Gills Gone Wild

Last night after dinner I practiced fly casting from the dock. I say “practiced fly casting” instead “went fly fishing” because given the location, fly, and rough technique only the most desperate or misguided fish would have been induced to strike. A calm lake, still air, and setting sun made casting practice a satisfying end in itself. I stopped when I realized I’d lost the fly; I don’t know how many casts of flyless line I made. Breaking down the rod and walking off the dock I spotted a swarming of school of teeny fish seemingly drawn by one of the dock posts. Then my eyes were drawn to a large dark shape. Jaws–or perhaps Jaws VIII (like Super Bowls and Egyptian emperors, smallmouth bass playing the role of Jaws are numbered roman numerically)–swam lazily a few feet below the surface of the crystal water. Jaws may not be the cleverest name for a large freshwater fish, but she’s as regular a part of our Maine summer as mosquitoes, fresh tomatoes, and basil. (Judy’s mosquito bruschetta is delicious.) I wrote an email about her a few years ago, which I recycle below. It’s not plagiarism if you copy yourself.

Summer begins when I put in the dock and ends when I take it out. The second event bears little relationship to calendar norms. I’ve removed the dock as early as late September and as late as mid-November. There are two reasons not to leave the dock in the lake year-round. First is the state law requiring that docks be removed so they don’t become navigation hazards when winter ice crushes them. That ice would grind the dock to tiny flinders is the second. Docks are not hard to build, but that doesn’t mean I want to do so annually. Installing and removing the dock is a test I force upon myself. I do it alone; why a man with three grown sons does this alone is not today’s subject. Our Maine neighbors either enlist help from family and friends or they hire someone to do it. I’ve stubbornly refused to hire someone. That I can do it alone is the measure of whether I’ve passed the test. One of these years I won’t be able to move heavy dock sections or scramble over lakeside rocks or swing the sledge to drive galvanized pipe. There’s a trade-off between youth and wisdom. Each year I rely less on dumb strength and more on planning, technique, experience, and mechanical advantage. My proficiency is inversely proportional to how often and creatively I swear and how often I fall in the lake. In the early days F-bombs exploded around me like roman candles on the Fourth of July and dock sections gave way with sudden caprice to pitch me back-asswards into the cold water. This weekend past I swore only once, just for practice, and didn’t fall in at all. Close calls don’t count.

The work is always worth it. We–I–spend hours on the dock. Every morning I walk from bed to the dock, stretch, yawn, strip, dive in, and swim about 400 yards. We hang out there with guests, read, talk, throw for the dogs, fish, nap, watch the weather, watch the stars.* Others enjoy the dock, too. Swim under the dock on a hot mid-summer day and shaded from the sun’s glare you’ll find numerous small fish, crayfish, and the smallmouth bass I’ve named “Jaws.” Jaws is good-sized, 16-18 inches long and two-three pounds. You can swim up and look directly into Jaws’ face. If you get too close she’ll suddenly turn aside and swim a few feet away to resume her slow, rhythmic, gill-pulsing respiration. I call Jaws “her” and speak of her as if she’s the same fish I’ve seen every summer since 1999. She may be Jaws VI, and a he. I don’t know how to check. There may be 30 different smallmouth bass who swap turns under our dock. That’s the thing with fish (and birds and squirrels and spiders and most critters)–every adult member of a species looks the same upon casual inspection. It’s pleasing to think that there are new Jaws every year, following some hardwired fishbrain scheme to sit directly beneath me and stare at the water while I stare at the sky.

On Sunday I installed all of the dock sections and stepped back to survey the results. One of the legs close to shore was out of plumb. A large rock sat in the lake bed right where this leg wanted to go. I needed to raise the leg, pry this rock out of its way, and re-drive the leg into the bed. I rigged a pipe-and-winch to support the dock, raised the leg, grabbed a spare length of galvanized pipe to pry the rock, waded in, and tried to get purchase under this misplaced rock.* Wrestling with the awkwardness of the task I didn’t pay attention when I felt something bump my toes. After the third bump I looked into the waist-deep water. A few feet away from my legs Jaws was poised to attack. While I watched she burst forward, opened her mouth, and bit my toes. Water shoes masked the sensation. It didn’t hurt but it felt quite strange, disconcerting. My first exposure to bass attacks occurred a few years ago when I waded close to her spawning ground. Then she had at my bare thighs and calves. An angry three-pound smallmouth bass does not have serious teeth, at least if you aren’t a small fish or frog. They do have cold, hard lips. It’s akin to being gummed by an angry, wet, toothless Chihuahua. I wiggled my toes at her through the water shoes; she attacked them. I stepped back a pace; she attacked my calf. I stood still; she attacked my other calf. I banged the pipe off the rock; she attacked my shin. She circled me, probing different angles. Jaws has always spawned about forty feet south of the dock. I may have been in the neighborhood but I wasn’t messing directly with her turf. Maybe she didn’t like the metal clang of the pipe. Maybe she didn’t like the grinding sound of the rocks. Maybe she didn’t like the vibration in the lake bed. Maybe she was suffering from PMS.** I wasn’t sympathetic. She wasn’t hurting herself or me, I had to re-plumb this dock leg, and we both kept on task. Over the next few minutes she hit me, mouth agape, maybe thirty times.

Iraq is a mess, when they aren’t filled with poison Chinese products blow up in our faces, and the Bush administration’s craven self-regard has no boundaries but the Red Sox approach the All-Star Break with a doubl-digit lead and Jaws is back under the dock. You must take your pleasure where you can.

*Others have noted that I spend much of my Maine time moving rocks: digging them out of the vegetable garden, stacking them around the property, placing them in walls, building steps to the lake, piling them up along the lakefront. They ask “why are you moving those rocks?” My answer is always the same: “Because they’re in the wrong place.”

**Persecution Mania while Spawning

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