Live and Learn

The perks of learning to fly fish: king salmon in Alaska.

I learned to fly fish in the summer of my 16th year. My father taught me while we were in Utah for my older brother’s wedding. We used a private, stocked pond that had no trees or anything else to interfere with my neophyte casts, and I was spoiled by catching huge, western trout well before I had any right to believe I had even the slightest inkling of what I was doing.

My father taught me as well as he was able given that it had been a good 20 years or more since he’d last been fly fishing. Prior to the invasion into his life of three kids in three years starting just prior to his 42nd birthday, my father had fished all over the world, according to stories I heard in my youth. He’d even turned down a PR gig with a fishing company that would have enabled him to get paid to enjoy the best fishing on Earth. “Don’t let your avocation be your vocation,” was the reason he gave for staying in newspaper journalism. That truism became ingrained in me as a result, and now that I’m older I find myself disagreeing with the sentiment.

In any case, I got a couple of hours of tuition in fly casting that August in Utah and returned home to figure out the rest of the art on the small New England trout found in the tree-lined ponds on my prep school campus.

So while there was none of that “In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” sentiment that opens Norman Maclean’s classic A River Runs Through It, there was at least a lineage that was handed down from one generation to the next. In later years, my father would join me on a couple of fishing trips on the Green River in northeastern Utah, one of America’s premier fly fishing waters. The trips were my attempt in adult life to find a common ground on which we could exist as individuals and yet share a deeply rooted experience between father and son. Because beyond fly fishing all we really ever had in common was hockey, and once I was no longer in the running for a life in that sport my father and I drifted ever farther apart.

Which is why I found it so poignant reading the writings of Dana Lamb, an outdoors writer from the mid-20th century. A friend shared a book of Lamb’s with me recently and I was transfixed by some of the short columns I read. The theme of finding continuity in the face of changing times ran through all the pieces, and Lamb’s evocation of the universality of a river despite irrestible outside forces was both comforting and upsetting at the same time. Lamb’s writing provided living examples of the philosophy from Heraclitus that no one steps into the same river twice.

Particularly strong among Lamb’s stories were those highlighting that changing of hands between generations that John Mellencamp called “so sad and glorious.” It was while getting choked up reading those stories of multiple generations encountering the same river — in name at least — that I realized that other than location and DNA, my father and I might as well be from different planets. Which is ironic since we attended the same college, we worked in the same profession and we fanatically played the same sport. But in reality, my father and I share almost nothing.

Maybe if I’d had a family of my own my father and I would have that most elemental of experiences over which to bond. But that didn’t happen and it didn’t happen in large part because I didn’t want to continue that disconnected and impersonal family life in which my father raised his kids. And now he and I find ourselves where we are now: sharing a house while living a million miles apart and having essentially zero contact.

As I read Lamb’s collection, I was jealous of fathers and sons fishing together, of guides passing on their knowledge to their sons who became guides themselves. And that made me jealous of those friends of mine who have strong family bonds and powerful relationships with their fathers.

Ironically, the book was given to me by a friend whose father died when my friend was just a boy. Mike joined my father and me on one of those Green River trips, and the two of them really connected over their common experience in newspapering. At the time I felt blessed that I’d had my father beyond my 12th or 13th year, and was honored that I could give my friend a taste of the kind of father-son fishing trip that Lamb wrote about. But today, looking at the father-son relationships that some friends of mine are now passing on to their boys, I realize that my upbringing was more like Mike’s, I just didn’t realize it. And though I tried with those fishing trips in the ’90s, and again in the past year or so as my father has been infirm, no connection was ever really possible.

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