Learning Fishing

When we lived next-door to some fishermen…


…I was watching these neighbors fish for trout at Indian Pond, small and round and snugly hidden in the granite hills.  The protective circle rises above a dimple full of water.  Maybe a kettle-hole, sunk by glacial ice.  Miles of mountains, the woodland roundabout—flatlanders can have scant idea Indian Pond is here.


Cold, below the summits.  The sky?  Low clouds in motion that day. …

I stand outside the car while Tall-one dons his waders.  Standing near, Light-eyes, the wiry one, ties a fly to the line.  Wind overhead roams in the pines, a great susurrus ghost, the life in our gills.

The pole in his hands is thick and green.  It has an eye at the end for threading the line.  Hair hangs in the light eyes of the young fisherman as he works with chilled fingers, shivering, talking about Uncle Baldy who has no problems doing this.  He wishes he could pin Uncle Baldy down sometime and learn a little of his flyfishing technique.

Surveys by the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association show only 10% of freshwater anglers learning the sport after the age of twenty.  It’s during their formative years that people acquire a love and learning for fishing.  And only 40% of adult anglers teach their youngsters the skill, instill them with the love.  Here’s the declining trend in a productive, vital, and beautiful pastime that feeds the body and nourishes the soul.

Light-eyes finally gets the line tied and we walk to the shoreline thick with spindly trees—the way trees are in Maine.  The blackflies show up, dancing in front of my face.  Some light, but don’t bite.  They are not yet ready to lay eggs.

In his great waders, the tall one moves slowly into the water and begins flicking out the line.  The reel pays it out in a straightforward manner.  I step past the sandy bottomed access into the trampled wet weeds.  Here are three thin trees to lean against… out of the way where I can’t get caught on the flicking line.

An article with no byline in the Lewiston Sunday compares the motions of angling to those of other sports.  The accurate cast and lure placement, the retrieval, all contribute to convincing the fish that a tied-fly is the real thing.  The motions of angling are like those in team sports we are familiar with.   (The wind up, the pitch, the follow-through.) But in casting there are other considerations, like lure and line.  And the unquantifiable—timing.


Light-eyes stands on the opposite side of the boat access and encourages Tall-one with his advice.  The pole belongs to the advice giver. Both have been fly-fishing only once before.  They plan to take turns with the pole and waders.

The tall fisherman wears a green felt hat.  He leans over meditatively to spit tobacco juice between flicks.  A fish jumps.  They’re out there.

The first time these young men were here they got six, one right after the other.  That was two fish over the limit.  Light-eyes would get a bite and fling the wriggling silver thing back onto shore.  Small fish, maybe eight inches, but muscular and fighting.  Anything smaller they tossed back.

Again a fish jumps.  We talk back and forth across the boat access, Light-eyes and I.  He says the other guy was in court this morning for smelting on a closed brook.  Fifteen people were there, all caught at the same unposted spot.  The fine was $110, something like $35 over his week’s unemployment check.  Closed brooks and ponds are all listed in the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife regulations; but where a crowd gathers, one takes it for granted without consulting the book.  Fishing lessons are expensive this way:  15 people—all locals who could ill afford it—at $110 a head… amounts to $1650.  Is there a limit on how many fishermen a game warden can catch from one unposted brook?

The long tall wader hooks one.  It comes back into the water of the access:  too small.  Light-eyes reaches down and unhooks it.  A bit stunned, it stays awhile in the access.  He looks at it, speculating that it was conceived here in the pond, not stocked by Fish and Game.  I should ask why, exactly, but don’t.

Light-eyes isn’t satisfied with the lure.  He returns to the car for more flies.  I stand staring out across the lake, my attention caught by something unseen, a sound, perhaps, on the quiet morning.  The wader continues casting.  There it is again, a knocking.  Then distantly I see the canoe, paddle knocking against its sides.  I call the fishermen’s attention to it—canoeist with a speck of red (a life jacket?) in aluminum boat against the opposite shore.  I’m thinking, game warden?


