I know these two old guys. One is a retired fire chief who trains championship retrievers and makes fine bamboo rods. The other is a professor emeritus in fisheries and entomology at the University of Minnesota and writes about woodcock and wild rivers.
They’re old friends. They share a love of bird dogs, double guns, hand carved decoys, and whistling wings. They value a sharp knife, a balanced axe, good jokes, and funny stories. They appreciate the importance of history, and each other. They live to fly-fish, and spend time on the water together.
They agree to let me take them fishing for a couple of days in exchange for the opportunity to soak up some of the wisdom in the boat. I’m a 50-year-old “kid” on the sticks.
My old friends look at each opportunity to fish as a treasure and are determined to live every day to it’s fullest. They’re happy to be on the water, come what may, and their positive attitude is contagious. It is their particular gift to me that they never seem to take a single day for granted.
They’ve shed the last ballast of their egos and rarely boast, except in jest, and the only competition they acknowledge is with the angler they once were, long ago. They know who they are and what brings them peace.
It’s obvious to me when I arrive before dawn that my friends have been waiting, ready since the night before. They have their rods rigged and are casting from shore before the boat is wet, and for the better part of the morning I’m reminded of two supercharged setters on the opening day of the bird season. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I begin to direct their casts as we float the river. “Just behind that rock.” I suggest. “Closer to the shore, where the current softens.” Fish are lost and landed, and each one triggers a memory, becomes the source of another anecdote. The sun climbs high and summer clouds soar, bracketed by the ancient forest through which our river runs.
Lunch is a welcomed break in the day, a time to relive the morning, and trade stories from the past. Will it be turkey or ham? It doesn’t matter. What’s on the sandwich is hardly as important as where we eat. We marvel at the colossal grove of tamarack in which we rest, and I leave them with their thoughts while I check the rods for the afternoon’s fishing.
As I finish, it happens; a good fish, something big, chases bait across the shallow run in front of us and crushes its prey in a savage and thrashing roil. A musky! My friends fall silent and turn toward the commotion; for a fisherman, there’s no mistaking such a sound. I’m alone in the river with one of their rods. The leader has been replaced, the knots retied, and the hook sharpened. I meet their eyes and they nod, their meaning clear; take the shot!
I wade into the river and make the cast, and all eyes follow the fly as it wakes across the current, covering the musky’s lie. Nothing. Three more casts and I say out loud what my heart has told me. “He’s just fed and left for his lair.” I begin to reel in my line.
“One more cast.” My friends encourage. “Once more.”
And the musky, as if directed by their good will, hits. This fish is a gift, I think to myself a few minutes later as I hold it in the shallows. It’s a gift from the river, the day, and my friends.
We resume our float, and as the hours pass, the rhythm of the casting slows. The fishing becomes thoughtful and serious, and I think of two anxious bird-dogs that have run off their exuberance and are beginning to hunt close, all business now.
The afternoon passes and evening nears. The billowing clouds reflect the low sun, and are softly nostalgic in one moment, and foreboding in the next. My friends have fished their hearts out, and they’re a bit shaky on their feet. Only now, near the end, do they occasionally rest. As tired as they are they never ask to quit, and are disappointed when the float is over, and our time together comes to an end.
I know these two old guys, they’re old friends.