Much of the fun of getting to know a new fishing buddy is the slow and pleasant process of asking questions about their life and answering questions about yours.
“Where'd you grow up?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
That's the routine Tom Hazelton and I worked through during our first trip together when he asked a question I didn't expect.
“Are you retired?”
Retired? I suppose I'm old enough to have children Tom's age. Still, for that to have happened, I'd have had to muster the courage to speak to a girl—any girl—in high school. Because I didn't develop that particular superpower until I'd made it through four years of college, both of my children are much younger than Tom.
Early middle aged? Maybe. Retired? No.
In fairness to Tom, this wasn't the first time someone had mistaken me for an old guy. The AARP once sent an invitation for me to join their association, but only because some anonymous bureaucrat had mistakenly put my name on their list of old people. Tom's mistake was different. He stood next to me where he could see the same young man's face I see in the mirror. Ragged old Filson hats must make early middle-aged men like me look older.
About the time I'd recuperated from Tom's question, I met a young man named Elliot who follows my writing and knows the rivers I've written about at least as well as—and probably better than—I know them. I'd been on the river for six straight days, and two cold fronts had shut down the fishing for most of that time. If Elliot saw me struggle through another fruitless evening, he'd undoubtedly peg me as a fly fishing writer who can't catch fish. Like a hockey player with a full set of teeth, a pirate with two good eyes, or a politician who can't lie, I'd reveal myself as a fraud.
Hoping to dodge such an embarrassing unmasking, I snuck off to a wide section of the river where I crossed, hid in the woods, and wished for a good fish to rise. I uttered a few prayers too, and just when the sun dropped below the treetops, and the last of its rays were off the water, the big-fish gods answered my pleas. A throng of huge trout rose, and I caught them all. The river was my canvas, the rod was my brush, and I painted a masterpiece. Luck smiled, and I smiled back. Eight trout in less than two hours, and all were seventeen inches or longer. It was by far the best evening I'd had all week and one of the best I'd had in my life.
Two guys were fishing downstream from me, and one of them was Elliot. I had just bought a new Hardy reel, and I was using it for the first time. If you are familiar with the sound a Hardy reel makes when a fish pulls line against its drag, you will understand that Elliot knew how many fish I caught and how long it took to land each one of them. Hardy, I suspect, uses the same sound technology in their drag systems that Honeywell and other companies use in their fire alarms. They are designed to be heard. The following day I was surprised and delighted to receive a kind and thoughtful message from Elliot:
Hey Tim, it was great to meet you yesterday. Had a fun time chatting, and fun to watch you work your magic on those fish! I take comfort in the fact that 5 years of fly fishing experience is nowhere near enough to master it, and if I stick with it, someday I might be the old guy across the river slaying the fish on a bamboo rod!
“All of this ‘old guy’ and ‘are you retired?’ stuff is starting to piss me off,” I wrote to my friend Jerry Dennis. His quick reply endorsed my position.
I know. I'm getting pissed off too. Especially because just a year or two ago I was the guy looking across the river at the old man (sixty!) and thinking how great it was that he could still get around at his age.
I hate to tell you, old friend, but it gets worse. Not long ago I went to a coffee shop and the tattooed, 22-year-old hipster counter jockey said, “What can I get you, young man?” I dove over the counter and throttled him until he was unconscious, wrote “I Am a Condescending Shit” on his forehead with a marker pen, and stole his wallet. Young man, indeed.
I suppose old guys like Jerry and me can hold off the inevitable by throttling innocent hipsters or trading our fedoras and vests for trucker hats and backpacks. But, eventually, we'll have to concede that ten, twenty, or thirty more years have gotten behind us. The gray hairs, receding hairlines, and aching knees are awkward—and obvious—reminders of your evolution from whomever it was that you once thought you were into that old guy across the river. Time is a good teacher, though, and if you keep your eyes open along the way, you can learn a few worthwhile lessons. Assuming, of course, that you wear a good pair of corrective lenses to compensate for your diminished vision, and you make a simple five-point list so you don't forget.
- Short casts catch more fish than long casts. If you want to get closer to something precious, shorten your shadow, soften your steps and weaken your wake.
- You're only as strong as your weakest knot. If you don't want to lose the catch of a lifetime, check your knots twice. Then recheck them. They are the only things that keep you connected.
- Don't leave fish to find fish. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The grass is rarely greener on the other side. You know, that sort of thing.
- Don't be afraid to change flies. Loyalty is important, but you'll miss many opportunities if you are unwilling to change.
- You can't fix a fouled leader with more casting. When you're in a hole, drop the shovel. Stop doing the things that caused the problem in the first place. Random yanks on the line will just worsen the mess.
Of course, Tom, Elliot, and the tattooed counter jockey are right. Jerry and I have grown older and, I hope, a little wiser. But that doesn't mean we have to like it. And it sure as hell doesn't mean we have to grow up.