Light-eyes returns with the flies.  The tall languorous wader moves to shore and we wait while the other tries to attach the new fly—small and brown like a mosquito.  He says his hands are numb.  This operation takes a while, long enough for the wind to pick up and move the water, lure blackflies into my face, send chills through my sweater.  The canoeist paddles for our shoreline and poles into another access several yards away through the trees.  Overhead pines move; the sound in their boughs increases.  Wader stands dreaming—looking around at the water, the pines waving overhead, the cold working fingers of Light-eyes.

At last the fly is secure; the wader moves off again, flicking his line.  The canoeist walks over, accompanied by his black Lab retriever, and I see then that the spot of red in the distance was no life jacket but a great red beard.

The first question is always, “They bitin’?”  or some variation thereof.  The conversation takes off from there with speculations, acknowledgment of conditions, talk—when they’re not biting—of better days.

Suddenly the wader hooks one and it comes flying back—muscular, flashing silver, fighting.  It wriggles in water in the sandy bottomed access and Light-eyes takes hold of it, unhooks the fish.  The two young men speculate on its length as Red-beard and I look on.  He doesn’t look or act like a warden, but you never know.  The trout does not look like it’s worth $110.  The languid wader deposits the trout in his cutaway plastic milk jug, attached to the waist of his brown waders.  Red-beard says nothing.

Another man, driving a 4×4 pulls up, gets out, asks the opening question.  The boys already know he’s no warden because he was here the other day when they took two over the limit.

The tall wader returns to his work and the talk continues.  The identity of the trout comes into question.  Is it brook trout or splake?  Four-by-four and Red-beard discuss with Light-eyes the difference between the two.  The brook trout, or brookie, has convoluted patterning on top and is more speckled toward its silvery pale bottom.  It has two red spots, the true identifier.  The splake, like this one, doesn’t.  Splake, I learn, are hybrids and unable to reproduce.

Tall-one remarks that his waders are leaking; his foot is soaked.  He comes to shore and goes to the car to change.  A good-humored discussion heats up about the best way to patch waders.  Red-beard suggests a make-do approach:  duct tape works well as a temporary fix.  The merits of duct tape are considered all around.  Duct tape, baling wire, and a hammer constitute a Maine make-do toolkit.  Red-beard claims it is tough enough to patch a canoe.  Four-by-four says he’s got some in the truck and goes for it.  By this time Tall-one has returned from the car wearing his sneakers and carrying the waders.  He asks if the tape will stick to wet fabric.

Tape dangles from 4×4’s hand as the leak is examined.  He jokes about pulling a MacGyver.  The TV show of the same name is a hit in Maine for the title character’s make-do approach to problem-solving.  The tape lies on the wet waders like ordinary material and won’t adhere.

The newcomers depart, no summons issued.  Undaunted, Light-eyes dons the leaky waders and heads into the lapping water, determined not to miss his shot.

His casting is filled with whistling energy.  I step back quickly, suddenly aware of his great patience here today.  Patience he maybe did not feel while working to attach the flies, while waiting his turn with the pole and the waders.  I feel the contrast between the two natures of these fishermen.

But his turn is short-lived.  The line soon catches in the pines overhead and breaks away.  He does not want to lose the fly, so he comes ashore, shucks the waders, dons his sneakers and climbs the tall skinny tree.  He reaches high and snags a dangling line, grasps the thin branch and yanks the fly loose.  Turns out it’s a different fly—one he lost the other day!

Astonished he throws it down to Tall-one, who reports that its full of pine tar.

“No problem.  I’ll boil it!  That’ll loosen the tar.”

The pond is smoothed out, but big drops make rings on the surface as the young men gather their gear.  All that remains of the outing is the little splake.  It’s been lying in Tall-one’s milk jug, without water, ever since it was caught.

Light-eyes lifts it out and sets it in the sandy shallow water.  The fish flops onto its side.  He drags it through the water a few times, trying to load its gills with oxygen.  But slightly it revives.  The tall fishermen gives its life a try, pushing it back and forth, jiggling the fish from side to side.  At last it gains breath, begins keeping its head down.  The splake’s sides sheen up with purple iridescence in the late-arriving morning light.  Late-arriving oxygen.  Slowly it makes its way toward the deep.


entry from MAINE METAPHOR, used with permission of Wipf and Stock publishers.

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