He had been napping in the passenger seat as I drove the interstate through rural Virginia farmlands, past their endless fields of grasses left brown by the August heat and lack of rain, but turning off the highway onto the dirt road was his wake-up call. He removed his earphones, laid his iPod down and then raised his seatback.
"Are we almost there, Dad?"
When did he get so damned big? A couple of years ago we wore the same size wading boots. Now he wears a size larger than me. At six-feet two, he's still shorter than me, but catching up fast. In a year he'll be driving.
My favorite picture of Cary, my oldest child, was taken the day we brought him home from the hospital. I am carrying him to his crib, making a tiny hammock of my two outstretched hands joined at the fingertips and he lies sleeping across my two palms on his stomach with one arm hanging down and room to spare. Cary and my two hands fill the entire frame. His basketball shoe won't fit in my two hands nowadays.
The rear view mirror is useless. An opaque cloud of gravel dust spews from my car and frosts the tires with a fine white powder as we drive the back roads near the Shenandoah River. The head of the dust cloud swirls violently near my rear bumper but then gradually subsides until, several minutes after I have passed, its distant tail settles slowly back into the heat and quiet of the afternoon. A large, brown grasshopper hangs onto the side of a grayed fence post that still shows the small stubs of lopped off branches from its earlier life as a cedar tree. As we pass, its motion catches my eye. It flaps its wings and hops an amazing distance into the adjoining field of brown weeds. He's a good quarter-mile above the river now, but the smallmouth hope he'll come closer. I take a swig from the bottle of water in the cup holder.
We find a spot to pull off the road just above the riverbank and rig the fly rods in the heat as the dust settles and I finish off the water bottle.
I hate this part. It takes so long to rig the rods and you're right next to the river. It's like waiting for everyone else to be served before digging into your birthday cake.
"What leader should I use, Dad?"
"I'm gonna use a 4X. The water is so clear and low I'm afraid anything bigger will spook 'em. You remember how to attach them loop-to-loop?" I ask without looking up from my own knotting chores.
"Yeah. Are you going to use a popping bug?"
"I'll probably start with one." One of the attractions of fly fishing is seeing the fish hit the fly while it floats on the water's surface. "You need help with the clinch knot?"
"Nah, I'm good."
I pull two more bottles of water from the cooler, stuff them into my fanny pack, balance my fly rod in my right hand, and head down the steep bank into the river with Cary close behind. Dirt breaks loose and rolls down the bank ahead of me as I dig in my heels for purchase and try not to run downhill into the river. The cool water spills over the top of my wading boots.
We usually fish for smallmouth with 6- or even 8-weight fly rods, but the river is low and we plan to fish dry flies, so we take 3- and 4-weight rods, instead. Though there is absolutely nothing in my experience to suggest that I can predict how a fishing trip is going to unfold, I nevertheless convince myself that we won't be catching large fish today and small fish are more fun to catch on a lighter rod.
In August, rainstorms are as scarce as modest fish stories and the Shenandoah flows like syrup, simmering in the sun until it feels like bathwater on our bare legs. The stargrass beds, covered with tiny, yellow, star-shaped blossoms on top of dark green branches that float just below the surface, grow so thick in the river that you would think you could walk on top of them. Stargrass fouls baited hooks and spinning plugs, but our dry flies drift over their beds, teasing out the fish hiding in their shadows. These grass beds are as close as the river comes to a neon sign saying "fish are here".
Cary and I spread out to give each other room to cast, but stay close enough to chat. I find a dinner plate-sized opening in a sea of stargrass and cast a small dry fly into it. A fish strikes it immediately, but I miss the hook set, then quickly cast back to the same spot and this time I catch a smallmouth. I love to miss a fish and then catch him with a subsequent cast or a different fly. It's what I like best about fishing, solving a problem, catching a wary fish by convincing him that a few pieces of thread and feather on a steel hook is actually a living insect. See, once I miss him, I know he's there. And then he is usually mine.
I release the fish quickly, returning him unharmed to grow and maybe even to catch again one day. He darts back into the shade and protection of the grass bed.
It's a Wednesday. I love to fish on weekdays, and not just because I frequently have an entire stretch of river to share with only my son, though that would be reason enough. It's somehow comforting to be reminded that while I work and wait for weekends to fish, the river, the smallmouth and the mayflies are oblivious. Fish dimple the water's surface, sending out concentric rings and silently sucking in their dinner of fallen mayfly spinners in the last hour of light every day, even when I'm crawling through the evening rush hour traffic wishing I were fishing, instead.
