As a city kind of guy, I'm always shocked by the great outdoors. When I see it, I see only snatches of it, little bits of memory burned into my brain.
And so it is on the Miramichi. Colors: white, blue, brown, yellow. Sounds: the cracking of snow ledges breaking off the far shore, hidden rapids, birds overhead and in the trees, the muted fishermen's talk bouncing off the river's surface. Sights: icebergs the size of boats floating downstream to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fly lines sparkling in the sun, Old Glory fluttering above the Union Jack, a bald eagle landing in a tree not 50 yards from me. Smells: the air so clear and cold you feel it in the back of your nose, not up front with the city stink.
"I've driven into the Forest Channel," I'm thinking, when suddenly something bangs into my crotch.
"Don't mind her," says George Curtis. He used to own the Black Rapids Salmon Lodge but now manages it for some outdoor adventure company in Alabama that bought the place a few years back. "That's Lady," he says. "Good dog. The very best."
(The crotch shot was the beginning of a long relationship with Lady. She followed me around my whole time there. It was a kinship thing, since both of us are mutts who limp around a lot (a run-in with a car caused her leg issues). I got her and she got me.
At the river bank I get the feeling that this was a river waking up on its way to spring. "She's known worldwide as one of the best Atlantic Salmon rivers in the world," George says over my shoulder. I don't need to turn to know that he's smiling. "She's 125 miles long and has several tributaries, all of which have salmon in them."
When Mac (who pets every dog he sees) finally joins me at the river, the look on his face is the pure joy of a forever skinny man in a bake shop.
George: "The salmon stay upstream in the river under the ice until the ice goes out. Of course by then they are hungry, starving. You boys are going to have some good fishing. Yeah, the very best."
"Hey, George, can you tell if this is a sinking line or not?" calls Rick Illes, a distributor of replacement hips and knees. Nice guy, but he tends to look at me like I'm one of his parts. "If I just throw it in the river and the reel sinks," he says, "then it must be a sinking line, huh?" Fly fishing humor.
As George looks at his reel, I see a hobbit walking up the bank with a walking stick. All I can do is point.
"Oh, that's Annie," George says. "She's 82 or so, been fishing since she was 7. She'll fish the pants off you."
Mac, who has fished the planet for all species of fish, nods his head and agrees: "Yep, she always does."
Annie, or, "Shall We Say"
"Shall we say," — a phrase that Annie Pearson begins every other sentence with — "I love a day in the open, but it tires you out. My south is sinking."
Translation: Being outside makes her tired, especially her legs.
In the business we call people like Annie "a walking sound byte." Here are some Annie-isms: "I have that Restless Leg Syndrome thing and I find when I dream of fishing, especially when I dream of the fish that got away, I can't stop my legs from a jumping." Or: "Shall we say, fighting that fish scared the bloomers off of me." And my favorite: "There's just as many fish where there ain't as where there are." Those were only the ones I had a chance to write down, mostly on napkins.
Annie has been fishing since "the thirties." That would be the nineteen-thirties. She still fishes for salmon about 15 days a year, both spring and fall. A pack-a-day unfiltered Camel smoker, Annie still fishes in her new boots, bought in 1967. "I found a mouse in one of them once," she says. "He had about a thousand sunflower seeds in the boot, I've since declared war on mice, and squirrels too."
The house she lives in was built in 1682 by one of her ancestors. Annie's family used to own the Byfield Snuff Company in Byfield, Mass. In WWII she was in the WAVES at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. In 1950, her 50-year-old mother died on the banks of the same river she fishes today. Her house was built in 1682 by one of her ancestors. "I do have one of those push button phones," she says, "but most of my phones are rotary ones, especially the one by Father's chair."
Never married, she also has a summer camp on a lake in Maine that is only reachable by an 8-mile boat ride. Built in 19-ought-something, it has only generator electricity, no running water and two outhouses: "one for the men, one for the broads."
Annie knows something about flies, seeing as how Carrie Stevens, the inventor of the famed Gray Ghost streamer was a close family friend, and even named one of her flies, the Big Ben, after Annie's father. "Carrie used to tie her flies by hand, including the Gray Ghost, and she would let anyone watch her," Annie says. "But when it came to putting the wings on the flies, she never would let anyone watch."
And no mistake, this lady can fish. "After I caught two fish yesterday morning with a Mickey Finn fly on," she says, "every other damn person went out that afternoon with the same damn fly on."
The second Salmon she caught and boated was 46 inches long and weighed 25 pounds. George, her guide, had to pull the anchor and chase the fish to keep it out of the current, because, as he says, "if it had put its tail in the wind it would have been gone."
Recounts Annie: "It was a bottom hugger that gave me a 35-minute fight. Ran me all the way out to my backing.
"Shall we say, it was the biggest salmon I ever caught."
The first day there, Annie told me: "The person who catches the most fish sits at the head of the dinner table, and their rod goes on top all the other rods in the rack."
Most days, Annie sat at the head, and her fishing rod, at the top.
George Curtis & Ted Williams
George's father, Roy Curtis, is a Hall of Fame guide (Atlantic Salmon Hall of Fame, Doaktown, New Brunswick.) and he was the favorite guide of baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Roy taught his son everything he knew about the river, which meant that from the time he was 12 years old, George spent a lot of time with Ted Williams.
"In tough fishing, Ted could hook the fish the regular guys couldn't hook," says George, now 60, as he's bringing me to Ted Williams' old fishing camp, down the river from the lodge, on land Ted bought from George's grandfather.
As he opens the door and I step in all I can think is, "The baseball guys back in Bristol would kill for this …" I'm mainly a Buffalo Bills guy, so on the rare occasions when I think of baseball at all, it's of my uncle Sibby Sisti and the Boston Braves. Any minute I expect lighting to shoot through the cabin roof and fry me.
"Ted was a great fisherman," George says. "He could cast 100 feet of line straight and it looked good. If he couldn't throw a good line he would get mad and curse, but by God he could throw it." Then he asks whether I want to see where Ted tied his own flies.
His fly-tying office is arranged as if he just left: his waders hang upside-down next to his woven lunch basket, and on his desk sits a fly he tied and left for another day. "He made his own flies," George says. "He was a great tier — a man with big hands, you know, but he had great eyesight. He could tie small beautiful things, too, like a No. 10 or No. 12 fly."
Next to the fly is Ted's old fishing hat, and beyond that his canoe with a No Trespassing No Fishing sign signed simply, "By Order, T. Williams." Upstairs in his bedroom he kept a framed picture of him and Lou Gehrig. Downstairs, over his favorite chair, hangs a framed picture of him with Babe Ruth.
Back outside, George leans against a tree and looks out on the river. He points out the cabin where Teddy Ballgame spent his wedding night. "He always waded, didn't like fishing out of a boat," George says. "His favorite fly was the Wet Green Butt Bear Hair."
The ball player taught George that the "magic moment" for fly fishing was between 9 and 11 a.m., and his conservation lessons made such an impression on George that he hasn't killed a fish in 15 years. "Ted Williams taught me to catch and release," he says. "He used to say you have to let these fish go for the good and the future of the river. If you hit and keep a Salmon with 15-20,000 eggs, look what you are doing to the future."
"Stringbean — that's what Ted called me," he says. It's as though he sees Ted and Roy fishing still.
"Ted used to always tell my father, 'Roy, this is where I want to be, right here, out at the camp when I pack it in,'" George says. "Shame it didn't work out that way."
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com
For more information about The Black Rapids Salmon Lodge you can go to www.miramichiblackrapids.com