“Opening Day 1938,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply


Bill Tapply didn’t share Opening Day with his famous father, but they both spent it on the water.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

An unexpected glimpse into the past sparks childhood memories.

The other day, I was unpacking a carton of old books that my father left behind, and I paused at a nice Derrydale edition of A Tomato Can Chronicle by Edmond Ware Smith. I remembered how much I’d liked Smith’s fishing stories. The One-Eyed Poacher was my favorite fictional character when I was a kid.

When I began thumbing through the book, I found a yellowed newspaper clipping jammed between the pages. I unfolded it. It was dated April 16, 1938.

The article was titled “Lines Cast by 20,000 Bay State Anglers: Open Season for Trout and Salmon Begins with Limit Bags for Many Fishermen.” Under the title was a faded photo. It showed three beefy men in coats and ties looking at a fourth, thinner, much younger man. The young man was holding up a dead fish that looked a bit longer than twenty inches.

I had to read the caption to identify the men. “Presenting first salmon caught to Gov. Hurley. Left to right – Edward Place, Bradbury F. Cushing, Gov. Hurley, and Horace G. Tapley [sic], who caught the fish.” My father was a very young man in 1938.

I skimmed down through the article to this paragraph: “Gov. Charles F. Hurley is not a fisherman, but he dined on a Chinook from Lake Walden at noon today in the Statler. The Chinook, one of those raised, reared, bred and weaned at the Sandwich hatchery and dumped into Lake Walden three years ago, weighed 3 ½ pounds and succumbed to the streamer cast by Horace G. Tapley, magazine editor and fishing enthusiast, who with Oliver H. P. Rodman, another angler of editorial persuasions, selected Walden for the first day . . . Tapley went out in a boat on Walden about 6 a.m. and got the salmon on a light 3 ½ ounce rod about 8.”

I had to smile. Dad used to say that he could’ve been elected President of the United States and still nobody would ever spell his name right. The only place Dad’s name got spelled correctly was in the fishing magazines he himself edited.

I tried to imagine my old man as a young bachelor actually presenting a salmon he’d caught to the governor, and then clipping this story from a newspaper, trimming it with scissors, folding it carefully, and tucking it into a book for unborn me to find 70 years later. The father I knew mistrusted politicians (especially Democrats), shunned public ceremonies, returned all of his fish, and did not save his clippings.

But I did remember how keyed-up he would get for Opening Day of the trout season.

First Things First
Fifteen or so years after my father gave his salmon to the governor, I had begun lying awake all Friday night before the third Saturday in April. He was still rising before the sun on Opening Day to drive to Walden and troll streamers with Ollie Rodman.

All the rest of the season, Dad took me fishing with him, but not on Opening Day. “Sorry, son,” he’d say, “but Ollie and I always open the season together at Walden.” It was an important ritual, he’d explain, a rite of passage, the true beginning of the new year, a ceremonial occasion that a man shouldn’t even think of altering.

Then he’d narrow his eyes at me and say, “I hope you understand,” and his tone made it clear that if I didn’t understand, it was tough.

But I did understand, and I didn’t mind. By the time I was eleven or twelve, in fact, I’d established my own Opening Day rituals. I dug my coffee can of worms on Friday afternoon after school and set it on the back porch along with my old bamboo fly rod and a rain jacket and my fishing vest. In the vest pockets were my envelope of hooks, my packet of split shot, my spool of leader, my folding fish-gutting-and-stick-cutting knife, a Hershey bar, and a few packs of matches. In my bedroom I laid out my boots and long johns, my dungarees and wool shirt and knit sweater.

I didn’t bother setting my alarm. I knew I wouldn’t sleep, and anyway, Dad would bang on my door when he got up, which was around 4:00 a.m. I’d dress quickly and stumble downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother–who always seemed amused by Opening Day–would be frying bacon, and Duke, our setter, would be clacking his toenails on the linoleum floor and wondering if he had the seasons mixed up. Pretty soon Ollie would tap on the back door and then come barging in with his jokes about the weather and his predictions that he’d outfish my father.

I drank my first cup of coffee one Opening Day morning. My father told me to take it black, like a man, and I surprised him by liking it that way. Sipping a cup of pre-dawn coffee in the kitchen with the men was, I understood, part of the Opening Day ritual and an important rite of passage for me. Within a few years I’d learn that a steaming mug of black coffee was equally integral to the rituals of duck hunting and ice fishing.

After the men took off for Walden in Ollie’s wagon, my mother would drop me off at White Pond, which was just a few miles from Walden and Number Two on Thoreau’s list of favorites, although the Concord hermit wouldn’t have enjoyed either pond very much on the first day of the trout season. The shorelines of both ponds were lined with fishermen, and boats of all descriptions milled around on the water.

Opening Day was a big deal back in those days. It warranted a full page of text and photos in the newspaper, and people who never fished again for the rest of the year rose at dawn on that day, including politicians looking for publicity, if not for trout. On April 16, 1938, according to my father’s clipping, “Ex-Gov Curley [James Michael Curley, the notorious Boston political boss], Mrs. Curley, young Francis, and Mrs. Curley’s sons, George and Richard, were among the early disciples of Isaak Walton to go after the landlocked salmon and trout in Jamaica Pond. Four hours of fishing were not entirely productive for the Mayoral candidate. . . .” A (staged) photo shows Curley in the bow of a boat holding a fly rod with a small, dead-looking trout (caught, one must assume, by somebody else) dangling from the end of his line. He’s wearing a white dress shirt and a fedora.

I don’t know how the newspaper writer fixed the number of 1938 Opening Day anglers at 20,000. Maybe he went to a pond such as White, counted the cars in the lot and lining both sides of the street, multiplied by two, and came up with, say, 400 (the number he gave for Walden), and then multiplied that by the number of ponds and rivers that had been stocked. Based on my Opening Days in the 1950s, 20,000 was a conservative estimate.

The trick was to get there early and literally stake out a promising swath of shoreline, which I did by cutting three forked sticks and jamming them into the mud at the water’s edge five or six feet apart. This marked my ten or twelve feet of territory and gave me three spots to fish from.

My method was simple and deadly. I impaled a worm once, through the middle, on a size 8 wet-fly hook and roll-cast it as far as I could (not very far) into the water. Then I set my rod in one of my forked sticks, stripped a few loops of line onto the ground, and waited, and when it began to twitch and slither out through the guides, I’d pick up the rod, count to five, and set the hook.

Passing the Torch
The best Opening Days were cloudy, misty, windless and warm. On such days I sometimes limited out in an hour. On days of high-pressure cold, sharp winds, and cloudless skies it often took me ’til mid-afternoon to catch my limit.

But I always brought home a limit of hatchery-raised trout, which was more than I could say for my father, a few miles away trolling streamers at Walden for the pot pourri of exotic species the state stocked there in those days, including chinook, coho, and landlocked salmon and lake trout.

Dad always seemed to get a kick out of being outfished by me. One Opening Day night, I overheard him on the telephone with one of his famous fishing friends saying, “The little son-of-a-gun got his limit again, and Ollie and I trolled all day without a hit,” and you couldn’t miss the pride in his voice.

Somewhere along the way, the Powers That Be decreed that there would no longer be a closed season for trout in Massachusetts, and that, of course, meant the end of Opening Day, the best holiday of my childhood–and of my father’s life-long childhood–and one less photo op for the politicians.

My only regret is that Opening Day was discontinued before my kids could celebrate it.

* * *

For a list of great books by William G. Tapply (many available on multiple formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.), click here. Don’t miss Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany.

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Time.

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