I admit it, I’m a snob. I like trout. Well, all salmonids, actually. I’ve had more than a few fun afternoons roping mountain whitefish and once or twice out west I caught a steelhead. I even caught an Atlantic salmon on the Winnipesaukee one night but let it go thinking it was a brown trout before I realized what I was doing. But I never understood the appeal of bass. Every bass I ever caught, I caught while I was fishing for trout, except for one time when we hired a guide for stripers out on Casco Bay. But even a 32” striper comes up like an old boot after thirty seconds of fight. I just don’t get all of the running around in over-powered boats tossing sex toys at these fish when any day you can catch your fill of them on wooly buggers while looking for trout.
It wasn’t until I moved to Manchester and I needed to get my jones on that I started targeting bass. Not on purpose at first. They were converting the hulking old textile mills into offices and I took a job in an exciting start up, The Software Mill. Clever, huh? The wall at the end of our hallway blanked off miles of empty, haunted space. They just kept moving that wall and adding offices like nodes in an intestine. What was once a sweatshop for unrepresented industrial workers was now a hive of cubicles for their 21st century descendants.
The old mill buildings crowd the shores, making river access difficult to impossible. But outside their windows is the gorgeous dam-tamed Merrimack. Even if you do reach it, all of its beautiful pocket water and seams are permanently closed to fishing. So you are stuck fishing brushy, muddy tributaries where old bicycles and tires constitute structure. When you find yourself hunting these brown waters, it’s an indicator, like putting whiskey in your coffee. You know you have a problem, but at least the problem isn’t that you’re putting whiskey in your coffee. Well, not until the sun goes down, anyway.
And you know, at first I found some trout. Probably spawners washed into the creeks during the spring floods. But after that, it was just bass. And mostly not your sexy basses, your large and small mouth, but rock bass. Rock bass is considered such a trash fish that it’s illegal not to kill them around here, but I don’t have it in me to do Rotenone’s work. You’ve also got your other basslike fish, your crappie, your perch. Hell, I would kill for even a carp. But no, just your bass and your bass derivatives—all of those fish that worms crawl out of when you fillet them.
So it went like that. I moved to town. I found a few trout. That first head shake letting you forget momentarily the sucking mud that is eating through the soles of your All Stars and staining your socks pink with things you don’t want to wonder about. Before I could get used to it, they were gone and there were only what the British call “coarse fish,” which were not really enough to keep me and my now exclusively pink sock collection out of the bars during happy hour. But still, sometimes you gotta have your fix and the thought of those accommodating trash fish bending my rod on every cast would sometimes draw me to the river the way that a toxic ex will take you to the phone late at night when there are things that become more important than pride.
One beautiful summer day, I realized I had been staring at the side of my cubicle and day-dreaming. Not even looking out a window; just lost in some rough-woven garbage-brown industrial weave. On my screen was an email. Apparently, because we had reached our last quotas, they had decided we would need to do more so that my boss could get his next bonus. We now had new goals for lines of code and defect rates per programmer, per day. I’d already completed the application itself weeks ago, but since I wasn’t measured on actual application functions, I had continued to produce bloated code with just enough bugs to keep my friends in testing employed. I looked at the new quota and wondered how long I could continue to stretch it out with obfuscating algorithms and weighing that with how many actual days of freedom remained in my ever-shortening tour on this mortal coil. In my head I could see the lines on the graph crossing like some high school Algebra problem, and I found myself mentally squinting to read the intersection coordinates. At that point, I knew my problem wasn’t that I had stooped to bass, so I tossed my Velveeta and tomato sandwich into the briefcase that I had bought when I had much higher aspirations, grabbed my sports coat off of my chair, and walked out. I think I just meant it to be for the afternoon, but the image of that graph hung in my mind like the ghosted image on an old CRT monitor that had been left on too long.
I spent some time touring around the White Mountains, poring over maps looking for beaver ponds, floating Profile Lake, hitting the source of the Merrimack. But then my clutch started slipping and I didn’t feel like outlaying the cash on it, so I ended up stuck back in town. After that, I hung out at the river a lot. To scout, I used the bike path where they had tried to gentrify the waterfront. But most of the tribs were on the outskirts of town, in the rundown neighborhoods where the never-nice mill houses were now only slightly above modern drinking class slums. The kind of place where the most important parts of summertime family and social life happen on a run-down porch.