When you think a fish has sipped in your fly, you pull back on the rod with a quick tug to set the hook. Too quick and your fragile leader may snap or you jerk the fly out of the fish's mouth. Too slow and the fish knows something isn't natural and he spits out the fly. If either of these happens, or if there was never really a fish in the first place, you're just waving a stick in the air. But if there is a fish and you're timing is just right, you feel resistance to the upward motion of your rod, your floating fly line jumps off the water and pulls taut, the rod bends easily under the strain and the fun begins. It's the difference between raising your arm to grab a fistful of air and raising your arm to grab the leash of a German Shepherd that would really rather be somewhere else.
Sometimes, fishing can be insanely challenging. Sometimes, it's so easy it isn't much fun. It can be both at different times of the same day for one fisherman. It can be challenging for one fisherman and easy for another in the same place on the same day.
Today is my day. I am in the zone. Every other cast ends with that electrifying feeling of a taut line when I raise my rod tip to set the hook. Moments before, I held a lifeless stick. Now it springs to life, bends and trembles in my hand, the smallmouth's every movement traveling through the stressed fly line like a bow drawn across a violin string to the tip of my graphite rod and on to my forearm, directly connecting me with the quarry at the end of my line exactly as if I had reached my arm out thirty feet and grabbed the fish with my bare hand. To a fly fisherman, there are few better feelings in life.
It is a good day, but not a great day, because my son doesn't share my luck. As the saying goes, I can only be as happy as my saddest child. I coach him, I encourage him, I tie a fly identical to mine to his leader, I sharpen his hook with a small triangular file, but the fish don't bite for him.
"Are you about ready to leave?" I finally ask, hoping he will not be. I'm not ready to leave the fishing, not ready for a long, quiet drive home.
"I guess", he shrugs, "if you are". His body language is even less convincing than his words. It says that fishing and not catching got old a long time ago.
I have just cast a small dry fly near the roots of a tree growing from the bank and shading a large fish, I hope, from a brutal mid-afternoon sun. I cast five times to the same spot and catch five sizeable bluegills from a pool no more than four or five feet wide. But no smallmouth. I reckon that ending the day catching a nice bluegill might salve Cary's ego, so I ask him to wade over to my spot for a few minutes before we leave.
"Trade rods with me and try my fly. Cast it upstream about a foot from the bank just to the left of those roots."
Cary swaps rods with me and his first cast misses the spot. "About three feet further upstream, I tell him. Try again."
He has a serviceable, if not consistent cast for a 15-year old, having joined me on these trips for the fourth straight year. Good enough, in fact, to have landed a nice snook and a redfish on our trip to the Everglades last spring. But consistently accurate fly-casting takes years of practice. Cary is at that point where he follows five wobbling, off-target, surface-plunking casts with a loop so tight it could pass through a screen door, the fly stopping just above the surface and quietly lighting like a real insect just inches from his target.
His second cast is a bulls-eye and the fish hits it instantly. The smallish 3-weight rod bends sharply.
"I think it's big, Dad", he says hopefully. Fishing has just become a lot more fun.
A few minutes later, Cary lands a 17-inch smallmouth, the largest either of us has ever caught in the Shenandoah. Just upstream are five men taking a fly fishing class, standing in a row across the river and learning to cast. I lift the smallmouth by its lower lip, remove the fly and hold the fish high, hoping they will notice.
It is a mystery of fishing that I can cast a fly into a small pool and catch five eight-inch bluegills in a row, and then my son can cast my same fly into the same small pool with my rod and catch a seventeen-inch smallmouth. Would I have caught the same fish on my next cast to that same spot? I hope not. I want to believe that it was not luck, that there are moments, like this one, when life is simply perfect. Catching this one grand fish alone seems to have improved his perspective on the past three hours and I am freed to feel good about my own successful day. Our ride home will be animated.
Cary explains this mystery with the verbal swagger he generally reserves for our one-on-one basketball games in the driveway, when he heaves an off-balance, desperation prayer of a shot that somehow finds the basket. "Technique, Dad", he asserts with mock sincerity. "It's all about technique."
We call it a day. We hook our flies to the largest line guides near the cork handles of our fly rods, reeling in the loose line until it is neat, and wade back across the river, just far enough upstream of the fly fishing class to avoid their flailing backcasts, and to our Jeep atop the steep dirt riverbank. A few steps before we reach the water's edge and our day of fishing will end, several large smallmouths dart teasingly past our ankles to some anticipated meal or hiding spot upstream.
Oh, what the hell, just one more cast.
"Wait a second, Cary."
I unhook my fly from the guide, the reel singing as I strip off several yards of fly line into the pool behind me, make a couple of false casts to shoot some line, and cast to a spot upstream and just ahead of where these fish should be by now. My fly gently lights on the surface and just begins to drift with the current when I hear a pop! on the water's surface and instinctively raise my rod tip. I feel the resistance and my line stretches taut.