I’ve always felt most in harmony with the natural world when traveling light, unencumbered with excess gear and free of distracting technology. I can’t speak for everyone, but keeping it simple keeps me most comfortable in my own skin while I’m on the water and catching.
I like a simple boat, my gear winnowed to the basics and my attention focused only on finding fish and reading the water: the choppy seas off a headland, a tide rip making up, a dark shore. The same goes when I am on foot and studying the surf, walking a Northern stream or chasing bass and panfish around a farm pond.
You know the feeling when you’re dialed in, tapping your intuition, observing, mulling and weighing everything around you. You catch something from the corner of your eye — a swirl, a tern that hovers a beat too long, a flicker of bait that you’re still not sure was real or imagined. You fish a hunch based on a whiff of honeysuckle and wild rose as you bounce down an island road. You don’t need a calendar to tell you the time is right.
On a spring evening, the cool, salty breeze quickens your step as you wend down a sandy trail to a salt pond where you’ll first work a match-thin epoxy sand eel, then switch to a small, black streamer. Marsh birds provide the high notes, and the surf thudding on the steep beach face across the dunes contributes the deep rhythms. You shuffle east down a long sandbar, casting and moving, bumping into spawning horseshoe crabs until you can step no further without shipping water. A little bit of heaven in May.
When I was a kid, more was always better. I had a large tackle box with a few plastic floating minnows, a fake frog, plastic worms, a Hula popper, a Jitterbug and a swimming beetle, along with the requisite Daredevils, Mepps spinners and all the other paraphernalia I once treasured. I regularly studied my three-tray Old Pal tackle box and constantly rearranged my lures — wiggling them at eye level as they swam in my imagination — to figure out where new doodads would go once I’d earned enough lawn-mowing money to buy them. Always, I dreamed of the fish I hoped would follow.
The tiny poppers with rubber legs were holy hell on bluegills. I’d cast them on a spinning rod weighted with a bobber into a shallow cove that was alive with spring panfish. My friend and I fished from a leaky wooden rowboat whose ownership appeared free to anyone who knew the trail to this hidden gem of a fishing hole. We’d pull it up on the shore after using it, just as we’d found it, and flip it over with the oars and a bailer beneath. Through all the boyhood years we fished the pond, my friend and I never encountered another soul.
Part of maturing as an angler was growing an understanding of the many ways less is often more. I take more of everything when I’m too pressed for time to think things through. Traveling light is harder, but more satisfying. My list for a happy evening of fishing: a simple, seaworthy boat with a bucket of eels, a baggie with a half-dozen swivels, another with six or eight circle hooks, some extra leader material, a few clean rags, a multitool and clippers, two headlamps, a spotlight and maybe a BogaGrip. Everything from the outboard to the electronics to the tackle is buttoned up and in working order.
My 22-foot boat is wide open, so two people can cast comfortably. In summer or early fall, I’ll bring a portable radio so we can half-listen to a ballgame at Fenway Park. Some nights, I might pack a couple of cigars. Time unspools slowly when you’re off the clock, your cellphone is powered down, and no one is expecting you back at a specified time. We move quietly from point to point, searching for fish by casting and carefully working an area. We know that if we keep to the program, we’ll eventually find fish.
With lights and engine off, we drift a cast or two from shore, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking sports, work, friends and fish. There is little to distract us. We gaze at the Milky Way, keep an eye and ear peeled for other boats and continue moving until a spirited 12-pound striper might announce that we’ve found the fish, at least for a while.
My kayak is a spring simplicity laboratory. A couple of plastic bags for soft plastic baits and extra hooks. An extra paddle. Polarized glasses. Sunblock, knife, clippers and leader material. If the season is early, I might bring a box of sandworms and a tube lure to troll. I’ll weave in and around the river reefs, rockpiles, scrubby little islands and mud flats, gazing at newly arriving fish hawks, herons and terns, waiting for the song of the drag to rip me back into the here and now.
Two days ago, we heard the season’s first wood frogs and peepers while hiking a trail around a freshwater marsh. A day later, snow and sleet rained down. My thoughts are on spring fish.
My goal this season is to further strip away the extraneous until what remains is only what I need, and not what I’m able to haul, pack or carry. Easier said than done, but totally worth the effort. When you succeed, you arrive at the delightful essence of things. Two boys fishing in a leaky rowboat.