It takes very little effort to recollect the thrill of catching a rainbow trout or call to mind the aroma of the day’s catch being pan fried over a crackling campfire. Those childhood memories are as much a part of me as is my DNA.
There is much I recall about fishing in my youth. The excitement of catching the first fish of an outing. The delight of catching the largest fish of the day. The satisfaction of catching the biggest stringer or filling the largest creel. The sting of failing to catch anything accept a hook on a sunken stump. The smell of bog and Woodsmen bug repellant. The feel of bait in my fingers. The buzz of mosquitoes and black flies in my ears.
These are among the things I recall most.
The memory of my first fishing experience as a child is lost to me now, however. I suppose I must have started fishing more than 40 years ago and I’m sure my father or other male relative mustered up the patience to take me to Portage Lake or a nearby stream to drown my first worm. And I do not recall catching my first fish, although I’m sure someone must have helped me reel in the catch.
I remember as a child using an old casting reel and rod my father had once used. The brand name is lost with time, but I seem to recall that the rod itself was burgundy in color and the reel likely was aluminum.
I don’t think I ever caught a fish with that rod. I was a little impatient to be drowning worms without instant gratification, so I often turned my attention to skipping stones or wading in the frigid water or running in the nearby forest.
I recall rushing through chores so that I could run to a spot under the crab apple tree that grew just beyond our yard. There I would use my father’s old folding Army shovel in search of worms, the bait of choice when I was a child. Actually, there was little “choice” in it as worms were the only bait we used.
After rushing through chores and to dig worms, I might jump on my bicycle and ride down the hill to the lake in a too-often fruitless attempt to catch something.
Later, fishing became an activity that helped mark various periods in my life – fishing in the streams, rivers, lakes and ponds of Maine, surf fishing in North Carolina, going after trout throughout Northern California and in the Sierra Nevada, and fishing for salmon from the deck of a sailboat while using my own unique method.
And, after all that, this is something I simply know about fishing – people who fish are better for it. Fishing can mend fences and build bridges. Fishing can create and strengthen personal relationships. Fishing can add to family culture and legacy. Fishing can teach an appreciation for nature and patience and tenacity and hope. Fishing is so much more than a sport and so much more than a way to provide food.
Camping and fishing for a lifetime
A few years ago L.L. Bean, the outdoors outfitter based in Freeport, Maine, produced a set of note cards and on the cover of each was a nostalgic image highlighting outdoor activity. I have gone through the box of note cards except for one and it shows a father carrying two fishing rods, a stringer of fish, and an exhausted child. Mother, hands on hips, seems a tad upset that Dad has kept Junior out too long fishing.
It is an image of a simpler time. The memories of the fishing experience will far outlast the momentary wrath of a concerned mother. And father and son will experience far more fishing experience over the course of their lives.
I remember as a fairly young guy – perhaps about the age of the youngster on the L.L. Bean note card – piling into the family car with my parents and kid sister to go to “the big city” of Presque Isle. We went to a Zayre’s department store – or it could have been a Kmart by then, I’m not entirely sure – to buy a green canvas tent, a Coleman’s white gas stove, and other camping and fishing gear.
I’m pretty sure we went off the very next day to accompany family friends, the Cormiers, into the North Woods of Maine, a vast patch of lush greenery. Some of what makes up the North Woods very probably has never been seen by man.
It was the first camping trip for my sister and me and we were tingling with excitement for the adventure.
Our father loaded the gear into the car – I think my folks had a very red two-door Chevrolet Chevelle at that time – and followed the Cormier’s light blue Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon loaded with Leo and Bea Cormier and at least most of their pack of children. I don’t recall this for sure, but the car probably towed or carried Leo’s small fishing boat filled with gear.
We followed them down the south end of Portage Lake and turned off the pavement to a dirt road and passed a pulp mill just outside of town before reaching a gate. I’m pretty certain Seven Islands Land Company in Bangor owned or managed the land so it operated the gates where for a few bucks you could purchase a permit for entry into the privately owned timber region.
But it wasn’t a particularly secure gate – no barbed wire, electrification, or gun towers here. As I recall, after a certain hour, the gate was thrown open with the idea that whoever went through at night when the gate was left open would stop off on the return trip to settle up for the cost of the permit. And, as I recall, the seasonal job of manning the gates usually went to a local resident who typically knew just about everyone in town.
It was as much a public relations job as it was a job of collecting money for the permits, which probably never cover the cost of the gatekeepers’ salaries and maintenance costs.
