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The Uplander

An essay from Where Cool Waters Flow by Randy Spencer

Take someone from the sprawling cities, someone whose feet are accustomed to the hard, level surfaces of the vast indoors. Place that person on Maine ground and watch their bewildered feet trip and tumble as if they were intoxicated. It’s a fish-out-of-water reaction, and likewise, nothing puts stupefaction on a face any faster than when the uplander finds himself on the bounding main.

The freshwater fisherman goes to sea.

Passamaquoddy Bay, off the Maine coast at Eastport, is not starting in the toddler pool for Frank Burnell. There is trepidation, a knitting of the brow, an intensification of the senses. Is he going into battle? He looks it. Why does his image bring Ahab to mind, standing on the prow of the Pequot, peering into the foam, aware that danger lurks there?

We are fishing as friends today, not as client and guide. This uplander is well used to the “personalities” of the lakes. With their ever-changing moods, storms come up fast, and with them, waves and whitecaps that can soak you before it ever rains a drop. The mirror-calm days lull you into a dream-state. But this—the sea—is like the lakes in relief. A macrocosm of watery moodiness. The terrors are more terrible and the dream-states too deceptive for your own good if you’re lured into an idleness of mind.

The extremes of the tides alone would be hair-raising enough to the inland dweller. The pilings are still darkened and wet from the last high tide up to the height of a two-story building. These are not the most severe tides in the Gulf of Maine. Those may reach well over forty feet while these will only top twenty-one feet today. Even though no significant wind is blowing, the water seems to breathe. Its swelling and subsiding gives the impression of sitting helpless on the chest of some Goliath, hoping he’s not mad.

When the boat slides into the salt water, it floats better. It sits higher, like the mating male loon when adjusting his flotation to flaunt his white feathers. Above the lapping waves and the sounds of marine industry are the voices of the gulls. Sometimes they appear to be laughing; other times they seem to be forming words: “Go out?” “Where?” “Why?” Right off the launch at the Eastport/Deer Island ferry landing, we encounter rafts of seaweed. With all manner of flotsam trapped within, they circumambulate with the rotation of the whirlpools. I tell my friend that I have seen lobster traps, tires, a TV set, and a telephone pole in them. It’s these whirlpools that bring the uplander the most anxiety. He talks to allay his fears. Do they turn clockwise above the equator and counterclockwise below, he wants to know. Yes, that would be the Coriolis effect—but our freshwater friend is too fixated on the fear these whirlpools inspire to care about the science. They worry him. They signify great forces below—great forces acting under what or whose power? Old Sow, the famous whirlpool between Eastport and Deer Island, New Brunswick, has been known to swallow boats, logs, and only Neptune knows what else. So what might it do to the measly little speck of gelcoat the uplander is fishing from today?

This gets to the heart of the matter—that the sea is an awe- some power. Its rhythms may be influenced by the moon, but definitely not by man. That’s the problem the sea poses, especially to the uplander: It presents him with the clear and present indifference of nature in liquid form, and here we are, floating on her bosom!

The teeming life of Passamoquoddy Bay is eventually enough to wean his mind away from worry. A pod of porpoises swims by in synchronous grace. A sea dog pops up to remind us how he got his name—his seal face looks just like a puppy’s. An eagle drifts past, dwarfing everything else on the wing. We’re moving toward slack tide and those mysterious forces from below seem sluggish now. Amid the calm, a crashing of white water erupts and two bluefin tuna, probably weighing three- to four hundred pounds apiece, break the surface and arch back into the water leaving the uplander and me agape. The task at hand calls for pounding the bottom with heavy jigs that are hopefully enough to entice fish—cod or pollock— to make a strike. The problem is dogfish (small sharks) that have apparently infested all the usual honey holes. They strike all right, but they miss with their mouths and come up hooked amidships or astern. Their whole upper body is therefore free to fight, and fight they do. The cumbersome cod rods get a workout on these gray, dry-skinned Jaws-wannabes. I had recently learned that they are called “poor man’s lobster” by those who have a fondness for their tail meat. (If you try it, watch out for the sharp spine hidden by the adipose fin!)

We drop lines an hour before slack tide. Two hours earlier and two hours from now, we would be drifting at the equivalent speed of a small boat with a five-horse outboard, wide open. If you chance to get hung up while bottom-fishing with this tide, you have to throw your rod’s bale immediately and get the boat turned around fast. Then you have to throttle up to about 2,500 rpms just to get back to the problem spot. The tides of Passamaquoddy Bay cannot be taken lightly.

Besides the high probability of seeing a whale, porpoises, bluefin tuna, seals, eagles, and ospreys, one of the best sporting reasons for being here, up until just a few years ago, was cod. They inhabited grounds literally a stone’s throw from shore, in 200 feet of water. By “shore,” we mean Moose Island where Eastport is located, and Campobello Island and Deer Island, both part of New Brunswick.

Today, only a few keeper cod come calling, but mazes of mackerel make their appearance under the boat as usual in mid-August. It is nearly impossible not to catch them. The “tinkers,” soaked in brine and canned in mason jars, make a special winter hors d’oeuvre. Once the bottom structure drops away and we’re over depths of 150 to 200 feet, the dogfish strike again, and some are able to pin the rod to the gunwales and cramp our forearms. When a cod does get hooked, there’s a subtle difference in the way it fights on the way up—less bobbing, more consistent downward pressure.

At three o’clock, we change tactics and take to the flounder grounds just off the mudflats of Deer Island. Using light tackle, their strike registers as a slight vibration at the rod tip. Half a dozen keepers are boated along with too many sculpin, the thorny intruder who likes to leave a nice flesh wound as a parting gift. On the way back toward Eastport and the Deer Island ferry launch, the outgoing tide is ripping now. Large, smooth areas of salt water boil as the seaweed collects at their edges. The hull of the boat lurches in combat with the current, and the uplander is made aware once again that this ocean has cards to play that he hopes never to see.

All in all, this was a day in which it was easy to be seaworthy with its bright, cloudless skies, minimal wind, and arresting natural beauty. It was a photographer’s dream, populated by all the creatures, great and small, that any uplander would love to see. Today, we are indebted to our saltwater hostess. Her kindnesses were enough to lure us back here again, perhaps on a day when she’ll show us a different mood.

Randy Spencer is a Master Maine Guide, which means he is qualified and certified by the State of Maine to guide clients on fishing, hunting, or recreational adventures, although Randy's specialty is fishing. Where Cool Waters Flow covers a year in the life of a Maine Guide and this excerpt is from the summer section.

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