Fishing Pilgrimages Part 3 by Mark Usyk
After Nikki’s first trip to the farm and her first big fish on the fly, the following weekend I found myself back at the farm lake once more. This time, it was a family reunion of sorts, one that hadn’t happened in years and was questioned as to when we could ever make it happen again. My Grandfather on my Mother’s side was about to turn one-hundred years old, and since it’s something that only happens once in a hundred years, it was a big enough deal, bringing my younger sister and brother in from Washington State, meaning all four siblings were together for the first time in a few years. Since the birthday party was on Sunday and they’d flown in at eleven the night before, it gave us a day to spend all together at the farm. We’d all gone over the years, just not altogether. The last pictures I had of us all at the farm together were from a year when I’d moved back home from Florida. In them Joann was hoisting a bass out of the lake with a bent rod, and I believe she’d just graduated from high school. Without giving away her age, she’s now an Army veteran and mother of three living on the opposite side of the country. All four of us at the lake, with our father and my two boys, this was a big deal.
When I’d paddled Nikki around the lake the previous weekend it had been a blue sky, blazing sun day. Hot and bright. This weekend however wasn’t quite as pleasant. We didn’t care. The first thing we did once we reached the lake was string up a big green tarp from the Jeep’s roof rack to a willow tree, knowing the rain would be falling soon. While we laughed and caught up during the whole shelter building process, Jake was already standing on the shore with his spinning rod and catching his third bass. Apparently the weather wasn’t going to affect the fishing, at least it wasn’t yet. Cloudy skies and sprinkles. Boys don’t care about these things when they’re in magical places with fish to be caught. And like I’ve tried to teach them… The fish don’t care, they’re already wet.
Once the day camp was set up, canoes and kayaks pushed off away from the tall grasses, fishing rods began casting, and a happy kind of quiet set in. My brother and sister, only beginning to feel the three hour time change, stayed on land and started a fire in the old cast iron barn watering trough that we’d always had our fires in as long as I’d been alive. Matt sat and poked the fire just out from under the tarp while Joann stood on the shore and fished. Our other brother Luke, our Father, and me and my boys all spread out on the small lake and began to catch fish. The rain began to fall lightly, heavier than just a sprinkle now, and no one cared. I looked out on the lake past both my boys in front of me fishing in the rain without a care in the world and thought about time’s I’d done the same in this same place when I was either of their ages.
I couldn’t help but think about the overgrown pastures. About the gates that didn’t need closing anymore now that the cows had all been sold. About the idea that I’d known this place for almost my entire life and that now it was a reality, that all things end sooner or later, you just don’t know when. Sooner or later, this place would be sold, and it was anyone’s guess who the new owners would be and whether we’d be allowed to keep coming back to fish the lake, reliving old memories while making new ones, or if we’d find posted signs and unwelcomed glares.
The rain picked up. The fish kept biting, not all rainy days are bad.
When it was time for lunch Matt had the fire just right, and as with every meal ever cooked at the lake on a fire, it was cooked using a grate laid across the old trough, and he’d brought an old griddle to contain the bacon grease. Bacon and hot dogs for lunch. Like I said, this reunion was serious. Things were being done right.
While we stood around under the tarp cooking and eating as the bacon and dogs came off the fire, rain water was pooling up on the tarp. Every now and then someone would lift the center of the tarp with a large dead willow branch and water would come pouring down crashing around us, we’d laugh if someone got wet. I found myself more than once standing out away from the tarp looking out at the lake, picturing old trips in the past. The tiny peninsula where Jake had caught his bass from while we erected the tarp was where my grandfather and I had always sat back watching bobbers. Later, they’d had a small aluminum flat bottom boat down at the farm and they’d always make us take it up to the lake when we would stop to visit on our way in. Grandpa would row us around, he pick a spot and we’d sit on the lake and hang worms under bobbers in the deeper water. I’d caught my biggest largemouth ever out there when I was about Jake’s age. It was roughly sixty seconds after Grandpa had baited two hooks on one line and caught two bass at once.
Once I started bringing the boys we never really fished from the shore, I always brought a canoe. The peninsula had changed, the fishing not so good from it anymore except straight off its point. There had been a willow tree that stood and hung over the water off the right side of the peninsula, it had always been Grandpa’s side. I always fished the left. When he died, I came home from my duty station in Florida, but couldn’t make it to the lake. The next year I did, only when I arrived, I’d found the willow tree had fallen, and someone had cut it up and piled it up for camp wood. The weeds grew in where the tree once shaded, and the fishing was never the same in his spot, almost impossible from that time on. If I was a sentimental person, I may have taken it as a sign. Since I am, I did.
He’d told me once the history he knew of the lake, and when you have no other proof but the story coming from your grandfather, you have no reason to question it. You take it as fact, ignoring the fact that all fishermen lie, tell tales, or in the least exaggerate. I never knew him to do any of these things, so I hold what I remember him telling me of this place as fact for no other reason than all grandfathers know everything when it comes to fish and lakes.
He’d told me that the lake was man-made, fed from a spring, originally as a reservoir for the steam engines. At some point a fish and game club had controlled it and stocked it with trout. My father confirmed the trout stocking to me once when I asked him, he’d said trout was what he had caught as a kid, and that my great grandfather had even fly fished the lake for them. Eventually the fish and game club was gone and the bordering farms were left. From what I could tell it was two or three farms that kept the twelve acre lake locked in on private property, all but invisible and unknown to the public.
I looked back to everyone talking and laughing under the tarp in the rain. My brothers and sister, our father, my two boys. Five generations of my family had fished this lake and cooked their lunches and breakfasts and dinners where we stood. I was wishing that I’d been smarter about making and saving money over my life. If I’d been smart, I could have been the one buying the farm and keeping traditions alive. Lives are built on regrets as much as accomplishments, I don’t care who says any different.
Three days later, our grandfather on our Mother’s side turned 100yrs old. He’d always been the one to keep family together, to bring family back together when family got tough. I looked around the room, thinking about everyone being together again, and how we’d all got to go spend a day on the farm like in the old days, once again, because he’d brought us all together again. He was always good at that. Better than any of us. I guess that’s why his was called the greatest generation. They had a grasp on what was truly valuable in life.
We sat around looking through hundreds of old black and white photos of his life, and watched a video my uncle had made of him only a year earlier telling stories from his life on the road as a truck driver. At 99yrs old he’d still remembered the same stories he’d always told, right down to the towns and highways, telling us what highways he’d have taken back then before the interstate system had been built. A year later, he was having a hard time getting a single word out. He was hanging on to a thread, but I truly believe he wasn’t holding on for him. It was to bring us all together one last time. Twenty-two days later, he passed away.
He’d never been to the farm. He didn’t fish. The farm was on our Father’s side, not his. Yet now, his story has been woven into the farm lake as well. Because he brought my brothers and sister, and my son’s and their grandfather all home together, to the lake. He always brought everyone together.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. 61 short stories about life, where fishing happens. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase on this site, jprossflyrods.com. He is currently working on his next two books.