The one that got away

Fly fishing, family and that book



Page 4 of 4

For the first time in my life, I questioned his actions.

He told me there were some things he didn't have to explain.


My dad visits Missoula every fall now for a few days of fishing after most of the tourists are gone. Last year, we spent an afternoon on the lower Clark Fork casting blue-winged olive imitations to rising trout. We ate fried chicken and threw the bones in the water. We took turns casting. The fish were everywhere and it felt good to show him how to catch them.

My parents don't speak to one another much anymore. If they do, it's about money or insurance, and usually that doesn't go well. But I speak to each of them regularly. My mom seems to be feeling better, drawing and laughing and making friends as easily as she used to. My dad is happy and busy with work and his girlfriend. When I think about what I could have done differently—what I should be doing differently—to help, to be a better son—I know I should have talked more: to friends, to my half-sister, to other family members. I would have been better off if I'd been able to say things, if I'd taken my dad up on his offer to talk. But I didn't, because the problem with my dad's offer wasn't his sincerity or my willingness to accept it. It was the wrong offer.

I never wanted to talk. I just wanted him to do the one thing he always seemed too good to do: apologize.

A month ago, I re-read A River. It was powerful for the memories it stirred from the mud: the sound of my mom's voice sweetly quavering when she called to say she was being left; the smirk on my dad's face when he first donned a Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop hat; the flood waters their 25-year marriage had created at its end. And I remember Dick in his neat polo shirt invoking A River while he watched his grandson play lacrosse.

Maclean was 74 when A River was published. If he'd been at that lacrosse game, if he'd shook hands with Dick and listened to our exchange, I wonder what he would have thought. I wonder what he would have made of my frustration, my confused defense of his work. Would he have been able to tell by the redness creeping into my cheeks that my understanding was no deeper than Dick's?

Once I read the grandest and truest story about fly fishing, a story that articulated my own vague beliefs and truisms, so that fly fishing became an act that could transcend everything.

Despite his demons, Paul Maclean was forgiven with a fly rod in his hand:

"Once he quit wobbling," Norman writes, "he shook himself duck-dog fashion, with his feet spread apart, his body lowered and his head flopping. Then he steadied himself and began to cast and the whole world turned to water. ... The images of himself and his like kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of light."

But that's no longer the whole story. It's the moments between the moments—the moments not for 12 year-olds—when A River turns from a pastoral ode to fly fishing into an elegy for family. Now, 13 years after first reading it, I'm a member of a very different family and I've come to know that there are some pieces that can't be picked up. Nothing—not fly fishing or rays of sunlight caught in falling drops of water—can transcend the pain of helplessness.

Eventually, Paul's vices get the best of him and he's beaten to death with the butt of a revolver. His murder creates a rift between Norman and his parents that is bridgeable, but just barely; it cannot be repaired. They talk about Paul's death tangentially. They talk about Paul selectively. The book's final dialogue is set years after Paul's death, when Norman Sr. says to his son, "You like to tell true stories, don't you?"

"Yes," Norman says.

"Then he asked, 'After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don't you make up a story and the people to go with it?

"'Only then will you understand what happened and why.

"'It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.'"


When I was 12, on that first fishing trip on the South Branch of the Moose, the fishing was bad. What Hurricane Floyd had deposited could still be seen in the swollen-brown brooks and rivers of Upstate New York. The South Branch was high and cold and mostly unrecognizable from the river I swam every August.

We fished for two days. I didn't have waders yet and shivered most of the weekend, though I was too excited to care. The skies stayed intensely clear, the sort of crystalline weather that settles on the back end of a storm and reaffirms life. I didn't catch a fish, but I tried ceaselessly. I tried because I didn't know enough to know that the river was too high and fast. I didn't know enough to search for a calm backwater. I didn't know enough to know that trying was futile.

In the weekend's last moments, my father caught a 14-inch brook trout. I remember standing on a jeep-sized boulder with him as he cast into the pool below. The fish ate a muddler minnow, which was one of the three flies I knew existed. He stood with arms raised to keep the line taught. The fish thumped desperately against his rod, the white edges of its fins glowing underwater.

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