These stories are in my book, A Lifetime Of Hunting and Fishing, published by North Country Press.
To a 12-year-old boy, it was wilderness, a place of fantasy, escape, high adventure. The wilderness was only a short half-mile walk from his house to the very top of High Street, into a tote road through a forest of sugar maples, huge oaks, and fir thickets, over the hill and into the next valley.
He’d seen bobcat, deer, partridge and lots of squirrels there, but it was along the small brook that meandered through the forested valley that he spent most of his time. That cold sheltered brook held wild trout, many trout, colorful trout, huge 6 and 7-inch trout. He dreamed of them often.
But the reality was even better than his dreams. Nestled in his backpack along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and candy bars, the boy carried a can of worms, usually dug from his 4-H award-winning garden out back of the house. Sometimes the can was brimming with huge night crawlers gently pulled from their holes on the front lawn during an evening rain storm when his parents allowed the boy to stay up late in order to replenish his crawler supply.
Sneaking across the lawn with a flashlight, quick reaction and fast hands were required to grab the crawlers, only partly out of their holes, and gentle hands to coax them all the way out of the ground without ripping the apart. The boy was an expert. Sometimes he did so well on a rainy night that he could sell his surplus to other fishermen, friends of his Dad. They used the crawlers to catch perch in Maranacook Lake.
He never told them about the trout in the brook up over the hill. Even then, he had an innate sense that too many fishermen could spoil a good thing. But he did take his buddies along sometimes and they’d make a daylong adventure out of it.
His fishing gear was basic stuff. The boy had an old rod hardly longer than himself and a small spinning reel, something his Dad had discarded. A plan bare hook was tied onto the end of strong monofilament line, line hefty enough that he never lost a hook to bottom. Ever. Which was a good thing because he only had a couple of hooks.
His fishing technique was simple too. Sneak along the alders, poke the rod out over the brook just above those places where he knew a trout would be hiding, dip the hook with a gob of worms into the water, let it drift past the hiding place, and when the trout darted out, give the rod a sharp yank which hooked the fish and pulled it right out of the water and onto the bank all in one motion.
The boy knew his water, every riffle, deep pool, long bank. He didn’t know this was called reading the water. He just knew where those trout lived. And he got to be an exceptional trout fisherman. Returning home on late afternoons with a creel – really just an old canvas bag he’d found in the barn – full of ten 6 and 7-inch trout – well, that was the finestkind of living for a twelve-year-old boy.
He’d clean the trout after he got home and his Mom would fry them up in corn meal in a huge old cast iron skillet for supper, with lots of praise for her little sportsman who could feed his family. And boy, did those trout taste great. For the rest of his life there’d be no finer meal than wild brook trout, fried.
Of course things change, even deep cold fast rushing brooks, and when the boy returned to town after college to settle into the banking profession and trudged one Saturday morning up to the end of High Street, he was surprised to find that the street had been extended deep into his wilderness. Much of the forest was gone and the last half mile of the brook he had fished so many times now flowed through a housing development.
He fished the entire length of the brook that day and caught only four trout, all less than 6-inches long. You can’t go back, even to fish.
So the boy moved on, buying a 12-foot boat to troll the lakes for brown trout that were introduced to a lot of Maine waters that could no longer grow brook trout because of diminished water quality. Some thought the trout were lost when water in the small tributaries which fed the lakes was warmed by timber harvesting and development along their banks. Those tributaries had been trout factories in the old days. The young man thought about that, content to gas up the boat and troll for hours up and down the lake.
Sometimes he’d hit the ocean for a cooler full of mackerel taken on Christmas-tree rigs six at a time as he and his Dad trolled John’s Bay in Pemaquid. Lots of fun. Nothing like taking six fish at a time.
He clung to his worms too, filling up buckets with white perch during their spring spawning run and taking stringers of huge bass off their spawning beds in late May and early June with those old reliable night crawlers.
Marriage and children intruded, reducing fishing time, but before he knew it, the kids were old enough to fish. He took them perch fishing. Soon they could fling a worm and bobber out there with the best of them. A feast of fried perch wasn’t hard to take either. But the kids never fished on their own. “Kids these days have too many things to do,” he often said.
Occasionally, he day dreamed about that wilderness trout stream up over High Street, but that only made him sad so he stopped thinking about it.
He progressed in his profession, started his own consulting business, and soon had amassed enough savings to think about buying a camp someplace up north in the real wilderness. More and more he found himself thinking about the old brook, those colorful trout, wilderness adventures.
His boy was ten-years-old and his girl was seven when the perfect camp was found on Sourdahunk Lake just outside the northwest corner of Baxter Park, a forever wild sanctuary of 46 mountains, dozens of small ponds and miles of mountain streams. And oh yes, lots of wild brook trout.
