Sports Column by Matt Dickerson: Learning fishing with my father

I have a very clear idea of when my passion for fishing began. And it was all my father’s fault.
It was late May, three weeks before my ninth birthday. My father took me on a wilderness fishing and camping trip to the famed Allagash River in northern Maine. There was plenty of time for momentum to build in my young mind. Each of the previous four years my father had taken one of my older brothers on the trip, in alternating turns, as I impatiently awaited the age when I (the youngest of three sons) would be deemed old enough to join the rotation.
Even when the year finally arrived, I still had time for anticipation to build; the Allagash was a long way away. Our 12-hour drive took us through Quebec and across a tiny border town down back into Maine — at which point we still had 40 miles of driving along rugged lumber roads. But the trip was worth the wait: five days of camping and fishing in the land of moose, osprey, herons, bitterns and some of the best big brook trout fishing left in the United States. At night we had campfires, cooked over a Coleman stove, drank hot chocolate, and slept in a tent dreaming about bears. (That the trip included three school days when I wasn’t in school didn’t hurt my appreciation.)
Since my father was both my fishing instructor and my inspiration, my earliest experiences — the ones that led to my lifelong love of angling — were of a similar variety to his. He grew up in Michigan, learning the sport from his father on similar father-son trips. He remembers shorter trips to Long Lake in Alpena, Mich., trolling for walleyes and northern pike. And days still fishing for bluegill and perch in smaller lakes and ponds closer to his home. He also did some fishing he considered less savory: bait-fishing for carp in the rivers, and spearfishing suckers in the dredge cuts off the lakes. But his most inspiring trips were long excursions into Ontario with my grandfather trolling for trout and northern pike in Lake Mississauga near the edges of the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.
Our Allagash fishing, like my father’s trips to Mississauga, was almost all trolling. Our target was brook trout though from time to time we’d lay into a big lake trout. My father had learned — and over the years taught me — to weave back and forth across the river current so that we would cover the most water possible. The Allagash had a canoe-only limitation, but on that portion of the river allowed motors up to 10 horsepower. We’d see folks out with heavy 21-foot square stern wooden Grand Lake canoes. They were great on the lakes, but could never get as far up river as we went. We motored around in a 17-foot aluminum canoe with a four-horse Johnson outboard precariously hanging over the left side on a motor mount. And we’d push it as far up the river as the water levels would allow before the propeller blade was catching gravel.
Sometimes we’d venture out into Umsaskis Lake and putter along the shoreline near the mouths of streams. Giving yet more similarity to my father’s earlier experiences, there was even a lake called Long Lake, and we’d fish its inlet and outlet. Mostly we’d be dragging tandem streamer flies in famous old patterns like the grey ghost, blue smelt, and mickey finn. Sometimes we’d switch over to a wobbler or a Rapala. We caught brook trout by the dozens, mostly 12 to 15 inches. A few would come back to the camp on a stringer for supper. Eating trout was part of the camping experience. There was always a bet on who would land the first, the most, and the biggest. The biggest brookie each year was usually around 18 inches, but we landed togue — and even an occasional brookie — over 20, particularly on years when we went just after ice out.
Trolling wasn’t the only technique I learned from my father. He also taught me pan-fishing in a little pond a short walk through the woods behind the house where I grew up. The pond was full of bluegill. We pursued them with long cane poles. They had no reels. The fishing line was tied to the ends. And the bluegill would take just about any bait we offered. My memory tells me the poles were nine or 10 feet long. But I was only five feet tall then; they might have been shorter. The important thing was that the panfish action was nonstop. Not even a 10-year-old boy could find fishing boring.
Later in my teens my attention would turn from the bluegill in that little pond to the bass. (The pond produced at least one five-pounder for me, and a seven-pounder for my brother.) And later still it would turn to the little trout stream that came out of the pond and flowed through our neighborhood. Wading a trout stream would eventually become my favorite form of fishing, and that type of fishing never did catch on with my father. Now when we fish together it is often a sort of compromise. We’ll troll around the lake or river for a while, but then we’ll stop and anchor and I’ll pull out my fly rod for a bit.
But even now, more than four decades after that first Allagash trip, when I am standing in a river casting a fly-rod, I know that my fishing heritage comes from my trolling the lakes of Michigan and Ontario, and from bait-fishing for panfish, and most especially from time spent with my father enjoying being outdoors and enjoying being together.
Happy belated Father’s Day to all you dads. And if you get a chance, take your kid fishing.

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