When I learned that Tim Jackson, aka Jack, had succumbed to cancer in October of 2020, I wanted to call him. Of course, I realized my logical hiccup — no calls would be placed to the dead — but still, it was my very first thought. I wanted to hear his voice again.
“How they biting?” was how Jack answered my phone calls, from when we first met, in 2009, up until our last conversation, more than 10 years later. Jack built high-end ice fishing traps. If you met him at his shop, in Monmouth, I’m sure you heard all about it. He liked to talk, especially about himself and his ice fishing business. He branded his name into his wooden tip-ups: Tim Jack, of Jack Traps.
Jack cold-called me first, having heard I was working on a Maine ice fishing documentary. I needed to include him, he insisted, since there couldn’t really be a Maine ice fishing film without him. I listened. Over the next decade I got to know Jack from fishing with him, then from pointing a camera at his overgrown beard, then from editing footage — raising and lowering the levels of his booming voice — and, later, from our infrequent phone calls.
It’s hard to encapsulate a man with words, especially after he’s gone. There’s a tendency to brush over complexity in an effort to eulogize. To put it plainly, Jack seemed complicated. He was, in no particular order: a Mainer, businessman, husband, father, innovator, jokester, grump, occasional drinker and salty, hardcore angler. Jack was a stranger to me, then a documentary subject, then friend, evolving finally into a loquacious, grizzly uncle-type I couldn’t wait to fish with.
Jack lured me to East Grand Lake, on the Maine-New Brunswick border. I was filming what would become “Hardwater” and Jack had become one of the film’s main characters. I remember his obsession with selecting the perfect East Grand bait (jumbo smelts only) and how he tended to them with the intensity of a child checking on a beloved family pet. With his prized smelts we fished East Grand’s deep hole, Jack’s favorite fishing spot.
At dawn Jack plucked the best bait from the bucket and fed yards and yards of line down the hole with half-frozen fingers. If the hooked smelt didn’t swim properly, he pulled it up and tried again — over and over, if necessary — until the bait swam just right to depths of 70, 80, 90 feet. It was agonizing to watch. But in those frigid moments, my own fingers numb against my camera, I realized I was watching a master.
When traps sprung, as they did frequently that morning, Jack reacted with a kind of cool confidence. Never rushing, he idled over on his four-wheeler before removing his oversize gloves. He walked slowly to the tip-up and peered down into the darkness — was the spool turning? If so, how fast? In which direction was the line pointing? When ready, Jack reached for the trap with his name branded on the crossbeam.
Without hyperbole, Tim Jackson was one of the greatest fishermen I’ve ever seen. He fought fish with a smooth, almost elegant hand-over-hand style, letting the big ones take line when necessary, never horsing them in. A bear of a man, the thin ice fishing line looked absurd in his hands. When a hooked fish got close to the hole, Jack would kneel down, as if proposing, and lift it gently from the frigid lake. “What’s that saying?” he once asked the camera, holding up another fat lake trout. “Ten percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish.” If he sounded a bit arrogant, that’s because he was — Jack knew he was good, and he wasn’t shy about telling you so.
That particular morning on East Grand Lake, while nearby anglers barely moved from their shacks, we landed lake trout from 6 pounds to 10. I had enough fish footage for five films. The largest specimen, a 10-pound lake trout, or togue, in Maine vernacular, bled too much for proper release. Looking down at the dying togue, Jack said, with his trademark accent, “We’ll have that bird for supper.”
Jack had a way of making me feel like I was one of the boys. He’d rib me if I missed a fish, or congratulate me when I iced one. In the quiet moments between fish, Jack asked about my job, my love life, how the pike fishing was back on my home waters. If his arrogance was sometimes obvious, it took me a while to find his deep sense of caring, since Jack shielded tenderness beneath a gruff exterior.
Jack was a natural storyteller, and through his stories I glimpsed his inner warmth. One story that resonated went something like this: When Jack was too young to fish, his parents would bring home a live salmon after their day on the ice. Then they’d fill up the bathtub with chilly water. Young Jack would get in the tub, and then his parents would drop in the fish. Jack recalled a large salmon, some fifty years prior, darting around his small, shivering body.
I wondered if that salmon sparked Jack’s lifelong fascination with fish and fishing. I wonder now, thinking back, if making traps was Jack’s way of preserving that salmon in the bathtub — to hold a transcendent memory that, like all things, is eventually lost.
Cold winters, I called Jack and his voice pulsed with life — good ice, product moving off the shelf faster than he and his team could keep up with. “Gotta get you up to East Grand again in early March, should be good!” Warm winters, Jack didn’t have much to say, his voice flat and lifeless. “Just no ice anywhere. I don’t know” … his trap-making business followed a kind of rollercoaster based on factors he could not control; I worried Jack was fighting a losing battle against warming winters.
In an effort to find Hardwater’s ending, I asked characters to answer a few questions on camera. One of my questions was: If you died and came back as a fish, what would you be? I remember asking Jack that very question as we picked up for the day on East Grand, the weak March sun low in the sky, both of us buzzed on Crown Royal. Unlike the other film characters I’d asked, Jack didn’t hesitate. “I know,” he said. “I know what I’d be.”
I double checked my camera’s sound levels. In the fading afternoon light, I pointed the lens at Jack’s bushy beard. “If I died and came back as a fish,” he said, “I’d be a togue. I’d be a big, fat togue, just like I’m a big, fat man. And I’d be good. I’d go around picking bait off of traps.”
During our last phone call, Jack invited me to Maranacook Lake. He’d dragged his big shack out there, and he’d been making some good hauls on smelts early in the morning. He asked if I’d been working on any more films and I told him I’d focused on writing instead. “Somebody, maybe you, ought to write a book about my life,” Jack said. I chuckled, then realized he was dead serious. I politely declined, and the conversation shifted back to fishing. “Give me a call when you wanna come north,” he said, before wishing me well and hanging up. I’m not sure if Jack was sick then, but if so, he didn’t mention it. I never followed up on his invitation.
The ways I’ll remember Jack: ambling across East Grand with the auger slung over his shoulder. Auger-sprayed ice shards covering the tops of his pack boots. His breath rising and hanging like a ghost above his Mad Bomber hat. Reaching into the darkness to lift out an impossibly large togue, its speckled flanks glistening in the sun. The way his voice filled a room; the way his voice dissipated over the frozen expanse of East Grand Lake. The way he answered his cell phone: How they biting?
If a fish steals a bait from one of my Jack Traps this winter, I’ll try not to feel disappointment. I’ll grab another bait from the bucket, hook it gently beneath the dorsal fin, then drop it down to the desired depth. I’ll remind myself that it’s probably just Jack paying a visit — voiceless but not without humor — before swimming off into the depths beyond my senses.