Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Telling of Tales




There’s an art to the telling of tales. Some are good at it, and others struggle. Down Mainers seem to be born to it, at least a lot of the ones I’ve met have been. I knew one that could tell a tale that would suck me in with details that just had to be true. Of course, we both lived and worked down in the Caribbean back then, and we’d be sitting at a bar while I listened, so perhaps a beer or two had just made me more gullible. So often those stories had a ridiculous ending, while he wore a deadpan look on his face and me feeling very foolish for having believed any of it.
As a young pup, if the teller wore a belt knife and wool, I believed. At eighteen years old, on my first canoe trip on the Allagash River, which is deep in the north Maine woods, my friend and I spent a night camped near an old geezer and his wife. He claimed to be a registered Maine Guide, had a belt knife and wore wool, and certainly had stories. We sat around his campfire and listened for hours. His wife sat quietly and patiently smiled, probably having heard the same stories a million times.
One story had him picking blueberries with friends and they startled a bear, which of course started to chase him. The bear wouldn’t quit, chasing them up a hill, across a valley, swam lengthwise down a small lake after them, pursued them up over a small mountain, and through an enormous cedar swamp. Eventually, they came to a frozen stream that they jumped over, but when the bear hit the ice it slid and knocked itself unconscious, which was when they made their lucky escape.
I asked how come there was ice during the blueberry season. My clear lack of intelligence caused him to give me a startled look, and he said, “Well, it chased us cle-ah to Decem-bah.”
The other thing I remember about that campsite was that some joker had fastened an outlet box to the base of a tree. A wire came out the bottom and disappeared into the ground. Of course we were fifty miles from the nearest roadside electricity, so we knew it had to be a joke, but we all wished we had something with us to plug in, just to make sure.
A friend’s uncle, from down in Stockton Springs, Maine, took me on my first deer hunt. He had loads of old guns, a real smokehouse out back, and traps hanging on the wall of his shed. How can anyone beat those credentials? I would have believed anything he told me, but, like many Mainers, he wasn’t particularly talkative.
We knew better than to chatter away when visiting him. If we did, he always found a reason to leave the room. He was of the “children should be seen and not heard” school, even if we considered ourselves young men. One time, he and another old Mainer took us out fishing on Penobscot Bay. The two of them mumbled on in their colorful accents, chatting about who died, who got married, what so-and-so’s son had done, the striped bass in the bay, and the coming deer season. I don’t think my friend or I said ten words the whole day.
There is a huge difference between telling a story and offering advice. Usually the ones quickest with the advice have the least of value to give. Old timers, with years of accumulated wisdom, often weave the two together, and, without realizing it, you get sage guidance while being entertained.
The majority of the old timers I knew were deer hunters, and I never knew many really old bird hunters. Most of what I learned came from reading. Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield were all a big part of my early life. Gene Hill, Ed Zern, Jack O’Connor, George Bird Evans, William Tapply, all shaped who I am.  It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the greatest story tellers, Burton Spiller and, my favorite, William Harnden Foster.
There is one elderly bird hunter that I see with some regularity, a gentleman from Vermont. His days in the woods were sadly finished a couple of years ago. Most of his life he worked in the woods for a paper company, running logging operations, and for a handful of years was my boss. I remember him as a man who strode easily through the forest with a long stride, and it is tough to watch him struggling to stand while leaning on a cane.
But his eyes light up when the subject turns to grouse or woodcock. We talk about dogs and old doubles and seasons past. He always was an Ithaca fan and sometimes he drags one out to show me again. The old stories get told once more, frequently with the details rearranged, but I listen and smile, and often learn another tidbit or two.
And I always leave with the promise of returning with stories of my own hunts.
So we hunt, and hunt hard, climbing steep clear cuts and crossing swamps, looking for that illusive covert that nobody else has ever found. I want to have some grand stories to tell and relive when the day comes that I’m stuck in a chair. And maybe I’ll find someone to listen.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Trout Fishing


My desk.

I’m a lousy trout fisherman. By that, I mean everybody usually catches more fish than me. But I love it. I love the rhythms of fly casting and the history of the sport. It is a great way to pass the time between bird seasons.
My bookshelves are lined with volumes of fishing literature, and I’ve read every one, some many times. I can spend hours at my fly tying desk and enjoy every minute of it. A few years ago I built myself a fly tying desk, with stacked shallow cedar-lined drawers, which are now filled with every imaginable fly tying material.
More than a few of my flies are tied with feathers from ruffed grouse or woodcock. The colors look buggy to me, and apparently to a few of the fish too. Soft hackle wets can be tied from grouse hackles, and woodcock feathers make great wing cases on nymphs.
The old traditional wet flies, like Parmachene Belle, Tomah Jo, Coachman, Montreal, and White Miller, are all favorites of mine and I fish them all. Sometimes brookies are still fooled by the bright colors, but they seem to have gotten smarter in the bigger streams.
Where's the trout?
More than a few rainbows have been fooled by those Tomah Jos, but the wood duck flank feathers needed are hard to come by. Just looking at those beautiful feathers is half the fun of those flies. Did I mention that I have tied hundreds of Atlantic salmon flies and stored them in a large Wheatley box? And I’ve never been salmon fishing. I just like pretty flies.
Sylvester Nemes’s soft hackle wets catch more fish for me than most wets or nymphs, and some of the patterns even call for partridge, like the Partridge and Green. That makes my heart smile.
My fly boxes are filled with traditional streamers, from Black Ghost to Grey Ghost, and Edson Tigers to Warden’s Worry, almost all the patterns originating in my New England. The only thing I’ve ever caught on a Muddler Minnow is the back of my head. Actually, the Black Ghost is about the only streamer that I have much faith in. And it had better be tied on a number ten or smaller.
Adams, Wulffs, Royal Coachman, and a down-wing fly I call the Red Tag Coachman are the dry flies in my vest. In a box that stays in my fishing duffle, are hundreds of dries that I tied over the years, tied just as Art Flick would have taught, and they sure are pretty to look at. Once in a great while I dig through them, but usually, if the fish are rising, it’s those simple flies in my vest that I use. And most of the time they work well enough to keep me fishing.
I’m stuck in the old ways I guess, which may explain why others catch more than me. But fun in fishing isn’t measured in numbers of fish caught.
The thing I love most about trout fishing is the country. I’d rather fish a hidden stream, way back in the woods, than a crowded popular river any day, even if that secret stream rarely produces a fish while the popular one is loaded with trout.
Spring grouse.
And so often on the hike in, I’ll scare up a grouse, which of course both startles and delights me. Or sometimes a woodcock will flutter ahead, paralleling the stream bank before disappearing into the forest, giving me another place to return to hunt in the fall.
Maybe trout fishing for me is just prospecting for grouse and woodcock.