“Hey, are you coming?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said, “be there in a few.” I hung up and grabbed my boots, tugging them on as I wondered where I had left my keys. My significant other seemed anxious for me to hop in the car, but refused to tell me why. I hesitated, but then decided to take my camera, slinging it over my neck as I headed out the door. I wondered what he wanted me to see at his job site. Did someone bring in a monster fish, or something?
I pulled into the alley next to his truck, admiring the healthy vegetables pouring out of the terra-cotta pots, and wondered who the talented gardener was. It’s no small thing to grow plants on the coast. Whoever lived at the house obviously had a lot of patience.
I followed my boyfriend down the path behind the garage. A tall, greying man stepped out, just as a dog ran up, barking and growling.
“It’s ok, Oso,” the man said. The little curly grey creature suddenly became friendly.
“Dean, this is my girlfriend–”
“–Jennie,” I finished.
“Nice to meet you,” Dean said, shaking my hand. We exchanged light conversation while heading into the house. “You didn’t tell me she was good-looking,” he joked. The three of us laughed as Oso wove in and out of our steps. I still had no idea what I was supposed to see, so I remained curious. I started noting the architecture of the old craftsman home as we chatted, cataloging details. I’m just starting to remodel my own home, and have begun looking at houses through a new lens.
My musings on decorative trim came to a violent stop as we turned the corner into his fly-tying room. Immediately, Dean shot up in my book from acquaintance to potential educator. I was in the presence of a serious fisherman, with decades of experience on the water.
As a fresh young angler, I try to soak in as much quality advice as I can; the stories of others’ successes and failures are intellectual nourishment to me as I grow into the sport. Unfortunately, most of the time when I talk with this man or that, my newbie status (coupled with my gender), awards me a few platitudes and a pat on the head: “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have . . . ” and “Maybe in a few more years,” Neither informative nor helpful.
Facing Dean, a potential mentor, an onslaught of questions slid into my mind: “Is that your wife on the cover of Fly Fisherman?–holy crap!–how much did that fish weigh?–where was that one taken?–do you fly fish steelhead?” Unfortunately, the overload of thoughts left me mute. I stood there with my mouth slightly open, trying to look everywhere at once as the silence grew. Great, I look like just some dumb girl. Good impression, Jennie.
Dean was patient though, and I’m thankful for it. He put up with my poking about in his dry-fly materials as we discussed patterns, sportsmanship ethics, and the importance of doing your own footwork for the best streams. He narrated at least three fat envelopes of pictures for me.
Dean told me about his wife, and remarked that I reminded him of her. Some women are content to do their own thing while their husbands or boyfriends go hunting and fishing, but neither she nor I would be left behind. I told him how I genuinely enjoy fishing, but some of my drive comes from not wanting to stay home while “the boys” are out having fun. Dean showed me picture after picture of his wife. In them she’s smiling, struggling to hold up fish she’s caught; she was almost always in the photo by herself, in her own boat. When Dean talked on the subject, his tone told me that there had been difficulty for her when it came to breaking into the fishing world. He seemed to understand, with sincerity, that a mostly male-populated sport can be very intimidating for women. There were also repercussions for him, having his wife along on the trips.
“Your status goes down when you bring your wife.” It was such a frank, honest statement, it took me by surprise. The idea that my presence would somehow diminish my boyfriend’s credibility on the water struck me as backwards and narrow-minded. Unfortunately, Dean is right. To some, bringing your “old lady” along is viewed as a sign of weakness: you’ll be distracted and miss the bite, or be busy setting up her gear when you could be fishing. I’m lucky enough to be with a man who isn’t worried about other fishermen’s opinions–he genuinely wants me to go fishing. Dean elaborated on the change: “I wasn’t Dean anymore, we were Dean and Peggy.” Perhaps some men would feel suffocated by such a tying together of identities, but he spoke of it as an inevitability. He told me (possibly joking, possibly serious), that fishing was what had come between he and his first wife.
“That’s the Chetco, there, and this was at the Grand Canyon,” I peered at the pictures and noted the changing ages of Dean, featured in each photo. His beard and hair gradually lightened into silver. Some of the four-by-sixes he held onto longer than others, and I realized many of his words were just as much for himself as they were for me. My comments became shorter as I tried to shrink into the background. This man had been catching fish on his own flies long before I was even born. His deep voice remarked absently, “see what I was wearing?” for one, and “look how long my hair was then,” trailing off for a moment before shuffling to the next picture. I tried to stay very still, and quietly peered over his shoulder, not wanting to break the spell that had settled over the room.
Somehow, magically, I had been invited to glimpse into the heart of a fisherman’s legacy. I was allowed to see the culmination of years of experience, that had matured into a confidence and loving appreciation for the sport. This was a picture of the end of a journey–a privilege few budding fishermen get to see when they’re just beginning their own.
“I’m happy to catch just one nice fish each trip. It’s not about how many,” he told me, “I don’t really even take pictures anymore.”
What happens when seasons of loving a sport compound into years upon years? I think Dean and Peggy are an image of what’s to come, and that thought gives me comfort as I continue on my own journey, back here at the beginning.