I was set up under the awning of the new JP Ross venture, the Trail Marker camper, at the Guys Expo at the Saranac Brewery in Utica. It was a fairly hot day as mid-September days go in Upstate NY, the kind that can make you forget it’s actually fall and the leaves are beginning to turn. Indian Summer is what we like to refer to weather this late in the year up here. I don’t know why. I suppose I could Google it, if it’s on the internet it must be true.
I’d been asked to set up some kind of interactive display, something to do with fly fishing, and I must have been drunk or over tired when I said I’d rope off an area and let people try and cast a fly rod. It’s not that I had doubts that it could work, it’s just that I don’t see myself good enough to give anyone else any advice. I have my good days, don’t get me wrong, but to explain the mechanics of a cast to someone trying to learn would mean that I’d have to understand it. I don’t, I just cast. Sometimes I cast well, sometimes well enough, and other times I figure I must look something like a chimpanzee trying to imitate a human. But it was a day selling and signing books, talking fly fishing, and a sip of Jim Beam on the rocks every now and then, so there really wasn’t much to complain about other than casting and not actually being on the water. I guess you can’t always have it all.
I’ve done a couple book signings and small shows now, so I’m getting better, or at least a little more comfortable talking to people in public about this whole fly fishing thing, but I still wouldn’t say I can draw a crowd and keep it. But most of us don’t like crowds anyhow, it’s one of the reasons we fly fish to begin with isn’t it? Anyways, I found myself throughout the day talking to people who’d fly fished for a long time, and people who’d never tried it but were intrigued enough by the small collection of flies and streamers on my table to take up a conversation. Every now and then, the conversation would include the old I’ve always wanted to try but never have which would be my cue. Well come over here with me and you can try it now.
One of my favorites were a brother and sister probably close to my own boy’s ages. The sister wanted to go first, but her over excitement got the better of her. She just couldn’t get the pause in the cast to let the line unroll behind her, and she’d immediately blast a forward cast ending with the line piling up in front of her. Her little brother, probably a couple years younger and half her size seemed to have the knack and could lay out a half ways decent cast after about five tries. His smile and his father’s matched as he handed the 3wt back to me. That was the kind of thing I’d hoped for when I’d agreed to set up at the show.
At one point in the day I turned to see Bill Keeler standing next to me checking out the camper. Bill is a local radio show host, and I knew he was a fisherman because a couple weeks prior I’d been on the show with my buddy Dale Coria talking about what I was going to be doing at the Expo. So when I found him standing next to me I asked him if he’d ever fly fished. When he said no I told him there was no time like the present to try it out. Now I’m not saying Bill couldn’t do it, I’m just saying that everyone has their days, and it just wasn’t his. We laughed about it anyhow.
But as he handed me the rod back I felt a hand on my elbow and turned to find an older gentleman in a wheelchair with his daughter behind him. With a stubby unshaven face of light gray and tinted prescription glasses he looked up at me with a smile and tried to say something. “I’d like…” He didn’t finish his sentence but nodded his head positively. “You’d like to try?” He smiled bigger and nodded some more. “Yes!”
I asked him if he’d ever done it before and his response came in much the same way as his first try. He told me yes, switching from smiles to frustration as he tried to turn the thoughts in his head into words passing his lips. His daughter would lean in and try to help him, all the while telling him that he was doing very well, getting better at talking again. She told me his name was Steve. He’d smile as most of a sentence would come, so happy and proud to be conversing with a stranger, only to have the last words come up short and his eyes close in searching concentration. I could only imagine it’d been a stroke or something similar that had brought him to the wheelchair and hard speech. I placed the delicate 3wt in his hand.
With the line laid out twenty feet in front of him all he really needed to do was come up with the one single motion of lifting the line off the ground and sending it back over his shoulder to load the back cast. But his muscles weren’t up to the task to match his will. His first attempt ended with him simply raising the rod to twelve o’clock, dragging the line with it, and then a faint forward cast that had the beginnings of a roll cast but never got past the idea. I laid the line out in front of him again and he managed the same thing once again, nothing more. I could see the absolute frustration on his face. Feeling a panic inside me for some reason, I acted. “Let me help you.”
I made a roll cast, laid the line out in front of him, and placed the rod back in his hand. Then I placed my hand over his, and together we made a more or less graceful cast, the little lime green hook less dry fly on the end of the leader floating to the pavement. I let go of his hand and straightened myself up standing at his side. “There you go, how did that feel?” His words came faster, but with more difficulty. What I could gather was that he hadn’t fished in quite a long time, and his daughter said that as he got more excited, he had a much harder time talking. His thoughts came to quickly, much faster than his speech could keep up with. He wore a smile of complete happiness as he looked at the rod in his hand.
I thought he was trying to ask me about the feather inlayed near the inscription on the rod, but it turned out he was trying to ask me who had built the rod. When I told him it was a JP Ross rod, he managed to get out “Say hello to JP for me” with a huge smile. I pointed to Jordan over by the camper and told him he was right there, that he could say hello himself. He grabbed my arm as he handed the rod back and could hardly get out thank you in what I thought was his excitement to find Jordan there. As his daughter pushed him towards Jordan another woman I’d talked to earlier stepped up with a smile expressing that she wanted to try, and so I half hollered to Jordan, pointing to Steve to give him one of my books. I got the thumbs up from Jordan and I turned to attempt another quick lesson.
Afterwards I walked over to the camper as Steve’s daughter was beginning to push him away and he grabbed my arm, raising my book in front of him with the other. He was nodding towards me trying to get the words out, and I saw a pen grasped with the book. As I signed the book and handed it back he spoke, and for once his thoughts came out in a full sentence. “You made my day. You did.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “I wish so much I could fish.” Slowly the sentence took form. “I hope I can fish again someday. I hope I can.” His facial expressions were that of a child wanting the puppy in the pet store window with all his heart, nothing else in the world mattering at the moment. I simply told him he’d made my day too.
I’ve thought about fly fishing, what I consider fairly deeply, ever since I first picked it up some eight years ago or so. I’ve understood the peace that comes with it, the healing power, the inner solitude it can bring. But I think I may have forgotten lately where the real power in the cast lies in my own struggles. It’s not in the preloaded energy of the bend of the rod, or the weight of the line. The power of the cast I’m talking about is something you can’t physically touch. But you can sure as hell feel it.
*I found out later on that Steve had indeed fly fished before. He’d been a regular in Jordan’s fly shop in New York Mills, many years ago.