The place had changed past recognition in the years since I first saw it. Back then it had been a cattle ranch, with the Upper Truckee running through the broad valley at the south end of Lake Tahoe. Now it was an airport. But when my dad took me fly fishing for the first time in my life . . .
“Son, this is an elk hair caddis. Should be plenty of ‘em on the water today. Let’s tie this on.
“See, first you hold the fly in your left hand . . . that’s it. Careful not to mash the hackle too much. Now, take the tippet in your right hand and run it through the eye.”
My father spoke very quietly, intimately, it seemed, directly to the task before him. It was a tenderness in him revealed by the things he loved, things he could never quite resolve in personal relationships. He held the work very close to his face. He didn’t wear glasses, so he didn’t need to adjust things to his field of focus. I think he just held them close because he held them dear. And he spoke quietly about flies, and fly fishing in general, like he was doing now for the same reason.
“Then you go past the eye with the fly, and make four loops, one inside the other, one at a time, like this – One, two . . .” I had a fly in my hands and was trying not to be distracted from his instructions by all the butterflies visiting wildflowers lining the roadway.
“Are you paying attention to me . . . ?” He knew I wasn’t.
“Yes, daddy.” I knew he knew.
“Count with me,” he said.
Together, “One, two, three . . . .”
His was tied. Mine was snarled. I was twelve. He was patient.
“Let’s try again,” he said.
Even today when I tie on a caddis fly, I use his knot and if I fumble it I’m, momentarily, twelve once more.
He finished his career in business and slowly settled into his sixties. Fishing for him became occasional trolling when a friend would take him to a valley reservoir to catch hatchery fish. Upon returning he would call and tell me about the number of trout they’d boated and how hard a particular fish had been to land. The stories didn’t vary much one from the other and I suspected they were really the same story adapted to the month and the place they’d been because they hadn’t spent nearly as much time on the water as they had playing pinochle.
I couldn’t play pinochle and I didn’t like to troll. He couldn’t walk the streams anymore and didn’t want to confront the fact. I wanted to fish with the guy who’d shown me mule deer tracks and pointed out water ouzels. We both yearned to turn back the clock. Each for different reasons. Now he was gone, and I was driving toward the stream we had fished a lifetime before. My first time fly fishing.
He had parked his old Dodge in a grove of lodgepole pines and aspens. In the clear, cloudless, blue sky the aspen leaves flashed and shone like silver dollars in the slightest breeze.
“The car will be okay here,” my father said as he got the rods and the creels from the trunk of the car. Then we were at the barbed wire, and he was holding the top strand up and stepping on the middle one with his boot. Through the trees as we walked, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of the broad meadow sprinkled with the brown and white dots of Herefords, and the winding ribbon of water that was the Upper Truckee. I remember we stuck to the tree line until it reached its farthest intrusion into the grassland before we made a low dash for the willows.
“Once we’re in the river we’ll be good,” he judged out loud. And I guess he was right, because once reaching the water, all thoughts of our being trespassers vanished and I was anxious to catch my first trout on a fly.
“Hold that rod in your right hand and the line in your left. Let some out while you false cast like this, okay son? Watch me.”
I did as he asked and immediately snagged a willow branch. Pulling it free, I tried once more. This time he said I was doing ‘fine’ and to watch him cast his fly on the water. He made it look so easy. It wasn’t, but eventually, I got the idea. And I loved it!
The fishing was good. There were trout in every riffle it seemed – bright, jewel-like eastern brook trout, aggressive and snappy. The river was wide enough to let us fish side-by-side, sharing yelps and false advice like true comrades. It was a carefree, happy day with never a look back over our shoulders for the phantom rancher on whose land we were poaching. I remember I had started to say something like, ‘Dad, I don’t know when we’ve ever had such a swell time together . . . “ when he raised his arm up very slowly and stopped mid-stride in midstream. I was right behind him and from the angle of his head I followed his gaze to the opposite bank.
Looming above us on hind legs, great forearms like pendulums hanging down in front, was a roan-shaded bear. From where we stood below the creature in the stream bed, the bear seemed to reach up from the grass into the dome of sky. It felt like I was shrinking as the bear grew even larger. The sunlight glittered on the tips of the reddish fur, but it was the obsidian eyes staring out of its great face that fixed us with an intense, fearful concentration. They were eyes that stopped time, stopped everything except the gurgling sound of the water flowing around my legs in the river. A very real threat of impending violence and a painful eternity filled the airspace.
The next thing I knew, my father was singing . . .! Singing at the bear in a loud, strong, unwavering voice, his arm moving like a band leader marking the tempo. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . . .” It was the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ his favorite song. And his feet were marching in place in the river!
I tried to start singing, too, but couldn’t catch up with his words or get any moisture to my cotton-lined throat. My lips moved, yet no words came out. I was scared. I was embarrassed. And I was in awe. The old man refused to let that bear get the best of him. Although I was the ‘big hero’ in my own daydreams, I knew I could never have done that. And as I struggled with that realization, still trying to generate some spit, suddenly, the bear was gone. One minute towering over us like doom itself, the next – Poof! – vanished. Just a hole in the air where it had silhouetted the sky.
My father had stopped singing with the bear’s disappearance. We backed out of the water to the grassy bank behind us and dumbly sat down. Finally, my father said, “Big bastard, wasn’t he?” Then we rolled back in the grass and laughed and laughed. For all the years we passed together, it’s the only time I remember laughing together with him and I have wondered many times since then if it was real laughter or discomfort over having revealed something of ourselves that wouldn’t have come out otherwise, something personal we couldn’t deal with in its exposure.
What a day we had had together, fishing, talking, and sharing my first time with a fly rod. Today I know I was just a young boy who had been taken fishing by his father. Still, in my memory we were buddies that day, equally experiencing everything – wading the cold, rushing stream, I don’t see him holding my hand, or remember being carried, although I’m sure it must have happened crossing some of the deeper spots; enjoying the hard, crisp taste of the mountain stream snowmelt that we drank to wash down the squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; wrapping the freshly caught trout in fragrant ferns, laying them in the bottoms of our creels (I had one, too, an old one of his that looked like a steamer trunk next to my 12-year-old body); and the quiet moments, sitting motionless to watch a water ouzel work its way upstream, underwater, searching for stonefly larvae. He knew so much, a lifetime of skills and knowledge. I wished we had fished together more.
My father was my Hemingway, half man, half legend, by the stories he told. Stories he had lived. He taught me to cast, and to read the water, and when to use some of the ‘bugs.’ Mostly, though, he instilled in me a lust for that next run just around the bend. And I hope to encounter him there, someday, downstream.