Tuesday, April 26, 2022

other people’s fish – jim lawless

Editor’s Note: Chad Wilde is a gifted writer and good friend. This story, about his late Uncle Jim, is the first in a new series that Chad is sharing on The Connecticut Yankee. It's a great piece that hits home for me and may for you, too. Many thanks for reading.



Most days spent fishing can be swept into an amalgam of memory.  Yes, we go fishing and we either catch fish or we don’t.  These are all good days.  But other days are different and leave different wakes behind them.

Some days, something remarkable happens.  And when the experience moves higher from commonplace we are left with ringing stories to recall many years later.  They can leave behind something funny, poignant, or powerful.  These are the stories you want to hear told when close by a campfire. 

For me, I can’t get enough of these tales.  I willingly share mine.  But more than sharing, I like to hear others recall their own great fish stories.  I’m good at prodding them forth.  I enjoy saying things like, ”Hey, tell them about that time”…….and then watching eyes light up slightly as someone has just had their stage set perfectly for them to tell a good story. 

People enjoy telling about their great memories. 

I’ve heard some of the stories told by my Uncle and friend, Jim Lawless many times.  I loved to hear him tell me about several of great fish he had found himself associated with through his long life of outdoor pursuits.  

We would, perhaps, be at our annual Fishcamp and he would have a Busch beer in one hand and a White Owl cigar in the other.  Below his push-broom moustache a smile would creep and I would sit back and listen to a story I had heard before but wanted all the same to hear again.

My Uncle Jim was a self-depreciating angler, and among our group he was known either as “Fishless Jim” or “Camp Squaw.”  The former sobriquet given for obvious reasons, the later truly an expression of appreciation since he always took good care to ensure our camp was well fed and as comfortable as the weather would allow.  

As an angler, Jim was a bonified worm dunker, passionate ice fisher, and horrible fly fisher.  But he wasn’t really always fishless. 

In thinking of him, I recall words written by Thomas McGuane about his own father:

“Uncle Ben, was my father a good fisherman?” 

He Smiled and said, “No, Tommy, he was not.  But no one loved it more.” 

And this sentiment accurately applies to Jim.  In his life, he took such pleasure from the streams and still waters of Eastern Connecticut and beyond.  He was in his element waded thigh deep in the Natchaug or Farmington rivers casting for trout, on the ice of West Hill Pond checking a flag (most likely empty if it was his flag), or in the Adirondack Mountains with his brother Ted fishing remote ponds for native Brook Trout.  

Here are several of his finer stories.


the snob 

As mentioned, Jim was a horrible fly fisher.  We both took up fly fishing fairly late in life.  While my own fly fishing improved over time, Jim never truly caught on to it.  He would tell me how proud he was of me in my progress.  We both found the medium more art than leisure and though he never truly got it as a fly fisherman he did own a fly rod and a small box of flies, which he would occasionally put to use.  He would mix in a bit of fly fishing with his preferred method of dunking worms, but rarely found success. 

He never fully committed to fly fishing, since he was more comfortable with a spinning rod.  “I never catch anything on my fly rod,” he said to me. 

“Jim,” I replied, “you never catch anything on your spinning rod either.”

He laughed, “Well, this is not true.  I mostly don’t catch anything on my spinning rod.  Not never.”

One day his work brought him to a meeting near the Farmington River.  Jim decided that he would bring only his fly rod, to remove the temptation of using his more familiar spinning gear, and after the meeting ended he would go fish the Farmington.  He arrived in the afternoon at Peoples State Forest, rigged up his fly rod and tied on a dry fly which he schmeared with flotation gunk, donned his waders, and marched into the water. 

In his words, his casting sucked.  He didn’t know a damn thing about mending line, and his drifts were useless.  All the same, he was out there and he was fly fishing.  As his fruitless efforts naturally returned no results another angler arrived, we’ll call him New Guy.  

This angler was a sharpie according to Jim, or at least Jim thought he was.  This guy had all the fancy gear, you could tell.  He looked exactly the part of a Farmington River fly angler.  

