Fish Out of Water

fishing with family outside bozeman

Fatherhood and fly fishing.

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? —Robert Browning

BA loved fly fishing. That’s not a typo—my friend’s name was “BA,” no periods. Bee-ay. He never told me how he wound up with such a grammatically insubordinate name, nor did he explain why he liked to fly fish so much. Especially when he didn’t like flies.

You see, BA was a true aficionado of the garden hackle. He’d tie on any old fly—maybe an Adams, or a beat-up pheasant tail—pinch the barb, and then slip on a fat, juicy nightcrawler. Half the time, the worm flew off on the first cast. BA didn’t care. A dozen ‘crawlers cost less than two flies; he’d put on another worm and cast again.

Why not just spin-fish? Well, BA was a rebel. He didn’t care about the rules. He’d grown up worm-fishin’ with his sister in Illinois, and had fond memories of those easy-going days down at the pond. Like every angler, his means and methods evolved over time, and he eventually found himself with a fly rod in his hand. He loved the rhythmic flow of the line forward and back. He felt the spirit of fly fishing and was drawn to it. But try as he might, he just wasn’t very good at it. So he did it his own way, as best he could—until he died, way too young and way too far from a trout stream.

He loved his son and he liked being a dad—he just wasn’t very good at it.

Not long ago, in the wee hours of a warm summer evening, the dog went berserk. I got up and followed him to the door, where I found a young man teetering on the front stoop. It was Wes, BA’s son. He’d been at a house party nearby and remembered the neighborhood from his boyhood, when BA would bring him over.

I hadn’t seen Wes in years, but I knew why he was here. I fetched a couple beers from the fridge and we sat on the patio, talking about his dad.

There were things Wes had never understood, and he plied me with questions. I didn’t know the answers. I didn’t remember the details. I couldn’t quite put into words what was swirling around my head: that for BA, fatherhood was like fly fishing. He loved his son and he liked being a dad—he just wasn’t very good at it. He didn’t understand how to do it properly. So he did it his own way, as best he could.

Wes asked me why BA always took him fishing. That one I knew: “Your dad loved to fish. He took you fishing because he hoped that you’d love it, too. He hoped that you’d at least have that to bring you together.”

I don’t know that fishing actually brought them together. But I like to think that someday, it will. That someday, Wes and BA will stand together on the bank of a meandering stream, casting for trout under a bright blue sky, with the air crisp and clear and nothing between them but love, camaraderie, and companionship—and not a nightcrawler in sight. Or what’s a heaven for?