By Dave O’Connor
Duck season was due to open the following morning. We were late getting out of work and slightly tired when we got to Home Base, the hunting camp in the backwaters of Merrymeeting Bay.
That something was wrong was easy to see, the door was open, the lock smashed. The old Jeep was hardly stopped before the driver’s door was open with such a swing that the canvas hinges were strained with a force that they weren’t designed for.
The Ole Man was inside in a flash. I was just through the door when He roared, “I knew it! I knew it! The blasted apes took my stove. I hope it blows up, or smokes every time they light a fire.” It was one of His favorite possessions, one that rivaled the Jeep or His L.C. Smith or His Leonard fly rod.
There were very few things that the Ole man couldn’t stand. Vandals who shot out electric company insulators or used a road sign were particularly disdainful. Poachers that shot deer under a light or guys who brought home a hundred pounds of fish.
The vandals that broke into His camp we never did catch, but one kind of thief we had caught and on the first day of duck season I heard time and again about the men who had 101 fish. These were ultimate thieves or as the Ole man would put it they were “first class jerks who should have lived back when getting the rope was considered a civilized thing to do.”
It started about the same way that the Home Base incident, as it was to be known, came to us. We were just starting a trip into Swift Brook when Warden Clements stopped in for a visit. The fact that he could use a drink was obvious. His eyes were drawn, he looked very tired and his uniform had the rumpled “lived in it” styling that signified a hard day in the woods.
He refused the drink and slumped into the chair. It was the Ole Man’s favorite chair in the den, and that meant that Warden Clements was really tired. No one ever sat in the Ole Man’s chair, not even Warren Page, the day he stopped to see the Ole Man on his way home from a trip to the Atlantic Rivers of New Brunswick. He had been successful on the salmon and a hound run bear, but even he knew enough, as a virtual stranger, to avoid the, rather, THE chair.
Clements finally summed up the problem, “Those trout thieves are at it again. I know for a fact that they are taking out catches of fish that are way over the limit, but I can’t prove it. One of the thieves has been giving out sample trout all over town and yet he doesn’t go fishing but once or twice each season. He can’t possibly get that many fish in a trip and still stay under the law. But, every time I get to check him, he has just exactly the limit. No more, no less. I just came back from following that crew of thieves for two days and they never violated the law that I could see, not even the litter law. In fact, they stayed in camp most of the day and hardly budged from there except to throw a worm or two in Mallory’s Pool. I can’t even understand how they caught their limits. Lights went out by 9:00p.m. and they seemed to be living the quiet life. I snuck back into the brush and slept out in the black flies.”
The warden had a sad tale to tell. I really couldn’t help him in his problem and could only shake my head at his lack of success. The Ole Man was all ears and kept on asking questions about who was involved and who was out of line. The warden said he was not supposed to divulge such matters to anyone, but would make an exception this time as it was about time the public really knew what was happening to their wildlife.
By the time he had gone it was too late to go to Swift Brook and the Ole Man was in a foul mood. We rescheduled it for the next day, our day off.
I arrived at the Ole Man’s house in time for an extra cup of coffee from Herself’s special pot. Imagine my consternation when I found Herself home, but the Ole Man was gone. “Left an hour ago. Took that same crew of rowdies that the warden was talking about last night. I can’t understand the company He keeps. Took them to Swift Brook too.”
I was hurt and stunned. What the Hell was going on? I wasn’t as bad as all that, at least I hoped not, and here He was off on a fishing trip with Himself. I turned down the coffee offer and headed for the house I sometimes called home. I was suddenly more tired than I thought I had been.
After my morning nap I mowed the lawn, went to the dump and headed down to see Jake. He couldn’t help me any, I guess I just wanted someone to talk to. Even the sight of Jake’s new lab didn’t shake me from my depression. He was a pretty good looking pup that Jake had traveled all the way to New York to get, but that was all secondary to my problem.
My wife wouldn’t tolerate my mood and I headed back by the Ole Man’s house. It was nearly dark and He still wasn’t home. That didn’t help my mood in the least and I headed over to Loren Smythe’s. He had a tap in the cellar he called the “escape Hatch.” It was a place that reeked of booze, maleness and was rarely bothered by the fairer sex. You could “get rathy” as Steve McLaughlin would put it, and no one bothered to inquire.
Loren was home and glad to make use of the room. We talked of fish, dogs, guns, work and things like that until the Magic Wand had taken its effect. At last I had to pour out the whole story and Loren listened to the tale. “Warden Clements was a good enforcement officer,” was all he had to add. I already knew that. The warden was willing to put in the one hundred hours a week that his work required to get the job done, and even though he loved to hunt and fish as well as we did, he was rarely able to get the time to do it justice. Just as there are drawbacks in every job, he was the most busy at the most active outdoor seasons each year. When it was opening day of deer season he had to check hunters, the same went for fishing holidays like Memorial Day weekend that most of us consider to be hallowed fishing time.
After a couple more drinks and the passage of time I decided to head toward home. I walked to make sure that the Ole Man would surely be home. He wasn’t. The old Jeep was still missing and all the lights were out.
I headed home. I walked slowly, and even took one more turn back around the Ole Man’s place. No one was there, except for Herself, probably. Disgusted with the events of the day I went home and hit the sack. All night I tossed and turned.
