My First Time
By Kevin McKay
edited by Jennifer Bowman-McKay
My first time is something I will never forget. I was in my 20's and this was totally new to me. I wanted to try it and wanted it bad. I know it was late in life for my first experience but it is just how it worked out. It was early on a dark and cold April morning. I woke at 1 am as the excitement was over- whelming. As I laid there, I thought to myself, should I do this? It is awful early. Will she wake up? I don’t think she was as excited as I was. I slowly reached for the zipper of the old bag, I slowly unzipped it and reach my hand inside to find the long soft hairs of the fly I had been working on all winter. I really didn’t want to wake Jen (now my wife), but I was heading out on my first fly fishing trip.
It all started about six month prior to that morning, Jen and I had stopped over to my parents' house and my dad pulled out some catalogs a guy at work had given him. They were fly fishing catalogs. I think at that point I became addicted to the catalogs themselves, it was a toy store for adults. Not long after I found myself and Jen with my parents at a L.L. Bean outlet, where I purchased a Stream Light, rod, reel and line for $75. The rod is long gone but I was cleaning my office recently and saw that I still have the reel, which is very cool, not much use to me now but it will live on a shelf in my office.
So, over the winter I remembered going to a fly tying class with my dad when I was little. I asked him if he still had all the stuff. Which he did, so I dug it all out and started trying to tie flies, which were very rough, to say the least. Some were big streamers, looking back now they were like salt water flies, I wish I still had some of those.
Also, over the winter I was working at UPS as a loader and somehow my driver and I got talking about the fact I had bought a fly rod and had no clue what to do with it. He explained that he fly fishes all the time and had done a trip to Montana. He brought in some pictures of these big beautiful trout he had caught on his trip. He told me he would take me on April 1st, since that was when the West Branch of the Penobscot River opened.
So, it was April 1st, sometime in the early 90's. Mike had me meeting him around 1 in the morning; I was not sure why, but I went with it. You could feel the excitement in the air as we drove and he told me fishing stories. One that sticks out is when he and his brother drove from the West branch over to Greenville in a blizzard and how deep the snow was but they made it. I think of that story every time I drive across that road.
When we arrived it was dark and cold, and there was also a lot of snow on the ground. Now I am thinking, what have I gotten myself into? Up to this point I was just getting back into fishing, since I took some time off to chase women, which is a good thing I did, because I would have never met my hot wife. Back to the story, I don’t think I even had gloves, but we waited until the sun came out. So, on the trip up Mike revealed the reason we left so early was to beat the crowds. Well, that was not an issue. I think everyone knew, what we didn’t, it would be too cold and most of the fish weren’t up as high on the river yet, that early in the season. But this does make for a great memory.
I remember the crunching of the snow as we walked to the river. Mike gave me a fly, might have even tied it on for me. He demonstrated how to cast, do this and this and he proceeded to head down river. I was in a beautiful spot. It was cold but I did what he said; I cast and cast and cast. Then it began to snow as I was really thinking now this fly fishing isn’t any fun. Man, I couldn’t wait for him to come back from where ever he went. He could have been laughing in the warm truck for I knew.
So, a few hours later he came back to check on me. Did I mention, it was snowing sideways? He asked if I had any luck which I hadn't. So, he checked my fly. Well, at some point in the past few hours, I was just having casting practice because my fly had broken off in the snow. At this point I was done and I doubted I would be fly fishing again, but on the way home he convinced me to go again with him on May first.
So, there I was again, getting up so early that most people call it night. I met him and his buddy at his house, we drove the two hours. I will say it was warmer and all the snow was gone but, we still arrive in the dark. On the way, I show them my striper flies I had tied for this trip, they both laughed at me and said no fish would even look at those flies.
As we walked to the river in the dark, I could hear a splash and as we sat there and it got lighter out, I could could hear the splashing getting more frequent. I asked what it was? Mike said it was fish jumping and as the sun came up he was right. I have never forgotten that scene; the light just coming off the water and land locked salmon rising everywhere!
I knew right then I would never be the same again.
I was going to end right there but I forgot about those giant streamers. After missing several fish on BWO, I decided to try that awful fly of mine. I made several casts and to their surprise, I had several fish chase it to my feet. If I remember right, my first fish I ever caught was a 12 inch salmon on that god awful fly I tied. Like I said, I wish I still had one of those flies but live and learn. As I sit here writing this, it is November and there is frost on the cars, this memory has gotten me excited to get up to the West branch early this year, I better start tying some #20 bwo, because I still loose my flies in the trees and snow.
In my fishing world and in my life there are things in my memories that stick out. It is almost like in the movies when the character has a flashback to when they were a kid and there are actors playing out the part. I will have those random flash backs and there are no actors, just me. One that I often have is when I am at the age of 12 or 13 and I am in 6th or 7th grade. I have to pick a subject for the science fair. This might have been the first inclination I had an issue with fishing.
