This article is an attempt to work through the residual pain of an unusually traumatic week’s fishing.
Susan and I run off to the north country every fall, a foray that might take us to anywhere in New England. This year’s trip was a somewhat reduced jaunt up to the northern Adirondacks and St. Lawrence River, however. I like to posit each year that this is a together trip, a time to enjoy the outdoors without all the mud, sleet and climbing that tend to accompany some of my adventures. We drive to new places we’ve noticed on the map, we take pictures and sleep in a tent often within sight of the car. We’re essentially tourists but for the colder weather.
But we also fish or, correctly, I fish and Susan tolerates my need for fishing by playing along. I can’t waste a week of North Country travel on leaf photos; can’t pass within sight of Adirondack flowages without wetting a line.
Day one was spent driving. I exuded fish-lust as we sped north, prattling on about all the different kinds of fish in different places that awaited us. My Pittsburgh responsibilities forgotten, today I was Buzz Lightyear, speeding north to infinity and beyond! Day two was largely spent driving as well, though around innumerable miles of Adirondack back roads looking for a means of ingress between posted tracts. Coincidentally, this was also the last day of New York’s trout fishing season. Late in the afternoon we made camp at a somewhat undesirable official state campsite. We checked out the surrounding area on foot, reconnoitered the nearest stream and made supper. This left an hour of daylight in which to catch one of New York’s salmonids. Susan watched faithfully from shore as I waded out through treacherous footing to place a first cast at the base of a falls. Rain started immediately. Nothing came from this prime location so I retreated downstream a bit to the first promising pool and plopped in a soft plastic shad, now wishing for a rain jacket as my T-shirt became sodden with cold October rain.
A strike! Then another, and another! In typical trout fashion, they were nipping the tail of my soft bait, deftly avoiding the hook. Light was fading fast. A furious deluge broke loose but I sat on my rock, deciding that it wasn’t over till it was over. I glanced at Susan over on the shore in her rain slicker and hoped that she appreciated our together time. I switched lures to something with a tiny double hook at the rear but this was clearly unpalatable – there was no further interest. Darkness fell, trout season closed and I went back to the tent without satisfaction.
Oh well, there’d be tea, a quiet night and a little fire. And there were plenty more days to fish for other things. Surely this luck would change.
The next evening found us several miles to the south along the St. Regis River, again in a place I’d never seen before. Foliage was at peak, the air was crisp and a moose and an otter were present. Later, Susan cooked on a rock ledge beside the river while I tossed out a few casts. No sign of life. Oh well, no limit to the water to be tried over the next 5 days! I hoped Susan appreciated the solitude as sleet began.
Next morning we followed an old trail downstream a bit and found the stone piers of an ancient bridge bracketing a deep pool of the river. I off-handedly tossed in a white twister-tail grub just to pull through once before switching to a better lure. As the bait twirled back into sight, my mouth dropped open as an enormous orange-gold fish materialized from the depths and took a snap at it before disappearing into the black. Another hour of casting failed to show any hint that anything lived in this river.
Oh well, plenty more fish in the sea, as they say!
Stage two was a 3-day stay at a cabin on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Here, I had no worries about being able to produce fish – I was surrounded by the waters of a world-class fishery and not only fish but huge fish abounded here. The setting was exquisite and always is when we visit here in the fall. Wildlife abounds on this island and it’s anything but crowded in the off-season.
I started sending casts out into the river depths immediately upon arriving, cranking slowly to stay near bottom- where the behemoth river denizens swim. But none of those denizens bit as my few casts multiplied to hundreds of casts in the days ahead. I hoped that Susan could understand the math involved – the simple scientific fact that a lack of any sign of fish necessitated exponentially more casts to find fish, not less casts. On a peninsula near the cabin, Susan found two halves of two separate rods that looked like they’d somehow been snapped in half instead of being pulled apart at the mid-joint. She couldn’t understand how rods just get snapped off in the middle and then left in the bushes as though flung and deserted.
We found at some point that a school of dwarf yellow perch were circling the now-empty docks just below the “no fishing” signs and we landed several of these, up to perhaps 8 inches. Now we weren’t fishless.
On the last evening on the island, I played all my cards and tied on an enormous soft-plastic shad with a huge treble stinger hook and massive lead head that allowed me to send it sailing out across the weed beds. After a few casts, I watched a pike of over 30 inches rise to intercept, sniff the lure and disappear again. Just as the first stars began to show, I felt kind of a distinct tap on this same lure but didn’t think it was powerful enough to be of concern. During my final casts (long after Susan had set aside the rod for star gazing) I took a closer look at my plastic fishey: there was a neat arch of tooth marks showing along the flank now.
Oh well, lots of fish, there’s always tomorrow, more to explore, whatever.
The final phase of the trip was the angling grand finale. This was a two-day stop at the Black River to simply pick up a Chinook salmon to put on ice and truck back to Pittsburgh. We’d failed here once before, largely because 1) I didn’t know what I was doing and 2) I was unable to hook any pleasant 5 to 12 pound fish and began by tying into drag-frying fish of over 20 lbs. I love to seek out new and hard-to-reach locations but here we’d make an exception and join the throngs at the reliable Dexter hole where we’d park and walk downhill 40 feet to a rock we could sit on at the edge. The Dexter pool is a lovely place if you can ignore the drunks on both sides, the drunks lobbing fluorescent flatfish lures from boats just offshore a little and ignore the linear birds nest of discarded fishing line draped across the shore like a sort of poor drunk’s Christmas tinsel. All that being said, there are thousands of salmon swimming through this pool of one of the north country’s grandest river and they’re kings generally during October, not diminutive steelhead, browns or cohos.
