A while ago I read an essay by Jim Harrison entitled “Old Fly Fishing.” Jim was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and essayist, and his edgy writing style reflected a unique lifetime of raucous adventure. Growing up hunting and fishing in Northern Michigan, he spent many of his later years on the rivers of Montana. Five years before his passing in 2016, this essay detailed a perspective of fly fishing through the eyes of a 73-year-old. From issues with both mobility and durability that defined his life then, he concluded that old fly fishing was gentler and less aggressive than it once had been. Since I am presently beyond that same age and should be grateful for still being reasonably healthy, I could relate to many of the sentiments Harrison was expressing.
There was a time in the past when the goal to catch a trout from every trout river that flowed dominated my ambitions. Then, as fly fishing expanded to chasing many other species, I was consumed by the desire to catch each one of them wherever they swam. And though those desires were impractical to accomplish on many levels, I was fortunate enough to follow through on a few. In the back of my mind, however, it was always exciting to realize that so many other possibilities existed. But then, moment by moment, life happened. And now in my late 70s, like Harrison expressed, old fly fishing has become less aggressive and much more gentle.
Although I have a theoretical bucket list of angling places I would still love to visit, that list was much shorter years ago. But as the decades evolved, more and more exotic fisheries opened up around the world that are beyond enticing – if not beyond the budget of many average anglers. From taimen in Mongolia to peacock bass in Brazil to golden dorado in Argentina to giant trevally in the Seychelles to marble trout in Slovenia, just to mention a few, the bucket list exploded with adventures that would be a challenge for many of us older anglers even if we could afford them.
Still, there are more reasonable bucket destinations for aging anglers to consider. Redfish in Louisiana, coastal brook trout in Ontario, Atlantic salmon in Michigan, Lahontan cutthroat in Nevada, or big brown trout in Arkansas would be feasible possibilities for the angler who refuses to give in to the forces of advanced age. And despite the realities associated with “old fly fishing,” just the hope of doing a unique trip now and then would be a defiant stance against the inevitable dissipation of time.
For me, though, I no longer seek far off fish dreams like I once did. What keeps me going now is the remembrance of bygone fishing experiences. Since life unravels one moment at a time, that very collection of past moments comes back as full-fledged memories whenever I am alone on peaceful home waters. Imbued with an eternal sense of gratitude for spending a lifetime garnering so many moments of fishy significance, the lesson for anyone willing to listen is to make the most of life when one is young and healthy. It is important as well, I might add, to keep that spirit flickering as long as possible.
Recently caught up in pensive reverie as the kayak cut a silent ripple through a slick surface under an evening sky ideal for fishing, I was looking for a few modest size stripers in a local creek near my home when a young fellow in his early twenties called out from shore to ask if I could help him. Disheveled hair, sparse goatee, sunken eyes, and shabby clothes hanging on a gaunt frame accented by tattered sneakers, he was using a spinning rod, and it was quite obvious he didn’t fish much. As it happened, this forlorn fellow’s line was a tangled mess in his open-faced reel, and he hoped I could assist by unraveling it for him.
Gliding over to the bank and drawing on my spinning reel experiences from the past, I was able to get him back on track. While working on his snarl, he preemptively apologized for the fragrance of pot that wafted in my direction. Although it didn’t matter to me, he assured that he had a medical marijuana card. “Cancer,” he said, while showing me an attached colostomy bag under his well-worn sweatshirt. The kid’s name was Louis.
After telling him how sorry I was to hear about his situation, Louis educated me that colon cancer is on the rise among young people these days. Although there are many theories, the medical field is not really sure why. Listening to his story, it humbled me. He said he was okay with the grim prognosis and laughed that now he could do “anything he wanted.” A brave kid, I thought, as I departed for the kayak landing before it got too dark.
Again, lost in thought, I tried to put this touching encounter into perspective. Overwhelmed by a sense of compassion for a fellow I didn’t even know, our paths crossed for a brief but profound moment. Although it seems that kids these days are more detached from the natural world than ever, I found myself hoping that Louis would find some healing graces from his fishing experience this evening.
Maybe colorectal cancer is on the rise among young folks, I speculated, because today’s youth aren’t as physically active as in the past due to the virtual world of technology replacing good old healthy outdoor pursuits. Whatever it may be, since life is a collection of moments, I found myself thankful for having so many good ones and feeling a bit guilty that a young man like Louis may not have many more. It didn’t seem fair.
Trying to outpace the descent of total darkness while paddling solemnly back to the nearby landing, part of me wished that I could bestow upon Louis a few of my remaining moments. And as one more sunset faded upon the waning years of my life, all it took was just one passing encounter with a struggling young man facing the possibility of death to gain a whole new appreciation for the concept of “old fly fishing.”