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Think like a fish

"I see it!" said my 8-year-old son, Nathaniel. His eyes and finger followed a barely perceptible ripple in the water. There was a fish out there, and he and his 13-year-old brother Danny were after it.
Nathaniel Harpaz, 8, waits for a bite just after sunrise on the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine.
Nathaniel Harpaz, 8, waits for a bite just after sunrise on the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine.Beth J. Harpaz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"I see it!" said my 8-year-old son, Nathaniel.

His eyes and finger followed a barely perceptible ripple in the water. There was a fish out there, and he and his 13-year-old brother Danny were after it. Under the guidance of our fishing guru, Chip Gray, they were learning to cast, reel in and how to "read" the waves, interpreting patterns on the water's surface to figure out where the fish were.

Catching anything was almost beside the point; this was about the art and fun of the hunt. It was something I wanted my children to experience, but I hadn't been fishing myself since I was about 10, so I needed an expert to help.

We were staying at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, where Chip is the proprietor. He offered to take us fishing at sunset, and again at dawn. For the first outing, we filled up on goodies at the inn's afternoon tea, then climbed in Chip's pickup truck and towed his boat to the Royal River in Yarmouth. Chip and his son Bill, 21, an ecology major at the University of Maine in Orono, unloaded the boat. We donned life jackets and headed off.

Chip's 20-foot, 150-horsepower boat, with a computer screen to track underwater movement of anything swimming nearby, was a big step up for me. My dad had a blue flat-bottomed rowboat with a 5 1/2-horsepower outboard motor. That old put-put from my childhood summers was perfect for trawling for smallmouth bass on Lake Cobbosseecontee near Augusta. But it wasn't an experience I could recreate for my boys. (My husband, a city guy, can coach a basketball move, but he can't tie a hook to a line.)

Chip was able to impart both a fisherman's skills and a love of the sport. He outfitted my boys with spinning rods, with 8- and 10-pound lines. (For adults, he provides flyrods). They were after striped bass and bluefish, using 5- and 7-inch artificial baitfish called Sluggos.

None of this looked familiar to me. My dad's tackle box had been filled with fat plastic lures, red or green with black polka dots and barbed hooks that made the fish's mouth tear and bleed.

And when my dad fished, my mom fried the bass fillets in her cast-iron skillet and called it supper. But Chip's style was strictly catch and release, where the fish is carefully removed from a barbless hook and returned to the water unharmed.

He also taught a skill I never learned: Thinking like a fish.

"See the swirl behind me?" he said to the kids. "Cast past me! Someone get that fish! Keep pulling. He will bite it! Right over there! Faster - no, not that fast. OK, cast again."

The boys gradually got the hang of it in response to Chip's patient and sometimes wry advice.

"You just gonna stand there and spin out or what?" he asked. "If you quit reeling, the fish figures out that it's fake. When the fish came back, you were a little too still. Now if you were a minnow, you wouldn't stop moving, right?"

Finally, my older son caught a bluefish and a striper, more or less on his own. The younger one got to experience the same thrill thanks to a deft save, in which Chip spotted what he called "suspicious water movement," quickly cast out and snagged something, then let the little guy reel the fish in on his own.

Both boys wore grins I hadn't seen since Disneyland. "You're doing awesome!" Chip told them.

We live in an apartment in New York City, but after fishing with Chip, both kids were ready to move to Maine and live in the wilderness.

Teaching city folks the joys of outdoor life is a family tradition for Chip. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all Maine guides, as are his mother, aunt, sister and brothers.

Chip happens not to be a registered guide, which requires certification and licensing by the state. "I was always the one to go with dad, and never had to go get my license," he explained. "Because I do not charge for the trips I do personally, I don't need the certification."

He only does fishing trips with guests of the inn, with repeat guests getting first dibs, and his schedule of 60 trips between June and September fills up early. But the inn has other guides for hire, with a going rate of $350 for six hours for two adults and two children, Chip said.

Other resources for finding guides include the Maine Association of Charter Boat Captains for coastal water fishing, and the Maine Professional Guides Association for fishing, hunting, wildlife-watching and other wilderness adventures. John Rust, vice president of the Maine Professional Guides Association, noted that some guides specialize in coastal, tidewater and saltwater fishing, while others are licensed for inland (lake) trips. He said half-day guided trips range from $100-$200 a person.

We fished with Chip and Bill until dark, then had a hearty supper at the inn's Broad Arrow Tavern, which serves everything from lobster to pizza. The kids ate chicken fingers and nachos; my husband and I shared calamari, chicken pot pie and "vegetable Napoleon," layers of veggies and cheese.

Then off to bed. We had to be up at 4:30 a.m. to go fishing! We launched in Bath - blearily - on the Kennebec River. Although it was August, the dawn air was cold. My boys were bundled up in puffy winter parkas, purchased at a parent-pleasing discount the day before at Freeport's Timberland outlet. (Freeport, home to dozens of outlet stores, is known for terrific bargain shopping.)

By 6:30 a.m., tummies were grumbling. "Is there any food?" asked Nathaniel.

From some hidden quarter, Chip - aka Houdini - conjured thermoses of hot coffee and cocoa, cereal, fruit and scones.

We hadn't caught anything that morning. But I had to smile at the sight of that spread. Needless to say, my dad's fishing trips weren't catered.