Gibber and I go fishing in the name of science

Utter mischance struck again, and after many years Gibber Philbrick stepped in to visit. Gibber and I were trail buddies in our younger days but hadn't exchanged veracities in a long time, so the reunion was memorable. I suppose his name is Gilbert, but he's Gib or Gibber unless you go formal and call him Captain Philbrick. He is owner and skipper of the good schooner Nathaniel Bowditch, which takes folks from away up and down the Maine coast out of Warren in the happy summer days.

Gibber has no reasonable right to be a sailor, for he was fetched up a highlander on the edge of the Maine forest wilderness at Rangeley. He had no idea there was a tide. But as a young man he picked up a somewhat neglected schooner at a bank's clearance sale and found a binnacle was not the top shelf in a coal pocket.

He tidied the craft, passed the stiff Coast Guard requirements, and - salty as a corned hake - went into business taking summer folks to see the beauties of hundred-harbored Maine. But before all this, Gib and I collaborated on a scientific expedition, and we produced a scholarly report of extensive astronomical importance.

First, let me say that Hugh Grey was the editor of a popular outdoors magazine called Field & Stream. Editor Grey had been importuning me to write something for his readers, and while I was not reluctant, I didn't feel I had just what his readers deserved.

But it happened perchance that there was to be a total eclipse of the sun, visible in the Rangeley region of Maine, and this inspired me. I suggested to Gibber that he and I organize a scientific expedition and develop a scholarly report on how to catch a salmon during a solar eclipse.

There had been a great deal in the papers about various preparations by scientists to study the event, and much more about what the public should watch for. It seemed to me salmon fishing would be something to include in the total effort, particularly since there wouldn't be another total eclipse in the Rangeley region for 872 years.

Gibber said he felt the same way about it. So we made our plans. We had a Rufus Crosby boat and outboard, and we would go down Kennebago Lake to the outlet, beach the boat, and walk around the dam to Canoe pool, one of the better salmon spots on the river. There was a lunch ground there that would make our observatory. I had a self-finishing Land camera, just then new on the market.

We fixed a lunch, took clipboards and pencils, logarithm tables and binoculars, fly rods and a few other items. Our mission was to see and record what happens during an eclipse that relates to S. salar sebago and the contemplative man's recreation.

The day arrived. It was July 9, 1945, and the first touch of shadow appeared on the sun promptly at 1:36 that lovely afternoon. We were poised and would have 1-1/2 minutes of totality in which to complete our study.

A pair of sheldrakes came up the river, as sheldrakes do, and lifted when they saw us. Then they seemed confused as the light dimmed and undecided about what to do. They turned and went back downstream.

Frogs along the bank of the river began to croak as frogs do at dusk. Birds came to roost in the trees and twittered as if for twilight. A great blue heron flew over, clearly bewildered, and came down to stand in the pool and look at us. A vespers silence settled, and while we could still hear the rumble of water at the spillway, it had a muted tone.

It is well known that a salmon, lurking indifferently all day, will rouse at sunset and take an interest in food. We were not surprised when the eclipse darkened and a salmon appeared, hitting Gibber's fly much as the 20th Century Limited used to emerge from the Hoosac Tunnel. Gibber set, shifted a foot to brace himself, and took in his slack. "Gutcha!" he said. I couldn't have done better myself.

The salmon was 16 inches and the width of two lead pencils in length, a male fish. After he posed for portraits, we returned him to the pool. Then the shadow of the moon passed over, daylight returned, the birds began to sing, the frogs croaked good morning, and Gibber and I returned to our boat. We had everything we needed for our report. Plus a good day in genial company.

Knowing Gibber, I was well pleased to learn he spoke highly of the salmon he caught during the eclipse. He said he pulled ashore three feet of the fish before he came to the eyes, was frightened, and cut the line. I'd have said the same if I'd thought of it. Scientifically it doesn't matter, since nobody in Franklin County ever believes either of us.

Gibber thought my first draft of our report was good, and I mailed it to Hugh Grey at Field & Stream, confident he would appreciate my drollery and respond with a generous emolument. But he did not.

He returned my scholarly report the next Tuesday with a curt note of regret. He wrote that since we would not have another solar eclipse for 872 years, he saw no reason to publish our findings at this time. This pleased Gibber, and I framed the letter. It was on the wall at the Oquossoc Angling Club for many years, affording members much mirth. For all I know, it may still be there.

I lost touch with Editor Grey. And Gibber, too, so when he visited just now we laughed about it all over again.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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