Written by: William G. Tapply
Sometimes fishing isn’t about the fish . . . until it is.
The last time my father and I fished together was on his eighty-fifth birthday. What had been, for most of my life, a fishing partnership that took us all over the Northeast for everything that swam in fresh or salt water, had devolved to this: A once-a-year September canoe float on a serpentine woodland trout stream about a mile from his house in New Hampshire.
He was pacing around in the front yard when I drove in. His little 13-foot Grumman canoe was already lashed on top of his wagon, and the gear was stowed in the back.
I got out, gave him a hug, and said Happy Birthday.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We parked at the iron bridge, as we always did. I hoisted the canoe onto my shoulders and toted it to the water. Dad carried the rod and the paddles and the canvas bag of gear.
“You take the bow,” I said. “I’m going to paddle.”
“The hell you are,” he said. “You fish. I’m going to paddle.”
“But it’s your birthday.”
“Exactly,” he said. “That means I get to do what I want. I want to paddle.”
We’d been carrying on this same argument for close to fifty years, and it always turned out the same.
A canoe paddle was still a wand in my father’s gnarly hands. He pushed us upstream against the stream’s slow currents, pausing without comment when a deadfall or undercut bank or shaded hole came within casting range, telling me by how he aimed the canoe where he wanted me to drop my fly. After half a century on the water together, no words were needed.
Pretty soon, the rumble of traffic on the iron bridge faded and disappeared behind us. We were utterly alone on our stream in the woods, just the two of us in a canoe.
I wasn’t getting any strikes. No surprise. Objectively, this wasn’t much of a trout stream. Hatches were rare and sparse and unpredictable, and sometimes when we did find insects hatching, no fish were eating them. We generally fished upstream with bushy attractor dry flies, then back down with trout-sized bucktails. In the spring, the state stocked it from the iron bridge with hatchery brookies, but the stream ran low and warm in the summer, and we guessed that most of the trout got caught, or migrated down to the pond, or just failed to survive. Fishing was usually pretty slow in the fall.
We loved the stream anyway, because it was inaccessible except by canoe from that one iron bridge, and because the fishing wasn’t good enough to attract other anglers. In all the Septembers we’d floated it, we never saw another human being. We enjoyed the illusion that nobody but us fished here, that we were the only ones who even knew of its existence, that, as Dad liked to say, the hand of man had never set foot on its banks.
We didn’t really come here to catch fish. We came to this stream on my father’s birthday . . . because we always did.
It rose in swamps in western Maine, meandered through miles of sandy pine-and-hardwood forest, and eventually emptied into a nondescript New Hampshire pond. Here and there it narrowed and quickened then opened into a long glassy pool, but mostly it ran slow and deep between steep brushy banks.
By the time Dad’s birthday rolled around in September, the maples and oaks that arched overhead were turning crimson and copper, and migrating yellow warblers and redwing blackbirds flitted in the bushes. We always flushed a wood duck or two. Sometimes the haunting call of a bittern came echoing from a nearby swamp. We saw herons and kingfishers and hawks, deer and beavers and minks, and once we rounded a bend and came face to face with a bull moose standing midstream with dripping weeds draped on his antlers.
It was an awfully pretty stream in the fall, trout or no trout.
Dimples and Dunks
Sometimes our secret stream surprised us. One September afternoon—it was the year Dad turned seventy-four—we found a big eddy pool pockmarked with the dimples of rising trout. We figured out that they were gorging on tiny blue-winged olive spinners, size twenty-two or twenty-four.
My father liked to quote Thoreau—“Simplify, simplify”—and as usual he had packed light for our ceremonial afternoon in the canoe. One paddle, one seven-and-a-half foot fiberglass rod, one spool of 3X tippet, one tube of Gink, one box of generic dry flies, and one box of bucktails.
The smallest dry fly we had was a size sixteen. It looked like a porcupine when I cast it among those minuscule BWO spinners, and I guess that’s how the trout saw it, too, because they ignored it and just kept sipping.
I changed flies, changed positions, lengthened the tippet. Nothing worked. I couldn’t stand it.
I told my father I wanted to paddle full-tilt back to the iron bridge. I’d climb into the car, race home, and grab a box of small dry flies. He could wait with the canoe.
“We’ll be right back here in an hour,” I said. “If we had the right fly we’d be slaughtering them.”
He just smiled. “Relax. Just look at them rise. Pretty sight, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is, but . . .”
“Nice to know they’re here, huh?”
“Be nicer if we could catch a few of them.”
“We don’t need to catch them,” he said, “to enjoy them.”
He’d tell anyone who’d listen about what happened on his eightieth birthday when I talked him into giving me the paddle so he could take the bow and fish. We were drifting downstream. I had my eye on a likely-looking run up ahead, trying to anticipate where he’d want to cast, to give him a good shot at it, to be as good a guide as he was, and I didn’t see the stub that lurked just under the surface.
We were moving pretty fast, and when I plowed into it straight-on, my father catapaulted headfirst over the bow.
I was preparing my wisecracks for when he popped up sputtering and cursing. I knew he’d never let me live it down.
But a minute passed, and he didn’t come popping up to the surface. An eighty-year-old man on heart medication, and I’d dunked him in a frigid September trout stream.
I forgot about the wisecracks and tried to figure out how I’d explain it to my mother.
I turned for the bank so I could beach the canoe and dive for my father’s body when he popped up behind me and laughed. When he went into the water, he said, he just took a deep breath and swam back under the canoe. “Fooled you, huh?” he said.
“You scared the pants off me,” I said. “I thought you were a goner. That wasn’t funny.”
“I thought it was. The water’s pretty cold, though.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“My own fault,” he said. “I never shouldn’t’ve let you paddle.”
We’d been moving upstream for about an hour when we came to an uprooted pine that had fallen across the water. Back when my father was younger, he’d have insisted we drag over it or carry around it and keep going. In those days, he never wanted to turn around. But today when I suggested this was as good a place as any to head back, he nodded.
“My turn to paddle,” I said.
“Last time you paddled, you nearly drowned me.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“You keep fishin’,” he said. “Catch something.”
“These fish are too smart for me. Show me how.”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Fish water you’ve already covered. Take your leavings.”
Another one of our comfortable old arguments.
I had to help him out of the canoe. He staggered and held onto my arm as I helped him settle into the bow seat.
I steered us downstream, and he picked up the rod, tied on a little bucktail, and began flicking it against the banks. Watching my father from behind, the fluid, effortless way he cast, repeatedly dropping his fly about an inch from the bank, it was easy to remember him as a young man. He couldn’t do a lot of things anymore. But he could still paddle a canoe and cast a fly.
The iron bridge was around the next bend when something boiled behind his bucktail.
I dug in with the paddle, and he cast again. Another swirl, and his rod bowed, and a few minutes later he was cradling a fat, fifeen-inch male brook trout in his hand. Its spots were as scarlet as the streamside sumac, and its belly and pectoral fins glowed coppery like the oaks and maples over our heads.
It was the biggest trout we’d ever caught here.
“Big stud wants to spawn,” Dad said as he unhooked the fish and slid it back into the stream. “Let’s wish him luck.” He bit off the fly, reeled in, and took down the rod. “Good way to end it, huh?”
Crippling arthritis plus an accumulation of other miseries kept my father out of canoes after that September afternoon. We celebrated the last six birthdays of his life in his living room, usually watching a ball game with the TV muted so we could talk fishing. When we recalled our last birthday float, we agreed: It had been a very good way to end it.
* * *
Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).