Never about the fish

In his retirement years, my dad liked nothing more than fly fishing in the battering rapids of the Madison River near Ennis, Montana.

He had grown up in Butte, serving an underground apprenticeship in the mines—it was copper, not gold or silver that made Butte “the richest hill on Earth”—before going east to Columbia University and a pioneering career in powdered metals. So he must have grown up losing hooks and lines in the headwaters of the mighty Missouri.

He stayed East for most of his working life. Although he initiated me as a teenager into the mysteries of rod and reel, it did not appear a consuming passion for him, and never became so for me. Drowning an earthworm in the placid waters of a New Jersey pond, hoping that its writhing death throes would win the attention of a lazing sunfish—all the real action out of sight in turbid waters—held little charm.

On at least one occasion during my teen years, he invested some time and scarce cash in a day’s fishing from a charter boat out of Brielle. He came home with a sunburn and a fish—a yellowfin tuna, I think—bigger than our family of four could consume in one sitting, especially since he himself declined seconds.

That’s when I first realized that for Dad, the chase was more important than the catch. Reeling that fish in, keeping the line taut enough that it could not in its marine calisthenics shrug off or spit out the hook, had clearly been the thrill.

But that had been an expensive sport. He next tried owning an inexpensive second or third-hand sailboat. What he could afford was little more than a rowboat with a mast and boom. Hardly a yacht—it would have taken a typhoon to make it heel over—he enjoyed the pun of naming it the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We did a little fishing out of that pudgy craft, but it proved no more challenging than the inland ponds, and within a season or two it was gone.

Several years later, while I was in college, the family moved to Long Island. Dad bought a second-hand Star—then and now among the sleekest sailboats on the water—and taught me the art of racing under canvas. He fairly burst with pride when I finally managed to cross the finish line ahead of at least one other captain.

We never finished first—that honor went to an older man who sailed in a tie, jacket, and straw boater. He won because all week long, he took his craft out of the water, even between the Saturday and Sunday races, so that it sailed high and dry, far nimbler than any of us in our waterlogged boats. But Dad and I became competitive, and I began to understand that fishing or sailing was mostly about the challenge of mastering difficult water.

Which made the waters of the Madison among the best of the challenges. It took effort merely to stand up in mid-stream; Dad fitted me out and insisted I try, but I quickly learned to stay in the relative shallows.

Not Dad: Although in his 70s, legs no longer young, he would forge out almost hip-deep into pounding water that threatened to overtop his rubber waders, finally bracing against the river itself.

On a still lake, the trick is to make the lure float down gossamer-light, a butterfly, not letting the leader line slap the water first. On a roiling river, though, aim is paramount. With a few false casts and back-casts of his lithe rod, Dad would drop his fly into the turbulence around a large boulder, where a rainbow trout might take it for an edible insect caught in a downdraft.

He would put that fish in his creel, tie on a new leader and fly, and cast again, all while leaning into the current. Finally, with several trout to brag about, he would crab unsteadily back to shallow water and at last to dry land—to Mom’s unspoken relief. While he stripped off the waders and indulged in an Easterner’s gin martini, she would dress and fry the fish and serve up dinner.

If taste were all that mattered, Dad would just as soon have had beefsteak. But as a token of a man’s mastery of nature, nothing was better than fresh-caught trout.



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