Friday, August 28, 2009

She Caught Her First Fish

Dana Meadows in Yosemite, showing the headwate...Image via Wikipedia

My daughter is nothing, if not headstrong. I think it comes from her mother. I don't think I'm headstrong or stubborn. People who don't know me don't agree with that, but it's true. It's just that I don't change my mind very easily. I think my ideas are worth something.

Her name is Julie, or Julia when she is really pissed. Did I mention that she is a teenager? Some friends of mine, who have lived with teenagers recently, tell me that the kinds of attitudes I’m alluding to here are pretty common among people in that age group. Ok, so...I’ll just work with it; no big deal.

Well, it is. Let me give you an example. About four years ago, when she was still somewhat new to being a teenager, she asked me, just out of the clear blue, “Daddy, can you teach me how to cast a fly rod?” I had been giving casting instructions to various strangers for some time, so I thought this was an easy question to answer. I quickly responded “Oh...I think that can be arranged.” Right about now the father of any teenage daughter, especially a fly fishing father, has a better lock on the dynamics of this thing than I did then. They can probably see where this is going. But I couldn’t see it at that time.

Little did I know then that a much more accurate answer would have been something like “Hell no; you are not interested in taking direction from your father. Go find a stranger to do that, if you really want to learn how to cast a fly rod.”

I think that what was going on was that she was unconsciously developing her skills at manipulating her father, something she already had down pretty well. This undoubtedly is practice for use in the future on some poor, unsuspecting bastard who will become her husband. Did I mention that she is beautiful? I mean, people who are not related to her tell me that, so it's not just a father-type statement.

Oh, the thing about the manipulation is an X-Y chromosome thing, I think. It's just part of being a female. It's not going to change.

So I took her to the casting pond and began to work with her. She was pretty good catching on to basic ideas. After she had practiced for awhile, I began to suggest more subtle techniques she could use to improve her cast. "Start your forward cast more slowly, and lead with your elbow. Bring it all the way down to your side, near your hip". She very nearly dropped my cane rod on the asphalt as she gave me a look that conveyed the unspoken teenage attitude "I know that". “Hmmm”, I thought to myself. “There seems to be a communication issue here.”

I’m pretty fond of my only bamboo rod so this could have spelled trouble. I explained to her the value of the rod, how much I’d paid for it, and why she should consider it an honor that I’d even let her use it for casting practice. Strangely, she did not appreciate any of that. What's more, she had lost interest in my telling her what to do, how to cast, or how much the rod cost. I'm her father, and I have experience communicating with students, so this became a challenge for me.

She didn’t care about my challenge. The attitude was flowering into one of open rebellion, reflecting that she did not want me telling her much about casting, fishing, or anything else. I was never rebellious; don't know where she could have got that kind of attitude.

I would tell her that she was tired, and needed to take a rest break. Of course that didn't slow her down, and a few minutes later I was getting out my handkerchief to dry her tears of frustration.

“If she could only learn from my mistakes” I thought to myself. I recalled that I probably responded to my parents the same way when I was her age. Did I mention that she is very bright? She graduated near the top of her high school class, with lots of honors, so the claim isn't just one of those father-type things.

A friend and former casting student who had successfully raised some kids of her own gave me the news that day as she watched us. "Jim, she's never going to listen to you tell her anything about casting, at least not at this point in her life; you're her father. You two are too closely related." Oh...ok. So, I found some help. I turned her over to some friends who are masters. She got better. This was bitter sweet for me. My daughter was becoming pretty good with a fly rod, but I was not the one who taught her. You get the idea.

When she graduated from high school this past spring, I asked her what she wanted for her graduation. I'd already sent her on a trip to Europe the summer before, so she knew not to expect too much. "I wanna go to Yosemite" she responded. I was a bit surprised. When she was very small we would take her to Yosemite valley each fall, around her birthday in late October. I took her once when it was just the two of us. I pitched my tent, and we stayed dry in it during a night of heavy rain. She was thrilled to spend the night in the tent, but now she was a full-blown teenager, and I thought she had forgotten all of that. She knows of my love for the place, knows that I have backpacked over large stretches of it, dating back to a time long before she was born. But I didn't think she really had any interest in it.

I told her to find a hotel or motel. A day or two later she said that she couldn't find anything available, but that she really didn't want to stay in a hotel or lodge anyway. She wanted to camp, sleep on the ground. "What kind of teenage girl do I have here?" I thought to myself. We wound up at a place called White Wolfe in the high country, about 8500'elevation, far away from the valley, which is good, because in the summertime, the valley is as crowded as Disneyland.

A recent article in a fly fishing magazine had caught my attention. The author said that one of the reaches of the upper Tuolumne river was a good place to catch fish. The area he wrote about seemed like a short hike from the road. which was more of a consideration for me than it was for Julie. Did I forget to mention that she's a cross country runner, was for all four years of high school?

I figured I might be able to put her on a fish in that section of the river. One evening after we arrived in the campground we happened to meet a ranger who told us that her friend had been catching lots of fish in that area of the river on terrestrials, specifically, black ants. Since I had some of those in my fly box, I felt good about our prospects.

While we were driving to the trail head I gave her a few pointers on catching a fish. She had not done that yet. But, I was gonna take it lightly, 'cause, like I said, she is no longer in the mood to listen to me tell her what to do. Surprisingly, she listened carefully, and seemed to absorb everything I had to say about the natural drift on the water surface of an insect, setting the hook, playing the fish, proper handling and release of the fish, and line management.

