I’ve been thinking about my dad lately. His birthday was in April and he loved spring and the promise offered of a new fishing season.
He’d get excited this time of year and start talking about the trout opener and how when he was a boy his dad had taken the kids to Kings Canyon in the High Sierra. He whined about how cold it was and that they nearly froze while sleeping in their rented cabin, even though they were all wearing long underwear.
That seemed pretty darned cold to me, a Southern California boy for whom layering up for winter meant having to wear, at Mom’s insistence, a T-shirt under my button-down dress shirt when I caught the bus for school in the morning.
Dad promised we’d make that trip some day, but it never worked out. The old man worked hard, and my brothers and I played sports. It was tough to find time.
Dad did take us fishing, and every once in a while we’d actually catch something. That was good enough. Those fishless days spent bobbing in an aluminum boat in Big Bear Lake are right up there with the best memories I have of my misspent youth, eclipsed only by my recollections of a girl or two from the old neighborhood. But those memories were forged after I’d put fishing aside, at least temporarily, when I reached high school.
I was drawn back to the water during my college days. I was thinking I might like to give fly fishing a try, and while thumbing through a magazine I stumbled across a headline, “Zen and the Art of Nymphing,” that spoke to the very-serious, much-too-full-of himself young writer I was trying to become.
Sorry for this, but I was hooked.
I started fly fishing, got pretty decent at it, then started pestering Dad to join me. He wasn’t all that interested and usually replied with an invite to go fishing with him. But Dad was a bait fisherman, and very serious young fly fisherman writer types don’t do bait fishing.
Eventually I relented, and he returned the favor. That first fly fishing trip was in the middle of summer when conditions weren’t good. Dad didn’t land a fish that day, but he seemed to have fun standing knee deep in the tepid current of the mountain stream that served as my home water back then. The trout, small wild rainbows and browns, occasionally rose languidly to his fly. Like a lot of newbies, he struggled with the timing of a proper hook set, either pulling the fly away in anticipation as he saw the fish on the rise, or waiting too long and giving the trout a chance to get off.
“I like it. There’s a lot of action,” he repeated as we drove home. We promised we’d do it again, soon. Maybe in the fall when the weather cooled.
That was just before I left California for good and headed for Montana. The offer to write sports for a small newspaper was unexpected, and I had to move north before the fall season started. Dad and I never again made it to the stream.
Twenty years later I’ve still not been back to Deep Creek.
Dad went rather quickly, but it wasn’t all that much of a surprise. He was an asbestos worker by trade and smoked a pack or two of non-filter cigarettes most days, a habit he picked up on the job because smokers got an extra “smoke” break after lunch. Could there be a more perverse construct, creating incentives for asbestos workers to smoke? In any case, the actuary tables for Dad didn’t reach far into the future.
Regret can be a poison that consumes from within. There’s nothing to be gained from trying to undo what’s already done, or kicking yourself for choices made long ago. Still, this time of year, it’s hard to push aside the lingering regret that we didn’t find time to fish the stream one last time so maybe he could catch his first trout on a fly.
If there’s anything in this life I could do over, that would be it.
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