I own as much fishing tackle as the population of a small city, and I travel around the country a lot, so I get to use it in the kinds of places you see on the covers of Field & Stream. But what happened to me last year should not happen to a barefoot boy with a willow stick and a bent pin. Whole rivers and bays full of fish seemed to disappear when I showed up. I got marooned on an island. Storms crashed down on me from balmy skies. And in Virginia, while wading in the Smith River, I suddenly stepped from knee-deep water into a hole so cavernous that it may be the secret passage to the Orient that Columbus never found.
I was fishing for a giant brown trout with the nickname of Old Granddaddy. My guide, a 40-year-old furniture-company executive named Harmon Harms, had hooked Old Granddaddy twice and lost him in the boiling currents both times. He estimated the fish's weight at 18 pounds. But now Harms had a plan. Instead of standing on the shore, he would join Old Granddaddy in the drink, putting himself at the mercy of the river. "I can hang on to enough branches on the shore so as not to drown," he said.
I went to the Smith because the Virginia record for brown trout had been broken there three times the previous summer. The last fish, 14 pounds and six ounces, had been caught by a friend of Harms', and together in a period of only four years on the Smith they had caught more than 200 trout of more than five pounds. That kind of fishing was supposed to be gone from this country forever. To fish with Harms would be a sure thing for almost anyone. But if Balboa himself had come back last year and taken me to see the Pacific Ocean, it would have vanished. That is what happened to the trout of the Smith River when I arrived.
Of course, there was a reason. The Smith comes out from beneath the dam that forms the Philpott Reservoir. Philpott is full of gizzard shad that are maimed or killed as the water passes through the dam's turbines. They float down the river, and the trout are like hogs at a trough. But I turned up—and the shad turned off, because the sluice-gates of the dam were closed. Harms did not catch a trout of more than three pounds for months thereafter. He should be more careful about whom he fishes with. As for me, when I emerged from the hole in the river bottom, coughing and spitting, I reached for a handhold on a rock and all but shook hands with a copperhead that was sunning itself there.
November 7, 1977
Seven months later, hands steady again. I found myself on the shores of North Carolina's Pamlico Sound. It was supposedly full of large red drum, otherwise known as channel bass. Waiting for me was a soul mate of Harms', Ernie Hudson of Oriental, N.C., one of the first men to go after drum with rod and reel in Pamlico. He and a friend had caught more than 400 of them, some weighing as much as 57 pounds.
The first day's run was a bone-rattling 12 miles through rough open water to Point of Marsh at the mouth of the Neuse River, a mile and a half from an Air Force bombing range. A publicist for the state of North Carolina had made it a three-man expedition, and we baited 18 hooks with squid, cast them out and laid the rods and reels in a row along 200 yards of sod bank. The six rods per man increased our chances for a big drum, but tiny snapper bluefish kept stealing the bait and we had to scurry around, constantly checking the hooks. We looked like people caught in a bombing raid, and then we almost were. Jet planes crisscrossed overhead, screaming past to their target, and I asked, "Is it legal for us to be here?"
"Don't worry," the publicist replied. "We can't get a ticket. The worst thing that can happen is you might get your leg blown off."
What did happen were the second-and third-worst things. No one caught a red drum, and when it was time to go, Ernie Hudson's engine was as dead as the squid in his pail. It looked like a long night in the cold. A search for firewood ended 10 feet inland in shin-deep ooze. There was no place to lie down, and off to the side numerous large creatures slithered around in the reeds. Our rescue by a Coast Guard boat was hardly a blessing. The 1 a.m. tow back to Oriental took five hours against the tide and wind. Along the way we were lashed by a downpour that fell from what seemed to be starry skies. The logical next move was to the airport.
But there were two days of fishing left. Hudson phoned commercial fishermen all around the sound, and they told him, "No drum." He became embarrassed. He blamed the weather, the netters, himself. He did not suspect my influence. I began figuring the value of my fishing tackle. It was depressing that I had invested so much. Maybe I would sell it all and buy a set of golf clubs. Several sets.
The summer passed, and I did not go fishing. I even avoided seafood restaurants. But with fall came an invitation to go after landlocked salmon in the St. Croix River at the Maine-New Brunswick border.
"Will I catch a salmon?" I asked my host, a man of 50 who has fished the river all his life.
He said, "If you don't catch six a day, I'll eat my reel."
For three days I all but wore a groove in the river with my casting. I knew the salmon should have been lying where the riffles flattened out to meet the pools, but I did not raise one. No one on the river did, and everyone knew why. The fall had been so warm that the water was not cool enough for spawning yet. Or it had been so dry that the water was too low. DDT was in the food chain, or PCBs were in the water. A local guide feared that the Canadians across the lake had set out nets. There were criticisms of the moon and the sun. I had another theory. I was actually Joe Btfsplk, the man in the Li'l Abner comic strip with the cloud over his head, who brings rain and ruin wherever he goes.
A week later I was telling friends about my miserable luck, and one asked, "So why do you go fishing?"
"Why does he go?" another replied. "Have you looked at his face when he talks about it? Does he look unhappy?"
At that moment I thought of Virginia, North Carolina and Maine, of the frustration and mishaps, which seemed humorous now, and of the good things—the pungent mossy smell of the Smith River, how every minute of watching those 18 rods on Pamlico Sound had been full of anticipation, the St. Croix River with its deep shadowy pools.
"I go fishing because I like to think about it," I said, and a beatific smile came over my face.