We arrived at the spot indicated on the map, and began our hike to the river. We soon came to a place on the river that looked to me as though it might contain fish. It was located in a beautiful meadow, with panoramic views of the snow speckled mountains to the east. The river was broad and shallow, perfect for her to wet wade. A gentle steady breeze came out of the northeast, carrying the sweet smell of lodgepole, Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pine. As it weaved its way through the trees near the stream, it made the only sound we could hear, a sound of solitude, the sound of the Sierra.

I decided that she and I would enjoy the place however the fishing turned out. "Why don't you set up your rod and reel here?" I said. She had learned how to do that by watching me when we were practice casting, and she'd become pretty good at it. I tied on a #18 black ant, a bit small. And then I realized that the breeze was quartering toward us over the river, but decided to let her sort that out for herself.

She stepped into the water and waded out a bit from shore; made her first tentative cast, then another. Continuing, she became a bit more confident. She realized that she had done this before, just not on the river, not for real fish. Watching the fly drift downstream, she picked it up when it began to make the little "motor boat wake" I'd told her about. As she cast she half mumbled "I'm throwing tailing loops" but seemed unable to correct them. "You're trying to compensate for the wind by using too much power on your forward cast". "Damnit! I'm lecturing her again" I thought. She was too busy trying to keep her balance standing on the wet round rocks in the middle of the river to argue with my remark.

As I watched, desperately trying to emotionally disengage from her fishing, I noticed a small rise, then another, about twenty five or thirty feet upstream from her. She was not looking at that part of the stream and didn't see the rises. I casually asked her to get out of the water just beside where I was sitting on the bank. I took the rod from her, and shortened the length of her leader tippet, and tied on a larger black ant. I was doing my very best imitation of remaining calm, even though every fiber of my being was screaming inside of me "God, if you've ever thought of granting me a favor, let it be now, and let it be that she catches this fuckin' fish!" I dunno. Is that a prayer?

We walked upstream a short distance. "Cast right there" I said, pointing to the middle of the stream. "Let the fly drift as long as you can without having it drag." After she placed her first cast, suddenly a fish struck, but she didn't get a hook set. She seemed perfectly relaxed, but the tension was mounting in me as if I were watching one of those horror movies, the kind that used to make my palms sweat. Feigning indifference, I said "Ok, pick your line up, and cast to the same place, and let the fly drift to the same spot, the same way as last time." She followed my directions, made a good cast, and put the fly just where I'd told her. Slowly, the fly floated downstream without any drag. The suspense mounted. I could count the number of times the fly bobbed with each ripple it floated over. I was sure the fish would make another pass at the little black ant. It did. Wham! A bronze flash shown on the sun-sparkled surface of the river as the fish suddenly took the fly. This time she got a good hook set. I told her to reel up all the slack line she had laying at her feet. She barked at me "It doesn't matter as long as the fish isn't too large...that's what you said." She was right, so I shut up, never an easy thing for me to do. Julie quickly played the fish over to shore, climbed into the water, took it in hand, and held it in the water while she removed the hook from its mouth. There was no girlish squeamishness, no protestation that she couldn't do it. She quietly set about her task of gently holding the trout while she removed the hook, and then, just as I'd told her, faced the little Brown upstream, and moved it back and forth in the current until it swam out of her hand.

Now it was time for another lecture. I reminded her of the time when she was much younger when I'd told her how important it is to tell the truth, not to lie. I explained that there is an exception to that rule. "In order to be a good fisherman you need to tell a lie from time to time, and it has to be a convincing lie, a good lie, not just some bullshit that nobody will believe". This time she did not protest my instructions, just listened quietly. This was just after she had caught a nice 12" Brown trout. I'll leave you, dear reader, to mull that over. The fish really was that large. No, it really was. Nice first fish for a young lady new to fly fishing. If there's a lie in this story, it's not here.

That night we came back to our campsite at White Wolf, happy and a bit tired. Before we left home, Julie had discovered that the Perseid meteor shower was due to occur in mid-August. She's the one that chose that time for us to go to Yosemite. She thought it would be a good opportunity for us to enjoy a meteor shower; she was right.

After dinner we strolled around the campground, and found a break in the trees, a spot where the view of the night sky opened up. We could see Ursa Major, Cygnus, Hercules and the Summer Triangle; Cassiopeia, Perseus and the meteors coming from that part of the sky. They were hurtling through space at the rate of about fifty per hour, lots of 'em. We both loved it, and marveled at how fast they must be traveling to make their arcs of light across so much of the dark, moonless sky. We watched until sleep began to fill our eyes. It had been a good day. I was grateful for my daughter, for all of her successes, and for her first fish.

The rest of our time in Yosemite sped by. It was gone before I knew it. When we left she reminded me that she had cried when we left Yosemite when she was a seven years old girl. She said she still felt that way.

A week later, I left her at her new home at University of California at Merced for her first year in college. That's the place where her life and dreams will begin to take shape. There are lots of important things I need to tell her, things I want to make sure she's taking care of, hasn't forgotten, lots of reasons to call her. But the old hands, more experienced and wiser than I, tell me that she doesn't need me for all that stuff so much anymore. She needs to have her own successes, make her own mistakes. Now is the time when she begins to live her own life, without my interference. She has caught a fish now. I don't know if she will ever fish again, but she knows how. She'll do fine.

© James Webb, 2009