(the conversations about why we fly fish and about the legacies of our grandfathers inspired me to dust this off and share it .....it is a few years old but still worth reading i hope....... sorry no pictures)
I stopped at the door steeling myself for what I knew would follow. I hate these big gatherings; it would be nice to see all of my family but the endless parade of people whose faces and names don’t ring any bells and having to pretend to have meaningful conversations with them would be almost unbearable. Yet "you have to do what you have to do", better to get started and get it over. As I entered the door the rumble of loud conversations and the heat of the room washed over me like the wave of an explosion. I dodged through the crowd for a couple of feet and paused for a breath, my eyes caught the face of my grandfather. His profile brought back a welcome flood of memories, most of them centered on fishing and the outdoors.
I briefly reverted back to being an 8-year-old fishing for bream and catfish in small farm ponds throughout south central Oklahoma. Remembering the impatience of waiting in the yard as my Grandfather and the landowner stood kicking up red dust and making small talk which seemed to be the ritual for getting permission to fish. I remember the waiting as I watched my bobber and the excitement as it finally went under with a fish on. I will always remember the big catfish, it seems like it was bigger than me and pictures almost prove the point. I can also remember the pride as we stopped at the landowner’s farmhouse to give them some of our hard fought fish for their evening meal.
My memories shifted to my front yard as a 12-year-old, my grandfather patiently teaching me how to cast my brand new, very own, fly rod. I remember how he made it look effortless as he shot line inexplicably across my front yard while I felt as if I were flailing away with a two by four and barley managing to get the line in front of me. I remember him making me hold a rolled up newspaper under my arm while I cast to the rhythmic cadence that he called out. It was almost like some weird new kind of dance. But I learned, ever so slowly I learned. Soon we were fishing the headwaters of the Rio Grande together. Instead of just practicing casting I was actually getting to fly fish. The years progressed, every time I thought I was getting pretty good at this my grandfather would introduce a new skill set or a new trick to try and help me become a better fisherman, or maybe just to rattle the cage of the overconfident smart *** jerk that I had become like most of my adolescent friends.
I remembered that magical time when I finally turned 16 and got to spend the entire summer with him at his cabin in Virginia City, Montana. I had visions of fishing every day and laying about sleeping when not on the water. But my 70-year-old depression era grandfather had far different plans, one day fishing and one day working. I have never worked so hard in my life. We cut hay with a hand scythes and built a brick wall by hand. We built out buildings and did general labor from sunrise to sunset. That 70-year old man worked rings around me and laughed at me as he did it. Ah but, the fishing was a just reward. At that age I had no idea of the importance of the hallowed names of the Madison, Bighorn or the Ruby. I had no idea that there even were such things as salmon flies, or that trout ever grew that big or would take so spectacularly. But I soon leaned and what an experience to learn. Yet the most important learning experience of that summer was that I learned a work ethic from a man and a generation that believed in such things. That work ethic has provided grounding and a focus that has served me well my entire life.
I remembered a fishing trip some years later to the smallmouth rivers of the Arkansas Ozarks. He had come to meet and visit with my future wife and to help me purchase an engagement ring, but we had somehow managed to slip off to the Kings River for a day of fishing. I marveled that at 76 he could still wade the relative fast water as long as he kept to the backwaters and how he still managed to catch more fish with his fly rod than I did with my spinning rod even though this was my home water and I was a spinner casting bass fishing fool at that time. His natural ability to find fish was uncanny. He would fish for an hour for one sighted 8-inch fish a battle of wills, his stubbornness against the wary nature of the fish. He was never a fancy polished fly fisherman his casts not long and gracefully but he always workman like and efficient. He had an uncanny knack for stealth, reading water, knowing where the fish were and for catching them no matter what the circumstances. As with any man who has had to fish and hunt to provide food for the table in desperate times he fished and hunted hard. In fact he did every thing in his life hard, with drive and intensity but with a twinkle in his eye and a wry laugh buried deep in his soul.
