Dear Milk Streeter,
I cleaned our basement in Vermont over Thanksgiving and came across my mother’s tackle box. Inside were two rusted reels, a pale green pair of plastic sunglasses for fishing, the boxy kind that fit over regular glasses, a handful of dry flies and a fishing license that read: Mary Alice White, hair brown, eyes blue, 5 feet 6, 150 pounds, born March 18, 1920.
My family’s first fishing expedition to Maine was when I was 3 years old; we canoed out to a small lake island and camped out. A few years later, my sister and I flew over another Maine lake in a small Bonanza four-seater to meet my parents. It was a rough and ready collection of cabins: bears hung out by the garbage dump, which was marked with a discarded wooden leg hanging from a tree, we set off fireworks from the end of the long wooden dock one night by the main lodge, and my father swam in the dawn mist in a pair of long, black boxing trunks.
Family connections are often pictured as trees and for good reason; shared DNA runs through the central trunk; a twitch of the mouth, the tilt of a head or a short bark of a laugh are traits that start at the roots out and spread out to the smallest green shoot.
Our family’s DNA was fishing. Years later, after I had made half a dozen salmon fly fishing trips to Canada up to the Matapedia and the Restigouche, my mother told me that my grandfather had fished those same rivers in his day. Fishing camps, warm pipe smoke mornings on a cold river, giant dinner plates of camp food, nights by a rough stone fireplace, bottles of bourbon, and hours searching for a swirl in the water, the telltale sign of a big fish, must have ran through my grandfather’s blood as it does mine. One April I took my 12-year-old daughter, Caroline, for the first fishing of the season on the Miramichi, after the ice had let out. It snowed, it rained, it sleeted, and the accommodations were primitive but she got into a big one on the second day and, after a good fight, lost it. And then we finally hooked into a nice 6-pounder and Caroline reeled it in. I have the photo on my desk.
When the kids were young, I took them in the pickup to the upper lot where we threw small spinners on a cheap rod from the country store and reeled in a few listless bass. And, later, trips to Montana where we fished the Madison and the Middle Fork of the Powder River not far from the Hole in The Wall Gang. That was a day. The kids casting flies across a small, winding river under overhanging red rocks, catching fish, slowly moving upstream as the day progressed. Changing flies, losing more fish than we caught, but we still landed a dozen each.
The last time I fished with my mother it was just the two of us. She told me where to drop a wet fly in a hole by a log at the river’s edge, where I caught the biggest fish of the day on the last cast. Now I was standing in the basement with the last physical evidence that remained: a fishing license and a handful of flies.
I moved the flies to one of my own fly boxes and, come April, I am going to fish with Mary Alice’s flies and my Uncle Ed’s small five-weight bamboo rod that he made for me just a few years before he passed. And if I get stopped by a game warden, I’ll show him my mother’s license. That’s why I’ll be on that river in the late afternoon on a cold April day. She gave me permission to fish, not the State of Vermont.
Some people are fishers of men; others fish for sport. I fish because that’s what we do in our family. When the moon is full and the salmon start their run upstream, something tells us to drive north, past the pine barrens and toward an early morning in a canoe, keeping our lines tight and our eyes peeled for a swirl in the water.
P.S. The new issue of Milk Street Magazine is now available online, and the print edition is already in the mail. If you would like immediate access to the magazine, we invite you to become a member today. Members also get full access to all TV show recipes, radio show episodes, videos and our full recipe database.