We strode thru the lush green ferns on the way to our stream. Their fronds covered in dew droplets that showered us as we brushed them aside. The whole approach seemed dark and forboding to me but soon an opening up ahead.
The stream was at the same time a calm, placid entity , yet capable of sending me and my ol’ man tumbling down into the cold water , in a split second, depending of course of dad’s footing. I was riding piggy back style on Dad’s back. There was me, a wicker fishing creel, his trusty fly rod and his fully engaged pipe, recently packed, with Prince Albert. The water was now nearly over the top of his hip boots. He had chest waders of course but was not using them here. They were only used when he would go to the Narraquagus or the Penobscot, or one of his mysterious trips to the Miramachi River in New Brunswick. Mysterious in that it was off limits to me or my older brother,reserved only to Dad and his long cultivated fly fishing buddies. He would come home smelling of wood smoke and with a week old white tinged beard that dug into my face when he hugged me. But always with , what looked to me, massive Atlantic salmon..and lots of them.
The rocks in the stream were slippery, just waiting for one mis-step. But “we” had done this before and I felt safe and secure with my arms wrapped around dad’s strong neck and shoulders. Riding on his back, I was enveloped in a cloud of sweet and pungent smoke mixed with the smell of liberally applied fly dope, on me only. Dad wouldn’t use it on himself when he was fishing. He said the pipe smoke was good enough to keep the black flies away from his face. I was way too small to try to get across the stream on my own but dad knew just the spot to get us there and I was absolutely and completely sure that we would do just that. Never once did he dump me and in my child’s mind, Washington crossing the Delaware could not have done any better than my father.
We had come to this, his favorite, childhood fishing spot of his in Monroe to catch, and definitely not release, his legal share of brook trout. He grew up on a 600 acre farm not very far from this stream and had fished it many times when he was a kid and later in adulthood. The old farm house that once stood here was long gone. Burned down years ago. But interestingly the barn was still standing and used for hay storage by a local farmer. However, even then I could see that it wouldn’t be too many more hay seasons before it too would be just a memory. It was mid spring and the woods had the sweet smell of decomposition and a fresh, clean smell of renewal. The water was clean and cold.
I of course had my trusty spinning rod with one of Dad’s old Prince Albert cans full of worms that I had dug from my mothers beloved rose garden the evening before. Her climbing rose bushes were cared for with the same kindness and tenderness that she gave her children And never once did she complain or scold me about me digging in it to find my “special” wriggly bait.
Dad’s ritual had started, observing the conditions around him, unzipping the worn, brown leather fly case that held a good supply of dry and wet flies that he had tied over the previous winter. His strong, steady and nimble fingers tying the minute fly to the leader, making sure all was in order for the presentation. It was a wonder to behold and there was no doubt, in my mind, that one of those tiny creations of his would be just the ticket to convince a skeptical brook trout to leave its cover and attack.
Whenever I watched him fly fish I had a sense, a vague awareness, that I was observing some long running, secret relationship between him and the trout. Like a person who has been rebuked by a lover, time and time again, my father had learned from his past mistakes and now was better prepared to participate in this usually one sided affair.
I was mesmerized and in total awe of him. His knowlege of where to present his fly. Above the pools, between the boulders, in the riffles, under the overhanging banks, parallel to the half submerged trees, he knew them all. Familiar with them all as if they were his long ago boyhood friends, which I guess they were.
The branches over hanging the stream seemed to be everywhere, clutching, grabbing, ready to envelop the fly, like a spider in it’s web. No matter, no mind, into the stream Dad crept, a couple of roll casts and his fly was heading down stream to be strategically placed under the dilapidated, ramshackle farm bridge that still spanned the stream. The old bridge was used by generations of cows to get to the now completely reforested pastures which lay on the other side of our stream. The only testimony that these pastures ever existed were the tumbled down, lichen and moss encrusted rocks of the remains of a stone wall that ran through the woods. The old and abandoned cow paths were overgrown and barely visible but still showed the results of those generations of animals plodding along , one behind the other. The bridge was built of 3 railroad tracks laid parallel to one another with either end resting on a foundation of laid up stones painstakingly embedded in the banks of the stream by some long forgotten farmer. Perhaps the stonewall maker himself. On top of these iron rails were planks laid crosswise and on top of those, longer planks running lengthwise. Moss and small brush clumps grew out of the bridge, slowly devouring the rotting wood and subsequently there were many, many holes. On previous trips we had used the bridge to cross the stream, sticking very close to the tightrope like lines of the iron rails so as not to break through the rotting wood , giving me the opportunity to peer down into the deep , shadowy pool underneath my precarious perch.
It was here, at this very spot, that my father told me of one of his very early fishing experiences. He was a young boy and had walked down to the bridge after his morning chores, on my grandfather’s farm, were done. He had just a simple rod with line and hook. As was his custom, he would forage around the stream side for any type of bait and he soon found a small grasshopper, perfect for such a use. After baiting his hook he dropped it over the edge of our bridge to watch it float and twitch on the current. The story ends with him catching a large brookie, but it begins with the seeds planted for the future fly fisherman. And appropriately, the same seeds were implanted in me that day as I watched him work that dark, deep, shadowy pool for perhaps, a descendant of that long ago trout.
As I look back on that particular day and those that were yet to come, I’ve come to appreciate how they were truly a treasure that I didn’t recognize until they were gone. Gone because my father is gone. However, they are not forgotten as my renewed interest in fly fishing has been a vehicle for me to re-explore long lost paths that I started down those many years ago with my dad, but never finished. Thanks to fly fishing I’ve once more started down those paths. Like long abandoned woods roads, they are overgrown and obscure, but they are still there. And each time I am walking through the springtime growth and smell that exotic mixture, the pungent odor of decay and the sweet air of rebirth, I remember the the joy that I had fishing with my Dad.
(Original posting July 2012)