I have misspent the last 32 years of my life in pursuit of Atlantic salmon. I have very little to show for it. A dented Subaru; a singular collection of double-handed rods; enough fly lines to stretch from Doaktown, New Brunswick, to Cascapédia, Québec; a handful of beat-up Bogdan reels. I’ve never been married and have no children. I do own my home, which is perhaps my finest achievement. As I’m gone most of the summer, I have a “lawn” consisting of cedar chips. I got the idea from a children’s playground. My neighbors complain.
There is considerable evidence that we as a species are drawn to a mix of trees, fields and water. A marriage of savanna and hardwoods with, as Norman Maclean would say, a river running through it. If true, this anthropological programming defines me. I am an edge creature. If I wander too far out in a field, I feel exposed. But I also become claustrophobic in dense brush. The bank of a salmon river feels just right. I am equally at home on rivers where there’s a chance I might run into a polar bear as I am on rivers where there is a church steeple in the far distance. Either place is good country for an edge creature.
A salmon river devoid of hydroelectric schemes is a smolt factory that delivers juvenile salmon to the sea and returns them to the salmon angler as hypercharged bundles of marine energy. If I am lucky enough to catch such a salmon, I hold in my hands a fish that may have spent the last three or four years in the sea. Her proportions strike a golden mean that has inspired artists from the Abri du Poisson to Pleissner to Prosek. She leaps like a tarpon — or should I say a tarpon leaps like her? She pulls with the strength of a pelagic species even though we are many miles from the sea. Tiny parasites on the wrist above her caudal fin certify that she was in the ocean two days ago. It is, for an edge creature, the best of both freshwater and saltwater fishing.
Salmon fishing is no sport for a sight angler. My friends who regularly fish the flats want to see the fish. Blind casting is wasted energy as far as they are concerned. There are a handful of rivers in Iceland (Miðfjarðará, Langá, Selá, etc.) and in Québec (Petite Cascapédia, Bonaventure, Saint-Jean-de-Gaspé, etc.) where you can reliably sight-fish for Atlantic salmon, but these rivers are “one percenters” that defy the blind-casting norm. I read water. I cover water. I trust that the fish are there. I don’t want to see them. Sight fishing for me is an exercise in knowing how many fish did not take my fly.
I make tens of thousands of casts in a season of salmon fishing. Each cast launches a small probe into unknown territory. When I’m fishing well, it’s as if a tiny camera affixed to my fly is transmitting underwater images directly to a pair of polarized smart glasses. The payoff is a fish that I will remember in the rest home. I catch one or two of these “rest-home fish” every 100,000 casts or so. This variable rate of reinforcement is far more persuasive than hooking a salmon on every cast. Each pull on the lever of the one-armed bandit delivers the possibility that I will hit a jackpot of lucky sevens or at least receive enough of a payout so that I can feed more coins into the slot.
It is January here in the depths of the boreal forest. The sun sets on my house at 3 p.m. this time of year. The second major storm in three days is gathering energy from the Gulf of Maine. My Subaru is encased in salt. The roads are so slick that the town spreads sand on my dirt road to keep people out of the ditch. I am tying flies for the opening of salmon season June 1. Somewhere in the South Labrador Sea, at a point equidistant from Hudson Strait and the Greenland coast, a salmon drinks salt water to remain hydrated and flushes the excess salts from her body in order to maintain homeostasis. She and I have an appointment in six months. We shall meet, briefly look into each other’s eyes and then go our separate ways. It is what I live for.