Beyond the gate the dirt roads were not bad, considering. The land company and the various timber ventures worked to keep the roads good enough to keep a steady flow of trucks loaded high with pine, spruce and fir logs moving out of the deep woods and to pulp and timber mills. Today, that activity has slowed to a trickle.
When we weren’t driving by landings that stretched beyond the next bend in the road and piled two stories high or higher with freshly cut logs, we were driving through incredibly thick forests.
And eastern forest isn’t what people in the West might think of when their mind turns to forestland. Redwood, Douglas fir and other western trees seem to grow broader and taller, but the forests are usually less densely packed. In the North Woods, pine, spruce and fire grow very nearly in a thicket. A person could walk just a few yards into the forest and then not see the road or opening he or she had just left. Truly thick.
Why go into the woods when you lived on a lake?
Some might ask, “Why leave one lake – Portage Lake – to go fishing at another body of water?” A couple of things come into play here. First, while so-called “staycations” have been pretty popular in recent years – you can get a lot of things done, including racking up rest – it really wasn’t a vacation back then unless you went somewhere. And camping was an affordable option for families.
Second, Portage Lake is a shallow lake and a lake whose shores for years hosted various mills. Waste from those mills and the vacation and resort cabins later built there went into the lake. The water was not particularly hospitable to trout and other species native to Maine.
For that and other reasons, Portage Lake was more of a starting-off point for hunting and fishing lodges deeper in the North Woods. Jimmy Stewart and Jack Dempsey, among others, have flown into Portage Lake via seaplane on their way to finer fishing.
However, my mother recently told me that there have been some efforts to restore trout and salmon to the lake and the Fish River system. I find that encouraging.
Where was I? Oh, camping and fishing …
Usually on these camping trips we would stop at a picnic area at a bridge over the Fish River just upstream from the Fish River Falls. There was a small pond upstream from the bridge and a trail that went downstream along the river to the falls and slightly beyond. I remember running down that trail to get to just below the falls. If I recall correctly, the falls weren’t very tall. More of a whitewater rapid, really. I’m guessing an experienced rafter or kayaker might have made it down the falls quite easily and been disappointed with the lack of challenge.
After a quick stop for lunch or to fish briefly in the river or in the pond, we’d drive on until we rounded a bend and down a slight incline until the thick forest opened up to a camping ground across the dirt road from Perch Pond. We kids usually got out of most of the drudgery of setting up the camp and were allowed to run off, either into the forested hill or with assorted fishing gear to the stream-fed pond. Once there we would – while trying not to hook onto the friend standing near us – cast into the water in an attempt to catch trout. If we were lucky, we’d catch a handful of the tasty fish for dinner or the next day’s breakfast.
After fishing, we children might hike around to the downstream end of the pond to look at the beaver works. If the older Cormier children were around, they might take us by boat to the dam. Beavers over the years had constructed quite a dam and it was always interesting to see what new addition had been raised and whether we might be able to catch a glimpse of the buck-toothed contractors.
To this day I can picture that pond and the surrounding area, the way a stream bisected the campground and how the outlet of that stream was the location from where we usually cast from shore to fish. I recall an old log or two where I was shown for the first time how to clean a fish after catching it. I remember the black, boggy mud near the water’s edge. I remember the steep trail behind the campground. I’m not sure if that campground is still there; I hope it is so other youngsters can learn to fish and be outdoors.
‘Secret’ fishing holes are the best
I’m not sure how we stumbled onto one fishing hole not too far from the campground. I think Leo Cormier must have known about it. We would drive a short distance from the camp, get out of the vehicle, and hike down through the woods to a slow-moving and meandering stream with large pools where brook trout collected. The water was so very clear you could easily see to the stony bottom and the fish floating in the lazy current.
We would cast into the water and if we were lucky we would fill our fishing creels in an hour with very tasty fish.
Of course, part of the problem with fishing that hole – besides battling the brush just to get there and battling the blackflies and mosquitoes just to keep your own blood – was that brook trout can be on the smallish side. We probably threw back more than we kept.
I’m not sure if that fishing hole was a complete secret, but I would like to think that very few people knew about it then or know about it now.
Floating down the Allagash
We had camped along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway several times over the years, usually with relatives. My mother grew up in St. Francis, Maine, just down the road from the town of Allagash near where the Allagash River pours into the St. John River, which downstream becomes the northern border between Maine and Canada. Much of my mother’s side of the family continues to live in the greater Fort Kent-St. Francis-Allagash metropolitan region. (By “metropolitan region” what I really mean is a collection of small cities and towns that are home to some of the very best people on Earth.)
The Allagash Wilderness Water is a wonderful north-flowing waterway and well worth protecting.
