Fly Fishing Joy at the End of Days

fly fishing joy and the end of days

In the final scene of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” the narrator, Norman Maclean, is alone on the river, trying to tie a knot. He is old now. His brother Paul has been gone for five decades. His wife, gone. Most of his friends, gone.

The narrator says:

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead, even Jesse. But I still reach out to them.

Of course now I’m too old to be much of a fisherman. And now I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. But when I’m alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories. And the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four count rhythm. And a hope that a fish will rise.

Only the river, which has flowed since the beginning of time, remains. It is the one constant in a full life, one of joy as well as tragedy and loss.

The Old Man and His Browning

Norman MacLean’s end of days are a lot like those of my father, whose hunting and fishing friends are now mostly all gone. My father turned 87 this year.

I think of Walter, who hunted upland game and waterfowl with us for 30 years until his wife Laurine died. Dad, my brother Matt, and I struggled to forgive him for putting away his Browning for good after she passed. He said he quit hunting because he had no one to clean his birds. That sounded so sexist to my post-modern ears, but it was Walter’s old world attempt to describe his sorrow.

Walter was only in his early 80s when Laurine died. He passed away in a nursing home about a decade later at 93, his lightweight 20 gauge (made in Belgium) never to be fired again. Physically, he could have hunted for most of the rest of his eighties. Dad and I stopped by the nursing home for a few minutes about a year before he died. He towered over us in his hunting years, but now was diminished in the wheelchair. The TV blared as we regaled him with stories from the last hunt. He said he was looking forward to seeing Laurine.

His Browning now rusts in its case with a son who doesn’t hunt.

Walter’s brother Albert also lived into his nineties – and hunted with us until his late eighties. He called it quits when he said the geese flying over him appeared as shadows, his eyesight failing. We didn’t argue with him, though he still had no problem knocking down birds. But it was time.

He lived for another five years after he stopped hunting.

Right before he died, he told his son, who was 70 at the time, “When you turn 80, start another business. You’ll have more than enough time to watch TV when you’re my age and can’t leave the nursing home.”

Albert and his son inspired me through the years to pursue my entrepreneurial calling. Walter and Albert are now gone, as are most of my father’s friends.

My father scans the newspaper obituaries every day, something those who are left behind often do. I spent a two-week sabbatical with him and my mother in North Dakota several years ago. Several times during the two weeks, he would look up from the paper and say, “Do you remember _______? He just died.”

If you get to live long enough, those you love pass on one after another until one day you discover that you are alone, in the half light of the canyon, astonished at the brevity of life. You have to decide whether to fly fish when only the river beckons, and the voices of others have gone silent.

Giddy at 80

About a year and a half ago, I got a call from my Dad. He had been out deer hunting, alone.

He said the November Dakota wind was howling up to 50 miles an hour, the temperature plummeting thirty degrees in a couple hours. On his way home from the hunt, a large flock of mostly snow geese was circling a harvested field along the gravel road, trying to land against the wind. My father stopped the truck, grabbed his Browning and three shells, crawled and walked in the ditch for about 50 yards, crossed the road, shot three times, and knocked down eight geese. Alone.

He had just turned 80 several months earlier.

On the call with me not long after, he was giddy, emotional, like a boy who just had shot his first goose.

There is much to be said about the fellowship of hunting, the late mornings after the hunt in the coffee shop, the Ole and Lena jokes that make you groan, the story-telling while picking up the decoys after a slow morning.

But there’s joy in the hunt itself, in the act of netting a 17-inch brown in late fall. Norman Maclean may be alone on the river near the end of his days, but there’s no place for sadness.

Big Flies and Fly Fishing Joy at River’s Edge

I watched “A River Runs Through It” again not long ago, and the final scene, like always, slayed me. I fired off an email to my fly fishing partner of forty years saying we need to promise each other that whoever remains on earth last will continue to carry on our fly fishing tradition, until like Albert and his failing eyesight, the trout become only shadows.

“I don’t see myself ever stopping,” Steve replied. “We will just have to fish big flies! And stay near the trail head. Wouldn’t it be cool to fish together in our 80s if God grants us both that much time?”

Yes it would.

But if for some reason I am granted days greater in number than those of my friends, and my kids are too busy to meet me at the river, I will walk the edges of the river alone.

What remains when the only companion left is the river itself is the joy of fly fishing that comes with the hope of a rising fish.

