The earliest memory I have of my dad is of him losing a fish. We were standing on the mud bank of a green cow-pasture pond, watching our bobber sit inert on the water, and then — BAM! It dunked and zigzagged wildly across the small pond, my dad all the while jerking back on the pole with a frenzied motion that he liked to call “setting the hook.”
The fact that the fish never left the water led me to believe there was a monster down there.
There may have been; I never saw it. On the sixth or seventh wild yank, bobber and wormless hook exited the water, sailed through the air over our heads, and landed in the dirt and cow-pasture scrub behind us. A heifer mooed. We didn’t get another bite.
Fast-forward to a warm March afternoon I spent fishing on the Davidson River, a tough place for anybody to catch a fish but doubly so for a spastic fisherman like me (don’t judge me — it’s hereditary).
Tiny, blue-winged olives were coming off the water in clouds. All across the surface of the deep pool I was fishing, trout were rising. I raised my rod tip high and set a #22 BWO two feet upstream of a big rainbow. He floated up, examined it and swallowed.
I let out a whoop and yanked hard, forgetting that an 8X tippet is roughly the diameter of a human hair and will not permit much whooping and/or yanking. The tippet snapped. The fish swam unhurriedly to the other side of the pool and resumed feeding.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote that a man knows he’s growing older when he starts to look like his father. I’d like to revise that. A man knows he’s getting older when he begins to whoop and yank and lose fish like his father.
Stung by that rainbow, I started thinking back to other fishing trips with my dad. I was 14 when he took me on a Gulf Stream party boat. We caught small black sea bass by the bucketful, but had not yet landed even one fish of note between the two of us when I spied a 4-foot cobia prowling the side of the boat.
In a fit of what could only be called divine inspiration, I hooked a flopping sea bass through its tail with a ridiculously massive deep-sea hook and lowered it down beside the boat. Sure enough, the big cobia cruised up and inhaled the hapless bait.
“You got him! You got him!” my dad screamed, grabbing my rod and yanking until — you guessed it — the cobia spat out the shell-shocked bass and swam off to find less spastic prey.
Ah, the memories. Back on the Davidson, my streamside reverie was disturbed by a rustling noise in the brush behind me.
A meek voice asked if I’d had any luck. I turned to see a kid of about 12, decked out in top-notch fly-fishing gear. He was the kind of kid who looks so clean you almost don’t like him, even though you know it’s not his fault.
I looked down at my own tattered waders with an X of duct tape stretched across each knee.
“Seven,” I said gruffly. “Eight if you count the little 14-incher.”
It’s my dad in me that makes me a poor hook-setter, but it’s the fisherman that makes me a superb exaggerator. I wasn’t about to tell this little mama’s boy in his $500 waders that I hadn’t caught a thing.
When he asked if he could fish the lower part of the eddy, I told him, “Good luck.” The words had scarce escaped my lips when he had a fish on: a 16-inch rainbow, with a #18 Blue-winged Olive hanging from its lip.
Then he caught another. And another.
He caught fish until I couldn’t stand it anymore. At length, I swallowed my pride and asked the mama’s boy what he was using. After some quiet deliberation, he told me he was using a #18 Hare’s Ear nymph. I tied one on and tried it for 30 minutes with no luck. Meanwhile, he caught 10 more fish.
At some point, I stopped resenting the mama’s boy and started envying him. During a brief lull in the action, he told me he was up from South Carolina with his dad. Now there’s a kid whose dad taught him how to fish right, I mused, cursing my own father for my hereditary ineptitude.
“Aha!” the mama’s boy yelled. I gawked. He’d hooked the biggest fish I’d ever seen taken out of the Davidson, and that’s saying something.
I set my rod down and walked over to take a look. The boy reached deep into the gaping maw of the leviathan, yanking with a pair of shiny hemostats until he produced the ugliest fly I’d ever seen.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s not a #18 Hare’s Ear!”
“Well …,” the kid said, eyeing me nervously. I’d found him out! I felt sure I’d find some great, hidden secret of fly-fishing here. His dad really must know how to fish, I thought. Must be a true master. What looked to my pathetically incompetent eyes like an ugly mess of thread, bead and dubbing must actually be one of the most perfect representations of aquatic life ever tied. To hell with your Leftys and Whitlocks!
“My dad has a little trick,” the kid said, after dropping the Labrador retriever-sized brown back into the water.
“You have to tell me!” I said, desperately.
He backed up and looked from side to side, perhaps mapping out an escape route if his slightly fish-mad streamside companion with the taped-up waders became violent.
“Really,” I said, softer this time. “I’m just curious.”
“Promise not to tell?” the mama’s boy asked.
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
He leaned close.
“He soaks the flies in juice from canned corn.”
If you aren’t a fly-fisherman, then you need to know that even apart from being illegal, this is very, very bad form. Suffice it to say, my fragile male ego was saved from annihilation, at least for that day. Fighting the urge to give the brat a swirlie, I reeled in my line and left.
For the first time in my life, I had gained a bit of appreciation for my dad’s fishing skills.
“Dammit,” I thought. “My dad may have been one crappy fisherman, but at least he didn’t cheat.”
I won’t tell him if you don’t.