Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Trout Bum for a Father

By Kirsten Giebutowski

The bobbin hangs from the unfinished fly, waiting to be taken up again, as my father reaches for a bag of feathers. He’s not in a hurry but he’s not dawdling either. He’s been tying flies for almost fifty years, so he doesn’t have to tell his left hand to hold the lemon wood duck flank 

feather securely as he winds the black thread around it with his right. His hands know what to do. He just keeps an eye on them to make sure they’re doing it. He has a theory that this feather’s important—when it comes off the trout seem to lose their appetite—so he takes care in the binding.



The streams the finished fly will float on are frozen outside his door, but in his mind he can see them running. February’s a good month for anticipation. The worst cold past, nothing but spring ahead and another season fishing with his daughter. This fly’s for her, which is to say, for me. He knows I like the Harris Special, so he’ll tie a few more and some Woolly Buggers, too. He has to tie plenty because he knows I’ll lose some, will likely send some up to unreachable branches where they’ll stick fast like the burrs our dog Pippin collects during grouse season and break off when I tug at the line. That’s okay, my father thinks. Out on the stream is a good place for laughing at your own foolishness. For one thing, it’s likely no one will be there to witness whatever dumb thing it is you’ve just done. If you drop your backcast, or accidentally snip your fly off just after you’ve tied it on, or drop your fly box in the stream and go chasing after it, half running - half swimming, scaring off all the fish in a twenty-yard stretch, well, it’s likely only the trees and the stream and maybe some birds will be watching.

            Follies like these don’t describe my father out on the stream. They’re mishaps of mine that he knows about. Perhaps he thinks of them from time to time, just as I think of him tying flies one night in February. I’m not there—I’m his grownup daughter who has to cross half the country to fish with him—but I’ve witnessed the scene often enough to imagine it. I grew up, after all, with a trout bum for a father. Oh, he taught math, too, and there was evidence of that in the house, textbooks lying around, calculators, student papers riddled with corrections, but all of that seemed somehow less salient than evidence of my father’s other occupations. Maybe because a finite math textbook doesn’t creep up your nose like a sink full of fish guts does, doesn’t chill your 

fingers like the trout you fetch from the freezer for dinner, isn’t something you bite into—carefully, when you’re a kid fearful of lodging a bone in your throat—only after drowning it in tartar sauce to mask the strong and salty, fishiness of it. Then there are pictures I have in my head: my father repainting his canoe in the yard; turning the dining room table into a worktable for building fly rods; and of course, winding that bobbin around a hook in the evenings, adding to his store of flies.


    These images are more immediate to me than ones of my father bent over a page of equations. His outdoor self just found more vivid expression. When I was growing up, he wasn’t outdoors only to fish but for all sorts of other reasons—to garden, pick berries, search for mushrooms and wild leeks, tap trees for maple sugaring, hunt birds and deer. I went along with him now and then on most of these adventures but fishing was the most fun. I think, for a child, just handling a fishing rod can be exhilarating; for me it was. Following my father down to the edge of the water with my spinning rod in hand gave me a sense of importance, gave me the feeling that I was there to accomplish something and I had the tool with which to do it. My child self liked the weight of the rod that became an extension of me and lent me a reach I didn’t otherwise have. I liked the satisfying plunk of the lure as it hit the water and the neat clicking sound as I reeled it in, more often than not without a fish on the end. My father must have told me then what he can’t resist saying occasionally now, “That’s why it’s called fishing and not catching.”

            Somehow when I hit high school, my interest dwindled and I spent more time reading whatever book I’d brought along than fishing. Maybe I grew impatient with not catching enough fish or maybe I was just distracted by life’s other possibilities, the things that hadn’t happened to me yet but were happening to people in the books I was guzzling, not one of whose heroines had met her beloved while she was out fishing. My father didn’t complain in that span of time when I couldn’t be persuaded to go fishing with him more than once or twice a year and sometimes begged off going entirely. When I returned to it a few years out of college, he was beside himself with happiness and he has been that way since.

            The Upper Connecticut River, in Pittsburg, New Hampshire has been our favorite place to fish together since I started fishing again. Even after fishing there for almost ten years, the Great North Woods area still retains much of its mystery for me. The further north we drive, the more likely we are to spot moose by side of the road, and twice we’ve seen a black bear on our drive up. Sometimes my father has to poke me because I’m not a morning person by nature and I find the only way to stave off hunger pangs is to remain at least half asleep. We don’t eat our breakfast until we get closer to where we’ll fish. One day waiting for my eggs I read a history of Pittsburg, crammed in small type on my placemat. Both Canada and the United States claimed ownership of the area for years after the American Revolution. Not wanting to pay the taxes or serve in the military of either country, residents established their own nation in 1832, the Indian Stream Republic, and lived by the rules of their own constitution for four years before joining the United States.

