Why is it when a gust of wind catches a back cast and blows a 9-foot leader into the waiting arms of a cottonwood tree, there will be three things certain? First, the last pattern of the only working fly will be attached to the tippet. Second, the waiting limbs never simply catch the barbed hook. They will weave the line around every twig and leaf on the branch. And third, the branch will be above the best hole on the stream and well out of reach without a 16-foot extension ladder.
Sometimes such events are a clear sign that it’s time to call it a day and go home. There are other days and other fish to catch. Risking life and limb to retrieve a $1.50 dry fly seems a little out of reason, even for the diehard angler. Then again, if anglers were more prone to reason than chasing rainbows, they’d be golfers.
As a young boy, I spent untold hours on the banks of the creek in Little Lambs Canyon watching my father patiently unravel monofilament from the flora and fauna around which I had so cleverly placed it. Occasionally we would bring fish home at the end of the day, though I haven’t a clue how Dad ever found time to actually get his line wet. I assumed fishing was the process of tangling line in the bushes and watching my father retrieve it. I suppose he was so good at it because of the repeated opportunities I provided him for practice.
No matter how many times I caught the bushes, Dad would come running to give me another chance.
I see him still as he unbuckles his wicker creel and drops it in the shade of a dogwood tree. He leans his own rod across the fish-stained basket, pulls off his hat and wipes his brow with the sleeve of his tan cotton shirt.
He takes a deep breath and I wait for a stinging rebuke, but it never comes. He just takes my fishing pole from my hand, tugging gently to see where the tension of the snagged line sways the limbs above. Certain of the starting point, he systematically works his way from reel to ravel, untangling as he goes. When my line is clear, he unties a knot or two, checks the bait and points to the shade of a nearby tree.
“Hungry?” he asks as he settles into the cool grass. From his knapsack he retrieves an apple and a canteen. I just grin, because I know in the bottom of the knapsack is a Snickers candy bar. We’ll eat the apple, but it’s just a ruse to tease me a little. And we talk.
By the time I reached high school, my father had suffered through two heart attacks and his health was diminished. He was 50 years older than me. Between the heart and the age, we didn’t fish much anymore. I found it more and more convenient to tangle my lines with the guys on the football or basketball team and less with the man who found time to untangle my challenges by the side of a stream.
Time passes. Slow or fast, what we do with it matters less than those with whom we spend it. If we concern ourselves solely with getting the line back in the water, not stopping occasionally to spend time with those who mean most to us, we may find the water has passed under the bridge and passed us by.
Some years after my father passed away, I found myself alone on the stream below East Canyon Reservoir, fly rod in hand, fish in the creel and my favorite fly caught hopelessly in the branches of a weathered cottonwood tree. As I stretched the line to locate the snag, that morning in Lamb’s Canyon flashed before me. I knew I couldn’t reach the tangle. I looked around to be certain I was alone, then cupped my hand to my mouth and hollered, “Dad, I’m tangled again. Can you help me?”
The cool breeze filtered through the surrounding trees. The tumbling tune of the water around my waders played counterpoint to the cicadas humming melody in the tall grass near the bank. A frog belched once and was silent, waiting, as I did for a reassuring response.
Moving to the creek bank, I let the fly line spool out of the reel, leaving the snagged fly where it hung in the branches. Laying aside my fishing pole, I settled into the tall grass and pulled an apple from my knapsack. Then, placing it gently on the sod, I pulled a Snickers bar from my pocket, leaned back against a tree and listened as my father worked his magic in my mind.
You see, it’s not about fish or par or net worth. In the long run, money and makeup don’t matter as much as memories and mending fences. I don’t care how many fish my father caught or whether or not we got home in time for dinner. His willingness to untangle the lines between us allows him to speak to me long after I can no longer hear his words.
An unabashed fan of outdoor humorist Patrick F. McManus, Ed Smith is a freelance writer, golfer and fly fisherman from West Bountiful. He can be contacted at [email protected]