By Howard Bowman
I remember the exact moment. It occurred on the South Branch of the Oconto River a few miles south of Chute Pond in Northeastern Wisconsin. I was pushing 70 at the time. He was on the long side of 40. He casts a fly beautifully I thought, watching from above on the path paralleling the stream below.
Then I amended my thought: He can cast better than me. How many years have I taken my son fishing leading to this moment? Given his age and mine, what occurred in this reversal was precisely right, exactly as it should be. There is a progression in the nature of things that we cannot and—most of the time—would not choose to alter.
I added yet a further amendment my thought: On a good day, when my arthritis is not acting up, I can still cast that well or better, but those days are becoming fewer and fewer. In my prime I enjoyed being referred to as a “fish whisperer.” But that was “back in the day.”
Casting a fly is no small matter. Finding the right place from which to cast without alerting the fish. Keeping one’s balance on slippery rocks in a strong current. Anticipating how the fly will drift over where the trout is feeding. Choosing the correct fly. Managing the line, particularly in the back-cast phase of presentation. The athleticism of getting to the right place through the brush and marsh between the road and the stream. Having the grit to endure all manner of biting insects as well as being cold and wet. All these things, and more, go into a good cast.
My son has now mastered these things. Now it’s time for me to fish less and take more ease on logs by the side of the stream and observe. There is a sweetness to this new state of affairs. Rather than parent and teacher, I can just be friend and fishing companion. We are now fellow pilgrims treading in sacred places, for such is what trout streams are.
A couple of years earlier, I had a hint of what was coming. This earlier misadventure is chronicled as “The old man takes a header in the Brule.” The Brule in question is the Bois Brule, one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful rivers, a little east of Superior. This river is a “Mecca” for trout anglers throughout the Midwest and beyond.
The documentation of this event, published in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin) Trout Unlimited newsletter, describes me as a tired old man walking through strong current back to the Forest Ranger Station near Route 2 in the town of Brule. I was feeling proud of my catch from three quarters of a mile up-stream. Thinking to myself, Yup, the old man still has it, I took a head-first plunge into the icy Brule—drenching myself, my equipment, flies and not least my proud, dignified self-image as “Dean” of the trout stream.
The reader will recall the adage, “Pride goeth before a fall…” It seems that the last foothold before getting out of the stream hides a log. It further seems that perhaps someone (could it have been one of the rangers?) strategically placed it in this spot because there is a straight line-of-sight between the window of the ranger station high above and the Brule River below. While engaged in their paperwork, this arrangement could allow the rangers to find some amusement by watching hapless old men who forget the log is there.
It also seems, that this old man’s son caught a “knock your socks off” trophy Brown Trout the next day, making my catch pale in comparison.
As I walked back into camp, looking like nothing so much as a drenched “river rat,” I had no recourse except to report to my friends what had happened. It was a pretty sure thing that there were witnesses—and all could see my clothes, inside-out waders, fly-boxes and fishing vest set out to dry by the campfire. Better to just be preemptive.
But I digress, as old men too often do.
Since the moment of reversal on the South Branch of the Oconto River, I have learned several things of inestimable value from both my son and daughter: how to make a cook stove out of a discarded can in the woods, how to tie a soft hackle fly, how to start a campfire in cold rain, how to engage adversity and live bravely, how to find morel mushrooms in the Wisconsin spring, how to be generous, how to dance with abandon (OK, I really don’t have this one down), how to be in the moments we are given.
All in all, it seems a very fair trade to this old man.
© 2019 Howard Bowman
My spouse and I enjoy the “Madison scene” and learning how to creatively write through
workshops like Sarah White’s “Flash Memoirs.” Our location also enables me to enjoy
the nearby famed Southwest Wisconsin “Driftless” area trout streams. In the years leading up to retirement, I taught philosophy courses at Mt. Mary and other Milwaukee area