In his downstairs man-cave, where he ties flies and cleans his guns, Nick Mayer has two big Ziploc bags. One is labeled “hunting nostalgia” and the other “fishing nostalgia.”
The fishing bag holds chewed flies, tired lures, old hooks and leaders from memorable catches long ago. Among the keepers is a small Hula popper, black and white with a red mouth and black stripes along the back.
It doesn’t look like much. The skirt is missing, and one of the hooks on the single rear treble broke off on a fish many moons ago. And what a fish that was, and what memories it still evokes.
Although Mayer has caught a number of fish he considers significant, he says one in particular stands out.
“I’m thinking about this one fish,” says the talented 45-year-old fishing and sporting artist from Lincoln, Vermont. “I was probably 11 or 12. I was out on Block Island [Rhode Island], and I caught this big [largemouth] bass. And I caught it on a Hula popper, which I saved. And I actually have it in my hand right now. That’s the one that had a pretty big impact on my future.”
As a boy, Mayer and his family used to spend a couple of weeks each summer on Block Island, which is best known for its striped bass fishery but also is dotted with ponds sporting nice largemouth.
The artist and his sister whiled away hours fishing a pond they reached by way of a path hacked through thick brambles with a machete.
“We’d hang out there all day long, catching yellow perch and bluegills,” remembers Mayer, who fished with a closed-face Zebco outfit. “It’s kind of funny. When I put on this one spinner, a big snapping turtle would come every day. He’d come and hang out with us. It was almost as if he was my buddy. He was probably just waiting for me to catch a yellow perch so he could grab it.”
Then one day the pond’s surface parted. Mayer was casting from his usual rock, throwing the Hula popper as far as he could and reeling it back fast, leaving a good wake. His mother was keeping him company.
“I launched it out there, and like the second it hit the water it just got engulfed,” he recalls. “It’s almost like it didn’t land — it just got sucked in. This huge largemouth grabbed it. I had so much adrenaline going I didn’t know what to do.”
He had no experience with the workings of a drag in those days, but he does recall turning the handle and watching the line race off the reel, which was a first.
“I didn’t know how to deal with a fish when the line was going out,” Mayer says with a laugh. “My mom was like coaching me. The fish started zigzagging back and forth in front of us. We could see it, and we all were yelling. My mom ran up to the house and got this big platter. We didn’t have a net or anything. Somehow we go it. We grabbed it and put it on this platter, and I walked up to the house.”
If that image isn’t precious enough, what happened next is even more pleasing in an old-timey way.
“We filled up the sink with water and put the fish in the sink,” Mayer says. “This bass was like black. It wasn’t your typical largemouth green and a black-splotched lateral line. This thing was all black. And it only fit in the sink diagonally. I don’t know how big it was. I was just a kid, and I’m sure in my memory it seemed much bigger than it was. But I would still guess it was a couple of feet long and 5 pounds or something.”
The bass seemed happy as a quahog, finning steadily in the cool tap water.
“So we all just stood around looking at this fish in the sink,” Mayer says. “We were like, now what do we do?”
The question on the table was whether they should eat the fish for dinner. A distant relative named Wolfgang was visiting and wanted to take the family out for dinner that night, so the fish was spared.
“I don’t know if we took a vote or what,” Mayer says. “I don’t think I really wanted to kill him. So we brought him back down to the pond, and he swam away. The whole thing was pretty goofy.”
Goofy, but memorable.
“I just felt like a hero. Everybody was like, ‘How did you reel that thing in?’ ” Mayer says.
The childhood memories from Block Island were so strong that Mayer brought his wife and two sons back to the same house about five years ago.
“And it really had the same feeling to it. It looked the same, felt the same. Your memories affect your interpretation of a place,” he says.
And his recall of that one fish helped shape him in ways that are hard to articulate but are nonetheless in the person he has become.
“Who can say how it works?” Mayer says of the past. “When you get an experience that intense, it sort of burns into your memory. And I think it helps form your identity.”
To see Nick's fish art, vist nickmayerart.com