Somewhere along the line, my parents decided it was time for a canoeing trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway before too many people from away learned of the pristine swath of thick forest and flowing river.
We went along with several family friends – the Cormiers, the Collins, and Chet Carlson.
My parents had purchased a canoe sometime before from a Quebec canoe builder and we rented an aluminum canoe to carry our family, fishing and camping gear, and provisions. It was quite an adventure. Sure, we saw other canoers and campers along the way, but it was quite out-of-the way. My hometown of Portage, Lake, with a population of about 450 seemed a crowed place compared to floating down the Allagash River.
I recall every so often we would pull in our paddles and simply float along, casting a line for trout.
One evening a few of us piled into a canoe and we poled it out to the center of the river to fish. I remember catching a pretty nice-sized trout, but I lost it when I tried to clean off some dirt. It floated out of my hand and downstream. A fish that got away.
We didn’t have much time for fishing for the remainder of the trip. A Maine game warden tracked us down to inform us that one of my father’s relatives had died. The rest of the trip was about paddling to Allagash.
We did stop for a bit at the Allagash Falls. Like the Fish River Falls, the Allagash Falls are rather gradual and canoeists, kayakers, and rafters can shoot the rapids. We portaged the gear and all but a canoe or two around the falls. A couple of us tried to shoot the falls, but we swamped the canoe. It was rather frigid, but fun adventure.
New gear for Knights Landing
I didn’t fish very much once I become involved in high school sports. There just wasn’t the time.
And things were pretty hectic in college, so I didn’t fishing then either.
In time, I ended up working for The Daily Democrat in Woodland, Calif., and there became friends with Rick Roach. Rick’s family owns a farm in Arkansas and he very much enjoyed the outdoor life. Still does.
The Daily Democrat was an afternoon newspaper which meant we got to work early to get the newspaper out by noon and we left the office by 3 or 4 p.m. After a while I ended up investing in fishing gear, because sometimes after work we would load up Rick’s vehicle and drive past the Yolo County farms and asparagus fields to Knights Landing, stopping along the way for assorted bait and fried snacks. Yes, the bait and snacks often were purchased at the store from the same clerk that handled both the bait and the snacks.
We would then drive to a nearby canal and cast a line into the water. I seem to recall we were fishing for salmon, but I could be wrong. After all, I have been before. We would sit in lawn chairs – if we remembered to bring them or on the bank if we didn’t – drink cheap beer and smoke even cheaper cigars as we fished the afternoon into the evening, sometimes until after dark. If we stayed long enough and it became chilly, we would build a driftwood fire, light another cigar and open another beer.
We were fishing near Knight’s Landing on April 4, 1991, when news broke about the hostage-taking at Good Guys in Sacramento. We stuck around for a little while longer, but left a bit earlier than normal for us. Rick’s news bone was itching and he ended up joining the press corps there to shoot photos we printed in The Daily Democrat.
Lake Berryessa, Twin Lakes and Cliff Polland
Later, Rick and his wife, Michele, moved to Vacaville to work at The Reporter, he as the photo editor and she as the top sales representative for the newspaper. From the time we all lived in Woodland, we took annual trips to the Sierra Nevada to camp at Annette’s Mono Village outside of Bridgeport. Annette’s Mono Village is a ’50s-style camping resort, complete will log cabin restaurant. There are modern amenities, however, including an onsite store, bait shop, motel-style rooms, lodges, hookups for RV campers, restrooms, coin-operated showers, and laundry facilities. The resort is nestled in the Sawtooth Mountain range, which rims Yosemite National Park.
Annette’s Mono Village also is on the second of two lakes that make up Twin Lakes. If memory serves me correction – and memory isn’t always a good servant – Annette’s Mono Village has its own stocking ponds and the state also stocks the lake with various types of trout. Back in the day, Rick would sometimes rent a boat at the bait shop and we would go out to test our luck. Sometimes it was good; sometimes it was not so good.
A few years later Rick talked Michele into letting him purchase a fishing boat. It wasn’t large, by any means, but it was more than serviceable for Twin Lakes and at Lake Berryessa, not far from Vacaville.
Every so often during the summer Rick would give me a call – a time or two waking me up from a sound sleep after an evening spent at a local tavern – and say: “Mornin’, Sunshine! Let’s go fishin’! Let’s go slay some fish!”
Typically, I would mumble incoherently, tell him I needed to take a shower, but that I would be at his place in a half hour, which usually was more like 45 minutes. He would have the boat hitched to the back of his pickup, the boat loaded with fishing gear, fried snacks, and a freshly stocked cooler of beer. I would load my gear and we would be off, often stopping for gas before heading north on Interstate 505 and through Winters and onto Lake Berryessa.
