A Simple Mystery
“It’s the idea that there’s something beneath the surface,” my father says as we sit out on the fishing cabin’s porch, tired after a day out on the rivers, watching the sun set over Aziscohos Lake. “The idea that there’s something below, something you think is there, that you hope is there, but can’t really prove until you bring it into plain view.”
He admits it’s not his most profound thought, just a simple theory for why, since a young age, he’s always felt himself drawn to fishing. A philosophy professor on the edge of retirement after over forty years of teaching, it certainly isn’t his deepest rumination. After a childhood of enjoying (and if I’m being honest, occasionally suffering) countless philosophic dinner table discussions, I can easily confirm as much. As if needing any further proof, I’ll later show him a poem by Robert Tisdale found in Tight Lines, a book left behind in the cabin for visitors to read. It’s a compilation of poems and stories from the Yale Anglers’ Journal. The poem, “At Home in the Midwest,” touches upon a similar theme as that of my father, the last few stanzas expressing the idea more gracefully:
To be at home in the Midwest
is to know it all from here to horizon,
to inhabit with caution a dream of peace
through the sky fail, to grapple
life from concrete abstractions
—yield per acre, percentage of moisture.
And for satisfaction, to cast or troll
for the mystery, the unnecessary,
when the lure, the shining, gaudy
spoon of metal brings up from the deeps
something hitherto unpossessed
—wet, silent, vicious, alien,
and finally, demonstrably there.
“Yeah, that’s it,” my father says when I show him the poem. “That says it better.” We aren’t in the Midwest, of course. We’re in my home state of Maine. But the appeal of the mystery of fish is widespread and far-reaching.
It’s not just the fish, though, that remain beneath the surface on fishing trips. Politics, for one, largely go undiscussed. The camp we’re at, Bosebuck Mountain Camps, tucked away in a corner of Maine up near the New Hampshire and Canadian borders, attracts a crowd made up almost entirely of white men over the age of forty (at thirty-two, I’m the young one). And, yet, despite the sameness of race, gender, and age, the divide of politics is clear. Some, like my father and me, come from left leaning cities like Portland and Boston, or even New York. The majority, though, are more local, living year-round in rural areas around Maine and New Hampshire, a voting bloc in the hip pocket of Trump and the right.
It’s strange in a way, the avoidance of politics as conversation. Most of the men in camp fit (or, at least, attempt to fit) the model of a Hemingway character: strong and tough, direct with their words, good with their hands. A large pickup truck is almost a prerequisite. “Manliness” is a respected trait. And, yet, most seem afraid to even brush up against the topic of politics, deftly pirouetting around such talk in an effort not to offend and to keep conversations light. I’m as guilty as any, not wanting to wade into potentially dangerous waters.
Try as everyone might, the realities of the political world are unavoidable. ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Lock Her Up’ signs litter the roadways, attached to barns and cars and front doors. Even if it isn’t openly discussed, politics are on people’s minds. Occasionally, a vague, seemingly innocuous comment might get overheard: “There’s Hannity on the right, Maddow on the left, and the truth somewhere in the middle.” One group sitting in the dining hall seems downright delighted that Fox News Commentator Tucker Carlson visited the camp within the last year, an indication of how “leftists” like me and my father are outnumbered at the campsite. How anyone can show even the slightest reverence for punditry of that sort is a frame of reference I struggle to understand.
There are even some darker forebodings. One guide tells my father in an offhand remark: “There’s real rage in these parts. Not just anger, but genuine rage. People on fire.” The roots of that rage, of that ‘fire,’ aren’t specified, be they a failing rural economy, or dismay at a corrupt political class, or a lack of education, or even just a lack of general opportunity. But whether it’s openly discussed or not, the divide is there, the realities of our country’s politics exist, floating just beneath the surface of dining hall pleasantries and discussions of each party’s daily catch.
If politics skim just below the surface, there are other matters, more personal in nature, that maintain lower depths. Most who come for a weekend at the Bosebuck campsite return annually, making a tradition of the fishing trip. Each group’s reasons for returning year-after-year, one senses, are about more than just the hooking of trout and salmon along the Upper Magalloway, reasons that extend far beyond the routines of tying a fly to the end of a line and casting it out into the river.
For me and my father, the reason for the fishing trip is plain. My older brother Brendan passed away unexpectedly nearly four years ago, an undetected abnormality of the heart claiming his life during a game of pickup basketball. While the tragedy of his passing is not quite as raw as it once was, we don’t often discuss it directly on the fishing trip. Instead, we talk about how the high school basketball team he once coached in Portland has done this past year. We talk about how the housing market has sky-rocketed in the area, and how the career he’d begun as a real estate agent would most likely have taken off. We also tell stories, like the time we all tried cutting down a dead tree by our house, but instead sent it plummeting into the roof. Or the time as a kid when Brendan and my mother got caught in a giant blizzard on the way back from a tennis tournament, forcing them to hunker down for hours on the side of the roadway.
