On a beautiful late-spring evening, I was swinging a fly on a small stream in southern New England. I’d heard it hosted a run of American shad. The notion of anadromous fish that grow to more than 7 pounds, swim up small streams and take a fly held a strong allure.
But I’d never chased shad, and I found it frustrating. The stream was cloaked in maples and oaks, and I lost flies in the branches overhead and on the woody detritus stuck in the fine sediment on the bed of the slow stream. I saw a couple of promising swirls, but that was it. Not a single bump.
Maybe I’d placed too much faith in the stream. I’d moved east from Montana six months earlier and left behind a tight tribe of angling buddies and the finest trout fishing in the lower 48. So I was hoping shad and striped bass would take the sting out of it. But I’d not yet caught any stripers, and as of that day in late May, no shad.
I was dejected walking out in the gloaming. That’s when I saw another angler coming downstream along the path, a tall, slender guy with a faded cotton fishing vest and rusty hair flaring from his ballcap. We walked out together, both tight-lipped and wary, as anglers can be while sizing up one another. Does he know how to fish? Is he a jerk? This guy looked like he knew how to fish. He had an outfit similar to mine — a well-used rod with a battered Pflueger Medalist reel — and he kept his hand over the fly he’d stabbed into the cork of the reel seat, keeping it from my prying eyes.
We emerged from the woods and into the small dirt parking lot just as darkness was falling. A barred owl called nearby. As we talked, it became clear that this was one of my people, a true fishing fool. He started giving me shad tips. Once he caught my name, he said it in every other sentence. “Listen Murray, hand me your fly.”
I handed it to him, and he held it firmly by the eye and jerked down on it so hard the rod tip nearly hit the ground. “Hold that rod, Murray,” he said, “hold it like you’re fighting a fish.”
I held the grip tightly as he applied tension until the rod had a deep bend. Then he started darting here and there, holding the fly by the eye, dancing around the parking lot in the pale evening light. The rod tip bobbed wildly.
“This is what it feels like, Murray,” he said. “This is what it feels like when you get a big shad on.”
That’s when he looked at my fly, now in his hand. I don’t remember what I’d tied on at that point, but it was probably a small Clouser that I’d hastily trimmed back to the bend of the hook to resemble the shad darts I’d seen in pictures. He handed it back to me, then took his own fly from the cork, put it in the palm of his hand and revealed it with a dramatic flourish.
“Have you ever heard of the Missoula?”
“Missoula?” I said. “Why, I just moved from Missoula!”
It all seemed bizarre, this wild man prancing around the darkened parking lot, uttering Missoula like a secret code word. The fly itself was nothing special — muted tan and lightly dressed, like a traditional streamer. It could have been a sparse variant of the Missoula Spook, a sort of white Muddler Minnow. It was one of those experiences that all anglers have sooner or later. Our passion for fish takes us to tucked-away places where we have strange encounters with people we’d otherwise never meet.
We shared notes on fishing for a while, then drove off in different directions on the winding roads of rural New England, me in my 1980 Subaru, him in an equally weathered, full-size sedan adorned with fish bumper stickers.
Within a week, blind-fishing a beach near our house before work, I caught my first striper, a beautiful fish that took a bigger Clouser. A steady stream of stripers and an occasional bluefish eased me into the swing of eastern fishing.
Four years passed. My wife and I left southern New England for Midcoast Maine. I found work as a reporter for a small-town weekly. We had two amazing daughters. Children have a way of expanding time. A few years earlier, when I was childless, may well have been another lifetime.
On a trip south to visit my parents, I had a few extra hours one day and decided to revisit the small stream. I still had not caught a shad, had not even tried again since that first day. But I thought of that spot often. It was a fine, sunny afternoon in late May. The parking lot was empty, the stream tranquil. I walked a short piece downstream to a good-looking run. Narrow, deep and fishy looking, with a grassy bank that allowed a short backcast.
Swinging the fly downstream, I soon hooked a nice fish. The fly stopped for a brief moment, and then the fish was on. It’s a tight stream with lots of snags, and this was a serious fish, so I was nervous. I got the line on the reel, and the fish stayed in the pool, taking short runs and bulldogging here and there, putting a deep bend in my 8-weight.
I slid down the steep mudbank and was wading knee-deep, preparing to land the fish. That’s when I heard a man’s voice from above and behind me. “Don’t horse that fish now, easy does it,” he said. “It looks like you’ve hooked a nice hen there.” Soon there was a running commentary coming over my shoulder.
I focused on the fish, and before long had it to the bank. It was, indeed, a chunky hen. A terrific first shad. I glanced at the guy behind me and said, “Hey, there’s a camera in the back pocket of my vest, do you mind getting a picture?”
He slid down the bank toward me in his waders as I held the fish in the water. As he unzipped the vest pocket, he said, “Murray? Murray Carpenter?”
Yes, it was the same guy. The spirit of the shad stream. I was impressed that he remembered my name and embarrassed that I’d forgotten his. He stood back and took a photo. I released the shad into the tannin-tinted water. “I hope you’re not fishing with those Clousers again, Murray,” he said. “I found a bunch of your flies on the logs when the water dropped.”
I told him I’d moved to Maine, and we compared notes on fishing the West Branch of the Penobscot for brook trout and landlocked salmon. But I’d skulked out while our daughters were napping and wanted to get back to my family. My friend hadn’t yet started fishing. So we parted there on the bank. I was heading upstream on the trail to the parking lot, and he was heading downstream to catch a few fish.
More years passed. I began to figure out the shad in Maine and developed a simple but effective fly pattern. One spring, en route to a conference, I had some great shad fishing on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, a very diverse, very cool urban fishing scene.
One year I had an assignment to write a magazine feature on alewives, shad’s smaller cousin. This included a brief, busy trip to southern New England. Visiting a new fish ladder one day, I realized I wasn’t far from the shad stream. I didn’t have time to fish but wanted to have a look.
A small subdivision had popped up on the road nearby, and I realized it had been seven years since my last visit. But the parking lot looked much the same — neglected, tree-shaded, quiet. There was just one car, a small, newer SUV. It must have been early May, and it was sunny and warm, high noon. Warblers foraged overhead. I walked over to the stream and looked upstream at a promising bend with an even-depth run. Turning downstream, I noticed a pair of anglers, a man and a woman, wading knee-deep maybe 50 yards away. It looked so quaint and tranquil, especially after three days of thrashing around between Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, that it almost seemed a sepia-toned photo from long ago.
I watched for a moment. Just as I was starting away, the man turned his head and glanced upstream. It was my old pal, the spirit of the shad stream. I doubt he recognized me at that distance. I touched the bill of my cap, he nodded, and I left.
Driving off, I pledged to return soon and fish the stream properly. Not squeezing in an hour or two here and there, but dedicating a weekend, or at least a full day. Maybe have a more relaxed conversation with that angler who knows the river and its shad so well.
That was 16 years ago. I still plan to get back down there.