Fly Fishing Language for Parents and Teens

Communicating with my teenage boys was no small challenge. But fly fishing provided a language that made it easier. Last weekend, I hung out with my 29-year-old son, Ben. I left amazed at all the wisdom I picked up from him. He offered insights about financial planning and about my workout regimen (which needs to be ramped up a bit).

This weekend, my wife and I will travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota to watch the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks play their first ever football playoff game since moving up to Division 1 (FCS) a decade ago. They are ranked 8th nationally. Our 23-year old son, Luke, is a senior tight end and a team captain. He has blossomed into a fine leader and is heavily involved in community service in Grand Forks.

I am grateful for the way my sons have emerged from those challenging teen years. This is due primarily to the grace of God. Seriously. It covered a multitude of my parenting blunders. But I also have to give credit to one of God’s gifts which enabled communication during the tough patches.

That gift is fly fishing.

The Language of Life

My boys and I laugh about some tense moments during their teen years. A lot of them involved over-reactions on the part of their dad. Uh, that would be me. We laugh, for example, about scathing note I left for Ben when he didn’t make it home from gopher hunting in time to go with us to his sister’s high school graduation. My purple prose expressed bitter disappointment in Ben and outlined a long list of consequences. I was still seething when I reached the front of the high school auditorium and saw Ben waiting for us. He had his friend drop him off so he wouldn’t be late.

So how did we manage to communicate through the teen years? Fly fishing provided a language which made it possible. We found our voice in the laughter that fly fishers share. Conversation flowed like the river itself, moodiness evaporated like the morning fog. In this setting, my sons were quite willing to listen to my advice — at least about fly fishing. Fly fishing together even created a bond which led to some rather deep conversations about life.

Something else happened too. The conversations we began on the river followed us home. So did the ease with which we communicated. It seemed like our shared experiences on the river nurtured conversations marked by transparency, respect, honesty, and kindness.

By the way, both of my boys still love to fly fish — especially when we can do it together.

Fly fishing is not a magic pill that solves problems between parents and their teens. But time together on the river may yield much more than fish. It may provide a common language, which takes communication to a more productive level.

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.

Don’t Miss a Podcast Episode!

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app.

View our complete list of podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.

Friends Don’t Small Talk, Friends Fly Fish

Friends don’t small talk, friends talk fantasy. A recent NFL Fantasy Football commercial asked the question that, uh, was on everyone’s mind:

“Without fantasy football, what would friends talk about?”

I can’t speak for the other gender, but at least for guys, the answer is, really, not much. We cheerily sit in silence like my 16-year-old, who is at complete peace not saying a word (other than “I’m hungry. Can we stop for Jimmy John’s?”) during our 15-hour trip from Chicago to North Dakota for our yearly hunting tradition.

When There is Nothing to Say

I’ve heard that some guys have no friends. I can’t relate. I’m close with my 82-year-old father; we talk every day, even though he lives three states away. He is my father. And a friend.

As an irrational teenager with a reptilian brain, I had no imagination for what our relationship is today. During those years, when we (er, I) struggled to talk without anger or overstatement, my father and I always had our yearly hunting tradition. We always had fishing, something that drew us together even in the sullen years when we had little to say.

When I was in my early twenties, I convinced my parents to let me drag my younger brother along on a week-long fly fishing trip to Montana. Just him and me. A week of fly fishing helped me see him as more than just an annoying younger brother. Today I would call him one of my friends. And he has now begun taking his children on fishing trips.

With my children (two sons and two daughters), fishing helped us transcend their (and my) snarky behavior. Just recently I took my youngest son on a fly fishing trip to the Driftless in southeast Minnesota. Before the trip, he was laconic and uncommunicative. During the trip, we had some of the best conversations yet as father and son.

After the trip, he returned to his laconic self, ostensibly with no memory of our time on the river.

Common Passion, Common Language

With Steve, my partner on 2 Guys and a River, fly fishing created a reason to stay in touch and thus rekindle a college friendship. After school, we went for years with little contact, while he began his family and I skipped through the odyssey years of my twenties. When it was my turn to settle down, we found a way to stay in touch through some common writing projects. I made several trips to Montana, where Steve served as a pastor, and we made it a point to hit the river every chance we could. In more recent years, we began a yearly tradition to Montana to fish the rivers in the Yellowstone ecosystem, sometimes in the spring, more recently in the summer, and occasionally in the fall.

A common passion created a common language. Fly fishing became a way for Steve and me to small talk and “large talk” – to discuss the deeper things of life – our dreams and fears for our children, the hardships of our lives, and our hope for the years ahead.

I realize that many folks would rather fly fish alone. I can appreciate that. But for me, fly fishing is a team sport.

In contrast to the NFL Fantasy Football commercial, friends actually small talk. While they fly fish. And they create a lifetime of laughter, great conversation, and apocryphal stories of 27-inch rainbow trout.

Episode 13: Introducing Your Kids to the Great Outdoors

A River Runs Through It

Introducing your kids to the great outdoors at an early age is mandatory if you want them to grow up loving the sport. But how early should you get them out to the river. In this episode, we discuss how to raise your children to love the outdoors, even if they don’t fly fish. Listen to Episode 13: Introducing Your Kids to the Great Outdoors.

Listen to our episode “Introducing Your Kids to the Great Outdoors”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

At what age did you introduce your kids to the great outdoors?

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

View some of our most recent podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.

Rate the 2 Guys Podcast

We’d love for you to rate our podcast on iTunes.

That helps fellow fly fishers decide whether the podcast is a good fit for them.