Classic Story: “Only Yesterday” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply


Keeping a journal can make an angling trip a richer experience.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

[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. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

Yesterday Sarah, my eight-year-old daughter, caught her first fly-rod trout. It was a wild, silvery little cutthroat, seven or eight inches long, and it flashed up from the pool in front of our campsite, clamped down on the Royal Wulff she’d cast out there, and leaped the instant it felt the hook.

“Got one,” she said, as if she’d been catching trout on dry flies all her life. She stripped it in, knelt on the sand beach, unhooked it, and released it without ceremony.

For three days, we’d been rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Three days without television and music, without telephones and computers, without showers and flushing toilets, without beds and sheets. Three days of Class III rapids, of mountain goats perched high on the canyon walls, of eagles and ospreys, of Dutch-oven cooking, of sleeping bags and tents and portable toilets, of cold nights and hot days and sudden thunderstorms.

Sarah was 2000 miles from her comfortable suburban home, and I’d been a little nervous about this adventure. If she was miserable, well, there was no return. A week on what must be the wildest river in the country. Once you started, you couldn’t change your mind. There were no roads in this wilderness. Just a one-way trip down the river between towering canyon walls in our puny little convoy of rubber rafts.

Sarah had not been miserable. On the second day, in the middle of an afternoon downpour, huddled deep in her slicker with rainwater dripping off her nose, she laughed. “Fun, huh?” she said.

For three days she watched me cast off the back of our raft, drifting bushy Wulffs and Humpies along the shadows of the canyon walls and through the pools and riffles. The river was full of those quick, naive, absolutely wild cutts. Sarah had kept count of those I boated, and sometimes I handed her the rod so she could strip them in.

And then yesterday, after supper, she picked up my fly rod and walked down to the beach. I followed after her and sat on a rock, back in the shadows, and watched. She slopped around for a while, but if she’d wanted instruction, she’d have asked for it, so I clamped my tongue between my teeth. And pretty soon, she was casting. She got 15 or 20 feet of line in the air, and she threw it upstream, followed it down with her rod the way she’d seen me do it, lifted, and cast again.

Across the river, the sun painted the top of the rocky canyon wall in gold. Directly overhead, the sky was still blue. But down there in the darkening bottom of the canyon where we were, Sarah was just a slender silhouette in a ponytail.

A couple times she said, “Oh! I had a strike.”

I couldn’t resist. “You’ve got to lift your rod,” I said. “You’ve got to be quick like the fish.”

“I know, Dad,” she said with eight-year-old exasperation.

“Sorry, honey.”

A few minutes later, she caught that trout and landed it and released it before it occurred to me to run for a camera. Then she reeled in, came back to where I was sitting, and climbed up on the rock beside me. “There,” she said. “That wasn’t so hard.”

“I never said it was hard,” I said. “I only said it was fun.”

But I was thinking: I wonder if this is the beginning? I wonder if Sarah will become a fly fisherman? Is she hooked?

I was also thinking: it doesn’t matter. This may not turn out to be a pivotal event in her life, but it will always be a Moment for me, and I hope my memory of it never dims.

“Oh, sure,” said Sarah. “It was fun.”

* * *

Well, I lied.

It wasn’t yesterday. It only seems that way. Sarah’s a junior in college now.

In fact, I hadn’t thought about her first trout for years. But this morning I randomly took my 1988 fishing journal off the shelf and thumbed through it, and when I came to the notation for August 14, I stopped.

Third day on the Middle Fork. Mountain goats. Nearly capsized. Lots of small cutts on Humpies. Dutch-oven chicken for supper. Sarah’s first dry-fly trout, with no help from me.

When I read that, the memory of it, every detail, came washing over me.

That’s the value of a journal. It keeps the memories alive and vivid. The older I get, the more I cherish the memories—and the more help I need in summoning them up.

I got into the record-keeping habit as a kid. My father kept a log, so I did, too. Back then, my journal was a straightforward record of my angling prowess. I drew columns in a cheap school notebook and recorded the sizes and numbers of the fish I caught, which was all that mattered. I left space in the margin for notes, such as, “Rain,” or, “Ran out of worms.”

Eventually I got bored with counting my fish, so I stopped drawing columns and substituted narrative summaries. Those summaries still emphasized my success—or lack thereof—but I also began to take note of factors that seemed to contribute to the fishing: weather, water conditions, baits, lures and flies that worked. Gradually, anecdotes began to slip into my narratives. Some of them had nothing to do with catching fish.

August 23—Secret Spring Creek: A big bull moose stepped into the water directly across from me to eat. He’d stick his head underwater and come up with weeds draped on his antlers. Each time his head went under, I took a few steps closer to him, snapping pictures with my little pocket camera, peering through the lens all the while, which made him look smaller and farther away than he was. When I looked up, Mr. Moose was looming over me, no more than 15 feet away, and he was glaring down at me. I got the hell out of there.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that an odd thing was happening: I began to think about what I would write in my journal while I was fishing. Keeping a record became part of the fishing experience itself. I found myself paying more attention to details, things I wanted to remember to write down, variables such as wind and water temperature and barometric pressure, time of day and season, fish behavior and insect activity—anything that might prove significant.

I also became more aware of other things—the birds I saw, the wildflowers that bloomed on the riverbanks, the conversations with my partners, the jokes we told, the people we met, the food we ate. “I must remember to write about that,” I’d tell myself.

August 21—Scarboro Marsh with Keith: He caught a nice striper on his first cast. I said, “What if that were the only fish we caught all day?” We laughed. As it turned out, it was.

I started carrying a pocket notebook with me, and I jotted notes into it, things I didn’t want to forget, memory fragments I didn’t want to lose. And when I got home, I converted those notes into expanded journal entries. A fishing trip wasn’t over until I’d finished writing down my record of it.

Keeping a journal, I’m convinced, helped me learn how to write stories for magazines. It honed my awareness of detail, encouraged me to look for meaning, and shifted my attention away from numbers to more important things.

It made each fishing trip a fuller, richer experience.

Nowadays I keep my journal in my computer. Every New Year’s Day, I print out several copies and send them to my companions, so they can share my memories and relive them as I do—as if they happened only yesterday.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

2 thoughts on “Classic Story: “Only Yesterday” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Thanks, Vicky. I read Bitch Creek and was “hooked.” I’ve read every Brady Coyne.
    I recently wrote a revenge story involving fish hooks & Orvis called, “Hooking the angler.”
    I miss Bill’s books.
    I wish you well.

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