At the Shad Dam

He was almost 14 when he first tried shad fishing. Mr. Bailey offered to take him. “Your dad was a terrific fisherman, Tommy. Least I can do is help his boy get a start.”

He wanted to accept, of course, but Mom was uncertain. Mr. Bailey had come over with a golden armful of forsythia from his garden, and they had a consultation in the kitchen.

“I’m not sure I want him at the river,” she said.

“We’re not going swimming, Millie. We’re standing on a solid bank, throwing hooks into the river.”

“Isn’t he still too young?” she persisted. “His father used to come home with a sore arm, I remember, and he was a grown man.”

Tommy was sure it had something to do with Daddy’s death, six years ago. He’d been pretty young, and maybe didn’t even understand, back then, that people died, let alone why. He remembered mostly that his New Jersey grandparents came and got him, and brought him back for the funeral, where he cried a lot. Maybe that was why no one ever told him how or why Daddy died. People didn’t die just from fishing, though.

Mr. B wasn’t about to be brushed off. “Hal started young, Millie. I knew him when he was growing up. Shot up like a weed in his fourteenth year, just like Tom here. Harold senior bought him a good spinning rig that spring. You still have it?”

“I’d have to look. I put a lot of Hal’s things up in the attic.”

“Mind if we go see?”

“Yes. Yes, I mind.”

“Aw, Millie!”

Mom was obviously reluctant to have someone pawing through her husband’s things, but she finally said okay. Tommy knew that she had a thing about finding him male role models, from Mr. Simons in Boy Scouts to Pastor Williams and his First Church choir. Although Mr. B was old enough to be his grandfather, he was right next door and willing to spend time, so it looked like she didn’t want to discourage him.

They were back downstairs in just a few minutes, Mr. B flourishing a rod and reel, Tommy lugging a dusty, bucket-sized net on a long handle and a huge wicker creel.

“Take those things out on the porch and shake them out, Tommy,” Mom said. “I don’t want my kitchen full of dustballs from the attic. Wait.” She opened a pantry door, and produced a kind of feather duster thing. “Use this. And shut the door.”

He wondered if she wanted to have some private conversation with Mr. B, but went out as ordered. There was a little breeze. He stepped into the yard to be sure everything would go downwind away from him, and used the feather thing to flick away most of the dust. As he came back inside, he decided it had just been his imagination, thinking she wanted him out of earshot, because Mr. B was jabbering away about Daddy’s fishing gear.

“This is still a fine rod.” Mr. B’s bushy gray moustache made him look like a sporting goods salesman Tommy had seen on TV, and he sounded exactly like someone who’s sure he’s made a sale and is working on selling a few extras.

“He’s going to love this, Millie. You lay him out a little cold breakfast Saturday morning, a donut and glass of milk or whatever, and you can sleep in.” He was sure she could use a little leisure time to herself, he said. He held up the reel for inspection. “This line is probably a bit old and brittle. What has it been? Six years in a hot attic? We’ll take it over to my place and put some fresh line on it.”

“What about his sore arm?” Mom still wanted to know.

“The secret to a strong casting arm is to work it hard,” Mr. B insisted. “A little pain never hurt a growing boy. I’ll send him back with a little old-fashioned arnica.”

Tommy had never heard of arnica.

Anyway, they went together to Mr. B’s kitchen next door, where he helped strip the old line off Dad’s reel. Dad’s reel: Tommy decided he should think of his father that way. He had until now thought of him as Daddy, which was what he’d called him the last time they were together. He would try now to think of him as Dad, which was surely what he would want to be called if he were here. It was still a mystery why he wasn’t here now.

The reel business didn’t take long. Mr. B had a fancy gadget that made it easy to wind a whole spool of fresh line onto the reel in like maybe a minute. Although the label said it was braided line — “abrasion resistant, zero stretch, smaller diameter” – it didn’t look it. The line was so fine that Tommy couldn’t see the braiding even when he held it up to the light.

Mr. B was confident that it was braided. “The secret to landing a shad, Tom,” he said, “is to hook him on a line he can’t bite through.” He peered down. “Did you notice I called you Tom? You’re a teen-ager now.”

All right, two new names, he thought. Tom and Dad. He wondered if there was something grown-up he ought to call Mr. B, like Uncle Bailey or something, but let that idea wither away.

They made a date for very early Saturday morning.

*

It was a half-hour drive to what was left of the Enfield Dam. Mr. B said that all the fishermen wanted to rebuild the dam, and the state didn’t. “The DEP says it impedes the fish getting farther upriver to spawn, Tom. Says it causes too much mortality.” He stopped for a moment, as if he were sorry to have used the word mortality, but then hurried on. “What they mean is too many of us are catching ‘em.”

