Catch and Release

text and photos by Jessica Stammen

Rivers have been written about rivers.
Ideas, images like fish are catch and release, catch and release.
This could be the same one, again.
Still, I set the hook
…because in this river I stand,
fly fishing with my brothers and my dad.
It is an endurance event
standing at the bottom of Little Falls on Grand Lake Stream
all day – really, all day – without any lunch.
It is an exercise in the art of efficiency.
Sparse words are like the flick, flick florescency of the fly-line
against the silent, shadowed bank.
Lines of unspoken conversation lace like calligraphy overhead.
This is October.

Bittersweet October.
The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause
between the opposing miseries
of summer and winter.*

Here the striving of summer can rest, carried by the current for a brief time
before the bite, and before the dark belly of winter.


This is family.
The healthy competition of first fish, biggest fish, most fish.
Right now dad is in the lead, as he should be.
I am not.  I sit on the opposite bank watching and writing.

Tim wants me to throw him an apple.  Despite having been raised in the family’s other religion – basketball – I do not think my overhead pass will reach.  “Besides,” I say, “you can’t afford a break; you have some catch up to play.”

I help myself to two apples, fresh picked, and throw their cores to the current.  One for me, one for mom – the two Eves of the family.  If she were sitting with me now we’d make fun of the looks of concentration on the boys’ faces.  Dad looks like he’s in a continuous state of a happy hello to someone he can’t quite remember.  I catch myself wanting to wave at him over and over again – “It’s just me.”  As the youngest of the family Tim’s expression is fitting; he has planned a surprise attack but has himself been surprised.  And Greg?  Greg looks as if he’s eaten too much of a good thing, his smile reluctantly disappearing before a heave.


Greg got a late start on the competition.  After the long pre-dawn drive nearly all the way to the Canadian border Greg and I were delayed in the parking lot for half an hour, though I was simply there for moral support.  He forgot to buy his fishing license the day before so right there, on his phone he pulled up MOSES – the Maine Online Sportsman Electronic System.  Finding three bars in the wilderness Downeast is right up there with the miraculous parting the seas.

With license acquired and no dry land needed we headed to the riverbank – but not before another miracle.  Ms. Zwick.  I had learned to tie flies from this woman, my third grade teacher, and made my first casts in the outfield after school.  Dad recognized my interest and set me up accordingly at a table to tie and in the driveway to practice before going out on a river together.  While reading A River Runs Through It in the seventh grade I followed him through clouds of black flies to the St. George River, camera in hand, and produced my first ever body of photographs for a class project.

I never really saw Ms. Zwick again after elementary school.  And I haven’t fished since that seventh grade project.  So why not run into her today, of all days, and at this one river in the whole wide state of Maine?  The real miracle is that my brother and I recognized her from a quick glimpsing hello under layers of warm clothes and waders – and that she remembered both of us.  She had just retired, she reported.  The conversation was appropriately short.  She was still tough as nails.  I remember the slap of her ruler on my desk.


In Ms. Zwick’s class I remember doing a survey project.  I put it to a vote: Are girls better than boys at sports? I distinctly remember an argument I had with Tory King; Ms. Zwick suggested I choose another question as a result.  I was a tomboy through and through.  And as a Stammen I was, and still am fiercely competitive.

As the boys begin to reel in their line and cross back to my side of the stream the count stands: four fish for dad, two for Tim, and one and a half for Greg.  My count?  I have taken a nap in the sun, gone pee in the woods twice, and am just now putting on my sixth layer, a wind-breaker.  I think I’ve caught a fair few on this page besides.  Good thing.  Before the first cast dad had warned me with a smile, “If you don’t catch fish, you’re gonna hafta lie.”

*Carol Bishop Hipps