Catch and Release: Fly Fishing with Dad

As a child, she was always angling for her father’s attention. Still at it decades later, she booked a fly-fishing trip for two to Montana. Here’s what happened after he took the bait

by Elisabeth Robinson
Dad Hal and daughter at ease.
Photograph: Katherine Wolkoff

From a drift boat on the Yellowstone River in Montana, my dad and I are fly fishing for trout. It’s hot and windy, and smoke from Idaho forest fires stings our eyes. He casts. I cast. He waits. I wait.

He sighs. Loudly. And casts again, but dutifully, as if he’s dubious about this whole project. So I cast prayerfully—Come on, you stupid trout! It’s his 80th birthday!—then duck as a gust blows the line back into my face. Once again my dad sighs.

Hal lives in suburban Detroit with my mother, and I live in Manhattan.

I wish we could visit more often—and yet, when we do, I never feel as if I have his true attention. Our short conversations are about politics, books and movies, not our lives and feelings. When I was a kid, we talked even less, and he often looked at me as if I were a possum that had wandered into the house and was playing Pachelbel on the piano. Who are you? we seemed to wonder about each other.

For his birthday I wanted to give him a special trip—and myself a chance to have a deeper conversation. Fishing, which the two of us enjoy, seemed like a perfect way to do both. And we’d never gone together.

On this, our first morning, I’m thinking I should have left it that way. I woke up with a head cold, and the conditions couldn’t have been worse: heat, wind and irritable impatience from the fisher people. After two hours, the only thing rising on the river is my anxiety. This trip is going to be a disaster.

“Cast into the future,” our guide, Tony Valeriano from Sweetwater Fly Shop, suggests. I hoist the nine-foot rod over my head, pause to let it unfurl behind me, then drop it like a hammer, delighted by the telltale whirl of a good cast. I’m 52 and I’m waiting like a little kid to hear my dad say “Nice!”

He doesn’t. He says, “The future, honey,” pointing toward the bow of the boat. “That way.”
Ah. So that’s where it is! I resist dwelling on the metaphor and cast again. No wonder drinking usually goes with fishing: It can be boring and stressful. Especially when you have too much riding on it.

The smoke is so thick, you can’t see the granite Gallatin Range in the west or, in the east, the velvety blue Absaroka mountains. “I’m really sorry about the smoke, Dad,” I say, as if I put it there. “I chose this spot because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Hence the name, Paradise Valley . . .”

“That doesn’t help, saying that over and over again,” he grumbles, a forlorn old bulldog in a baseball cap. He studies the river, shakes his head skeptically and casts again.

Seconds later, his line goes tight. “Dad! Dad! You’ve got one!” I scream. I jump up and nearly fall out of the boat.

He quickly lifts the rod. With perfect timing and pressure, he’ll set the hook in the fish’s mouth. Too little or too much, and the fish will spit or tear it out and swim off with a sore lip.

I really hope he catches it, and I hope it’s big.

The day I was born, my dad passed the bar exam, and for most of my childhood he worked late building his law firm. When he was home in the evening, he was often grumpy: a tie-loosened, briefcase-burdened man who smelled like gin and cigarettes. He’d fall into “his” chair (a La-Z-Boy), as though sucked in by a black hole, to read the Tribune and watch All in the Family or Hawaii Five-O. In the morning, driving my brother, sister and me to school, he was happy and smelled like Old Spice.

On weekends, our old house demanded his attention. Faucets, doors, gutters—he was always fixing something. What hours remained he devoted to the local community theater he and my mother helped grow. He’d wanted to be an actor, but the law offered a more reliable income for a father of three. I remember rehearsing his lines with him and, for his singing roles, accompanying him on the piano. I always had the feeling that I could have done better and that he thought so, too.

Our only outing alone together was on Christmas Eve, when we shopped for my mother at Saks. Its red boxes didn’t need gift wrap, and Saks was outlandishly expensive, which my father believed could almost prove how much he loved her—and possibly make up for what he called his “sins and omissions.” He also liked the free Christmas cheer Saks served from a silver punch bowl. I was invited along to help him—and her. Before we left, she’d take me aside to remind me of my mission: to stop my dad from spending too much money or buying anything yellow, fuchsia or loud. She might hint at needing a navy cardigan or pearls. I promised to do my best, but my dad liked what he liked (yellow, fuchsia and loud prints). A booming-voiced, self-made man, he was hard for a child to negotiate with, especially after a few ladles of that punch.

Once I moved away, first to -college and then to New York for work, my father, oddly, became a little more acces-sible. Facing my own career -decisions and financial challenges, I realized what he was going through when he was raising us. Like me, he had big dreams and often too little luck or faith. He was hard on himself. As the man began to come into focus, the unsatisfied, uncommunicative father began to fade. During those years, he and I did talk, but briefly, never meaningfully. He hadn’t changed; he was still better at diatribes than dialogues, emotionally unavailable and erratic, but I understood him better, which made me feel closer to him than I did when I was a girl. A little.

