I say the name of my friend, whose full blooded Italian heritage means culinary expertise and mood disorder on a white table cloth, making my voice gravelly over the phone, an end to end connection that used to run fifteen miles but now numbers in the thousands. His Uncle Jimmy, from the North End of Boston, perhaps a made man, perhaps not, but apparently always evincing immediate attention by the impressionable child Victor at the other end, made for a good story. Victor is always good for a story it seems and more.
One day I made the mistake of fishing a beautiful pool on the upper Presumpscot River outside Falmouth Maine on the only stretch reserved for catch and release. I had just moved back to Maine and begun making friends with the local fly tribe. I had been fishing trout on Oregon's Deschutes and felt these small eastern fish less than worthy but still entertaining. On this day I felt completely in the zone. Fishing nymphs I slammed rainbows, brookies and even a small landlocked salmon before the pool quieted. Alone, I had only the satisfaction of my own smile to keep me company. As I exited the water, I happened to glance upstream from a new vantage point and felt an involuntary shudder. "No fishing within 100 feet of the Dam" read the sign. I didn't need a tape measure to know I was way too close and that my pool was probably home to those resident salmonids smart enough to seek shelter beyond an invisible regulatory fence. I could have kept this to myself, but hubris combined with stupidity reaps its own reward. I told Victor.
A day or so later, I noticed the light flashing on my answering machine.
The message started. "This is Hom-ah Jahn-son and I am looking for Mr. Barry Woods. I am a game warden out of the Gray Fish & Wildlife office. I tried to stop you on Tuesday when I saw you fishing illegally below the dam on the Presumpscot Riv-ah. I got yawr license plate from yawr vee-hicle and and I would like to ask you a few questions. I am not in the office now but I will caul you back shortly."
I knew immediately it had to be Victor. But, the sound of noise from my circulatory system in my ear drums being what it was, I listened to it again. And again. And again. I listened to the pronunciation of each syllable of the Maine accent for some Massachusett's giveaway, the hesitations, the tone, the inflections. I listened to each word for the slightest whiff of betrayal. I listened to it an hour later, after my reasoning returned and my ears refreshed. Again, not a hint of bluff or skulduggery. It laid out straight and true like the cast from a Sage RPL 8 weight. Try as I might I did not hear Victor. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE SHITTIN ME, I get busted the very first time I fish the Presumpscot? My happy daze over a dozen trout dissolved into a fresh reality involving a fine and public humiliation.
Since I was raised with the innate paradox of hubris and conscience, I had always believed it worth the effort to cleanse character of sinful behavior (and, no, I was not raised Catholic, but by a single mother and practicing Christian Scientist, a story I will NOT get into here) I sought refuge again in the truth. I called the Gray barracks and asked for Warden Homer Johnson. The voice on the other end paused thoughtfully and said, "Well, we do have a Warden Johnson but he is not currently stationed here. I can give you his number. Can I ask what it's about?" To which, being dumb but not stupid, I replied, "Well, I got a call from him and expect him to call me back. Thanks for your help."
I called Victor. I started to explain the story of the phone message and my effort to call the barracks but he broke in to reassure me. "Barry, it was an honest mistake. There's no way they are going to bother with you. The wardens up here are really good guys and will cut you slack. I just hope you didn't get a call from a warden named Homer Johnson, he's an incredible hard ass." His voice broke ever so slightly.
Tears burned down my cheeks in disgrace, and I had to hold the phone arms length from my mouth. I began laughing. Even at that distance I could easily hear chortles of contentment from the earpiece.
Thus began a beautiful friendship, based on ball busting and splashy striped bass takes. Once while fishing the Cape, I begged him to leave me on a flat in Nauset Inlet so I could fish a seam that had a good rip starting to dump water into a hole, ignoring his concern over the rising tide. After dropping me, he pulled his 18 ' Parker back into the main channel and started to get it back on plane, when two guys anchored nearby in a skiff, having observed this, called to him and asked him what was he thinking? He replied that as the tide starts to rise, and I start to wave my arms, just ignore me. A half hour later, I knew I had a big problem, but then, miraculously came Victor's boat into view from around the next bend at full throttle. He pulled me aboard breathlessly, even before I could thank him, saying he had found the fish in a quiet cove up the inlet and that we would have the place to ourselves.
I sat there, ashamed, and said, "Vic, that's the difference between you and me. I would never have left the fish."
3 years ago