Driven inside by the triple digit heat index, I stared out the front window with my two and four year olds like puppies waiting for their owner to return home. At the first sight of Paw Paw’s truck pulling up, the kids were out the door to shower him with hugs and tell him about their latest art projects and I met him halfway up the driveway to give him a hand with his bags. My attempt to play it cool was overshadowed by the excitement in my eyes. The unavoidable chore of transferring our gear from his truck to mine in that heat didn’t sound like a vacation, but in less than 12 hours we’d be behind the wheel and heading north for his first fly fishing adventure.
Strapping down the firewood, grills, and coolers drenched our faces with sweat, while my younger brother Ty was an hour away braving the heat at a state fair music concert. He’d promised to meet at my house before sunrise the next morning to make it a 3 man fishing party. I’ve been to the state fair when I was his age, and from what I remember, sleep isn't exactly a priority. So as you can imagine, there were a few discussions between my dad and I as to whether or not he would make the set departure time.
There’s an excitement that builds up before a fishing trip, something similar to the night before Christmas feeling I remember as a kid. About a month before the trip, I start: tying more flies and leaders than I could possibly use, daydreaming about rising trout while at the office, and boring everyone who will listen with hatch predictions. The “present” I’d hoped Santa would leave under the tree this trip was early morning Trico spinners. Last year, Ty and I hit the timing just right. Every morning when the air temperature hit 68*, Tricos fell from the sky like snowflakes. There was no reason to expect this year would be any different.
Ty must feel the same excitement, because despite the odds stacked against him, he pulled up 10 minutes before my truck was set to leave the driveway. Coffee was distributed, seats were assigned, camper latches were checked, and we were on the road headed toward the Driftless spring creeks that had snuck their way into our thoughts and conversations for the past weeks.
Eight hours of right and left turns stood between us and the campground we would call home for the next 4 days, so Ty and I did what we usually do on long drives. We talked about fly fishing. Somewhere between hatch predictions and favorite leader formulas, Dad spoke up and joined the conversation from the back seat. I’d figured he’d been lulled to sleep by Ty and I’s untranslatable fly fishanees, so I was a little surprised at the sudden interest he was showing. By the time we were 2 hours down the road, he’d been “educated” on upstream and downstream presentations, native vs wild fish, and trout’s field of vision. It became clear he planned on being more of a participant and unwrapping a few presents of his own, rather than an observer from the cheap seats.
The Trico spinner falls had been the expected theme of the trip, but it slowly dawned on me that teaching my father how to fly fish would become part of the adventure as well. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing tour guide and showing off the beauty and magic of spring creeks, but a fly fishing instructor I am not. The last person I “taught” how to fly fish was Ty. His “lesson plan” consisted mostly of: watching me cast, listening to my half sentences of instruction, and sending him downstream with a good luck pat on his back. The course material I planned on presenting my dad hadn't changed much, so I could only hope he’d pick it up as naturally as Ty did.
Our reward for leaving before sunrise was the short time we’d have on the water before nightfall that first evening. After hours of zig zagging our way through back highways and seeing nothing but flat cropland, we crossed an invisible line that transformed the landscape into the rolling hills and bluffs that few people know exist in this part of the world. The change in scenery revealed we were now minutes from the stream instead of hours. You could feel the electricity in the truck. The “night before Christmas” excitement at its peak.
By the time we checked into the campground and set up shelter, a few hours of sunlight remained. We were anxious to get on the water, so the decision was made to start with the spot that required the least amount of drive time. Ty and I’ve fished this section of stream numerous times and have a pretty good idea of its personality, but I couldn't seem to shake that feeling I sometimes get when I drive to one of my favorite spring creeks. It’s like the groom waiting for his bride to open the doors and walk down the aisle. Is she going to skip town and leave me standing here in this goofy tux? Or in this case: Will the stream be the same? Has it fallen victim to the damage our species has inflicted on so many others? Have the fish found a different zip code to call home? Will this stream’s “Christmas morning” be as good as last‘s?
The truck barely came to a stop before Ty and I were rigging up rods and strapping on gear. The look on Dad’s face said, “ I have no idea what’s about to happen, but as excited as you two are, I want in.” We scaled the wet slippery fence stile, and up ahead he caught his first glimpse of a Driftless spring creek. He watched Ty and I fish that first evening without saying much until we returned to camp. With the fire going strong and supper almost done, he started asking a list of questions that gave away his excitement for the thought of having a rod in his hand the next day.
Ty and I had high hopes of a Trico spinner fall in the morning, and I didn't have the heart to break it to my dad that learning how to dry fly fish with size 24’s is a great way to frustrate one self to the point of giving up fly fishing before really giving it a shot. I mean, who am I to deprive someone from becoming addicted to a habit that can cause symptoms of overspending, lack of productivity, and accumulating the “must have” gear found in fly fishing magazines?
