Wednesday, February 20, 2019

My First Trout and The Rainmakers

My advice to nine-year-old wanna-be trout anglers is: “Do not wear a sweater.” Repeat: “Do not wear a sweater.”

My earliest trout fishing days in and around Bakers Mills in today’s Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area were frustrating because my own fishhook invariably caught mainly my sweater. And we mostly used night crawlers not artificial flies then. Better to wear something less adept at snagging stray hooks. Try thick vinyl, maybe.

I was considered too young to carry a knife of my own. To resume fishing once I snagged my own sweater, I had to plead with Cub Schaefer to stop fishing long enough to come cut my hook out. This could happen four or five times in a day’s fishing. It happened around Bakers Mills, and it happened in the High Peaks. For purposes of fishing, you might as well be that archetypal snake with its tail in its mouth as have your barbed fishhook firmly fixed to your own sweater.

One of the mysteries of my youth is: Why did I always have to depend on Cub for this? It was my older brother Matt on whom I depended for most other aspects of life support — physical, moral, and psychic — whenever we were away from the cabin and our parents. Without Matt I would not have been allowed to go on the trips. Maybe Matt carried only nail clippers, for snipping leaders or snelled hooks. Matt knew that Cub, always our equipment expert in those days, had The Knife. Matt was already a fly-tying, certified fly fisherman not above using nightcrawlers. For whatever reason, I had to wait for Cub to cut hooks out.

That was tough, too. Not that I was particularly impatient, but Cub was the most single-minded angler I’ve ever met east of the Mississippi River. Later, as I reached the age of declining idol worship, I realized Cub’s singular focus was not so much the fishing as a gestalt but his irrepressible drive to get to the next fishing hole first. Fishing small streams for trout comes down to addressing the stream’s most likely pools while they are yet undisturbed. This is especially true when the potential for disturbance is six boys, all but one under thirteen years old. Optimal pools for trout may be some distance apart on small Adirondack streams. If you can hit all the optimal pools first, before anybody else in your group wets a worm in them … well, that’s how you up the chance of catching your limit. And catching your limit — 10 trout — was the ne plus ultra.

“I caught my limit.” Ten trout. I never got to say that magic four-word sentence east of the Hundredth Meridian until I was 14 years old.

I was seven years old when I caught my first trout. Paul Schaefer set the whole experience up, including holding Cub at bay while I got first crack at the optimal pool. Over subsequent years and years of fishing from our base at Mateskared, I was to realize Paul had set me up with one of the best pools in our entire topographic quadrangle, the pool at the base of Bog Meadow Falls on Round Pond Brook. Round Pond Brook drained what was to become the center of my psychic universe, the falls’ namesake Bog Meadow, an intermittent beaver pond.

I was using the telescope rod Paul sent me for Christmas the previous winter. You can imagine my sense of anticipation — seven months’ worth by August. Maybe the beaver had Bog Meadow at an unfishable water level for a seven-year-old. I don’t know. But Paul didn’t have me fish there. Bog Meadow is three and a half miles in from Paul’s former log cabin off Edwards Hill Road out of Bakers Mills.

In those days we picked up the trail at his cabin, which meant walking more than a half mile down the road and then back in to his cabin — none of this toward Bog Meadow — before we hit the trail beyond his cabin. On this, my first-trout day, we continued on the trail around the perimeter of Bog Meadow and headed down toward the Second Pond Flow. A mile or so below Bog Meadow, Paul led us bushwhacking through the woods to the waterfall.

Paul positioned me at the base of the pool and told me to cast to its head, just shy of where the falls broke the pool surface and raised their white froth that rode this water pooling dark with the tannins of tree barks. I hurled my night crawler there. The line began to sink. Then it took to a steady straightening.

“Set the hook, Eddie,” Paul quietly coached me.

Via the metal of a kid’s first telescope fly rod, a primal communication of sheer sensitivity surged between the fighting action of my first trout and the hands and forearm of yet another scion of Izaak Walton. As I worked the trout toward shore I might as well have been the one in the water. This was a baptism, total immersion, an initiation not unlike the one that lay five years in my future in a church.

The real hook is set in the angler by that first trout.

This quasi-religious ritual, appropriately involves fish although not symbolically but actually. Cub witnessed this in full, no doubt covetously. He still stood where Paul had placed him, looking down from atop the fifteen-foot waterfall. The instant I had my trout beached, Cub unleashed his worm toward the pool’s tannin-dark water. No matter: I was hopelessly transfixed.

One summer, any day all six of us kids managed to go off fishing together it always, always rained. We got rained on so consistently as a full group we called ourselves “The Rainmakers.” If one or more of our total group couldn’t go, however, it wouldn’t rain. Hankering after first shot at the optimal trout pools were Cub, Matt, me, Johnny Hitchcock, Tommy Taylor, and Tommy Sennet. The two Tommy’s were Schaefer family friends from Schenectady. Johnny is the son of Howard and Betty Hitchcock, who lived then in the next place below Harold and Pansy Allen’s place on Edwards Hill Road. Matt would’ve been 15, Johnny maybe 13, Cub and the two Tommy’s 11 or so.

By summer’s end I’d had so many hooks cut out of my poor sweater I looked like a street urchin out of Charles Dickens. I probably smelled like an urchin from the fish markets — I did catch fish on most trips.

“Doesn’t Eddie look happy this summer?”

“Yes, fishing with the older kids has done wonders for him, but it is a shame he can’t wear nicer clothes. Just look at that sweater!”

When in later years I took our sons Justin and Eric back to these scenes of the Rainmakers’ greatest piscatorial glory, I have been astounded at how small some of those streams are. The Rainmakers used to fish Cold Spring Brook down Edwards Hill Road behind Daisy and Earl Allen’s former place.

One time as we hiked through the tall grassy meadow of its flat, open floodplain — or perhaps one-time beaver meadow — Cub relocated the stream by stepping in it nearly up to his hip. Cub never saw it before he was in it. The brook was barely wider than the length of his foot, which even then suggested he’d end up more than six feet tall like his father Paul. Tall grasses had flopped over to obscure the channel from sight. But the stream was down-cut a couple feet into the turf and soil. The Rainmakers pulled five or six nice brook trout, seven to nine inches long, out of a stretch of stream so narrow only a pack of kids would bother trying to work their worms into it.

Illustration of Brook Trout courtesy Paul Smith’s College.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

5 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    Ed, you are a great writer. I sensed standing next to you and your excitement in your first catch at the waterfall !

    Thanks for the journey on this frigid day!

  2. James Marco says:

    Nice story! Yes, I remember my first brookie. He was huge! (all of 9 inches.) He fought like the dickins for an hour! (he came in in about a minute.) I cooked him over an open fire and ate him right there. (I took him home and my grandmother fried him with a couple fresh eggs.) Yup! I remember my first brookie. I can sympathize about your sweater. I used to clip the line and leave the hook, rather than trying to work it out of the fabric…

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Beautiful Ed. Such a universal North Country experience for any boy at camp. Thanks.

  4. David Gibson says:

    How I’d wished to have known Cub Schaefer and his dad Paul in those days…and
    how grateful I’m to know you in these! Thanks, Ed. It’s still a big country (wilderness) out there and glad you and the rainmakers managed to climb in and out of it each August. Keep ’em coming, and biting !

  5. Greg Schaefer says:

    Thanks for sharing another Cub story. He was another Schaefer original!

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