The cardinals have been singing their happy song this week, brightening my outdoor morning chores with the dogs as the snow cover shrinks.
Who knows? Perhaps those beautiful red birds, too, can hear the brook gurgling through widening gaps in the thick, punky ice out back, massive, foot-thick ice chunks still strewn high along both banks, tangled among upslope trees but finally shrinking before breaking loose during the first major freshet. Or maybe my feathered friends can see that the roof slates are finally high, dry and snow-free. Hey, they may even feel through their tender little feet the subtle upward tremble of sweet sap flowing through the sugar-maple limbs from which they sing. Whatever it is that has triggered their joyous spring melodies, they sure are nice to hear after a long cold winter capped by record February snows.
Finally, over the weekend, I was able to resume my daily Sunken Meadow walks, soul-soothers for sure. I must get out early to stay atop the condensed corn snow that on mornings after cold overnights is just hard enough to keep me on top and just soft enough to prevent irritation to my braced, balky left knee. God, how I missed those daily walks for three or so weeks that seemed like an eternity! It made me feel fat and logy, like my blood and brain weren’t flowing freely. Next up is mud season, which I’ll get through. Oh yes, and so will my splattered bird dogs, who truly love mud, the wetter and dirtier the better. They have already started going to the Green River for drinks down by the big old apple tree standing sentry on the west bank along the way. No, they’re not yet swimming and standing submerged over their rib cages to slurp water. But the river that accepts my backyard brook about a half-mile upstream is wide open, much more so than the brook, and the dogs enjoy refreshing drinks after building a lather running through open fields and marsh alike, panting in pure ecstasy. That’s what a good romp does for English springers, born to run and bounce and chase and flush, especially the latter, and retrieve.
How can water not be on a man’s mind entering spring, when you must find ways to keep it away from your foundation, channeling it downhill in the opposite direction? Plus the fishing season is upon us. Soon the stocking trucks will be patrolling the highways, depositing fresh hatchery fish into our swollen trout streams and rivers, ice-out ponds and lakes. Although I seldom fish anymore, I’ve done plenty of it in my day and must admit I found myself thinking back to boyhood fishing adventures more than 50 years back on the Mill River. The stream follows Route 116 downhill from Conway through the Mill River section of Deerfield to Whately, then to its confluence with the Connecticut River at Little Naponset in Hatfield, an old hunting haunt of mine.
The stream’s name came from the mills it supported in colonial days, one of which I got to know quite well when, as an elementary school student, my mother would drop me off near the outflow of Matthews Road and I’d fish the stream down to the old Settright Farm now owned by Sam Chickering and wife Joanie, whose roots there lie deep. Back then I’d fill my wicker creel between those two spots a mile or so apart, occasionally bumping into old coach and Frontier teacher Butch Farrick during summer storms. Most of the trout were small brookies, with an occasional big one and even some rainy-day browns. I’d cover them with ferns in the creel to stay fresh and tasty. My last fishing hole was under a wooden-plank cow-pasture bridge I’d briefly fish off and sometimes catch a trout or two before calling it a day. Then I’d walk across the front half of the pasture and up a steep, wet, crumbly escarpment to the Settright porch, where I’d bang on the door and telephone my mom to retrieve me. I may be wrong but it seems to me that the door was often answered by matriarch Nellie Settright, by then old and confined to a wheelchair, yet always pleasant, happy to help a young angler.
What reminded me of that secluded stretch of an otherwise accessible stream was research for a talk I’m giving tonight at the Whately church about the town’s Connecticut River oxbow, another old haunt I frequented for sporting adventure — mostly woodcock, grouse and pheasant hunting, though it’s also a fact that I’ve caught a trout or two out of Sugarloaf Brook over the years. I’m sure my ancestors who lived there way back when also pulled many a nice, sweet squaretail with sweet orange meat out of the lower section of that brook that starts in South Deerfield center. Those were the pre-stocking days, when only native trout lurked.
