Me & Joe - The Atlantic Salmon|
By Bob Cram (alias T.J. Coongate)
I love to ice fish and make no apologies for it. A lot of Maine anglers consider hard water fishing beneath them. For such people, the only acceptable way to pull a fish from its natural environment is with a rod and reel in open water with flies buzzing around. Moose droppings!
I love open water fishing as well as the next guy, but there’s something about fishing through a hole in the ice that gets my blood going. Maybe it’s the idea of actually standing on the element you’re fishing in. Perhaps it’s the fact that, no matter where you fish, you can never be completely certain what’s on the end of your line until it appears in the little hole you’ve made through the ice. And just maybe it’s the absolutely beautiful scenery, with the stark winter landscape opening up around you and the air so crystal clear and free of haze that everything you see has an honesty and lack of pretense that just isn’t possible in warmer times. But I digress.
My fascination with ice fishing prompted me to build a particularly elaborate ice shack. Most such structures are just small fabrications with little more than four walls and a hole through the floor. Mine measured eight by twelve feet and sported two bunks, a small wood heater, gas lights, an apartment-sized gas stove, and a sideboard complete with sink and cutting board for filleting fish. It took me and Joe a whole day to haul the heavy shack out onto the frozen surface of Gooseneck Pond and get it set up for a winter of fishing. But it was well worth the effort.
A lot of fishermen prefer to concentrate on trout or salmon, positioning their shacks far from civilization on distant waters famous for their cold water fisheries. While me and Joe liked such fishing as well as anyone, we also liked to eat fish regularly and it is a fact of life that, given the logistics involved, such distant shacks only get used occasionally over the course of a winter.
While harboring few trout and no salmon, Gooseneck Pond held thriving populations of both chain pickerel and white perch. With a ten fish per day limit on pickerel and no limit on perch, gathering the makings for a fry or chowder was pretty simple. And the fact that the pond lay just three miles from the town of Mooseleuk meant that we could go fishing for a few hours most anytime.
On a clear, cold, nearly windless day in January me and Joe sat comfortably in the roomy shack, in shirtsleeves and slippers, working jigging poles through holes in the floor. The little tin heater threw a comfortable warmth throughout the enclosure.
“We really orta set up a few traps outside,” Joe said, giving his rod a twitch.
“Well, I dunno…just seems like what yer supposed to do when yer ice fishin’.”
I looked at the three pickerel and four perch already in our fish box against the wall and said, “You go out and set a few traps. I’ll keep things going here.”
Joe glanced at the small thermometer attached to the outside of one window frame. The red line stood at five degrees. “Well…maybe I won’t.”
I looked out the window. A quarter mile away Coburn Hoodwink’s big house loomed over the south side of the pond. Out from the house, and just a few dozen yards away, a small black fishing shack stood alone on the ice.
“I wonder why Coburn put out a shack,” I said thoughtfully. “He hates ice fishing and ice fishermen. Remember how he tried to get the pond closed to ice fishing?”
Joe snorted. “Maybe he figures, if you can’t beat ‘um, join ‘um.”
Hoodwink owned all the land along the south shore of the pond. The rest of the shoreline, including the boat landing toward town, was Maine Public Reserve Land. Coburn, a dedicated fly fisherman and foe of ice fishing in principal, had recently petitioned Fisheries & Wildlife to close Gooseneck Pond to winter fishing. The state, recognizing that the pond was a popular winter fishing spot for local people and also that it primarily held warm water species that could stand a lot of fishing pressure, had declined the request.
Faintly, from outside, we heard voices raised in shouting. At least a dozen other fishing shacks dotted the surface of Gooseneck Pond and it wasn’t unusual to hear a voice or two, although shouting wasn’t common.
Suddenly, the door slammed open, letting in a gush of frigid air. Gilman Froid stood in the doorway, his face red, small globules of ice hanging from his grizzled mustache.
“You gotta come see what I caught!” he cried.
“No we don’t,” I said
“Close the door!” Joe barked.
“I caught a salming!” Gilman said excitedly.
“Aren’t any salmon in Gooseneck,” I said absently, working my jig pole. “Isn’t fifteen
feet of water in the whole pond.”
“Close the door!” Joe repeated.
“I’m tellin’ yers, it’s a salming! I know a dad-blamed salming when I see it. An’ it’s a big one! A monster salming!”
Joe sighed and began reeling in his line. “We better suit up an’ go see what he’s got,” he said grumpily. “Otherwise he’s gonna stand there an’ freeze us out.”
