Written by: William G. Tapply
An annual trip is a way to collect memories and accumulate wisdom.
It was shortly after the arrival of the new year—the snow drifts around the north side of my barn stood eight feet deep, and the red stuff in the thermometer outside my kitchen window was barely half an inch tall—when I got an email from Skip. In the “subject” line he had written “Second Annual Big Lake Smallmouth Trip.” It was just what I needed.
This is what he wrote:
Hey Bill and Art—Time to start thinking about our second annual excursion to the Big Lake. It’s never too early to get these things etched in stone. I’m looking at sometime the first week in June, which I think we’ve learned is when the smallmouths should be onshore and vulnerable to a well-cast Clouser or, even better, if we’re lucky, a well-burbled Tap’s deer-hair bug. You guys check your calendars so we can zero in on a date and also a rain date. I suggest Tuesday of that week, with Wednesday for back-up, but we can do whatever works for you. Meanwhile, tie a bunch of flies, oil your reels, retie your leaders. I’ll be tinkering with the motor and scraping the rust off the hull of the Old Boat.
The previous year—our First Annual Big Lake Smallmouth Trip, I guess we can now call it, though we didn’t call it that at the time—we’d launched Skip’s ancient aluminum rowboat in the last week of May. Too early, as it turned out. Spawning urges had not yet compelled the smallmouth bass to move into the shallow water. Along the drop-offs in the clear lake water, when the light was right, we could see the big females cruising near the bottom in ten or twelve feet of water—too deep for practical fly fishing. We figured that in a week or so we’d find them in the shallower water along the boulder-strewn shorelines and over the gravel bars. We nailed a few of the smaller males who’d already ventured into spawning-bed territory. But the fishing was way slower than we all remembered it from the Old Days.
Actually, for me, this wouldn’t be the second annual Big Lake smallmouth adventure. More like the twentieth or twenty-fifth, except there was a twenty-year gap in the middle.
When my parents retired, more than forty years ago, they chose a little house on a hillside in central New Hampshire for its proximity to excellent grouse and woodcock habitat, and especially for the deeded access to a sand beach on the Big Lake, where grandkids could swim and womenfolk could sunbathe and the fly fishers in the family could launch a square-ended canoe.
In those days, the Big Lake saw more fishing activity when it was sheeted with ice than after ice-out. Villages of ice-fishing shanties sprang up when the ice was thick enough (and sometimes before—and after—that). Snowmobiles zoomed around, liquor was drunk, and lake trout and cusk and the occasional landlocked salmon came up through the ice.
During the part of the season reserved for sensible people—from ice-out in April until the end of September—you’d see a few anglers trolling along the drop-offs for salmon. They used fly rods in the spring and lead-core lines in the summer. The Big Lake held a healthy population of landlocked salmon. Mostly, though, the lake was a playground for water skiers and speed boaters.
Access to a convenient launch site appealed to my father because he knew that the Big Lake was just about the best smallmouth-bass lake in New England, and he’d fished most of them at one time or another. Best of all, nobody fished the lake for bass. We had it all to ourselves, and we hoarded our secret.
So driving from my home in Massachusetts to my parents’ house in central New Hampshire and spending the weekend following Memorial Day on the lake with my father in his canoe became an annual trip. We loaded his 17-foot Grumman with two fly rods, one box of streamers and one of deerhair poppers, and ourselves. We putted along the Girl Scout camp shoreline and we circled the islands—Dad in the stern steering the little 2-horse Evinrude and trolling a debarbed Edson Dark Tiger bucktail, and me up front, raking the shoreline with one of his deerhair bugs.
We never counted our catch or measured or weighed the fish. But my mother, who was a big fan of fishing, from a spectator’s point of view, demanded a full report, and she insisted on precise numbers. So at the end of an afternoon on the lake, Dad would say, “We’ve got to submit a report to your mother. What do you think?”
I’d shrug. We always caught a lot of bass. “Three dozen, maybe? Four?”
“She’ll suspect we’re guessing if we give her an even number,” he’d say. “How’s forty-three sound to you?”
“Actually, that sounds very close to the truth,” I’d say. “What about size? That was a nice fish you picked up off that point.”
“A four pounder,” he said. “Let’s call it four pounds, two ounces.”
And so it went, year after year, always on that same first weekend in June, for close to twenty years. I got married and had children, and when they were old enough, they joined me and my father in the canoe. Three generations of us. The first fish each of my three kids caught was a Big Lake smallmouth bass on a Dark Tiger trolled from Grandpa’s canoe.
My parents grew comfortably older in their house on the hillside, and the Big Lake kept producing world-class smallmouth bass fishing, and we never saw anyone else fishing there for them. It was, for me, an annual trip that I could count on.
Nothing is forever, of course. There came the day when Dad and I carefully fished one of our favorite shorelines and elicited just a few half-hearted swirls. It was puzzling. We could see the saucer-shaped spawning beds. It was prime time.
When we got near the Girl Scout camp shoreline, we saw that two boats were working it. They were sleek craft, built for speed, with two men perched on stools in each of them. They were peppering the shoreline with spinning lures. There were more bass boats circling our favorite islands and other shorelines that day. We figured that the areas where we saw no boats had already been raked with treble hooks.
This was our first encounter with a bass tournament.
We turned around, beached the canoe, and went trout fishing. That night Dad said, “No more. I’m not competing with those guys. It was good while it lasted. It’s never going to be the same.” And that was the end of our Annual Big Lake Smallmouth Trip.
Almost twenty years passed before Skip talked me into giving the Big Lake another try.
If this excursion to the Big Lake with Skip and Art was to become a true Annual Trip, we’d have to zero in on a regular date for it—say, the first Tuesday in June—and mark it on our calendars, not just for the forthcoming season, but for all the seasons into the foreseeable future.
I love spontaneous excursions, those times when the air smells right and the urge to fish is irresistible, no matter what other plans you might’ve had for the day. And one-time-only adventures—trips to far-flung, exotic destinations such as (for me) Patagonia and Alaska, Labrador and Belize—are delicious to plan beforehand and to savor for years afterwards.
Annual trips are special because, well, they are annual. They come around at the same time every year. You can count on them, anticipate them, prepare for them. Fishing the same waters at the same time each year, you collect memories and accumulate wisdom. You have an idea of what kind of weather to expect, where the fish might be found, what they might be eating. Your memories of the red-letter days spice up your expectations. In the months before the annual trip, you tie the flies that you’ve learned you’ll need, and you invent some new ones based on memories and theories from previous successes and failures.
One of the great advantages of establishing annual trips, according to Skip, is that they pre-empt non-fishing spouses from questioning “another fishing trip?” Get the dates written down in the winter. Mention the annual event in casual conversation. Weave it into the fabric of your life, like birthdays and Mother’s Day.
The second Tuesday in June, as Skip had predicted, proved to be Prime Time for Big Lake smallmouths. The fish were in the shallows, eager to slash at our streamers and deer-hair poppers, and although we didn’t count, if I’d had to submit an honest report to my mother, I would’ve said, “The three of us caught thirty-four bass. The biggest was three pounds, one ounce.”
No, it wasn’t the old days. The fishing was slower, and the fish ran smaller, and we did encounter three or four bass boats. But it was an excellent day on the water with old friends.
After we hauled the Old Boat out at the launch and prepared to climb into our separate vehicles, Skip said, “Next year, same time, same place, right?”
Art nodded. “Our Third Annual Big Lake Smallmouth Trip. You bet.”
“Etch it in stone,” I said.
* * *
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.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).