“Catch and Release”
Living in western Maine, no one thought it odd that George Garrison would name his child after Carrie Steven’s beloved Cocker Spaniel. That was back in the nineteen fifties. At the time, my father owned the only gas station in the town of Riverhead. He’d bought the station on time the year after marrying my mom. That was two years after he returned from the war. To this day, anglers from across the country descend upon the small town to cast their flies to the region’s brook trout and landlocked salmon that continue to be as large as you can find south of Labrador.
When Happy Garrison was seven years old, her father took over the management of a traditional Maine sporting camp. The absentee owners were from out of state. Rarely appearing at the lodge, they bought the place as some kind of tax dodge or so I was told. It was Happy’s mother, Gloria, who ran the place. George couldn’t sit still for more than a few seconds and he didn’t have a mind for figures, but place his head under the hood of a vehicle or over an outboard engine and he’d have that motor purring as smoothly as Malarkey, the family’s coon cat that followed us around back then.
George had been an electrician before taking on the management of Big Bear Lodge. Before that, he worked as a logger. During the twelve years he and Gloria ran the camps, it was Happy’s mother who kept the books and looked after the staff. Happy’s father kept the generator humming, water pumping, and the nine Rangeley boats running, all the while splitting and stacking enough wood to warm the massive stone fireplace that took up one wall of the main lodge as well as the cast iron stoves that heated each of twelve cabins set along the western Shoreline of Awasos Lake.
George Garrison hated small talk. He left that to the camp’s two guides, Sam and Jake. They’d spend their evenings in the main lodge swapping fish tales with the sports who booked time at Big Bear Lodge in the hopes of taking a trophy brook trout or landlocked salmon. The two men adopted Happy and me. On their days off they would take us to pools and runs they never shared with their sports. We learned to fly fish under their tutelage.
Gloria Garrison was a religious woman and insisted that her husband drive the family down the thirteen miles of logging road that flanked the lake and the additional twenty-six miles over the paved road leading to Riverhead, where they’d attend church each Sunday morning. George had no hard and fast beliefs on God or the hereafter. He’d fidget in the pew until Gloria would turn in his direction. Sometime before the sermon, he’d excuse himself and tramp back down the aisle and out the door to spend the remainder of the service walking along the river that bounced under the bridge at the entrance to the town or beside the lake into which it flowed.
Gloria did not abide alcohol. She banned the drinking of hard liquor around the camps, although she looked the other way when Sam or Jake took a pull of beer, especially during the heat of summer. Although I wasn’t present at the time, Happy tells the story of when George nearly drowned a man. It was the first and last time the man, a sport from Hartford, Connecticut, spent time at the camps.
Big Bear Lodge was built in 1912 after the construction of the dam that formed Awasos Lake. Located a few hundred yards below the confluence of the Little Bear and Big Bear Rivers, it remains the gateway to some of the best fishing in western Maine. As is the case each year, shortly after the ice breaks away from the lake, smelt begin their spawning run, swimming up the two rivers, with the brook trout and landlocked salmon following close behind. The brook trout are native to the region while the salmon and smelt were introduced in the late eighteen hundreds, soon to also go wild.
That year, ice out did not take place until the end of the second week of May, but once gone, the lodge’s sports had a fine time of it. Many of them took fish exceeding three pounds. (This was the fifties when most of us measured fish in pounds rather than inches, catch and release being still a novel concept.) For the most part they swung traditional streamers that included the Grey Ghost, Ballou Special and Warden’s Worry. Happy joined in, even at the age of nine, casting as well as many of the camps’ experienced anglers.
Sometime during the end of that month, the fish began looking to the surface. By then, the smelt had pretty much exhausted their sexual urges. Many of those “from away,” as we called them, had returned to their homes. Those who remained clipped off their subsurface patterns and switched to dry flies. Although the trout and salmon remained in the rivers, having their own spawning run at that time of year, fallfish joined them.
Now, it’s not that a fallfish is ugly so much as it is plain. But whatever the reason, fallfish, or chubs as some people call them, were known then, as they are now, as a trash fish, not worthy to swim the same waters as the colorful brook trout or regal landlocked salmon.
On this particular afternoon, the sport from Connecticut had drained the flask he’d hidden in his hip pocket. Beside him lay a pile of fallfish that flapped around the bank of the river where he had thrown them. This was his third and last day at the lodge. The previous evening George had been walking through the dining room on his way into the kitchen to repair a leaky pipe when he overheard the sport grousing rather loudly about how he hadn’t paid a tidy sum to catch trash fish.
The way Happy tells it, she had happened upon this fellow casting his fly a few hundred yards up Little Bear River. Thinking himself more dog than cat, Malarkey, as he often did, followed Happy along the bank of the river. Although Happy understood the disdain with which anglers held fallfish, her father had explained that brook trout and salmon feed on the ignominious fish’s eggs and her mother had taught her to respect all of God’s creatures. To this day, it remains Happy’s belief that fallfish, like snakes, river spiders, and lawyers, are one of God’s creatures, having their place as part of the earth’s ecosystem.
When Happy saw those poor fallfish flipping and flopping on the bank, she confronted the man, who although not under full sail was at least three sheets to the wind. I suppose the sport could not bring himself to hit a child, but unfortunately for Malarkey, he had no such qualms about kicking a cat. At about the same time as the disgruntled sport put his wading boot into the feline’s side, George Garrison rounded the trail.
George had spent the morning clearing away debris from the path used by sports wishing to hike the two miles up to the river’s outlet at Roger’s Dam. Anyone who knew George would have thought that he had little awareness for the coon cat’s existence let alone any feeling for Malarkey, but according to Happy, with one hand on the scruff of the man’s neck and the other grabbing the seat of his waders, George Garrison threw the sport head first into the river. When the man struggled back onto the bank, George demanded that he apologize to his daughter. When the man stared back him, George threatened a blow that prompted him to atone.
Still staring at the disheveled sport, Happy’s father growled, “Now to the cat.”
As the man repeated his apology to Malarkey, George stooped down to pick up the silver flask that had fallen on the bank.
“And there’ll be no talk of this to my wife or anyone else, agreed?” He handed the flask to the sport.
Water dripped down from the man’s chin when he nodded his head.
It’s been six years since George Garrison died. Gloria followed her husband two years later. Big Bear Lodge remains today much as it did back in the fifties. Sports continue to travel to Awasos Lake in the hope of hooking large brook trout and landlocked salmon. Happy remains the best angler I’ve ever seen cast a fly. Each May, she and I pack our three children into the car and make the nine-hour trip to western Maine, where we release what we catch, including the fallfish.