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On The Trail: Searching for “Indian Al”


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Honestly, I do not recall how I met “Indian Al” Niemiec, but, my oh my, did we have a blast fishing for American shad along the eastern bank of the Holyoke-tailrace, a channel feeding anadromous fish to the Barrett Fish Lift and over the dam.

We probably made acquaintance at streamside on a day when I had parked on the South Hadley Falls side and paddled my canoe across to the island. From the start, it was a match inspired by the cosmos. He showed me some of his tricks and places. I showed him some of mine. It was fair trade in the secretive world of fishing barter. He even taught me how to wade across to the island where we most probably met, picking our way through the fishy-smelling, bedrock shallows between the bridge and spillway.

Honestly, I’d love to reconnect with the man. I’ve even Googled him looking for a contact number, but he seems to have vanished into thin air along with his fly-tying business, “Native American Nymphs & Flies.” The most recent online mention I can find of him, other than my own columns, is a 1996 Bangor Daily News article about a Penobscot River fishing event he attended. Maybe he’s moved Down East. Perhaps he’s retired and guiding. Then again, it’s possible he’s moved on to the Happy Hunting Grounds. If so, my condolences to his Chicopee family. He was a good man with a great streamside smile to go with boundless energy and insightful angling acumen. He could cut it with the best fishermen and fly-tiers. Clever and creative, many of his patterns were his own, crafted after years of experience on streams, lakes and ponds. He fished them all with aplomb.

Proof of Niemiec’s fly-tying skill stands upright on shelves in my home, where three framed shadow-boxes display examples of his dries, wets and streamers. There is even a story behind the purchase of those display cases sometime in the early to mid-1980s. Having assembled simple arrangements to display his wares to potential retailers, one from Connecticut suggested that he build fancier, framed versions with calligraphic labels to sell. When he went forward with the project, the demand was such that he tired of tying flies for the wall instead of the water. Though there was money in it, he frankly preferred selling his artificials for anglers, not collectors. I do feel fortunate to have been on the scene at the time, now a beneficiary who treasures his handsome display cases that are always handy for reference.

“Indian Al” and I were within a year or so in age, maybe even born the same year, if I’m not mistaken. What I do clearly remember is name-dropping all the Chicopee ballplayers I played against and he seemed to know them all, having either gone to school with them or grown up in the same neighborhood. A sinewy man, he stood about 5-foot-8, weighed about 150 pounds and often wore a knotted-leather headband to keep his black, shoulder-length hair behind his ears. I heard from friends that he could hold his own in any hockey game, and that his reputation was that of a fierce competitor and annoying pest in the mold of “The Rat,” Kenny Linesman, or “Little Ball of Hate,” Brad Marchand.

When we first met, the name of his business was “Indian Nymphs & Flies.” Then, somewhat surprisingly to me, he went politically correct and changed the Indian to Native American, likely out of respect to our indigenous people.

The last I heard from the man was in the fall, probably before the year 1990. Always up for a challenge, he had tired of trout fishing and learned to catch shad. Then he tired of shad and moved to Quabbin angling for ice-out landlocked salmon and lake trout surface-feeding at tributary outflows. Next, bored with that game, he turned to smallmouth-bass fishing in rivers. When he stopped by to ask if I knew of any good, quiet places where big “smallies” lurked, I introduced him to the silty final mile of the Deerfield River from the stone-crusher down. Which reminds me: Do people still know of that now-iron-gated site as the stone-crusher? I wouldn’t surprise me if the remains of that landmark once operated by Greenfield’s Wunsch family is now obsolete among the young crowd, even in Deerfield.

But let’s not digress. Back to my last communication with Niemiec. In October or November of the year I showed him the lower Deerfield along with secret access routes, a package with a return address to Niemiec appeared in my South Deerfield mailbox. About the size of a small book, I opened it and found inside a box of 50 weighted Orvis nymphs. Atop the clear plastic cover was a note thanking me for providing him on a summer of fishing fun. As a token of appreciation, he had gifted me a selection of my favorite nymphs tied by him. I still have many of those flies tucked away somewhere in wallets and vests. Maybe someday I’ll cast them into a riffle dropping into a deep channel where trout feed.

If anyone knows what became of my old fishing buddy, please do give me a holler. I’d love to reacquaint, reminisce and maybe, just maybe even again wet a line with the man from Chicopee.

With all lifts and ladders open this week, anadromous fish were running up the Connecticut River and its tributaries before Tuesday’s heavy rains increased river flow. Surprisingly, they were all still operating at midday Wednesday, so the higher water didn’t necessitate temporary fish-passageway shutdowns. Though water temperatures at Holyoke were still a little low for this time of year (60 degrees Fahrenheit), 14,500 shad had passed Holyoke by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Thus far, the total return to the river system of 52,001, is about a 10th of last year’s final total of 543,289. Don’t worry, fellas, the shad are on their way. When the river warms to the mid-60s, they should be coming like gangbusters. So, take it to the bank: The next couple of weeks should offer the season’s best fishing. The good fishing hasn’t even reached Franklin County yet, with the best still to come at Montague’s popular Rock Dam. Yes, it’s that time of year, if only the colorfully clad whitewater enthusiasts can stay out of the fishing channels. ... Fat chance.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.