There was no traffic before dawn on a weekend, so Mr. B was obviously comfortable driving and talking. The dam had been built in 1827, he said, in colonial days, to divert water into the Windsor Locks Canal, bypassing rapids that made it all but impossible for most boats to go farther north into Massachusetts.

“Do the fish use the canal, Mr. B?”

Not likely, he said: The downstream gates were eight or so feet high. The end of the canal was less than a half-mile walk from where they would be fishing, just below the dam; they could walk down afterward if Tom had the energy. “You can see for yourself how canal locks work.”

Mr. B had a picnic cooler on the back seat, apparently well stocked with ice that was beginning to melt; it made slop-and-crunch noises on the curves. Tom found he liked not having the -my appended to his name; it made him feel more adult. He wanted to keep the conversation going: “But the gates must open to let a barge in or out. Wouldn’t a smart fish figure out that was the easy way to get past the dam?”

“Fish, Tom,” Mr. B said with huge grin that curled his moustache, “are not famous for smarts.” If a few got into the canal when it was open for a boat, he allowed, they might get through. “They’re not going to hang around above the dam, though, to tell the others about the shortcut. They’re fish, not smart teen-age boys. And anyway, fish want to swim into a hard current. That’s their instinct, to look for water that’s moving hard.”

“But didn’t the dam block the fish? Doesn’t it block them now?”

“Some of ‘em, Tom, the little trash fish. Most of the stripers and shad and salmon make it all right. They’re strong. And like I said, they love swimming into a challenge. The secret of catching one is to drop your lure where there’s a good solid sluice, not just a thin sheet of water over the top of the dam.” The dam was crumbling now, he said: Big gaps here and there, so it wasn’t hard to find places where the river water was funneled into heavy surges.

“How far do they go after that?”

“After they get past our dam? Up to Vermont. Bellows Falls. Some even farther.”

“No other dams between here and Vermont? None in Massachusetts?”

“Oh, sure, a bunch. But there are fish ladders over all the upstream ones.”

He decided to wait until later to find out what a fish ladder was. “And they’re going back to where they were hatched, right?”

“Exactly. We don’t understand it. Some think it’s the taste of the water tells ‘em when they get to the right place. Amazing. It’s as though you had a huge urge to go to Niagara Falls.”

Tommy knew that he must look confused, but Mr. B was driving and shouldn’t look down to see his face, so he said it aloud: “Why Niagara Falls?”

Mr. B took his time answering. He was obviously thinking about his answer, so Tommy was prepared for something strange, and that’s what he got: “Your dad said you were conceived on his honeymoon. Your parents’ honeymoon. That’s where they went.”

That wasn’t just strange; it was weird. He’d read all about sex and conception, and was old enough to have participated in a lot of boys’ talk about “doing it”, but he didn’t want to think about his Dad impregnating his Mom, and the thought of going to see where they first made love was double-weird. He didn’t say anything.

Mr. B must have thought he’d blundered onto tender ground again, talking about Tom’s father. He was silent for a time, too until they neared the parking lot that the state had created, fifty yards inland from the river. “All right, kiddo. We’re here.”

It wasn’t crowded at all. He steered in and parked on the side near the river. “Lucky we’re early. We can find a good place on the bank without any trees behind us.” That was one of the secrets of successful fishing, he said. “Nothing worse than having to limit your back-cast to avoid snagging a cottonwood branch.”

*

Tom wasn’t prepared for the river. It was big.

They had to cross over the canal, maybe ten yards wide, on an elevated bridge. They climbed up a dozen steps and a dozen down, clearance for a barge or even a cabin cruiser to pass underneath, Mr. B said. That put them on a narrow strip of land, not more than thirty yards wide, with a few big cottonwood trees widely spaced as it stretched downstream from where they stood, the canal on the inside.

And on the other side was the mighty Connecticut river, at least three football fields wide. What was left of the dam, Mr. B pointed out, could be mostly just guessed from a ridge of heavy turbulence in the water stretching across the river, although there were short bits of visible stonework. Nearer them the remnants of the dam took a kind of dogleg to funnel water into the canal, with much more of the stonework visible. “It isn’t fighting the river over here as much as shaping it,” Mr. B said. “Pity, because the big fish want to be out there where the heavy current is.”

Which meant, Tom would soon learn, they were out far beyond his first puny attempts at casting.

“Did you bring bait, Mr. B, or are we using flies?”