Suitably attired and with the shack door closed behind us, we crunched through the light snow to Gilman’s shack a hundred yards away. Already a group of five or six other anglers were gathered around his door. As we came nearer, I could hear their voices and make out individual words.
“By gory, it is a salmon!”
“An’ a big one! Gotta be 30 inches long!”
“Wonder how he landed it?”
There on the ice outside the door of Gilman’s shack lay a very big salmon. Joe knelt beside it and examined the fish closely. He looked up at me.
“It’s a salmon, all right. Biggest one I’ve ever seen in fresh water.”
“How the heck did it get into Gooseneck Pond?” I wondered.
“Gooseneck Pond is connected to the Little Salt Pork River.” I looked behind me to see
Coburn Hoodwink standing there, staring down at the monster salmon.
“Yeah, Coburn,” I said, “but it’s just a little connecting stream and, anyway, there aren’t salmon like this in the Little Salt Pork.”
“The river ultimately runs into the St. John River,” Hoodwink said condescendingly. “And there are salmon…Atlantic salmon…in the St. John.”
“Not this far up,” Joe said.
“Then how do you explain this fish?” Hoodwink asked.
Before Joe could answer a snowmobile came rumbling across the ice and pulled to a stop a few feet away.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Warden Pinch Brody asked.
“I jist caught me a great big salming!” Gilman said importantly. “Barely got ‘im through the hole in my shack!”
“Brody glanced down at the fish, then did a double take. He knelt to take a closer look.
“That’s a big salmon,” he said softly.
“Sure is!” Gilman agreed.
“There aren’t any salmon in Gooseneck Pond,” Brody continued.
“I would say that fish lying right there would argue that you’re wrong, warden,” Coburn hoodwink said. “It looks like an Atlantic to me.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“You can’t,” Brody interrupted. “It’ll take a biologist to tell for sure. He can tell by examining the scales under a microscope.”
“But a salmon that size….” Hoodwink continued.
“Yeah, I know,” Brody said. “One this big almost has to be an Atlantic. But how in the world….” He glanced at Froid. “Gilman, if it’s alright with you, I’ll take this fish in and have it examined.” He held up a hand as the fisherman bristled. “I know, you caught it legal. I’ll make sure it gets back to you.”
“Well, okay,” Gilman said reluctantly. “Guess I’d really like to know what I actually caught.”
Joe picked up the fish and carried it to the warden’s snowmobile. I followed the two of them.
“This isn’t good,” Brody said as he put the fish in the enclosed rack on the back of the sled.
“Why?” Joe asked, surprised.
“If it turns out there’s a viable population of Atlantic salmon in this pond, they’ll likely close it to ice fishing.”
I blanched. “Maybe it was the only one.”
“Maybe,” the warden said doubtfully. “I got to get going.”
After Brody left, the other anglers hurried back toward their shacks, all of them anxious to see if they, too, could hook onto a big salmon.
Me and Joe walked slowly back to my shack. Coburn Hoodwink strode across the pond, bypassing his own shack and heading for his big house on the shore.
Back in the shack I checked my jigging pole before dropping the lure back down the hole. Joe lifted one of the larger pickerel out of the box, took his fillet knife, and began to prepare it for lunch. He seemed quiet and pensive.
“Hard to believe that Atlantic salmon could make it up here into the pond,” I said, working my line up and down.
“I don’t think they kin,” Joe said. Already he had a fillet off the fish and began carefully cutting out the y-bones with the tip of the knife. He stopped and looked at me.
“If this pond was closed to ice fishin’, the only one that would benefit would be Coburn Hoodwink. He could do what he’s wanted to do all along. Have the warm water fish killed with Rotenone and then have it restocked with trout. Then he could sell lots to his big money friends from out of state an’ they could have fancy camps right on a good trout fishin’ pond. If he could git it stocked with big trout and git catch and release regulations to boot, he’d have it made.”
“I know, but even he can’t make an Atlantic salmon swim up here into Gooseneck Pond.”
“I know,” Joe said, turning back to the pickerel. “But I bet he’s got somethin’ to do with it.”
The next day we were back in the shack. We still hadn’t heard from Warden Brody and nobody else had landed another salmon. On this day, we were putting all the pickerel back and keeping just a few of the larger perch.
“Maybe,” I said, “it was just a fluke. Maybe that was the only salmon in here and….”
Joe held up a cautionary hand. I watched the tip of his jig rod twitch again, and he set the hook. Immediately the small rod snapped down toward the water. Joe almost lost his grip on the handle.
