So I began dressing, even making coffee, in a shed beside our house. This allowed me to roll from bed and out the door in silence, wearing little more than my underwear. I’d programmed the coffee maker outside to begin brewing precisely nine minutes before my bedside alarm rang. The timing, perfected over weeks, ensured a piping-hot beverage but spared my wife the familiar — but singularly sleep-depriving — gurgle and aroma of fresh brewed coffee. My clothes, fishing gear, even creamer and a stirring spoon, were laid out just-so the night before.
By the time I hit the water each morning, I was caffeinated and ecstatic. More often than not, a soft orange glow had crept onto the horizon, fading seamlessly into the starry blue of the receding night sky. Bait dimpled on the surface. Quiet pervaded.
On my first trips, the bay and rivers seemed vast, uncharted, opaque. Finding fish in such a large expanse was daunting. But in today’s one-click world, where virtually everything can be asked — and answered — online, it felt refreshing to start from scratch.
The migrations and habits of oceangoing fish like striped bass remain a mystery even today. Unraveling their secrets consumed me. What prompted schools of stripers so willing to feed one day to shut off, or even disappear, the next? Was the fishing really “least” when the wind was from the east? Why were some current rips so attractive to fish, but others, nearly identical in appearance, so often barren? Did barometric pressure really matter?
I chalked up my early successes to luck. But by keeping a meticulous journal and taking careful note of tide, weather, water temperature and the phases of the moon, patterns emerged. One spot, for example, regularly held 8-to-10-pound striped bass, bruisers with gaudy silver stripes and broad, emerald flanks. They happily attacked a top-water lure or fly twitched along a current seam, but only in the first hour of the ebb, and then only when it corresponded with dawn.
It didn’t take long to realize that few such encounters in the wild were random or accidental.
Locating stripers hinged on staying atop their prey. The Kennebec roiled with an unseen bounty of baitfish, thanks, in part, to the removal of upriver dams and the successful restoration of fish runs. Alewives, shad, blueback herring, menhaden, silversides and sand eels plumbed the river’s depths in constantly shifting schools. But because there is no reliable, real-time window into the sea — not even sonar can tell you what is happening where you’re not — I learned to rely on other clues.
I became adept at watching the body language, movements and direction of the gulls, kingfishers, seals, cormorants, bald eagles, osprey and herons that accompanied me on the river. Wildlife rarely loitered long without reason. More than once, a flock of terns or a bobbing seal tipped me off to a fishy spot I might otherwise have overlooked. Other times, I felt as though they were trailing me, hoping for an easy meal or discard.
These kinds of mutually beneficial relationships were common on the water.
Early in the summer, I befriended Slawek Pilat, a local eel trapper. Pilat had emigrated from Poland to New York years ago, then eventually found his way to the town of Poland, Maine, in the hope that someone there might speak his native tongue (no one did). But he preferred country living and in time landed a job at the Poland Spring bottling plant.
Trapping eels was his escape, a nod to his youth in rural Eastern Europe, when his family subsisted on smoked eels in the winter.
Not long after we met, I arrived home from work to find that Pilat had left a dozen eels in a five-gallon bucket dangling from our dock, sized perfectly for striper bait. A fresh batch followed each week. In August, when he accidentally lost his motor over the transom while hauling traps, I twice ferried him and a local diver out on the bay to find it — and we did.
In time, even the fish became more ally than adversary. Pursuing them had opened up a world of discovery and learning. To me, these fish were worth far more alive than dead. Throwing them back was my way of returning the favor to those who had done the same before me.
Still, I knew my morning outings were quite likely not without their impact.
For months, a lone cormorant perched on a shore-side oak had greeted me each dawn, like a familiar dog on a doorstep. One day in September, he was gone. Juvenile alewives were schooling ahead of their fall migration to sea. I’d assumed the bird had risen early to take advantage. But when I returned from my own morning outing, I spotted a lump of black feathers along the bank. I knew it was him.
I cruised in close and hauled the cormorant’s limp but formidable body from the water. He reeked, but his feathers still glistened. Close inspection revealed a snelled hook embedded in his chest. It was rusted, tailing a good bit of frayed monofilament fishing line. I could tell from the knot that it wasn’t mine, but it was clear another fisherman had unwittingly caused his premature demise.
Lessons on the water often came like this, in small doses, subtle, not obvious.
One day late in the summer, I motored out onto the bay to find tree swallows migrating by the thousands, flying low over the water like a writhing carpet. Another day, a small flock of blue-winged teal, hellbent for the tropics, strafed across my bow. That same week I noticed the wild rice had begun to shed its annual crop, a natural bounty timed perfectly for the mounting shorebird and waterfowl migrations. Coincidence?
My goal to fish every day of the summer stretched into fall, long after the leaves had turned and most other fishermen had hung up their gear. The fish and wildlife had become like family, the river as familiar as the rooms in my house. By late September, I’d logged 98 mornings in my journal. I felt I was slowly assembling the pieces of an immense puzzle, the big picture becoming clearer with each passing day.
Then, on the morning of Oct. 29, I sped out with just a few minutes to spare before work. One by one, I checked all the spots. In places I’d caught fish on nearly every cast the day before, now there were none.
An unexpected feeling of loneliness overcame me. Inexplicably, and without warning, the fish had disappeared.
It would be my last lesson of the season.