Burton on the Bay:Sandra Martin

Small Boat, Light Tackle

by Sandra Martin

NBT Editor Martin becomes outdoors woman this week, sitting in for Bill Burton, who, to complete the reversal of roles, is seeing to family matters.

It's like rediscovering an old friend, that feeling of gliding. If you're like me, no matter how many times you've done it, launching is laced with doubt: will this light craft and you merge like a Nereid or will you splash and spill? Then you've got your boat in the water and yourself in your boat and you push off and there, as paddle cuts water, is that old friend again.

These are new waters and new boats: on Maine's Lake Damariscotta, where NBT contributing editor M.L. Faunce owns a cottage, I've barely said hello before being hooked by the lure of her little Manatee, a single kayak. When I ease out into the lake, the morning air matches the water, chilly and wet. It's a responsive little craft, short and agile and alive to both my stroke and the fast current of the channel that runs between a nice island and Osage Cottage's lawn and dock.

New, but not so different from the other waters I've canoed or kayaked - from Admiralty Island, Alaska, to Lake of the Woods, Ontario, to Lake Superior at Sault Ste. Marie to Lake Wappapello or even Mingo Swamp in Missouri, to the Pocomoke River on Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore to my home waters of Herring Bay. The glide is the same, the feeling that you are in another element yet one that is not entirely strange.

Rippling through water lilies, their white and yellow blossoms open in the early morning, over to the shore of that inviting island, I come on another sight so familiar that my heart leaps: through the amber clear water shows the rocky bottom. I know in the tumble of memories why this sight so thrills me, something about being in the real world making you feel realer yourself.

But you don't sit in one place - or stay with one thought - long while on the water, and a stroke later I see that M.L.'s Manatee (a gift on her June retirement after 35 years working for the federal government, most for the U.S. Senate) can nose nicely into the shallows. It needs only a few inches of water; I'd already be stuck in my usual craft, a big two-person touring kayak over 20 feet long. This is the way to find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

But there are four more boats in Faunce's armada, more fish to fry this morning and the promise of another way of feeling realer on the water - though I must spell this one 'reeler.' So I leave this island - trusting that later I will feel the sponge over rock of its mossy banks - to cast my line upon the waters.


Light Tackle

I renewed my taste for fishing in Western Ontario, where, tangled in the chain of Lake of the Woods, I must catch my dinner or go without. By then the high balance of a canoe was second nature, sweetened by the pleasure of casting light little Mepps into the amber water over round rocks.

Rolling with the water, you hold your mouth like a fish, which I discovered in those meditative moments simply means figuring where a fish would like to rest: holding steady, perhaps, in the lee of a submerged log. You then cast into that sweet spot, feeling the arc of limb and line, high or low, watching the line float, hearing the plunk of lure landing. Now comes the thrill of current telegraphed along line, the tug of the water, the wondering if there be fish.

Somehow there always are. So the time will come when your line suggests, then insists, and before you have time to say, 'Oh my! A fish!' you'll be working it, giving line and taking it - all the time keeping your seat, which is as lively as if this boat on water were a horse beneath you - until you see the amber fish within the amber water. Then if you are sure and steady, you'll swing a big Northern or wall-eye pike into the net, and smelling its rank sharpness, you'll know you've landed a creature from another world.

For me, that's angling. Trolling Chesapeake Bay in a big, loud boat that does all the work is many people's idea of fishing. But not mine.

But soon, when the small rockfish make their way into the shallows like they do every year in Herring Bay, you can go out to meet them in canoe.

This year, when I seek them, I'll have traded in my spinning rod for lighter tacking. If up here on this Maine lake I can get the knack of fly fishing.

We've had our lesson. Out on the lawn, Maestro Lambrecht, NBT's publisher, has lined us up, practically a rogue's gallery of New Bay Times: myself, Faunce and classified manager (and sometime writer) Nathaniel Knoll. Kathleen Wilson, thank goodness, is a reader - or we would have to eat our own words. We'd rather eat fish with our Maine blueberries.

We've felt with shock the length and lightness of the rod. Considered the taper of the line. Examined the leader. Compared the flies. Taken rod in one hand and line in the other and tried our arm at wielding its length and lightness and all that line with no weight to give substance to its fall. At first, for most of us, line falls in a tangle leaving us surrounded as if we were squirted with Silly String. It's limp and we're aimless.

Then, slowly, we get the swing, carry the tip of the rod just far enough back, teach the left hand what the right is doing, and the line whips in the lovely, limber arc beloved by the flyfisherman. Not every time. Each success is bracketed by failure, when we're clumsily all thumbs and tangles. But surely we find success.

Early the next morning my old fishing partner and I ease into no kayak but our old familiar craft, a canoe. Settling, we shimmy unsteadily, needing to learn this high perch all over again. How, we wonder, have we covered so many miles, so far from anywhere, in boats this slippery? Then we've got our seats and the paddles power us into the current and we move faster than it onto the far side of that island where, certainly, the fish live.

M.L. has seen hanging in the rocky shallows there a big fish with a wide, low-slung jaw.

So now, athwart a lichen-covered boulder where the current idles, we dally, hardly paddling at all, twice a line's throw from the green shore. I have seen how Lambrecht swings and snaps the line, watched the wet fly swim back to the boat. He, too, has told of fishes: not quite as big as M.L.'s legendary lunker but big enough to feed two or three, big enough to talk about, big enough to grow bigger after you've set him free.

Now it's my turn, and here are those old friends again: the line, the lure, the loft and, eventually, the sweet sudden surprise when something live is on your line.

I'm here to tell you large-mouth bass live in that lake as surely as rockfish swim in the fall shallows of Chesapeake Bay.

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VolumeVI Number 36
September 10-16, 1998
New Bay Times

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