Good fathers understand their sons.
And Burl Lear clearly understood little Carl.
CARL LEAR LOVED his father’s fly rod.
At eight years old, he couldn’t remember a time when that rod had not been a part of his life, as it would continue to be until the day he died.
It was a deep golden color with matching fly line that was much easier for him to fish with than the twisted monofilament on his old spinning rod.
Before Carl was born, Burl Lear had never laid eyes on a fly rod for real, although he had seen photographs of them. So when he saw one at Ward’s Hardware a few days before Carl came along, he couldn’t resist picking it up—though with his first child due any day now, he felt he really shouldn’t spend the eight dollars it would cost to buy it.
But God has ways of directing men’s destinies, and with all the overtime Burl was able to work at the mine after Carl was born, he finally managed to come up with enough money to put the new rod into layaway.
By the following spring he was fishing with it.
And he caught trout—trout that were a crucial component of his family’s food supply and his own peace of mind, trout he cherished, trout he loved.
Little Carl loved trout as well.
Burl would show them to him when he’d bring them home, and let Carl pick them up and hold them. Carl caught his first trout when he was three, sitting on Burl’s lap on Roaring Fork, and by the time he turned five, he was fishing with his dad.
BURL LEAR WAS a bona fide trout fisherman in every sense of the term, and Carl took after his father from the very beginning. He had an inherent aptitude for catching trout, and as he grew older he began to sense the need to someday catch a full limit of eight fish all on his own.
Such a thing can weigh heavy on a man. And now it was beginning to weigh heavy on little Carl.
In mid-summer of his seventh year, he caught five trout in one day over on Little Tumblin’, and a month later he caught six. But by the time trout season had ended in mid-November, Carl had turned eight and still hadn’t attained his goal.
Good fathers understand their sons, and Burl Lear clearly understood what was going on in his own son’s mind, and how catching that first limit of trout had now become Carl’s aspiration, if not his obsession.
Burl wanted to explain to him that limits actually don’t matter, and that the fishing itself is what counts most. But for now he held his tongue. And by the time opening day rolled around the following March, Burl Lear knew precisely where they would go.
WOLF CREEK WAS a stream they rarely fished. It was a long way to go and a hard place to get to, and very few fishermen ever made the effort.
Especially on opening day.
Carl would remember that day for as long as he lived—how Burl came in to awaken him at 3:00 a.m., how he rolled out of bed and slipped into his blue jeans and flannel shirt before he’d fully awakened, and his dad helping him tie his shoes as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. At 4:45 they stopped at a little backwoods diner for breakfast, and Burl let him order a hamburger instead of eggs and then cautioned him not to tell Mama. They got to the creek just as the first hint of daylight began to brush the eastern skyline, and Burl helped him on with his coat, scruffed up his hair and asked, “How about you take the fly rod this morning?”
Carl Lear could not believe what he was hearing. And as he followed his dad across the field, he couldn’t help gazing at the old spinning rod his dad was carrying and then down at the fly rod he was carrying himself, and feeling the anticipation filling his soul.
The creek lay off to their right, flowing through the woods and the limestone bedrock and around the boulders into a broad bending pool that stretched out below them.
“This is a good hole of water,” Burl assured him. “You know how to fish—so fish it slow and fish it careful. I’m gonna leave you here and move downstream. Holler if you need any help.”
And with that, Carl Lear was alone.
CARL’S FIRST UNDERHAND CAST was with a minnow, into the edge of the closest run where the water spilled between two big rocks. On his third drift, he hooked his first trout of the morning and worked it out onto the gravel bar at his feet. Pouncing on the fish with both hands as he dropped his fly rod, he removed the hook and laid his prize in the leaves behind him. Ten minutes later, he caught a second one.
This was a noteworthy beginning. But another hour and a half went by before Carl caught another fish, this one on a worm.
He moved twenty yards downstream, and in the next hour he caught two more.
It was barely 10:30, and Carl already had five trout. He was very pleased, but he dared not allow himself to think he might actually catch his limit today. Up and down the pool he worked, fishing the upper section below the rocks, the mid-section where the creek flared out, and the tailing runs that curved away downstream where his dad had disappeared three hours earlier.
By 11:30 and still stuck on five fish, Carl realized he was hungry. The pimento cheese sandwich his mother had prepared for him last night and wrapped in wax paper tasted good, as did the fried apple pie she had fixed. He washed it all down with water from the stream as his dad reappeared.
“How’s it going?” Burl asked, and Carl walked him up the bank and showed him the five trout, all lying perfectly lined up in the leaves. His father patted him on the shoulder, told him he was proud of him, and said he had seven fish of his own.
Realizing that his dad needed only one more trout, Carl began to worry that they might leave before he had a chance to fill out his own limit. He was getting so close.
“Can we keep fishing?” Carl asked, trying to hide his desperation.
“Of course we can,” Burl replied as Carl lifted the fly rod from the grass.
“Here, let me put on a little bread ball,” Burl suggested, and he took the rod from Carl. For a moment Carl thought his dad might reclaim it for himself, but to his great relief, Burl handed the rod back to him.
“There, try that,” he said.
On his fourth drift, Carl’s line came tight.
“Oh Daddy! It’s a big one!” Carl exclaimed.
The fish was much larger than any Carl had ever caught—fourteen or fifteen inches at least. Up and down the pool it ran, as Carl held on and waited for his father’s assistance. But Burl stayed seated right there on the rocks and just watched and didn’t say a word until Carl finally worked the big trout out onto the gravel and trapped it with his hands. Only then did Burl speak.
“That’s six,” he declared calmly. “Now hand me your rod,” and he squeezed another tiny ball of bread onto the hook and handed it back.
Within a few minutes, Carl had caught his seventh trout.
CARL LEAR HAD NEVER caught seven trout in one day, and the realization of what might finally be happening nearly overwhelmed him; he had pulled dead even with his dad, each of them just one trout shy of a limit. And now to the boy’s dismay, his dad asked him to hand him back his fly rod.
Carl gave it to him, dutifully.
For two or three minutes Burl just stood there, holding the rod, watching the water, feeling the line, then reaching into his pocket for his clippers and cutting eight inches off the end of the worn leader and tying on a new hook before molding one more ball of bread around its shank.
He stood and walked past Carl, eyeing the run from one end to the other, dissecting it with a lifetime of experience, knowing fully what these next few moments could mean before turning to his son and saying, “There . . . right there. Cast just above that big brown boulder and let your line swing around the left side.” And he handed the fly rod back.
UNTIL THE DAY that Burl Lear died they talked about that trout. The fish hit on the lower end of Carl’s second drift, and with his dad at his side he worked it into the shallows where Burl finally got it into the net. They cleaned their fish right there on the gravel bar and slipped them into Burl’s canvas creel, and when they got them home late that afternoon, Carl’s mother took their picture and wrapped their fish in foil and put them in the top freezer.
All fifteen of them.
Michael Altizer’s books, THE LAST BEST DAY, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE, and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004. You may also purchase his books by clicking here on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS “BOOKS” page.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER