Fishing is just fishing. That’s how I look at it. It’s the greatest thing in the world that you can do, but it’s still just fishing. If you try to make it more than that then you lose something in its simplicity as far as I’m concerned, trying to make it more than what it is. Which is me, a fly rod, a line with a hook, and hopefully a smart fish having a bad day or a stupid fish in the right place at the right time. If you try to make it the cure for cancer or the answer to world peace you’re going to be disappointed. It won’t cure cancer and doesn’t hold half the merit as the actual cure that someone is going to discover someday. And world peace is an impossible idea, my basis for that one being the fact that we’ve been killing each other over trivial matters since our primitive minds could grasp the idea of grasping a rock. Although I will say that fly fishing has a way better chance of bringing on world peace if we could just get everyone on a piece of water with a rod in their hand at the same time, and get them to just all shut up and cast in peace and quiet.
But fishing being just fishing is one of the best ideals I’ve ever settled on in my 43 years on this planet. It’s given me some of my favorite memories, some of my best moments, and taught me more lessons than I’ve most likely realized I’ve learned.
Some things are out of my control. Slow down and smell the roses. Breath, you’re still alive and it could be worse. There’s only been a couple times I thought to myself that I was only one step away from it not possibly being able to get any worse, and even though I tried to find the answer, or avoid the obvious answers, in whiskey bottles, walking to some water and making some casts slowed my mind down enough to, well, slow my mind down at least if nothing else. And that’s usually the best place to start when I find myself in one of those places. I’m beginning to wonder if what I feel sometimes isn’t what other people refer to as anxiety, while other times I know damn well it’s depression getting the better of me. It really doesn’t matter what you call any one mood or mind set to me when it comes down to it, it’s what you do to handle it. I used to throw things. Wrenches. Beer bottles. Punches. Now I throw streamers and sometimes even dries. And teaching my kids how to deal with emotions and life is something I realized over the past year or so that I needed to get better at. Something about divorce and your boys looking at you differently because you don’t live with them anymore changes everything. I used to be busy when they wanted to do stuff a lot of the time. Now I push stuff to the side for them. It should’ve always been like that, but I guess it takes some kind of life changing event sometimes to open your eyes.
Jake called me one day last winter and asked if I’d help him with a DYI project for school. I of course said yes without any thought, but I do remember wondering if he’d have asked for the help before we lived in two separate houses and didn’t see each other every single day. He seemed to look for excuses to do things with me more than he had in the past. Maybe it was me mellowing out and getting easier to be around, maybe it was more that I didn’t tuck him in every night anymore and he was looking for those things that could bring us together more, or maybe he just needed help and I was looking into it too much. Maybe I analyze things too much. I don’t know.
When I asked him what he had to do, he told me he had to make something, and write a how-to article with pictures. It sounded simple enough. I’ve seen enough “how to tie such and such fly” tutorials that I figured it wouldn’t be that much work, until I asked him what he wanted to do. “Can we build a fly rod?” I laughed. Maybe a little because it was an awesome request but mostly because he’d just told me that a lot of kids make slime. I called in a favor to a rod builder I know, and the following week JP talked Jake through the build of a 5’ 2wt. I took the pictures.
Up until the time I took a job as a maintenance man in a production plant a few years ago I was a guy who could build just about anything with my hands. I was a metal shaper, a black smith, and a fabricator for years. But I gave it all up for a “normal” job and I’m sorry to admit that I’ve never passed any of that “you can build anything” mentality or knowledge onto either of my boys. Seeing Jake take instruction from JP on how to line up guides, how to fit a handle to a blank, set a reel seat, keep all the details in check, it was a proud Dad moment that didn’t involve Dad teaching him anything other than to listen to the guy who knew what he was doing. He ended up with an A+ on the project of course, and as a bonus, he ended up with his first fly rod. And unlike my first rod or most anyone’s, he’d built his. But for all of last year whenever we went fishing I never forced him to use it. He was always content to fish an ultra-light spinning reel with the jigs I’d taught him to tie. I was just happy to have him and his little brother fishing with me. I told them both when they wanted to learn all they had to do was say so.
A couple weeks ago they were staying the weekend with me and out of the blue Jake asked if we could go fishing, and specifically if he could use his fly rod. I was thrilled, naturally. That day Jake wanted to fish, but Carter only wanted to hike, so we compromised, and I took them on a hike where Jake could fish.
Jake started out sloppy and without any real understanding of anything more than waving a stick in the air, which is the way a lot of people start. I gave him some coaching, but didn’t try to come off as a teacher. I knew eventually, with the right key instructions on just a couple details that he’d sooner or later “get it.” And about a half hour after standing on a boulder, beneath a pine on the edge of a stream up north suddenly I saw it click in his head. And instead of big lazy loops circling like a baton twirlers ribbons, all of a sudden he was shooting the line over his shoulder. It suddenly felt right to him. He got it. It was awesome. And then I looked over to my left through the trees and saw Carter starring back at me between the crotch of two branches… With my brook trout net over his head like a psycho looking to rob a convenient store. I laughed. The kid is my son, what more can be said?
The following week Jake wanted to go fishing again, use the fly rod some more, and I knew this time he had to catch fish to stay interested. So we drove ten minutes to my brother Luke’s place and stood on the bank of a little pond out next to a corn field, muddy and still full of the rows of cut stalks from last year’s crop. On one side a willow tree over hung the pond, shading about half of it. I saw the sunfish dart away from the edge as we walked up to it, “perfect” was what told myself quietly. Luke had told me all you had to do was cast to this one spot on the end and you could reel in fish after fish, hungry little bluegills and pumpkinseeds that never failed to put a smile on kids’ faces.
And so I set Jake up in one spot and told him to just start casting, a small wooly bugger looking thing tied to the end of his leader, and told Carter to take his spinning rod and start casting to another place. Jake’s casts landed alright, good enough to catch scrappy little sunfish, and he would slowly strip it back in, but after about ten casts he still hadn’t felt a tug. And of course Carter had one on his spinning reel within the first three or four casts. I moved Jake to where Carter had caught his, and on Jake’s next cast the little 2wt bent and danced and an excited 14yr old proclaimed “I got one!” I told him how long it had taken me to catch my first fish on a fly rod, about 4 months longer than him, and then I told him that he not only had done it faster than me, but he’d built his own rod to do it too. Something I’ve never done yet. Built a rod and then caught a fish on it.
You might think that was my proud Dad moment for the day, but it only got better. I’d brought another rod, a 10’6” 4wt, and as Jake went back to casting his fly rod I looked over at Carter. I could see a little interest, and the question in his eyes. I asked him if he wanted to try it and he leaned his spinning rod against a rock. He’d made good casts in the yard last year so it was a simple quick refresher for him, and in a handful of casts he’d done what his older brother had done, because his older brother had done it.
Proud Dad moments. I don’t remember much of either of them when they were babies, but I remember watching Jake on the floor laying under one of those baby things that you lay them under. It was an arch, and it had little toys, stuffed animals and rings hanging over his head. He was a tiny baby and up until that moment he just starred at everything. I can remember the very first time he focused on one of those toys and worked so hard to make his arms raise to touch one. Such a simple task for anyone else, such a huge thing to witness that day.
I remember the first fish Carter ever caught by himself. It was a smallmouth bass on the barge canal, and when it took his jig he thought he was snagged and handed the rod to me. I felt the fish and jammed the spinning rod back into his hands and laughed and yelled for him to reel it in, that he had a fish, not a rock. And I can still see his face as he held it up afterwards, one hand around its tail, the other holding its bottom lip with a thumb in its mouth, like he’d done it a hundred times before. With the brightest glowing smile he’s ever had.
And I’ll never forget Jake, one day while we watched The Empire Strikes Back turning to me during the scene where Han flies the Millennium Falcon out of the giant worm’s mouth and asking me “What do you think is better? Star Wars or Indiana Jones?” I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see the tear in my eye.
All proud Dad moments. And now that day Jake caught his first fish on the fly rod he built, followed up by Carter doing the same a moment later because his brother did it. Fishing has a lot to teach. I don’t know that I’ve been the greatest teacher, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t for a long time. But knowing what I’ve learned from fishing, and passing that on, I’ve got to believe, and hope, that it’s the equivalent to passing on some type of great secret formula. Not the cure to cancer, not the answer to world peace, just fishing. Wonderful, glorious, most awesome, just fishing.
Mark Usyk just recently released his second book, Carp Are Jerks. A book about life, where fishing happens. His books are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies are ready for purchase on this site, JPRossflyrods.com