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.

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