The Smell of Fried Fish

By Dave O’Connor

When you stop to think about it, there are very few things that use the free air space around us as a method of transportation. Birds use the air. Planes, rockets, bullets, arrows and the rest are ways mankind uses the air. We all breathe air to get life sustaining oxygen. We can get diseases transmitted through the air.

Pollen from hundreds of thousands of flowers is carried on the currents of the air. The trees of the forests reseed themselves largely by aerial free distribution. In freak storms these seeds can be aerially transported for miles.

Of course, rain, sleet, snow and hail are carried by the air. Without the transportational factor, gravity, we would have rain falling up or snow falling both up, down, maybe even sideways. Or would we. In any case, the air above our heads is often filled with some form of precipitation on its way down.

Since mankind came around there has been artificial air pollution caused by our daily activities. Air lifts. Air settles. Today, with all of our industrial air pollution, we even have “air alerts” when the air gets dangerously overloaded. Heavy smog, millions of kinds of chemicals riding the free transportation of the air around us. In the era before man there were aromas carried from a victim to the hunter species. Also, mountains blew their tops, creating another natural pollution with varying effects. Also, we have to give mention to the occasional asteroid. Ask the dinosaurs.

Speaking of aromas, scents and nature’s hunters(we were speaking about that weren’t we), the smells carried in the air today are some of the finest since air was first used for transportation. I guess I better retract my opening line. And say it’s quite plain thousands of things are transported by air every second of every day. The air around us is full of things both wanted and unwanted. I’ll bet you could even start a business cleaning the air. Modern. Up to date.

Smells. For example, I can remember my mother cooking fresh apple pies when apples first matured every year on the neighborhood trees. She would say, “They are just right for cooking, but not yet ready to eat off the tree.” She would get some from the old tree in the backyard and, within an hour, the smell of apples would fill the air inside the house.

I can still remember how long the time spent waiting for the pie to cook was, for me. My mother used to say, “Go weed the garden or do something useful for a change.” So, I’d sit downwind of the open window in the kitchen. Or, I’d dig worms around the edge of the garden. In either case I was adding to my collection of 10,000 garden worms for selling roadside, for fishing purposes, or just enjoying thinking about the smells emanating through the air around home. Aromas stick in your mind. Freshly dug garden worms. Fresh apple pie. In a boy’s mind they are closely related pleasures stored in the depths of memories.

All the residents of Boston rushing to get ready for a summer’s fishing trip wouldn’t exhaust our supply of worms. But, an apple pie, freshly out of the oven could be emptied in minutes…if my mother allowed. She never did, “Share with the family.”

I could identify all kinds of good whiffs. There was the time I smelled trout frying over the fire from nearly a mile down a mountain stream(actually, I figured the Ole Man sent me in the wrong direction and was already enjoying the newly caught fish) but I’ll get back to that later.

On some occasions the sense of smell I possess got me in all kinds of hot water. I almost flunked my first annual physical at work because I smelled too many great foods…up close. Ate them, and possessed more than a “love handle.” I lost the weight to satisfy the doctor, but more to stay employed.

I also got married from having too good a sense of smell. My wife-to-be cooked up a large plate of delicious venison steak I thoughtfully brought along on a date-cum-picnic back when we were talking about getting married. When I found she could cook fantastic biscuits and both white and oatmeal bread I signed her on for life. As I remember it, I ate 31 of her freshly baked biscuits at our engagement party. They were good. Still are. I knew she was making biscuits because I could smell them from her brother’s house, nearly a mile away. I swear I could. I remember her saying she “might” make some biscuits when we were talking on the phone but I still believe I could smell them from a great distance.

So, these smells carrying in the air are just a part of my daily life. I think this is why I like to swing on ducks, hunt woodcock, or blast away at a fast disappearing partridge. It gives me a chance to blast away at these aerial phenomenon best seen, heard or smelled while airborne.

My story about smelling the Ole Man cooking fish in the Big Spring Brook country has a lot to do with my story of acute smelling powers. It shows how valuable a great sense of smell can be.

We were fishing trout during the May fly hatch. That’s usually a bout the first week of June…maybe a week or so either way. All winter we tied some neat imitations on cold, stormy wintery days. We were waiting for a day like this to use them. Our imitations were always tied to match the local hatch. There are some tiny variations from one locale to another. Every spring we made our scientific observations and scientific work come to fruition. To add to our knowledge of science we needed to work hard to see how effective our observations were on th local trout. The trout acted as a judge of our science studies. Did we tie flies almost prfectly matched to the local May fly specimens? I guess we did. The trout…the judges of the supreme court…thought they were dining on the real thing.

The water level was just about perfect. We made our way up the old logging road, just to the east of the babbling waters. Sometimes we could look through the trees and see the holes we would be fishing on the way back down the brook. We fish down, not up. There are exceptions, but the rule is fish downstream. These glimpses of perfect trout waters were just a tease. Something to think about as you traipsed up the trail the loggers used to get trees out of the woods. It was hard walking. Hard work to do scientific work on May flies, trout, water conditions, natural habitat, but, we did it every year.

