A trout can turn the tables
By Craig J. Heimbuch
The reeds were chest-high and the ground an uneven slosh of mud and empty holes. I had already sunk in to my knees and was worried about my dad somewhere downstream. He was 67 and four months out of open-heart surgery. He told me he felt good and wouldn’t try to do anything he didn’t think he should. Still, I felt responsible for him. That feeling was foreign and it lingered throughout the day.
We were wearing waders and vests, tromping our way upstream on northern Michigan’s Manistee River, near the headwater where it splits off from the Au Sable to form the twin spires of the Midwest’s best fly fishing region. I had been promising him I would teach him how to catch a trout on a fly line since I had taught myself how to do it nearly two decades earlier. And this—a hot, sunny July day—was finally the time. All I had to do was avoid killing him first.
One of my earliest memories is of fishing with my dad. It was on a lake in north-central Wisconsin, not far from where I was born, and early in the morning. The sun was just rising above the dense forest, which was black in silhouette, and we were sitting in a tiny aluminum boat. Dad was baiting my hook—more than likely leaches—and wearing a red wind-breaker. It’s the first of hundreds of memories of fishing with my dad as a kid on lakes big and small, where he was the captain and I was his mate.
I took up fly fishing on my own. No one in my family—save for an aunt in Alaska—did it. I found myself drawn in by the minutiae: the gear, the strategy, the fact that you fly fish standing in water instead of floating on it. I begged for a rod for Christmas and began casting in the street for hours at a time, practicing my delivery before ever getting near a stream.
I’ve continued to fly fish into adulthood. Fishing trips with my dad have become more and more rare. Still, he’d promised to let me teach him several times over the years and, after buying his gear piece-by-piece for him and finally convincing him to load it into his Tahoe and come with me, I found myself in the Manistee, just hoping for a trout.
I’d shown Dad the basics of casting and outfitted a small fly box for him. I knew he’d practiced casting with the rod I’d given him and, as he came around the bend in the river, I felt relieved. He looked calm, relaxed, not at all like he was about to keel over from a heart attack or heat stroke.
We were on the inside edge of a gentle bend, just downstream from a small riffle. On the far bank, an overhang of fallen timber made a shady spot in the bright sun and the slightly rushing, crystal clear water made it a perfect place for a trout to lurk and swim passively waiting for food.
“Is that what we’re looking for?” Dad asked. He was standing to my right, speaking softly. “It looks pretty good to me.”
“What should I tie on?” He pulled out his small fly box and I selected a large floating ant. We’d missed the hatches on the Manistee, so we needed a big enough bug to get the attention of whatever might be in that shadow. He tied the knot like I had shown him and began stripping line, estimating the length of cast he’d need to reach the spot.
He got tangled in the reeds around us on a back cast and left a couple of his first casts well short of the other side of the river, 25 or 30 feet away.
“Relax,” I said. “Just remember not to jerk. Be definitive but not pushy with it.”
He took in my advice and rethought his approach. On his fifth cast, the fly presented itself perfectly and began floating toward the shadow.
“Mend the line,” I said. “Don’t jerk.”
He remained focused, determined. The nine-inch brown trout attacked in a violent swirl of wash and noise, coming completely out of the water and slapping back down again. I spoke instructions, my heart fluttering with excitement as Dad tended to his first catch on a fly line. “Tip up!” “Strip with the left and keep tension with your right index finger!”
The fish flopped and I helped Dad take it off the tiny fly hook. He held it for a long moment, examining it. In more than six decades fishing, it was his first trout. I felt a mix of pride and memory, as delicate and intricate as a fly cast, well into my heart. I tried to imagine if he felt something like this when I caught my first fish back on that lake in Wisconsin. It was only later that I realized I’d done something I never thought I would do: teach my dad how to do something. He was as great a student as he had always been a teacher…
And I didn’t kill him.
Fly Fishing Resources
Craig J. Heimbuch is a seasoned fly fisherman and the author of two books: Chasing Oliver Hazard Perry (about exploring his childhood backyard of Lake Erie) and the recently published And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (about understanding the hunting culture of his large Midwestern family).