Jeff Seager: Fishing, As Boys See It

I took my son camping and fishing for the first time last summer, and I’m not even a fisherman. We may go again this year. Why do dads feel compelled to do such things?

We went with my friend Kevin, who converted to fly fishing a couple of years before I converted to fatherhood. As I perceive it, fly fishermen are sort of the high priests of the art and  sport of fishing, taking its meditative aspects to their furthest limits.

They are concerned with such things as the water’s temperature and pH level,  the kinds of insects that hatch under different conditions at different times of day. They can spot pools of still water from a thousand yards away. I hope nobody takes this wrong, but when the light falls just right, it looks almost as if they’re walking on the water. I have pictures to prove it.

I think I know Kevin about as well as I’ve ever known anyone. He may not confirm this, but I suspect he’d be perfectly happy if he never took home another fish. He does most of his trout fishing in catch-and-release streams, anyway.

In another life, Kevin is a budget analyst for the U.S. Department of the Interior. But in the water, clad in hip-waders and armed with his hand-tied flies and graphite rod, he sniffs the air like a stalking grizzly bear and moves with studied reverence.

There aren’t many things in this world today that call all your senses into play and challenge you to reach beyond familiar ways of knowing.

Fishing does. Fly fishing really does.

So on this particular day, Kevin staked out a spot near the middle of the Jackson River in western Virginia, and Jonathan – my 3-year-old son – found a stick and pretended to fish along the bank.
The play’s the thing, Shakespeare said (that was the bard, by the way, and not the fishing tackle manufacturer). He wasn’t writing about boys or fishing, but somehow it fits all the same. Whatever your age, it doesn’t take long to figure out that fishing is less about catching fish than about the
playful process of trying to catch fish, and studying in the meantime why your earnest efforts have not been rewarded.

Jonathan seemed to have caught that spirit. No fish were biting at the end of a stick which held no line, no hook and no bait. Little boys don’t have a lot of patience, as you may know, but it was
all of 20 minutes before his clear voice boomed over the rippling gibberish of the river.

“Uncle Kevin! Where do the fish stay?”

I guess the first thing I ever learned about fishing was that you’re supposed to be quiet. It was on the bank of a pond, not a river – I’m sure of that much – and I seem to remember my own dad hushing me, cautioning me not to scare the fish.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pass along that bit of folk wisdom to Jonathan.

Kevin, ever the tolerant friend, simply turned his head toward us slightly and smiled that wry and inscrutable man-of-few-words smile I’ve seen a hundred times since I’ve known him. Then he turned away again.

Jonathan didn’t know it, but he’d asked the single question every serious fisherman spends his entire recreational life trying to figure out. And Kevin had the wisdom to know he didn’t have a suitably short answer.

Yeah, that Kevin is a wise guy, all right; so he kept fishing, leaving me to answer the unanswerable questions of a 3-year-old boy.

I know now why I was compelled to go fishing that day, though rain pummelled our tents all night long and left our crackers soggy and our socks even more so: Fishing gives us an excuse to be very particular about the company we keep.

**Jeff Seager is a staff writer in the Gazette-Mail Metro Department of Charleston Newspapers, in Charleston, W.Va. ©1994