By Reid Bryant
First published The Flyfish Journal
I learned to fish in the shallows of a lake in eastern Maine, where the cobbled shoreline and beaver backwaters hid some heroic smallmouth bass. In the 40’s my great-grandfather built a camp just under the cedars, and over the years the subsequent generations packed a trail from the sleeping porch to the water, as the place sagged gently on its posts. For a week each summer my father and I paddled an old canoe around the nearby coves, he chucking deer hair poppers on a 7 wt. while I lobbed daredevils with a broken-tipped spinning rig. We told each other we were after smallies, but more often than not it was rock bass and bluegills and beaver-chewed branches that we battled to net.
On sunny days, my mother joined us, and sprawled over the thwarts between our seats to ‘get a little color’. It was on one such afternoon that we were plying our favorite shelf, when my father, bucking the headwind with a flailing, open cast, claimed what remains his most controversial trophy. He had worked out too much line too quickly, and with a panicky heave, he attempted to throw a Dahlberg Diver the size of a Sasquatch all the way to Bangor. The line piled up on the back cast, the fly skimmed along in pursuit, and the point of the hook plunged to the bend in my mother’s sunburned buttock. I didn’t ask my father why there was a rumpled blanket on the couch the following morning.
The incidental catch comes in all shapes and sizes. In the years since I retired my daredevils, I’ve caught a menagerie on the fly, much of which I shudder to recall. In my neck of the woods, northern water snakes have proven my most terrifying prize, and they relish the little-girl screams that I utter in response to their ill-tempered writhing. I’ve caught bats, swallows, and dragonflies on midges, bullfrogs and turtles on foam poppers, and the earlobe of one merciful Russian salmon guide on a tube-tied bucktail streamer. Though these examples are remarkable, it is far more common that I catch an untargeted species of fish while in specific pursuit of another. I sometimes feel I hook more than my share of bluegill and chubs, of shiners and pickerel and pumpkinseed. I handle these fish indelicately and shake them off the hook with dry hands, that I might get back to the more noble pursuit of trout and bass.
But then, I wonder, when did I become such a snob? When I was a kid, a fish was a fish, and the thrum in the rod and the electric connectivity was almost as wonderful as the mystery of what might heave from the murky deep. Each take held possibility, and each dip of the net brought into view something lacking preconception. It was all a game and all an unknown and, well?… the hidden pull of something alive was the most glorious thing in the world. As a kid, nothing in fishing was incidental, or unwanted, or anything less than absolutely perfect, particularly nothing that put a bend in my fiberglass Fenwick.
I’m quite certain that adulthood complicates a whole lot more than it clarifies, and makes aging fishermen cranky, and judgmental, and hard to please. I watched a young kid this past year on Massachusetts’ Deerfield River wage an epic battle with a foul-hooked lamprey, and he enjoyed every second of it, whooping and hollering and leaning back against his rod even if he didn’t dare, at the moment of truth, get near the thing to unhook it. It rattled something loose in me that was cranked too tight, and I started taking the time to enjoy the fishing once again for the fishing, and the fish for the fun they so obligingly provide, regardless of race or creed. I am, with time, taking my fishing a little less seriously, as I smile to remember that faraway day when my dad, out for smallmouth, was pleased to catch a little piece of ass instead.