The spinner fall didn't happen those next two mornings, which was disappointing at the time, but looking back was for the best. Ty and I get so entranced by sipping trout, that had the Tricos shown up, our tunnel vision would have consumed us, and thoughts of “teaching” Dad would have been pushed aside. As it turned out, by the time we broke down our rods that second evening, Dad hadn’t landed a fish on a dry fly, but was well on his way to becoming capable of making a decent cast without flogging the water or putting all my flies in the branches.
In true fishing trip fashion, I was the first to awake that third morning. After starting the fire and brewing our newly engineered “duck tape” coffee, I was left with little to do other than fuss with tackle. The previous day, I’d noticed my dad having a hard time throwing any type of slack in his line, despite what looked like fairly solid casting technique (thanks to his natural ability far more than any coaching Ty and I provided). Examining the rod I’d set up for him, I made a few casts in hopes of diagnosing the problem. Within two minutes I realized it was going to be next to impossible for him to make anything close to resembling a slack line cast with my “genius” idea of starting him out with a furled leader.
Feeling a little guilty about not noticing it earlier, I changed out the rig and handed it to him as soon as he stepped out of the camper for the morning. “Here, try this.” He made two casts in the stream that ran 15 feet behind our camper, and there was no doubt in my mind that third day would be different for him.
The truck came to a stop at the trailhead that morning, and it was Dad’s turn to experience the Christmas morning feeling. As he stood at the tailgate watching Ty and I rig up, he looked like a puppy tied to a leash ready to be let loose. We started our short hike towards the stream, and I noticed a little more quickness and conviction in his stride. It reminded me of a little leaguer making the confident walk from the on deck circle to the plate, not knowing he’s about to see a curveball that will leave him scratching his head all the way back to the dugout.
With my eye on a favorite section of pocket water, I broke away from the group as they headed upstream. Somewhere along their hike, Ty turned to my dad and said “I’m going up there to get lost in the stream”, and disappeared around the corner. Seeing his opportunity to fish in solitude, Dad waded into the stream hoping to create a little magic.
Without the Trico spinners, fishing that third morning was tough for all three of us. We were left to guess at what the fish were rising to, and never hit it quite right, until Ty decided to try a seemingly unimpressive riffle upstream from our “go to” spot. While I was unsuccessfully prospecting the far banks, I heard the celebratory sounds that one unconsciously lets out when landing a fish after a slow day, so I reeled in and headed upstream to see what all the fuss was about.
I came around the corner and saw my dad had done the same. They were standing along the bank and I could see Ty pointing and waving his finger to different spots on the water like a quarterback calling an audible, while Dad leaned in with an “all business” look on his face, making short nods to confirm he was “getting the play right”. I stumbled in like the guy who wanders into a movie after the opening scene asking, “what’d I miss?”.
The riffle they were working was less than 20 feet wide and looked fairly straightforward from a distance. As I got closer, I could see it was a little more technical. There were actually two current seams.The main channel running fast and parallel to us, and a small spill out flowing much slower and perpendicular to the stream, creating a feeding lane less than 3 feet wide. The rising fish were facing almost sideways to the main channel, waiting for their meal to be delivered by the smaller spill out. Even standing at 20 feet away it was going to be a tough cast, and even if the fly landed in the perfect spot, a 2-3 foot drift is all you could hope for before the main cross current would skate the fly past the fish’s window. After doing my best to coach Dad on how his line, leader, and fly should land, I stepped away, hoping to see him fool his first fish on a dry fly.
His first few casts dropped his fly perfectly, but his line and leader landed in the faster main current which drug his fly past the zone before the fish had time to commit. Seeing the fish rise right at his feet, and realizing this might be one of his few remaining chances with a dry fly this trip, he started rushing his casts, landing the line with less slack in it each time. Then I saw him pause and take in a deep breath. Before his next cast even landed I could tell it was on the money.
The fly landed in the spillway, the line and leader well upstream in the faster moving current. Before realizing what had happened, a brown surfaced and took his fly with the innocence that only a wild trout possesses. Dad timed the hook set perfectly, and out of instinct, I ran into the stream to help land it. Half way out I realized Ty had the net, so I ran back to the bank, awkwardly caught Ty’s pass, and netted my dad’s “Christmas present”. The look on his face was worth every minute of the drive. It was the smile we all hope for when watching someone unwrap the gift we’ve picked out for them.
When starting to plan this adventure, I’d hoped Santa would leave blankets of morning spinner falls under the tree for me. By the second morning of the trip, I realized Santa didn't get my letter this year, and like any kid, my heart sank a little. But unwrapping that last gift of seeing pure joy in a new fly fisherman’s face helped me remember that being on the water is always a gift, even if what we receive isn't what we were expecting.