Anything Fly Fishing

My Old Man

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He was a tall guy with a handsome face, a full head of brown hair and sky-blue eyes. In the early years of adulthood, he played sports. Too light of frame to be a football player, he naturally took to basketball in high school and junior college, and later played baseball in the city league where his strong arm and keen, eye-hand co-ordination made him a star outfielder. But it was when he met and married my mother and received a bamboo rod from his father-in-law that he discovered the thing that would capture his imagination and take him to places he never would have gone – a passion that would stay with him the rest of his life. My old man loved to fly fish.

With utter fearlessness, he would clamber down the steep, canyon walls of the Feather, Yuba and American Rivers where few men would go, other than intrepid gold miners from over a half century before seeking the heavy, yellow treasure of the Sierras. When the fishing was good, he’d often stay until sunset, returning late to Clipper Mills, Camptonville, or Foresthill, his usual jumping-off places.

His creel was a collection of his ‘essentials,’ which included a spare leader and some tippet material, a small pair of scissors, a concoction of paraffin he kept in a green pharmacy bottle he used as flotant (or ‘fly dope’ as he called it), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in wax paper, and a half-pint of Jim Beam whiskey.

Back in those days there were few items of fancy fishing apparel, and bulky – canvas waders were the norm. And the man never wore a fishing vest either, seeing them as an article that he felt set the dandies and ‘tofts’ apart from the real, hardcore guys.

For him, it was the hat that distinguished a serious fisherman, and it was the place where he kept the only three flies he ever used for trout. Without exception, he fished a double rig, with a Royal Coachman, tied under a Gray-hackle – Yellow body – Red tail, or a Black Beetle. He kept them stuck in the brim of a weathered, baseball cap, which had seen more seasons than most other fishermen had fished.

Being an outstanding outfielder for the old Sacramento Metros, one who could fire back a horsehide bullet to home plate from deep in left field, his casting was beyond average, bordering on that of a professional guide. His skill with a fly rod had the accuracy of an archer coupled with the touch of pool player finessing a soft bank shot into the side pocket. Often the willowed banks of his favorite streams made such accuracy absolutely essential.

From the season opener in May until late September, when the trout season ended, my dad would try to get into the mountains and away from the Associated Oil gas station he owned on Capitol Avenue as often as he could, until the demand for fuel in World War Two forced him to close it.

Almost without fail, he’d return home with his creel filled with Easten Brook and Rainbows, wrapped in fern fronds, for dinner. I can still taste the delicate flavor of the trout breaded with corn meal, including the crispy three or four inch-long fingerlings – nothing got away from my old man. Like he used to say, “If he hooked ‘em, he cooked ‘em.”

Later, in October and November, dad pursued bigger quarry on the Klamath and the Rogue – the mighty Pacific Steelhead. The Klamath, on the Oregon border, was a big, brawling piece of water and the Rogue, a mystery often cloaked in coastal fog. Both contained solid runs to reward any steelheader hardy enough to brave weather, steep banks and swift waters.

I remember one fall, before the heavy rains came and caused the Klamath to rise and get gnarly, he spoke of standing halfway across a slow bend and seeing a black bear emerge from the tree line on the opposite shore. It waded out a few feet, lifted its head, then scented his presence. The bear stopped in midstride and peered across the water, trying to discern what this strange creature, waving a branch in its hand, was doing in such a productive fishing spot. Minutes became bricks of time, the fur on the animal’s back rippled in the light breeze, its beady eyes piercing the distance. Then a steelhead, unaware of the hulking predator in the current, finned over the gravel bar and was snatched up in the creature’s jaws. Without a look back, the bear turned around and retreated into the forest.

Another story he liked to tell captured a moment on the misty Rogue, in a narrow section, where a tall redwood had toppled completely across the sides of the gorge, connecting both sides. It was a vision that could have graced a postcard, and he loved to drop a line in that run whenever the river allowed him to. The water was deep there, the flow swift and wading out very far not possible. Punching a weighted streamer into the current near a rock that parted the dark surface, he was transfixed by the sight of a lanky mountain lion standing on the fallen tree, looking downstream, paying no attention to the angler beneath it.

Dad was full of outlandish tales about happenings he had experienced. It was one of the things that made him a hero to me.

He died from a heart attack when he was only sixty-five years old, walking out to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. We had promised each other to fish together that coming spring.

He was buried in his waders and wearing his fishing hat, just like he had asked, his creel and bamboo rod placed in the box next to him.

To this day, when I’m on the river and I feel the current subtly pulling at the gravel beneath my boots, I can feel his presence and hear his advice, ‘Cast, mend, stay in contact with the fly’ – the one he called a Gray-hackle, Yellow-body, Red-tail. And, sometimes, I see the silhouette of an angler downstream fishing the hole below me, and if the light is right, I can make out the figure of the guy who taught me to love fly fishing – my old man.

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