When I was a kid, in the '40s, I lived and played sandlot baseball in the small village of North Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod. Just beyond rightfield glimmered the blue, gemlike surface of a pond with the grandiose name of Cedar Lake. One afternoon I quit playing baseball and simply gave in to the siren call of that patch of watery brilliance. That was enough. I watched the rest of my team's baseball games that summer while still fishing for perch and, especially, for smallmouth bass from a small boat.
Seven years later, I had pretty much forgotten about fishing, or so I thought. That was the summer of 1950, a few months before I would enlist in the Army. I was mostly playing golf in those last months of adolescent freedom. I played on a course called Coonamessett in Hatchville, a tiny village in the town of Falmouth. Although Hatchville is on the Cape, it is well inland, in scrub oak and pine country, and the terrain is dotted with kettle ponds, marvelous freshwater remnants of the Ice Ages.
From the 1st and 18th greens of Coonamessett you can see one of these sandy ponds. It's called Coonamessett Pond and it has a fringe of boulders strewn along its white shoreline.
I believe it was the hilly point on Coonamessett Pond, so reminiscent of a little peninsula on Cedar Lake, that caused me to drive the long, winding stretch of sandy road to a cottage of rustic simplicity on the hill overlooking the pond. The owner of the cottage was a woman in her 40's who lived by herself. She looked me up and down warily with bright blue eyes before she invited me inside.
When the woman realized I was not a summer person, but rather a "townie," she relaxed and listened to my proposal: I would give her half my cleaned catch for the use of her rowboat, which was hauled up on a little dock that jutted out from the point. She accepted my offer with the stipulation that I also throw the cleaned fish skeletons into a small wild animal feeding area on her property. "For my raccoons," she said.
A few days later, as the sun set gloriously, I impaled a fairy shrimp on a number-10 hook and lofted it out with my fly rod from the boat. There were several split shot pinched to the leader to take the bait down to the edge of a gravel shelf that I could see in the clear water just off the point. Then I retrieved the shrimp, slowly raising the tip of my split-bamboo rod as I drew in line.
It was dèjà vu. I felt the hard resistance that I remembered from a similar evening years earlier on Cedar Lake, where I had caught my first smallmouth. The line began to pulsate and steadily move away from the boat. I brought the rod tip up sharply, remembering the touch that would set the hook without putting excessive strain on the knots and leader.
The loose fly line on the bottom of the skiff paid out. The big fish ran straight away from the boat, the length of a wedge shot, and burst through the surface shaking its head. The bass was in control and I could only try to hang on.
The fish doubled back and suddenly I had slack line coiled about me, the sure sign of a tyro. Now the big fish passed by the skiff, not more than two feet under the surface; it was huge, with barred sides of golden and olive hues. I had never seen such a large bass.
The slack line in the water and at my feet in the boat disappeared again as the fish moved off on another long run. Soon the 90 feet of fly line was stripped from my reel and I could see the backing.
The bass seemed even bigger on its second spectacular leap. I was desperately trying to devise a strategy for landing this magnificent fish when I became aware of a canoe sliding up close to my skiff.
"Take in slack. Don't apply too much pressure, young man. Drop your rod tip." The advice was delivered in a nasal Back Bay accent with broad a's and long o's. I heard but didn't look. Nor did I listen. I wanted the victory to be all mine.
Riding the bass gingerly via the wispy leader and frail hook, I watched the infuriated fish continue its acrobatics all over its favorite corner of Coonamessett Pond. But with each run and jump, the bass showed less determination. I even regained the backing and, at last, some of the heavy fly line. I railed silently at the slowness of the single-action fly reel, then gasped as I saw a loop of the line fall over the hornlike prong of the oarlock that I should have remembered to ship earlier. Miraculously, with my left hand, I was able to slip the line free as the huge shape in the lake's translucent subsurface ran again from the skiff.
Suddenly it dawned on me: I had no landing net.
A picture has long been etched in my mind by the innumerable illustrations I have seen of an angler, arced rod held high, net low in the water, guiding a fish effortlessly into captivity. The unfortunate situation in which I found myself didn't fit that idealized image at all. Even as I gained on the tiring bass, I was all thumbs and barked knuckles from the furiously rotating handle of the fly reel. I desperately tried to figure a way to get the smallmouth into the skiff.
Keeping pressure on the big bass as the patrician in the canoe had advised, I finally brought it alongside my boat. Up close, it appeared even larger. The fish was also clearly exhausted. I sat down on the thwart of the skiff and started groping in the direction of the bass's gill plate. Suddenly, in an unanticipated burst of renewed energy, the fish thrashed again. I looked on in disbelief as the leader, which had looped itself over the oarlock once more, snapped.
The fish flashed me a parting salute with its gleaming golden-olive side as it slowly vanished back into the safe depths of Coonamessett Pond.
"Good show!" The voice in the canoe complimented me. "What a dickens of a spot. Awfully tough with no landing net...." The private school accent trailed off as the canoe disappeared behind the hilly point, leaving behind a tiny wake along with the faint aroma of rich Union Boat Club pipe tobacco.
I cursed the oarlock and my ineptness and my failure. Remaining motionless for a long time in the skiff, I watched the sun go down below the surrounding trees.
Years later, after I had been living in Texas for more than three decades, I returned to Cape Cod for a summer visit. I found the cottage in Hatchville on Coonamessett Pond, and to my amazement and delight, the lady with the rowboat still lived there.
The salt and pepper of her hair was now pure white and her bright blue eyes now sparkled behind bifocals. She took a moment to fix my name and the older face that went with it. When she placed me firmly in her mind she invited me inside the cottage for a cup of coffee.
As she poured, my eyes surveyed the age-darkened pine walls and focused on the shape of a huge smallmouth bass that had been mounted and hung there. She laughed and said, "You know, that fish was caught right off the point where you used to fish. The taxidermist in Falmouth—he used to be in Hyannis—gave the mount to me because the man who caught the fish never returned to claim it. It was lying around his place for many years."
I went over to the dust-covered mount and read the engraved brass plate:
SMALLMOUTH BASS (MICROPTERUS DOLOMIEUI)
6 LBS. 7 OZ.
COONAMESSETT POND, MASSACHUSETTS—1951
The woman continued, "There were a couple of men who used to fish here in a canoe after you went into the Army...."
The canoe. The old-boy accent. The smell of the tobacconist's Union Boat Club blend. My bass.
I found myself in a time warp of resentment. Four decades vanished in a wink. The realization was as shattering as if I had been fleeced of my bass just the day before by the Beacon Hill robber baron.
I made a feeble excuse to leave and slowly drove down the sandy lane lined with chokecherry bushes. For whatever it's worth, the memory of an evening on Coonamessett Pond 40 years ago still lingers. Maybe it is not such a good idea to find the one that got away.
Freelance writer Charles Thobae does most of his fishing in Texas these days.