Topwater Salmon

I had a free pass last week.  After the hearings in East Hampton on Friday, I snuck in a day of fishing East Grand Lake at my camp in Maine.  I flew up through Baltimore en route to Portland, followed by a three-hour drive to Danforth.  I arrived late evening after a stop on the way just outside Bangor for dinner at Dysart’s Truck Stop, where I overdid it on the strawberry pie but no regrets.  Up with the sun at 5:30am, coffee in hand, I strolled down to the end of the dock, sat down, and dipped my toes in the water. The sun created dazzling reflections on the water which was a frigid 46 degrees nonetheless; not swimming temperature, but a refreshing morning start.  Greg had left his truck at the foot of the driveway, ready for me to take it to Wheaton’s, where I had planned for a day of fishing with my trusted guide, Andy.  I was hoping to reel in a topwater salmon using a streamer fly that draws the salmon to the surface.    I packed an old down Orvis jacket, my fishing bag, a 5-weight rod and an extra flannel shirt.  I would be prepared for any surprises, or so I thought. Andy already had his Grand canoe in the water when I arrived at 9:00 o’clock.  With my tucked-in flannel shirt I was dressed for a Maine summer day.  I was immediately taken aback by the wind in my face.  I rushed to empty out my fishing bag to locate a pair of gloves, and the Bulgin wool beanie cap from my buddy Thom’s last visit, then hurriedly put on my second flannel shirt, all of which lessened the impact of the chilly breezes. Waves are unusual on the lake, but today they were lapping over the sides of the canoe and my coccyx felt every bump.  Andy threw a pair of rain pants at me and I tried in vain to pull them on.  If I closed my eyes I could have been in Ireland.  The wave action was more than I have ever experienced on East Grand Lake. I gazed upward and saw an eagle soaring against the clear blue sky and a few scattered clouds.  Despite the conditions on the water, I was aflight myself with the sense of freedom I always have out on the water, when the mind is quieted, and any troubles are left at the shore. It was Andy’s first day out on the canoe this season and he battled the waves a good long time before finding a secluded off-shore area sheltered from the northeast winds. 

                “I have a surprise for you,” he said, calling over to me, as he pulled the bait out of the container.  I watched him set a live smelt on my hook.

                “You know I don’t fish with live bait!” I shouted to him over the engine noise.

                “It’s salmon you want and its salmon we will catch!” he hollered back.  

Early season anglers have the most luck with live bait so live bait it would be.  I tossed the line out and peeled away down to my backing.  Quietly we moved along the shore.  Thirty minutes went by and I felt a few hits but nothing stuck.  After each knock Andy checked to see if my bait was still attached and the hook available. The sun was now higher in the sky and beating down on us.  I began to remove the layers – the extra flannel shirt, then the gloves.  The wool beanie was replaced by my lucky old felt cowboy hat.  Seated in the bow of the canoe in the stillness of the cove, I felt a deep sense of contentment.  It was one of those unique moments I find most pleasurable while out on the water and only on the water.  I held the rod in my right hand and the loose line lightly in my left for any slight tug before I set the hook.  My thoughts drifted to old memories, to hopes for the future and to being at peace in my heart. I was “zoned out” when I felt a slight tug on the line.  Immediately roused out of the daydream, I sat up from a slouch, my senses alert to the matter at hand:  a fish.  The best strikes are the ones I don’t anticipate, unlike sight fishing when you observe the fish taking the fly.  This strike was totally spontaneous, and I was taken by happy surprise.  Andy erupted into total guide mode:

                “Take it on the reel!” he commanded. “Don’t lose him! Reel it in!”  Then, after realizing I had things under control, he said, more calmly, “Just let it run.”  

The dance between the guide and the fisherman when a fish is on the line could be a Broadway production.  There is much song and dance until the fish is in the net.  And this one was still unseen. Neither of us knew for sure what it was though we suspected salmon.   Twenty-five feet of line was out and the 5-weight rod was bending as I reeled in.  Andy sat quietly in the stern ready with a net.  He slowed the engine down to keep pace with the fish.  I was fearful of losing it before I got to see it.  As I reeled with my left hand and dug the bottom of the rod into my right side I felt in control.  I continued cautiously so as not to break the line.  Andy saw the fish before I did, before it dove below the canoe. 

                “Salmon!” he shouted– a huge smile on his face.

After more steady reeling, the fish finally gave up and surfaced. Andy swooped in with the net.  It was his first salmon of the season and he was as proud of it as I was.  Dark green with a white belly it measured 30” and weighed four pounds—a happy catch for both of us. 

                “I will freeze him for lunch next time,” Andy offered. 

I usually catch and release but accepted his offer.  Reeling in a topwater landlocked salmon is an experience I’ve only ever had in Alaska, Iceland, and Labrador.  This was a first at my home lake.  Thanks, Andy, for those smelts.

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