By Tom Lamia
The fish story is social currency wherever men gather. There are many variations but, essentially, it is an unverifiable tall tale in which fish or fishing is the subject. Its essence is “the one that got away.” Supporting details draw upon imagination. Where strict fact is elusive, fishermen everywhere fill gaps with creative bits that improve the story. No harm done; a little elaboration is no more than salt in the sauce. Seasoning is expected and the spicier the better.
The Maine fish story adds a further dimension. The fish did get away, but it is coming back.
Europeans were fishing for cod off the Maine coast before the Mayflower and, very likely, before Columbus. An hour from my home in South Bristol, the island of Damariscove bears evidence of 15th century English fishermen. Even earlier, Portuguese fishermen were harvesting cod on the Georges Bank. Will the cod return? Yes, and soon, say my friends at the barbershop. Why? Because controls are in place that will make it so.
The subjects of fish and fishing are central to Maine’s history and self-image. The Maine version of the fish story has clear links to this history. The typical fish story, told anywhere, invites exaggeration because, generally, only the storyteller was present when the excitement occurred. No fear of contradiction obstructs the free flow of the story, the point of which is to entertain, to regale the listener with “wow” factors about the fish, the fisherman, and the moment. A Maine fish story has these features (often heightened by a time gap greater than a human lifetime, adding another obstacle to verification) and an environmental “wow” factor, namely, something foreign (industrialization, overfishing, acid rain) that has spoiled the fun, for now. But help is on the way.
One such story tells of monster runs of Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River in the 19th century. The original tellers of this particular Maine fish story are no longer with us. However, the story lives on in the words of those who heard it at the knee of a long-departed grandfather, who recalled the words of an even longer-departed grandfather. In the story, these runs no longer occur because dams built to power textile mills now block the returning salmon. The runs will be restored, it is said, once the dams are removed—a slow but sure process well under way. Take that, you Scottish Highlanders. Competition is near.
In a Maine fish story, the one that got away is not only the fish but also the pristine environment in which it lived. A key element of the story is that something is happening, will happen, or could happen that will restore this environment. Mainers are acutely conscious of and relish the connection between bringing back the past and making Maine great again (apologies, if needed).
The theme is: There were once in these waters fish and shellfish of remarkable size and quantity, with which nothing present today compares. On reliable knowledge, expect both this former abundance and the conditions that made it possible to return.
Consider the lobster, a marine resource so identified with Maine that it appears on the license plate. Despite many years of near-rabid demand and forecasts of decline and extinction, the Maine lobster is today as abundant as it was 50 years ago. This is because lobstermen saw the need and imposed controls themselves. Oysters, abundant in pre-colonial times, were restored to the Damariscotta River through aquaculture research and regulation. (There is even a small commercial market for the wild variety.) Mussels, once thickly attached to Maine’s rocky shorelines are now mostly gone. Ocean acidification is thought to be the cause. What I hear is that (like the cod, lobster, and oysters), the mussels will return once the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center has solved the problem.
Now, my fish story: The striped bass is highly valued among Maine sports fishermen. It is fun to catch and it tastes good. Since my first visit to Maine, I have been told that those in the know were catching striped bass. Yet, only once had I observed a local catch firsthand. In the 1970s, a professional Field and Stream writer visiting my father-in-law caught one, with me at his side, in the tidal inlet just north of Wiscasset, using a spinning reel and casting rod.
So, until a few weeks ago, stories of striped bass seemed as credible as the snipe hunting and grunion runs of my Southern California youth—scams for the tenderfoot. Then my Maine dialect coach invited me to go fishing. The accompanying photo reveals the outcome.