Jim grew a bit self-conscious.  He could feel New Guy watching him.  Finally, he turned around.  New Guy asked him if he minded that he fished just above where Jim was flogging the water.  Jim, being a solid fellow said of course not.  

Now what Jim didn’t realize is that New Guy had just ‘high holed’ him.  He pulled a fast one and committed a breach of angling etiquette.  This subtle move is certainly frowned upon by those of us who regularly fly fish, those of us who are not horrible fly fishers.  

New Guy was essentially cutting in line, something that even second graders know is inappropriate.  The underlying wisdom here is that when fly fishing one generally works from down river upwards since all trout position themselves facing up current.  Essentially, you are trying to creep up behind them.  New Guy had just deprived Jim of potentially doing so. 

Jim was glad to be left alone and he continued his usual anticipated skunking in peace.  He glanced upriver several times at New Guy.  When he did, he noticed that he was constantly changing flies.  Jim chortled to himself, thinking, You can’t catch a fish without your fly in the water. 

What Jim didn’t know here is that New Guy was likely attempting to ‘match the hatch’, and more directly mimic the insect activity that was taking place.  Farmington River trout can be pretentious in what they are eating, difficult to catch.  New Guy was making sophisticated alterations to his pattern, perhaps downsizing from a 22 to a 24.  

With all of his amendments to presentation, New Guy’s luck was no better than Jim’s.  It was shaping up to be one of those fishing trips that no one really remembers.  But then, something changed. 

As Jim casted his line and watched his admittedly shitty drift a trout rose and dimpled the surface and took his fly.  Jim lifted the rod, and lo and behold, found himself tight to the fish.  He must have made some commotion, as New Guy began wading down to him.  As Jim netted his catch, he was amazed that it was a Tiger Trout and a fine one at that.  

Together, the two anglers admired the fish, and then Jim released it.  Naturally, New Guy asked what fly the fish took.  Puzzled, Jim considered his response here.   

He told me, “Chad, I really didn’t know what fly it was.  A Grey Ghost, or whatever.  It was just what I had decided to tie on.”

Jim looked directly at the New Guy and said honestly, “Trout fly.”  

In my personal opinion, a perfect response.  We had a good laugh, Jim and I, the last time he told me this story.  He said to me, “I must have sounded like such a snobby bastard.” 

For the record, it was an Adams of an undetermined size.  This unknown detail decided upon years later thanks to the fact that he compared it to flies found in the bins of a fly shop, and he had retired the fly that Tiger ate for posterity. 




brad somehow caught it 

Jim and his brother Ted were quite fond of the Adirondack Mountains and began in 1983 to take annual pilgrimages to the area on or about Memorial Day weekend to fish a series of remote Trout ponds in a wilderness area in the region.  They had no clue at first what they were doing, but they had a map and a 1972 Dodge Tradesman van that had been converted into something of a make-shift camper van, they had a flat-bottomed boat, worms they’d dug up at home, and plenty of beer. 

The wilderness area they arrived at was certainly not a luxury campground.  At best, you were allotted a nasty outhouse and a beat-up old picnic table, but it was free camping so it fit the budget.  Their early trips were largely unsuccessful, and it was a pain in the ass to drag the flat-bottomed boat to a featureless disc of water where they would troll worms behind wobblers and swill beer.  But it was a trip these brothers took yearly, and gradually they found waters that produced fish. 

And they would take these fish, Brook Trout with vibrant pink flesh, to eat.  And they would fry them and serve them with baked beans and home fried potatoes.  And they would share time together, and drink beer. 

When a thunderstorm blew up one day, they were forced to retreat to shore, dock the boat, and seek shelter.  They found enormous boulders uphill from the pond leaning together forming a sort of cave.  It wasn’t much, but it allowed enough of a dry place to build a small fire and wait it out, while drinking more beer.  Good times to be shared. 

In later years, they began to invite others on their annual trip.  And one year they invited some guy named Brad.  The thing was, Brad wasn’t a great fisherman.  And if Jim made this claim, which he did to me every time he told me this story, he must have truly been god awful.  Since the flat-bottomed boat wasn’t large, they decided to leave Brad on shore while Jim and Ted took to their usual routine of rowing in turns and trolling whatever pond they had gone to this fateful day.  

