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