A FISH­ING LIFE

ONE MAN’S STORY, TOLD THROUGH HIS TACKLE BY WIL­LIAM SIS­SON PHO­TOS BY JODY DOLE

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

Henry Walsh’s life story is told in the tackle left be­hind after his pass­ing, gear that was bap­tized in the fresh and the salt in pur­suit of bass, trout and his great­est love: At­lantic salmon. By WIL­LIAM SIS­SON

WWhat can you learn about a per­son from his on­ce­val­ued ob­jects left be­hind?

A bat­tered trolling rod that throbbed un­der the strain of a record fish. A large, hook-scarred swim­ming plug, its paint cracked, cor­ro­sion slowly eat­ing the metal parts. A del­i­cate bam­boo fly rod. An old-fash­ioned tackle box ar­ranged just as the an­gler left it.

The gear shown on th­ese pages be­longed to Henry Walsh, an avid, life­long fish­er­man and a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller with an abid­ing cu­rios­ity about the out­doors. I never met or spoke with Henry — he died more than two years ago at age 78 — but I got to know him re­cently through his tackle, the notes in his fish­ing jour­nal and con­ver­sa­tions with his widow, Donna.

“Oh, I mar­ried a fish­er­man,” re­calls Donna, a re­tired teacher and for­mer Rhode Is­land state sen­a­tor, state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and town coun­cil mem­ber. “His whole life was fish­ing, ever since he was a kid.”

The evo­lu­tion of Henry’s fish­ing life is ev­i­dent in the va­ri­ety of his equip­ment: the hand­crafted fly reels, a tar­nished bunker spoon, the worn Penn reel miss­ing its han­dle, the flies he tied, a Hula Popper, a red-and­white Darde­vle. At var­i­ous stages, Henry fished the fresh and salt, from a boat, surf and stream­side, with spin, con­ven­tional and fly tackle. If it swam and took a lure or fly, Henry was game. He chased large­mouth and striped bass, and he fished for trout his en­tire life. But his great­est pis­ca­to­rial love was At­lantic salmon, which he pur­sued to the end.

Henry de­vel­oped his pas­sion for the fish of a thou­sand casts on the rivers of the Gaspé Penin­sula in Que­bec, start­ing in the late 1970s at Camp Brûlé. Once hooked, Henry showed no in­ter­est in shak­ing free. “He loved salmon for their ath­leti­cism, their beauty and their story,” Donna told me. “He loved salmon fish­ing. Loved it.”

The Wal­shes used to spend as many as five weeks each sum­mer fish­ing for salmon on var­i­ous rivers. Donna taught school, and Henry was a mar­ket­ing rep for Mcgraw-hill. For more than 25 years they rented a house on “Har­ri­son’s pool” on the Grand Cas­cape­dia River.

They fished hard, and when the day was done they sat on the large porch, watch­ing sun and shad­ows play on the wa­ter and lis­ten­ing to the river they came to love. Henry died in March 2015, and that sum­mer Donna re­turned to the house just to sit on the porch and lis-

ten to the song of the Cas­cape­dia. “It has a sound … smaller and live­lier” than the sea, she says.

Henry’s pas­sion for At­lantic salmon is ev­i­dent in his col­lec­tion of fine Bog­dan reels, Thomas & Thomas fly rods, boxes and boxes of flies, and books, in­clud­ing The Amer­i­can Salmon Fish­er­man, by Henry P. Wells, penned in 1886.

In the pages of his jour­nal are the fish­er­man’s dry wit, an eye for de­tail, tales of his wins and losses with fish, and notes about what he con­sid­ered most im­por­tant: the friend­ships and ca­ma­raderie he found on the salmon rivers of the Gaspé.

“I came to fish the Gaspé 17 years ago at Camp Brûlé on the Petite Cas­cape­dia,” he wrote in 1989 in the open­ing pages of his jour­nal. “Dur­ing this time, I ex­plored and fished the Sainte-anne, Saint-jean, York, Grand Cas­cape­dia, Bonaventure, Matane and Mat­a­pe­dia rivers. What great ad­ven­tures, but none ever sur­passed those on the Grand and Petite Cas­cape­dia. And I doubt that greater and sounder friend­ships will ever be made dur­ing this pe­riod in my life, and this is prob­a­bly the great­est ad­ven­ture of all.”

New Jersey na­tives, the Wal­shes lived in Con­necti­cut after they mar­ried and moved to Charlestown, Rhode Is­land, in 1968, specif­i­cally for the salt­wa­ter fish­ing. Henry fished for striped bass and blue­fish from the surf and a boat.

And he knew his stuff. Henry boated a 62-pound striped bass trolling off Green Hill Beach, Rhode Is­land, al­most 50 years ago. A photo of the fish and an­gler ap­peared on the front page of The Westerly Sun news­pa­per on Fri­day, July 10, 1970.

“Henry Walsh of Charlestown has given fish­er­men some­thing to shoot for the rest of the sea­son along the Rhode Is­land shore,” the cap­tion states. In the photo a strong, lanky man brim­ming with pride is stand­ing be­side the great fish, which hangs from a tree whose leaves won’t turn for a cou­ple of months.

To­day, the copy of the news­pa­per has yel­lowed, and the plat­ing on the pair of first-place tro­phies Henry re­ceived for that fish, one of the heav­i­est bass caught from a boat or shore that year, is pit­ting.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Jody Dole and I han­dled his equip­ment care­fully, as if the pieces came from a mu­seum, es­pe­cially the fly rods and Bog­dan reels, which are in like-new con­di­tion. “My hus­band said, ‘Be care­ful

“Lost a salmon of about 50 lbs. when hook pulled out after 1½ hour bat­tle alone in ca­noe,” wrote Henry, who took At­lantics up to 43 pounds. “Tail too large for the tailer.”

The great fish took him down­stream for about a mile and es­caped be­side the ca­noe. It was after 10 p.m. when he made it back to the cot­tage. “He was ex­hausted and ex­cited,” Donna says. “‘You wouldn’t be­lieve it,’ ” he said. “I be­lieved him.”

Al­though she didn’t grow up fish­ing, Donna be­came a fly fisher and ap­pears in plenty of Henry’s jour­nal en­tries. “I re­ally learned to like it,” she says, es­pe­cially in Canada. Her best was a 27-pound At­lantic salmon on a dry fly.

“Henry was a mas­ter with the fly rod,” she says. “And he was a great sto­ry­teller. He didn’t lie, but he could tell a story. He was smart, and he was fun, and he had a nat­u­ral in­ter­est in things around him, in na­ture.

“He loved talk­ing about fish­ing,” she con­tin­ues. “He hunted, but he didn’t have the pas­sion for it. He liked be­ing out­side.”

I found the short bits of line and the knots, still at­tached to a hand­ful of lures and flies, tight with mean­ing. Some­thing about those hard old clinch knots — pulled snug, trimmed short, still grip­ping the hook or line tie for all they’re worth — spoke to me. Th­ese lures had been fished, bap­tized if you will, and I thought I could feel a faint cur­rent still flow­ing through them as I held the ob­jects in my hand. Henry Walsh was an avid fly fish­er­man and tyer, who in his younger days was known to throw a plug or spoon.

The for­got­ten rods were hung be­tween base­ment joists. The tackle, tro­phy and yel­low­ing news­pa­per speak of a record striper taken nearly 50 years ago.

Henry Walsh’s tackle box spoke of his sea­sons fish­ing for large­mouth bass.

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