It was in one of those little creeks—one you had to walk up while ducking under scrub maples and other trash trees—that I found a pool. It was not much bigger than the living room in my studio walk up, not much deeper than my car. So, not a pool really. More of a hole. And in that hole I found whitefish when it was cool after rain and bluegill when it was hot. Suckers randomly flooded the place. It was dumb, really. I only carried one fly, a little beadhead bugger. I would take a 22 of beer with me and drag the bugger through the pool, catch a couple of fish, sip my beer, rinse, repeat. You couldn’t even cast really, just kind of underhand lob the little bugger back towards the top of the pool. In reality, it was just another cubicle, and not even much of an improvement. Somehow I was sliding into a funk that even fishing couldn’t cure. Eventually, even the beer money would run out, and then maybe this really would become my living room.
One day, I walked up the creek, trying not to think about all of the things you go fishing not to think about, and as I ducked, slithered, and splooged up the bank, I came upon three teenage boys in cut-offs. They’d obviously been in the water and were sitting on the bank smoking cigarettes. Even though they were poor white trash, the look they gave me and my discount fly rod made me feel self-conscious.
“Hey,” I said.
“What are you doing here, mister?” said a kid with a shaggy mop of blond hair and a major attitude, like he owned this part of the planet. Even if this was all he had, here, he was king. I liked him right away.
“Well, I, uh. Well, sometimes I come here and fish a little, after work.” I don’t know why I lied about the work.
“Fish?” The two other kids, both identically rail thin and dirty despite their swim, looked into the water. “You catch those?” The youngest, or at least the littlest, asked, pointing into the hole.
“Sometimes we try to catch them, too!” said the middle boy. The mop head shot him a look.
“Any luck?” I asked.
“Not so much,” he said looking down, clearly afraid he’d said too much.
I shrugged, “Well, that’s fishing.”
“So; fish,” said the mop head.
“Nah, I don’t want to bother you guys. You were here first.”
“It’s okay!” said the two others in chorus.
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Doesn’t make any difference to us,” said mop head, kicking at something in the mud that I couldn’t see.
I started to rig up. “Well, you might’ve put them down.” I flicked the beadhead towards them, let it sink for a bit, stripped, let it sink. I could see the school turning towards it. It didn’t take much, next strip, the bugger stopped sinking and wham! Tiny little fish on. And you know, the hook up still got my juices flowing like it was a wild trout. I brought him in and held him up. Shrugged sheepishly, and let him go.
“What did you do that for?” the littlest one was clearly upset by this turn.
“Let it go!”
“Well, so I can catch it again.”
“You don’t eat them?” asked Moppy. Clearly, we had just exposed a defining cultural divide.
“Well, that and they taste like fish.” They all laughed.
“What kind of rod is that? I never saw nothing like it.”
“It’s a fly rod. Not really the tool for the job, but it’s all I have.”
They came around the pool then and we discussed the basic differences between a fly rod and a spinning rod. But you know, it didn’t really make any difference because we were catching crappie out of a hole in the burning New Hampshire summer heat, and whatever we had was good enough. I taught them the basics of the classic lob cast. And we caught fish. Every fish in the pool at least once, seemed like. And it was forty-four times more fun watching them catch those tiny, trashy fish than it was any fish I ever caught, except maybe my first tiny, trashy fish, which I had forgotten about until just then. I totally forgot about my beer warm in the sun.
Eventually, our antics put them down. The kids – Paulie (the mop), Darryl (the middle), and Louie (the runt) – had to go. They wanted to fish again. I told them to bring a bucket next time they came, and take some home. They thought that was cooler than ice cream cake.
