Bittersweet

This time of year is always bittersweet. Summer vacation is in the rearview mirror, and a full year of school with all its responsibilities is at the doorstep. While I may long for the balmy summer days spent by the river or lake, an unavoidable new chapter is fast approaching.

Though free time was harder to come by this summer than years past (hence the long hiatuses in blog posts), I am pleased to say it was far from fish-less. My summer started with a major life milestone, one that granted me the freedom to explore more than ever before: my drivers license. Proper certification in hand, I took my first “big trip” alone to the Quinapoxet River in central Mass. Despite the mid-June heat, I was pleased to find cool water and hungry trout, including one nice rainbow. At the time the weather seemed hot and dry, but little did I know the exceptional drought conditions we’d have later in the season.

My new PB striped bass. Photo credit: Mike Murnane

As the waters warmed and the trout fishing waned, I ventured out with my friend Brendan for one of our first striped bass trips of the year. With bass leaving the shallow estuaries in search of deeper water, we employed the help of Kyle from Mass Charter Fishing to put us on the hot spots in his new boat. Fishing with live mackerel we caught at the break of dawn, Brendan, his grandfather, and I each caught fish, with my 30.5″ personal best striper being the biggest. As an ode to the kickoff of summer shenanigans (and maybe because he’s a little crazy), Brendan capped off our successful excursion by biting the head off of a mackerel. Fine dining!

Less than a week after the striper trip, I left for an adventure that would become the highlight of my summer: the TU Teen Summit in North Carolina. In the Southern Appalachians, I got the chance to connect with 15 other like-minded teens to bond over our shared passions of fishing, conservation, and the outdoors. Never in a million years did I imagine anyone cared so deeply about these things as I do, but lo-and-behold I am far from alone in these endeavors. While in the mountains, we did plenty of fishing, though the catching was better at some times than others. For me, the coolest fish of the trip was actually the smallest, that being my first wild rainbow trout ever. I am so grateful for the chance to connect with the great people at the Summit, not to mention experiencing a new part of the country I never even dreamt of visiting.

The only fish of the evening trolling session. Photo credit: Nolan Raymond.

Once I returned back home to the Northeast, I didn’t even get a chance to unpack before I was once again on the road, this time headed to more familiar territory. I’ve always considered the state of Maine my second home, so it’s a wonder how I didn’t take my first trip to my family’s cabin on Sebago Lake until nearly a month into summer vacation. Still, the wait only made the trip sweeter. Though we only stayed for less than 24 hours, I was able to cram about as much fishing in as humanly possible. Casting from the rock jetties that line our property, I caught my fair share of smallmouth bass, which never gets old. In the evening, fellow youth writer Nolan Raymond and I enjoyed a peaceful trolling session in his spacious pontoon boat. Working together, we were able to put a respectable togue in the boat just before the last glimpses of daylight slipped away.

While the destination travel was exciting, I needed a moment to reset following Sebago. During that time, I returned to local water I had neglected since getting my license. Fishing with friends for hungry warmwater species was the perfect way to unwind from a jam-packed schedule of travel. Though no giants were caught, I gave both my fly and spinning gear a good workout with a plethora of species.

I was quickly back on the road after my brief hiatus at home, but thankfully my travel was limited to day trips to familiar spots. My first adventure was to a nearby beach in search of my first ever striped bass on the fly. Although I didn’t accomplish my goal, I did succeed in catching my first saltwater fish on the fly, which also happened to be the only American shad I’ve ever landed.

Later that week, I drove out to the Swift River to fish for technical tailwater trout. The worst of the summer heat waves were just beginning, yet the effect on coldwater freestone streams was already noticeable. Fishing a double-dry rig, I was lucky to find plenty of trout willing to eat. The largest fish of the day, a pudgy brown, nearly gave me a heart attack when it shook loose the fly it had eaten, only to be re-hooked by the dropper. Talk about luck!

Of course, summer wouldn’t be complete without a couple kids fishing trips. This year I was fortunate to take out two incredibly smart and curious kids. While I was happy both had luck catching bass and panfish, I was even more pleased with the questions they were asking. Each of them had minds for conservation, suggesting we stick away from the spawning beds while fishing and wet our hands before touching our quarry. If you ever need some reassurance about the future of this planet, take a kid fishing.

