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

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.

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