Heather Radke | Longreads | June 2018 | 6,282 words (25 minutes)
In front of the cash register at the fishing shop in Grayling, Michigan, between the Trout Unlimited maps of the river and the hats that say size matters, there is a small shelf lined with business cards. Each of the stacks of cards, save one, are for fishing guides, men who will take you to the good spots on the river and teach you how to cast a fly rod. The final stack of cards is for a local urologist.
I am here with my dad, trying to finally learn to fish. We have driven three hours up the middle of the state from Lansing to Grayling, one struggling city to another. Camp Grayling, just outside of town, is the training ground for the Michigan National Guard. There is only one expressway that far north in Michigan, and as we approached Grayling on the two-lane highway that runs to the Upper Peninsula, tanks and camo Humvees slowed us down, too big to pass.
Michigan is a state of struggling towns, places that depend on a trickle of tourism, small farms, or a single industry. There was a time when the promise of the unions and the auto industry was this: You can make enough money working on the line to have a house in town, a car in the driveway, and a cottage on the lake. It feels ludicrous now to think that a blue-collar job could propel you so far into the middle class, particularly as we drove through the desiccated remains of the failure of that once-true promise. Grayling was the kind of place where you might have built the cottage. Now the tanks, the Family Dollar, and the boarded-up bow-and-arrow factory hint at the presence of another Michigan cliché — the Michigan Militia, a right-wing paramilitary group that was once rumored to be affiliated with the Oklahoma City bombing.
As we turn off the main road into the gravel parking lot, the fishing shop stands before us in contrast to much of the rest of town. Fly-fishing is a gentleman’s sport. It is literary and beautiful, historic and manly. Elegant in the simplicity of its mechanism, it suggests stewardship and stalwartness. This shop does not sell florescent orange camouflage vests or mechanized crossbows. It sells fishing baskets and slouchy hats, signs that say catch and release, volumes of poetry from local authors, millions of tiny hooks and feathers meant to be ordered neatly into small boxes, collected and organized taxonomically for ready response to myriad conditions.
The shop is built from blond-stained wood and has well-kept oak floors and handmade rockers on the front porch. Business must be good — a second building is going up next door. My father comments on the craftsmanship of the expansion to the man behind the counter, “Beautiful roof on that new building!” My dad is tall and loud and large, and always makes excessive small talk with the workers on the other side of a fast-food intercom or outside the car window pumping our gas. My brother and I found it mortifying as kids, melting into our seats with embarrassment. I have long since found it charming.
A year ago, after almost three decades in Michigan and Chicago, I went east for a late-bloomer jaunt in grad school and to finally see how things felt on the mythical edges of the country. Now it’s August, and I’m back in Michigan feeling nostalgic for my childhood. I spent the last week in Chicago, reliving my mid-20s, drinking beers at bars with Old Style beer signs out front and swimming in the cold, urban lake, the skyscrapers bobbing above me. The day before I left, my friend Ryan had blown my hair straight and dyed it blond in his hip West Loop salon. After he’d swept away the smock, I shook it out and felt like a pony, strutting and fancy. Today, in this tackle shop in Northern Michigan, my hair still straight but pulled back, I feel too precious, too clean. I wish my hair were three-days dirty and matted to my head.
I was home visiting my parents when I decided to ask my dad if we could go fishing. I was bored in the suburbs, and the long summer evenings and loud cicadas reminded me of when my dad would take my brother on fishing weekends. “We actually always went in the spring,” my dad told me, and I realized that I was likely confusing my own memory with something I had read in a book. He was happy to take me anyway, but it was clear that my urban wardrobe wouldn’t work on the river. We pieced together an outfit, and now I’m standing in the fishing shop wearing tight, high-wasted shorts, my mom’s Tevas, a Tigers hat, and a much-too-big shirt I found in my dad’s closet.
I have no memory of our parents gendering my brother and I, giving him trucks and Hardy Boys books, me dolls and Little Women. But divisions came anyway, and my brother learned to cast a fly rod while I never did
My father talks loudly, pointing out everything in the shop. “This small fly is good for the springtime. This is a special bag for hauling your pole. Oh look! Twenty different colors of fishing line!” He discusses the life cycle of the different flies with the shop owner.
A man about my age walks in, and I feel ridiculous to be witnessed by someone who is not here on a lark, who isn’t trying on rural living, who isn’t wearing piecemeal clothing. We are both in our early 30s, but the mismatch between us is striking. He saunters like a grown man, I cower like a child. From here, Lansing feels cosmopolitan, a place where frivolous people live. New York and Chicago seem in another universe.
I wanted to come here to be in a place my father and brother love, to try out a sport I have long thought poetic, to see what it was my brother learned on weekends up north with my father. I wanted to trespass into the world of men and see how I faired there. I wanted to feel the gray area of the middle of the gender spectrum, to see if there might be a way for the femme and the butch to coexist. But now that I am here, my body feels like it doesn’t belong. I am too small, too feminine, too urban. I feel childish as I follow my dad around the shop, like a teenager rolling her eyes at his enthusiasms. As I touch the flies and the nets, I also feel too old to be so new at something. It feels a bit too late to learn.