A few years ago I had the urge to fish a stream I spent many springs fishing with my dad. I think Jen and the boys were out of town because I had dropped my truck off at one bridge and had my parents dropped me off at the other. My dog Feta and I fished our way to the truck. It was very exciting being back but, I was very disappointed at the same time. I remembered the stream to be a lot larger but now it seemed very small. I was also surprised at the trash on the stream and how people had built houses and had cleared the trees right down to the stream. I was only able to catch one fish, a sucker but it did make my heart race to think I was into a brook trout.
The one thing that fishing that day did do for me, was it took me back to the days I use to fish it with my dad and the fun I had. There was one day that really stands out. The day we had to catch two trout for the science fair.
I decided for this science fair, I was going to do it about brook trout. So after talking to my parents I decided I would have a live brook trout in an aquarium and I would dissect the other. The idea was solid but the only problem was we had to catch the trout and back then my dad didn’t have a ton of spots to catch brook trout. So we headed for what he knew best, Black Stream in Carmel. The other problem was that we often fished this brook but, not very often did we catch anything. It always seemed to be the second week of April or right after the pussy willows were out, and most of the time it was the pool right beside the road but, sometimes we would go down river and explore. These were my favorite times fishing. I loved the adventure and not knowing what was around the next corner.
This time it was fall and we parked at the bridge and headed down stream. We came to a long slow part of the stream. I remember dad wading out to the middle and casting his worm down stream and letting it it swing in the current. I waited on shore and watched him. For us this was a long shot as fall was for hunting, not fishing. Neither one of us knew what to expect. At the end of the swing, bam! He had a 16 inch brook trout on! (A little note, it could have been 10 inches but, I remember it being 16.) I also remember this being a very large trout for this stream. We quickly killed it for my project. So dad made another cast and let it swing and bam! Another 16 inch brook trout! This time we put it in a garbage bag with water and headed for home. I don’t remember much about the project but I do remember having a lot of people coming up to my fish tank and look at the trout.
One other thing about that project that stick out in my head was the fact that I insisted on releasing the trout that was in the tank. Keep in mind, this was a time when my dad killed pretty much every fish we caught. The night of the fair we drove to the brook close to the school and released the fish, not the proper place to release it but I thought it was better than killing it. To this day when I drive by that brook I wonder if there are any trout in it from the release of that brook trout.
I heard a whisper, “Kev, hey Kevin, let’s go.” The camper was still dark and you could hear my mom and sister stir but, they stayed in bed. As dad and I got dressed you could feel the camper rock as we put on our pants. We opened the camper door slowly trying no to make any noise but, the door made a slow creaking sound. As we stepped out of the camper we could still see the amber burning in the fire pit from the night before. Everything we needed was already in the boat. As we walked down to the boat through the trail we could just see it was starting to get light.
Jo-Mary lake was flat, there was no wind and the boat sat there waiting for us. I jumped in the boat and dad gave a big push off with his foot. We slowly floated away from the shore until we were in deep enough water to put the motor down. Two pulls on the old Johnson motor and a puff of smoke rose up from the back and we could smell the exhaust. Dad and I slowly moved away form the shore until we were far enough not to wake campers in the campground.
Dad always headed for the same shore and followed the same routine. We would use big rods with lead line with different colors. He would run two to three colors and he would have me run a little less or a little more than him, trying to find where the salmon were. He also loved the mooselook wobbler in copper. It wasn’t very often that we ventured from this set up. I would often ask to bring a worm and bobber. I always enjoyed casting and watching that bobber bounce up and down when a fish would take it.
We didn’t catch many fish doing this and I often found trolling very boring but I did love to be out there with my dad. I have never forgotten the feeling of the warmth of the sun as it would come up over the trees and the smell of pine and cedar trees or the shocking feeling when a salmon did finally hit that mooselook wobbler. This is probably the reason I enjoy what I do so much and it is my passion.
I remembered one time dad ventured from his typical shore and headed up by the island. As we made our first pass, you could hear me singing “Valerie, Valerah My knapsack on my back. I love to wander by the stream ...” I was probably 10 or 12 years old. As we made another swing, wham! I had a strike and I reeled like crazy, then nothing. This went on for a while and every time I would reel in I felt nothing. So, when it was time to head in, I started to reel up. As I got the lure closer to the boat, I could feel some tension, there was a 12 inch landlocked salmon. I had been towing that fish around all morning! Dad and I had a good laugh.
I slowly rolled open my window as my sister asked, “What are you doing?”
I replied, “ I heard a noise outside the camper!”
The cans were rattling and the night was very dark but, what light was left from the slowly dying campfire, showed a silhouette of something moving directly below my window. I whispered to my parents, “Mom, dad!”
“What?” said mom.
“I think something is right outside my window.” She told me to go back to sleep but, before she got the words out of her mouth, the cans rattled again!
By this time, we were all quiet and my sister and I both had our windows open, trying to see what was out there. My dad thought it was a raccoon but, when the big, black bear tore into our camper, we knew he was wrong! He quickly rolled the windows up and the bear slowly moved onto the next campsite.