We tell stories about the four of us, my mother, my father, Brendan, and me. But we don’t much discuss the overt pain that his passing has caused, the grief, the gigantic sense of loss. He was my father’s first-born. He was my only sibling, and my best friend. Those feelings tend to stay well below the surface on a fishing trip. Such talk is difficult, and on a long weekend that serves as a vacation, perhaps it’s all best left unsaid. It’s undeniable, though, that his passing is a major reason that we’re even at the campsite, a tradition we wish we’d started when he was still alive, begun in part because of a recognition of the importance of memories.
On our last day at Bosebuck, we decide to spring for a river guide, someone who knows all the best fishing pools along the Magalloway. It’s 5:00 in the morning, and an early fog rises off the lake. After putting on our waders and boots and bug spray, we connect our rods to the truck rack and head out to the first pool, a seven-mile ride along dirt roads and logging trails.
This is our third year of the trip, and while we’ve caught many fish, we haven’t yet been able to catch a salmon. We’ve hooked brook trout and brown trout, as well as the occasional chub and sucker. We’ve seen wildlife, from moose and dear to black bears and lynx. But so far salmon have eluded us. We’re still relative neophytes. Typically, it takes some skill to hook a salmon.
The morning is quiet. We spend it at Little Boy Falls, a spot made famous in the 1950's when it was fished by President Dwight Eisenhower. The story goes that Eisenhower became angry when he learned that Maine wardens had stocked the pool for his benefit. He never returned. The first hour or two barely even bring a bite. We joke that we wouldn’t have been offended if the wardens had extended us a similar courtesy.
I eventually start catching some chub, which are looked down upon by most anglers, but they’re decent sized and put up a nice fight, so I decide not to be too particular. Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s only after we move downriver, to a spot known as the Landing Pool, that we begin having some luck. My father goes on a nice run of trout, small ones at first, but increasingly bigger as the morning goes on. Our guide, Reggie, gives us tips, helping us pick out the best flies and streamers, working to improve our casts and how to better mend our lines to limit our drag.
We take a long break in the afternoon, moving to a new spot and eating our lunches out on a large rock in the middle of the river. Over ham and turkey sandwiches, we talk about our trip, the fish we’ve caught, the wildlife we’ve seen. At our mentioning of the lynx we saw early one morning, we discuss its stoicism and the frightening size of its paws. At one point, Reggie asks if I have any siblings. I mention my brother and his passing. Reggie, a native of Portland, recalls reading about it in the newspaper. My brother was involved in coaching, and running summer camps, and real estate. He was tied to the community. “What a loss,” Reggie says, nodding and looking over toward the shoreline.
Finishing lunch, the conversation moves onto lighter topics, everyone content to avoid anything too heavy. We talk about Maine athletes, ones who’ve had success far beyond the high school level. I mention playing basketball with a guy who ended up on scholarship at the University of Maryland, as well as another who’s had a nice career with the Baltimore Orioles. Reggie and my father talk about a slightly older generation. The names come out of Maine’s past: Mike Bordick and Cindy Blodgett and Billy Swift.
It isn’t until the end of the day, once we’ve moved to our final spot near Keenan Dam, that our luck picks up. We’re downstream from the old beaten up dam that now sits broken in the middle of the river, a relic of the days when logging was done by floating entire tons of pine and oak down the Magalloway. It’s been a hot day, the sun bright and beating on the river’s surface, not ideal for fishing. But now it’s begun to move toward dusk, shadows stretching over the water. I tie a caddis to the end of my line and let it float a few feet beyond a large rock where I suspect fish might occasionally congregate, attempting to skip the fly gently along the surface to mimic the behavior of an insect.
I get two quick bites, action that perhaps a more experienced angler would turn into a fish. Reggie tells me to aim toward a little eddy off to the side of the rock. “You can’t see them, but they’re down there. Just keep at it.” My fly lands just beyond the current’s edge, floating delicately for a moment upon the surface.
Then it happens. A sudden snapping of the water. The fish leaps straight into the air as it takes the fly, a distinct trait of landlocked salmon. Lifting the rod, I can feel the line pull. The hook is set.
“Keep it high,” Reggie says. “Reel it in evenly. Don’t jerk it.”
The line swerves, the fish attempting to throw the hook. I bring it in closer, the line continuing to zigzag through the water. After a few final changes in direction, the fish’s fight finally subsides. It’s close enough now that I can see it.
“Oh, that’s a nice one,” I hear Reggie say.
My father is upstream, looking intently at my line. Placing my net in the water, I guide the fish into it. I reach down and pull the hook from its lip. It’s a landlocked Atlantic salmon, wild in these parts. Its silvery sides catch the light of the late afternoon sun. Wet and sparkling, its back has a tinge of green, covered over with little black spots.
I take it in my hands and hold it still just above the water. Even just for a few moments, it’s nice to admire. Not just a belief or a hope anymore, it’s now tangible, right there in front of me, in plain sight, firm in my grasp. I turn, so that my father can see it.
Lowering my hands, I let it slip again into the water. It remains still below me for a moment, briefly stunned, gathering itself before disappearing back into the simple mystery of the river.
About the Author: Originally from Portland, Maine, Patrick Conway is currently a PhD candidate at Boston College, researching the implementation and expansion of college-level prison education programs. Previous work of his has appeared in literary journals and newspapers. One of his recent essays, “How It’s Done: A Criminal Defense Investigator at Work,” received a notable mention from the Best American Essays anthology.