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

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.

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