By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine Jan/Feb 2013
Tom O’Hanlon bought land from the Calderwoods back when there was still a demand for pulpwood, and cut-over parcels could be had for less than a thousand an acre. He got his piece for a song. Tucked up there off the side-hill overlooking East Craftsbury, it wasn’t much more than thirty acres of brush and trouble… brush and trouble, that is, to anyone who didn’t verify the changing seasons in spent shot shells, and dry flies, and splay-foot buck tracks in the snow.
When we met him, Tom was teaching Ag classes at the college on the Common that was, by New England standards, barely a college at all. It played host to a small working farm that demanded year-round attendance of a handful of long-haired students, who fast fell in love with the Vermont summers. Though Tom’s was not a hard job, it got in the way of his more meaningful work of hunting and fishing, which in turn distracted him from his pretty young wife. Fortunately, there were those among the student body who paid ample attention, innocently of course, to Tom’s pretty young wife, keeping her appeased enough to suffer the long winters and meager pay. That same lot of boys (me among them), demanded that a solid portion of Tom’s work week be spent afield, teaching the subtleties of fishing and shooting and general woods rambling to another generation of sportsmen. Tom, the consummate professional, never once let us down.
Tom’s place fast became a favorite stopover for each of us. There were grouse in the popple whips that affected a boundary between pasture and spruce forest. There were deer and moose that grazed lazily among the Calderwoods’ Holsteins, and white rabbits under the winter osiers. But the jewels of the O’Hanlon place were the brook trout that swirled in the beaver ponds that spread among the softwoods like massive, descending flagstones. Those four ponds were black and bottomless and icy cold, and well enough off the paved road to be out of sight, but were known nonetheless to the locals as another embodiment of the Northeast Kingdom’s lopsided bounty. Local lore stated that of a summer evening, it took little more than the duration of a White Owl cigar to fill a canvas creel to bulging with speckled natives. As old Betty Johnson once told me, “Under 6 inches and I don’t even clean ‘em. Just toss ‘em whole into the bacon grease and eat ‘em like sardines.”
But by the time Tom shared the place with us, an air of decorum had settled over it, and a singleness of purpose. We, Tom’s students, were also his disciples in the way of the sporting gentleman, and the intricacies of decent whiskey and fine rods and pipe smoke. With Tom as our guide we made our way to the beaver ponds through the summers that escorted us delicately from youth into adulthood, and we learned enough to know that the time, and the space that encompassed it, were singularly beautiful.
On a July evening, with dinner done and a few hours daylight still remaining, we’d make our way out to O’Hanlon’s, formerly Calderwood’s, formerly God’s own best country. It always seemed that there were a few of us: me, Breuer, Wes Martin, Tom O’Hanlon himself, and a girlfriend in tow if any one of us boys had proved worthy of some feminine pity. We drove up the pasture-side cart road in the fading day, and parked under the biggest of the abandoned apple trees, the one that always held an October grouse. Stringing up rods, we passed a slim bottle, taking pride in the fact that it was, after all, a glass bottle, and therefore befitting the gentlemanly tenor of the evening.
I had a short Thomas & Thomas 3 wt. back then that I’d bought used, and exulted in for more than a month before I dared fish it. I’m ashamed now to say that I leveraged my parents’ ‘emergency’ credit card heavily to pay for it, though if my father knew, he never let on. Perhaps he assumed that evenings spent thigh-deep in icy water were likely a wise preventative against the prospect of evenings spent in pursuit of coeds. Regardless, that misbegotten rod was the envy of the crew, and it was the perfect tool for O’Hanlon’s, being New England born, and capable of pinpoint accuracy. I always strung up a big fluffy dry, a Wulff or a Parachute Adams. Wes was a caddis man through and through, and never deviated from his hair-wings. Breuer, the least patient among us, stripped un-weighted nymphs and occasionally bucktails, lest the moments watching a dry prove too dawdling. But Tom was a dabbler, and he’d chuck a whole boxful of flies if daylight permitted, for the simple pleasure of laying out a long line with his Leonard 39, and seeing what the speckled darlings might take.
In the end, of course, none of it mattered. The trout struck any and everything, and we stood on the muddy beaver-chews of the dams and caught them, released them, and caught them again. They were just as perfect as you’d expect: deep-bellied and so innocent as to make us a tiny bit sad. They were painted up as bright and lovely as the Northeast Kingdom sunsets, with haloed spots of robin’s-egg-blue and flanks that seemed the genesis of color itself. We hand-landed them, and surprised ourselves, just boys after all, with the tenderness we showed, releasing them back into the ponds that swallowed them, only to give them up again. We caught fish until it was dark, night after night, and believed, I think truly, that it would never ever end.
Always, at some point, someone would grudgingly reel up. There was often a limp excuse: black flies, too little light to re-tie after a cleanout, some sort of romantic neglect that required mollifying. We took unspoken turns being the weak link, though each of us knew that an hour or two was enough. We lost count of the fish we caught, and were so certain of the place and of each other that we didn’t even tell our stories back and forth as we un-strung our rods. Instead, we passed the bottle again, watched the fireflies dance over the pasture, and told each other of all the things we were going to do when we grew up. Tom O’Hanlon rarely said much at all. He just listened, took down his gear, and enjoyed his turn with the bottle, laughing in all the right places.
Maybe, Tom’s silence on those nights was simply another token of his generosity, his desire to teach us by reveling himself in all that we had yet to learn. He must have known, as I now grudgingly know, that all things must change, that the joys that fill us so completely often slip away silently, almost without notice, until they are simply gone. Wes stayed up in the Kingdom, fishing his caddis patterns and marrying Lizzy, the most beautiful of the girls that tagged along on those summer nights. It was Wes who told me the place had been sold, that Tom had abandoned it and moved down-country not long after his pretty young wife had taken up with a Greenwich lawyer. I went back up to East Craftsbury as soon as I could, hoping for one last trout before the new owner laid a foundation, made something aggressively permanent on top of something that I knew was timeless. I strung up my rod alone at the apple tree, walked in, and saw that the place had scabbed over; of their own accord, the ponds had dried into wet meadows, already interspersed with young spruce and popple. There was no room for a back-cast, and no water to lay a forward cast upon, and the trout were gone to the places that displaced trout go. I had half a mind to hope that old Betty Johnson had caught the last of them by the bucketful, and set them all free into her frying pan.
There are times now, years later, that I still smell Tom O’Hanlon’s ponds. It’s a summer smell for me, succulent and heady and wet somehow, like cut grass but less intentional, more staid. It takes shape as memories of place often do, filling the senses in turn: the recollection of whippoorwill calls and mud-splattered lips and an image of those ponds, that pasture, and a sweep of summer sky that seeps in from the edges. Always there is a dry fly on the water disappearing in the rings of a trout, and always there is laughter somewhere beneath the tinkling water. But now, of course, it is all just reminiscence. The ponds and the trout and the sweep of summer evening returned to the earth by the earth’s own hand, cycling down through the almanac of soils and histories and cold, trickling springs. They are gone, and I miss them, but have no one and nothing to blame for their departure. And perhaps, at it’s simplest, that’s what growing up is.