Some 7 years later I got an odd phone call late one evening asking me to accompany him to Montana for a week or so. I responded that with work commitments, married life and my kids I just couldn’t take the time to go. He softly asked me to please reconsider and go with him. Something in his voice stopped me and I quickly agreed. As I hung up the phone, it dawned on me slowly that at 83 he might truly need some help on the roughly 1500-mile trip from his home in Oklahoma to his cabin in Montana. Suddenly the sobering thought surfaced that he needed help taking a trip he had taken every summer for the last 35 years. It also dawned on me how difficult it must be for the toughest most independent SOB on the face of the earth to have to ask anyone for help, even family.
The drive turned out to be a great time to talk with him about all of the wonderful things he had done in his life, his ranching career, banking career and private investment expertise. We talked about family history, American history and our own personal history together. I learned much about his philosophies and about him as a man, which was a very rewarding experience. The drive flew by and soon we were arriving in Virginia City. It took me a couple of days to get the cabin opened up and the grounds in order but soon everything was shipshape to his satisfaction and he suggested that we go fishing. He wanted to fish the Madison before I had to return to my home in Georgia. I truly yearned to get a day on the Madison as I hadn’t been back since the summer when I was 16, but I remembered the big fast rushing waters and I looked at the 83 year old man in front of me and suggested maybe we should do the Ruby or some smaller stream that might be easier to wade. He just laughed and told me to mind my elders and do as I was told or he was going to box my ears and teach me some manners. Then he told me to be ready to go at first light in the morning.
The drive across the mountain to Ennis was beautiful as always. My mind was filled with some mixed emotions as I thought of the changes that 15 years must have brought to the Madison. I had heard the horror stories of the damages done by whirling disease and about the hordes of float and wade fishermen who descended on the water every year like locusts and I was prepared for the worst. Yet as we parked the car and walked to the water it was as beautiful as ever and only two other fishermen were within “sight” and in Montana on the Madison River “sight” is a **** of a lot of open distance for the eye to take in. I felt my excitement soar in spite of myself. As we strung our rods I reminded myself that I should stay very close to my grandfather and not let him wade much or get himself into any trouble. But I shouldn’t have worried because he seemed content to stay close to the bank and fish the bank side riffles and runs that he could reach without wading much. Due to failing eyesight he had for the last 10 to 15 years become an exclusive “wet” fly fisherman as he called it. It was a unique experience watching him expertly high stick his traditional soft hackle through the limited seams and currents of the bank side runs and riffles. It was almost as if he were conjuring fish out of the depths of the dark water. He fished no indicator nor did my untrained eyes ever see any indication of a strike, suddenly without notice he would lift his rod tip and there would be a flash of light as a fish exploded in a mad rush to escape. I had for the last few years become a “purist” and decided that dry flies were the only way to fish for trout and that everything else wasn’t dignified, yet as I watched him fish over the day, I had come to realize that there was magic in this type fishing as well. In some ways it might actually be more challenging (and maybe even as satisfying) as seeing a fish rise to my dry fly. From watching him I had vowed then and there I would learn to nymph fish as well as him, a vow that I haven’t fully reached although I am still working on it, practice, practice, practice. (end part one)
Sadly at this stage of his life the reflexes and instincts weren’t enough to overcome the limitations and the fish had been uncooperative. So after a morning of hard fishing my grandfather said he was tired and wanted a nap, I assumed that meant the fishing for the day was done but he simply walked back into the willows a few feet from the riverbank and laid himself down covered his eyes with his hat and went fast asleep listening to the rhythm and beat of the river music. As any self-respecting fishermen would do I used that time to get some heavy-duty fishing of my own going. I was catching a lot of fish on a big dry and feeling pretty good. I was just landing and releasing a 12-inch brown when I felt his presence watching me. I don’t really know how long he had been standing there but as I turned around I noticed a certain sadness in his eyes. As he made his way slowly down to the riverbank the bright afternoon light of a brilliant Montana sun forced me to clearly look at him and to see the age in his body and his face. I waded to shore and stood next to him remarking on what a wonderful afternoon of fishing I was having, he said in a soft voice that was almost carried away by the rush of the river that he had many such days on this river and on countless others throughout the country. He went on to describe what fly fishing meant to him. He described that it was a place and time to himself where he was free of stress and worry of earning a living and providing for his family. A place where he could let his practical financial and business brain rest, not trying to solve some problem or worrying about the outcome of some unknown event. It was a place where he could just be, at one with the river and the world, a small part of something so much greater that for once he did not have to be the one in control. He said fly-fishing had been the outlet for his soul.
