As my kiddo and I gazed at the slab of largemouth bass flexing along the handle of my net, he asked “Dad, is that fish bigger than me?”
I could swear I heard an echo making its way back… of my own voice asking that same question 40 years ago.
Golden are my memories of fishing as a kid. In fact, it seems that my earliest recollections took place on riverbanks of the Oregon coast, watching my dad angle monofilament lines for wild salmon and steelhead.
I’d stretch out in the lawn next to the fish he’d bring home and compare who was bigger. Many of those chinook really were “larger than life”! I recall my dad’s stories of particular fish, and the wonderful details and analogies he’d use to describe heart-pounding battles reeling fish so big and powerful from swollen rivers with overgrown banks.
Fishing was not merely a pastime or hobby for my dad. It was a thrill of life. It occupied dreams both day and night. It filled the schedules of days, off and vacations scant as they were.
Four decades have passed since the making of memories like those. Countless days off, a few vacations and a lot of casts have come and gone. The wild fish have come and gone too. Mostly gone. But the memories of fishing with my dad have lasted, now several years since his passing. I’ve come to realize what made those memories, also made me. They shaped what I dream of, what inspires me, what I share, and how.
As fatherhood has become the priority in my own life, I’m reminded that the experiences I’m sharing with my son are likely shaping the person he’ll become.
Perhaps he’ll remember my tiny aluminum boat that came from the grandfather he never met.
Or the way I repeat “Just one more cast, okay kiddo?” Maybe the excitement in my voice when I say, “look at the size of this fish!" He is about the same age now that I was when my earliest memories took hold, and I wonder if he’ll remember any of these moments for the rest of his life too? I know I will.
It was a different world when we were all kids. It was a different world last summer. Fishing this year feels different. For our son, and myself.
There is a lot of grit in the gears of life these days. Mom and dad both working from home, wearing masks in public, and avoiding exposure to others. No daycare. No friends. Certainly not fun for kids!
We have some high-risk factors in our life that put us in a category of Social Distancing above and beyond the norm. As someone who often prefers to recreate alone anyways, I can deal with these elements. But what really hurts my heart is knowing what’s being taken away from our son and all the other children in similar situations.
A three-year-old is meant to scramble, run, and scream with other kids. Chase each other up the stairs, down the slide then around again. With all that COVID has disrupted in society, I think a lot about how it’s interrupting the social development of our children. And robbing the daily doses of fun that children need.
When my little boy and I go fishing these days, I’m probably trying to force too much into our time on the water, which catches me off guard during vulnerable moments. I become overwhelmed trying to check all the standard boxes of fishing well, analyzing nuances of the fishery and bringing personal best fish to hand. So I easily let those personal objectives slide. (The tendencies of die-hard fish bums are not easily ignored after all!)
With kiddo along I remind myself it’s more important than ever to let all that go and tailor the experience to his eye-level and attention span. And frankly, I’m also trying to set aside moments to act like another kid for him to play with because avoiding other children is the part of social distancing I think hurts him the most.
The critters we encounter become companions of sorts. The noisy birds and waterfowl, the bugs- heck yes we love the bugs! The flowers, the trees, even my homemade flies. And of course the fish! These things have all become characters of our adventures, to the point that our little one refers to them all as his friends.
I’m not sure how many toddlers talk about their pals Mr. Salmon Fly, Squeaky Grebe, and Cork Popper. But it’s created a reassuring place in my mind that he’ll have these relationships the rest of his life. With plenty more opportunity to resume playing with those silly “people friends” eventually.
COVID has rattled life for all of us, some more than others which time will certainly reveal in the form of hindsight and social studies. As individuals able to partake in outdoor pursuits, we are a slice of the population wealthy with the treasures that natural environments and publicly accessible escapes provide.
Now more than ever is the time to be grateful for what recreational fishing and the freedom to roam enables in our lives. To welcome the mental satisfaction of tricking fish; To embrace the physical feeling of a powerful fish bending a rod; To treasure the emotional fulfillment of releasing a solid catch. And to look around and take stock in what something as basic as taking a kid fishing can provide: Lifelines. Beyond COVID and throughout a lifetime.
From his earliest memories exploring Oregon's coastal waterways to running the beaches of Baja, a deep appreciation for the outdoors has always been a part of Bryan's life. While many of you know him from the his conservation work, The Fly Fishing Film Tour or some of your favorite publications, around home he's simply known as "Dad." These days you can keep up with Bryan through his excellent storytelling podcast SkyLines.