September 25, 2018
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Alone on a Maine river, fly-fishing again

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Updated:

John Kirk rolled into the parking lot of Veazie Salmon Club on Saturday afternoon in a pickup truck full of fly rods — seven to be precise — and other assorted fishing gear, eager to see if he could catch an early arriving American shad.

Not that the species of the fish really mattered, mind you.

The fishing did.

“Here goes day 52,” the Portland attorney said with a grin, explaining that since the first of the year, he has spent at least part of the day fishing exactly that many times.

In the interest of full disclosure, I met Kirk over beers in a local bar several years ago, and we became friends. He even officiated at my wedding. We don’t see each other much any more, but we’re still apt to talk about most anything when we meet up again. Life. Love. Frustrations. Fishing.

Among the things I’ve learned over the years: Kirk is a man of lists. Ask him what his favorite movies are, and he’ll make you break it down into genre. Ask for his favorite book, and he’ll name 50 that you’ve never heard of (but which he has likely re-read a dozen times).

He’s divorced, and his children are all college-aged or older. He is free to choose his passions.

Atop that list: Fishing.

Not too long ago, skiing vied for first place on that list. A bum hip cost him the entire winter, and he didn’t hit the slopes at his beloved Sugarloaf all season.

But fish, he has.

Starting in January, he went to the Presumpscot River and tried his hand. Then, he decided that he didn’t even care if he actually caught fish, and spent some time working on new skills.

“I was trying to learn how to Spey cast, and I would just go to the beach in Scarborough and cast,” Kirk said. “I would be walking onto the beach [during the winter] and people would ask, ‘What’s running?’ I’d say, ‘Stripers. Don’t tell anybody.’ Then I’d just go out and cast for a couple of hours.”

For the uninitiated, the striper run wasn’t starting for months. Those days were all about practicing for their arrival in May, June or July.

“I did not catch a fish in January or February. I went to the St. George [River] in March and caught a few,” Kirk said. “Then I went to Montana, and that was cheating. Caught a lot of fish in Montana. April was an OK month. And May has been great.”

Last week, Kirk returned to Vermont, where he attended college and law school, visiting Otter Creek, and the Middlebury and New Haven rivers, waters he hasn’t been on in 20 years or more.

And on Saturday, he was cleaning out his home in Winterport — he moved south several months ago — and decided to try the Penobscot for shad.

Just minutes after he arrived at the Veazie Salmon Club, he had some company, as a federal fisheries enforcement officer, Jason Berthiaume of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sidled up for a chat, checking Kirk’s license.

Berthiaume patrols the Penobscot to make sure anglers aren’t targeting federally listed Atlantic salmon, and to make sure local dams are meeting their fish passage requirements.

It was that fear of catching Atlantic salmon that kept Kirk from ever fishing this stretch of the Penobscot, he said. The assumption he always made when he worked in Bangor was that it wouldn’t even be legal to fish this piece of water. That’s not the case: Targeting salmon isn’t allowed, but fishing for other species is perfectly legal.

“I didn’t even know this was legal [until I talked with other anglers recently],” Kirk said with a sheepish grin. “I’m thinking about the fact that I’m living and working in southern Maine and all of a sudden this [river] is 10 minutes away from my old office and I could have been here all the time, and didn’t even know it. It’s beautiful looking water, that’s for sure.”

Sometimes, Kirk fishes with friends. Many other times, he’s on his own. But one way or another, he’ll end up fishing several times a week, especially at this time of the year.

“I think part of it is that right now, physically and mentally I feel really good, and right now, I’m sort of challenging myself to see how much time I can put on the water this year,” Kirk said.

And his enjoyment of this pastime has increased for a very important reason, he said.

A year ago, Kirk made an overdue lifestyle change, and quit drinking. Now, 51 pounds lighter and much more focused, he finds that he’s a much better angler than he was.

“As I describe it, I now fish with clarity. And a lot more passion. It used to be, put on your waders and drink beer, and maybe catch a fish, and maybe not. Now, it’s go-go-go-go-go,” Kirk said. “[Now], I fish from dark to dark. On a day when I’ve gone to a destination, I get up when it’s dark, and I fish until it’s dark.”

On Saturday, the stop on the Penobscot River came at about 3 p.m., and he fished until 4:30 p.m. or so.

That meant there was plenty of adventure to follow before darkness fell.

When Kirk rolled out of Veazie and headed south, he had another destination in mind.

The fish are biting elsewhere, you see. And he just had to get there.

“I’ll probably go back to the St. George tonight,” Kirk said. “Dry fly-fishing. Can’t pass it up.”

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

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