite possibilities (there are 600-pound catfish in the Missouri), the utter joy of ancient friendships renewed and ancient memories refreshed, and in the purely electric thrill that runs through the rod as something large beneath the surface strikes at what I’m offering.

Photo by Willem lange