Free Martin of Bangor is an outdoorsy guy, and he loves to introduce his children to the activities that he has enjoyed for his entire life.
But it’s not always easy.
“Let me just tell you this,” Martin said on Wednesday, as he recounted a recent adventure. “I have four boys. Trying to take four kids, from [age] 14 to 3, and a dog, in July, fishing? Without a boat? Just fishing from land? Your chances of catching anything other than a sunfish? That’s all I expect to catch.”
That doesn’t stop him from trying, however, and all spring, he and his wife, Heidi, have been taking the boys to various fishing spots for outings. Those trips have amounted to semi-organized mayhem, with the dog swimming in potentially productive fishing spots, and children throwing rocks into other locations the fish might be lying. Needless to say, few fish have been caught.
And as the calendar flipped yet again, he had no reason to expect the group’s luck to change. Many fish become less active as the water temperature rises, and his children’s patience with their expert guide had nearly run out.
“My older kids know that I’ve caught fish before, but my little kids — my 3 and 5 year olds — are like, ‘I don’t think this guy knows what he’s doing.’ Seriously,” Free Martin said. “So I’m like, ‘You know, it’s not really so much dad, here, guys, as it is the circumstance.’ And of course, they’re watching fishing shows and YouTube and they’re seeing people reeling in fish all the time. And I look like, basically, a failure.”
That all changed recently, during a trip to a small Hancock County pond that Martin said isn’t well known for fishing, and shouldn’t have any large fish in it.
“This is a pond that people drive by all the time and say, ‘It’s not even worth wetting a line [here],’” Free Martin said. “But with four kids, it’s not like I’m hiking in. I am literally driving by a pond on the side of the road and saying, ‘Here is a place where all four kids can get out, they can all play, we don’t have to worry about them getting chewed up [by black flies and mosquitos] or stung, or getting ticks.”
And while fishing at that unnamed pond, something magical happened. Eventually.
But first, the group dealt with some more frustration, and spent a half hour casting, throwing rocks, and catching absolutely nothing.
That’s when 3-year-old Hunter Martin changed the day’s karma in a big way.
“He’s bored, so he reaches into the worm bucket, takes a nightcrawler, and throws it into the pond. Barely. Like maybe two feet,” Free Martin said. “I said, ‘Geez, Hunter. Don’t throw those in. We’re going to want those. We’re going to need those. But at least look down to see if maybe a sunfish or something will come over and bite it.’”
Then Free Martin followed his own advice, looked down, and was amazed at what he saw: Just offshore, a huge fish emerged from under a rock, caught the nightcrawler in its mouth, and bolted toward deeper water.
And that’s right where Free Martin had cast his own worm earlier.
Free Martin began reeling in his worm, hoping to have it intersect with the fish, and trying to formulate a plan for what might happen next. The problem: His gear wasn’t really designed to catch a big fish. It was designed for a 3-year-old like Hunter.
“I had some $7, three-foot, Dock Demon, Buzz Lightyear fishing pole,” Free Martin explained. “This was not high-tech gear here.”
The fish didn’t care. It took the worm, hit the hook, and the fight was on.
Free Martin said he didn’t know how strong the fishing line was — it had been put on the reel at Walmart, he said — but did understand that he had to tire the fish out quickly, or he’d lose it.
Another issue: He didn’t even know what kind of fish he’d hooked.
“It’s a pond I’ve fished my whole life, and I’ve never seen a bass in it. So I was like, ‘I don’t know what it is. Chub? Salmon? Trout? Rainbow? Muskie? I just have no idea,’” he said.
After seven or eight minutes of fighting, he landed the fish — the biggest bass he’d ever seen.
“This fish was not a five-pound bass. I’ve caught five-pound bass tons of times,” Free Martin said. “But I’ve got no idea what [the weight] was.”
He also doesn’t know if the fish was a smallmouth bass or a largemouth, and said that more experienced bass anglers that he’s shown the photos to haven’t been able to tell, either.
And Free Martin can’t show the fish to them to get a hands-on analysis: He released the fish of a lifetime.
“My first reaction was, it’s so big, I can’t keep it. I’ve got to let it go,” Free Martin said. “I have people saying to me, ‘Why isn’t that on your wall? Why isn’t that at a taxidermist?’”
“I kind of feel like a fish that big has earned my respect [and the chance] to stay alive,” he said.
Catching the fish brightened Free Martin’s day, and he said it has also improved the outllook of his regular fishing partners.
“[My sons] freaked out. I went from being a total know-nothing hump to a hero, almost instantly,” he said. “There was like this celebration: Wow. Dad can actually catch a fish.”
As a result, their interest in fishing has also been restored.
“That’s all they want to do now,” Free Martin said with a laugh. “The next day, we had to go again.”
Editor’s note: Heidi Martin is an employee of the Bangor Daily News.