My mother grew up on the water. As a little girl, she played at its banks, watched the water change with the seasons and celebrated spring’s return. As she grew, she recognized the animals that depended on the river for food, those that flew overhead, hopped about and that swam in it. She grew stronger swimming in the river’s current like the very fish that she caught and fed her.
She was the girl that became the woman who taught her girl
Who became the woman who taught her girl to love the water.
I was the girl who rode her bike with her fishing pole to the neighborhood pond then rode back to the house to get my mom to take the hook out of my bullhead. My mom lovingly showed me how to cut the line. She told me I could carry her small pocket knife with me if I promised to be careful. Although I was soon downgraded to a plastic hook remover after she saw me try to balance my rod on my bike during the ride home.
I was the girl who fell off the boat into the river while fishing as a preschooler. After getting toweled off and fortified with a sip of juice, I was back at it again. I was the girl who helped my mom drive the boat, drop the anchor and scan the banks for turtles, herons and the occasional muskrat.
I knew joy on the water but for most of our life that translated to beach time, swimming or boating time, burning through gas and feeling the wind in our hair. Fly fishing was something you needed a special uniform to do properly and something called a creel to keep the fish in. Quite frankly, we caught as many bluegills and bass as we wanted. There was no need for any of that uncomfortable looking brown baggy gear. Pass the leeches…and the pop.
Still, as more images of women fly fishers appeared in social media, magazines and television, the more I became interested in picking it up. Ducking into an Orvis shop with my kids for an unplanned bathroom break, we couldn’t help but stand in awe at the photographs in the hall to the bathroom. Here were black and white historical images of women looking strong. Although not glamorized they still exuded a beauty that transcended any particular generation’s definition of such. Since then, I have recognized the look. It was the pure satisfaction of holding a gorgeous living creature in a spectacular landscape. This is something I knew I wanted for my daughters, so why not want it for myself?
It was then that I remembered a picture that hangs in my mom’s study. It shows two of my mother’s sisters and my cousins in our bass boat. The women are surrounded by kids in life jackets holding rods, worms and fish in various stages of success, all of us with wide grins. How much effort and sheer will was necessary to finagle kids and gear while separating the snacks from the worms with rods and flopping fish. Yet in the photograph they are still able to manage genuine laughter. All I needed to make the leap to becoming a fly angler was managing one person and a fly rod. I knew it wasn’t easy but I was not afraid to fail.
When I made those first few steps off the spinning reel bank into the strong moving waters of the fly fishing world, I knew I would never be the same. The water swirling and adapting to my presence as senses heighten, presumably from the oxygen wafting off the plants streamside. Dragonflies zipping around at warp speed, plants swaying in the breeze that manages to whip up right at the end of my cast. Looking around I see birds are also fishing, the sound of the water is soothingly familiar. I instantly become immersed in the ecosystem, once quite literally. That story is for another time.
I hadn’t known about the triumph of fooling a fish then immediately feeling the current and fish working together to undermine your successful landing. Gathering your wits as you try to remember what size tippet you put on, gauging how much pressure you can apply, knowing that the fish knows the very best places to free themselves before you have a chance to breathe. Only your finesse and quick action will prevent that from happening. The absolute stunning beauty of a trout being released into the stream along with your wish that it will swim its way into the heart of someone else another day. I hadn’t known about any of that. I do now.
I didn’t know how satisfying it would be to work my way through my stream education lesson by lesson. Earning every skill, starting from not even knowing how to cast, or how tightly to hold the line with my index finger, what to keep my eyes on, the water, the line, where is my rod tip pointed? I could barely decide if my waders were on backwards, not knowing any helpful knots to use finally progressing to judging depths, reading currents, rigging, re-rigging and having successful solo daytrips. I’ve caught well fed trout in spring creeks, panfish in urban ponds, smallmouth bass in big rivers, voracious largemouth bass in northern Wisconsin lakes and even found a carp that liked my fly in the Driftless Area last year.
The fact is, I wanted to prove that I could do this. Motherhood had already shown me I could do dozens of things I didn’t think I could do. How is this any different?
I knew water, where fish liked to be, where their energies were best spent.
I wasn’t afraid of getting dirty.
I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes.
I wasn’t full of bravado and was certainly not afraid of trying to outsmart a fish only to lose.
I grew unafraid of catching trees, for better or for worse.
I am still a little afraid of taking a bath in Black Earth Creek, however.
But I am not afraid of fishing alone. Teaching my girls, I know I won’t ever have to.
“What do you love most about fishing?”
I ask our oldest over breakfast one dark winter morning.
“Momma, I love the pull when they fight, It is the BEST!” She exclaimed as her whole face lights up. I smile knowingly, “She’ll be just fine,” I think to myself.
After asking the same of my
youngest, her reply was, “Oh momma, the way they splash and seeing their colors in the sunshine, well they are just SO pretty I mean really, really beautiful!”
Maybe it IS in our genes.
I am ready. With a few seasons of experience now I am looking forward to teaching my daughters. My inner voice while learning wasn’t always patient, but having been a recent beginner, many of the same questions will be running through her mind. With patient eyes and gentle voice I can teach her how to hold the rod, what to look for in the water and what to do with that left hand. It will be my firm grasp that helps her across a deep and slippery riffle. I am ready to point out the birds flying by or the name of the flower the butterfly has lighted upon to distract her from her frustrations, ground her spirit while I retie her rig. I am ready to give her space to figure out her own rhythm and be there to net her first HOG.
Then I will know she, too, is the girl who will become the woman.
I am pretty sure this whole fishing thing was a done deal when I requested we go fishing together on Mother’s Day. The beauty is that we had the whole county to ourselves, I mean who fishes on Mother’s Day?! How would the kids hold up?
Wonderfully, it turns out. They loved darting back and forth sharing fishing reports as though I couldn’t hear the squeals and laughter from up beyond the bend. Their eyes lit up asking when they could fight a fish or just hold one and look at the colors. Peering into our fly boxes would tide them over until we worked our way into the next pocket. It didn’t hurt that there were noises of livestock and various droppings to identify. It really was a special day.
Healthy competition is already moving in to the mix. My husband shared that my oldest wants to know just how well she fared in relation to my skills after their latest outing together. I think as parents we are doing pretty well, they aren’t expecting a lot of fish but seem to always get a tug or see a tail splash. I give a lot of credit to my mentor, my husband and our friends teaching me the subtle techniques required for successful spring creek fishing. I never underestimate pure determination and willingness to change things up if what you’re doing isn’t working. A lot of the same lessons I learned while raising babies actually, now that I think about it.
In a few short fishing seasons I have gone from having a mentor help me with 2 hands on the rod, line everywhere to driving alone, rigging up, landing fish and absolutely loving every minute of it…
I am the girl who became the woman who will teach the girl. Thank you mom.