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

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?”

“No.”

“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.

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