Wednesday, August 21, 2013


    All my life I’ve been haunted by waters, by fish lost.  

Photo by Matt Reilly
It’s our very nature as humans to try and quantify the world around us—science in its most primitive form.  Thus, it is the habit of fishermen to yearn for understanding of the underwater worlds they frequent, to try to place limitations on that which they cannot see.  It’s no surprise, then, that when a fish of unexplained origin or unheard of proportions reveals himself to us, only to slip from our grasp, that we are haunted by its very existence—the wonder and the allure of the unknown.

    The fish that most effectively taught me this lesson inhabits a large glacial pond in the Northeast Kingdom.  On a bluebird day, boaters slice the water’s surface toting tubers and excited passengers; and swimmers clog the fishing access from mid-morning to sunset.  Houses and cabins line the shorelines.  A gravel road winds in amongst them, around the pond, and slides 1000 feet down the mountain to the base of Mount Pisgah, into a town just as cheery as the summer scene above it.

    Pushing upward, past the pond, towards the mountain’s peak, there sits back in the hemlock and spruce trees a log cabin, my grandparents’—a B&B they adapted after selling a larger establishment in town.  I was staying there for the month of July, when, except for my daily duty to the woodshed, I was free to explore and fish the surrounding woods and waters.

    It was on one such bluebird day—the kind with the boaters and the swimmers, when the air smells pure and flows freely through your lungs—that I decided to spend the afternoon on the larger pond chasing smallmouth.

    I included my younger brother in the ritual, lugging paddles, vests, rods, tackle—all essentials down the short dirt road to the cabin where our aluminum canoe was tied to a paper birch, bobbing in the wake of the boats, tugging at the rope to be set free.

    When we had filled the canoe and untied the rope, I put my brother on course towards the southern shoreline, and paddled into a gentle breeze.

    The pond’s bed dropped out from beneath us for the length of the trip, carved by ancient glaciers and since filled with cool spring water, but recovered again into a wide, rocky flat when we reached our destination.

    Casts in all directions provoked strikes; and the medium-sized, energized bass, grown strong on the abundant minnows and leeches, rattled our light tackle for excitement that lasted hours.

    Evidently we should have taken food, because our stomachs bottomed out before the fishing did.  So, after turning the bow towards the tie-up, I dropped a small spinner 60 feet behind the canoe and rested my rod perpendicular to our course to try some trolling on the return trip as an extension of the day’s fishing.
We settled into a paddling rhythm fairly quickly, but slowed the pace when we passed over deeper water to make trolling the most effective.

    My mind occupied itself recalling the contours of the bottom from a map studied earlier in my stay, but was interrupted by my brother’s probing question:  “Do fish really even swim out here in the mid—“
The aluminum of our vessel rattled.   My reel lodged firmly in the thwart, angled back.  Conversation was ended abruptly.  Our forward progress tapered quickly, as the monofilament protruding into the depths stretched.

    We were moving slightly backwards by the time I grabbed the rod.  It throbbed, powerfully, and any doubt of life on the other end was eliminated.

    The first few moments of the fight consisted of using the canoe as a drag system as I held onto a steadily pulsing rod, bent double over the stern.  Soon though, my opponent gained height in the water column, and flanked us to the left, into open water.  There the fish remained again, rolling, until finally feeling a particularly violent bout of desperation.

    The line sliced towards the surface, guided by an unidentified ball of energy.  When it broke the surface, it was a bony head that then dove again, propelled by a double-jointed green tail, splashing water with each stroke.

    It was headed towards us when it dove, and I could then feel a slight relaxing in the pressure as the end of the line made steady progress towards the surface.  Staring over the side of the canoe, into the depths, anticipation bubbled in my face. 

    Just then, a hint of a golden flash broke the darkness for an instant as pressure lessened on the rod.  But in a last effort to evade comprehension, the Unknown freed the hook from its jaws, and dashed tragically back to into the rocky abyss.

    The canoe continued to rock for several moments, as I sat in silence, contemplating, trying to grasp my loss and what had just transpired.

    Solemnly, I inquired to my brother in the bow, allowing me my time, “How big, you think?”  After a thoughtful glance at the paddle in his lap, he placed a fist around the paddle, several inches up from the blade, and held it up.

    “You too, huh?,” I returned.

    Though disappointed, and deeply heart-wrenched at losing what I was relatively sure was a northern pike—a reclusive species for that region, and a fish not known by biologists to inhabit the pond—I was filled with a warm sort of appreciation for the mystery the world had spared me the answer to, and a thankfulness for the opportunity to brush paths with such a creature from another world, if only for a moment.  In that, wonder is a fickle beast—its quest is for answers, but their acquisition is the ruin of it. 

No comments :