Thursday, March 20, 2014


Shall we wax metaphorical for a moment?  If the future is like the sun, then I can confidently state that I'm living under a cloud layer.  Occasionally, a brilliant shaft of light penetrates the gloom,  but cold half-tones and thunderbolts are my future forecast.  Call it a low spot, but I seem to have given up most of my hope for the future.  The alluring radiance of the future has become obscured by the fog of a progressive, degenerative neurological disease with no cure.  As Parkinson's Disease gradually slows me down  physically and mentally, many of the things I used to dream of no longer make much sense.  So what does make sense?  I tell myself that I should hold tight to something I'm passionate about, pursue it with as much energy as I can spare.  So why fishing, and why fly fishing for trout?

Mom and her four boys hiking back to
to camp with rods and tackle boxes.

At my brother's funeral in 2008, I mentioned in his eulogy that my brothers and I were often carted off into the outdoors by our parents, even as tiny infants.  I made a similar statement at another brother's funeral in 2013.  The mountains and lakes of central Wyoming were our regular playgrounds.  Fishing tackle was always on hand and was nearly always the first thing to be unpacked when we arrived at a camp site.  I wasn't taught to be a trout snob, but it never seemed to be as gratifying when we brought in the occasional northern pike, perch, or monster carp.  Trout were just the automatic, natural target of our efforts, whether we were on a tiny, remote mountain stream or Boysen reservoir, the significant body of water behind the dam at the south end of the Wind River canyon.  Maybe it's just because there isn't much warm water in Wyoming, but I can't say we ever went fishing anywhere that wasn't trout habitat.  And it turned me into the snob I mentioned before.  There's just not that much appeal for me in fishing most of Minnesota's warm, dirty water.  Bass, pike, and walleye aren't my thing yet.  I'd rather try to catch-and-release a 6-inch brook trout in a diminutive crystal-clear, stone-bottom creek for some crazy reason. 

I was firstborn to young parents who loved being outside.  They raised four boys whose ages spread across 10 years.  We camped in tents, pop-up campers, and a motorhome.  We snowmobiled in the winter.  Some of my favorite memories involved the annual Christmas Tree Cutting Weekend that often followed Thanksgiving.  We'd stay at a lodge in the Wind River mountains, cut a tree for ourselves and a few relatives, and spend lots of time sledding. 

It appears I'm growing nostalgic, longing for times that appear simple, shiny, and attractive when viewed through lenses tempered by a few extra decades.  The mention of the word "nostalgic" brings to mind a brief pop-sensation of the 90's: a graduation speech set to music...  "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)"  Go ahead, click the YouTube link below and take a good listen.  I, too, have grown old.  I'm taking the past from the disposal, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it was worth before.

Fishing was ALWAYS positive in my life, and I never let go of it.  When I got married, it was a joy to discover that my young bride enjoyed it, too, though she prefers the more passive approach: toss the line out, sit on shore and watch the bobber while reading a book.  We spent many summer evenings in the hills above Laramie, Wyoming with fishing poles and a portable grill.  This is also where I first decided to take up fly fishing after jealously watching another angler's repeated catches.

Where my wife's fishing preferences were of the passive kind, my style was much more active.  I'm the restless type, with many traits of clinical attention deficit and hyperactivity.   In my youth, I preferred casting spinning lures to waiting for a fish to happen along and grab a bite.  One of my favorite techniques I used before I picked up a fly rod was to slowly troll a grasshoper on a hook across the surface of a mountain lake by rowing around in a rubber raft.  I was busy, and the results were sometimes spectacular!

Casting a fly rod well requires concentration on a surprising number of internal and external variables.  I discovered very quickly that when I'm working a fly line, there's no capacity for anything else in my mind.  Where's a likely spot in the stream for a fish to be waiting for food?  What might they be feeding on in this stream?  Where can I stand?  What kind of cast can I make?  Am I waiting long enough on my back cast?  Ooops, the fly isn't drifting naturally, where can I throw a mend?  For someone who's mind is constantly racing and jumping in a non-linear fashion, there is an unprecedented peace to be found in this focus.  I had never experienced this kind of mental tranquility before.

One other appealing trait: fly fishing can be highly technical.  The variables are staggering and intimidating: the rod length, the rod "action" (flexible or stiff),  the deflection profile of the rod (does it flex more toward the butt, middle, or tip?), the weight of the fly line, the fly line profile (e.g. weight forward, double taper), floating or sinking line, different leaders and tippets.  And then there's the entomology: the bugs.  Flies are the artificial lures tied from bits of fur, feather, and foam to imitate bugs.  If you grew up chucking worms in a lake and pulling out trout that ate them, you'd never believe how fussy trout can be about the artificial flies they'll pursue.  Consider that all of the variables mentioned are multiplicative, and the calculus of fly fishing starts to take shape.  The challenge is to match your equipment and skill to the stream and species before you.  I consider it an exercise in optimization,  where certain variables are either fixed or very limited (I have 2 rods and lines with me) while others are more flexible (I can cast a few different ways, I have 3 boxes full of flies, I can approach from downstream/upstream, etc.)  Part science, part art, part divinity (somedays it's just plain voodoo...)  Any way you slice it, there's plenty to occupy the thought cycles of a perfectionistic, obsessive/compulsive personality.

If, as Tori Amos asserts in "Crucify," it's possible to have enough guilt to start one's own religion, you may henceforth address me as Fading Cardinal Angler.  (Ooo... I like it!)  We've now come to guilt portion of today's narrative.  Perhaps there's more regret here than guilt, but I'll process that distinction later.  Regret feels like the proper lens for viewing this area.  What do I wish I'd done differently?  For starters, I barely ever went fishing during the 8 years we lived outside Missoula, Montana.  I didn't fish the Big Blackfoot (setting for portions of "A River Runs Through It" by Norman Maclean) until more than six years after we'd moved away, and it was less than an hour's drive from my house.  I had a few really good days on Lolo Creek, but didn't spent much time at all chasing trout in Montana.  Living in Minnesota now, I want very few things in life more than to spend a few days a year fly fishing Montana's waters.

I've also been reminded that I haven't spent nearly enough time outdoors with my kids.  This will not do.  They love the outside and they like fishing.  I've let too many superfluous details and my own laziness get in the way of giving them the some of the childhood I had.  I have very few formative days left with them, and it scares me to death.  Soon, like I once did, they will no longer have any desire to spend time near or with me.  School, jobs, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, and wandering further from the nest will draw them away for a number of years.  I can only hope to provide them with a few more opportunities to someday look back on their youth and suddenly realize how much I loved them by the simple act of teaching them to fish and taking them fishing. 

No excuses.  I've neglected giving the outdoors to my kids, and will do so no longer.  Looking toward Southeastern Minnesota's "driftless" area, I see some clearing on the horizon.  There might be a little bit of future there, and perhaps a ray of hope as well.  I've lost two brothers in the past six years, both of them PASSIONATE fishermen.  No surprise.  "I am haunted by waters." The sand in my hourglass feels like it's fueled by Jupiter's gravity.  Hmm, if that's true, then from a mathematical perspective, it means that I have an enormous amount of potential energy to impart.



  1. Fading Cardinal Angler,

    If you do start your own religion, I'm in. Beautifully written.

    1. That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight..."