by Jesse Bastide
Angler: Gary Spring
Favorite Waters: Maine lakes and streams
Favorite Species: Trout, salmon
Favorite Method: Fly fishing
Occupation: History teacher, retired
About the time Gary caught his first trout, in Maine waters and at the age of seven, Eisenhower was president and you could still say the war in Vietnam was getting started. So when you talk to Gary about fishing, it comes with a certain perspective. The stories flow, connected, but maybe not in chronological order.
One of the first things he does is bring up a conversation he had with his wife earlier that morning, and you can hear that he’s considered the words that follow: “Fishing has always been memories, but it’s also been hopes for the future, and I don’t know if it’s ironic, but you do both of those things by becoming fully absorbed in the moment: This fly on the water, what do I have that looks like it?”
You can see flickers of remembering in his face. He tells how his grandfather showed him how to tie a “very tiny timber hitch” to put a fly on quickly.
And that’s when we get to the walking. For Gary, getting to the fishing meant a walk in the north woods of Maine with the men of his family.
He says, “I remember when I first went into the woods with them, my grandfather walked first. My father was behind, griping about him being so slow. And me, just trying to keep up, being the third person.”
Over the years, the order changed. His grandfather stumbled more and fell back to the second spot. His father had to carry more of the load, and eventually everything. And Gary saw this from the back, still the third person, sometimes getting lost but knowing they were up ahead.
Time moved forward. Gary grew up. He took the first spot, and he carried the most. And it was up to him to look back and make sure his father was okay, and to make sure that his father was watching out for his grandfather.
They were the same characters, only older, and with changing roles.
Reflecting on these northern Maine fishing experiences with the men who were so important to him, Gary says, “Every time I go up there, it’s ceremonial time. It’s transcendent, at least at some moment, when I’m fishing. And I don’t know - I think that’s part of the reason why I like to fish. And I think many people do.”
If his fishing memories are on a reel, Gary winds it forward, almost into the present. And he talks about a recent fishing trip up near Rangeley, Maine. What was special, he says, is that he got so tired from fishing.
He says, “I had walked, and I didn’t wear waders, so when I got to where I wanted to fish, I had wet pants. I was having a good time, but I was tired. And I sat on the bank, just to rest. I looked at the light (I do this hunting, too, you know). I just stared - I can’t remember if it was a spider or a caterpillar. And I thought, I have finally slowed down. I’m doing absolutely nothing.”
When he talks about fishing, Gary’s mind keeps moving, like a stream with small eddies and currents that double back on themselves. What he talks about next is his fascination with thinking like a fish. He says that he’ll get to a stream and try to figure out where a trout would hide, based on the way the current is flowing around the rocks.
“If it’s deep,” he says, “a trout might be well in front of a rock.” But then he adds, “...if the water’s pretty fast, the trout might be on the leeward side of the rock, downstream, so he can turn just a few degrees and see everything flowing on the surface.”
I ask Gary for a good fishing memory, and fifty-six years dissolve in the space between us. When he tells this to me, he’s eight years old again, his eyes bright, his lips talking through the gray whiskers on his face as if they weren’t there.
He goes back to 1960, in Matagamon, Maine, right up where the East Branch of the Penobscot River finds its origin. And what he remembers is a girl only a couple years older than he was.
According to Gary, the girl did not want to be there. He says, “She was sulking.”
One afternoon, Gary was fly fishing under a big log bridge that crossed the river. He says the bridge was strong enough for a car to pass, but risky to drive over. And then he saw the girl show up with a rod and reel and some bait. He says, “I was feeling really superior, in that she didn’t appreciate it. She was just screwing around. She went to the center of the bridge, where there was a hole, and dropped this big goober of worms down there. And I was already wanting to be a fly fisherman, and I thought, What a waste of a good rod.”
Then, a few minutes later, the girl started screaming.
Gary says, “A fish was on the line. I couldn’t believe it….But, I’m also watching her, because I know she’s gonna blow it. She’s gonna lose the fish.
“And I’m down below, so I can see her up top, and I can see the line from the fish going down into the water, and she starts: she does nothing but reel. And I don’t offer to help her at all.”
What happened next is that Gary saw “the biggest trout I’ve ever seen anybody actually catch.” It was a brook trout, but with a golden hue. And he watched the girl pull it upward, toward the hole in the bottom of the bridge. That’s when Gary realized she might not be able to get it through the hole.
So he went up top, on the bridge, and offered to help, but he did more watching than helping. Gary says she cranked it through the hole, with no room to spare, and he’s not sure the fish would have made it through if it hadn’t been wet.
What happened after that was a lot of flopping. And more flopping. He says, “It seemed like it was a yard long; it wasn’t that big, but it was the biggest trout I ever saw anybody catch there.”
He says that memory stuck. He’d been trying hard, right below the bridge, using streamers and dry flies and not having any luck, and this girl who wasn’t even serious managed to land the biggest trout he’d seen.
You could probably talk to Gary for a year and not get all his fishing stories down. But what a pleasure to hear him speak, and to hear how fishing connects him with special people and places.
[Note: This story has a personal connection. Gary is my step-father; we've fished some of the same Maine waters, sometimes together - Jesse Bastide]
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