Back to the Mill River, it was the site of Deerfield’s first mill, built in 1693 by none other than fur merchant Joseph Parsons, a member of my Pioneer Valley gene pool. I’m sure what I remember of the ruins at that site atop a 10-foot waterfall — wood fame remnants, likely chestnut, chunks of decomposing wooden siding, heavy, rusty iron chains and sprocket wheels strewn about — were the remains of a later upgraded mill. I’ve been told there’s nothing visible today that suggests an old grain mill once stood there. But I clearly remember the clues in the Sixties, when I routinely caught nice trout above and especially below in the deep, bubbling waterfall pool.
The only thing we had to worry about was the old hermit who lived right across from today’s Route 116 gas station/convenience store. We all knew his ragged, roadside hobo profile, and were warned by adults to avoid him. But, really, we never encountered the man astream, and I doubt he would have bothered us if we had. He was just an eccentric old recluse named, if my memory serves me, Henry Kisloski, long gone. Trust me, we knew when we were passing through his place, though, and never lingered. Local legend can do that to kids: scare the bejesus out of them.
Which reminds me of a another fishing tale I’ll share, occurring years later on another of my favorite childhood streams, introduced to me as a boy by Babe Manson. He taught me and his son, Mike, how to catch trout in that stream, which meets the Mill River along the Hatfield line. Thus it was a stream I thought ideal for teaching my boys to fish. Problem was that on our maiden voyage I parked along a pasture fence where I had always parked, and right there facing me in bright red letters was a posted sign reading “No Trespassing: Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Strictly Prohibited. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”
Hmmmm? How could that be? It had never been posted. I felt entitled — grandfathered in, so to speak — because I knew most of the neighbors and was even related to some. I knew the new owner’s house across the street, noticed lights shining despite the early hour and figured, “What the hell? Why not give it my best shot?”
Me and the kids, Gary II and Ryan, pulled into the driveway and parked. I exited the car, went to the side door of the tidy yellow dormered antique cape, stood atop an impressive stone step and knocked. The owner appeared, I introduced myself, told him I had been fishing there since childhood and he didn’t hesitate to give us the OK.
“There’s no need to stop again,” he smiled. “You can fish here anytime you want. I’ll remember you.”
So, off we went, backtracking to our posted spot, gathering our equipment, squeezing through the locked wooden gate and walking to a deep pool fed by a fast channel. At streamside, I was baiting the kids’ hooks with pieces of lively coffee-ground nightcrawlers to entice hungry trout before pendulum-casting upstream, dead-drifting the bait toward the pool and handing them the rods when I set the hook on a strike. As they pulled nice, 8- to 12-inch brookies from the stream one after another, I was busy unhooking fish, gutting them and freeing the kids’ snags when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed rapid movement coming our way. An older man wearing a white fishing vest and cap was hurriedly approaching, obviously unhappy. I think what was bothering him most was the fact that we were literally hooking fish on every cast while he was having little success at a downstream corner pool I knew well.
“Can’t you read the signs?” he screamed, face red, veins bulging through throat and neck. “My son owns this land and he doesn’t want you here.”
I looked down at Rynie, about 6, noticed a fearful tear streaming down his cheek and got hot. That was it. I took a couple steps toward my assailant and boldly got right up in his grill.
“Hey, pal,” I barked without a hint of fear, “do you know how to swim? Because if you don’t shut up and quit scaring these kids, you’re going in.”
He didn’t challenge me, instead walking sheepishly away and remaining dry. I never even bothered to tell him we had permission. For what? That was irrelevant.
Although I have never returned to the scene, my kids never forgot the incident and often reminded me of it with a twinkle in their eye.
“Hey, Dad,” one or the other would say, “remember that day we were fishing and you threatened to throw that mean guy in the brook?”
“Yeah, boys, how could I forget?” I’d reply, holding my thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “That man came about this far from taking a little dip.”
They’d just chuckle and nod.
Though I hesitated to share this ancient tale, I think it’s hunky-dory. The statute of limitations has long passed and I assume that me and that pleasant owner who granted permission are the only involved parties still living. Plus, what’s the likelihood he’ll read this? If he does, so be it. His father was being a jerk. He frightened a couple of young, innocent boys, and was asking for trouble from a younger, stronger man on a raw, gray, unruly April morn.
In the nick of time, he was wise enough to back off before receiving a humbling, violent, frigid little streamside-etiquette lesson.