We paddled the canoe across the lake at a relaxed pace. I had a destination in mind; the stream feeding the lake, but there was no hurry. Carter, upfront, paddled leisurely and looked around, and a couple times let the paddle rest across the gunwales as his body became still. I could tell even from behind him that his eyes were closed. It made me smile a little. He was only twelve years old for two more days. It wasn’t like thirteen years old was going to drop him into the adult world, but still, at his age these days there are just too many kids who couldn’t sit there in the canoe, content to feel the sun on their face happy enough to look off at the hills and distant mountains covered in hardwoods and evergreens. They couldn’t be happy without some digital device in their hands connecting them to the rest of the world.
At the mouth of the stream I asked him to pass his fishing rod back to me. It was a medium action casting rod with a bass lure on it. I snipped the line and replaced the lure with the smallest marabou jig I had for him. A small, sixteenth ounce pale yellow jig, no different than the woolly bugger on my fly rod except that the head on mine was a bead slid onto the hook while his was a lead head cast on the hook. I didn’t know if it even weighed enough to cast very well on his short, pushbutton casting rod but it was worth a shot. The stream was small, it only needed to travel fifteen feet or so. He took the rod back and I paddled us upstream.
On the winding water we passed trees that had fallen in somewhere upstream and had been washed down. In a couple places there was just enough room for the canoe to pass in between protruding limbs and naked, sun-bleached trunks. They looked like old bones. Skeletons of the woods in their temporary resting places until higher waters would eventually move them again. They’d end up in the lake someday as smaller, whiter, polished driftwood stacked against a far shore.
There were small white bugs in the air, about a size twenty-two if they were a fly tied at a vise, but no fish were rising to eat them. I’d seen this stream look like a brook trout acrobatic school on other days with them jumping and cartwheeling everywhere as if fish understood what fun was, but not today. In a stretch of about thirty feet of open water between half submerged trees I told Carter to cast that marabou jig as far as he could. His first cast only went about ten feet, the rod too stiff and short and the jig to light, and he said “Oh. Yeah. I guess I need to cast it harder.” But as he lifted it from the water next to the canoe a fish splashed and just missed it. His eyes lit up and I laughed. “I told you, they’re here!” Make a longer cast and keep it in the water longer!” Three casts later his line went tight, and he set the hook like it was bass; that little brook trout left the water, arced over our heads and the canoe, and splashed back down on the other side. I laughed out loud and Carter chuckled in confusion. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that small!” I told him to wet his hands and he held it while I grabbed a quick picture and then he let it slip back into the water.
That night we sat under the overhanging trees on our camp stools on the lake shore as the sky got darker and a half moon and the stars got brighter. By the time the sky was black the old historic Adirondack great camp across the lake was beginning to entertain its guests, and music began to carry across the water to us. It was just loud enough to make out if you sat in silence, and we did. An acoustic, folk sounding version of Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ” carried to us on a breeze. It set a mood I found odd but more and more typical for me. The song’s about a radio DJ, something I wouldn’t normally connect to the wilderness, but it’s about “the last DJ.” The DJ that won’t conform to corporate. Won’t conform to today’s world. And now he doesn’t quite fit in…not in our society anymore. And man, does that song suddenly leave an impression, hearing it quietly and softly across a remote lake under a star filled sky with absolutely no other sound. I’m that DJ. I’ve known it for a good while now. But I had to be told in the right place and the right way for it to hit me like a new revelation again.
The next morning Carter was still asleep in the tent while I stood next to the canoe on a boulder sticking up out of the lake. It was a rocky shoreline, no shortage of boulders. A couple hundred yards out a fish jumped. And beyond it on the far side of the lake a thick fogged rolled on the surface where the sun’s first direct light was heating the air; the atmosphere at water level rolled and churned like clouds do thousands of feet above us. I looked over at my fly rod, and then at Carter’s casting rod. I didn’t feel like roll casting under the trees, so I picked up Carter’s rod and unhooked the heavy jig I’d put on it at the end of the previous day. Like any other jig made of marabou feathers and chenille it was just a woolly bugger to cast on a spinning rod. Or I guess maybe you could look at a bead headed woolly bugger as a marabou jig you cast on a fly rod. Whichever came first, they’re both the same thing, meant to be fished on two different types of fishing rods because someone decided a long, long time ago that they’re two different things, even if it’s all just fishing in the end.
I launched that big white marabou jig with the pink head as far as I could out into the middle of a bunch of flat, wide open, deep water. It hit the water and didn’t even have time to sink three inches. The line instantly went tight. For a couple seconds I questioned in my head if I’d snagged some floating branch I couldn’t see, but then the line started moving and cutting through the water. The rod bent. I must’ve hit that bass right in the mouth, it had to be waiting out there looking up with its mouth wide open, right where my cast landed.
It jumped and flailed and its splashes broke the morning’s silence. A few birds, a blue jay screaming in the trees somewhere and a red squirrel angrily chattering had been the only other sounds up to the splashes. It was a nice smallmouth in a lake where they shouldn’t be but are today, and I was happy to catch it, but apprehensive about what I’d just done. JP has always said that catching a fish on your first cast is bad luck. I’m not superstitious, but I hadn’t just caught a fish on the first cast…I’d picked one pinpoint on a huge lake, just flat water out in the middle of nothing, and dropped that first cast right in a fish’s mouth. The odds of that weren’t good. It was probably in the same realm as making a hole in one on a golf course not even knowing where the hole was. I wasn’t superstitious, but if I was going to suddenly become so, that would do it.
Carter came down to the water right after the fish had swum off. I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he didn’t feel like fishing or hiking. Maybe we could go somewhere else? We drove up to the old Blue Mountain Lake Museum instead for the day. We walked around, saw everything from old turn of the last century logging gear to old train cars and boats of the era and before we left took a hundred-year-old Adirondack guide boat out on a lake. I was actually relieved he didn’t want to stick around and fish… There was no way we were going to catch anything for the rest of that day after that first cast and catch. Not that I’m superstitious or anything.
Mark Usyk is the author of three books full of fishing stories. If you enjoyed this short story, then you’ll enjoy his books, full of stories about life, where fishing happens. You can purchase all three; Reflections of a Fly Rod, Carp Are Jerks, and Not All Trout Are Geniuses, on Amazon in both paperback and e-book format, or you can purchase signed paperbacks right here on the JP Ross website while you’re picking out your next fly rod to go help you go out and find your own stories.