I remember my first cast. I was 5 years old, and my dad rigged up a cheap spinning rod with some kind of shiny lure on the end of the line and handed it off to me.
Trying to emulate my big brother, I excitedly launched my line for all I was worth—the rod followed it like a homing pigeon. No wonder Dad gave me a crummy set up!
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only bad cast I’ve made over the years, but they’ve at least dropped in frequency.
At times I frustrated the heck out of my dad with my lack of angling finesse, but we still stuck together as fishing buddies through the decades.
Today, I wear my dad’s old tan fishing vest with the broken zipper, an unfashionable remnant of history that reminds me how much I miss this man after all these years.
My father was a traditionalist. That meant he taught my older brother to fish long before I began pestering him to learn. My brother had no real interest in outdoor pursuits while I was all about being outside.
Finally, my dad bowed to the inevitable and taught me to ice skate, ride horses, paddle a canoe, put up a tent, swim long distances, and, yes, fish.
My first real fishing adventures began in the north woods of the upper peninsula of Michigan and in the lakes of northern Minnesota where my family often vacationed. Dad wasn’t much into river fishing, but lakes were his forté.
We never had much money, but we were able to rent rowboats on tranquil lakes and spent hours each day casting lures or live bait, often pulling in walleye and lake perch. It was on a small north woods lake that I first heard the eerie call of a loon and realized it plucked a responding chord in my heart. Like the bird, quiet solitude and early morning fishing on remote waters was a perfect fit for me.
Since my move out West three-quarters of my life ago, I’ve happily added river fishing to my experience. From tiny coastal streams flush with steelhead in the line-freezing depths of February to trout grabbing a fly in crystal clear July water flowing through wilderness areas, or from the thrill of battling a king salmon in Alaskan waters, fishing is soul-soothing for me.
Probably the strangest fishing trip I’ve experienced was on a remote Alaskan river that flowed through the National Petroleum Reserve. Prior to the trip, I called the BLM district office for the area to find out what fish to expect, so I could pack the right gear.
Imagine my surprise when the biologist said, “There are no fish there. Nobody goes on that river. It’s the dark side of the moon!”
Wow. So much for my article on fly fishing this pristine water. And, the darn biologist was right. The river was ice-free for so short a period that virtually no fish plied those waters as piscatorial food was super scarce.
On a four-day float in late August, we saw exactly one lost grayling and a dying humpy. But the surrounding Arctic landscape flush with bird-life, rodents, wolves, and caribou more than made up for no fish. So even bad days of fishing offer the solace of quiet places and unexpected beauty.
But this year is different. With the arrival of COVID-19, it’s hit me that one of these days, I’ll make my last cast. After all, I’m past 70, and, simply due to age, I’m in the high-risk category.
My annual Alaska fishing trip is on hold as the lodge tries to figure out if it will open. If it does, how the heck will they provide social distancing on a boat with four people?
And my early spring steelhead trip to a favorite Oregon coastal river was canceled. The governor of that state closed access to public campsites, motels, restaurants, and fishing access sites through an abundance of caution.
Good public policy for sure, but it’s left me stranded, like a fish out of water, waiting for the good times to roll again.
Covid-19 has made me realize that I have more days behind me than I have ahead. That every day I have left is precious and deserves to be treated as such. And that the days I slipped away from family, chores, and sometimes even work, to fish were worth more than gold or any paycheck I might earn simply because they are irreplaceable.
So yes, those stolen days have enriched my life beyond measure. A life of fishing has opened my eyes to the natural world around me, taught me lessons in patience and humility, and showed me that giving your all to something teaches you so much about yourself and what you hold dear.
And yes, I hope there are more purloined days with a rod in my hand before I make that final, inevitable, last cast. ISI