Three Lessons My Dad Taught Me about Fly Fishing

My dad taught me three of the most important lessons I ever learned about fly fishing.

The irony is that he never fly fished. These three lessons my dad taught me came during the handful of times he took me trout fishing with a spinning rod or during the dozens of times he took me hunting for pheasants, white-tail deer, or elk:

1. Be patient with youngsters.

There should be a Chinese proverb which says, “Teach a child to fish and try not to go crazy in the process.”

I remember the time we were camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was nine, and my brother, Dave, was seven. We were trying to spin-fish in a little trout stream that came rushing down the mountainside over boulders. My dad took off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and spent the better part of the next two hours wading in ice-cold water, dislodging our Mepps #2 spinners from every rock and logjam in the creek.

I was excited when he told us that we were hooking into a lot of “bottom bass.”

It took me a couple of years to figure out what a “bottom bass” really was – a code word for a snag on a rock or whatever else lurked under the surface. It took me a few more years to appreciate the patience my dad had that afternoon. If he hadn’t been patient and helpful, my love for trout fishing might have been demolished or at least delayed.

I’ve tried to practice patience with my own children. My two adult sons love to fly fish, so I guess I didn’t ruin them with too many fits of impatience when they snagged a pine tree limb or my fly fishing vest with their back casts.

Of the three lessons my father taught me, practicing patience is the most obvious and the most difficult to do.

2. Invest in quality equipment.

When it came to firearms, my dad did his research.

He figured out that a .280 Remington (7mm Express) would be a great all-around caliber for both deer and elk. He worked up a hand-load with 150-grain bullets that had the flat-shooting of a .270 and the punch of a 30.06. Before Winchester and Remington produced a line of mountain rifles with synthetic stocks, he found a gunsmith in Belgrade, Montana who built a mountain rifle for him. He had learned about David Gentry from voraciously reading the major firearm magazines. Then, when I was in the market for a new hunting rifle, he encouraged me to consider a Ruger Model 77.

Also, my dad had no time for cheap scopes. He insisted that my brother, Dave, and I save our dollars for Leupold scopes so that our targets would be clear and illumined if we had a chance to shoot a few minutes after legal shooting light began or a few minutes before it ended.

I have followed this approach when purchasing fly fishing equipment. I’ve done my research and invested in rods made by Winston and Orvis, as well as in reels made by Orvis and Lamson. The right equipment can help with well-placed casts and with landing a big rainbow or brown trout.

3. Work together as a team.

When I hunted with my dad, there was usually another brother involved — either one of his or one of mine. We learned to make this work to our advantage. If we were hunting white-tails, we would often post somebody along a game trail, and then two of us would circle back and walk through the timber or coulee in hopes of pushing something along the game trail by the posted hunter. It worked on several occasions. If we were bow-hunting elk, we would put a caller (with an elk bugle or a cow call) about twenty yards behind the two guys in front who would get in position for a shot.

Our thinking was that an elk which came within 40 yards of the caller would get within 20 yards of one of the shooters. That strategy worked, too.

Of course, it works differently with fly fishing.

We’re obviously not trying to push trout to a waiting fly fisher! But when my fly fishing partner, Dave, and I are on a river, we find ways of working together. Sometimes, it is as simple as using different fly patterns to see which one works best. Occasionally, one of us will work the same holes or runs together — one fishing above the surface with a dry fly, and the other below the surface with a nymph or a streamer.

Most times we’re working together by alternating runs as we work up or down the river. Or one of us stops fishing to help take a photo or help with a tangle. We work together rather than compete against each other, though I like nothing more than to land the biggest fish of the day.

Yes, there’s something special about fly fishing with your dad or with your son or daughter. You can learn a lot and teach a lot in the process. These three lessons that my dad taught me are priceless.

Just pray for patience.

Episode 30: Gary Borger on How Fly Fishing Strengthens Families

A River Runs Through It

Fly fishing strengthens families. But does it really? Do families that fly fish together stay together? The outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular seem to give parents and their children a chance to communicate about something other than homework, screen, time, and household chores. Whether camping or hunting or fly fishing, the outdoors help families connect around a common interest. In Episode 30, we interview fly fishing legend Gary Borger, who consulted on the movie “A River Runs Through It,” on how fly fishing strengthens families.

Fly Fishing Strengthens Families

Be sure to post your stories on how the outdoors has strengthened your family. We’d love to read your insights on what has worked for you.

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