“Head out of town, and up the hill, when you see the sign post that has no sign, take a left, go past the gravel pit and just carry on until you come to a yellow gate. Walk in to the snowmobile bridge and from there you can look up and down the river, you can fish either way.” This was a mother-son fly fishing trip, these directions leading us, we hoped, to bountiful fishing waters along the Rangeley River. Plans had been hastily laid for this adventure. I’d looked down the gauntlet of what I knew would be a busy summer (I was running a lobster shack – Luke’s at Tenants Harbor – for the first time), looked at my boy, quickly turning into a man, and realized what he’d been telling me for years: “Mom, you need to come fishing with me.” Last fall, at his insistence, I’d purchased waders in preparation for a trip such as this – until now they’d sat folded in my closet.
Liam had pushed for Grand Lake Stream, where I’d taken him with friends twice before, but it was a four hour drive, and we had just one night, so we’d settled on the Rangeley Lakes region – not quite so far. On the drive up I’d fought the urge to pepper him with the questions I was dying to ask: what about a summer job? What about taking a year off before college? driver’s ed? The hunter’s safety course? This was a fishing trip, I reminded myself, not an interview for adulthood.
Our first stop had been the Rangeley Region Sports where we had met the owners, Brett and Sue Damm. I needed a fishing license; Liam sought flies, and, more importantly, the local knowledge that would yield us the best fishing spots. Liam’s approach was unhurried and earnest; his curiosity genuine.
Liam: “Hi, we’re from Yarmouth,”
Brett: “Well, that’s okay, you can’t help that.X (Smile, wink)
“We’ve just come up for some fishing. I fished here a while ago on the Rapid, but we were hoping to go to the Rangeley today. I’m not too sure where to go in.” Chatter about his trip to the Rapid, what fish he’d caught (I always marveled; he remembered each fish). After a time, I could tell Brett was warming to this young enthusiast and the information followed: “The Magalloway has big fish, Brookies and land locked Salmon, in the Rangeley there’s quite a few Brookies. The Magalloway is a bit of a drive, but the Rangeley is right here.” Liam looked at me. I knew what he was thinking. “We can hit the Magalloway tomorrow, no more driving today,” I answered before he could get the question out. Then out came the map and the directions. We left loaded with local knowledge, a handful of flies, Ben’s 100 (“don’t get this on your hands; it will damage your fly line”) and my first fishing license, folded neatly and tucked into the little plastic baggy.
From the snowmobile bridge on the Rangeley, we scouted the river, dropping in just upstream of the bridge. Liam had rigged everything for me at the car, deftly tying the flies on while I slid into my waders and new wading boots (“Mom, those look great on you, they fit perfectly!”).
Demonstrating how to cast he instructed, “Keep your rod between 10 and 2, keep your finger on the line here, and keep your line tight, always tight before you cast.” Graceful was the word that came to mind as I watched him – he cast easily and nimbly, managing the fishing line with an intuitive sense. The boy of 4 who had stood on our dock, fishing line tangled beyond comprehension, tears of frustration streaming down his face, was long gone. Here was a young man emerging, his 16th birthday bearing down on him.
Liam had come to this unfettered love of fishing on his own – there was no fishing blood in him. And his adoration was indiscriminate: ice fishing, spin fishing, salt water, fresh water, rivers, pools, the smallest tributaries held promise (“Mom, SLOW DOWN so I can see that stream, I bet there’s brookies in there”).
We made our way upstream to the larger pool where several other fishermen had selected their spots and stood casting in the afternoon light. I settled just upstream of Liam, at the edge of the pool. “Mom, just be careful of the trees behind you, it’s easy to catch a fly, remember keep your line tight.” I had the jitters I always get when I try something new, nerves that left me uncoordinated and without logic. I wanted to genuinely enjoy the fishing, this sport my son took such pleasure from, though I knew fly fishing, with its stillness and quiet, was everything I was not. I hurtled through each day, skimming the surface of life, so eager for the next thing that what was in front of me was often lost. Liam knew it too. “Mom, you’re going to have to relax, try not to get impatient,” he had commented on the drive up.
Just downstream of me, Liam cast twice. On his second cast he had a fish. “Mom, come look, it’s beautiful.” I watched my boy reel in that first fish, expertly take his net and scoop the fish, admire it again and then release it. Here’s what I love about what I see: his awe at the beauty of this small brook trout, the care with which he handles the fish, and his instructive narration (“you have to handle them very gently, so many people don’t and then they die when they get released. This is such a beautiful fish, don’t you think Mom?). He is the teacher here, I’m on his ground, and with his joy and enthusiasm it’s impossible not to enjoy the experience.
We fish for several more hours, Liam changed flies a few times (“Mom, when I’m fishing nymphs, I turn over the rocks to see what’s underneath, then I know what the fish might be feeding on, and I can match the flies”). He catches several more brook trout, his enthusiasm never waning. I have no luck with the fish, but can feel from time to time, the start of a rhythm as I cast. “Nice cast Mom, now strip your line, keep it tight. Be careful you’re hitting the trees behind you.”
That night we stay at Hunter Cove Cabins with a view of Rangeley Lake. Liam spends the evening researching tomorrow’s fishing on the Magalloway. When I turn in, he’s rigging the rods. “Mom, set your alarm for 5, I want to get an early start.”
We don’t quite manage 5, but we are up and out early (spotting several moose on our drive to the river). The Magalloway has a much different feel than the Rangeley. It’s louder, for one, with considerable rapids. When we arrive, Liam heads straight down to the first pool he can find and begins casting. I set off down the path to see what it looks like downstream. (“Go scout, Mom, see what you can find!”). I am just learning what to look for – pools out of the current, places where the river opens up, where the water is calmer.
Liam and I fish that river all day, making our way downstream and fishing the pools as we go. He catches brookies, which I help him net from time to time (“Mom, you need to go under the fish when you net it, not from behind”). He is a patient and abiding teacher and never seems to tire of sharing what he knows, the undercurrent of enthusiasm constant. He is willing me, I feel, to find the joy in this sport. In the early afternoon, he catches what he’s been seeking; a salmon. I am just learning to tell the difference between the two fish, but the salmon I know jump when they’re caught, and it’s thrilling to watch him reel it in. “It’s small, but look how beautiful,” the awe never subsiding.
Later in the afternoon, I get my first bite. As inexperienced as I am, I don’t know what to do and the fish gets off. “It’s ok, Mom, just next time you have to reel it in quicker so it can’t get off. Don’t worry, you’ll get one.” To my surprise, I find I really want to catch a fish. I’m disappointed I lost that one. In addition to the fish, I’ve lost 6 flies, taken a hard fall coming across the river (“Mom, are you okay? You have to slow down and be careful!”). What I’ve found, I realize as the day winds down and my disappointment at losing that fish lingers, is an ability to stay with the river, dipping in to life, at least for this day.
When it’s time to head out, we walk back up along the river together, Liam talking excitedly about the salmon he caught and thanking me repeatedly for taking him on this trip. He is unfettered in his appreciation and admiration of my budding fishing skills (“You are so much better then when you started yesterday, your casting, it’s good”). He hasn’t eaten any lunch, despite my offers to get him something throughout the day. As we get underway he turns to me “I’m STARVING,” he says, then like the boy he still is, devours an entire bag of chips and conks out.