My experience with yard casting and my imaginary river was pleasant enough that I decided to give the real thing a try. So one wintry Saturday I boldly set off on my first fly fishing adventure as an adult. When I got to the river, a tailwater that happened to run right through Atlanta, I found it a far cry from the raging Rio Grande that I had grown up fishing. It was a large slow moving tailwater with crowds of people standing around drowning worms and dunking corn. I found an open stretch of water and began to flail the water with a size 12 grizzly wulff as that was the only way I knew to fish. As you might expect, it was an unproductive strategy for a winter’s day on a tailwater. As a matter of fact the only fish I came close to catching was the one that almost passed out from laughing at my clumsy presentations. But I did get a few hours of nothing, that is right nothing, absolutely nothing going on in my head. My troubles with my personal and professional life were temporarily silenced by the sound of the water as it flowed past and the pleasant pull of the current on my legs. That few minutes of mental silence and shelter from my troubles were a pleasure beyond description. As I drove back to the house I felt calmed and relaxed in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. I hugged the kids on my return, heck I even hugged my wife and at that point in our life that was a rarity. The contentment didn’t last long but it had been there, even if just for a moment.
Yet once again I lost myself in work and forgot about fishing. The dreams however continued, one short fishing trip was not enough to settle the subconscious unrest in my soul. The image of my Grandfather that haunted my dreams became more insistent about that bamboo rod and about something else, something intangible that was missing in my life. He was so insistent that I gave in and took time out of my corporate climb to drag myself on my next fly fishing trip. It was a cold trip, winter fishing has its hazards but the crowds were reduced and almost non-existent. I had a few hundred yards of stream all to myself and the day was gorgeous with a bright winter sun burning a faded hole through a cold liquid blue sky. The water was a flat gunmetal color broken with slivers of refracted sunlight. The cold of the water bit through my waders and woke up every nerve ending in my body. Leaving me almost breathless as my body adjusted to the temperature and my mind settled into the flow and rhythm of the river and of the fishing. The rod felt as if it belonged in my hand. My fingers nestled in the hollow indentations made years before I was even born, connected me somehow to something meaningful … my history. The rod and line were like extensions of my own arms. The casts rolled out in fluid waves, the bright colors of the line highlighted by the muted winter colors of the sky and river. It felt good just being on the water and out of the house. Once again my head cleared. My personal troubles and dilemmas ceased to exist for a little while and I was able to relax and think of nothing save the flowing world around me. I fished this way for several hours, not productively but happily. Finally I tired, deciding to sit down on the bank to rest for awhile. I sat examining the rod and thinking about my grandfather. I felt close to him in a way that was strange considering that I had never met him but I felt him next to me nonetheless. It was a comforting feeling like a child recognizing his father’s snoring through the frights of the night and understanding instinctively and subconsciously that they are protected and safe. It was a peace of mind that comes from a connection with those you love and those who love you as well, a connection of FAMILY. As I was sitting there contemplating that concept my eyes were absently scanning the mass of gray blue water sliding swiftly past me, not really seeing anything specific not really even focusing at all, when the shadowy shape of a trout rose and took form out of the camouflage of the riverbed. It was as if this fish had suddenly materialized by magic right before my eyes. As I watched the beautiful rainbow finning slowly in the current the parallels of his miraculous appearance compared to my own life’s problems became apparent. Where moments before I hadn’t seen any sign of life in the river or any answers to my personnel problems, here suddenly was a living flash of silver finning clearly in the shadowy current. Maybe the answers to the unhappiness in my soul were hiding camouflaged somewhere within me, hiding in plain sight just like that rainbow. The answer somehow materialized just as miraculously as that fish had. I needed, no HAD to have the comfort and security of my family. My mad dash up the corporate ladder had created a distance in my family that could potentially cost me the only thing in my life that was really important, my family. As that realization sank in I felt the world on my shoulders shift and lighten. The darkness that had held my soul suddenly lightened just slightly like the faint light of a false dawn creeping slowly over a hilltop. Suddenly I thought I knew what really mattered and what was truly important.... and it dang sure wasnt career and the corporate world. The only thing that was going to make me happy was building my family the way a family should be built .... I relaized that love and time could get me there. Across the span of time and the distance of lifetimes, somehow, somewhere I felt my grandfather smile and it warmed me through the chill of the day, even the chill of the river and for the first time in a long time my soul was smiling with him.
I would love to say that I miraculously became a better father and husband, but I didn’t. However, I certainly had a better understanding of what was important to me, deep in my soul and I began to try much harder at fulfilling those duties. I began to rebuild my life and my relationships to try and take advantage of my new perspective on life and my growing addiction to fly fishing. I began to look forward to my time on the water, not that I was becoming a great fisherman, **** I wasn’t catching many fish, but fly fishing seemed my only chance outside of my family to capture a small sliver of peace of mind. Despite my failings as a fisherman I continued to fish. Savoring those few hours every couple of weeks when I held that old rod in my grasp and felt the comfort of the worn time hewn grip in my hand, and the tug of the current against my legs. I slowly began to believe that fly fishing was a “well” for my soul, filled with cool water memories that could be used to put out the stress filled fires of my everyday life. At first it was the challenge of just catching a fish, then it became the challenge of catching big fish but the best part of all was that regardless of whether or not I caught fish I gained clarity about what was happening in my life. Rivers eventually gave way to small streams tucked deep in the backcountry of the southern Appalachians and big trout were replaced by small feisty native southern “specs”. Those hours on the stream provided a chance to get to know me again helping me achieve a fuller perspective on what was important in my life. The no win situation of balancing work, career and family began to lose its complexity. Watching the water flow around me while following the drift of my fly I finally decided that the corporate ladder that I was trying so hard to ascend wasn’t the direction I wanted my life to follow at all. I suddenly began to feel the long arduous task of re-establishing a relationship with my family was the single most important priority that I had and truly deserved all of my focus and attention.
Slowly over time, my work, my family and my life on the river began to balance. Both the fishing and the recovery of my family were on going processes, as good things are never easy. I felt like I was becoming a fisherman that my grandfather would be proud of but more importantly I was finally becoming a father and family man that my grandfather could be proud of. As I spent more time in the company of my family and fast moving clear cold water the demons that had been tormenting my soul began to fade. As those demons faded so did the dreams of wasted opportunities and lost time. My grandfather’s spirit became less vocal in my subconscious though no less present in my heart and soul. It was as if his spirit was becoming as restful as my own spirit was growing to be. I knew that somewhere in that plane of existence where old souls dwell, he was resting easier knowing that he had helped lead me toward what was truly important in life, not an artificial chase for power and prestige. A simple stick of bamboo and cork wrapped in thread combined with a lost generation of collective memory had somehow shown me the way to come back from the brink of losing myself and my family on a career path of destruction. Somehow the old worn cork grip of a time ravaged bamboo fly rod had held the values and keys that guided my soul and my family back together. To this day I truly believe that my heart and soul was saved by a simple bamboo stick that had been passed down from generation to generation, just like our love of family and fly fishing.
As i read this now some 15 years later ...... those thoughts and feeling still feel fresh .... yet my wife and i recently celebrated our 25th anniversary and my oldest is in college and my bity baby boy is a 6"2" 225 junior in high school ......... but we are indeed a family that I am proud of....... oh well lessons learned are what makes us who we are........ even if i am still a "sorry excuse" for a fly fisherman ........ i will just have to keep practicing.