It takes a deliberately focused effort to create an angler. Kids won’t start to learn about the sport unless they have been introduced to the game. Luckily the path alloted to me by the Fates has been filled with angling adventures. Our father introduced my brothers and me to fishing at a young age. We learned to stretch a line with bobber and bait. I can’t remember my first fish. Fishing has just always been there.
Later in life and longing for more than a bobber could deliver I embraced fly fishing. There was nothing classy or sophisticated about baitfishing. Brutish and clunky it created the appetite I needed to curb. Like comparing the Bolshoi to breakdancing fly fishing came along and displaced my old fishing habits.
Memories of angling in my youth were highlighted by road trips in a VW van with farting dogs, .25 cent Mcdonald’s hamburgers and Interstate rest rooms, sorry Mom. The van was filled with music and the background radio popcorn you get from poor reception. Those lyrics still echo in my ears today.
Unable to anticipate or decipher the how long my string of life may last I embrace every opportunity to build upon my fishing adventures. My path has followed a learning curve from bobber to fly and back again. The music influences of my youth have formed the foundations for my playlist today. So I thank my parents for taking us to water and fostering the desire for angling my brothers and I still share together.
All freshmen at Wabash College are required to take a series of Cultures and Traditions(C&T) classes. It is a liberal arts approach that is seldom appreciated today. (One testament to the quality of outdoorsmen Wabash College produces would be the prominent photographer, writer and guide Brian Grossenbacher. We attended Wabash with two overlapping years.)
During the first C&T class Greek mythology introduces a tale of three sisters Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the Three Fates. Myths told over hundreds of years described the women as the daughters of Zeus. And the three wielded great powers over mortals assigning destiny to individuals.
Mortals lived along a “String of Life” that was spun, measured and cut buy these three. Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured the length of your string. And Atropos cuts the string of life. So powerful are the destinies assigned by these three sisters even Zeus couldn’t alter the destiny assigned to a mortal by the Three Fates.
My brothers and I began as bait fishermen, worms, crickets and leeches. We were well adept at catching fish with food. We even learned to use human food for a nontraditional bait like hotdog chunks for catfish. When life prompted a change in location I found fly fishing in the mountains of Colorado. I liked everything about the sport. Quickly baitfishing was abandoned and fly fishing was embraced. Since then I have waded freshwater and saltwater exclusively with a fly rod and a weight forward fly line.
As kids I remember gathering around a little television in the first house we lived in as a full family of five. My younger brother and I laying on the shag carpet needed to remain quiet so dad could hear the band playing. He would call all three of us, David, myself and Daniel in order of age, to watch a variety of music on tv from Austin City Limits to PBS broadcasts and the Opry. Haunting performances that formed the base for my music appreciation today.
I remember a group of four men that really excited my dad and still do. One wore his hair in two long braids and a red banadana. His voice seemed to pause and hitch just a little differently than the other three. And there was poetry in the air when he sang. He was the Poet. The next man with a scruffy, dark beard wore a big, cowboy hat. His leather vest made him look like a gunslinger about to draw down on Audie Murphy. He was the Outlaw. Then a man dressed all in black. I had never seen anyone but our preacher dressed that way. So he must be a holy man, I thought. He was not exactly a Preacher. The last man seemed young. Dad said he was a smart man, a Rhodes Scholar. I thought he looked like the people who taught at the university with my father. So I called him the Professor.
My favorite was always the Poet, Willie. And he still is today. The Outlaw, Waylon made cowboys cool. That Preacher, Johnny was far from the holy man I mistook him for. But his voice could run the devil out of a room like no other. Never understood the Professor, Kris as a kid. I do now. These men will forever be known as the Highwaymen.
The VW van with a white top and red body looked like the red and white bobbers dad taught us to fish with when we were little. Dad piled my brothers and me into the van and he took us to water. Not a devoted angler by any means he gave us the chance to be enamored with fishing for life.
He drove us to local spots, Rooney’s Farm, Doc Swartz’s pond, Yoctangee Park Lake. But on long fishing trips to places like our cabin in Wisconsin we would fight for the seat by the wings. The small, tip-out glass windows, supposed to give you fresh air. The radio in the van was tuned for familiar voices. Dad would try to sing along in his off key tone to bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. But when the Highwaymen came over the radio waves we had to close the wings and all sing along.