Brad wasn’t mad at them.  He took his low rent fishing pole, a six pack of beer, and a pack of smokes and carefully proceeded to creep out onto a fallen tree that laid in the water.  Here, he sat down crossed legged and began chain smoking, drinking beer, and doing what fishing he could while Jim and Ted fished the pond proper from the boat.

After a while, Brad began screaming at the top of his lungs.  Jim and Ted immediately rowed their boat to the log he was positioned on assuming he had impaled a finger on a hook or fallen victim to some other calamity.  But no, Brad was hooked into an immense fish.

“Chad,” Jim told me, “I have no idea how he caught that fish.  The log he was on had all sorts of limbs and shit in the water below.  His pole was a K-Mart special and his line had to be years old.  How that fish didn’t find one of those snags or otherwise break him off, I have no idea.  But he landed it, without a net.” 

“How big was it?”  I ask, but I already know.  

"A 29-inch Brown Trout," Jim said.  "And to make it more complex, how the hell did a Brown Trout get into this remote Brookie pond anyhow?  That thing must have eaten so many Brookies that we should have been eating!"

They had a camera with them, and I’ve seen with my own two eyes that gigantic Brown Trout.  Brad’s finger stuck unceremoniously through the gills of the fish, holding it up like the trophy that it was.  All the better dead, that fish.  However the hell that massive Brown got into that pond didn’t matter anymore, it would eat no more native Brook Trout. 


jim got a flag

Jim was an avid ice fisherman.  Many times, I have enjoyed sharing the ice with him.  While he rarely caught a fish, he made a mean breakfast sandwich.  As “Camp Squaw,” Jim was always well organized and well prepared.  He’d tell you that the key to a good Clam Chowder while ice fishing was to bring a couple extra cans of diced clams to add to the soup.  He is dead on in this assessment. 

In the 1970s, Jim’s father, his brother Ted, and Uncle Jerry took up ice fishing.  Naturally, Jim joined them, interested in this new novelty that would force these men outdoors in the harsh New England winter and jam them together in a homemade ice shanty. 

The shanty was cobbled together from plywood and a series of hinges that allowed it to be folded for transportation and erected on the ice.  It was heavy as hell, and rickety to boot.  It didn’t do much to provide warmth but at the very least it broke the wind and gave some basic modicum of relief from the elements to allow for proper beer drinking.  He would bring his dog, Sunset, an Irish Setter, and the poor dog would lay there shivering on the ice while all the flags stayed down and the men drank beer while waiting for them to go up. 

Eventually, Jim obtained his own gear and the shanty fell into utter disrepair and thus by the wayside.  He continued ice fishing and a favorite spot of his was West Hill Pond.  I went with him several times.  On one occasion prior to the trip I recall asking him how the fishing had been of late since I don’t regularly fish the pond. 

“Oh, very, very poor,” he told me. 

To me, this was fine since I’d be going with my Uncle and friend and I was sure he’d be making something delicious to eat.  We got skunked, the fishing was indeed very, very poor.  But even the slow days were sweet.  I only remember this day, because afterwards I stopped at a jewelry store and bought the ring that my wife now wears on her left hand. 

But one day, Jim had different luck on West Hill.  The fishing wasn’t very, very poor this day. 

He was fishing with Ted and their friend Jack.  Upon showing up in the morning, to his chagrin, he realized he had left his fishing license at home.  Now Jim was an extremely ethical angler. He never took more than his limit, and he abided by most of the rules of the game.  On this fateful day, he decided not to set his tip ups and risk a run in with a warden. 

Really, an easy decision.  Besides not having a copy of his fishing license, it didn’t really matter after all if he did set his tip ups since he wouldn’t catch anything anyway.  Just less work to do in breaking down at the end of the day, he reasoned. 

As the morning wore on, both Ted and Jack were having luck.  Jim started to feel a bit left out, a bit antsy, so he struck an agreement with Jack.  They would alternate flags.  First, Jack would take a flag and then on the next one Jim would fish it.  A fair and equitable solution, and only bending the rules really, no harm no foul since this day they were practicing catch and release.  

