Family and Fishing: My Husband’s Greatest Joys

By Ellie Smith

My husband’s greatest joys in life were his family and fishing.  The stresses and strains of his obstetrical practice were great, and for 35 years he devoted his life to his patients.  I ran the house and raised our three children while he delivered 6,000 babies.  The only relaxation he had was when he went fishing.  When he was out on the water no one could reach him and he was free.  He kept his fishing gear in the shower stall of our bathroom and would not allow me to bring it down to the basement.  He kept it in pristine condition.  When I recently cleared out the shower stall and used the shower for the first time in years, the pipes were so corroded from disuse that the basement flooded and I had to call a plumber.

In the 1950’s, when Sumner and I first became engaged, my father introduced my future husband to fishing.   Our family owned a cottage on Lake Winnipesukee, N.H., and we had a 16 ft. fiberglass boat.  He was a city kid who had never done anything like it and it was love at first bite. My dad and he trolled for bass, salmon and trout.  They also went salt water fishing for flounder in Hull.  After that, fishing became Sumner’s passion. He loved the fresh air and the freedom that being out on the water afforded.

Sumner enjoyed all kinds of fishing, and when my father died, the old boat sprung a leak and that was the end of local fishing for many years.  For his 65th birthday I surprised him with a 12 ft. Lund, which I drove home from the Marina on the new trailer I bought with it.  He was furious because, by that time, his practice absorbed all of his time and energy, and a boat meant care and time away from the practice.  We fished in that little boat for the last 9 years of his life, and they were the best times ever, for both of us.

In his younger years when we took our vacations away from the practice, we fished in Bermuda and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.  Sumner’s goal was to catch and boat all 5 fighting fish of the Caribbean which are the Blue Marlin, White marlin, Wahoo, Allison Tuna and the Sailfish.  He was driven and he hung on until he landed them all.  The first Blue Marlin he caught in 1976 with Captain Russell Young who appeared in the movie, Jaws.  The fish was 9 feet, 4 inches long and weighed 255 lbs.  The second Blue Marlin was also caught in Bermuda and weighed 653 lbs.  It was caught on a boat called Striker One and the Captain was Henry DeSilva.

We shipped all 5 fighting fish to Pflueger’s in Hallandale, Florida for mounting.  Sumner wanted to hang them in our living room, but I prevailed and they went down into the basement.  We also mounted the jaws of a Dusky Shark he caught that weighed 550 lbs.  It was 9 ft. 7 inches long and was caught in St. Thomas.

In the final years of his life Sumner fished with Captain Angelo Oliveri in Hull, Massachusetts, where he caught Striped Bass.  After taking their pictures, he released all of his fish, except for those he chose to mount.  In January, 1966, while in Caneel Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, we caught 13 Sailfish in a row.  We tagged and released them all, except for the one we kept and had mounted.  That day we fished with Captain Johnny Harms, a wonderful man, as were all our fishing captains.

There were times when I pleaded with Sumner to cut the line and release the fish.  After fighting a Blue Marlin for over three hours in the heat, I worried about his health, but he persisted until the fish was successfully boated.  That’s how fishermen are.  They never cry “uncle.”

I have so many picture albums of him with his fish, fish that all look the same.  To him, however, every catch was special.  There was no more exciting feeling than seeing the rod go over.  “You’ve got a fish!” I cried whenever one of the rods would bend.  I’d reel in the other line while he pulled in the fish.  I always netted them for him, and once, only once, I lost a lake trout, the biggest one (naturally) he’d ever caught.  He reminded me of that “miss” until the end.  He never forgot it, and neither did I.

Once or twice we had to cut a lake fishing trip short for some reason or other, and that was the worst.  He valued every minute on the water, and time taken from fishing was unforgivable. We would spend 4 hours fishing in the morning and 4 hours later in the day.  We learned how to pee in a can.

Every morning when we set out to fish on the lake and started up the motor, the blood would race and the heart would pound.  The hunt was on.  “This is a hot spot,” he would say.  Naturally we sometimes got the lines tangled, but it happened.  Sometimes when I now drive by a body of water I can picture our little boat trolling along the shore and I want to cry. In fact, I cry now as I write this.  I loved fishing with my husband.

Sumner used to say, “Sorry, little fish,” when he removed hooks from inside their mouths with a surgical hemostat.  When he would toss the fish back into the water, sometimes they were so stunned they’d go belly up.  We would then circle the boat around the floating fish and tap it with an oar until it dove back down into the depths of the lake.  We got pretty good at it.  We loved to lake troll on Winnipesaukee.  Our boat was so small that from a distance it looked like a floating bathtub, but we caught some pretty impressive salmon and trout on that boat.  No depth finders, no fancy gizmos, no nothing, but we cleaned up.  The boat could be no bigger than 12 feet long if it were to fit under our house.

Being out on the water, whether salt or fresh, with a rod in hand, is a spiritual experience.  The fresh air and wind clear the mind and renew the spirit.  Setting out in a boat for a few hours of fishing is an adventure, a challenge and a liberating experience.  As your boat pulls away from the slip and you let out your line, you only know that you want to get a strike.  Nothing else matters.  When the fish actually hits, it doesn’t get any better, and as you reel it in the excitement builds until you actually see what you have on the other end.  Each fish is a trophy.  No matter how many fish you catch you never stop appreciating them.  How can catching one fish give so much pleasure? I don’t know but it does.

In the last years of his life Sumner was happy whenever he was out fishing on the water.  “The doctors can’t get me out here,” he would say, and he was right.  When he was on the water with a fishing rod in hand, he was safe and free and happy.  Just moving along the water and watching the world go by was restorative.  His greatest joy was to go fishing, and for all those happy, happy hours on our little boat I am profoundly grateful.  He was proud of his 5 fighting fish, but he was equally proud of his lake salmon, bass and trout, and because they gave him so much pleasure, they also meant the world to me.

A passion for fishing led to successful days on the water and years of joy for Sumner.
A passion for fishing led to successful days on the water and years of joy for Sumner.
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