Classic Fly-Fishing Story: “The Lesson”

Written by: Michael Doty


Merrill Tode and her Dad, Keith, proudly display her first trout. (See their story here.)
Photo by Keith Tode

[Michael Doty posted this story to the Orvis Facebook page out of the blue, and I enjoyed it so much that I asked if we could post it here. I’m sure you’ll find it as rewarding as I did.]

Sometimes you see angels in the strangest places. It was April 4, 2015, and I had gotten onto the North Mills River in North Carolina about mid-morning, along with several hundred other fishing friends who were taking advantage of a decent Saturday following the April 1 opening of the delayed-harvest season for trout.

It was hard to find a parking spot, let alone a decent space on the river, but I walked upstream from the crowd until I managed to discover a relatively quiet and remote location where the pools and rivulets promised a bountiful day. And then I looked upstream and saw her. She had a shock of long blond hair escaping a loosely tied ponytail, and the flyaway strands framed a fairy princess face. She wore a new, lightweight olive khaki jacket that was somewhat too large and brand-new hip waders that were rolled over several times at her thighs. She was all of ten years old, and her expression as she scanned the water was one of intense concentration.

Behind her stood a handsome young man in his mid-thirties who, by his features and manner, could only have been her father. His attire mimicked the girl’s, except his garb showed all the signs of long and hard use – especially the faded and frazzled deep-green cap with “Orvis” stitched across the brow. With patient gestures and in a voice so low I could not hear, he was obviously teaching his daughter how to fly fish for trout. Over the course of an hour or so— wherein I managed a 12- inch rainbow and two 10- inch brownies on a size 18 blue-wing olive emerger—the father, as intense in his occupation as was his girl, tied on nymphs, showed her how to do a simple roll cast with a short 4- or 5-weight rod, and as if she was the trout whisperer, the child caught fish after fish while her delighted laughter filled the forest.

Since the stream was delayed-harvest, her dad carefully showed her how to gently handle each trout while removing the hook, and with each release she waved a happy goodbye as if to a new friend. Had we been in a contest, she would have beaten me soundly. I finally lost all interest in my attempts to sucker a large brownie onto my hook and stood quietly among the overhanging rhododendrons watching a proud father and a delighted little girl have the afternoon of a lifetime. They were so absorbed in their activity that I do not believe they were ever aware that I had been their admiring witness. They certainly took no notice as I eased my way out of the water and back down the path with tear fogged vision through my sunglasses.

As I sat on the tailgate of my truck and shed my waders and vest, I remembered my own introduction to fishing with my dad in an ancient wooden john boat with a tiny Johnson outboard motor on the Holston River in Tennessee. Many of those days from age five to fifty, I remember clearly and ever so fondly, not merely as fun times and enjoyable outings, but as times of bonding, learning, and being loved. I introduced my son to trout fishing with a spinning rig on the Hiwassee River in Tennessee (where he will tell you I almost got him drowned, but that is another story) and those days helped us cement an already close relationship.

There are few things in the world that delight a child as much a catching his or her first fish, and the joy in seeing such awe and glee in a young face will always be a favored memory for the parent. Fishing with our children teaches them more than a sport or a skill, it gives them something to share with us adults on our level, it instills in them an awe and respect for the natural world and the outdoors that they cannot find in a computer game, and it creates a genuine sense of us belonging to one another and all creation.

I am sure that my angelic fairy princess trout charmer was a very fulfilled and tired little girl at the end of the day and fell asleep in the car with a smile on her face and dreams of rainbows dancing in the water. And without a doubt, that young father in the time-worn Orvis fishing cap put his arm around her, and his heart swelled in happiness all the way home.

Michael Doty lives in South Carolina.

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