On a recent soft spring evening, I realized I was no longer soaking in the beauty of the neon-green grass and magical gardens bursting all around me. I’d become obsessed with spotting ticks, the tiny hitchhikers that attach themselves to me as I scuff through the yard. I find them stuck to my ears and neck, sending me skittering to the shower. Oddly, I once admired bugs. Well, not all bugs — just certain ones. At one time, the little creatures were peacemakers in a war between my father and me.
My father was a fly fisherman, which, as it turns out, is all about bugs. In the late winter and early spring, he disappeared for hours on reconnaissance missions with his trusty sidekick, our unhinged poodle. Like military scouts, they traversed the countryside, checking to see how favorite fishing spots had weathered the winter. Was the ice out yet? Had any rocks, boulders, or branches tumbled onto the shore, making a favorite spot inaccessible?
As spring progressed, he started looking for signs of insect activity. What was hatching? Were any fish starting to rise to the surface to feed? What were they feasting on?
Fly-fishing is both an art and a science. The art is learning to gracefully cast the line so it whisks through the air light as a ribbon, and then alights so gently and quickly on the surface of the water that it appears to a fish that an insect has nimbly landed on the crystalline surface, sending soft rings radiating out toward the shore. Part of the science is divining what the fish are feeding on. And, of course, no matter how good you are at reading what the fish are biting or how gracefully you cast the line, if you aren’t fishing where the fish are, well, you just aren’t fishing.
When I was growing up, my father sometimes asked me to accompany him fishing. By the time I was a teenager, though, he had joined ranks with alcohol. That only served to fuel my teenage angst, leading to fiery skirmishes. However, he rarely drank when he fished, and I desperately wanted to win back the man who had once adored me above all others. So, holding tight to the belief I would be safe from the menaces of his addiction, I went.
As we walked down to the shore in late afternoons, he would stop and watch a hatch erupting nearby. In the stillness, I could see the silvery wings of the newly hatched flies winking in the sunlight. Then he would bend down and pick up a small rock to see what baby bugs were lurking underneath, about to emerge. He would explain the unique habit of each bug and which fly in his tackle box he would use to mimic it. Later, I sat on the rocks, hypnotized, as his line elegantly swirled over his head and magically avoided the branches behind him, barely making a sound. His long, slender body spooled out the thin line in patient fluid strokes to extend his reach, then precisely dropped the fly near a fish.
I wondered at the delicate wings of the dragonflies as they skittered along the water’s edge and the skimmers that raced erratically across the surface like addled speed skaters, both unfazed by my father’s presence. I’ll never know how someone who had to steady a cup of coffee with two hands had such a firm command of the fishing rod.
While our skirmishes continued throughout his life, fishing provided the occasional détente from the battlefield of his alcoholism that helped us nurture our precarious relationship. Fishing was one of the few things that brought my father pure joy and some sense of peace. Looking back, I can now see how happy we both were in the stillness of the shoreline, searching for bugs.