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Timing is important. I have already made enough mistakes as a father to know that you have to wait for the right moment to give your child what you really want him to have. I gave Gordon a bicycle before he had the confidence to ride it; trying to please me, he wound up in the emergency room, getting stitches in his chin. Now the bike sits in back of the house, with cobwebs in the spokes.

What I wanted to give Gordon was fishing. I had made the mistake of trying to do that once before, when he was four, and he stood on the bank of a trout farm, shrieking in terror as a ten-ounce corn-fed Eastern brook trout flopped about at his feet. He told me then that he would never go fishing again. I left him alone for four years.

It was curious to me that fishing, as a gift, would mean so much to me. Fishing was hard work, and I was never good at it. Some of my most dreadful memories of childhood are those grudging moments before dawn when my father, always an enthusiastic riser, would shake me awake and hand me a fishing pole. I have seen the sun rise on lakes and rivers and streams all across the country. I have experienced life-threatening bouts of seasickness on party boats above the snapper banks; once, in the West, a moose erupted from the morning mist and made a lunge for my lure. I have been hot and cold and wet and parched, not to mention scared and bored, all on the same day. The nature of fishing with my father was that one suffered through extremes.

Somehow those miserable experiences have become my most precious memories. It is the same, I think, with soldiers, who hate wars but relive them endlessly. What else are memories but moments when life burns through the membranes of the everyday and the ordinary, when we feel the value of love or the fear of death or the meaning of existence? In those moments we come closest to understanding ourselves, and such understanding is physical and often painful. All this is by way of saying that fishing is a seeking after truth.

For several years my father and I have planned fishing trips, without actually taking them. I was weighed down with work and children, the fisherman’s equivalent of being redshirted. Since I was reduced to merely thinking about fishing, the kind of fishing I thought about was a dry fly on a cold Western stream with rising rainbow trout.

If you are not a trout fisherman, you probably have an opinion about people who are. Go to any bookstore and three quarters of the fishing books are about trout, even in Texas, where freshwater trout are as exotic as wildebeests. There is no way to disguise the pretension of these books. They are written by hyphenated Brits or retired State Department types, they are published by the toniest houses on the finest paper, and they cost twenty bucks apiece. One glance tells you that trout fishing is a sport for monied intellectuals. But it is also a sport for fellows whose fishing is largely confined to reminiscing and fantasizing and planning trips they never take—like me.

The trip my father and I planned this year was to fish the big rivers of the West. For trout fishermen some of those rivers are so legendary that their locations are not even mentioned in those $20 tomes. One is presumed to know where are the Madison, the Firehole, the Frying Pan, and the Roaring Fork; it would be like not knowing where is the China Sea. Names such as these are like butterflies, to be imagined and collected in memory.

When my father proposed that we include Gordon in this year’s plan, I guessed he had decided I’d never make it to a trout stream unless I brought some part of my burden—in this case, Gordon—along.

Gordon took the news with resignation. “Okay, if that’s what you really want” is what he said. He knows that boys are supposed to do this sort of thing with their fathers; it’s an obligatory experience of childhood, like learning table manners. What he didn’t understand, and what I didn’t dare tell him, is that this was a special gift and that if he didn’t receive it properly, he would hurt me in some minor but unmendable way.

I decided to soften him up with gear. One of the attractions of sport, as Gordon is discovering, is the beauty of its equipment. My father and I took Gordon to Hunter Bradlee in Dallas. Hunter Bradlee is not an ordinary sporting-goods store. It’s where billionaires go to be outfitted for safaris. It’s dedicated to the blood sports, hunting and fishing, so it has a seriousness of purpose that one doesn’t find in the sporting-goods section of Sears. Gordon knew the moment he walked in that he was being initiated into some manly ritual. “Wow,” he said. “Can you imagine Mom in this place?” He fell for it, the magic of gear.