“Neither, Tom.” He explained that the shad they were after weren’t eating: Hadn’t eaten in the 55 miles they’d traveled upriver from Long Island Sound, wouldn’t eat until they reached whatever waters tasted to them like their birthright, 105 miles to the Vermont dam or even beyond it, all by way of fish ladders, whatever they were.

“My Dad tied his own flies when he fished for trout in the Farmington River.”

“You bet. Was good at it, too. He tried to make them look like nymphs or caddis or damselflies or whatever the trout were eating. I’ll take you out to the Farmington in another month, maybe, if your mom will let us. But these shad aren’t eating.”

“So how do we get them to strike, Mr. B?”

“We try to irritate ‘em. Look at these lures.” He spread out a cornucopia of outrageously bright-colored pieces of metal, twisted into funny shapes. Mr. B said they were designed to hop, slide, slither and jump in a heavy current, and exasperate the fish. “If anybody knows the secret of getting a shad’s attention, Tom, let me tell you, that fisherman is a winner.”

“So it’s mostly luck?”

“That’s the real secret, Tom. Best we know, they strike at whatever antagonizes ‘em.”

“Like bulls charging at a red cape?”

“Exactly. Except that we know red capes get bulls’ attention. Fact is, we really have no idea what titillates a migrating shad. Here. Try this.”

Mr. B helped him tie a gaudy spoon onto his line, and he launched his first cast.

Ouch. It plopped into the river so close he thought it might splash river water onto his jeans.

“Not bad for a first try. Here, try to cast but not let go. Thumb on the line, see? Then yank it back behind you, and then heave it out and lift your thumb.”

The second try was better. Mr. B was incredibly patient with a third, fourth, fifth, sixth try. The lure kept landing a bit farther out each time.

While he was practicing, two skiffs had come up, halfway across the river, far past where his casts were reaching. His arm was beginning to be sore, so he seized the opportunity to stop and watch them. There were two men in the first boat, but only one in the other. None of the men were rowing; they had outboard motors.

“They’re going pretty slow, Mr. B.”

“They can’t go any faster, Tom. There’s a helluva current out there.”

“How will they stay long enough to fish?”

“They’ll throw out anchors. You watch. They may drag a little, but then their anchor will catch on a rock or a slab of the dam that broke off. Look now.”

Sure enough, the man in the front of the two-man boat reached over and dropped an anchor. The boat shot back maybe ten yards, swept downstream by the current, then stopped, the river shaping itself in a curl of white water around the bow.

“The man in the other boat,” Tom asked, “is having some trouble, isn’t he?” The man, who wore a jacket with a bold red plaid, had one hand on the engine handle; he had picked up an anchor with the other.

“He’s got to be extra careful. You’d think that after . . . .” Mr. B’s voice trailed off.

“After what, Mr. B?”

“Nothing, Tom. I mean, if he’d read the DEP material, he’d know they recommend two in a boat. Insist on it, actually. After reading the warnings, I meant. This river can be dangerous.”

“You mean the boat could tip over?”

Mr. B didn’t seem to be listening, as though he were lost in thought, so Tom asked again. “The boat could tip over? And dump him in the rapids?”

“Yes, Tom. Now let’s get back to catching you a shad. You see that ripple in the water, maybe ten yards beyond where you last hit?”

“You mean what looks like a bubble in the water?”

“Exactly. There’s something in the river bed, probably a chunk of the old dam, or maybe a natural boulder, that creates what we call a standing wave. Behind it, downstream, a shad can wait, resting before summoning up its energy to charge over the dam.”

“And that’s where I want to drop the lure?”

“You got it.”

It took three tries. His arm ached. He kept at it. The third time, the outrageously gaudy lure dropped exactly into the still pocket behind the bulge.

The strike startled him. He felt it, and didn’t know what to do, which turned out to be exactly right: The shad bit on the multi-pronged hook behind the garish lure and tried to bolt, swimming toward the far side of the river. The reel in front of his hand hummed as line paid out.

“Far enough! Put your thumb on the reel! Pull up!”

He managed somehow to follow Mr. B’s instructions. There was a sudden explosion out in mid-river, a streak of silver that danced into the air, clean out of the water, and then dove straight down like a falling metallic rocket.

Other nearby fishermen let their lines go slack, and watched. “Attaboy!” “Hold him!” they called. “Reel him in!” one man hollered.

Tom tried to ignore them and listened for Mr. B’s quiet counsel. “Don’t let the line go slack.” “Keep the line taut.” “Let him wear himself out.” “You have him now; reel him in. I have the net ready.”

There was a smattering of applause as he cranked the reel until the silver streak came clean out of the water at the end of his line, and Mr. B scooped it into the net.

