No, it’s not me. Well not yet it isn’t. But I would love to be able to match his longevity for living, and for spending time with our river up north. He’s a skinny man, even more so now than he was the first time I saw him fishing on the river. It’s funny looking back at that first time I met him, and how I told Grandpa that I’d met an old guy on the river who knew how to catch those big steelhead.
I figure I was probably around 10 when I stopped to talk to him for the first first time, and that would have been pretty much put him at 64.
I am today 36. Boy, does that ever mess with your head, knowing that I considered him to be the “Old Man” when he was 64. Now I like to see 64 as still being a younger “Papa.” It’s all about perspective.
Actually, I’d seen him many times before I finally gathered up the courage to stop and ask if he would mind talking with me. I’d seen him carrying those big fish pretty much every time we passed on the road, but after trying my luck for several years I’d yet to land one myself, no matter how hard I tried.
So one afternoon when I was walking the trail I saw him sitting on the edge of the riverbank, just enjoying the water flowing by. I said ‘hello’ like usual, and kept walking…But this time I stopped and asked if he would mind teaching me how to catch one of these fish. He reached down by his leg to pull up the stringer that was tied to a small tree…it had two big steelies on it. He asked me if I meant one of these, and smiled at me.
He told me to have a seat next to him, and asked me to hand him my fishing rod. I handed it over, and he pulled my line back and let it go so that it made a snapping noise. I’ll never forget what he said, “First thing you need to do is get rid of this rope.” Rope? I felt my face turning red…Rope? I was just using 14-pound test and these fish could easily go more than that, so I figured it was the right choice. It was the same line I used in the summer fishing for bass in the lily pads, so I thought it was good. Nope.
He told me that he only uses 6-pound test, and sometimes only 4-pound if the river is running low and clear, since these fish are “line shy.” Then he told me I needed to get a more flexible fishing rod, so that I could let the fish bend it when I was fighting them on the line. He said he didn’t think he could hook one with what I was using, and then he made a few casts using mine to see if a fish would hit. None did.
Then he switched to his own rod, and just like that he had a fish on. He handed the rod to me so that I could feel what it was like to fight one. He didn’t carry a net, but since it was my first fish he landed it for me using the one I carried, and I had my first steelhead ever. Well, I didn’t hook it, but I got to bring it home to show grandpa and grandma.
I think he got a bigger kick out of my excitement than I did, and I couldn’t thank him enough. So, on my way home from that trip I stopped at Ideal store and bought myself a new rod and some 6-pound line to go with it. I just couldn’t wait to get back up there to our river to catch all those fish. I spent all the money that I had worked hard for by raking out those weeds in the lake for grandma just so I could buy that rod.
But try as I might, I still didn’t hook one on my own that year, or the next. So when I saw my friend, I told him so and he asked me to show him how I was fishing. He gave me some more pointers, and taught me how to tie up my own spawn bags for bait (cheesecloth with salmon eggs) instead of using the store-bought kind. He said that they hit the natural ones so much better, so another trip to the store and I had what I needed to get ready and try again.
The years rolled by, and every spring you could find me on that river trying to put those lessons to use…and then it happened; I hooked a fish all by myself. It was a good day, and I started having more of those good days. Now, over 26 years later, I find myself letting more of those fish go than the ones I keep, and it is a rare day when I don’t hook into them- assuming they’re in the river that is. See, they’re only there for a few months each spring, and I’ve grown to look forward to the snow melting since that’s when they start.
One of those seasons four years ago, I saw my friend there on a day when it was raining and not really all that warm out. It’s true you’re wearing waders and a rain jacket, but it wasn’t a day for the fair weather fishermen to be out. I asked him why was he out on such a day, when he could pick any day he wants to fish? He told me that his wife had passed away that winter, and he was having a lonely day.
He said the river was the only place he could find peace, and then he laughed and asked me, why was I there on such a day? I told him I was just doing what he taught me and we both laughed. I tried not to let him see my eyes tearing up, but he did…and we shared our first hug that day. My eyes are doing it again just remembering…
Well, today I went up for my first trip this year. Even though it was still early and there weren’t many fish in the river yet, I still managed to land two of them. Several guys asked me that day if I thought there were any fish in the river, since they hadn’t seen or caught any. I just smiled…remembering those days when that was me, before the “Old Man” took me under his wing.
I walked back downstream that evening for another go at it, and who do I see gingerly making his way into a nice spot on the river? Yep, the “Old Man.” I saw him from a long way off, and watched him trying to make his way over a log to get to where he wanted to stand in the river. He was having a rough time of it, and then when he saw me coming he just sat down on the log instead.
We said our “hellos,” and then he told me that he thinks his body is wearing out on him. He said he’d never moved so slow getting to where he’d walked from the parking lot, and that he was just too clumsy now. But then he said it was probably what he should expect, since he will be 90 years old this July. I laughed, and asked him if he knew how much I hope to be able to still walk our river when I’m going to be 90? How about 80…or even 70?
I’ve got another 54 years to catch up to where he’s at now, and it’s pretty tough to imagine getting there. But this “young fella” (that’s what he calls me) has grown to love that river just as much as my friend, and now I’ve been asked by several young fellas of my own if I could show them how to catch a fish. I’m guessing they probably called me the “Old Woman,” too.
After I walked further downstream, I laughed as I caught myself doing something I’d never have done those 30 years ago. Walking around a downed tree on the path. You go over them, not around. Least, I never went around them before. I literally laughed when I realized that I’m already on my way to becoming like my friend, and sometimes I take a timeout and sit to watch the river flow past, too. I used to set my alarm so that I could be the first one to reach my favorite spots, and now you couldn’t make me set the alarm…oh, and I quit carrying a net years ago, just like my friend. I learned my lessons well.
I hadn’t even noticed that the changes were already underway, but now that I have it’s not even bothering me. If this is what it takes to become like the “Old Man” I met in my youth, I welcome the changes and thank my Creator for letting me live long enough for them happen to me. I wonder if one day I’ll be telling some new young person on the stream that I’m going to be 90 my next birthday. If I get there, I can guarantee I’ll remember my friend…and the tradition he passed on to this “young gal” all those years ago. I hope to see you again next trip my friend, and I hope to see our river for those next 54 years…