As Jim’s turn in the rotation came, he and Jack made their way to the standing flag.  Jack held Jim up, saying that he thought he was going to take this flag.  He assured Jim that he would indeed let him field a flag, but just not this one.  He could absolutely have the next one.  Jim reluctantly agreed.  Jack caught a shitty pickerel. 

They sat back down and drank beer.  After a while, Jack looked out across the ice and announced that a flag was up.  The men walked to it, and this one was to be Jim’s turn since Jack had mucked up their rotation taking the last flag and earning himself a shitty pickerel.  When they arrived at the flag, the spool was spinning quickly.  Something had taken the bait.  Jim pulled the trap from the ice, took up the line, and set the hook. 

He knew instantly that this was no small fish.  It felt solid and as it neared the hole in the ice, this assumption proved true.  When he had landed it, it was the single biggest trout he had ever taken through the ice.  A 19-inch male Brown Trout.  

Jim had a moment of pause here.  

The fellows had no camera to document the catch.  Jim considered that he would take the fish and have it mounted.  But this day, they were fishing catch and release and he just couldn’t kill such a magnificent animal.  

Jim told me that in the glistening winter sunlight he had never seen spots so radiant and lovely, mixed in with the black patterning of the trout were crimson dots that looked to him as red as fresh blood.  It had the sheen of a winter Brown to it, silver on its shoulders and yellow bellied, its jaw slightly kyped.  It was a true work of art as it slipped from his hands and swam back into the depths of the pond.

All these years later, I just wished that Jim had decided otherwise and took what should have been Jack’s fish to be mounted.  I’ve never seen that fish, but I feel I have from the sheer number of times I’ve asked Jim to recount the tale.  In my mind’s eye, it is what it had been for Jim.  The prettiest fish either of us had ever seen. 

And while this is good and well, in my heart I’d love to have seen that fish on his wall where he could have pointed to it and said, I’ve got a story about that fish.  Fishless Jim, he deserved that mount, but he just couldn’t have killed such a magnificent animal.



after all 

My Uncle and friend Jim Lawless passed away last spring.  He had been sick for a while with Pulmonary Fibrosis.  He had survived a double lung transplant, but he was never the same after.  He soldiered on through a variety of ailments after the transplant.  He could no longer drink beer, and O’Douls just doesn’t taste the same.  His kidneys failed eventually and his condition choked the enjoyment from his life.  He tried as hard as he could, and at the last he just couldn’t drag his feet to slow the circle down. 

The last time I saw him fish a river well, on his own two feet in waders, was in 2016 on the Natchaug River where we had met on a fine spring day.  I saw him catch a number of Rainbow Trout on worms and an ultra-light spinning set up.  I sat back that day on the shore and watched him in his element for a good long while.  We had a long talk that day, and he wasn’t fishless. 

At our annual Fishcamp last year, he was a shell of himself.  He was always cold and he wasn’t as strong as he had been.  He had no energy to fish, and I drove him down to the Natchaug River where he stayed in the car and watched the current for a while.  A week or so later, he died peacefully at home surrounded by his daughters and wife. 

At his funeral, the family had constructed a board with many photos of Jim through the years.  As I looked at them, I realized how many of those photos I had taken myself, the fishing photos.  I would print them for Jim, and I think he put them in his fishing photo album.  I’m grateful I was there to take so many pictures with him, and I’m grateful for all the stories he and I traded. 

Jim’s stories, they live on.  As does his memory.  And I know that this year at Fishcamp he’ll be telling them, and drinking beer, with my own Dad.  Out there on the other side of the Natchaug River, at the campfire we all will someday share.



Sunday, April 10, 2022

Headwaters

The first open water fishing I did this year was a pair of trips to a familiar stretch of stream. It's close by and I have high confidence in finding willing wild trout every time I go. On a warm lunch hour in March, I hooked and landed four beautiful browns all from the same riffle. The biggest of the bunch came up for a dry fly, which really made my day. Just over a week later and a mile upstream, I got into a few more quality fish thanks to a piece of hot pink chenille tied on a hook that resembled next to nothing in their diet. 





