Summer Nights Well Spent

The hiking stove featured here is the Emberlit.

 

In my book, The Dying Fish, I recount the story of catching my first brook trout late one summer evening in Newfoundland, long ago. The moment was magical because I was seeing this fish for the first time, a fish that would shape my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the age of 6. But the moment was also magical because it was almost dark; quiet had descended on the pond, the colors in the western sky had faded to gray and silvery ripples had washed over a mercurial black surface. There was mystery here and a reward for patience.

It would be years before I’d find my way onto the banks of the warm Cumberland River in Tennessee, rancid chicken liver aroma overriding all else. First, I had years of growing up to do, mostly in western Maine where ice-fishing captured my attention and fantasies year-round. I wanted nothing more than to load the sled and drag it down the snowmobile trail and out onto the expanse of white, even if that meant prepping the sled in September. And then, at the age of 12 or 13, I found myself alone again at night with the brook trout but now standing above them, looking down a black hole through 3 feet of ice. The night seemed invigorating for the first time here, a mysterious time when strange animals might come out of the cold shadows and strange fish might be pulled up through the hole.

Before I left Maine though, I’d meet the black bullhead, my introduction to catfish. There had always been a group of shallow, weedy ponds behind my house, along the river, that almost no-one seemed to pay attention to anymore. But the oldest guide in town, Harry, had told me that when he was young, there’d been a strange little fish called a “horned pout” that only took baits at night. And when I finally left behind my fear of being in the woods at night, I found that the spiny little horned pout still waited there.

Later, in New York, I’d find that bullheads came in a duper-sized variety, the brown bullhead. I didn’t fish a lot at night in New York but when I did, I found these pudgy cats, the largest catfish I’d seen at the time. Rod tip bells would jangle, bats would flitter across the moon and slimy fish would be slid onto the stringer.

Now I can look back on half a lifetime of slinging pungent baits out into the dark and laying back with lines pinched between my fingers. There were nights out on the south Florida canals setting ice-fishing tip-ups and shrimp for gar. I remember fondly a couple of nights on a riverbank in Carthage, Tennessee, old Ford pickup parked nearby and fog enveloping all by morning. I was found often out on a jetty in Lake Michigan at night, jigging vertically for king salmon. And I was back in Tennessee again where my canoe carried me some nights up and down the creeks of the Cumberland, trying not to think about the spookiness of my moss-draped surroundings and concentrate rather on the flatheads. I never caught a big one but I did harvest memories and experiences that couldn’t have been had if I’d stayed in bed.

 

Last night I lay out on a tarp around midnight at the back end of a small western Pennsylvania lake I’d never fished before. The temperature was ideal and the bugs had taken their blood lust elsewhere. Muskrats circled as did the bats. The lake seemed weed-choked but I knew the bullheads wouldn’t mind. And I knew this because I’d caught 4 already – yellow bullheads – as common to western Pennsylvania as brown bullheads are to New York and black bullheads to Maine. But the variety of catfish was beside the point tonight. I was out of the city, reclining on the bank in the cool night air listening to the owl across the lake. Fillets were great but I’d let the whole catch swim back into the depths tonight to tug on someone else’s line or raise another brood next spring. The mustard yellow whiskered fellows had just been pretext for a summer night well spent, the same as always.

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