There were times we would stopped in Winters to pickup Cliff Polland, a long-time Reporter employee, one of Rick’s photographers, and a friend. Cliff loved fishing and the outdoors. There were fishing rods and camping equipment in very nearly every corner of his Winters home. And watercolors on the walls of fish he had painted.
Rick and I were the ones who found Cliff one day after he succumbed to illness. He is missed to this day as a friend, co-worker and colleague, and fishing buddy.
Typically, we would troll for trout up and down the lower part of Lake Berryessa, drinking beer and smoking cigars, imploring the fish to find our hooks. Some days the fish would be teaming in the holding tank. Other days we returned to order pizza. Either way it was always a pretty good time – a bad day fishing is better than a good day working.
Jack Daniels and stripers
Rick and I went striper bass fishing in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta one weekend and brought along a third party – Mr. Jack Daniels.
I’m not saying it was a mistake, mind you. We fished and caught some fish. And we drank some beer. And whiskey.
After sunset we made it back to Rick and Michele’s home for dinner and my girlfriend at the time said to us, as we stood swaying like tall trees and a gale wind, “Y’all are snockered! What did you have to drink.”
“Us? We’re not drunk,” says Rick.
“It snell outta da bloat,” says I, referring to the bottle that we didn’t have on the boat and didn’t drink (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more). Yeah, “snell outta da bloat.”
We kept to beer on subsequent fishing trips.
‘That’s on my instructional video’
There is something to be said about fishing out The Gate for salmon.
A former colleague and her husband, Teri and Dick Gilmore, are cool people who happen to own a sailboat that for a time they moored in Emeryville, Calif.
And from time to time they invited friends onto their sailboat to motor out the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Potato Patch, and into the Pacific Ocean to bob around fishing for salmon and other fish.
Given the motion of the ocean, as it were, medicine was taken to combat nausea, which can cause drowsiness. Once we were fishing, the water lapping onto the hull, some of us – OK, me – usually became a little drowsy. So, there were times I would lay back for a nape with my head against the mast and the fishing pole locked in my arms.
On one fishing trip, I was on my back with my head against the mast, nodding off a bit – nodding of quite a bit, actually – when the rod was very nearly jerked out of my arms.
“Um, um, fish on!” I managed to mumble.
Somehow I was able to hold onto my rod, gather my legs under me, and begin reeling in a nicely sized salmon. I was able to pull it up to the surface and someone on the boat dipped a net into the water to get under the fish.
“Get the fish in the basket,” Teri said. She wasn’t quite up with the terminology for fishing equipment known by most as a fish net.
The fish eventually made it into “the basket” and onto the sailboat.
Rick had brought along a large dowel to rap the fish on the head to reduce suffering. He missed the first couple of times and then made contact, shattering the dowel. (I later bought a Louisville Slugger T-ball bat and with model paint inserted the word “fish” between the “Louisville” and “Slugger” and we carried that bat on Rick’s boat for years.)
I caught a second salmon using “my method” – nodding off, head against the mast, rod in my arms – and we began joking that I could put together an instructional video to teach it to other fishermen.
Things I’ve missed
I missed out on ocean fishing with Rick and Cliff – I never seemed to have the money – although the three of us did book fishing packages not too long before Cliff died. We had visited an outdoorsmen show in Sacramento and the packages were nicely priced.
We never got to use them. I don’t think Rick or I really wanted to go after Cliff died, although I seem to recall that the fishing guide kindly extended the period in which we could go fishing after learning of Cliff’s death.
And I missed out on an earlier fishing trip to Alaska. Rick and Cliff had a great time and brought back great fish and even more wonderful stories. I regret that now more than ever.
No river runs through it, unfortunately
I haven’t been fishing in years and I sometimes wonder why something that has a deep, long-lasting influence on me is not part of my life today. I wish I was more like the main character in “A River Runs Through It,” someone who continues to fish throughout his entire life.
I miss fishing. I still have most of the fishing equipment I thought it necessary to buy after Rick bought his boat. What I do not have here in Stockton, Calif., is probably still in a storage shed at Rick and Michele’s Vacaville home.
Stockton is an inland port and some might think it would be a prime place to fish, especially since big-time bass fishing tournaments are carried out here now.
But not so much. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is like far too many places in this world now, polluted with the things people throw in the water or into the gutter, which eventually make it into the Delta. And now a lot of what can be caught here is contaminated with one mineral or another.
Even so, it might be time to drown a worm or two before too long.