I didn’t know the names of many mountains or rivers then. The winding drive seemed impossibly long and cold in the darkness. The heater of dad’s Datsun 210 struggling to keep up, frozen vinyl of the seats sticking to any exposed skin. I’d stay with him on some weekends, staying up and eating Fritos and cheese dip, the occasional can of Vienna Sausages thrown in for good measure. Dad’s culinary tastes were not very sophisticated. We’d wake early with junk-food and video game hangovers, make lunch, and pack our gear. Matching fishing vests (which I still own) were pulled out of the closet, accompanied by ultralight Daiwa spinning rods that broke down to only a foot long. I remember being very proud that I carried the same rod as my dad, that I didn’t have some cheap kid’s version.
Bologna, cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread and cans of RC Cola tucked into our pockets, we’d come to the river in search of trout. My father could pull fish after fish out of a hole, working the current, drifting a salmon egg and tiny split-shot exactly where he wanted it. I don’t remember ever catching any fish myself, but he’d hand over his rod to let me land some of his. It took many years of fishing on my own after dad died before I realized what was happening; that he simply knew how to read things and be silent whereas I was charging through the river like a drunken buffalo and casting as if my rod were a bull whip.
Dad relished fried trout, filleted and coated in flour, crisped and finished with salt and pepper. We’d savor the day’s catch that evening before retiring to the latest chapter in our quest to beat The Legend of Zelda.
Decades later, I’m still sneaking out of the house silently at 4am, my own family asleep, making the drive up the cold mountain. Bluegrass on the radio, heater working, I can now name all the surrounding peaks, rivers, and forks…
I moved away from spinning rods to fly fishing, self-taught on the same river I fished with my dad, standing thigh deep in a cold December pool. His ghost stands at my side, reading the current with me, trying to drift our line just so, easing it into a dark undercut on the opposite side…
I know how to catch fish now, probably better than he did. But in my mind, dad remains a legendary fisherman on account of the magic I watched him work as a child.
It’s probably been over twenty five years since our last fishing trip together. I’m out in the garage today, preparing for a week in the High Sierra, piecing together an ultralight Tenkara fishing kit, selecting and putting the finishing touches on a few hand-tied flies.
The last trout I caught brought tears to my eyes, summoning back the connection to my father, our time on the river together. There’s a part of me that would rather not kill them; images of blood in the grass surrounding colorful scales haunt my dreams. But I push it down.
Because I know he would’ve loved this, finishing a beautiful day over the hiss of a fry pan beside a stream. I do it as much for him. My father was a fisherman and I’m my father’s son, roll casting to a ripple in the shade.