Just one problem. Almost all of the waters were fly-fishing-only. He’d read a bit about fly fishing but never tried it.
But the camp was perfect, the setting sublime, and they bought it in September as the brookies began to spawn. Oh, how beautiful those fish were – and how difficult to catch.
With a borrowed fly rod and a few Royal Coachman flies, he flayed the water in great frustration. And caught just one trout all month. But it was gorgeous, 13-inches long and very tasty.
One month, one fish, but he was hooked on fly fishing.
The next spring, before going to camp, he attended LL Bean’s introductory fly fishing school, a three-day adventure after which he headed to Sourdahunk with much more enthusiasm – and an improved casting motion – and of course with a lot more gear.
The new 8-weight rod and a world class collection of flies also helped. He caught a few fish, enough to feed the family a supper of fried trout several times in May and June. Yummy.
His boy began joining him at times, spending his time practicing casting with an old fly rod which his Grampy purchased at a yard sale and left at camp. Even Grampy was trying this new fly fishing thing.
But what really caught his attention was the daughter, casting from shore using an alder branch and string that her brother rigged up for her. She was amazing to watch. She really had the motion and rhythm down pat. Her little arm made a compact cast which was stunning in its simplicity and effectiveness.
One afternoon he took the kids to a nearby trout stream where worms were allowed and they limited out. But something didn’t feel right. The trout were tiny, barely legal at 6 inches. Didn’t fish that size used to thrill him, he wondered?
So the next time they tried the trout stream, they took the fly rods and did just as well. And because they’d eaten their fill of trout by that time, they released every single trout. It felt kind of good. As they trudged down the stream on their way out, a deer stepped into the water about 50 feet away and began drinking. When they got back to camp there were plenty of stories to tell. The empty creel didn’t seem all that important.
And finally one evening as they enjoyed a stunning sunset while casting to rising trout on the lake, his son finally hit a ring and caught a trout, an eleven-inch beauty, his very first fish with a fly rod. Keeping his rod tip high he handled it like a pro bringing it quickly to the side of the boat. But when the father reached out to lift the fish into the boat, he heard his son say, “Dad, we don’t need that one. Can we let it go?”
The boy’s first big trout on a fly rod. And he wanted to let it go. The father couldn’t believe it and tried briefly to talk his son into keeping the fish, but the boy persisted. Lifting the fish gently from the water, the father twisted the fly out of the trout’s mouth, and gently released it back into the water.
After that the father started to admire the boy’s casts. Somehow, quite suddenly, the boy was hitting every ring. And the father was busy releasing trout, almost too busy to fish himself. The next time the father did manage to catch a fish, he heard the boy say again, “Dad, we don’t need that one. Let it go.”
Oh, it was hard. Catch-and-release was not his heritage. Trout in the creel was how he judged his success. It just didn’t seem right to let a keeper go. But for the boy’s sake, the father began releasing fish that evening.
Eventually, with both his son and daughter releasing nearly all their fish, the father caught the spirit. Now they measured their success by how many fish they released. Two or three suppers a summer of fried trout were sufficient. The rest went back into the lake.
He started thinking about that boyhood stream and all the fish he’d taken out of it. Could he have ruined it, before the developers ever arrived?
When his daughter was nine she could cast a beautiful line, so he bought her a 7 ½ foot 4-weight rod (Ok, so he planned to use it himself too on some of those small alder-choked streams). The boy was twelve and tying flies by then and had become nearly a fanatic about fly fishing. He’d gotten a nice 8 ½ foot 7-weight rod for Christmas.
But the father could still out fish the boy most of the time.
Then one evening, when he had taken the boat out alone for the last half hour of fishing after the sun had set, to catch one fish for his morning’s breakfast, it happened.
The biggest trout of the evening was just 10 inches long, a bit disappointing in a lake that held lots of 13 and 14-inch fish. But he kept it and returned to camp. Stepping onto the camp’s porch, he heard the boy exclaim, “Dad, wait til you see my fish!”
Leading the father to the cooler on the porch, the boy shined his flashlight on a monstrous trout, a 16-inch beauty, the largest ever caught by our family here at camp. The boy had cast from shore shortly after sunset and landed the huge trout.
“Gee, Dad, what’s that puny fish you’ve got in your hand there,” laughed the boy.
He ignored the barb. Looking longingly at his boy’s trout he replied, “Son, that is a fantastic fish.”
It was the only fish the boy kept all summer.
So it was that a twelve-year-old boy fishing a stream near home with worms and filling his creel nearly every time with 6-inch brook trout, turned into a different twelve-year-old boy casting flies to eager wild brookies on a northern pond and keeping only a single fish all summer long.