Lacking in solid sleep and wanting to bust someone in the mouth I went to work. The Ole Man was supposed to be there too and couldn’t miss. He did skip and Mr. Keegan wasn’t very happy. He cornered me and asked about the where-abouts of Himself, but obviously I couldn’t help either.
After work I drove by His house again. No one home. Damned! It was getting to be a real nuisance. My mind would not think clearly on any other topic. I needed an answer to what was really going on. It wasn’t like the Ole Man to miss work or miss an appointment for a fishing trip with a buddy. He was usually ready to go about fifteen minutes ahead of any time He had set. Often, He would be ready with all His dunnage set out by the road when the rest of us were just finishing the last cup of hot coffee. When we stopped by to pick Him up He would be fuming about being late, even though we were still about ten minutes ahead of the schedule we had agreed on the night before. If the Ole Man said He wanted to leave at 5:00am sharp then it was really about 4:45am that you should be ready. To be ready twenty minutes after that was inexcusable.
On the next pass by His house the Ole Man’s Jeep was there along with Warden Clements’ truck. I almost missed the driveway as I finally got the right angle to complete the turn. Although I normally knock I made an exception this time and took the passage to the right that led to the den.
They were engrossed in a celebration. That was obvious. Magic Wand flowed freely and the warden did not have his uniform on. In its place he had a pair of jeans and an L. L. Bean hunting cap. The Ole Man looked as tired as the warden did the night before, or was it two nights ago.
It was now that I was to hear the story. It would finally come out, but all I got was snatches of the main jist. What was this about the railroad flare and the dark of night? How did 101 fish each fit into the four man party, what was the Ole Man guilty about, what did the warden have to do with all of this?
The Ole Man turned to me and apologized for His behavior. Yes, he actually made an attempted at saying He was wrong not to have called me. But, He said that laying plans to catch the thieves was more important. Catch thieves, I asked, what was this about.
“I called up the ring leader and told him that I knew just where we could make a haul on lunker trout. Asked him to meet Me with his gang on Swift Brook at dawn. We were to fish at Upper Stump Pool. I knew that that area hadn’t seen a big trout in years, maybe never.”
He adjusted His seat and poured another drink as He was obviously sitting somewhere close to the top of the world. Finally, He continued His story, “Day one went by and nothing happened. We caught a few small trout and they turned most of them back. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t just let them go, so I suggested that we stay over for one more day. Day Two was the dilly.”
It seems that He had already contacted Warden Clements and the agreed upon time was set for the pinch when the railroad flare was set off. It would be visible for miles on a dark night. The daytime signal was to be several shots fired at random.
“Well, the dusk turned to dark and they listened to my stories about lunker trout in Upper Stump long enough. Finally they owned up to the trick of their trout takin’. They were draining the water down at night by plugging the beaver dam at North Fork and walkin’ the stream bed to pick out the lunkers. With the fish flappin’ around in the small pools it was a pretty easy job.
Things were just getting good, the Ole man was getting really loud and swinging His arms about. “The ring leader even thought I was an outlaw when we managed to get most of the good fish from the stretch near the mill. I suggested that since this was near the widest spot in the stream why didn’t we set out a flare to light up the area a little better so we could be sure that we weren’t missin’ any food fish. He thought that was a good idea because Warden Clements was sure to be home by now.
I walked back to the Jeep and got the flare. I rushed back to the brook to be sure that no fish would die that didn’t have to. I lit the flare and sat back to wait, makin’ believe that I was busy getting’ more fish for the garbage bags we were filling with floppin’ trout.
There were three thieves and Me. The Warden arrived in record time. Said that the light from the flare was visible all the way over near the meadows. He made his arrest right off, even put me on the arrest report. Included all four of us. I couldn’t be more pleased.
He stopped with that as though it was all as obvious as the nose on your face. I still had a couple of questions to be answered. How did the thieves get the trout back to town without Warden Clements catching them in the first place?
Simple. They drove out at night and returned in the pre-dawn hours to “put in an honest day at fishing”. The trout were safely in the freezer and the beaver dam was unplugged to allow a normal flow of water.
Where did the 101 trout come in? There was a need for an official count of the books and the warden had counted every trout from the Old Stump dam through to the next dam as dead trout and added them to his list. That made about, or more exactly, 404 fish. That included the Ole Man, and He was about to turn state’s evidence for His only crime had been to help the warden.
The state had a witness, the warden had his thieves, the Magic Wand was working and the sentence was sure to bring a stiff fine along with a stretch in jail. All was well, and the fact that He had missed an appointment to go fishing would soon be forgotten.
Although the stove never returned when the Ole Man got to talking about thieves, He was always pleased to make his case against the fish jerks. I was still pleased about the whole scene, but confused over one scene, what had set the Ole man on the trail in the first place?
“Ah, glad you asked. It was the lack of activity in the daytime. That meantthat they had to be fishin’ at night or doin’ somethin’ like that. The only way I was goin’ to get them was to go with them. I even told the warden I thought that it was at night that they were doin’ their business. See how good things turned out?”
I agreed and settled in to hear all of the story for the second and third time around. This was sure to be a classic story that would get better with age. It would be told in trout times, duck hunting and in the deer camp. You might get tired of it, but it did your heart good to think that another wildlife scandal had been put to rest. The stove could be remade, the fish were gone forever.
The Ole Man had done himself proud.