As he finished speaking he reached his wrinkled hand out for my rod. As I handed it to him I looked at his face and saw the shadow of sadness covering his face disappear in a wave of decisive resolution. He simply said, “All good things must eventually come to an end. It’s time for you to help me catch one last trout. Not one last trout for the day but one last trout for my life. Very few people have the opportunity to fish as many years as I have and even less have the opportunity to know when they are going to make their last cast and catch their last fish, but I do ……………………. And today is it.”
He said, “Let’s do it on a dry fly, that’s how I started and that’s how I want to end. You be my eyes and my support”. So we waded out further than he had been all day, with him wedged upstream of me so he could lean back against me. The hole was a clearly defined pocket behind a large boulder that we both knew would hold fish. The first five or six casts were uneventful. But with the next cast the fly softly landed in a smooth slick of water directly behind the rock, I saw a flash of gold and saw a brown rise up to take the fly. I tightened my grip on my grandfather’s shoulder and softly said, “set”. He instinctively raised the rod tip and tightened the line with his hand a movement ingrained in him by 50 or more years fly-fishing. I felt my breath catch as time suspended for that single splashing second waiting to see if we had a hook up. I heard my grandfather’s breath rush out and I knew that he was fast to a struggling brown. The fight has been lost in the jumble of emotions that were running through my brain but I have a very clear memory of him bending down over that brown trout safely encased in the net. He deftly flicked the fly loose and almost reverently brushed the side of the fish with his wrinkled time worn hands and dropped the end of the net deeper into the water as the fish made one last dash out of the net and swam peacefully away. I watched his face; which was a conflict of emotions part sadness, part excitement and part contentment mold itself into a mask of self-control and resolve. He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and shook my hand in a firm handshake and softly said, “lets go home”. We slowly made our way to shore and walked wordlessly back to the car, bathed in the fading watercolors of the Montana sunset lost in our own thoughts and emotions.
The rumble of conversation from the people around me broke into my memories and brought me back to reality. I realized with a start that it has been almost ten years since that trip and this will be the first time I have seen him since. Work responsibilities and family obligations have prevented me from taking the long trip to Oklahoma even though he has never been far from my thoughts. My eyes seek out the reassuring profile of his face. I am suddenly drawn toward him as if to a magnet. As I approach I wait for that familiar spark of recognition to ignite his face and for his arms to fly around me in that crushing embrace I so fondly remember from my youth. Yet somewhere deep in my mind I know that it will never come again. He looks good dressed in his “Sunday best” but it seems strange to see a man who was always in motion lying down in a box of blue satin in the middle of a room full of people. As I get closer I realize that the flesh tones don’t quite look right and the face appears to be more of a mask than a man but as I gaze down his body I see his hands which appear as natural as ever. I reach out and take one expecting a squeeze back but none comes. The final realization comes that he is truly gone and the spirit of the man I loved is not in this body lying in the open casket. He is truly gone, disappeared as a fly disappears in the white water of a riffle…….. Yet he is still with me in my heart ……………………………………………and will be forever.
I realize that finally my Grandfather is at peace. After a many year absence he is once again fishing the un-crowded disease free Madison of his memory, casting large salmon flies to rising trout with a long split bamboo rod and silk lines, able to fish and wade as he pleases.
Rest in peace, George Bailey but may your rod by bent and your line tight.
I Love You
wow powerful story
I can remember when the doctor told my grandfather it wasn't advisable for him to be "rock hoppin" anymore....know it had to be a sad time for him to accept that something that was so much a part of him was to be denied.....even after this was gone his passion remained....I would come by to stay after camping and when the talk got around to the water he always ask those specific questions about where, when and how as if he was getting ready to go the next day....while they say you can't take it with you I left him a brand new bi-visible on his lapel just in case ,,,
Memories of fishing with grandfather - priceless. Thanks for passing these memories on to us.
Very nice. The bond between a boy and his grandfather is a special thing.
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