We didn’t land any on the first evening’s fishing. We had a good evening none the less and generally had things figured out a little better than last time around. We had a spot with salmon stacked 3 deep that was somehow overlooked by the locals and Susan was learning to set the hook – not as simple as it sounds with these quick-biting behemoths. She hooked up twice but lost them due only, I think, to a technical difficulty with her old reel.
We finished late and headed back to Watertown to seek out after-hours eating options, which meant Chinese. It was quality take-out, leaving smiles on our faces following a quality day of near-misses with powerful salmon. My fortune cookie read, “Believe it can be done,” and we did.
The morning’s fishing was good, meaning a lot of hits and a couple of hook-ups. I longed for a little salmon just to reel in within 3 or 4 minutes, put on ice and take home to the skillet. Just as we were thinking about heading back to Watertown to await the evening bite, I hooked up solidly with a relatively large fish. After freeing himself from someone else’s discarded line (not the only time this happened on this one day), the fish took a leap skyward and then out toward mid-river. He exuded power and regality. Then he flopped over on his side so I could winch him in, tail first. This was a spawned out male that I’d foul-hooked near the tail. He was badly blotched and beaten up, his body already going the way of week-old road kill carcasses. I unhooked him, removed someone else’s hook and line from his belly and gently swished him in the water for 5 minutes to rejuvenate the old fellow. I let go, he rolled on his side and sank to the bottom.
Oh well, we can keep fishing and maybe snag another half-dead fish, tangle up in someone else’s line or just die of exposure there on our little rock beside the river…whatever.
The evening offered our last chance. We lost a couple more. It was getting dark and the water we were on was about to legally close (half-hour after sunset). With 15 minutes to go, I set the hook into something big, the salmon meant to undertake the long ride back to Pittsburgh with us. Almost immediately though my heart sank. I had the very-difficult-to-describe and all-too-familiar sensation that my fish was also caught on another line. No, not on someone else’s line who was currently fishing but on an old discarded section of perhaps 50 pound test spider wire still wrapped around the rocks far below the surface. The powerful fish would make short runs and dodges but couldn’t move more than 10 feet from where I’d hooked him. My mouth hung open. It wasn’t fair; in fact, it was unreal. Then, he popped loose from the mystery line and began surging on my strand alone.
This was the most enjoyable part of the fight but it would be short lived. The old bull didn’t waste energy leaping like a smaller salmon would but stayed deep, running back and forth along the bottom, seeming to look for something. The only glimpse I had of the fish was that of an outsized dorsal and caudal breaking the surface simultaneously but seemingly a yard apart. This was a very large fish.
And then he was stuck again. He’d found the mother of all snags somewhere in the depths and had fastened my line to it, not by a loop or simple half-hitch but by something closer to a Gordian knot and any fish capable of a Gordian knot is a very smart fish. A very tense, prolonged tug-of-war ensued in which I thought he was gone repeatedly only to have him start another slow run toward the middle. I was just barely able to retrieve, stretching the 20-pound test line to its capacity in my efforts. I knew the feeling of suddenly limp line and felt it was a breath away.
It was dark and no longer legal to be where I was while fighting a fish. I was desperate. I wasn’t going home this year empty-handed. I would do what it took to win if daybreak found me beaching my hook-jawed leviathan. Eventually though, I felt that waiting might not be so good a strategy as wading and I asked Susan to retrieve my water shoes. She was quickly back from the car with these and together we exchanged my boots for something I could get wet in. I didn’t like doing this. It was deep, unfamiliar and dark water but, again, I needed to do what it took. I started making my way a little deeper and a little deeper toward whatever was securing my fish. I pictured myself diving below the dark currents once I reached my chin, swimming down along the line to a sunken tree that had claimed so many trophy fish over the years and using my knife to cut the line and haul my prize up by the tail. My fantastical fish-hero scenario vanished as the line simply popped loose from something and the drag began clicking again.
Over and over the fish would snag momentarily on what were probably rocks, only to pop loose in a few seconds. He knew what he was doing. Then he tore off on a run that seemed impossible over 40 minutes into the fight, a steady unwinding of seemingly all the line on the reel, the drag clamped as tight as 20 pound mono could take. It felt like a 70 pound muskellunge had eaten my 25 pound salmon. I’d had no idea till now how large a thing I was really tied to. Susan ran downstream to warn the next closest fishermen (in the night-fishing legal section of the pool) that my big fish was about the run through their lines. Then there was an awful loss of tension on the line, as though the car I’d been hooked to had just been thrown in reverse. The line was still in motion though – toward the drunk kids Susan had just warned.
I heard a holler from out across the water: “Hey buddy, I got yer line all reeled in. Ain’t no fish on here.”
Could you check again, my good man?
I slumped against the bridge pier, thigh deep in the cold water. I had no words. I could generically say that it was humbling but this wouldn’t do the moment justice. All meaning had drained from life, flowing out of my legs and washing downstream like some heretofore unrecognized existential pollutant. I would diminish into the forest and live as a hermit, never taking up the rod again. The portentous fractured rods Susan had found on the island flashed in shades of red before my eyes. I was deflated but only in the same sense that the Hindenburg had become deflated, the tires of a speeding neer-do-well might become deflated while crossing spike strips deployed across the LA freeway or that a pufferfish becomes deflated when dropped into the barracuda tank. I wasn’t Buzz Lightyear, I was Mrs. Nesbitt.
The rods were immediately disassembled and we left, saying very little and knowing it was over.
I headed for the hotel but found myself in the parking lot of a Burger King. I went in and ordered the kind of meal that never would have made it past Susan’s health check on a regular occasion. It was a deep-fried meal that told the world, in some sense, “I give up.” I was wallowing.
And it was about this time that I remembered Susan’s fortune cookie from the night before: “Don’t take life too seriously. Sometimes you just have to laugh at it.”