I grew up fishing with my Dad, but it was by no means the most salient point of my childhood. He also coached me in little league (during most of which I picked my nose in right field) and was the leader of my cub scout den (which I liked a lot more), but every summer we would, without fail, spend some evening hours on a dock, or in a canoe chucking worms or plugs to the bass and sunfish of many and sundry Massachusetts and New Hampshire lakes and ponds. As I got into High School, fishing with my Dad held less interest than all of those things we did at teenagers, on which we can now look back on with nostalgia and regret.
By the time I left Boston for Oregon, I hadn’t fished in years, and although I loved my Father we were not particularly close. After four years in Oregon and another abroad, I came back to Boston and quickly developed this strange idea that I should take up fly fishing, and that I should do it with my father. In my five years away from home, my relationship with my parents had consisted of phone calls a couple times a month, and trips home for Christmas, but I was finally old enough to want a real relationship with them. With my mother it was easy enough to just across the kitchen table and talk, but it seemed to me that what my father and I need was as common “recreation” that we could learn together and that would require we spend lots of time in each other’s presence.
Catching Sunfish in the canoe with my Dad
Dad already owned a fly rod, but hadn’t had much luck with teaching himself to cast it, so we both took one of those weekend “learn to fly fish” courses from one of the major retailers. Our first season we mostly fished as we originally did, from a canoe or dock for bass and sunnys, but we eventually progressed to rivers and trout, and along the way we moved from father and son to fishing buddies.
Fly fishing has a wonderful way of stimulating conversation. A fishing trip will often involve a long drive in the car each way and a good length lunch in the middle. This time can be filled with discussion of the river, flies, and techniques. Stories are told and explanations are found for the day’s victories and failures on the water, and of course there is the story told by all fisherman since we first put a line on a stick – the one that got away. Along the way these subjects are nudged aside and the more important conversations can be had.
Dad with a nice small mouth
I remember diving to the White River in Vermont with my Dad, and for the first time really asking him about his parents, grand parents and uncles and aunts. I learned many things that day, like that my grandfather became a preacher not (only) because he felt a religious calling, but because the preacher was the most respected and well to do man in the poor Carolina mill town he grew up in. I learned about my great-great-grandmother who practiced medicine (illegally) in a different small mill town because her husband, the town doctor, had passed away and the people there needed someone to treat their broken bones and fevers until her son could finish training in Baltimore and become the town doctor himself. Without fly fishing, I might not ever have had these conversations with my father, and these stories would have been lost to me.
Fishing with my Dad has also taught me a lot about fishing. Were you to compare us based on our casts alone, you would say I am the better fisherman, as I have a nice serviceable cast, with a tight loop, and he tends to arch the line over his head and doesn’t get as much distance (although he has improved). But the truth is, especially when we started out, he is the one much more likely to catch a fish of the two of us. You see, while I had read books on fishing, and practiced my casting in the yard, he had sixty years of “fish sense” stored up. He understood fish more than he understood fishing, and that level of intuition gives him an edge. From this I have learned, not only humility, but that I have to relax and trust my own intuition, and when in a hard fishing situation, think, “What would my Dad do here?”
In a tough spot I try to think of what my father would do
I live in California now, and I don’t get to fish with my Dad as much as I used to, but fishing is still an important part of our relationship. We fish together whenever I am in town, and talk on the phone about our respective experiences. He has been fishing a lot with my 7 year old niece lately, with worms for sunnys, but I wonder if in five or six years I might not be seeing a fly rod in her hand. In the not so distant future I hope to see my own son or daughter out on the dock with “Grandaddy” learning to love fishing.