I remember a particular time of year when I was a young boy growing up in Pennsylvania. The house I lived in was on the outskirts of the city close to a large park. In that park was a stream, much smaller than its namesake, the Lehigh River. This stream on maps was called the Little Lehigh. To my friends and me, it was just called the creek.
Though the park offered many opportunities to explore and play the games young boys played back then — football, hide and seek, and really any other activity that would allow us to run and catch that boyhood adrenaline high — it is the memory of the creek that stayed with me as I grew up.
The reason for this is mostly because of my memories of the yearly ritual known as opening day. I am not speaking about baseball but about fishing. The night before opening day was anticipated almost to the degree as the night before Christmas. I could not wait to get up early, grab my tackle and head out into the early morning light in search of the first trout of the season.
Back then, opening day and landing that first fish was our Moby Dick moment. It was something I did with my friends, season after season, always searching for that elusive fish of our boyhood imagination. As adults, rather than pursue the fish, we would instead recall the memories of those days. Those moments essentially became our white whale.
Like the moment when the line is straight and the rod bows within an inch of snapping as the fish makes its run. Our hearts would pound with every turn of the reel as the fish surfaces. It is then we realize that this is really happening. It could be a 15-inch brook trout or a small sunfish. It did not matter. It is all about that moment. It was just like when Captain Ahab finally saw the white whale for the very first time. Year after year it would be like this, searching for that feeling again and again.
I am certain it happens in Down East Maine, too, for the fishermen every single day. This place has a lot to do with that because it is special and I believe magical. This place breeds a unique childlike essence unmatched anywhere I’ve been. I say that because I am here now, seeing it and reliving it through sight, sound, and my sometimes joyous participation helping others haul traps or rake for clams. Quite frankly I am enjoying the hell out of it because it’s this essence that brings me back to those early mornings standing shoulder to shoulder on a creek bank.
Be it clamming, fishing, hauling lobsters or dragging for scallops, the lessons of this working life start early for Down East fishermen. It is just as natural as learning to walk or ride a bike. And the excitement of doing it seems to never diminish over time. Standing on deck or in the middle of the flats, pulling that first trap or taking the first pull of the clam rake, the excitement of what will be found never goes away. It is stamped, tattooed and engraved into anyone who sets foot on a boat or on a sea of sand and mud no matter if they are 12 or 80 years old.
The beautiful landscape and blue waters of the area are the employers, and many children ply the trade they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. And I know this because when I sit among seasoned fishermen talking about what they do, I see the childlike twinkle in their eyes. I also see the mud on their boots and smell the salt on their breath as they revel in one fish story after another, and I again, think back to that creek bank as a boy. The seas of their livelihood are a kind of fountain of youth.
I think about the night before opening day, that long arduous night that felt like an eternity, and I am a little envious. The fisherman here gets to experience that feeling every single morning as he thinks of the day ahead, the traps to be tended or the flats to be worked, and does so with a smile buried deep within waiting to get out with that very first haul of the day.
There is, I believe, a small boy inside all fishermen. He sits in the chest of muscle and bone biding his time, waiting. The anticipation is like a small bubble of air slowly rising to the surface. As it gets closer it gains speed in a flurry of heartbeats until it pops with the light into the morning air and sprinkles it with boyhood moments again and again and keeps that magical search for the white whale alive for them, every single day.
RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.