“Well done, kiddo. Your Dad would be proud of you.”

“Thank you, Mr. B. I wish he could be here.” He hadn’t said that in a long time, not since he stopped breaking into tears whenever he thought about Dad. He thought for a moment his eyes might leak now, but he blinked hard and the tears stopped.

“You want to go for another?”

He hesitated. “My arm’s a little sore.”

“Then we’d better quit. Can’t have your Mom mad at me. Want to walk down to case the canal?”

Tom looked out. The red-jacketed man out in the river had managed to anchor his boat single-handed, and was casting up toward the dam. “Okay,” he said.

Mr. B put the shad in the creel and shouldered it as they climbed the bridge and walked back to the parking lot, which was now chock full of cars and pickup trucks. He unlocked his car, put the fish into the cooler, and produced a squeeze bottle. “Roll up your sleeve, Tom. All the way up to the shoulder.”

“What’s that?”

“Arnica. Just like I told your Mom. The secret of getting over a sore casting arm is to get it doped up right away.”

The arnica had a pleasant smell, kind of like a Christmas pine wreath, but it stung. Within a few minutes the pain disappeared, though, into a pleasant numbness. “Thank you, Mr. B. Are we going to go back and walk down the canal?”

“You bet. We’ll walk down this side, though, and stay clear of all the back-cast hooks.”

“Okay.”

The canal was neat. Both sides were lined with timbers as thick as telephone poles, although a few seemed to be rotting and crumbly at the top. “Are those the original logs, Mr. B?”

“I dunno, Tom. Probably not. I’d guess they’ve been replaced at least once. Can’t imagine how they drove them down, back in the 1800s. More recently, they would have used a pile driver.”

“What’s that?”

“Like a huge, steam-driven hammer. Remind me at home, and I’ll show you a picture. Look ahead now: Here are the gates.”

He could only see the top foot or so of the gates, because they were shut and the canal was full of water, but he could see stout metal arms that were obviously designed to crank them open, like the wide double doors of First Church but much heavier.

On the ground on both sides of the canal were metal structures that looked almost like benches for elves – with long, narrow, rounded arms, maybe two feet long and on pedestals a foot off the ground — bolted into the concrete apron.

“What are those?”

“Cleats, Tom. For ropes to hold a boat or barge steady while the water rises or falls.”

If a barge were in the lock headed downstream, he explained, it would be secured with heavy ropes – “called hawsers, lad” — wrapped around the cleats. Then the gate would be opened just a little to let all the water rush out. In only a few minutes the water in the canal would be the same level as the river, at which point the gates would be opened all the way, the hawsers would be released, and the boat would be on its way.

“And how does it work going upstream?”

“Think about it, Tom. You tell me.”

“I guess they go into the canal and the gates are closed behind them, but then how does the water get in?” He looked up, and Mr. B was laughing at him. “Oh, I get it. From up there by the dam. How long does that take?”

“Just a few minutes. You’ve seen how fast the water is coming over the dam.” He looked up suddenly and pointed. “Talk about fast water — look over there!”

A skiff had just appeared in mid-river. A screen of trees and shrubbery on the far side of the canal blocked their view of the river beside them and all the way up to the dam, so it was almost as though the boat had popped out of a tunnel. It appeared to be the red-jacketed man they’d seen fishing up above. He was seated at the stern, one hand on the steering handle of his outboard, the other on a gunwale, apparently bracing himself.

“Is he trying to go upstream again, Mr. B?”

“Just trying not to get broadside to that current. It could tip him over.”

“But he’s floating down the river backward. Kind of twisting around.”

“Yawing, Tom.”

“Pardon?”

“Fancy word for bobbing and twisting. He doesn’t have that boat under control yet.”

“Is that because he’s alone, Mr. B?”

“You’ve got it, lad. In a two-man boat, he’d have had it stabilized the minute he got under way, before the other guy pulled up the anchor. It’s tricky, spinning around to head downstream against a hard, choppy current.”

“Is he going to be all right?”

“Let’s hope so. Best he can do is ride it downstream to where he’s clear of the rapids, down to deep and quiet water, and hope it doesn’t founder meantime. Damned fool, out there solo!”

Tom watched the man in the skiff, still backing downriver. “Mr. B?”

“What is it, lad?”

“Was my Dad a damned fool?”

Mr. B didn’t want to look at him. In a long silence, he stared at the man floating downriver; then at the canal; then at his shoes. He seemed to be searching for words.

Finally he met Tom’s gaze. “Maybe we didn’t know then as much about the danger as we do now, Tom. Maybe it was just a damned shame.”

-End-

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