by Chris Brennan
Somehow the word “fishing” seems inadequate to describe what is happening when I go out onto Keoka Lake in my kayak. I usually start around 6AM when the sun is hitting the western side of the lake and the east is still in shadow. The water is glass smooth, mirroring Tir’em and the surrounding hills. I find Keoka a somewhat unique Maine lake because it appears uninhabited by man and there is a sensation of solitude as I paddle toward my first fishing spot. Most of the camps on the lake are multigenerational and the surrounding foliage obscures them from view. Occasionally there is an overflight by a bald eagle or the mourning cry of a loon.
I’m a spin cast fisherman usually using soft plastic worms as bait. The idea is to cast the worm out into the water and simply let it sink. I’d say 80% of fish strikes happen while the worm is slowly descending. When you see your line moving toward you or gently swimming off to the side a fish has probably picked up the worm and is swimming away with it. This is the time to “set the hook” by pulling your rod back quickly and hard. If the fish is hooked you’ll know it, there is nothing subtle about it. Reeling in a fish on a kayak is a learned skill, somewhat akin to the proverbial Nantucket sleighride. The fish will drag the kayak as it tries to escape, occasionally breaking out of the water and trying to get off the hook. I use a barbless hook and once I have the fish alongside the kayak I remove it and let the fish go. I will occasionally weigh it or take a picture if it is particularly big or pretty.
If a fish does not take the bait on the initial cast you can just let it sit on the bottom for a while hoping a fish might notice it. This is when you have some time to notice the snapping turtle sunning itself on a nearby rock or start to really listen and separate out the cacophony of morning bird songs. Sound travels well across the water and you might hear the stirrings of camps awakening, a murmur of conversation or the laugh of a young child. By now the sun is up and the day is starting to warm. That’s when you remember you’re fishing and start to slowly reel in your worm. You repeat this scenario a few times and, if the fish aren’t biting, move on to the next spot. Deciding the “spot” is part experience, part imaginary cartography and part luck. I don’t use a depth finder to image the underwater topography. You can get an idea of what’s beneath you by timing how long it takes the worm to hit bottom and what obstacles it may encounter as you reel it in but this is mostly guessing. Keoka is blessed with very clear water so when the light is right you can see the structure of the bottom. You can extrapolate depth from the slope of the surrounding land but there are hidden holes or islands where fish may be found.
One of my favorite methods of fishing is drift fishing. If the wind is steady it will blow the kayak in a relatively straight line and all you have to do is occasionally pull up a little on your worm and let it sink back down to tempt another fish. This is when you can really savor the fresh brewed coffee you brought and appreciate the loons fishing near you. Drifting along with no effort in complete stillness induces a meditative state that is only disturbed by catching a pesky fish. Catching fish can be fun but it doesn’t seem to me to be the entire point. I have a friend I will occasionally go fishing with on his party boat. He has yet to catch a fish and, I think, actively tries not to. Yet his enjoyment of the experience is palpable. Maybe there is something primeval about the act of fishing that provides a visceral satisfaction and in today’s world of food convenience actually catching the fish seems to be less important than the experience of fishing itself.