Jan 10, 2013

Aroostook County

Photo: Sam Bouret

My first true fishing adventure happened while I was still young enough to be wearing short shorts and knee-high, striped cotton socks.  I was up in the North Country - Aroostook County, Maine - with my family visiting my granddad, who still lived in the small town where my mother was born along the border with New Brunswick.

At the time, Granddad was only a handful of years from attending his own burial.  Looking back, maybe youth alone allowed me to overlook this, for although he still shuffled into daily rituals, like eating a big dinner at lunchtime while reading the Bangor Daily at the small kitchen table, his demeanor rarely strayed far from that of a man welcoming the end or rather, someone indifferent to the trail leading there.  Like he had already put on his Sunday’s best, interlocked his large hands across his belly, and simply waited.

It was always the same greeting when my mother, and my younger brother and I stepped into his home.  A smile, yes, but not lingering after releasing his arms from our little shoulders.   Then it wasn’t much from there on.  No conversations, no stories or sitting on his lap.  Maybe a good morning, but nothing about afternoon or night being noticeably good.    

I remember one time my younger brother and I stripped down to our underwear and we pranced around the living room like two amateur clowns trying to get his attention, but to no avail.  It was like we weren’t even there.  Maybe it is that he had little room left inside; that his past had proved too greedy.  Or perhaps the opportunity to act otherwise had not yet risen.

When I discovered fishing on the coast of Maine as a boy, my mother bought me a pole, not a rod but a pole, from Kmart.  I also bought some shiny jigs and Red Devils – as many as my allowance would allow – to flip into the ocean for Mackerel.  This was the beginning.  Biking down route 88 to the Town Landing dock to jig for fish on an incoming tide with a shaggy crew all sitting on their bait pails with their few inches of rear end crack smiling, was the perfect recipe and perhaps the only one available to me at the time.  Sometimes I would offer up my catch so they could bait their hooks and feed the hovering, squawking gulls who looked at you sideways before snatching.  But in the early days of my fishing, these salty dogs on the blood stained dock were my only companions. 

Not to say that my older brother didn’t fish, because he did.  Granddad taught him.  When older brother slipped into the world, eight whole years ahead of me, a bond was built between them.  There were plenty of years before younger brother and I came along for them to become close.  And from what my mother and older brother tell me, Granddad was a renowned Atlantic Salmon fly angler who spent much of his earlier years on Canadian rivers such as the Miramichi and the Restigouche as well as stalking brook trout throughout northern Maine and the Allagash waterway to the south.  However, older brother would be his only fly fishing pupil in our family, and for years, my older brother marked the end of this furthering family knowledge.

This was because, much like granddad was to me, so too, was older brother.  Distant.  A body.  A blood relative, but our worlds rarely overlapping.  In my early days, I didn’t see older brother very often and sometimes it felt like never.  If he was home, I remember him being down in his room in our damp basement doing private things reserved only for older people.  Other early memories I have of older brother are of him giving me a wedgies in front of his laughing friends and hoisting me up all the way up until my head hit the living room ceiling.  And another: when older brother was playing in a high school football game and he was going for a tackle and the person he was trying to tackle ran out of bounds and knocked me clear out as I was standing on the sidelines watching the play unfurl.

But perhaps this first real fishing adventure that I want to mention marked the beginning of sharper memories that I have of older brother and a building admiration.  Thankfully, I now have too many to list and when I think of it, I think the birth of such authenticity began in northern Maine on a fishing trip a long time ago. 
It happened one summer when we all drove north to see granddad.  Aside from Granddads funeral, this was the only time when mother, younger brother, myself and older brother all traveled together for a visit.  One particular night during our stay, the door opened.  Just a crack.  But the mat said welcome, so I opened it just enough to peek inside, and what I saw in there were two unfamiliar lives pouring out across the kitchen table, so I took my seat.   It became apparent, as I listened to Granddad and older brother talking about various trout flies that I was a tangible audience member.  Granddad had an old metal fly box – one of the ones with the clips on the interior - open, and older brother was picking at the flies, holding them up and asking, What about this one?  And, Umm, I like this one, did you tie that?  For a while I just watched and listened but then I even asked granddad a question and his head turned smiling, telling me that he had tied that fly with the hair of a deer he shot.  Not only was I a fan, but I think that marked the point where I actually stepped onto the playing field in their lives, because not long after, older brother asked if I would like to go fishing to which I answered, undoubtedly yes.  At which point I headed to the backyard to dig for worms.

The following morning, we all three felt the young sun’s rays come through the windshield of Granddad’s 21 foot long, lime green Buick LeSabre as he drove older brother and I down a pot-holed dirt road.  We weren’t getting anywhere very fast.  It had been over an hour since we ran out of pavement and granddad’s speedometer seemed stuck on 10.  I wanted to fish, but for all I cared, that ride could have lasted all day, out there bouncing ever so slowly through the dense Maine woods with my older brother, whose name is actually Pat and my granddad whose name is Dr. O’Neal Labbe, both there in the front seat going over directions, and me scooching forward in the back so as to hear every passing word. 

Eventually, O’Neal brought the car to a stop and said this was the spot.  He was not going to be joining us, but he said that he would meet us at the pickup spot later that evening.  Pat and I stepped from the car and I stared off into the forest.  A few minutes later, we had our gear and we waved goodbye to O’Neal as he turned the Buick around and then, drove away down the road. 

