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One of the joys of being an outdoor columnist is that there is always something to cheer about. It seems to be the trend in the world of post and blog commentary to begin with a complaint and then spend the next 1,000 words explaining why a particular quirk is so annoying. Happily, those of us who spend our spare time in the woods and waters of Maine rarely find anything to squawk about. There’s something enjoyable to do every day of the year and each season brings greater promise than the last.
Perhaps the best aspect of being a sportsman is that one can readily shirk responsibility without regret, remorse or guilt. There are myriad habits and hobbies that draw hateful glares from spouses, employers and parents but skipping out on chafing social events is usually forgiven when those in authority discover that one merely went hunting or fishing. I did have a guidance counselor in middle school who assured me that I was wasting my life in the woods, but here it is 50 years later and I’m still an enthusiastic student of nature and he’s dead. I certainly hope he enjoyed his life as much as I have mine.
All of this philosophical reminiscing came up the other day when, armed with rakes, hoes, stakes and shovels, I was about to head for the garden and make up for some lost time. Rain, frost and unseasonable cold put me off the farming jones well past the usual “last frost date.” In fact, some of my neighbors who make a living growing things had not planted as of June 1 because of the iffy climatic situation.
The icing on the cake came when a friend called early one cool, bright morning (the very short window of time when I feel ambitious enough to tackle a project like “the garden”), and suggested that it was the perfect time to go fishing. My trusty kayak was leaning against the shed, paddle and PFD included. All I needed to do was load it up, grab my gear and make haste for the local bass pond. Needless to say, the garden implements fell where they may. One can garden any day but prime fishing weather is a rarity and should not be forsaken – or at least that’s what the average fisherman believes.
I can say that a productive day in the garden is a pleasure all its own, but after catching two nice smallmouths from shore while waiting for my pal to arrive, I decided fishing was definitely the optimum choice that day.
After shoving off we split up, one going left and one going right around the pond, and all through the morning we exchanged shouts of, “Let’s see you beat this one!” The fish were hard at their spawning responsibilities which meant they’d take pretty much any lure that splashed down nearby. I am a big fan of fishing the shoreline shallows for bass so I kept my kayak within casting distance of the brushy bank as I tossed miniature spinners, imitation minnows and gurgly topwater plugs into water that was just inches deep. Huge swirls and occasional leaping strikes told me that the bass were definitely in the mood for some fun. Most of the fish I caught were (honestly) about 15 inches long, with a couple of chunky 3-pounders in the mix. This pond is so full of bass that they don’t get a chance to grow much bigger, although at night I’ll often hear fish jump that resemble the sound of an anvil being tossed into the water. I have caught bass weighing over 8 pounds in some surprisingly small Maine ponds but those are the rare exception. Such big fish are comparatively ugly and don’t taste very good so I just admire them, thank them for an enjoyable fight and then return them to the water, something to look forward to on the next trip.
Naturally, fish-on-every-cast angling can become boring after a few hours, so I often take a break and do some exploring while I’m on the water. I enjoy sneaking quietly up on nesting ducks, loons, geese and other birds, and if my timing is right I can drift right up to sunning turtles and snakes without alarming them. In the meantime my kayak will attract all sorts of insects, mostly dragonflies, which seem to think my camouflaged Kevlar craft is the perfect place to hide while hunting for mosquitoes, black flies and other winged prey. I’ve had turtles (mostly snapping turtles) spend the day banging their heads on my kayak thinking it’s a floating log that might make a good place to get some sun. Some of these beasts are surprisingly big, old moss-covered relics the size of a trash can cover. I’ve had turtle soup before and it’s quite tasty, but those critters are not something I want to try wrestling with while paddling around in a keel-less kayak. It’s said that snapping turtles don’t bite or attack their prey while under water but I have to wonder where they get those king-sized bass, pickerel and suckers I’ve seen them eating from time to time. Fun to observe, wise to avoid!
Another fun diversion while kayaking is to slip into a weedy cove and just sit still for a few minutes. One’s arrival always creates a momentary stir among the residents of the weed bed, but in seconds the natural order returns and the swamp creatures continue doing what swamp creatures do. Suddenly frog and turtle eyes will appear, fat polliwogs will pop to the surface to breathe and slinky snakes will glide over the lily pads in search of any and all manner of prey. Watch closely and it’s possible to see sunfish, perch and even evil-eyed pickerel finning stoically under the weeds. There is as much predatory action going on under the water as there is on land; the life expectancy of anything small is very short, indeed.
Observing and absorbing all this activity can take hours. I count the time spent drifting with the wind in my kayak as time well spent; perhaps not as productive as a day invested in preparing the garden but nearly so. Those who tend to complain about life may challenge my logic but any student of the outdoors is sure to agree!
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