The last fishing trip

Posted by Jim McKee on October 13th, 2011
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It was Sunday August 1, 2010, I was visiting Steamboat Springs, CO for a long weekend with my 93 year old father and my non-fishing sister, Genie.   Steamboat Springs is a favorite destination of my father as he is a lifelong fly fisherman and spent his youth in the mountains, hiking, skiing and fly fishing in the streams of New England.

We spent a couple of days hiking some of the easier trails in Routt County and never made it as far as we needed to visit some of my favorite fishing spots.  My father’s legs and lungs would carry him no further.  Each time, after he had had enough we headed back down and stopped for a picnic lunch and talk about family and fly fishing.

It was a Sunday afternoon and instead of hiking anywhere, we drove to the Chuck Lewis Wildlife area, a nice public access area on the Yampa River.  This is not your average tourist fishing spot as I have met many locals taking a fishing break at all times of the day.   I have already raised two children (now well into their twenties) as fly fishermen and my days of warning about deep water, being quiet, snagging of lines, etc. had long fallen on deaf ears.  I now had another student, my father.

I spent many summers fishing in the Battenkill River in Arlington, VT under the direction of my father.  He taught me how to use a fly rod, watch out for deep water and not to be afraid of the water skipping bugs that terrified me as a child.  I wish I could say that I caught a lot of fish, but as an impatient youth, I hurried too many casts, retrievals and snagged by line.  Sometimes the highlight of my day was the picnic lunch packed by my mother.  We often visited a small, one room fishing store in Manchester, VT called Orvis for flies.

The thing I remember the most was the patience of my father trying to teach me the fundamentals; rod assembly, casting, waiting, tying flies to the leader and being quiet.  Learning to match flies with what was flying around was a challenge of patience, why couldn’t we just start fishing?  I learned from him that a fly is not just a fly, each one was tied for a particular use.  Snagging my line was an all day event;  my flies were caught in the bushes, trees and rocks.  I am surprised that my father got to fish at all with me along on the trip.  Today, this seems easy but it was not for a boy with too much energy and a limited attention span.  I enjoyed our times fishing together in both Vermont and in Missouri.  I grew-up and began spending my free time with my friends and fly fishing with my father was replaced by sports, cars and girls.

Fast forward to marriage, two children and many Colorado summer vacations and I was now the fly fishing instructor.  All of my knowledge was based on lessons from my father and “on-river experiences.”  My two children could not wait for me to assemble their rods and affix the flies.  During our hiking trips in Routt County, I had discovered some of the spots that were thick with Brook Trout.  With little skill, my children were catching a small brookie a minute.  They even learned funny fly names like the “Yellow Humpy” that always seemed to catch fish.   I bought flies by the dozen as they left them stuck in bushes, trees and rocks.  I could not release those little trout from their hooks and return them to the water fast enough.  What a great way to spend the day, a hike, a picnic lunch and the kids getting worn-out catching too many fish.  The kids grew-up and went their own ways and I was back to fishing alone as my wife Christy would take a novel and read while I was fly fishing.  She is a real friend as she would pack the picnic lunch, take a long hike, just to watch me enjoy myself fly fishing high in the mountains.

Back to August 2010, I was assembling my father’s and my fly rods and tying flies on the leaders (with my reading glasses) on the tail gate area of our SUV and I thought for a moment.  I am not setting up fly rods for my son or daughter, I am setting up a rod for my father, the guy who used to help me set-up my fly rod and tie my fly on my leader.   I was now helping the same guy who taught nearly everything I know about fly fishing.  I assembled our rods and tied on some Yellow Humpies, and we began walking down the trail to the river.  I reminded my father to walk with his rod butt forward (as he had always reminded me).   Watch your step, I don’t want you to fall and it is OK to hold onto my belt if your footing becomes unsure.  We looked over the river and we walked down to a “good spot.”   I positioned my father on some flat rocks where he could side arm cast up stream with ease.  I wanted him to have a firm footing in case he felt he was losing his balance.  I walked into the water and fished the other bank.  I did not want to be too far away if he snagged his line or lost his fly.   I changed his flies a couple of times, hoping that he would catch a trout.  He snagged his fly in the bushes a couple of times and copying his patience with me years earlier, I told him everything was OK and that flies were cheap and the fish would wait for me when I was finished helping him get a line back in the water.   I was now more interested in making sure that he was OK than I was on my fishing.  I was listening to him tell a story about one of his childhood fishing experiences and I missed a strike and I did not set the hook in time.

Who cares about catching a fish when you are spending time with your father; a guy who has seen our country grow, lived through too many wars, new technologies and industries became established and then leave the market all in his own life time.

We talked about our past, my father talking about fly fishing with his father and his memories of fishing with me.  I heard the story one more time about how his father would catch a trout, tie into an old black dress sock and place it in the shallow water to keep the fish alive until he was ready to go home.  I told him fishing stories about his grandchildren too.  We fished and talked until my sister appeared on the bank and said that we had had enough fishing and it was time for us to attend an afternoon concert on the mountain.  We walked back to car, opened a beer and Genie took our photograph.

It was my last day in the mountains as I had to fly home on the next morning .  I did not want to spoil the feelings that fishing with my father developed, so I asked to be dropped off downstream closer to town, an easy walk back to the condo.  I thought about why I had not fished more with my father during my short 57 years and promised myself to spend more time fly fishing with my son.

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