Thirteen years ago my dad passed away only days before I married Suzanne. It was around this time that I asked her father, Mike, to teach me to fish.
The lessons began slow. Evenings were tying knots and afternoons were hours of casting. Both were done while he explained fly patterns and hatches. He would tell me about different rivers and eventually he took me to them.
Fishing started on the lower Provo River and after what seemed like forever, I began to hold my own. Mike must have thought I was okay because he continued inviting me. On the way to the rivers we’d discuss flies, books, life and politics, but once at the water we were silent. We would stagger in, adjust our balance, then cast and be with our thoughts. It was through this ritual that we became friends and he became a father figure to me.
One summer day Mike and I fished on the Big Wood River south of Ketchum. The spot where we started had someone fishing every twenty feet or so, but Mike didn’t care. He just snuggled right in and began casting. He preferred to be around people when fishing. Before his first heart attack he might have chosen to be more secluded, but after it he felt safer with a crowd. I, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy being so close.
After an hour I’d seen no trout. I had no nibble, no nose, nothing. Mike had caught one earlier with a dry fly, but now he was nymphing (wet fly fishing). This meant the fishing wasn’t good. I dipped my hat in the water and sat on the bank. Mike swapped nymphs and worked his way up and down. Another hour passed before he joined me.
“It’s too hot… It might improve later when things cool down.” He offered almost as an apology. When we fished new places together he felt a responsibility to make sure I caught something. Sensing his concern I suggested we try a spot down the road which had a short hike through the brush. Mike didn’t like hikes. It was the safety thing.
He shrugged. “Alright, but I think we might be coming back here.”
It was a roaring scream from the bushes behind me. Mike never used that word. He had snagged his rod in a thicket and snapped it right above the joint where the two pieces slide together. I was mortified. I‘d insisted that we hike out here, he had followed reluctantly and now this.
“What do you want to do?” I asked sheepishly. “Do you want to use this rod? I can just hang out… Take some photos.” It was actually his rod. Pretty much all of the gear I used was his, but he wouldn’t have any of it.
“No, no. Let’s see… I can just use what I have. It’ll be alright.”
At the water I gave Mike space and began nymphing using an unbroken rod. Within one or two casts I had a fish on. The fight was short lived as he threw back the hook, but it was a good sign. After spooking all the fish out of the hole I looked upstream. Mike, standing beneath a cluster of cottonwoods, was casting a dry fly. He was using the top half of his broken rod and a bunch of line stuffed in his vest that he worked with his left hand. He was smiling. The casts seemed tight and the trailing fly wobbled, but he managed the landing, presenting the fly softly where he wanted it to go. That afternoon I got skunked while he pulled in fish after fish.
The following day we drove south, out of the mountains and into the plains. The subdivisions were replaced by fields of alfalfa and potato. The novelty shops and restaurants were gone leaving cattle and sheep ranches. I was dubious when we pulled off the highway, but as we crossed the bridge I saw the sage brush fall into the marsh, in its place stands of cattails appeared along with a slow moving creek filled with watercress. The scene was idyllic.
While suiting up we talked to a few guys who were wrapping up their day. When asked what seemed to be working for them they were vague. I took it the fishing was tough. Mike agreed with a knowing glance. As we carried on, one of the guys produced a cutting board filled with cheese, salami and crackers.
“Please, have some.” He offered. Mike declined, saying something about not needing to add anything to his robust gut.
“Ah, you’re not even close to being fat.” He held the board closer.
With a grin Mike responded, “You know people get sent to prison for lying that bad.”
There is something about how the water presses against you when you wade in. It holds you firm, but gently. When you finally climb out you have the tendency to fall forward from leaning against the current for so long. The slow movement of the creek was comforting. I was in up to my stomach for most of it, trying to look small to the fish upstream, but they could see me and my line and weren’t fooled. I saw fish swaying in my wake so close that if they wouldn’t have darted off when I reached down I could have touched them. I dipped my hat several times, not only because I was hot, but in order to absorb the place. We quietly stood in the water while the air cooled and the shadows grew tall. We both caught nothing. That was the best day fishing I’ve ever had.
After the divorce I expected to lose Mike as a friend, but life doesn’t work that way. At first our encounters were awkward, then cordial and eventually friendly again. We continued to exchange books, talk politics and I still sought his advice.
Last June the man who taught me how to fly fish died. Suzanne found his body lying in the backyard. John Michael Harsha did not survive his fourth heart attack. I don’t want to think of that.
It’s better not to dwell on our disagreements, disappointments and heartache. Instead it’s better for me to think about the peaceful moments, the laughter and shared love. To remember competing with the Ospreys for trout on the Madison or going way out on the Lamar with bison our only company, that’s what I want. Feeling the spring sun on the waters of the Green and the cold days of winter along the Provo will help me recall his energy. Summer nights can find him wading in the magic of Silver Creek and on fall days, when the trees are brilliant, I will see Mike casting quietly, peacefully, on the Blacksmith Fork.
copyright 2010-2011 Louis C Arevalo
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