We bounced along the faint dirt path in my father's old fishing car; an old panel truck that my father had converted into a fly fishing den on wheels. In the back was a portable fly tying cabinet, holders for rods, and a wooden cabinet for the storage of reels, fly boxes and the like. On the roof was a rack that carried a canoe when we were going to fish one of the local lakes or farm ponds. If we were going camping the old fishing car would carry all our camping gear; tent, lantern, camp stove, cooking utensils, and grub. When dad was out fishing that old car was a home away from home.
I was an only child and that was always a mystery to me since both my father and mother loved children. It was only years later that I learned my mother had nearly died when I was born and father vowed that he would never put my mother in that position again. They poured their life into me and all the other kids in our small community. Our house was always buzzing with kids from all around the neighborhood and most of the kids thought of my parents as their second parents.
Dad taught school in a small town deep in the heart of trout country. He said that he decided to become a teacher so that he could have the summers off to fish and that's what he did. My father was an excellent teacher and over the years turned down many offers to teach at large schools with a more generous salary but that would have required us to move away from the trout streams and the wild country that he loved. "Life," he would say, "is about more than money." He believed it and he lived it until the end.
One of my dad's strongest character traits was his organizational skills. I have always attributed my nearly compulsive need for organization an attribute that I acquired from my dad. "Everything has a place and if you use it put it back," was a reminder I heard hundreds of times when I was growing up. Everything from the tools in the garage to the materials in his fly tying cabinet all had a special place, their specific place marked with hand printed labels. If you wanted to get a tongue lashing from my dad just use something and fail to put it back.
My father was also a ritualist of sorts, not in a religious fashion but in a manner of doing things. This was especially true when it came to fly fishing. The fishing car was always loaded with all the fly fishing gear that might be needed for any fly fishing expedition. However, dad would always have to "check" to make certain that everything was there before leaving the driveway. Since he always put everything back in its place the need to check everything seemed strange to me but it was part of dad's fly fishing ritual.
When we would arrive at our destination the first thing dad would do was to stretch and clean his fly line. This I attributed to the fact that his first fly lines were silk and they required cleaning and dressing before each use, and although he no longer used silk lines the ritual of cleaning and dressing remained. While the line was drying he would carefully inspect his leader, which was hand-tied, for any nicks or rough spots. If he was satisfied that the leader was sound he would reel up the line, mount the reel on his rod and string the rod for use. He always double checked to make certain that when he ran the line through the guides that he had not missed one. I never knew him to miss one but he always checked. Our waders were always hung in a cool dark closet in the basement and they had been inspected before we left home.
Dad had an iron fast rule that we never tied a fly on our leader until we got to the water and observed what the fish were doing. Even though dad knew all the hatches and what would most likely be happening on any of the waters that we fished he would never attach a fly on his leader until he took time to observe. We would walk to the water and, finding a suitable spot, we would observe. Sometimes the observation time was short since it was obvious what the fish were doing and why, but other times we might sit for a long period of time or move to several different places before dad was satisfied what the proper approach would be that day. "Next to proper presentation observation is the key to being a successful fly fisher," he would say. To this day, whenever I approach the water those words still echo in my ears.
Dad loved fishing dry flies more than anything else but he was not averse to using a wet fly, nymph or a streamer when his observations concluded that dry flies were not going to be productive. "The fish decide how I fish," was his simple answer to his choice of fishing methods and dad was a master angler. His flies, which he tied himself, had been refined from years of fishing the local waters. He had a certain distant for most commercially tied flies. "I tie flies to catch fish and not fishermen," he would chuckle. "They may not be pretty but they have never failed to fool the fish." Although he might not have thought that his flies were "pretty" each one was well proportioned; they were flies that any experienced angler would be proud to have in their fly box.
Dad had one ritual that puzzled me for many years when I was growing up. At the end of each day of fishing we would stretch our fly lines out and take a soft cloth and thoroughly dry them before winding them back on the reel. Rods would be disassembled and placed in their proper rod tubes. Any mud or other debris on our waders would be washed off and upon arrival at home or at our campsite they would be hung upside down in a cool dry place to air out and completely dry. Once all the gear was properly put away dad would walk down to the water, fold his hands behind his back and stand there for several minutes. His head would move slowly from side to side and when he came back to the fishing car he was always very quiet. It was on one of the last trips that I made with my father before I left home that I finally asked him about this ritual. He was quiet for several minutes, as if composing his thoughts, and then he motioned for me to follow him. We walked to the edge of the stream that we had just finished fishing and after a long pause he said, "First I give thanks for being given time to spend a day in God's creation and next I want to lock in my memory this day and this place. During the cold days of winter I will play back this day in my mind and when the day comes when I can no longer do these things I hope that the memories of these days will bring a small bit of sunshine into my day."
Life took me far away from that small town in the heart of trout country and the times I got home to fish with dad were far too few and far between but the rituals never changed. We would fire up the old fishing car and soon we would be bouncing down some barely discernable dirt track to one of dad's special spots. We would stretch and clean our lines, inspect our leaders and when we arrived at the water we would observe. When the day was done we would reverse the procedure and then we would walk back to the water, fold our hands behind our backs and giving thanks for the day we would take it all in one last time.
Dad died a few years back now and every time I finish stowing my gear in the old fishing car I walk down to the water's edge, fold my hands behind my back and, taking it all in, I give thanks for the day. I'm storing a memory to sustain me during the colder days of life.