In my family, the fishing season opened sometime in April with a phone call from Charley Watkins, who owned the housekeeping cabins on Sebago Lake in Maine. The old guy was quite deaf. He believed he had to yell in order to be heard, and if I was in the room when Dad answered his call, I had no trouble following Charley’s end of the conversation. “SHE’S CRACKED OPEN, MR. TAPPLY,” he would scream as Dad held the phone away from his ear. “ICE WENT OUT THIS MORNIN’. YOU BOYS BETTER GIT YERSELVES ON UP HERE. I GOT A CABIN WAITIN’ FOR YOU.”
Dad would yell, “WE’LL BE THERE FRIDAY NIGHT,” and Charley would scream, “WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY?” Dad would repeat himself, his face growing red, until Charley finally hollered, “WELL, SOMETHIN’S WRONG WITH OUR CONNECTION, BUT I’LL BE EXPECTIN’ YOU AND THE BOYS ON FRIDAY NIGHT, OKAY?”
Dad was the landlocked-salmon Paul Revere, so after he hung up with Charley Watkins, he phoned the alert to Tom Craven and the Putnam brothers and Gorham Cross and his other old fishing partners, and to each of them he gave his own Charley Watkins imitation. “SEBAGO’S CRACKED OPEN. TIME TO GO FISHING AGAIN.” I sat patiently at the kitchen table, and when he’d finished his round of calls, Dad would look at me. “You can come if you want.”
Of course I wanted to go.
Landlocked salmon were legendary gamefish to a young boy, and I knew all about them. Salmo salar sebago, they were called, after the lake where we fished for them and where the rod-and-reel record, a 221/2-pounder, was taken in 1907. These salmon, biologically identical to their anadromous Atlantic brethren, spawned in rivers, but instead of migrating to the ocean, they spent their lives in the cold, clear lakes of Maine. Their main forage was smelt, which were abundant in these waters.
Landlocked-salmon fishing meant trolling smelt-imitation streamers and bucktails with evocative names for a young boy–Gray Ghost, Warden’s Worry, Supervisor, Dark Edson Tiger, Black Nose Dace–over dropoffs along Sebago’s rock-strewn shoreline, around the Dingley Islands, and back and forth across the mouth of the Songo River. We rigged our heavy bamboo fly rods with a Dark Tiger–always a Dark Tiger–on the point of a long leader, with any of a dozen or more classic landlocked patterns for a dropper. Dad claimed that 90 percent of his salmon came to the Tiger, but landing a single salmon was always considered a triumph, so we never caught enough fish to constitute a valid sampling.
Wind, especially if accompanied by a cold rain, made for prime salmon trolling. Such days were, in fact, the norm for southern Maine in mid-April. We would drag short floating lines along the windward shoreline where, according to the theory, the baitfish got blown and churned around by the sloshing surf, making them disoriented and vulnerable to the predatory salmon.
When Sebago lay flat and glassy, we let out an entire sinking fly line, Dad would cut back the motor to its lowest speed, and I would lie back on my bow seat, tilt up my face, and close my eyes to the warmth of the sun. I don’t recall ever getting a strike under such conditions. Those days we’d hope for a four o’clock blow. It was like duck hunting: The worst conditions made the best action. A salmon troller was supposed to welcome misery.
Wind was the key–but not just any wind. We believed utterly in the old New England folklore: When the wind is in the east,
that’s when salmon bite the least.
When the wind is in the north,
that’s when fishermen set not forth.
When the wind is in the west,
that’s when salmon bite the best.
And when the wind is in the south,
it blows the bait to the fish’s mouth.
For the first few hours of the first morning of the new season, regardless of the conditions, I leaned tensely forward in my bow seat, facing back to where my fly line trailled out and disappeared behind the boat. I gripped my rod in both hands, expectant and alert, ready for whatever kind of salmon strike might come–a “tip-dipper” or “rod-bouncer” or “reel-screecher” or any of several subtle variations of each.
But actual strikes were rare, and when my high-strung boy’s anticipation dulled, which it did rather quickly, I carved a trolling stick, wedged it in the gunnels, and rested my rod against it, on the well-documented theory that salmon were most likely to strike when you least expected it. Then I allowed my mind to wander on the hypnotic thrum of Dad’s two-horse Evinrude, and I tried to recall those rare but magical times when my tip had dipped and my rod had bounced and my reel had screeched and behind us a silvery arc had exploded from the gray corrugated water that, only days earlier, had been ice.
When it actually happened, it was always a surprise. The rod bucked against the trolling stick, then bent acutely, and then the reel zizzed, and as I fumbled for it, a salmon leaped far out behind the boat.
Sometimes there was no leap. Then we had a delicious mystery on the end of the line–a “squaretail,” maybe, a genuine native Maine brook trout, which often ran 4 or 5 pounds in Sebago. Or perhaps a togue–a lake trout–which might be even bigger, and which ventured toward the surface only during the first week or two after ice-out. Mostly, though, I remember long, cold, rainy April days on the water in a leaky rowboat with my father. His attention never seemed to wander. When I got restless, he told me stories, and I understood that if you already had a storehouse full of fishing memories, it was easy to pay attention.
“Try twiggling,” he’d tell me. “Give it some action.” And he’d pick up his rod and saw it back and forth awhile, and although I don’t remember ever having a salmon strike when I was holding my rod in my hands, I never doubted the magical properties of twiggling.
It’s been many years since my father and I trolled streamers for landlocked salmon on Sebago Lake. Now, he says, it’s time I took my son to Sebago. Every boy, says Dad, should know what it’s like to have his tip dip and his rod bounce and his reel screech and to see a wild, silvery arc explode from the gray, wind-chopped surface of a big Maine lake.
We’re going to do it. I know that on a cold, rainswept April day, dragging a Gray Ghost and a Dark Edson Tiger tandem off the stern of an old rowboat will still work. If my son’s attention wanders, as it will, of course, I’ll tell him stories from my own storehouse of memories–how old Charley Watkins called every spring to herald the opening of a new fishing season, how Tom Craven and Gorham Cross and the Putnam brothers, my father’s friends, shared their cabin and their stories with me, how they fished all day, then cooked steak and eggs at the woodstove and snored all night.
When the fishing gets slow, I’ll show my boy how to twiggle. These are the important things that a father must pass to his son.