In Maine, a new season is just getting underway. But I’m still thinking about the last.
I can remember each of the past summer’s big moments as if they were etched in my mind: those first, giddy striped bass of the season blitzing at Lines Island on the Kennebec River, that school of big-shouldered 10-pounders that crowded the grass bank just as the tide began to ebb, those fish I found in December under the bridge upriver, the ones that should have migrated south weeks before.
Somehow, every detail of these encounters sticks in my head, even as I forget the fine points of graduations, birthdays, weddings, the grocery list. Increasingly, I see a biological explanation for what my wife considers a character flaw: These wild moments, I’m convinced, fire a prehistoric, hunter-gatherer synapse in our brains that allow us to create a mental map, complete with landmarks and fine-grain detail, the kind that once led predator to prey.
In a world where everything is now digitized, predictable, photographed and shared — where an order is placed and a package arrives on the doorstep the next day — it’s these increasingly rare and spontaneous encounters with fish and wildlife, especially those that migrate, that make our time on the water so unique. Impossible to plan and nearly as difficult to repeat, they are one-time events as exhilarating as any occasion that religion or business conjure.
In my corner of the Atlantic, the Gulf of Maine, such encounters are most often with the thrilling, abundant and yet often finicky striped bass. Each year, in mid- to late May, they swarm our local salt marshes and tidal rivers, fresh from the Chesapeake, where they spend the winter and spawn. You won’t find their schedule posted alongside the tide charts at your local marina, even if some say they appear like clockwork.
Either way, they come hungry. Catching them occasionally from beach, boat or jetty is easy. Catching them consistently, though, requires a deep understanding of their use of habitat and their preferences for bait, water temperature and tides — a rolling, time-sensitive catalog of data that allows you to predict, with some accuracy, their location and feeding habit on any given day. And even then, you still strike out more often than not.
In my case, the highlight reel — my best days, my biggest fish — plays in vibrant color, as though it were on a flat screen suspended over the living room couch 24 hours a day. The times I strike out, though, are in grainy black and white, the sound quality is bad, and the picture flickers in and out. But having a firm grasp on both good days and bad is key to teasing patterns from what otherwise might seem like luck or circumstance. So last year, I rekindled an old tradition: I bought a little black book and started jotting down notes after every outing.
Fishing journals are personal. Every one is, necessarily, different. Mine is filled with chicken scratch that’s barely legible to most, but certain key elements are no doubt universal: date, tide, time of day, lure/bait, fish activity, numbers caught, techniques. Mine also includes many hand-drawn maps, not so different from the kind pirates once used to direct their descendants to buried treasure. In pencil, I sketch out points and rocks, current direction and other details, and, of course, precisely where I caught the fish. In the winter, reliving these moments through my maps, my writing and in my mind’s eye is reason enough to keep a journal.
In reviewing my notes from last year, those seemingly insignificant moments, the ones that rarely get played on the highlight reel or don’t involve fish, now take on new significance.
One day, for example, I headed downriver well before dawn on the Kennebec River, Maine’s most storied saltwater fishing grounds, and saw 6-foot-long fish catapulting from the water, finishing in an awkward belly flop, as though sharks were chasing elephants from the depths. I knew from experience that they weren’t game fish but, rather, Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeon, a prehistoric creature that plumbs the depths of the Maine coast. I’d never seen such a spectacular show. They were everywhere, jumping one after another as though they’d been training for the day, like dolphins at the aquarium performing for a handout. No biologist can explain this behavior with precision, and few have witnessed it like I did that day, June 27, 2016.
Other entries were less glorious. One day in late September, I noted laconically, I’d hit a barely submerged ledge going full speed in my 16-foot aluminum skiff. The boat was OK, I wrote, but it had stopped upon impact and I had kept going, catapulting from the stern to the bow deck (dilapidated marine plywood, many splinters). Fortunately, I came away otherwise unscathed. Journal entry or not, I won’t likely overlook that ledge again. But in a couple of years, I guarantee that memory will grow fuzzy and fade.
On the other hand, catching my season-best striped bass on the river, a 42-incher landed the following day in a rip 50 yards away, remains vivid and sharp. In looking back at my journal, it’s hard to believe the same guy was the protagonist in both incidents.
There are lots of other good reasons for keeping a journal. The older you get, the busier your life, the more the distractions, the harder it is to remember what lure was working when, what tide was most favorable where, when one spot turns on and another off. As your trips become fewer, every one must count.
And then there’s the physical journal itself. Taken together, your written observations of a season’s worth of moments, good and bad, constitutes a real accomplishment, something you can look back on when fishing is no longer a priority or, perhaps, even an option. If, as they say, the gods do not detract from the allotted span of one’s life the time spent fishing, then the journal is your proof.
The downside, of course, is that keeping notes takes time. It’s not instantaneous. You probably won’t share it online. No one will be impressed by the fish you write about, especially in the absence of photographic evidence.
A journal, I’ve come to accept, is something you do because you love to fish and you want to get better at it. And that should be reason enough.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.