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.

Last Week at Camp

October 2021

The last week of camp this year reminds me a bit of returning from Camp Seneca as a teenager.  The camp experience for me was not only an outdoor awakening but a coming of age.  Amazing how youth blossoms in the right environment.  This year’s camp closing was a bookend of sorts, some 65 years later.  My high school friends, Arnie, Bob, and Harv all came up with their delightful wives for a few days of hiking, fishing and reminiscing. I had arrived the day earlier and used the opportunity to spend the day on Spednik Lake for my usual end-of-year bass outing with Andy.  He cooked his grilled chicken over the fire and made the best lake coffee.  I’ve tried time and again to make my own lake coffee but without success.  The grounds never stay in the bottom of the pot.  The lake water was a cool 65 degrees.  We used poppers and a clouser to lure the fish.  I nabbed a two-pound pickerel and a three-and-a-half-pound bass.  Despite this, Andy was frustrated that the fish were not more plentiful.  He had been so upbeat in the morning when I arrived at Wheatons Lodge.  He predicted, with his usual, easy smile, that “today will be the best of the season.”  Andy sulks when the fish are not cooperating.  He takes it personally.  Sitting in the stern of his grand canoe sorting through flies he imagines the fish taking based on the small fish finder he sets up.  When there are no takings he hunkers down and spreads his assortment of flies about the floor of the canoe, choosing and rejecting, trying to find the one that will turn our luck around.  

The weather was overcast and the few fish we caught in the morning were the extent of our success that day. After lunch, the highlight of the day, the clouds cleared with a southwest breeze. The reflection on the lake was like a mirror image of the shoreline.  I could hardly tell where one ended and the other began.  The air was autumnal.  Trees showed hints of orange amid the green.  The quiet was deafening.  I could hear myself think.  The wheels in my head turned, albeit slowly.  Harv, Bob and Arnie had arrived while we were out on the water.  They would be at camp already when I got back.   I said goodbye to Andy and we hugged.  Both our protruding stomachs prevented us from getting too close.  He waved as he drove off to his camp to start the annual process of closing for the season.  I pulled out of Wheatons for the quiet drive home along Forest City Road.  No cell service… a gift.    


September 2021

I fished the Snake River today.  It is my first time in Wyoming and what a beautiful state, with plenty of open space and few drift boats on the water.  This morning my host and friend Erik gave me a Jackson Hole cap to wear, and then we were off, first stop after breakfast was to meet Nick, the fishing guide and to drop his driftboat into the Astoria Elbow stretch of the river.  Nick is a long-haired, gentle soul. He quickly immersed himself in tying the appropriate fly to our five-weight rods and before we got in the boat, he cautioned us not to stand at any time as there had been a drowning this season and he wanted us to return.  The water conditions were clear, and the clouds gently rolled across the sky. An eagle watched us along a stretch of the river, looking for a dinner treat I presume. Erik sat in the front seat and led the catching with an 18 “and then a 16“cutthroat trout. I was casting from the rear and landed a few minors.  They went right back in.  The flies were basically chubby Chernobyls and small perdigons. Nick worked hard rowing us from side to side to look for fish. Plenty of takes but only a few brought to the net. Nick is barbless, meaning the fish have an equal chance of mouthing the fly or letting go.  The conversation among us in the boat was about fishing of course but a bit of politics worked its way in.  Nick informed us that his wife recently left her job at an outfitter because of the political tension.  He believes that politics have become too all-consuming in people’s lives. Quite a comment from a 20-ish free living young person who loves nature and the boundless lifestyle of Wyoming and the west. Most of the talk aside from “strike” and “missed” was about the impact of climate change on the rivers.  Nick was constantly checking the water temperature to indicate his concern.  His enthusiasm for what he does is extraordinary.  A cool morning in Jackson hole renders the water temperature 69 degrees –perfect for cutthroat.  Eventually we got to talking about the philosophy of fishing and like most young guides who haven’t become grumpy yet from years of rowing people around a river, Nick has his words of wisdom: “Fishing is good because you have women to go back to.” Well that’s some philosophy. I suppose it means being in the wilderness makes you appreciate the comforts of home.  Nick said that as Erik struck another 18” fish.  Right now being in the wilderness is just fine.