There was only one situation in which he was predictable. At the end of any visit, when we said good-bye, he’d ask if I needed money. I’d say no. And he’d palm me a $100 bill.

I appreciated the money (I still do!), but I always felt disappointed. I wanted something else from him. More than his approval, I longed for a conversation full of tender wisdom, humor and love. The kind I have with my mother. And what I imagined he had with my brother when they went fishing together. They’d leave before dawn, as if sneaking away, and always return, fish or no fish, laughing and talking and smelling like the wind.

In my family, boys fished; girls didn’t. When I was growing up in the prefeminist sixties, being female seemed inferior to being male, so whatever the boys did was just cooler. Yet I wasn’t a tomboy, which may be why my mother didn’t think I’d enjoy hooking worms and gutting slimy fish. I was small, sensible and fearful. But how dangerous was sitting in a boat, casting once in a while? It looked easy and peaceful, and I could gain some male cachet by doing it. Plus, it might yield the secret of getting closer to my dad.

But not even my favorite uncle would take me. Every summer we visited him and my aunt at their cabin in Ontario. He taught me how to polka and jitterbug, but he’d fish only with my brother and dad. The “girls” stayed indoors to bake or play cards, and on still nights, when I heard the boys’ laughter through the screen, I longed to be with them, under the stars, pulling silver fish out of the dark depths of the lake.

One overcast day when I was about 12, I was the only guest at the cabin. As my uncle loaded his boat with a bait box, rods and a Styrofoam cooler of beer, I screwed up my courage to ask if he wanted company. He laughed and said that wasn’t necessary. I told him I wanted to go. “Girls scare the fish away,” he said with a wink, and added that my aunt would teach me how to cook them.

Years passed, but my desire to fish didn’t. Living in New York City didn’t give me many opportunities, until 1989, when I was 28. With my elusive boyfriend, who loved to fish, I rented a summerhouse in the Catskills, the birthplace of American fly fishing. The fact that my father and uncle didn’t do this kind of fishing, which requires more skill, made me even more determined to master it. I read books and practiced on weekends, standing in the Esopus in my waders, casting for hours, catching more sticks than trout. But I loved it and started to fish whenever I could, hoping one day to show my dad how to do it.

Normally, fly fishing requires wading, but for the trip with my dad, I needed a river big enough for a drift boat, because he couldn’t manage walking over slippery rocks. I’d fished the Yellowstone from its banks before and loved one of the towns it runs through, Livingston, Montana.

Many buildings in this leafy former railroad outpost are in the National Historic Register. Pickup trucks line the main street, with its redbrick one- or two-story buildings, and 10,000-foot Mount Delano towers over it. There are more bookstores than gun shops, almost as many art galleries as bars, and great restaurants. My dad and I love good food. Not just eating it, but talking about it. If we didn’t have fun fishing together, there would always be a restaurant to try and, over dinner and dessert, another chance for me to catch his attention and have a good talk.

There’s not much talking going on this morning on the Yellowstone. My arthritic, ailing father isn’t happy. He just lost that first fish.

He set the hook aggressively, the way he does when he’s deep-sea and lake bait fishing. This is his first time fly fishing, which is different in many ways. And setting the hook is easy compared with mastering the cast.

A good fly-cast is elegant and graceful and, like a golf swing, looks natural but requires perfect timing and skill. When you do it right, you know by the sound and by the way the line falls straight down and the fly, that tiny fake bug made of filament and feathers, lands on the water, 10 to 50 feet away, as lightly as ash. Then you need to make that tiny fake bug move over—or, if you’re fishing with nymphs, the lures that resemble young aquatic insects, under—the water the way a real bug does, or you’ll be found out by that wily trout and have a frustrating, fishless day.
If all this doesn’t sound like fun, it isn’t, until you get the hang of it. A few weeks of practicing on a lawn is enough to get started. And the first time on a river you feel a tug on your line, you might understand why “the tug is the drug.” You want to see the trout rise and bite your fly and pull the fish into your net, and then you want to do it again. Hours pass like minutes in this tranquil, focused bliss, in what is usually a stunningly beautiful place.

But my dad looks the opposite of blissed out. “Dad, do you want to stop for lunch?”


“Are you sure? Do you want a soda?”

“What I want,” he says, “is to catch some damn fish.”

Tony knows a “surefire” hole and, as if it might get away, rows quickly upstream. I search the island cottonwoods for bald eagles, thinking that at least I might be able to show my dad a bird. Behind me, towering gold bluffs drift by.

