It is a bit of a gamble, declaring the last Saturday in April to be Opening Day at Fish in a Barrel Pond. Not only is it possible that the pond could still be covered with ice, there is also the chance that the cottages will not be accessible or have no running water due to frozen water lines. It is a mad scramble to get things up and running once the thaw sets in.
Some members of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society clear their calendars months in advance, flat-out lying if necessary, to be here for the first day of fishing and the celebration that comes with it. They all know that Mother Nature has the final say but the possibility of postponement is not an option for me. I must plug away as if nothing could possibly go wrong even if it means I am still patching pipes as the last of the lake ice disappears with mere hours to spare.
They trickle in on Friday, well aware that check-in time is 4:00 but arriving pretty much whenever the hell they feel like it. I am ready early, though, with a fire in every wood-stove, boats at every dock and flags flying from the tall white pole in front of the lodge.
As I greet them with handshakes and hugs, the members of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society say things like, “Great to see you, Quill! Made it through another winter, eh? Stop by later for a beer and I’ll tell you about my trip to New Zealand. I got into a brown trout that spooled me!” (When a fish, due to its size and speed or your inadequate equipment, strips all the line and backing from your fly reel, you have been spooled.)
As the afternoon progresses I am invited to stop over later for beers, scotch, rum and wine to hear tales of brown trout, tarpon, bonefish and snook caught in Chile, Cuba and the Bahamas but, no matter what exotic locales these guys have fished over the winter, they all agree it is good to be back at Fish in a Barrel Pond.
They look surprisingly chipper in the morning, considering the amount of drinking done the night before and, when the first ray of sun hits the tall pines on top of Nonesuch Mountain and I shout, “Shut up and fish!” they do.
They cast Yellow Sallies, Silver Doctors, Mickey Finns and Grey Ghosts. They cast Wooly Buggers, March Browns and Wee Wets. Streamers, nymphs, emergers and dry flies all take trout and after a couple of hours in which hundreds of fish are caught (but not kept) it is time for breakfast and I make my rounds, mooching coffee and bacon while I listen to more stories. But I hear more than just stories as I go from place to place.
I hear things like – and I’m paraphrasing here – “Quill, the six of us ate that two-gallon batch of chili last night. It was delicious. You should have stayed and had some. Any way, we’re out of paper and the toilet is clogged. Don’t know what happened.”
Or “Quill, my anchor line wasn’t tied off and I threw the whole thing overboard. Don’t know what happened.” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera and, while they head back out to fish, I round up extra anchors and unplug toilets.
All day long I work to get things just the way they ought to be and watch other people fish. Members with homes nearby begin to arrive and by 6:00 close to 50 people have gathered at the lodge for the annual Opening Day dinner. Grills are fired up, drinks are iced down and even the most hard-core fisherfolk are off the water well before dark, eating, drinking and offering up even more stories of fish they have known.
The details of the evening are a bit sketchy but a good time was evidently had by all. As I turned off the lights, just before 1:30, I marveled at all the empty bottles and the way 50 people could make drinking that much wine, beer, scotch, rum and peppermint schnapps look so easy.
After a few hours of fishing the next morning, the last bleary-eyed fisherman shook my hand and waved good-bye just after noon and I was all alone again at Fish in a Barrel Pond. I went from cottage to cottage, gathering up sheets, pillow cases and wet towels into large sacks to be picked up by the linen service. I gathered up the trash (separating recyclables) re-stocked wood bins and swept the floors. I was finished before 3:00, with plenty of daylight left in which to do a little fishing of my own!
Opening weekend is all about the members of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society, so I don’t fish, but they were gone and I had the whole place to myself. Nothing was going to stop me from wetting a line. My 8 1/2 foot, 5-weight rod had been waiting patiently, strung up and hanging on its rack for over a week and I could feel it tremble with excitement as I lifted it from its cradle. But the excitement was mine, the trembling nothing more than my own racing pulse sending shivers down the sensitive, graphite shaft. Grabbing my gear bag in one hand and my rod in the other, I strode purposefully (remember, I don’t run) to the main dock.
Sitting on a bench to scout the water, I scanned the scene around me. A light breeze barely ruffled the water and the only sound I heard was the loons along the far shore. A hawk circled overhead, tracing lazy circles in the sky and, about 20 yards in front of me, a pod of trout sipped emerging insects, barely breaking the surface with their swirling rises. For more than an hour I sat there, beneath a cobalt cathedral dome supported by columns of stark, white birches and dark, shaggy firs, just as others have done for more than 100 years.
People who can fish for anything, anywhere, any time, can’t wait to come back to this place and as I listen to the loons and watch the rises on the pond I can feel why. Hard to describe or pin down, it includes a feeling of being a part of something bigger and somehow more important than oneself. It is not just about the fish.
They say that trout don’t live in ugly places and in my experience that is true. It is also true that an ethereal backdrop can make anything better and it is easy for me to understand why men and women will travel to the ends of the earth in pursuit of trout. They may come away with tales to tell of getting spooled by monster browns or broken off by leaping rainbows but they also come away with something deeper that they may never be able to express. It is not just about the fish.
My eyes are drawn back to the water, where a large brook trout shows its dorsal fin as it takes an insect from just beneath the surface. Below it I can see the flashes of other fish feeding, sometimes an entire flank shows and sometimes all I see is a small wink of white as a fish opens its mouth to consume its prey. As in a dream, I watch as my fingers cinch the knot tight against a size 14 Pheasant Tail and without any conscious effort on my part I am soon false casting, playing out line until the distance seems about right. With a last little punch my line straightens before me and my fly slips beneath the surface. I count it down as it sinks and, when I feel it has reached the depth where the fish are feeding, I give the line three quick twitches, imparting the illusion of life to my fly. Nothing more than a few fibers of pheasant feather and a bit of shiny wire, it wiggles enticingly and as I take up the slack I feel a tug.
I raise my rod to set the hook and the fish takes off like a shot. It turns, it twists and it tries to run, every vibration transmitted the length of my rod to my hand and beyond.
The fish breaks the surface with a mighty leap. Then another and another, sunlight reflecting off the burgundy-striped silver sides of a large rainbow trout and, as suddenly as it began, the fight is over. I start reeling and the fish comes to hand easily, laying on its side as I slip the barbless hook from the corner of its mouth. I can’t help but admire its rich colors and muscular shape as I move it gently back and forth, running water and oxygen across its gills until, with a flick of its tail, it slips quietly away and fades into the dark water.
I kneel next to the water for some time, gathering my wits, and as the fish continue to feed and the loons call from the far shore, I see the hawk circling high above, reflected in the water so it appears to be far below and I realize that for the very merest of moments I had become a part of something bigger and somehow more important than myself.
It is not just about the fish.