We walked between pine trunks with their needles slouching and tight groves of birch with its bark peeling, atop a floor of spent life and new with a feeling that, There’s just something about walking in the woods.  I wonder if there ever is a place where life is more evident, sprouting and saying, No you don’t gravity as it reaches into sky.  And the immediacy of it all, where distant horizons are far more distant; lost, left for distant eyes.  I like to think that walking with Pat that particular day was like walking in a painting, with a Happy Little Tree here and a Happy Little Tree there and all over are Happy Little Trees because my eyes made them that way.  And the painting, it smells.  A forest would give itself away to the blind with only an inhale.  But then, there was just something about walking into the woods, with my brother Pat for the first time.  To be with Pat was very likely the best part about walking in the woods that particular morning.

The brook was 30 feet at its widest point.  We had to bust through a dense willow thicket just to see it.  The black flies began their assault, which would last the day long. 

I had my pole with me and Pat had his fly rod.  Before I knew it, we were both waist deep in the cool, meandering flow at which point, Pat started casting his fly downriver while I pulled out a worm from my small Tupperware and began torturing it.  It was the first time I saw someone fly fishing.  Pat had a concentrated look with both his lips curled inward into his mouth as he waved his arm back and forth, curling his fly line back and forth in the air, and I’d be lying if I said something didn’t come out of the water and eat his little deer hair-tied fly almost exactly when it landed. 

It was a fish.  There’s one, Pat said.  What is it? I asked.  Yep, a little Brookie, Pat said as he busted its neck backwards and stuffed it into his LL Bean, forest green creel.  That was the first Brook Trout I ever saw.  Smaller than most Mackerel I had caught but awfully pretty, and the way it wiggled around after ambushing that fly left me anxious to give it a try.  After all, I had a pole here and there were fish here.  And besides, I wanted to show Pat that I could catch them too.

I was on the right side of the river, Pat on the left and before I could cast out my worm Pat’s fly landed only a few feet downstream of me and another fish ate it.  Oooh, there he is, Pat said.  You know Mike, he said looking at me, Sometimes they are close in.  Yes I know, I said.  And then he said, I’m just saying Mike; you want to fish the water in front of you before casting too far.  And so I said, How do I do that, when you are already fishing it?  And then he busted out laughing, reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a Copenhagen chew can.  Don’t ever do this stuff Mike.  It’s bad for you, he said.

For hours we walked the brook side by side, him on the left and me on the right, both casting - me flipping by bail and then flinging my worm bait downstream before me.  In places it grew too deep, neck deep, so if my side of the brook got like that, I would wade over to Pat’s side and walk down behind him, and vice versa.  A couple times I hooked them while wading behind him, and he would say, Huh, I just fished there.  And I would smile when I handed the fish to him after I broke its neck. 

At times he got to asking me about Mackerel fishing and if I liked girls.  At times I got to asking him about Friday nights, to which he replied that he and his friends went bowling a lot, but something about the way he said it begged more questions.

The sun was still high but lazily falling overhead when we heard the crashing sound of something large coming through the thicket.  Not the sound of a ground squirrel, or a little flitting bird, or even a coyote or beaver.  No, this thing, whatever it was, was moving a lot of growth with every step.  We both froze, seemingly paralyzed, and my heart started thumping real hard, but Pat’s might have been going even faster from the look on his face.  Maybe it was just a moose; we were in serious moose country after all. 

And then there was another loud crackling sound followed by the sound of a gigantic splash.  Whatever it was, it was in the water with us now, no more than 20 or 30 yards away just around the next corner.  Looking at Pat, I saw him unclip his Bowie knife from his hip and clench it in his fist, holding the knife shoulder level with the blade pointing down.  Slowly, he crept his way downstream to look around the thicket and when he got far enough to see, I noticed the look of terror on his face as he hopped back upstream silently, but with the pace of a man who could very likely become prey at any moment. 

Bear he whispered.  And then he looked me dead in my little eyes and whispered, Do you think I could kill it?  So I pictured him and the bear in a wrestling match.  What I saw did not look good, but after only a second or two I told him that I thought he could if he had to. 

Eventually we heard the bear make off into the woods, but it was a very long, eventually.  Locked inside those moments, we stood together, as brothers, waiting.  Me with my hands at my sides and Pat with his fists and gripping a knife.  After the sound of the bear in the woods faded away, we started wading softly down the brook, whispering, and still wiping black flies from our foreheads.

From that point on, something had changed between us.  Both of us seemingly more comfortable with one another, joined by a stronger thread.  As we made our way downstream, I continued to fish, but my thoughts drifted to this man beside me and to the man who had dropped us here; to this exact spot where his own father had dropped him many years before.  And it hit me that we were walking with O’Neal, in his tracks through these woods.

In dusk, we spied the Buick on the side of the road and the man inside waiting.  Pat opened the passenger door and O’Neal jerked his head, waking from a nap.  He looked at Pat with anticipation and Pat held up his bulging creel and said, Well, we got them Granddad.  My feet hurt and hunger fought fatigue for attention, but I noticed him smile and the deep cracks in his cheek made me think of an atlas map.

I forgot to mention that O’Neal used to call me Michelle.  French for Michael.  I never liked it very much, but I don’t think I took offense as we both stood there before a sink-full of brook trout, and his hands, they moved with a deft clarity.

He was saying, Ok Michelle, after you cut and you pull the guts out like this, it’s best to take your thumb nail and run it along the spine.  

Story by: Duffy
Posted by: The Gorge Fly Shop


  1. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Love it Mike! Jack here.

    I feel like I was there. I love the part about Pat reaching into his pocket for the Copenhagen chew can, saying "Don’t ever do this stuff Mike. It’s bad for you." How many times have I heard similar things from Pat about the Vices in life we all have enjoyed indulging in (including him)? Love you guys.

    Great writing!


  3. Thanks all. This trip was certainly a turning point for a few reasons! Jack, so good to hear from you, and yes, that is one of his classic moves!


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