The longest undammed river in contiguous North America, the Yellowstone got its name from the Minnetaree tribe, who called it Mi tse a-da-zi, Yellow Rock River. To French fur trappers it was Roche Jaune (Yellow Rock), which, in 1805, Lewis and Clark translated as Yellow Stone.
I picture them all waving from the banks of history, the Native Americans and the traders and the cavalry and, later, Calamity Jane, who got married nearby, and the geologist Ferdinand Hayden, who in 1872 persuaded Congress and President Grant to set aside millions of acres of land for the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, 40 miles south of us.

Even with these cheering ghosts and the spectacular scenery, as Tony drops anchor near Pine Creek I have a sinking feeling my dad and I are both going to be disappointed by this trip. We’ve never really communicated; why would he be able to now? Because we’re finally fishing together—and he’s old? I resolve to let go of my preconceived idea of this trip, of us, and just fish.

“Tony, maybe we should try a different fly?”

He dangles a Parachute Adams in front of his face; he’s already doing that.

Second to casting correctly, choosing the right “fly” (which can be any kind of man-made bug) is critical to catching trout, which are as finicky as two-year-olds. They don’t want to eat a grasshopper when they feel like a mayfly! How do you know what they want? With the help of a guide, either at the local fly shop or by your side or, when you’ve learned enough, through observation of the river and whatever bugs have hatched that day. That’s another pleasure of the sport: learning about the nature of each river and then interacting with it. Trying to find what will please those hard-to-please trout. I glance at my dad sitting at the stern and see a giant fish in a baseball cap. That cold medicine is messing with my head.

I spot some bubbles in front of a boulder. Fish love boulder shade. But it’s about 40 feet away, a bit beyond my casting range. I go for it, and my fly lands almost where I want it to. My dad says, “Nice cast, honey.”

I hate to admit how happy I am to hear that.

Ten minutes later, my dad’s got something on his line! This time he sets the hook gently, lets the fish run with the line—zheeep!—then slowly reels it in. As he congratulates my dad, Tony scoops the flipping trout into the net. I snap a picture. My dad’s smiling for the first time since he arrived, and, I realize, so am I.

With tweezers Tony carefully removes the hook to return the nine-inch rainbow to the Yellowstone. On most good trout streams this practice, called catch and release, is required for species sustainability. No matter how much you’d like to hold on to your catch, you have to let it go. My dad and I sadly watch his fish swim away, back into the river.

That afternoon he catches five more trout (luckily, I catch only four). Our moods improve with each one. My dad gets chattier. He tells stories about fishing in the Detroit River as a boy and about a girl he dated when he was stationed in Wyoming while in the Air Force. I want to hear more about her, but he changes the subject abruptly.

“You know, my daughter won a college scholarship for a story she wrote,” he tells Tony. As he recites my accomplishments, I’m amazed that he remembers things I’ve forgotten. I realize he prepared for this trip. He had something to tell me: that all those years while he was reading the paper in his La-Z-Boy or fixing something up a ladder, he had his eye on me, too. “OK, OK,” I say, my throat tightening. “Now you’re telling whoppers, Dad.”

“No, I’m not. It’s all true,” he says, his blue, old eyes resting on me. “You’re like me. You only shoot for the moon.”

As the sun slides behind the Gallatins, we float into Livingston. Cold comes early to Montana, and I feel a chill riding the wind blowing down from the canyon. (A week later, a fire will destroy that pine forest.) My last cast of the day is “into the future.” I don’t catch a trout with it, but a new contentment, just fishing with my dad, in the watery silence of the Yellowstone.
We fish for the rest of the week and get better at it. Or at least I do. He gets better at listening even when the subject doesn’t interest him. I find that once I quit expecting us to be like Jan and Mike Brady, or Laura and Pa Ingalls, we actually have fun together, sparring about politics, movies and which fly to use.

But on our last night, I can’t sleep.

We haven’t had our meaningful conversation! What do I want to tell him—and learn? I switch on the light. I’ll make a list. I can’t think of anything. Maybe this was a leftover longing from childhood, of a dad-daughter heart-to-heart I no longer needed to have?

The next morning, as the river carries us north and the only sounds are the water slapping the boat, my dad sighing and my line whirring nicely, I catch my mistake. I thought only words could convey what I wanted to feel: that my father knew me and I knew him. But we don’t need words. I realize we’ve been having that mythical conversation all week, and with a love that’s no less real for remaining just below the surface.

At the airport, we sit wordlessly drinking coffee and watching jets take off and land. And then we’re out of time.

“Thank you. For this trip,” he says, gruff again. “You know. I’m not effusive. But inside I am. Inside, I’m effusive, honey.”

“Good, good. Me, too, Dad.”

“Next trip’s on me. Maybe tarpon fishing in Florida. Do you need any money?” he says with a smile, slipping a $100 bill into my hand.

“In fact . . .” I hug him and say, “Could you make it $200?”

He shakes his head and waves good-bye. And as he walks away, this time I’m not disappointed at all, only sad to watch him go.

Elisabeth Robinson is a screenwriter and novelist who lives in New York.

First Published Wed, 2013-03-06 10:49

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