I had a free weekend recently and invited my older son (23) and one of his friends to join me for weekend of fishing on the delayed harvest stretch of the Nantahala River in North Carolina. We had fished hard on Friday night and had spent an even longer night around the campfire talking and discussing “great music” and each of our individual definitions of such. And as usual for a group that had 25 years variation in age we disagreed a bit……………. But surprisingly we agreed more than I would have thought possible. Old bluegrass, Texas country, Marty Robbins, Lynyrd Skynyrd and southern blues don’t have as much age restriction as you might imagine. While my son and I don’t agree about the progress of his college education (college stalled semi-permanently compared with my valedictorian and graduating with honors expectations) we do tend to agree on fishing and music and the beauty of moonlight, starlight and campfire light, which can lead to long nights which tend to lead to shorter fishing days that follow or at least for us old farts who seem to be significantly more hangover prone than the young bucks who drive us to drink. So hangover laden, I had worked hard casting to rising trout cruising the sunlight shallows and tail outs catching more than I had deserved but less than I expected but definitely enough that I had that contented full feeling like pleasantly full fat man at an all you can eat buffet, when you know you have caught enough fish for the day. My usual need for fishing solitude was replaced by a longing to spend some time with my first born and I clipped off my flies to signify the end of my casting for fish and set out in search of my son and his friend.
I found them in the canyon section, at the upper end of the delayed harvest water, above where the river splashes noisily over two waterfalls and prior to the big deep holes with stacked fish up where the river is a series of rapids and broken braids where single opportunistic fish lay in bath tub sized pockets flashing in savagely furious strikes to attack well placed perfectly presented dry flies. This is one of my favorite sections of the rivers and I knew it like the back of my hand after many, many years of fishing it hard, but I can’t remember fishing it with my son, not since he was a twelve year old kid struggling to get his line ten feet in front of himself. But sure enough there was Ricky, my son, visible in a foaming white seam just ahead of me as I walked up behind him. The noise of the river let me sneak up unseen and unnoticed. Ricky had his waders rolled down to the waist as smart anglers do on hot spring days and his shirt off as people with 23 year old bodies are want to do. His vest hung loose but sufficiently full of flies and “stuff” and he wore my old sun faded green hillbilly hat (once dark brown) with a style that I don’t think I ever had the pizazz to wear it with (oh the joys of the confidence of youth). I laughed at the sight of him not out of comedy but at the realization that the child I used to hand my fish laden fly rod too when he was nine years old had somehow morphed to a fly fisherman that at least looks the part. I laughed to myself at the thought that he at least looked the part so I must have done something right as I sat my fat butt on a rock at streams edge and critically watched him work for a while. His casts rolled out strong and graceful from his rod (a little 6’6” Madison 3wt Orvis that was at least thirty years his senior, yet he had dug out of the recesses of the rod closet and adopted as his own). I smiled at the grace of his casts and thought to myself at least he casts a good line……….. but can he fish
As I said before this was a braided section of fast riffles and runs where the fish held in bath tub sized holes where a well presented fly would be crushed but if you didn’t know what you were doing you could fish the whole stretch and never know a trout had ever even seen this water. Two casts later he laid a perfect cast right down the pike of an obvious hole and was rewarded with a slashing strike and a nice North Carolina stocker brookie. I smiled in satisfaction as I heard him give a soft whoop and thumbs up to his fishing partner both of which were completely oblivious to my presence. A dose of frog’s fanny later and a few screaming strips of line off an old young’s pridex reel and false casts were flying from the old Orvis. His cast landed just about a foot out of position which in most holes wouldn’t have been a big deal but for this one would have dragged right over where I knew a fish held and put him down for the night, But before I could even think that thought through in my own mind, Ricky had picked up the slightly errant cast and corrected it until it hit on the upper outside of the hole which meant the current would stretch it into the grass bank where I knew the fish would be laying and yet again I saw a slashing rise and saw a deeply arching rod and a smiling young man. Dang I thought………….. the boy is getting pretty good. Those two were not easy but they were obvious …….. or so I told myself as Ricky then took two steps deep into the current almost standing dead center where he had caught the first fish and turned to the far opposite bank where there was a small backwater eddy swirling around the front face of a cliff. It was one of those small pockets where we old veterans love to show the rookies the ropes by calling our shots where no one else seems to know where to cast or even that a trout might be in the area. Honestly I was so shocked that he had seen it that I didn’t know whether to root for success or failure but dang if his cast wasn’t exactly where I would have placed it if I could have waded out there and set it down where I had wanted it and dang if that big brown didn’t just slap the living daylights out of a perfect drift and there he was …..three fish in just as many potential lies.
As I watched him release the fish I could just see that soft satisfied smile on his face in the fading evening light that same smile that all of us truly addicted fishermen feel when we know we are “on” and the fishing is beyond what we could or should expect. He lit a cigarette after he released the fish and as he dressed his fly. Casting perfectly and hooking and playing yet another fish with it hanging loose and nonchalantly from his lips. I felt moved to scenes of the Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It”, marveling not only at his skill with his casts, his placement of the fly and his ability to locate and find the spots where the fish where holding but with his sense of style and obvious relish of the fishing and a true appreciation of the moment. Under the unobserved scrutiny of the old man’s eyes he proceeded to pick the next hundred yards or so of water apart. His cast were clean and precise not long and showy but with just enough length to get the fly where he wanted it to be with as little line on the water as possible. He found fish in all of the spots I knew he would and two out of spots I didn’t think existed, even though I had fished this stretch of water close to a hundred times.
He finally turned after releasing the last fish and caught site of me sitting on the rock, He beamed me a smile that all of us know……………. A smile of memories of fish caught but more important a smile of a perfect evening on the water. A smile in recognition of those perfect days where we knew the fishing was beyond our skill and our capabilities…………….. a day where we were just lucky enough to be on the water at the right time and at the right place, I flashed him a smile and a thumbs up …………… with enough emotion that I hoped it conveyed the depth of feeling that was rushing out of my psyche like the river that was rushing at my feet. I am not a bad fly fisherman after 40 years practice and am probably better than most but the display I had been lucky enough to witness had been masterful in all respects, locating the fish, casting to get the drift to them, quick effective hook sets, perfect fights to the reel and most importantly a respect for the fishing and for the fish……….and quite honestly I must admit I was a little in awe of the skill I had witnessed.
As I watched his face and read the satisfaction in his face I realized with a shock that my face must bear witness to a day some 22 years prior when my old man had sat on the banks of the Rio Grande with my mother after he had fished himself to a contented rest and watched my 28 year old self fish a few hundred yards of the that river. A day where I had picked the big river apart with more grace and success than I probably deserved but fortunately for us fishermen ………………..fish and the river never judge us on our merits but simply by our persistence. That was one of those day where I read the river’s secrets as if they were lite by “exit” signs pointing the way to each fish and my casts had mercifully fallen not where I had placed them but where I had hoped they would fall. I remembered my father’s face as he gave me a soft squeeze around my shoulder and the sound of his voice as he told me………”boy someday you may make a descent fly fishermen” ………………… so as my son walked up to me ……….. I stuck out my hand to shake his hand and as he grasped my hand I pulled him close and said………….. “dang son……. If you keep practicing you may make a fly fisherman yet” ……………………..