The air was filled with the smell of late spring…maybe even early summer. A mix of dandelions, fiddlehead ferns at maturity, musty spring decay of last summer’s plant growth, stirred in with a few extras like wet cedar, or coming cattails. An exotic aroma. Alluring.

I would have gone deeper in to the headwaters of the stream but the Ole Man was huffing and puffing just to get this far. I decided to stop and ask Him if He wanted to rest.
I was surprised when He said, “I sure would . I certainly do need to stop.” He even made excuses like, “getting along in years,” “I’m gaining too much weight right now, and “I don’t seem to be sleeping well right now.” I was really beginning to think I should have stopped earlier. The Ole Man was getting old.

I gave Him the day pack with the frying pan, butter, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and the small nest of eating dishes. A pretty light pack for backcountry cooking. I watched Him trudge off toward Dead Stump Pool and turned to go a mile upstream. The brook is not wide enough for two fishermen at the same hole. Dead Stump is probably the best hole in Big Spring Brook .

Since He was aging, I would give Him the best hole. I would fish from above and then be fishing behind Him heading downstream to the Jeep. It was the fair way to do it.

As I fished down the large brook I wondered how the Ole Man was doing and if His shortness of breathe was a sign of things to come…serious aging. I hurried through some of the holes. When I went by Dead Stump Pool I caught a two pounder on the first try. That was hard to believe. The Ole Man missing an easy taker? On the second cast I got one of nearly the same size. My creel was crowded by the two easy takers. No one leaves brook trout of that size behind. I lingered. I was also thinking. How could He have missed the best two fish in the brook. It was then I smelled frying fish…not cooked yet, just getting brown. I could tell from the aroma.

That no good faker! I hah been had…again. He wasn’t getting all feebled up. Now I remembered, He wasn’t all choked up chopping firewood yesterday. Or, last week when we dragged His canoe over three miles to get it to Lost Pond. He was play acting today, with me as the audience. The only reason it took me two hours to find this out was I was fishing waters He had not covered because He was supposed to start at Dead Stump. The two pounders and the smell of frying fish was a dead giveaway.

One thing for sure, if He left the terrific fishing for wild brook trout at Dead Stump Pool, or maybe even Big Spring Brook, the fishing wherever He was must be some terrific. I looked for signs He might have left in the mud. I tried looking for broken ferns. I was hunting. What I was looking for was one old, cagey, crooked, blasted, old man. What I was finding was nothing. I needed to think harder about where the brook trout fishing was better than here. I was stumped.

I finally decided to just fish down the stream until I came to the Jeep. I would enjoy myself along the way. Getting another fish or two was still ahead. It was still a wonderful brook to fish on, even if He was playing a game with me. You probably think I’m a game hog. I caught two wonderful trout, plus another above Dead Stump I haven’t even told you about. Three nice trout in the creel, I headed downstream.

It’s just that I would like to outfox the Ole Man…just once. I’d like to catch Him at His game and somehow twist it in my favor. I’d like to come back to camp with a nice forkhorned buck without Him saying He needed help getting a ten pointer out of the woods. Or, perhaps a day when I got the hardest shot on a duck and He missed an easy one. Biggest fish, heaviest trap score

, most rabbits…something.

As I got close to the Jeep I smelled fried trout, fiddleheads cooking, butter mixed in…across the air it sure smelled wonderful. As I came into sight He said, “Thought I might cook up some fish while you were dragging your feet coming down through.” A three pounder was filling up the oversized frying pan, even though He cut the huge trout in two pieces.

He motioned to the cooking fish and added, “These small ones are a real nuisance. Would have thrown this one back but the hook was lodged in his gills. Would have died anyway. Shame to waste these minnows. Ah, sure is.”

I checked His creel and found two other, both larger than the one in the frying pan. I measured the largest. It was nearly twenty two inches. Heavy girth. Big brook trout. Very big. He was a winner locally for sure. I was also sure there was more to it. I could smell it in the air. I glanced back to see the Ole Man with pipe in mouth, hat pulled down over His ears and a wild smile that said, “I’m glad to have you witness this.”

“Caught them in Lost Pond. Got to thinking about how just over that little hill right there is the pond and so I asked myself why not give it a try. No time like the present, I thought. The other day when we dragged the canoe in there I knew the May flies weren’t quite ready, but would be with every passing day. I was right…you see.” He motioned to the three pieces of evidence. “I figured I could be generous and give you Big Spring Brook all to yourself, that way you wouldn’t be just trailing me. You’d get better fishing.”

The other news He kind of dropped slowly was, “By the way, Lost Pond is just about 150 yards over the first little ridge. Guess there’s no need to drag the canoe three miles…after all.” The grin was let

loose with a full pipeful of smoke as He laughed Himself silly.

The next time I smelled fried fish I vowed I was going to be the one doing the cooking. Yes, I will. Someday.

For more articles and stories about hunting, fishing and the outdoors, be sure to subscribe to our monthly publication the Northwoods Sporting Journal.

To access past copies of the Northwoods Sporting Journal in digital format at no charge, click here.

Reader Feedback

The Northwoods Sporting Journal is the largest hunting & fishing magazine in the Northeast.