The next day we flew to Pocatello, Idaho, and rented a car and drove north. We had a week of fishing ahead, and I planned to make a big loop through eastern Idaho, through the Yellowstone down to Pinedale, Wyoming, and back to Pocatello from the south. Some of the finest trout streams in the world are found inside this circle. Another fisherman might draw a circle with more fish inside it, but it wouldn’t have the Yellowstone or the Tetons. I wanted Gordon to be overwhelmed. I wanted him to have no chance at all.

We spent the first morning paying homage to Henry’s Fork of the Snake, which I recognized as being too much river for us, but it is a part of the literature and I wanted to see it. Gordon put on his $50 hip boots and tramped around on the bank. He was already bored and scared of the water. In fishing terms, he was definitely not hooked.

Somewhere along the drive to the Yellowstone we stopped for gas, and my father came away with a brand-new cassette tape of Guy Lombardo’s greatest hits. He hates the radio. Gordon, whose favorite singer is Michael Jackson, rolled his eyes when Lombardo’s band struck up “In Apple Blossom Time.”

I was giving a lot of thought to where we could fish. My companions were an 8-year-old boy and a 69-year-old man. The two of them suffered similar constraints. I thought how there is only a brief time in life when father and son meet man to man, one on the edge of his prime and the other just beyond it, and for the most part that is a period when neither has time for the other. The days when my father and I could have waded the big Western rivers together were gone. To fish in those rivers you need confidence in your legs; otherwise the bottom turns to ice and you find yourself bumping downriver on hard, polished stones. My father got his legs by running around the quarter sections in rural Kansas. He became a lanky half-miler in college, then an infantryman in World War II. What he lacked in technique as a trout fisherman he made up in endurance. He could wade into the flow of the fiercest stream, but too often I had held him back by lagging behind. When I finally got to the age that I might have kept up with him, we started planning the trips we never took.

His own father had taken him fishing only once, on his twelfth birthday. My grandfather was a farmer, and as a general rule farmers make sorry fishermen. They have no use for sport, since sport is little more than a celebration of the savage man, the way man was before the farmers civilized him.

Somy father took a cane pole to a stock pond in central Kansas, and while his own father dozed in the shade, scarcely aware of the gift or its value, my father discovered the joy of the bobbing cork, the surprising tug of the line, the elementary pleasure of yanking a small life out of its element. There was also in this moment the thrill of having his father to himself, although his father was a man he barely knew. He was gone to the fields every morning before sunrise, and every day of his life he worked harder than the day before, bleeding himself into the ungrateful soil, so that he became remote from his family and an enigma to his youngest son and a failure in his own mind. It is sad to me that he slept through one of the great successes of his life, the day he gave my father fishing.

We had been working a gentle stretch of the Gibbon in one of those queer mountain showers when the sun shines through the raindrops. The earth here was still hot from the fever of creation; steam rose out of sulfurous vents along the streamside. Gordon and I were fishing in the same pool, I with a fly rod and he with a little casting rod and a cheap Zebco reel. He was putting a polka-dotted spinner under the lip of the opposite bank. I was nervous about his being too close to my fly rod, so I moved down to the next pool and told him to stay out of reach.

In a moment I heard a crash and a splash and turned to see Gordon face down in the water. He got up looking stunned but not hurt. Then he began to wail. He was wet and cold and covered with mud. The Zebco and the rod were floating downriver toward me. I picked up the rod and then I picked up Gordon.

“I was—” he started, then sobbed. “I was standing on a log, and it broke.” I saw the rotted, waterlogged stump in the water.

“You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay!”

“You just got a little wet.”

“I’m soaked and I’m cold. I hate fishing. I think it’s stupid.”

What is it about fathers that makes them so tough on their sons? I knew how miserable he felt, but there is some stern drill sergeant inside me who is always telling Gordon that he isn’t hurt when he is and that he is okay when he isn’t. I was angry at myself because I’d known he would fall. Gordon is an extremely cautious child; he knows his limitations. He’s the only kid I’ve ever heard of who learned to roller-skate without falling once. But instead of applauding his caution, I urge him to take risks, to fall occasionally and to get up and try again. No one ever learned to wade the Western rivers without falling.