Pure Ignorance Expeditions dad called them to baptismal waters where my brother and I expanded our range. An aluminum Grumman canoe delivered us across the Wisconsin river to quiet coves that held bullheads, bluegills and bullfrogs. It didn’t matter what we brought home. Dad never seemed to mind pulling out his fillet knife, touching up the edge and cleaning our catch. And we loved eating it all.
We never filleted our catch. Too much was wasted cutting through rib bones and trimming away meat. Scaling, skinning and gutting, we cooked our catch whole. We learned to separate flesh from bone with a fork over a dinner plate.
Waylon is gone now. Johnny has left us too. Both achieving immortality through music and verse. Willie, already immortal, clutching the same guitar as always still enchants us with his songs. And Kris continues to entertain us in movies, television and on stage, an immortality of sorts. Their lives having lived far beyond the string the Fates allowed. They seem to have done what the almighty Zeus could not.
Bobbers were our learning ground as a young kid. Dad’s tool of preference. He taught us how to put it on the line with the little brass hooks that were on a spring to keep them taunt. We would watch him rig up. He taught us how to cast a bobber with a Zebco 33. We learned how to drift and how to read a bobber that was swimming. There is a Zen achieved when watching a bobber, suspended between expectation and anticipation. My Dad could sit there for hours watching a bobber if there was a hook underneath it even better but not necessary.
There was a time when my younger brother reeling in his line with vigor, the red and white bobber pulsing across the surface, was engulfed by a voracious Northern Pike. The beast breached the surface, attacked the plastic ball and severed the line all in one motion. We sat there wide-eyed, slack-jawed and more motivated than ever. Dad never showed us that with a bobber.
Nothing fancy here either when it came time to us fishing with a bobber. No stick and cork with pinstripe paint and flashy finishes. Too expensive for dad to buy and watch us wrap around a overhanging limb. It was the cheap red and white style you always find rolling around in the bottom of tackle boxes. When we did have a fancy cork it was because we found it in a stick pile or washed up on shore. We scavenged for any fishing gear we could when we were kids.
Bluegills were a favorite, they always meant a fish fry. When we timed it right we would hammer the bluegills on their buried tire looking beds. If one of us inadvertently cast our bobber too near the cattails a largemouth bass would give us a huge thrill. If we kept them from wrapping us up in the weeds.
Watching my brother’s bobber with more attention than my own we would call set for each other. Now as a professional fly fishing guide I watch my client’s strike indicator (Snooty fly anglers can’t call them bobbers, too uncooth, too redneck. Bobbers are for bait fishers.) calling “Set!” like I did for my brother. And Dad did for us. The attention given to a bobber as a kid now rewards me as an adult.
These days you will find me frequently with a strike indicator in my jacket. Like a kid who found a bobber wrapped around a tree branch hanging in the breeze. And he put it in his pocket. A strike indicator helps me turn any fly fisher into a productive angler. Strike indicators or bobbers, call them what you will, nymph fishing has turned them into an accessory all fly anglers purchase.
Fishing with a strike indicator allows me to help my client work through a section of river. It’s as close to a sure thing as I can find. Easy to present, easier to detect and a fairly understood concept even before the trip begins. A strike indicator eases the anxiety and intimidation some anglers associate with nymph fishing.
In the End
Most anglers don’t honor the time given by the Fates. Planning fishing trips with good intentions for crossing items off life lists that are never attained. Whether you see yourself as the Poet, the Outlaw, the Preacher or the Professor the best advice would be to listen to the verses of the Highwaymen. Fish a bobber. Take road trips and create angling adventures.
Fishing remains the common activity my brothers and I continue to build memories around regularly. No longer limited to the size of the pond, how far we can ride our bikes or what bait we can scavenge our angling adventures today continue to enrich our lives.
When Atropos wields her scissors and severs my string of life it will be a weight forward flyline the fate will cut. The words of the Highwaymen will be echoing in my deaf ears while I watch a bobber on a pond. And it might not even have a hook.