It had been a hard summer. Not just from an angling point of view but from a living point of view. It was a season of uncovering harsh truths and forced reality checks. It was a cliche mix of disliking my job and never having enough money. Problems at home were daily occurrences and escape seemed impossible.
Fishing had always seemed my escape but I was convinced that not even standing in the river could fix this. That was a scary thought. When even your passion seems not to matter as much. It felt like giving up. I was still tossing flies but not with the dedication I had always admired myself for. Short trips lacking enthusiasm was all I could contribute to my hobby. But fishing is and always had been much more than a hobby for me. I've left fishing before but only for short vacations.
In high school I didn't see much of the river, I was busy chasing girls and drinking trying to be important for all the wrong reasons. Fast forward to now and I was 22 years old working for minimum wage at a restaurant barely making ends meet and driving a 92 Lumina on its last leg.
I had a couple good things going for me though. My family has always been great and even though I'd never shown it enough I was grateful for family. I had a beautiful girlfriend who has cared for me unconditionally and lights up my life.
The problem with someone who is unhappy with themselves is that we tend to project that insecurity and anger on the people closest to us. The easy excuse would be that those people were just there. I would fish for hours on end, I would spend whole days at the river just to not face other people. I was using something so positive for something so negative.
All of that changed at the end of that summer. It was an unexpected experience that set my mind at ease and got me back on the right track. This is a story of redemption and fly fishing.
It started out a rainy and cold morning and I was debating even going out. It seemed much easier to stay on the couch and watch the endless re-runs of bass fishing shows on television,”let them do it” I thought. But for some reason I really felt the need to head to the river that morning.
I grabbed my waders and my rod threw them in the car and headed to the river. There's a spot on a local trout stream that they call the Forks. It was a beautiful spot that glimmered with being untouched and lay about a half mile off an old dirt road. There was an old rustic camp ground that sat right on the river and there was never any campers.
That's what I liked about this particular spot was that I could be absolutely alone. The drive seemed to drag on as it always did when I was thinking. I didn't mind though, I had nowhere to be.
Sports radio whispered through the static and and the fall leaves painted pictures you'd have to see to believe. It was as if the forest had been set fire and trees piles of ash. I always thought it was the contrast between light and dark that made the fall so beautiful. The forest lay dark and quite while the trees screamed color.
I pulled onto the dirt road and turned down the radio looking for a place to pull off and park. My normal spot was covered by a downed tree so the only place I could park was in the campground. I pulled ahead surprised to see that there was actually a tent pitched and a campfire roaring.
I parked the car and got out, put my waders on and checked my gear. I looked over to the campsite to see an old man waving as he sipped his coffee out of a metal cup. A warm smile shown through his beard and he sat with his back facing me and the river.
I waved back just to be polite and started wading to a gravel flat just down from the campground. I had a box of flies I had tied and sat on the bank staring into them always checking my work I probably sat there a good half and hour and the only sound was the rain hitting my jacket and the river pitter pattering around my feet.
I was in a daze. The kind you can only fall into when your in divine comfort. I remember thinking that I could curl up and take a nap on the bank of the river that day. The whispering whirling current was like my lullaby.
I tied on my leader then a fly and began scanning the river for signs of trout.
It was hard to read the river that day because it had been raining all morning. I could barely see under the surface but I did see some rings and a couple of fish. I love to watch the fish almost as much as I love to catch them. Watching how they move with such finesse and admiring their strength. I was throwing a small wooly bugger in olive. I keep them in a special box with all the first flys I tied, those are just for good luck.
The bugger was doing it's job and I had landed about four or five brookies when all of the sudden I caught a snag and my leader, my only leader snapped. That's one lesson I'd like to express through this story, always be prepared.
I waded across to see if I could get the fly by hand as I hate to leave loose line in the river. I reached my hand down and felt around to where I had followed the rest of the my line and finally found it. I tugged and tugged until it finally came loose hurling me onto my back into the water with a tremendous splash.
I struggled to get up and luckily the water was shallow. I slowly walked to the bank and began to pack up. Just my luck I thought, I'm soaked and now I have to drive about 30 miles.
I sighed with frustration and just as I did, I could hear that old man giggling and peeking from his warm cozy campfire. As soon as I made eye contact with him he looked away. I sarcastically chuckled and began the dreaded walk to the car.
Though it wasn't yet winter, it was fall and that water was cold. I hurried to get the gear into the car and take off the jacket I was wearing . I was shivering. I put my waders and tackle box in the trunk and went to get into the car. Just as I did I heard the old man yell across the stream.