My father came out of the woods. He had heard Gordon crying, and he did what I didn’t do. He knelt and put his arm around him. Then he proceeded to recall my own worst fall. It was on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, and I was fishing upstream. I got in too deep to go forward, and when I tried to turn, I felt as if I were being shoved aside by a fire hose. Suddenly the water crested my waders and away I went. I can remember slamming into boulders and the gravel tearing through the rubber waders and then through my jeans and then through me, but most of all I remember my father standing on a rock as I went flying past crying for help, and he was laughing.

“You laughed?” Gordon asked him.

“I guess it wasn’t very polite. I laughed so hard I fell off the rock and went flying downriver myself. It was quite a bumpy ride, I can tell you that.”

Gordon gave me a look. I couldn’t read it entirely, but I think it had something to do with the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. That night as I lay in bed watching Gordon and my father sleep, I wondered what it was that had kept me from comforting Gordon when he fell and if it was the same thing that had made my father laugh when I fell. He hadn’t laughed when Gordon fell.

And how would I have wanted him to respond to my falling? On the one hand, I was glad he had laughed. It was part of the seeking after truth, for it is one thing to be sailing downriver and to have your father rush after you and pick you up in his manly arms and wipe away your tears, and it is another to have him stand on a rock and laugh at you.

On the other hand, I was also glad that he had fallen off that rock.

One of the endearing qualities of Western trout is that they are sluggards in the morning. You can beat the sunrise to the stream, but you’ll find yourself marking time until the mist burns off and the fish have stirred. At midmorning on the Buffalo Ford of the Yellowstone River the fishermen were just beginning to arrive. Usually I like to fish in privacy, but by noon there were fifty men in the water.

The Yellowstone is the last natural fishery left. Once trout were so abundant that they were like a fourth atom in the molecule of water. A hundred years ago the average catch in Yellowstone Lake was more than sixty fish an hour, but Gordon and I spent a long, fruitless afternoon in that same lake without a single strike. In most states now trout-fishing management has been reduced to stream stocking, which at least keeps fish in the water, but hooking them is something like shooting domesticated turkeys. Once a forest ranger advised me that if I wanted to catch a fish on a fly, I’d need to imitate corn, not insects. Hatchery fish are raised on corn. “Get a yellow fly,” he told me.

The Yellowstone River is filled with native cutthroat trout, but to catch them you have to put up with those fifty other fishermen, and when you catch a fish you have to let it go. This is sport without the trophy, and its great advantage is that you might catch a real fish who cares nothing for yellow flies.

There was a gusty breeze blowing downstream. I’m not a good caster, especially across and into the wind. Some big white pelicans went floating past, and they looked like newspapers blowing across a park. But the wind didn’t seem to bother the fishermen around me. Those guys were pros. They laid out giant loops in the air. They were catching fish right and left, while I was untangling knots in my leader and wondering why I like to fish so much when I am really so bad at it.

Gordon wanted to wade out to me. He had been fishing patiently, but now he was bored.


“Shhh!” Somehow all those fishermen imposed silence. I felt as if we were fishing in a library—a kind of fish archive where scholars came to browse. “I’m fishing,” I explained in a stage whisper. “Just let me catch one more fish and I’ll come take care of you.”

“What do you mean, ‘one more’?”

It is always a stupid practice to lie in the presence of children.

“Just give me ten minutes.”

Gordon thrashed back to the bank. I tied on a number 10 Elk Hair caddis and began to cast. I could see fish working all around. Suddenly something struck at my leg, just at water level. I felt a prick through my waders. Snakebite!


There was a very familiar-looking spinner stuck in my leg, and an incriminating nylon line led back to a Zebco reel held in the hands of a half-embarrassed boy. I say “half-embarrassed” because the other half of him had a defiant set to his chin.

I got the hook out and waded out of range. Warm blood and cold stream water were dribbling down my leg. I was half angry and half embarrassed myself. There are not many moments as a father when I have a clean set of emotions.

I saw a flash of orange hit the caddis. It was a big cutthroat with those garish red-orange slashes behind the gills. My fly rod was whipping wildly, and my pulse was drumming. I glanced over my shoulder at Gordon. It took him a moment to register what was happening, then his face lit up. “Hey, look!” he shouted down that long library corridor. “My Dad finally caught a fish!”

