As a young lad I was quite interested in fishing, trout and atlantic salmon fishing, in particular. My Dad, although he was the one who initially installed the fishing bug in me, wasn’t always able to go because he had to work, and he wasn’t exactly the most successful fly fisherman on the lake either….but….
Our cottage neighbor was. In fact, he was probably one of the best salmon and trout fishermen of his era. The guy could catch a salmon in a rain puddle, I swear….When I turned 13 or 14, he took me under his wing and together we fished salmon rivers from one end of the province to the other.
This was in the 1970’s when there were salmon in a lot of those rivers, and in some cases, lots of salmon. Our neighbor, retired, with nothing on his mind but fishing, had lots of time to go, and the gear to go with, boats and 4 wheel drives, and a travel trailer, meaning we could go from river to river where ever the fish were and we did…a lot.
I was only young, and although I clearly idolized the man, I wasn’t aware of just how good a fisherman he really was until I got older and wiser and started really paying attention. I also couldn’t help but notice the awe that other fishermen had for him, some of it bordering on outright jealousy. He could find a fish when other’s couldn’t. He knew how to “read the water” to know where I fish might lie. He knew what flies worked on what river and what pool. He also knew how to land a fish under almost any conditions. I saw him lose a few, but it was very few indeed. In fact, once he had one hooked, it was pretty much a done deal.
In addition, along the way he taught me something about being a man, about being tough, which is not a bad trait to develop. It takes a lot to get through life, and a little measure of toughness can help from time to time. Over the years I have managed to channel some of that toughness to times when I need it, and keep it at bay the rest of the time. It has proven to be a useful ability, but I am digressing.
As I said, together we fished from one end of the province to the other, from spring run fish, to summer run to late season salmon in the fall. He became a surrogate father to me in many ways, and certainly a fishing mentor that other fishermen would have loved to have. Even in the winter, he would call me up and take me to the Salmon Association meetings.
Over the years, under his watchful eye, I learned to read water, choose the right fly, properly fish a wet fly, or drift a dry fly down over a salmon just right. He also taught me a lot of the finer points of tying fishing flies. I had learned the basics from another fellow, but my mentor, he taught me how to tie them so they would catch fish. He also taught me how to keep your flies out of sight of other fishermen too, something I do to this day. I also learned about trucks,
driving 4X4’s on muddy trails, boats, canoes, outboard motors, chain saws, moose hunting, deer hunting, rabbit hunting, and more outdoorsy stuff like how to light a fire in the pouring rain…sometime I will tell you how to do that….
Joe made me into a fisherman even though it didn’t always come easy, and even though we didn’t always get along. Over the years we had our ins and outs, but through it all we had our love for salmon fishing, a passion, some would call it a sickness. He was a “man’s man” in no uncertain terms, and would just as soon fist fight ya as give in to anyone who crossed him. I know because I crossed him occasionally. Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon can be like that. You wonder who is hooked worse, the fish or the fisherman. I was certainly hooked and so was he. In fact for a spell, we began to compete with each other, almost by accident, probably not aware of what was happening, the student was getting as good if not better than the teacher, and our relationship was changing a bit.
Unfortunately, Joe died a couple of years ago, after a long, hard battle with cancer. He fought it hard, like he did everything in life, and lasted much longer than the doctors ever imagined. I think the thoughts of fishing in the summer kept him going through several surgeries and all kinds of treatments, some worse than the disease I’m sure.
We made our peace one night in the hospital. The two of us, friends, the boy grown into the man, the man at the end of his road. I remember our conversation skirted the truth, that he wasn’t going to come out of the hospital, that the battle was over and the disease had won. But it was a hard won battle, and he was an inspiration to me in terms of fighting, and taking it like a man. I can only hope when my time comes I can draw on my mentor and take it like Joe did…like a man…
The reason I am writing this tonight, is because of something that happened to me this weekend that kind of struck me as well…I dunno….I was fly fishing in our favorite river, in our favorite pool. The salmon are all but disappeared, owing to acid rain, seals and lord knows what else, but the trout are still there. As I fished, I thought about my departed friend and mentor, and our times together on that river. If I looked closely I could imagine him sitting on the log by the pool watching me, waiting his turn to fish. But when I blinked, he was gone, and the log was empty.
I caught several small trout, releasing them all, perhaps 10 or more, and was convinced that there were no big ones to be had. But, I remembered my buddy’s words, “always assume you are fishing over fish” and I kept fishing. Changing flies, to one of the first fly patterns he had shown me, I tied it on, using the knot he had shown me, and cast it out into the pool. As I did, I said the words aloud, “C’mon Joe, help me out here, find me a fish!”
The strike came almost instantly, and I lifted my rod tip instinctively, setting the hook, like he had shown me, and hung on as a big silver seatrout splashed out of the water, trying to throw my hook. He was unsuccessful and I had him on the reel in no time, watching in amazement as the biggest seatrout I have caught in probably 15 years struggled against me. It was then I realized I didn’t have a dipnet, and it was too big a fish to risk just hefting him ashore.
I looked down the shoreline and saw the little beach, and just like Joe had shown me so many years before, I led the fish down the edge of the shore and up onto that beach….just like Joe had shown me….
As I picked the big silvery sea trout up in my hands, (he weighed about 3 lbs) I looked up to the sky and said, “Thanks Joe…for everything.”
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