By Diane Mitton
The Thompson-Ames Historical Society
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11/30/06 A Gilford Boyhood – Fishing Gilford's Brooks and Ponds in the 1850s
Unless you are one of those exchanging the coming winter with its cold and snow for the sunny south, you are much more likely to be thinking of skiing and snowboarding than fishing. Unless, of course, you embrace ice-fishing. An alternative is to curl up with a good book and enjoy the beauty of the falling snow from the inside looking out. The book which I am currently reading and which turned my thoughts to fishing was written about 77 years ago by Alvah Hunter, a man then in his eighties, who was writing for his children and grandchildren about his childhood in Gilford during the 1850s.
Hunter's manuscript is in the holdings of T-AHS and gives wonderful insight into the life of a young boy in a small New Hampshire village of the 19th century. In spite of the many responsibilities which young children shared as family members, I am amazed at the freedom which they had to wander far afield without adult supervision and the fun and adventure of their lives.
Alvey, as he was sometimes called, lived in Gilford Village where his father owned and operated a carding, threshing and shingle mill located on the Gunstock Brook about a half mile below the present day library. When Alvey was seven years old, Joesph Ayer, an older boy and close neighbor, offered to take him him fishing for brook trout. The two boys accessed Pine Hill Brook by walking through the lane at "Uncle Ben Rowe's". They followed the brook a short distance down river from the Brick Yard bridge to a small pool which Joe had selected as a good place for his first lesson. Alvey "foozeled" his first bite, and was informed by Joe that he hadn't "yanked" quick enough. He told Alvey, trout were very quick and he must yank as quick as he felt the bite. "You've got to be quick and you've got to yank them." By the time the boys quit, Alvey had 16 to Joe's 21 and it was not only the trout that were hooked for he told his grandchildren, "Fishing, especially brook trout fishing gave me the greatest amount of pleasure during the eleven years I lived in Giford Village." So great was his enthusiasm, that that very evening his father bought him some line and hooks and "appointed him fisherman to the family".
Alvey's poles were hemlock saplings which he cut behind his father's mill where they were so dense that they grew tall and slender. His "big brook" (Gunstock Brook) pole was 13' long and barely an inch wide at the butt. His smaller one was 9' and this he called his Pine Hill Brook pole. Alvey did a lot of fishing in the spillway pools from the Sawmill and the Tannery Mill on down to his father's mill pools.
When he was 8years old he caught his first 1-pounder in the spillway pool below Copp's Mill, three quarters of a mile below his father's mill. "After feeling the bite, I pulled out the biggest trout I'd ever seen. He wasn't securely hooked and dropped off, but by great good luck he dropped behind the log on which I was standing and I had him in my hands before he could flop more than once!" He hurried to the village store with his prize and it weighted in at one pound. This was not the last trout he caught in his hands.
On one occasion, he and his brother Charles caught nearly 100 trout in three days in Pine Hill Brook fishing down from the Brick Yard bridge to his father's mill. In addition to brook fishing, the two boys fished in Saltmarsh Pond and Lily Pond for perch, pickerel and hornpouts. When Alvey was 10 and Charles 12, they built a light row boat which they could take anywhere by lifting it onto the axle of a pair of forward wagon wheels. One boy walked between the shafts and the other pushed from behind. They also used this boat to fish in the Cove on the lake. When not in use, they carefully hid it in the bushes at the Cove. When Alvey was 15 year old he sailed this boat to Alton Bay by using a large umbrella for a sail, running the boat before the wind all the way after rowing out beyond Belknap Point. A feat he was justly proud of.
While visiting their Uncle Ben at his Moultonboro farm, the boys caught a large pickerel which weighed in at 6 ¼ pounds - the largest he ever knew of that was caught with a hook and line. Desiring to take it home to show their father, the boys kept it alive in the watering trough in their uncle's barnyard. On the Saturday they departed for home, they killed and disembowled it, and wrapped it in two sheets of clean brown paper and an old newspaper. Uncle Ben drove them to Moultonboro Falls, half way to Center Harbor. The boys walked the rest of the way to the Harbor, caught the steamer Lady of the Lake to the Weirs, took the train to Lake Village (Lakeport) and walked the three miles to Gilford Village - the big fish growing heavier as they tramped along. They were rewarded by their father's pleasure in seeing the fish which he declared was the biggest he'd ever seen.
The boys, not having the option of going south as winter approached, did some ice-fishing, mostly on the lake but some on Lily and Saltmarsh ponds. In those days, he says, "we had no shelter from the fierce winds of winter", referring to the practice, then current when writing his memoir, of erecting small houses as shelters. The ice would be two to three feet thick out in the broad part of the lake. Charles and Alvey would "cut a hole about three feet long by a foot to fifteen inches broad at the top narrowing as we went down until there would be a hole about six inches in diameter at the bottom." The bait was sand-roach which they caught in the Cove where the water was only six or seven feet deep and there was a sandy bottom. They cut the roach into pieces about an inch square, baited the hooks and lowered the lines down near to the bottom where the water was fifty to seventy-five feet deep. Cusk were caught at night by baiting each the hook with a live shiner and letting the line set all night. If it wasn't too cold, they would rig up a shelter of hemlock and spruce boughs on the shore of a nearby island, build a fire and camp there through the night. Three or four times during the night they would check the hooks. A good night's work usually yeilded three to six cusk, each weighing about two to four pounds. In this way, the family enjoyed fish throughout the year.
The above is from an unpublished manuscript called" A New Hampshire Boyhood" written by Alvah Folsom Hunter, dated 27th October 1926. Alvah Hunter lived in the Village from the age of five until the time he enlisted in the navy during the Civil War.