            My father and I have had the most luck fishing the Upper Connecticut at a spot we call “the meadow” because we have a long walk across one to get to the water. I have crossed the meadow with my father in all weathers, including cold weather when there is still a foot of snow on the ground and we have to wear long underwear under our waders and winter jackets over them. After a spring doing that, I vowed never to cross the meadow before May. The last time I was there was Father’s Day weekend, and the meadow was lush with tall grasses and wildflowers. Once we were out on the river, a flock of Canada geese passed over our heads and cedar waxwings flew back and forth across the water. My favorite bird, the red winged blackbird, was there, too. My father pays little attention to birds when he fishes, unless they’re ducks (which he hunts) or great blue herons (you’d have to see those every day to pass by the sight of one). He rarely lets his eyes stray from the surface of the water. No doubt that’s one of the reasons he catches more fish than I do. Our first day at the Meadow on Father’s Day weekend he caught two rainbows and I caught nothing. But on our way out, I had the satisfaction of spotting a deer before he did. She stayed frozen, evidently hoping we wouldn’t notice her, until we had almost passed her. I almost never spot an animal before my father does. He is a man who drives 55 miles an hour down a country road and suddenly stops and backs up a hundred feet to get a better look at a mushroom he’d spotted on a tree. When I do see an animal before he does, it delights him.

The next day was mine to catch something, and it began as most of our fishing days do, with me muttering a stream of complaints as I forced my feet into the felt-soled wading boots. My father chuckled. We never tire of the joke of how long it takes us to get into our gear. The walk across the meadow felt endless to me that day. I was aware that breakfast was still a couple hours of fishing away. I was aware of all the weight I was carrying. My vest was heavy with fly boxes, various weights of line, an extra reel, a folding metal wading stick for fast water, and the net hanging off it bounced on my back as I bounced along. The boots at the end of my waders felt heavy, too. With each step I flung out a weighted foot and let its momentum carry it until it dropped. Slowly I hauled my cumbersome body across the meadow to the river’s edge and stepped down, letting the weight of my gear lower me.

            My father took a spot upstream from me, no doubt because he sensed the fish might be further down. I waded in and felt, as I often do, pleasure in the act of striding out to meet the fish. You lose that in a canoe, which isn’t to say fishing from one doesn’t offer its own fun. But I like wading into the stream above all else and feeling the coolness of the water through my waders. The current that day was just strong enough that I could feel the strength of my own legs against it and I stood there like a tree, dividing the water that rushed past me as I raised my rod. Then I was using my whole body, fighting the current with my lower half and lassoing the air with my upper. If I had roots like a tree I also had branches that reached out, my rod and line an extension of me, seemingly endless until the fly hit the water, closer to me than I expected - I always think my cast will go farther. When it didn’t land where I wanted it to I glanced upstream. My father was too absorbed in his own graceful casting to notice, but I could hear his voice in my head. “Fish it out,” he’d have said if he were closer.

            I remember when I thought I’d never be able to cast with a fly rod. When I came back to fishing one summer in my twenties, I left my spinning rod behind, and my father set himself the task of teaching me to cast with a fly rod in our yard, far enough out back that I hoped no passing cars could see us. At twenty-five I still wasn’t past feeling embarrassment, and I knew I looked ridiculous bending this way and that, handling my rod like a child casting spells with a plastic wand. I threw it around impatiently, fearful with each cast that the dummy fly on the line would whip back and hit me in the face, wondering whether I’d ever get the hang of it. But my father took me out on the stream, and I started to loosen up with the rod and to feel more confident. I remember him getting excited and telling me I was a natural. I knew he wasn’t an impartial judge, but I never minded when he said that.

            My mother was away that summer, and I started going up more weekends to keep my father company, but also because I was starting to like being out on the water and to like this new identity I’d taken on as a fly fisherman. I was living in the city at the time, working in a job that didn’t inspire me, and I’d fallen prey to the disease of consumerism to ease my ennui. A new identity meant, in part, new stores to visit. My favorite was Orvis and I would rush there after work and browse through the whole store looking for a piece of it to take away. For a while I coveted one of their vests and considered all the models carefully, with their various configurations of pockets. But I knew I couldn’t really afford one, so I walked around listening to conversations in the store, instead, feeling myself part of a new club that gave me license to be there. I know there are plenty of women who fly fish, but there never seemed to be any of them in the store, and I remember thinking that being the only one gave me some small sense of what it must have been like years ago for women to infiltrate traditionally male domains for the first time.

            While I was taking the measure of mesh versus cotton and fancying myself some sort of ridiculous pioneer a hundred years too late, my father was probably out fishing. He’s generally too busy being a fisherman to sit around thinking about what it means to be one, though he does read a whole lot of books and magazines about the sport. Every Christmas growing up I’d give him a fishing book, but it was always a risk figuring out what he hadn’t read. The best gift my mother and I probably ever gave him was a fishing vest. I don’t know how he ever managed without a vest but somehow it didn’t occur to him to buy one. He’s always been reluctant to buy things, especially for himself, always been the sort to wear his clothes past the point where the fabric wears thin and the holes can’t be hidden, been the sort to wear them straight through to the disintegration phase. I’m surprised his vest hasn’t disintegrated by now. It’s at least twenty five years old and he keeps it so loaded with tackle I can barely lift it with one hand. How a man like this ends up with a daughter who hankers for a fancy vest a few weeks into taking up a fly rod I just don’t know.

