Monday, April 6, 2015

A Few North Country Fish Stories

1 1925TroutWatchHdlineTrout season opened on April 1st, so it seems like a good time to review a few interesting fish tales (and truths) from the North Country’s past. Just like tall tales are an Adirondack tradition, fish stories are told wherever anglers are found. The most common are about the big one that got away, which just about every dedicated fisherman has a version of that includes at least some truth. What follows here are interesting and unusual fish-related stories from the past 90 years.

In 1926, newspapers reported that Alfred Bernard was fishing in the Saranac River when a flash of gold from the riverbed caught his eye. As his bait passed over the same spot, a trout struck, and when Bernard reeled in his catch, he found an eight-inch trout with a gold watch attached. During the strike, the line had caught on the watch fob, which reportedly “bore the coat of arms of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.”

As bass fishermen know, any bass above five pounds is a nice catch. In 1945, one twice that size was taken from Round Lake in Saratoga County. It exceeded the state-record largemouth by more than a pound, but it wasn’t a new rod-and-reel record because it was found floating, having apparently died from some unknown cause. For years among hopeful anglers, the fish had become legendary in the area, generating headlines about a “mysterious monster.” At 30 inches long and 11½ pounds, it more than lived up to the hype.

A pair of great stories happened in 1961. The first took place in Coopersville, a small settlement near the mouth of the Great Chazy River, about fifteen miles north of Plattsburgh. Airman John Evangelisto of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base was fishing with a partner when a storm rolled in. They sought shelter in the car, having already caught a nice supply of pumpkinseeds (sunfish), but Evangelisto employed a bit of ingenuity to continue fishing. After casting his line, he rolled down the window, got in the car, and fished from his seat. Within a few minutes, luck was with him, but when he set the hook, it became clear this was no panfish. It took some doing, but in the end he landed a 22-inch, 15-pound carp that on three-pound-test line gave him the fight of a lifetime.

The second story from 1961 strains credulity, but the Associated Press carried it as far as California newspapers. Tupper Lake resident Frank LaCombe pulled in a wallet while fishing in Horseshoe Lake, and a short time later he was handing it over to the owner, Ralph Milne, also of Tupper Lake. While fishing on the same lake four years earlier, Milne had reached for a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket, and when the cigarettes came out, his wallet did, too. Money, photos, driver’s license, and car keys all disappeared into the depths. The odds of another fisherman hooking onto it would seem astronomical. Milne was shocked, of course, to receive the lost wallet four years later, but even more so when he discovered that the contents remained largely intact. The leather strap tightly wrapped around it had preserved the contents so that even the paper money was in decent shape.

This next one from 1938 seems fitting for April Fools’ Day. Game Protector Stephen Aniolek of Amsterdam was tasked with investigating a most unusual fish that was caught in the Sacandaga Reservoir on rod and reel in front of several witnesses. What, pray tell, would a salt-water channel bass be doing there?

Aniolek eventually cracked the case. The channel bass had been caught somewhere off the eastern seaboard and sent to Amsterdam, where it was featured in a live display. When the exhibition ended, a fisherman with a sense of humor chose his own manner of disposal: attaching it to a fishing line and “catching it” before a shocked audience.

2 1933MonkeyFishThis last item is … well let’s just say it’s interesting. For all the believers out there, it suggests that perhaps Champy is not alone. The story dates from early 1933, and the catch was made while ice fishing in the harbor area at Whitehall on Lake Champlain’s southern tip. It was taken by Henry Farrell, the same man who made headlines five years earlier by catching in the same locale a ten-pound pink salmon. “Nothing of the kind has ever been caught in Lake Champlain before, it is said,” was noted in the Lake Placid Times.

In the category of rare catches, Farrell wasn’t done just yet. The “fish” he caught through the ice five years later was described in the Ticonderoga Sentinel as “about three feet long and four inches in diameter at the largest point, weighing more than fifteen pounds. It has a head resembling a monkey.”

It also had four legs, each about six inches in length. (One would think the presence of legs might preclude using the word “fish” in describing it. But then again, I wasn’t there.) Oh yes … one more thing about this skinny, yard-long, monkey-headed, four-legged fish: “When annoyed, the water animal made a noise like the chatter of a monkey.”

I supposed if it walked like a fish and talked like a fish, it could have been a fish. But rather than play the skeptic, I’ll just point out a few practical facts culled from recent research.

1) Prohibition was still in effect in early 1933.

2) Lake Champlain was a primary smuggling route for illegal booze.

3) Many tons of hooch passed through the village of Whitehall on its way south.

4) Not ALL the booze that reached Whitehall was sent south.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some ice fishermen have imbibed from time to time.

But, hey, it could have been a giant mudpuppy. No tellin’ what you might see in the bottom of a bottle.


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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Just “catching” up on some of these, this is greatly amusing, nicely done Mr. Gooley!

  2. Larry says:

    Thanks Mike. With all the history pieces to research, I like switching to the lighter, entertaining stuff once in a while. I really appreciate the nice comment.

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