Although I grew up in Spokane, the last thing I would consider myself is an outdoorsman.
My mother-in-law, who lives in Tekoa, Washington, affectionately calls me “City Boy” – at least I assume it is a funny joke and not a mocking jab.
I own one piece of clothing with camo on it – a Nike hoodie.
So when my wife and I packed up the car and headed up the St. Joe River to spend the Fourth of July with her family, the last place I expected to find myself was waist-deep in chilly water while holding a custom fly rod.
But that’s when I knew I was hooked. Both figuratively and literally, as evidenced by the tiny cuts on my fingers.
Tools of the trade
Before our wedding last April, my brother-in-law told me to hop in his pickup as he drove me to the high school shop for a surprise.
At the time I assumed Ryan was using this as a ploy to get me out of the in-laws’ house and to a watering hole of the nonfishing variety.
I was shocked when we actually pulled up to the shop, then stunned when he showed me my “welcome to the family” present – a fly fishing rod he was making for me.
A few weeks later, I got the news that the rod had taken a nasty crash while curing, and he would have to get working on a new one. Not the end of the world as I didn’t have any big river outings planned – or even know how to fly fish.
Last summer came and went without any opportunities to get out on the water. Which was fine by me, since I wanted to make sure Ryan was my guide the first time out.
Sure enough, that chance came over the holiday weekend.
Ryan invited me to join him on the Joe one morning with family friends Tim Sperber and his son Dillon, both far more experienced than I am.
That invitation was followed with a gift. A custom rod with hand-cut tin woven through the handle, name engraved and all.
As much as Ryan would have loved to take credit for the craftsmanship, the kudos belong to Karl Webber, owner of Statera Fly Rods in Tekoa.
Karl knows more about catching fish on the Joe than I know about pretty much anything, so I knew way before my first decent cast that this thing was a work of art.
My wife then handed me a four-day Idaho license so I could make sure my adventure was on the up and up. All that was left to do was learn how to … well, everything was left to learn.
Our long weekend over the Fourth was both our first and last time to the cabin a few miles outside of Calder, Idaho, this year.
Campfires and cornhole will soon be replaced by a crib and car seat.
As my wife nears Week 33 of our first pregnancy, we are both doing a great job of hiding any crippling anxiety. Add in a global pandemic and this has been the most confusing, exciting and nerve-wracking seven months of our lives.
That all went away on the river, though.
There was simultaneously no time and all the time in the world to think about what I need to pack in our “go bag,” or what needs to be done at work to prepare for paternity leave.
In one moment there was just us boys and the cutthroat trout, the next picturing the first time we get to meet our little girl.
I wanted to perfect the art of fly fishing as much as I want to perfect the art of being a father.
And when I say art of fly fishing, I mean it. The grace, finesse and technique needed for the sport makes every bad cast beyond frustrating, but every good one twice as exhilarating.
As far as fatherhood goes, I’m gonna have to wait a few more weeks to figure out if it is art or just surviving.
Searching for the sweet spot
Dillon was the first to get a bite.
Standing the farthest downstream, the trout found his fly the most appetizing as he just missed on a second fish – this time losing his lure.
Meanwhile I just kept learning under Ryan and Tim’s teaching eyes. The two educators by profession handled their inexperienced student with excellent care, blending helpful guidance and positive criticism.
Then 10 minutes later, they must have grown tired of my mindless casting and wandered off down the mouth of a nearby creek, leaving Dillon and me to handle the river duties.
By this time Dillon had caught and released not one, but two beautiful cutthroats. He was just showing off.
As he moved back upstream a bit, I maneuvered back to the spot where he nabbed his pair of fish.
That’s when the casting went from mindless to purposeful. I wasn’t going to get skunked.
A few minutes later came the bite – which on a fly rod is unmistakable.
I’d like to think my first move would be to firmly set the hook and then show patience guiding the fish in. In reality, I probably panicked and just reeled as fast as I could.
But you can fish ugly and still come up with something. That morning, I came up with a 5- or 6-inch trout.
The smile on my face could have fooled people into thinking I had just hauled in a king salmon from the Pacific. I was overjoyed with just the idea that I was able to do it.
All day I told people about my first catch, while Dillon continued to reel in two more. Did I already call him a show-off?
It didn’t matter the size, the time it took, any of it. What mattered is I got outside of my comfort zone – way outside, actually – and came out with something to be proud of.
It was a feeling that I can only hope to replicate my next trip out on the water. But until then, I think my growing family will do more than enough to keep me beaming from ear to ear.
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