I sat down and drank my warm beer. Somehow, the little hole in the trees seemed, I don’t know, more real. Like I had been seeing it through some gauzy filter and now it was gone. I should’ve been upset that my secret stash was blown, but I wasn’t. I had made some friends. Okay, some 15 year-old friends, but hell, deep down they were fishermen and that’s all that counts. Better than anybody I’d left behind in cubicle land. I think I whistled as I got up the bank and followed the road back to my car.
So, it was like that. Sometimes they were there, sometimes not. When they weren’t, I didn’t fish. I figured it was way more special for them than for me. As promised, they brought a bucket, we caught a few and I taught them how to clean them, how to soak them in salt water to get the worms out. After that we didn’t have any more discussions about catch-and-release. We talked about places I’d fished, fish I’d caught. They made me feel like a movie star or something. Like a big league player coaching little league.
One day, Paulie turned to me. “So, we were thinking…” They looked at one another conspiratorially.
“Well, you know the golf course?”
“It’s got a big pond!” blurted Louie.
“Full of bass,” said Paulie.
“Indeed? How do you know that?”
“You can see them from the school bus,” said Darryl. “They make the big rings you were talking about.”
“And my dad was telling his friends how they used to sneak in there as kids and fish at night,” finished Paulie.
I put on my best British air. Pointing my index finger straight up and making little spirals to punctuate my points. “Sir, I’m aghast. Are you proposing we sneak onto the golf course and catch bass? Bass? What kind of a man do you take me for? Not even trout. Aghast I say!” They fell over laughing. Then I stroked my chin in my best evil dude manner. “What night do you propose we perpetrate this maleficent deed?” They looked at me. “The crime, lads! The crime!”
They looked at each other. “What are you doing tonight?” Asked Paulie.
“I thought you would never ask.”
We made a day out of it. They all crammed into my twenty-year old Corolla and I took them to McDonald’s with my rapidly diminishing supplies of cash and clutch friction. It was like a feast to these kids.
“Won’t your parents wonder where you are?” I asked, realizing that at the very least I was taking three underage kids to commit a misdemeanor.
“Nah,” said Paul. “We stay out late all the time.”
I scratched my stubble, not sure I entirely believed him. We finished our meals, but in the summer it gets dark late, so I took them to see the new Bond film. A week of beer money right there, two weeks when you add in popcorn. After the humid heat of the day, though, the air conditioning of the theater was a total luxury for both me and the kids. I’m sure the most they had at home was maybe one rattletrap 20-year old AC unit stuffed in a living room window somewhere. Hell, I didn’t even have that, just a $20 box fan. When we got out, the sun was still a glow on the horizon. The kids were rolling around me like a baitfish ball, reliving scenes from the movie. I was kind of hoping they had forgotten about the adventure.
“Let’s go do the crime!” shrieked Louie as Darryl socked him in the arm. So much for subtlety.
I looked around at the people staring at us, shrugged and said something like, “Kids and sugar…” then shot him a withering look. “Some criminal,” I said under my breath. We got back in the car and I limped it to the outskirts of town so we could scope it out. Fortunately, golf courses are designed a lot more for keeping balls in than people out. We drove slowly by a line of heritage alders growing 70 feet up into the dark. The only hurdle, though, was a four-foot chain link fence. I drove around until I found a place to park, in a pull out where they drove tractors across the boundary ditch onto the road.
We parked, and I opened the trunk to get my rod and a box of bass bugs. Yes, I have bass bugs. I don’t know where or how, sometimes I think my flies breed in my trunk, coming up with new and wild patterns I’ve never seen before. We waited by the road, looking both ways down the long straightaway for oncoming cars.
As promised, the pond was in sight of the road, just across the fairway. “Okay, guys, here it goes. From here to the pond, every man for himself! And be quiet!” Then we ran across the road and clambered over the fence. I will admit they beat me over, but I also had the rod and the gear. The night was clear and the moon was bright, so it was easy to make our way, but it also exposed us running across the carpet-smooth fairway. At one point a car drove by and I hissed “Down!” Everybody hit the dirt. It felt like the Hogan’s Heroes reruns I used to watch with my grandmother. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t corrupting anybody at all. This is what kids were meant to do, dammit, run free and have adventures on hot summer nights.
Continue to Part 2 of The Snob.