Fish time: The great eel incident of 1986

Posted July 22, 2010, at 8:22 a.m.

It would come to be known as the Great Eel Incident of 1986.

It must have happened right around this time of year, because I remember the striped bass were running in huge numbers in the waters off Reid and Popham Beach state parks, just as they are right now.

My pack of friends and I loved to fish, and our routine was the same on countless summer evenings.

“What time is it?” one of us would ask loudly.

“Time to go fishing!” came the answer in chorus, and we’d head out again to the shores of either Reid or Popham, frequently landing good-sized bass as quickly as we could get our lures in the water.

I was knee-deep in the surf and having the time of my life that night, thinking I had hooked yet another “keepah.” He was a real fighter this time, and I excitedly began to reel in my line.

Things went downhill very quickly. For one thing, as my prize drew closer, it became apparent that the creature I was landing was no striped bass.

I shrieked loudly as the frightful-looking fish came into view. The ugly, slimy, inky-black eel was as long as my arm but a lot thicker all around, and to my unspeakable horror, it slithered with alarming speed right up my fishing line and began to wind itself around the tip of my pole — IT WAS COMING RIGHT AT ME!

Looking back, I suppose hurling my gear just as far into the sea as my arms could throw it might have been a bit of an overreaction, but it certainly seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Flailing wildly and in a blind panic, I sprinted out of the water — completely forgetting the fact that things rarely end well for those who flail wildly and sprint out of the water in a blind panic.

After a few face-first landings into the shallow water, I staggered onto dry land, sputtering and wheezing and, I’m told, still screaming.

I kept running, straight up the beach and right through the dunes. I was halfway to the parking lot before my heart stopped pounding and I dared to look back over my shoulder, suddenly realizing that the sound I heard wasn’t the eel in hot pursuit, chasing me with enormous fangs dripping with blood — it was the laughter of my friends.

They were doubled over, howling. They laughed the rest of that night, and they laughed the next day while vowing never again to take me anywhere without bringing along a video camera. I imagine they’ll laugh again someday when the topic of conversation turns to those memorable, if embarrassing, summer nights of our youth.

In the years that have followed, those carefree evenings spent fishing from the beaches of Reid and Popham have become fewer and farther between, as one by one, my group of friends fell to the trappings of adulthood. Some landed jobs elsewhere and moved away; others got married and began raising kids of their own, and fishing, tragically, has been forced farther and farther down the priority list.

Earlier this week, two men showed up and bought Reid State Park’s popular after-hours fishing pass from our entrance booth attendant.

“I heard the fishing here is outstanding,” one of them said to the other as they filled out the necessary paperwork.

“Yup, I heard that too,” I interjected, striking up a friendly conversation. There was something about the easy banter between them and their shared excitement over Reid’s fishing potential that made me like them immediately.

On a whim, I asked the guys if they minded me tagging along with them for a little while, just to watch. I explained to them I was the Reid park manager and I also wanted to write about them.

“Fishing would be a great topic because it’s such a fun pastime that anyone can do,” I pointed out. I also promised to stay out of their hair and not take up too much of their time.

They looked at each other, shrugged, and graciously invited me to hang out as long as I liked.

Neither Eric Ham nor Jared Woolston had fished Reid before, and they were eager to get their lines in the water, having made the drive from their Augusta area homes prepared to fish quite late into the night.

Jared secured a fat bloodworm to his hook, while Eric picked out a suitable lure, and we headed down Half Mile Beach towards Reid’s most popular fishing hole at the mouth of Little River.

I had changed out of my park uniform into jeans and a T-shirt, and as the three of us walked barefoot in the fading light with the beach to ourselves, a quiet, familiar sort of contentment came over me, one that tugged at my heart a little, as if I had happened upon a favorite childhood toy that had been packed away for years.

The two men compared fishing strategies and waded into the water while I sat watching them, with my jeans rolled up over my knees and my toes buried in the sand, thinking of friends and eels and those wonderful summers that grew too distant too quickly.

I said goodnight to Eric and Jared early, but ran into them again the next morning. No eels, no bass, and no dry clothes left after the late-night rainstorm hit. They laughed and told me they didn’t catch a single fish all night. Instead, they spent a good chunk of their time swatting mosquitoes and untangling their lures from passing rafts of seaweed.

“Bad luck, wrong tide, who knows?” Eric said with a shrug. “We’ll be back though,” he was quick to add. “We had a great time anyway.”

“Yup, I know what you mean,” I replied, tickled that they were still able to laugh, clap each other on the back, and vow revenge on the piscine forces of nature by planning future fishing trips to Reid’s shores.

In spite of Eric and Jared’s lack of success, the fishing this season at Reid and Popham Beach is nothing short of fantastic; if ever there was a year to invest $10 in a fishing pass, this probably is it.

While the fish are still running hot, I’ll take a lesson from Eric and Jared and plan a little long-overdue vengeance of my own this summer. I need to call a few old friends first, though.

Somebody must know what time it is.

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