“Double Play, Spring Fishing, West Grand Lake,” watercolor, Tom Hennessey ILLUSTRATION BY TOM HENNESSEY

Outdoorsman still struck by the early fishing bug

Editor’s note: Maine outdoorsman, writer and artist Tom Hennessey grew up in Brewer, where he had the Penobscot River at his front door for salmon fishing and game aplenty in the fields and woodlands nearby. His forays inspired fine essays and watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings that have been featured in Down East magazine, Field & Stream, the Bangor Daily News and other publications.

By Tom Hennessey

Steel wool clouds were scrubbing an aluminum sky as Steve Forrest backed the Grand Laker canoe away from his camp dock and swung the bow into a cold northeast wind. Slouched in the forward boat chair of the 20-footer, I scanned the churning sprawl of West Grand Lake and saw only two other boats fishing.

“This is hard to believe,” I said. “Here it is early May . . . prime time for spring fishing . . . the wind’s making a good chop . . . the salmon have been sociable since ice out and there are only a couple of boats in sight.”

“Hard to believe, all right,” Steve replied as we began trolling streamer flies. “Time was when there’d be boats fishing from one end of this lake to the other at this time of year. It’ll be that way next month, though,” he continued, “when the water warms and the bass start hitting. The guides here will tell you their clients now are primarily bass fishermen.” Talk about a cultural shift.

Tom Hennessey

Think about it, though, and it’s really not surprising. West Grand has an abundance of scrappy smallmouth bass that, unlike landlocked salmon, provide steady action from spring through fall. Moreover, bass (smallmouths and largemouths) are the most popular sport fish nationwide. For those reasons and more, including my tackle bag holding boxfuls of bass bugs and fly-rod poppers, no disparagement of bass or bass fishing is cast herein.

Still, having the lake practically to ourselves was a disquieting sign of the declining interest in spring fishing, one of Maine’s most symbolic sporting traditions. Recalling Steve’s words, I thought, time was, all right. But as the saying goes, Father Time always wins. Consequently, the ranks of gray-haired old-timers addicted to trolling for landlocks soon after ice out are thinning. And younger fishermen are showing scant interest in replacing them.

Getting long in the tooth, however, doesn’t stop the die-hards from becoming as excited as kids at Christmas when lakes begin shedding their winter coats. More likely than not, they need reading glasses to thread a leader through the eye of a hook, their balance and agility isn’t what it used to be, and their once-nimble fingers now fumble in tying knots. Nevertheless, they look forward to settling — albeit slowly and carefully — into boats, hoping to arrest hit-and-run salmon. Even though it may mean enduring the extremes of weather common to springtime in this neck of the woods.

Understandably, the old-timers grow tired of being asked why they don’t give up spring fishing, not to mention being told that they should. Their answers, therefore, may be terse and pointed with adages such as, “There’s no fool like an old fool,” or, “Old habits die hard.” In other words, spring fishing keeps a tight line on the people, places and times they remember as the best of times.

To wit, when the term fly fishing meant trolling streamers, brook trout were called “squaretails,” raingear was rubberized and boats and canoes were ribbed and planked and covered with canvas.

Furthermore, the spring-fishing stalwarts have as many tricks and tactics for catching fish as they have “Gray Ghosts” in their fly books. Among them: Tying streamers slim and trim, with feathers and buck-tail strands extending only slightly beyond the bend of the hooks, thus reducing the chances of fish “taking short”; working the rod back and forth to make the flies dart like spooked smelts in a chop that’s as good as gets, whatever that is.

If not definitive, the endless discussions, contentions and descriptions of a “good chop” are entertaining to say the least. Including when the lake is wrinkled with tall ripples, or frothy with rolling whitecaps, or when it’s rough enough to see daylight under the boat.

Like all traditions, spring fishing creates touchstones, talismans and superstitions. Think about refusing to part with the lucky oft-darned wool socks that were old a long time ago. Or, insisting on fishing off the left side of the boat. And what’s luckier than a faded, shapeless fly-tattered hat stained with sweat and saturated with the smell of Old Woodsman insect repellant?

The same goes for always fishing first with, say, an unraveling “Nine-Three” streamer that salmon can’t resist hitting with all their fins at full throttle. As for superstition, how about believing that rods and reels with even model numbers are jinxed. Likewise, clinch knots tied with even wraps.

Though time will tarnish some of the memories gathered while spring fishing, others will never lose their luster. Like big fish caught and lost, for instance. Or “feeding frenzies” when smelts spilled from the mouths of salmon netted and boated. And so it went. Fishing and wondering why the long-cherished tradition of spring fishing was declining.

The day was nearly an hour older when a salmon swirled and struck Steve’s “AAA Special” fly, giving his rod a severe case of the bends. Silvery and scrappy, the healthy landlock measured nearly 18 inches on the ruled net handle. Until then I was beginning to think the typically fickle salmon had shut off, a curse part and parcel to spring fishing. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case on that recent prime-time morning.

After two more salmon swatted the AAA Special, I clipped off my streamer, a productive pattern — until then, at least —that I tied and named, “The Predator,” a few years ago. It was replaced with another AAA Special plucked from Steve’s fly box.

Suffice it to say that my piscatorial pleasure increased forthwith. All told, we caught 10 landlocks, measuring from 15-inchers to strong 18-inchers. All of which hit hard and fought harder. Three were kept for traditional spring feeds of salmon and fiddleheads. The others were acquitted of their folly and released.

Sunlight spilled from a shredded canopy of cloud as we reeled in and set a course for the warmth of the camp and a meaningful refreshment. On the way I admired the classic Grand Laker built by Steve. Admittedly, fishing from it makes me feel like a fisherman, or at least look like one from a distance. In scanning the lake once more, though, I was disturbed again by the absence of boats on the storied fishing ground for landlocked salmon. Little did I know that a few nights later I would be taken aback by a similar occurrence.

A fog of cold drizzle shrouded the Penobscot River as, toting a smelt net and bucket, I followed the shine of my flashlight along a woods path obstructed by blowdowns. On arriving at a brook rushing to get to the river, I stopped and stared incredulously at what I saw and didn’t see: Boosted by the incoming tide, smelts were splashing and scooting over a shrinking falls — but there wasn’t another soul in sight.

When one dip netted more smelts than the one-quart limit, I filled the bucket to the legal mark with a few handfuls taken from the net. Afterward I lingered and watched the spectacle of Mother Nature’s smelt factory running at full production. Eventually, chilled by the drizzle and dropping temperature, I hurried toward my truck wondering if other smelters had been discouraged by the weather and the late-night tide. Then, thinking aloud, “Back when I was having growing pains flashlights blinked and bobbed like fireflies along this brook, regardless of weather and late tides.”

Obviously a lot of years have passed since then, and the progressive aches and pains I feel now are aggravated by not being able to blow out all of the candles on my birthday cake. Clearly, the so-called “golden years” tarnish quickly. But I’m not going to forfeit ambrosial meals of fried smelts and fiddleheads by giving up on dipping “a mess” of the tasty fish on soggy spring nights. Nor am I about to forgo savory salmon dinners by letting go of spring fishing on wind-churned lakes soon after ice out.

Tradition is a tyrant.