Outdoor column by Matt Dickerson: Nostalgia and the power of fishing
I’ve recently been digging up old outdoor memories.
Some of it has to do with this pathetic winter. Pathetic in the amount of snow, that is. We’ve done fine with cold. Well enough with the cold, in fact, that news media are acting like it’s the coldest winter since Vermont was buried under a mile of glacier. Well enough that my wood supply is looking frighteningly low. Well enough that people are proclaiming an end to global warming, apparently forgetting that it was only two decades ago that sub-zero temperatures were routine in Vermont winters.
I think it was 1990 that we had a week of minus 15 degrees F temperatures that froze our car battery, and when the (late) Crown Point Bridge approached that special temperature of minus 45 degrees when it doesn’t matter whether you are using Fahrenheit or Celsius. It seemed like every winter back then we could expect a week or so below 10 below.
Still, this winter has had me remembering the old days when we used to be able to sled on our Vermont hillside and cross-country ski on natural snow.
Lack of good conditions for my favorite outdoor winter sports also had me sitting inside reminiscing with my friend Randy Butler about a time (or two) when each of us accidentally went fishing illegally — unwittingly fishing out of season or on closed waters — and only later, after catching several fish, discovered our mistake. In one case the discovery was made with the help of a warden while the fishing was still happening. But since I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on the other occurrences, I will refrain from reminiscing in print.
Mostly, though, I have been reminiscing with my father and two older brothers about the summer some 35 years ago when I first went fly-fishing and had my first day with a fishing guide (shared with those two brothers), and a week later when I had my first experience catching trout in an alpine stream in a remote wilderness. The reason I was dredging up these memories is that — thanks in part to years of writing an outdoor column for this paper — I was recently offered contracts for several books weaving together narratives about nature, ecology, trout and fly-fishing. And that had me remembering that first time I ever picked up a fly rod.
Or, possibly, misremembering. Which is to say, engaging in nostalgia. One of the first problems was nailing down the date. And I am not referring to the exact day of the week, or day of the month. I didn’t need that much detail. I just needed the year so I would know how old I was. My father thought it was 1979 or even 1980 when I turned 17. I was thinking it was 1976 when I was 13. It took all four of us to piece together various clues to definitively nail the year as 1978 — the same year my middle brother fell off a ladder, fractured a vertebra, and started college in a back brace.
The interesting thing, though, was that while we struggled for some time to remember details like the year it happened, or the name of lodge where we were staying in the mountains of Colorado, or what kind of rental car we drove, all of us had very powerful and clear memories of that day of fishing. I remember walking into a fly shop in the morning with our guide, and seeing a trophy lake trout of 36 pounds hanging on the wall behind the counter. In awe, I asked the store owner where it had come from. Turns out our guide had caught it on a fly rod. A mackinaw, he called it: the Western name for a lake trout. It was the only time I have ever heard a togue called a mackinaw, but I remember the name still. And I remember our guide being both a little proud and a little embarrassed when the fly shop owner laughed and pointed to him.
I remember our guide then taking us out in the river. He’d told us to bring “tennies” — assuming we knew what they were. Tennis shoes. We had to be told. Those were the days before any of us owned waders. Neither did I play tennis. But I did have some sneakers and was perfectly willing to let them get soaked for the sake of a day of fishing. I also remember our guide tying two dry flies on his line at the same time: a size no. 14 Adams and about a no. 10 Hornburg. On his first cast, he hooked and landed two rainbow trout, one on each fly, in some riffs on the West Branch of the Colorado River in Granby.
Perhaps most clearly, though, I can still picture that beautiful mountain meadow where the river took a big bend around an old stump and emptied into a reservoir. We had to hike about a mile into it. But it was worth the hike. The three of us, spread out around that jut of land at the river bend, caught fish after fish all that late afternoon and into the evening on Adamses and Hornburgs. They were mostly rainbows and cutthroat, but one brother landed a mackinaw. Not a 36-pounder, but still one that bent his rod.
I have no doubt that my memories — whether about snow, or cold, or trout fishing — are often if not always clouded with romantic nostalgia. Nonetheless, the type of memories that do stick, and the clarity with which those memories stick even as others fade, tells me something very important about the power of fishing.
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