"But you didn't catch him. Bass like that are for sportsmen."
Red was overwrought, perhaps subconsciously feeling that he was a victim of technological displacement. Therefore I let his last needle pass, but he was, of course, dead wrong in his implication. Catching bass with a canoe rather than from it is a real sport, requiring split-second timing, a cool head and a steady hand. Since that afternoon in the Staircase I have taken three more legal-size bass in canoes, and for those who may wish to take up this challenging pastime the following technical information is provided. First, you must have the proper equipment. After some experimentation, I recommend the same rig in which I took my first bass—a canvas kayak. A foldboat is low enough to fit nicely under a leaping fish, and the decking holds him once he is in. The gunwales on a Canadian-style canoe are too high for good bass-catching. Aluminum and fiber-glass canoes have too much spring. Because of this I lost what I believe would have been a canoe-bass record on the Susquehanna River. As a monstrous fish leaped, I pushed the bow of a 15-foot aluminum model under him. He came down straight and true but rebounded from the metal floor like a Russian gymnast and disappeared back in the river. It was a heartbreaking experience, but of course it is the big ones that get away that keep us canoe fishermen coming back for more.
The best time to fish with a canoe is early evening. The setting sun seems to blind bass, giving the paddler a better shot at them. The proper paddling maneuver for, so to speak, raising a fish is a splashy sweep stroke delivered with a beaver-tail paddle. Properly executed, bass cannot resist this action.
Canoe fishing is a real thrill sport, but I do not want to misrepresent it as a means of catching fish in large numbers. However, I am told by fishy friends that low yield should not discourage me. Leading fishing metaphysicians now hold that the fewer fish a man catches the better a fisherman he is. This seemingly paradoxical view has been explained to me at some length by another friend, M.T. Creel, a fanatical trout fisherman. M.T. is a purist and a power in something called Trout Unlimited. The principal plank of the TU platform is to encourage real fishermen to fish a lot but when they catch a fish, even a legal-size one, to throw it back. The boys in Trout Unlimited reason that if everyone does this there will be—well, there will be trout unlimited.
Naturally, someone with M.T.'s outlook and a fishing hipster like myself are different breeds. However, we still see M.T. every spring, because through our front yard, a sloping bit of land in the central Pennsylvania highlands, there flows a stream in which brook and rainbow trout, if not unlimited, are plentiful. This stream and the trout therein were plugged hard by the real estate agent who sold us the place six years back. Fortunately for the salesman, we are broadminded, willing to tolerate a bunch of fish in our stream.
As it has turned out, these trout, except for drawing fishermen, bother us very little. Sometimes we go months on end never remembering they are there. Not so, of course, with people like M.T. He shows up every May with $500 worth of mysterious equipment, carefully designed to enable him not to catch trout elegantly. I was delighted to have M.T. on hand as a witness, weak-minded as he is, when one day last spring I pushed my canoe-fishing system to its ultimate.
Our stream also serves as a swimming hole. Below the house there is a movable dam, which when raised to its full height backs the water up into a pool 80 feet long and six feet deep. Trout are free to use the pool, but we do not cater to them, and when the dam is raised it plays havoc with their social life. Trout below the dam are unable to visit trout above it, but it takes them a long time to learn this. Downstream trout come to the six-foot barricade and will tenaciously try to leap it. They will keep trying until they lie panting and wheezing in the spillway. I had often observed this behavior but thought little more about it than to note that it proves what nonfishermen have always known—while trout are tasty, they are short on brains. One day, however, while M.T. was splashing about the creek artistically not catching fish, it occurred to me that these stupid trout offered a chance to do something quite gaudy in the way of avant-garde angling.
A large, silly rainbow was at the moment resting at the foot of the dam, after having spent 15 minutes vainly trying to jump the barrier. Looking from the trout to M.T. to a canoe rack that stands on the house side of the stream, I experienced a genuine eureka moment. Going to the boat rack, I selected a well-balanced, 12-foot kayak paddle, a double blade, both ends of which were slightly scoop-shaped. Reaching down gently with this fine instrument, I slipped the tip of one concave blade under the trout, which lay fanning itself like a Victorian matron who has just been frightened by a mouse. As deftly as a bear gulling a salmon, I flipped the fish high in the air over the dam onto the lawn. This was it, canoe fishing without a canoe. You cannot do more. Smiling with restrained modesty I turned to accept M.T.'s congratulations. Unfortunately, he was totally speechless and remained so while I carried the trout in to the frying pan.
Among the many efforts that have been made to discredit my New Fishing theories and to smear me personally, bad-mouthing agents of the Fishing Establishment have claimed that I have no finesse. The slander is that though I sometimes overpower fish with a dog, coffeepot, canoe or kayak paddle, I never outsmart them. This charge rankles, for even the hint that one cannot think better than a fish constitutes character assassination. Therefore it gave me great pleasure, just a few weeks ago, to finally lay this lie by its heels.
In the late summer the creek goes down, and our swimming hole becomes the only sizable pool of water in the neighborhood. This attracts trout and, inevitably, fishermen. However, under the conditions that now prevail I do not mind the fishermen and am even ready to eat with them. (If I had an unmarried sister, they could marry her, for all of me.) The problem is that by August there are so many trout in our swimming pool—we had seven rainbows and four brooks this year—that they interfere with my serious fishing for black-nosed dace. As I said earlier in this essay, we need a steady supply of these minnows, about a hundred a day, for four raccoons, one fish crow who will not fish for himself, and a smattering of shrews. Ordinarily, catching dace is not a difficult task. You simply throw out a net, chum well with bread—Mother Slonaker's Super Creamy Vitamin Enriched Loaf is the best, I have found—and then haul in on the net lines. However, in midsummer, with all the trout milling around the pool, the minnows never get a chance at the bread. If they try for a chum ball, they get knocked on their tails by greedy rainbows. It is for this reason, the hope that they can clean out the verminous trout, that fishermen are welcome at this time of year. Unfortunately, they can't cut the mustard. They are too far gone on the it's-not-whether-you-catch-or-don't-catch-but-how-you-play-the-line jazz to be effective fish exterminators.