For the next few minutes he played the fish, mostly giving out line before gradually gaining it pack. Finally, the head of a massive fish appeared in the hole. Rather than chance the light line, Joe reached through the floor and snagged the fish by the bottom jaw. With a sharp tug, he pulled a salmon nearly three feet long out onto the floor of the shack.
At that exact moment the door opened and Pinch Brody stepped in just in time for the big salmon to flop against his boots. He stared down at it grimly.
“Yeah,” Joe said, scowling. He picked the fish up by the tail and quickly dispatched it with a rap on the head from the hardwood stick we kept by the jigging holes. He glanced at Brody.
“What did you find out?”
“They’re Atlantics, all right.” My face fell.
“But they’s somethin’ a little odd.”
“What’s that?” I said. Brody stared out the window across the ice to Hoodwink’s shack.
The warden changed the subject. “How come Coburn Hoodwink has an ice shack out?”
“Well, like Joe said…maybe he thinks it’s better to just join in.”
“Not bloody likely,” Brody muttered.
“You know,” Joe said thoughtfully, looking over the warden’s shoulder, “it might be worth your while to jest go over an’ check on ol’ Hoodwink and how he’s doin’ fishin’. I mean, aint’ that what you wardens do?”
Brody stared at Joe and then slowly grinned. “Not a bad idea. You think he’s in the shack?”
“We watched him walk out a little while ago,” I said.
Brody turned to the door.
“Maybe we ort to go along,” Joe said. Brody turned. “You know, sorta like…witnesses.”
Brody’s grin widened. “Come on along.”
As we approached Hoodwink’s shack I noticed that the windows were tightly curtained, preventing anyone from seeing inside. Brody stopped and pounded on the door. “Open up, Coburn. Like to see your license and check your gear, if I may.”
From inside came a scurry of movement. Then we heard Hoodwink’s voice, unnaturally high pitched and nervous.
“Uh…just a minute. I’ll be right with you in just a minute! Hold on!”
Brody turned to us. “What did he say?”
“Sounded to me like he was callin’ for help,” Joe said seriously.
“That’s what I thought,” Brody replied. Drawing back slightly, he delivered a heavy kick to the flimsy plywood door. It slammed open and the three of us stared into the shack.
A startled Coburn Hoodwink stood over a large, chainsaw-cut hole in the floor. Cradled in his hands was a huge, squirming salmon that he was about to slide through the hole. In a big plastic tub beside the hole, two more salmon sloshed in cloudy water. Hoodwink lost his grip and the salmon dropped through the hole with a heavy splash.
“Coburn Hoodwink,” Brody said solemnly, “you’re under arrest.”
“What? Wait! I can explain!” Coburn backed against the wall. “I was just…that is…I just caught these fish! The pond must be full of them. Yeah, that’s it! I just caught ‘um and I don’t keep any fish, so I was just releasing them back into the pond!” He started to grin.
“Won’t wash, Coburn,” the warden said. “These here are pen raised fish.”
“You can’t know that!” Hoodwink slapped a hand over his mouth. “That is, there’s no way you can prove….”
“Yes we can,” Brody said. He walked into the shack, followed by me and Joe. “For a man that’s supposed to know so much about salmonids, you forgot about one thing.”
Hoodwink frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Brody pointed down at the two fish in the tub. “The adipose fins are missing.”
Hoodwink’s jaw dropped. I glanced down at the fish in the tub. On both of them, the adipose fin, that tiny vestigial fin on the back just ahead of the tail, was missing. Then I remembered that, on pen raised fish, the fins were clipped so that, if they escaped, they wouldn’t be confused with wild fish.
“I’ll be confiscatin’ these two fish as evidence of illegal introduction,” Brody continued. “Come on along, now Coburn. You an’ me, we got a date with the judge.”
As we walked back across the ice, Joe grinned at Hoodwink’s hunched back.
“Guess this here plan of yours has really back fired, Coburn.”
Hoodwink scowled back at him. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Joe continued, glancing across the ice at the proliferation of shacks. “Once word gits around that they’s still some big Atlantics swimmin’ here, this pond’s gonna see more fishin’ activity than ever.”
Hoodwink began to curse bitterly under his breath. Brody gave him a nudge to move him along. He grinned over at me.
“Oh, by the way, I’ll be out to your shack later on.”
I scowled. “What for?”
“Oh, I know how Joe is about preparin’ fish,” he continued, heading for his truck on shore. “You got you a big salmon and a nice little gas stove with an oven an’ everything. I kin just about smell the baked salmon cookin’ for supper. I’ll be right along.”
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