            I imagine it confuses him, too, but he offers no criticism and drives us three hours north to fish whenever I visit. On a typical day, after fishing all morning, my father and I get sandwiches at Young’s, Pittsburg’s general store, and eat them on the tailgate of the truck at our next fishing spot. The sandwiches aren’t fancy but even your run-of-the-mill sub with iceberg lettuce and pale diced tomatoes tastes delicious after you’ve been on the stream a few hours. Visiting the store has somehow become part of our fun, perhaps because it feels now like a kind of ritual to walk in there with our waders on and stand at the deli ticking off the ingredients we want in our sandwiches. While we wait for them, I walk around the store, looking for places to focus my acquisitive gaze. Once when we were checking out, my eye fell on some magnets near the cash register. How perfect it’d be, I thought, to have a magnet for my refrigerator with a fish leaping on it that said “Pittsburg, NH,” but when I picked it off the board and showed it to my father, he said, “That’s a largemouth bass. They don’t have largemouth bass up here.” For most of my life I had looked at people who visit the countryside from the city with a certain condescension. I would not allow friends I met in college who were from cities or suburbs but summered in some rural place to claim the countryside as their own. It belonged to real country folk like me who lived there year-round. But then, poised to buy a magnet featuring a fish I didn’t even know wasn’t local, I found I had become the kind of person I’d felt superior to my whole life, and I had to laugh.

            Outside the store lay one of the best cures I have found for the disease of consumerism, for the self-absorption of thinking about such things, or for too much unproductive thinking of any kind—a good river to fish. And that’s where I found myself now after the long walk across the meadow on the second day of our Father’s Day fishing trip. After a handful of casts I gave up on the streamer I had on from the night before and tied on a Harris Special. The Harris Special originated in New Hampshire and I’m fond of it in part because it was one of the first flies I could easily identify, with its orange bucktail throat and silver tinsel body. As often as not I catch trout on it, but I persist in believing it lucky. As I wet the knot with my tongue and tightened it, I gave way to superstition and felt sure I’d catch something, even if it took some time.

And then I passed into the state I most like to be in out on the river, the state where I become so absorbed in what I’m doing, so lost to the world beyond my fishing rod, that when I become aware of my surroundings again and pause between casts to look around, what’s around takes me by surprise. I always hope to get to that point where I lose myself on the river, and I had lost myself now. I had lost myself but I knew where I was, alive to the water around me and the sky and the view downstream. Between casts I watched cedar waxwings landing in trees on the opposite bank, the bright yellow tips of their tails like exclamation points in a rich green paragraph. Pay attention to all this beauty, they seemed to say, and I did.

That state of receptivity doesn’t last forever. After a while I could feel my casting arm tiring and my thoughts turning to breakfast. Just as I was about to give up and walk upstream to suggest it, I felt a tug on my line. It wasn’t a big tug and it wasn’t a big fish, but I felt the quickening I always do when I have a fish on and I shouted to my father as I pulled a small brook trout out of the water. I could dimly hear his congratulations from upstream as I freed the fish from the hook and pointed him upstream before taking my hand away. And then he was gone, the surprise of his leaving as great as the surprise of his tug on my line. My father and I hardly ever keep our fish, even when they’re big enough. Our pleasure is not in the acquisition but in the encounter with something wild that lives in what seems sometimes like our own world at its best and sometimes like another world parallel to ours.

I take pleasure, too, in the glimpse I get of my father when we’re out fishing. Not that he’s such a terrible guy in other circumstances, but when we go fishing, his best qualities show themselves as vibrant and elemental as the red spots encircled with blue on the prettiest brook trout. Almost nothing puts him out of humor on a fishing day, not even me closing the truck door on the fly rod he built me and snapping it beyond repair. He’ll show me how to tie the same knots trip after trip without sighing and untangle my line when I get close to stomping my feet like a frustrated child. He has more energy outdoors, too. When we have to cut through woods to reach the water, I swear he moves faster than he does on a paved road with no obstacles. He’s been a fisherman since he was a boy and never grown tired of it. All his adult life he’s fished the same waters in New England and never grown tired of those. He seems to draw from a bottomless store of wonder that is surely a measure of the depth of his love for the sport. I could have been born to another father with another passion or perhaps no passion at all, so I consider myself lucky. The beauty of what we experience out on the water is something I think any father would wish for his daughter, any daughter would wish for her father and, for that matter, anyone who loves another human being would wish for them.



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