Written by: William G. Tapply
In the last month of my father’s life, when he knew his days were numbered, fishing memories comforted and sustained him. He’d had a good life, he said. No regrets. He’d been pretty lucky.
I knew I’d been lucky, too. Dad and I never had any of those silent agendas and unspoken tensions between us that so many men seem to have with their fathers. We’d been best friends from the beginning.
One afternoon when I went into his bedroom, I found him lying there with his eyes closed and a smile on his face.
I pulled up a chair. “You sleeping?” I said.
He blinked his eyes open. “Nope. I was just thinking about that week on Upper Dobsis. How long ago was that?”
“Close to fifty years, I guess.”
He nodded. “Remember Volkswagen Cove?”
We fished together as a family, my mother and father and little sister and I, once a year, on a wilderness lake in northeastern Maine, a different one each summer, for the one week in early July that Dad took for his vacation from the wars he fought in the city the other fifty-one weeks.
My father, of course, loved fishing. It was never clear to me how my mother and sister felt about it, although the fact that they didn’t fish at all aside from that single week in July was a clue.
Actually, typical of a not-quite-teenaged boy, I didn’t care about anybody else. I was obsessed with fishing. For me, this was the best week of the year.
It was an all-day car ride from our home in eastern Massachusetts to that part of Maine. The turnpike ended in Augusta in those days, and after that we bumped over winding two-lane country roads through the dusty summer countryside for several hours.
That particular summer, our lake was near the end of an unpaved logging road owned by a paper company. Dad’s friend George Smith, an old-time Maine guide whom I called Uncle George, had permission to use it. Uncle George had built the log cabin on the other side of the lake by sledding everything except the logs across the ice in the winter. He kept a big canoe hidden in the bushes where the road passed closest to the lake.
So late in the afternoon, after that long day of family togetherness in the car, the four of us loaded a week’s worth of food and fishing gear and clothing and bedding and games and books into the canoe, and we paddled across the lake to the one-room cabin on the other shore.
It came equipped with two sets of bunk beds, a table with four chairs, knives and forks, plates and glasses, an icebox, three kerosene lanterns, a wood stove, and a soapstone sink with a hand pump. Four rickety wooden rocking chairs sat on the porch for watching the loons. There was an icehouse and a two-hole outhouse out back.
Twenty years earlier this lake, like all the other coldwater lakes in northeastern Maine, had teemed with landlocked salmon. My father had fished there then with George. They trolled Grey Ghosts and Supervisors and Warden’s Worries behind their canoe, and I think Dad’s memories of the fabulous salmon fishing on these lakes, which no one but George Smith and his sports fished, were what kept luring him up there.
But by the time we started going to Maine as a family, white perch and smallmouth bass had invaded the entire watershed. The perch and the bass were more aggressive and more adaptable than the salmon. They preyed on the smelt that were the salmon’s main food source, and they probably ate baby salmon, too, and now you could troll all day without hooking a single salmon.
My father was philosophical about it. Everything changes, he said. Anyway, we came here mainly to have fun as a family, not to fish for landlocked salmon.
The decline of the salmon fishing didn’t bother me. I didn’t have my father’s memories of it. I thought white perch and smallmouth bass were swell.
We spent the entire first day circling the shoreline in the canoe. “Getting the lay of the land,” Dad said, meaning the water. Commenting on the area’s pristine wildness, he observed that it was a place “where the hand of man had never set foot.” My father, no Yogi Berra, mixed his metaphors with a purpose.
My mother and sister trolled streamers. I sat in the bow, casting toward the rocky shore. Dad paddled. We didn’t expect to catch much, and we didn’t. A few hot-dog-size smallmouths latched onto the streamer I was casting. Twice that day the trolled streamers intercepted a school of white perch, and my mother and sister brought in two or three apiece in rapid succession. Dad circled back so I could cast to them, and I caught a couple, too, before the schools went down.
We kept twelve of them for dinner. White perch freshly caught from a clean, cold lake and filleted and fried in butter over a campfire, said Dad, were the best-eating fish in the world, and after we completed our circuit of the lake that afternoon, he proved it.
After supper, he looked at me and said, “Who wants to go fishing?”
My mother and sister rolled their eyes. Eight hours in a canoe was enough for one day.
“Me,” I said.
The summer sun hung low in the sky, and the water’s surface lay as flat as wet glass. Dad headed diagonally across the lake. He paddled hard, in a hurry, and the canvas-covered canoe hissed through the water. He said he’d noticed something earlier in the day that deserved a closer look.
We drifted into a big cove. It covered four or five acres, as I recall, and it was studded with giant boulders. Back then, I’d never seen a Volkswagen. But in later years, Dad and I recalled that those round boulders looked like half-submerged Beetles, and we started remembering the place as Volkswagen Cove.
He tossed me a deer-hair bass bug. “Tie that on and cast it out there,” he said, and when I fumbled with the knot, he said, “Come on. Let’s go,” and I knew something had excited him.
I lobbed the bug against one of those big boulders, let it sit, gave it enough of a twitch to make it burble, let it sit . . . and the water under it imploded. The bass bent my rod double and leapt several times, and when I finally managed to stick my thumb in its mouth and lift it from the water, I saw that it was easily the biggest smallmouth I’d ever caught. Accounting for the passage of half a century, I’ll remember it as a three-pounder, though I bet it was closer to four.
I held it up and showed it to Dad.
He nodded. “Put it back and get that bug out there. It’s getting dark.”
One or two smallmouths lived beside every boulder. They were all about the size of that first one, and they walloped those deer-hair bugs.
When darkness had fallen over the lake and Dad said we better head back to the cabin, we’d only fished a small part of the cove.
In the mornings and afternoons, the four of us had ourselves a relaxing family vacation. Sometimes we trolled streamers from the canoe. Sometimes we drifted and dangled worms over the side. Sometimes we just turned our faces up to the sun and trailed our fingers in the water. We swam, we napped, we picnicked, we poked around in the woods. We read, we played cards, we told stories.
But every evening after supper, Dad and I paddled as fast as we could across the lake to Volkswagen Cove, and every evening monster smallmouths–no small ones–were waiting, eager to pounce on our deer-hair bugs.
Dad had his eyes closed, remembering. “Best bass fishing of my life,” he said. “And it’s been a long life, full of fish.”
“Best bass fishing of my life, too,” I said. I hesitated. “There’s something I never told you.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“After three or four evenings on Volkswagen Cove,” I said, “I was kinda wishing we could try someplace different. I mean, it was great. But it was…”
“A sure thing,” said Dad.
“Exactly. After a while, knowing exactly what it was going to be, even as great as it was, it got a little, well, boring.”
“How come you didn’t say something?”
“I thought you’d be disappointed,” I said. “You seemed to be having so much fun.”
“That’s pretty funny,” he said. “I felt the same way. Kept going back because of you. A sure thing, no matter how good it is, wears thin after a while.” Dad turned his head on his pillow and smiled. “I’m glad we finally cleared the air between us.”
* * *
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.):
And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.