On our last day Gordon still had not caught a fish himself. We were going up into the Bridger Wilderness to the headwaters of the Green River. While we drove, it rained, and the sun came out and caused a double rainbow. The big one must have stretched a hundred miles.

“I’ll get by, as long as I have you . . .”

Gordon and my father were singing. By the time we got to Pinedale, Gordon had learned most of Guy Lombardo’s greatest hits. We made a pact that we were going to eat fish tonight or go hungry.

The Green at that point is a fast stream with flat banks in a broad glacial valley. All over that part of Wyoming you see the litter of the Ice Age, huge stranded boulders in the prairies and arid moraines stairstepping toward the distant peaks. We stopped by a bridge with a nice hole below it. My father walked downstream about fifty yards, where the river forked. He started catching fish right away. At least we wouldn’t go hungry.

I started thinking about the first fish I ever caught. It was a small bass I took above a beaver dam in northern Wisconsin. I named it Larry Wright Blue Eyes, although bass don’t have blue eyes and neither does Larry Wright. We had it for dinner that night. I’ve never since named a fish after myself.

I wondered what the trip would come to if Gordon didn’t catch a fish. I was surprised to realize that it really wasn’t important. Maybe I hadn’t given him fishing, but I had given him a part of me, a memory. I figured he’d always remember when he fell face down in the Gibbon. Even bad memories have a way of becoming an important part of you. They help define you. Even that little scar on Gordon’s chin from the bike accident tells him that he’s the kind of kid who takes a fall now and then. He’s proud of that scar.

I had been hard on Gordon, perhaps too hard. And yet catching a fish should be hard work—otherwise, what is the value? where is the memory? I wanted Gordon to discover himself in nature, so I had taken him to rugged country where the land swells up and scares you a little. The risk was that Gordon would fail and would hate me for it. But that’s the risk a father has to take.

I watched Gordon flick a spinner under the bridge and work it across the hole. In the middle of the hole there was a big limestone rock that didn’t quite break the surface, but you could see where it divided the water right below. I was thinking that if I were a big fish, that’s where I’d hang out. I started looking at the insects to see what was hatching.

“Dad, can I use your fly rod?”

The one thing I had decided was that I would not let Gordon use the fly rod. It has taken me years to become even a passable caster. Also, the fly rod is dangerous. Also, it’s hard to put the fly on the water naturally, as if it just dropped dead out of the sky, and not surround it with line or drag it so that it looks like a kite on a string. There are a lot of good reasons why I’m a mediocre fisherman.

But I decided I’d let him try it. I had just tied on a Pale Morning dun.

“It’s a straight motion, like throwing a football,” I said. “You bring it back to your ear and then push it forward. Try to keep your elbow straight.”

“Like this?” He flipped it out fifteen feet or so. He had a handsome loop in his cast.

“Try to keep a little slack in your line. Just before you let the fly drop, let your wrist pop back.”

He did it.

I sat on the bank and watched. The kid had a natural motion that I’ve never had. No one had ever told him how hard it was; he hadn’t yet read one of the $20 books.


I had already seen the fly swallowed up in a little curl of water. My reactions were frozen.

“You forgot to tell me what to do when I caught one!”

I came to and helped him land the fish. A nice little rainbow. I took it off the hook and hit it against a rock.

“What are you doing?” Gordon asked.

“Killing him.”


I put some dope on the fly so it would float again. “See that big rock in the middle of the pool?” I said. “See if you can find the big fish that lives downstairs.”

Gordon drew out some line. He must have been watching me false-cast to get some distance on my line. By now my father was nearby, watching Gordon cast. It was a pretty sight. We saw him lay out that pretty loop, with the Pale Morning dun dropping easily onto the current and floating toward the rock like room service. We saw the big flash of color in the water, and we heard Gordon’s cry, and we saw the rod dance. We saw him take in line and give it back and take it in and take it in.

It must take at least three generations to raise up a real fisherman.