“Young man, come join me for awhile and let yourself warm up” he said. “Eh, what the hell I thought and walked over. As I got closer I could feel the heat and the crackle of the cedar in the fire grew louder. “Do you like stories? He asked.
“Stories?” I asked. I must have come off as sarcastic when truthfully, I was surprised. I nodded and he smiled, “alright then”. Over the next two hours he told me many stories, stories of war, stories of love, stories of traveling and last but not least stories of fishing. He poured us both another cup of coffee and threw a log on the fire, then he began.
“ I grew up out west, and I say out west because it was never one particular state for too long. There were two things I kept with me through this never ending journey, my fly rod and a duffel bag of clothes. To make money I would work any farms in the area,work on cars, you name it. Hell, anything that made me a few bucks and allowed me to work with my hands was alright with me. When I wasn't working, I was on the river, matter of fact I'd keep a tent pitched on the banks and basically lived out of it”. He motioned to tent behind him, a ragged army green one man tent with holes patched every few inches. “ That tent”? I blurted out, my face full of wonder. “The very same” he said with a smile.
“ So basically I tought myself fish. My father was too busy working and when he wasn't at the mill, he was sleeping. I'd always respected his work ethic, but in my heart I knew he wasn't happy. In my wallet I kept an photo of him and his father holding his first trout, the fish itself may not have been a trophy but the memory sure was. After a few month's in Colorado I had a feeling this is where we were going to stay. This was the longest we'd been in one state since I can remember”.
He paused for a few seconds as if trying to hold back tears. As uncomfortable as I was, at the same time I was so intent and more interested with everything he said. I was taking his memories and molding them into my own and thinking about my relationship with my own father. Though me and this man had many years between us, we were so much alike.
I could tell it was as important for him to tell his story as it was for me to hear it. Time seemed to have flown by and the sun was falling asleep. Crickets began to chirp and the fires glow seemed to have grown brighter. Through a sniffle he held out the photo of his dad's first fish and continued with his story.
“My father was sick,but he denied it. He was working less and less at the mill and had taken to selling some of his prized possessions to put food on the table. I contributed fish whenever possible but it almost seemed that he was upset that I had to provide food for us to eat. He was pale and weak but refused to admit that anything was wrong. I was now spending more time than ever in that tent, I couldn't see him that way.
He was always the strong one and it had been just me and him since I can remember. I had never gotten to know my mother, but he always spoke about her as if she was the most beautiful women in the world. I often thought of her, where she had gone, but that's another story for another time.
Anyways, one morning I was awoken my tent shaking, it was early probably six o'clock at the latest. I had assumed it was an animal and slowly unzipped the door, I was scared. As I peered outside, there stood my father with his fishing vest on and his rod in hand, “Gotta start early, son” he smiled.
How exciting! Fishing with dad! We stood on the river and he taught all he knew form knots to cast's. And then he said it,”Son, I'm sick” he looked down. He had started to cry and I ran to hug him, dropping my rod on the gravel. He held me tight and said to me something that will stick with me forever, he said “Son, I'm not crying because I'm sick, that I can deal with, I'm crying because......this is where I should have been, here, with you.” I had started crying myself we held each other tight for next couple minutes.
He was tired I could tell and shortly after that we headed home and I put him to bed. That was the last time my father stepped into a river, our gear sat in the corner for the next couple weeks as I cared for him the best I could. At this point he was bedridden and I was cooking for him and reading books to him. About a month after our time fishing he.......passed away.”
The old man was now crying and I myself was tearing up. “He was a good man, the best.” the old man said softly. Over the next half hour he told me of his father's funeral and how he had moved to Michigan to live with his grandparents. After one last cup of coffee, I shook his hand and said good bye. Just before I opened the door to the car I looked back to him and said “thank you.” He nodded and waved.
The whole way back I thought of his story and how important it was to not take people close to you for granted. I thought about the regret his father must have had even though he was doing the best he could. Even though it was late I took the extra drive to my mothers house and gave her the biggest hug I could. We sat together and I shared his story with her and shed a few tears together.
From that day on I lived differently and many things have changed. I still use fly fishing as my therapy, though now I bring along my wonderful daughter when I can. I can't wait to teach her and she can't wait to learn. I even get my girlfriend out there a couple times a year and share many great times at that very spot on the Forks. I never saw that man again but maybe someday he will read this and realize just how important our conversation was to me. Until then remember, keep your loved ones close and show them you care, experience life with an open mind and an open heart. Life is meant to be an experience not a task, not a checklist.