Spencer always has a smile on his face when he’s holding a rod or a fish.

Now early August, the heat wave and drought had exacted a shocking toll on New England’s lakes and streams. Returning to Sebago, I was amazed to find a normally chilly lake feeling like a sauna with a surface temperature of 80 degrees. Thankfully a lake this deep provides plenty of thermal refuge for coldwater species, but I couldn’t even imagine the state of nearby lakes and ponds without such depth. Despite the warmth, plenty of fish were caught, including a “trolling trifecta” (lake trout, landlocked salmon, and smallmouth bass) with guide Tom Roth and Nolan Raymond.

As the days of summer began to dwindle, my family took a vacation to Mohonk Mountain House in New York. Along the way, we stopped at the Housatonic River, where I had one of my best days of smallmouth bass fly fishing ever. Using a carp fly, I was able to haul in over 15 bass in under an hour, including some respectable ones. Man did those river fish pull hard!

I’ll admit, my fishing experience at Mohonk did not get off to the greatest start once we’d arrived. After going for a boat excursion in the afternoon of our first day, my dad in a kayak and me in a rowboat, we returned to the boat dock. I was able to dock and exit my boat a little faster than my dad, so while I waited, I took a quick peek over the side of the dock, as any angler with a rod in their hands would. Spotting a few little smallmouth, I decided to take a quick cast to see if anything larger was lurking. Allow me to clarify: when I say larger, I mean a bass bigger than the two-inchers I was seeing. Instead, out of the hazy green-blue depths of the lake, a rainbow trout weighing at least six pounds engulfed my Keitech swimbait, sending my drag screaming and my heart racing.

Upon hearing the whizzing of my drag, a disgruntled employee screamed, “Hey! No fishing from the dock!” Well that would have been nice to know before I took the cast! As more and more line flew from my spool, a crowd of onlookers gathered at the lakeside cafe. Just when I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, the employee demanded I not break or cut the line, but also not touch the fish. Easy for her to say!

Inch by inch, I gained line back, tiring the fish out while the increasing crowd watched with amusement. At last I brought the fish dockside, reached down with my forceps, and popped out the hook with a swift jerk. Just as the trout rapidly retreated back to the depths, I quickly slipped off the dock and back into the hotel, face bright red with adrenaline and embarrassment.

The rest of the Mohonk trip was much more enjoyable, to say the least. I managed to land a number of smallmouth of varying sizes, the largest eating a tiny size 14 San Juan Worm while I was targeting rock bass. Of course the only rock bass of the trip, and my first ever, ate a five-inch soft plastic Senko.

With school just a couple days away, I sent it to the beach for a final shot at catching a striped bass on the fly. When I reached the rocky shoreline, I watched as what seemed like a flock of tiny birds erupted from the water, followed by the crashing strike of their pursuer. Upon further examination, it turned out these “birds” were actually silversides, and their pursuers, striped bass. After a couple fly changes, I finally landed on a Surf Candy that perfectly replicated the translucency of the baitfish. A few casts later, I hooked and landed my first ever striped bass on the fly! Of course, as soon as I caught this fish, the blitzes ended and the surf seemed to be devoid of life.

By Labor Day, the return of school was no longer a distant thought, but instead reality. As a final hoo-rah, my family headed up to Sebago to soak up the final moments of blissful summer sunshine. On the first night, I was blessed with a four-pound largemouth caught in nearly 20 feet of water on a dropshot. Throughout the weekend, I caught plenty more smallmouth, mostly on a new fly I’ve been developing for two years. The best part of the weekend, though, was helping my younger cousins catch their own smallmouth bass. It seemed nearly every cast they took with a Ned Rig yielded a fish.

By now, the first day of school is well behind me and my junior year is in full-swing. Though a daunting year full of college preparations is ahead of me, I can’t wait to see the opportunities it brings with it. And as the weather cools and seasons change, I look forward to fishing for colored-up brook trout, chrome salmon, freshly-stocked rainbows, and feisty browns in the forests set ablaze with fall foliage. The start of school may be bittersweet, but at least I have another year of fishing and learning to look forward to.

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