Each of the past few years my friend Ken has asked me if I want to go fishing on opening day of trout season. I always say “yes” when I secretly mean “not really.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love fishing with Ken. I’m just not much of a stream fisherman, especially not on opening day when you need to get up before dawn to fight for elbow room on local streams.
Let me set the scene for you.
Every year, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection stocks approximately 700,000 trout in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. The stocking program is designed to be a “put and take” system, where the goal and expectation is that fisherman will keep and consume many of the fish they catch. Stocking locations are widely known (DEEP’s website contains an interactive map that shows how many fish were stocked, where and when), and fishermen from around the state flock to a relatively few number of spots for the best chance of the year to catch trout.
Not exactly ideal conditions for someone like me who values fishing, in part, because of its opportunities to avoid humanity.
The last few years, I’ve been lucky. Something has always come up to get us out of going: bad weather, the kids’ sporting events, business trips. But this year my luck ran out. A perfect forecast and clear calendars conspired against me. I set my alarm for 4:45.
I gave myself a pep talk as I drank my first cup of coffee. “Make the best of it,” I told myself. “It will be fun. Or at least not miserable.”
I had reason to be hopeful. My son Gage had agreed to join us. I don’t get a lot of time with him now that he’s in college, and I value the time we do get. I especially enjoy any opportunity to hang out and talk as men, not as father and son. Fishing provides us the perfect environment to do that.
Plus, Ken sold us on the idea of attending the annual pancake breakfast hosted by Granby’s American Legion Post #182. Spend a couple of hours with my son and a good friend, then eat pancakes and sausage cooked by someone else—with fresh, hot coffee—what did I have to lose?
We were on the road by 5:45. Our destination: Floydville Bridge. There would be fishable water both upstream and downstream of the bridge and, Ken thought, room to spread out. As we turned on to Floydville Road, I noticed half a dozen cars parked near the bridge. Fishermen already occupied all of the places that offered casting angles to the water under, and around, the bridge.
“Sleep”, I muttered to myself. “That’s all I have to lose.”
We headed downstream and found several fishy-looking pools, each of us taking one. I made my first cast, gracefully placing my bait into a tree overhanging the opposite bank. Apparently, I could add “tackle” to the list of things I could lose. There was no way I was getting my line out of that tree without breaking it. Bracing for the sound of my line snapping, I yanked backwards, muttering, slightly louder this time, “Those pancakes better be good.”
Then a funny thing happened. The line didn’t break. It just slipped loose and dropped into the water below. I reeled in and cast again, expertly, this time. My bait landed upstream, perfectly placed so that, as my line came tight, the current swept the bait through the deeper water where I expected the fish to be.
Was that a bite? I half-heartedly made an effort to set the hook, knowing I was already too late. I should have been frustrated about my failure to be ready, but when the tree let loose of my line, it drained all of the frustration out of me. Smiling, I cast again. Again, the bait was swept through the hole.
This time I was ready. I firmly, but calmly, set the hook. I played him a little, then landed a beautiful, healthy, freshly-stocked brook trout. As I handed the fish to Ken to put on a stringer, I said: “Well, I’m satisfied. We can go eat pancakes.” We both laughed.
Minutes later, Ken landed his own brook trout. After a quick picture, he said: “The only thing keeping us from those pancakes now is Gage getting one.”
I walked back to where Gage was fishing and told him: “We can go eat pancakes as soon as you catch one.”
We worked the stream for about another hour. I fished, but only in the sense that: I cast bait; I retrieved it; and I assumed we hadn’t caught the last two trout in the stream. But catching fish was no longer my focus. Instead, I made a conscious effort to notice and appreciate the things going on around me:
A perfect spring morning, with air crisp enough that we could see our breath, but enough sunshine to keep us feeling warm.
Two geese flying low directly above us, following the contour of the stream.
The therapeutic feel of cold stream water circulating around my wader-clad, arthritic knees.
Gage taking my advice about using a lighter leader, something he was comfortable doing because I offered the advice as a fellow fisherman, not as a father.
Me being comfortable if he hadn’t taken the advice, for the same reason.
So, when Gage asked me, as we were headed for pancakes, what I thought about stream fishing, I said: “I think you need to have the right frame of mind. You need to go because of all of the enjoyable things that are unrelated to catching fish. Catching fish should be treated as bonus.”
I think this resonated with Gage. He never got his trout that morning, but he enjoyed at least two full servings of pancakes.