Over the years, I have explored a good chunk of this watershed, learning a little more of her secrets with each visit. Yet for as much as I thought I knew about it, there is always more to uncover. During a recent night on the couch with a laptop and Google Earth, I stumbled upon some new access points north of where I normally fish, a long five miles upstream. 

The following day I found myself along a brand new-to-me section of stream. The waterway was noticeably smaller than the one I knew downstream. It was also fed by natural springs as evidenced by patches of thick vegetation that looked like water cress. I walked the bank just observing for a while. After a few minutes of seeing no life, I finally spotted a trout as it bolted away from me like I was Godzilla. A few more paces and a few more dark shadows darted in the opposite direction. It was clear these fish were easily spooked and I would need a stealthier approach. 


Eventually I snuck up to a pool that looked like it could hold some trout. On the first drift with a dry-dropper, something grabbed my nymph. I pulled tight and a small fish somersaulted across the surface and shook off before coming to my hand. Over the next several drifts, native brook trout of varying size took turns attacking the dry fly and pheasant tail below it. Finally I was able to cup one in my hand for quick documentation. That single pool must have harbored at least two dozen brookies. 



Fifty yards further I stopped at another run and experienced similar results. It was like this was the first time these fish ever saw bugs. Interestingly they were all brook trout and the lower section of the stream was predominately brown trout. The scouting trip was a success and just the tip of the iceberg. So much more water and woods to explore, all seemingly unspoiled and uncrowded. Sometimes in pays to do a little research and break away from the comfort zones on our favorite rivers and streams.  


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Farewell & Adieu

Red-winged blackbirds are calling in the marshes. Stonflies are hatching on thin blue lines. Osprey and river herring are arriving any day. All signs pointing to winter's last gasps and another ice season's end. 

The weeks and months leading up to ice fishing are filled with anticipation. Hours upon hours devoted to prepping gear, securing bait, analyzing forecasts, and checking ice. Then, after arctic blasts transform our lakes and ponds, we fish when we can until its gone. Sometimes the season doesn't last long and the brevity of it all adds to the allure. 

This year my hardwater season lasted 51 days from January 14 to March 5. In that time I made six trips to three water bodies--the first half focusing on northern pike, the second half reuniting with a favorite trout lake I hadn't fished since 2011. Those two styles of fishing are incredibly different, but each enjoyable and exciting in their own right. 

It's always bittersweet packing away the ice gear in the rafters of my basement, but bidding farewell to winter means saying hello to spring and all of the amazing outdoor opportunities it brings. 

Here a is a short video from my ice season finale and a few other memorable moments that will hold me over until next winter.










Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Raising the Bar

I have hooked and landed longer brown trout through the ice, but never one so heavy. This fish was stuffed yet still had room for my pike shiner set 30-feet down. By the time I had reached my tip-up, it had ripped dozens of yards of Dacron from my spool. Then I gained it back, hand over hand, and it froze on contact against the bare ice. Luckily most of the long battle was between the last 20-feet of line, half of which was 10# test fluorocarbon that gave me a little more confidence during the final throes around the hole. 

When my fishing partner reached down and helped scoop the trout topside, there was a sense of joy and relief, followed by fast action to document the new personal best before its healthy release. It is moments and fish like this one that become seared into our memory and drive us out into the elements each winter.

 


Saturday, February 12, 2022

Return of the Jig

I really enjoy ice fishing with tip-ups, but there is something special, and different, about jigging. Hooking and fighting my quarry through the ice with a rod and reel is such a thrill to me. When the target species is a quality trout that rushes 20 feet up the water column to eat a metal spoon I am pulling away, well, even better. 

It had been 11 winters since my last trip to this favorite body of water. Like seeing an old friend, we picked up right where we left off. I already can't wait to get back there, and God willing it won't be as long until next time. 


Saturday, January 29, 2022

First Encounter

Catching a beautiful northern pike through the ice will always be exciting, but experiencing it with my daughter for the first time brought it to another level. It has been incredibly rewarding introducing kids to ice fishing. Their reaction to this predator getting pulled from the hole is going to stay with me for a long time.