Earlier in the day, I was down on the dock casting worms for sunfish or, anything that would bite. I was having a great time wasting the summer day away. The sunfish would use the protection of the dock and eat the small minnows and insects that found their way under the dock. Well, the first siting of the bear was when someone came into the store and said there was a kid down on the dock fishing and the bear had walked out a few steps on the dock but decided to keep moving on! I had no clue because I was so focused on those sunfish!
Back then, Baxter State park would capture the bears that got too friendly with people and would bring them down to the Jo-Mary Lake area and release them, hoping they would become wild again but what would happen is, they would find the dump. The dump was a place where the campground and loggers would dump the daily trash. Soon, this became the place to go at dusk to watch bears. This was one of our nightly traditions. We would all pile into the back of the pick-up truck and drive to the dump. So, there we were, in the back of the truck, with these black bears going through the garbage.
Later that night, we were lying there talking about the bear and how exciting it was to see one up that close. It seemed one of the bears found its way into the campground and started going through the campground’s garbage cans. We heard a few vehicles drive by and not long after that, we heard a gun shot. We knew immediately what had happened. The campground owner and some others had heard of the siting of the bear and were out hunting it.
That was my close encounters of the Bear kind!
Have you ever sat down and tried to recall the very first time you went fishing? I find I have many memories but I am not sure what order they go in. I don’t remember the age I first hiked into Cedar Pond or caught my first salmon trolling with my dad but, I do remember that 90 % of my early fishing was in the Jo-Mary Lake area. When I think back, it felt like we spent every weekend there in the summer but, I know it was mostly during the three day weekends and occasionally a weekend here and there. Some of my favorite memories were my dad telling me his stories from when he was younger.
My dad grew up in a family that loved to hunt and fish, so you can see why it is in my blood. As a child he spent many day at Jo-Mary Lake but, it was before there was a campground there. They would hike in with their gear and set up on the beach. I recall a story about my grandfather sneaking up on one of the tents with my dad's brothers in it and reaching his hand in and grabbing a foot and yelling, "Raccoon!" As you can imagine, it scared the crap out of his brother.
Jo-Mary Lake before the campground was there
The stories I would often hear were about hiking up over Cedar Mountain from Gauntlet Falls. My grandfather, my dad , his brother and uncles would hike their rods and packs into the pond. Once there, they would make rafts made out of cedar logs.
Cedar in the early days
I am told as a little kid we often camped at Gauntlet Falls but, I don't ever remember hiking up over a mountain and making rafts. I do remember hiking in there and fishing from shore. It always felt like an adventure. We would put on a big gob of worms, throw it out as far as we could and wait, which wasn't very long and we would catch our limit pretty quickly. Through the years I have found myself going back in there but not since I started fly fishing. I had the itching a couple of springs ago, so Dave Pete and I went in search of it. We had heard you could pretty much drive to it but, we found ourselves at the end of a road that had been flooded over and some big boulders had been placed across the road. So we never made it and I never went back looking again but, maybe this year. We also took a ride into Gauntlet Falls to take a look around. It looks like a great river and a place where you could catch some nice fish, if you spent some time there.
One of the funniest memories was when I was maybe in High School and my dad, cousin, his dad and my buddy, Dave found a logging road that had come pretty close to Cedar Pond. So we hiked in for the day and had a great day catching small wild brook trout. I think we kept two and on the way out we were stopped by the wardens. So, as we all were taking our licenses out of our wallets, something falls out of my buddy Dave's wallet. The warden bends over and picks up a condom package, my buddy looks at me and says," Kevin!?" but the warden hands it to my buddy and tells him to stay away from the bears with it!
One of the earliest picture of me at Gauntlet Falls with my mom
As I stare into the white foam cup, the small minnow swims frantically from side to side. I walk slowly to my blue pale hoping not to spill the contents of the cup. I pour the small fish into the pail so it can swim with its brothers. I spend the morning building a small wall of stones, just as you step into the lake, in order to attract small fish who have just hatched out. I am not sure if these are bass or trout but, for some reason I am drawn to these creatures swimming in the lake.
That was over 30 years ago at Jo Mary Lake, in the Northern Maine Woods. Somewhere Between Bass and Trout, will be a monthly journal entry about myself growing to become the fisherman I am today. My goal is to chronicle my life from my earliest memories to the present. The title came to me a few years ago when I was president of my local chapter of Trout Unlimited. I was listening to a discussion about bass being illegally stocked into the Rapid River and how bass should be eradicated from all Maine waters. I found it ironic that I was the President trying to protect Maine trout waters but, also fished for anything that swam. I found myself torn between fishing for trout or bass. I also found myself keeping it secret, that I fished for bass, which now thinking back on it, was foolish. I thought it would be cool to write about transitioning from being a spin fisherman to becoming a fly fisherman.
I am Kevin McKay, owner of Maine Fishing Adventures LLC. I am on the Hatch fly reel pro team. I am married to a Canadian, Jennifer Bowman-McKay, who doubles as my editor. I also have two boys who have become my favorite fishing partners (check them out in the fly fishing film East by North East and in Grey Ghost Production’s next film, along with Jen and myself).
I hope you will enjoy my story but most of all, I hope this will bring great joy to my boys when they have grown. I believe everyone has a story and this is mine.