Growing up, I believed in the poetry of fly-fishing, but I participated in the activity of it very little. My father tied flies in our basement, a habit he’d had since he was in college. My mother often told the story of how, when he was writing his dissertation in graduate school, he rewarded himself for each page of intellectual work completed with five minutes of winding thread around metal. He plucked feathers off duck tails and fibers off mink pelts, used bright thread that could have as easily come from a quilting shop as a fishing store, and crouched his 6’3” frame over a magnifying glass and a vise to make flies called “wooly bugger” and “butt monkey.” In that way, he completed both a Ph.D. in educational psychology and amassed a collection of flies that was the envy of many fishermen.
The story speaks to my father’s self-discipline, a quality that he has long applied diligently to matters of work and emotion, less so to the matters of exercise and food intake that my mother would prefer. He is a man who happily spreads butter on cake and has always worked 10-hour days. As a kid, I would sometimes go down to the basement and pet the pelts of quail and beaver he kept there. They were hypnotic — delicate and tactile and practical.
I have no memory of our parents gendering my brother and I, giving him trucks and Hardy Boys books, me dolls and Little Women. But divisions came anyway, and my brother learned to cast a fly rod while I never did. Once, when I was about 8, I went bluegill fishing with a friend in a suburban pond. We used bait — an abomination to a fly-fisherman — and fashioned rods out of toys and fishing hooks we found in my friend’s basement. Within an hour, I had been bitten by a duck and had snagged a hook on my cheek. I was sure the duck was rabid and the hook was rusty. My mother made me get a tetanus shot, and the whole incident was all but the end of my fishing career. My dad thought it was hilarious.
I had proved myself clumsy and incapable in the ways of the outdoors, a truth I’d revisit on camping trips and hikes in the future when I didn’t know how to light a camp stove or pitch a tent. I’d ask my father to show me, and he would. But I only felt confidence later, when I was around friends who had never tried to thread tent poles through nylon — people who grew up in big coastal cities who took my status as a Michigan native as proof of some quality of ruggedness. It was only in relief, juxtaposed against someone who had never seen a camp stove lit or a fish flopping and bleeding on the floor of a boat, that I seemed expert.
Being a boy, my brother’s life as a fisherman was only beginning when he was 8. Every spring, he and my dad went fishing on the Au Sable River with my dad’s many brothers and family friends. They drove north to Grayling and rented a cabin at Jim’s, then waded into a section of the river called the “Holy Water.” There the men who were serious got up early to fish in the mornings, and the boys who were not started when they finally woke up at noon. They cast their lines into a stretch of river frequented by Jim Harrison and Ernest Hemingway, a place where maples hang over the copper water and mourning doves hoot for most of the day.
On those weekends, it seemed, the boys trained to be men and the girls trained to be women. My mom and I stayed home to paint our nails and watch romantic comedies. My brother and father came back with tales of salad dressing made out of pickle juice, pranks played, and enormous fish caught and released. My mother was satisfactorily grossed out by the stories and their carload of grimy, fishy equipment. She refused to let them in the house until they had hosed themselves off. In retrospect, I wonder if my brother and I were jealous of each other’s weekends. The gendered rituals seemed exotic and cloistered, each swaddled in it’s own kind of mystery. It wasn’t that I wished to have the male experience, and he longed for the female. It was that we both wanted our childhoods to be capacious enough for both.
Gender is so often an accidental inheritance — one that comes despite best efforts to disrupt the binary, to teach girls about astronauts and boys about baking. My parents tried to challenge the gender norms they had grown up with — my brother and I sang along with “Free to Be You and Me,” both learned to cook and clean, both played with Legos and dug fence posts in the backyard. But normative ideas of gender are everywhere, and they infect us with notions of masculinity and femininity that take grasp of our unconscious. I don’t regret the gender I ended up with, but it doesn’t always fit quite right. I still love painted nails and romantic comedies, but I never really got the hang of all the rituals of femininity. I have a cousin who travels with a caboodle full of makeup and potions. She dabs serum on her eyelids to make her lashes grow at night, and has special balm that comes in a metallic silver orb that will plump her lips as she sleeps. She wakes up two hours before she is supposed to be at the hospital where she works as an anesthesiology resident to paint her face with shadows and light, using the tricks of portraiture to make her cheekbones more prominent, her eyes more awake.
I only wash my hair a few times a week and feel like a clown when I wear lipstick. I’ve had my period since I was 12, but have a drawer full of stained underwear to remind me of all the times I’ve neglected the diligent cleanliness that that monthly reality requires. But I love the transformative potential and the regulating ritual of beauty potions. Although I forget often enough, I occasionally dab my lips with the grenade of lip-plumping Vaseline, and have, after 15 years of trying, gotten decent at drawing on eyeliner. At 27, I learned to walk in high heels, and I still do it regularly. That trick requires delicacy and forcefulness. You must imagine yourself as a ballerina and a boss.
Recently, I was on a date with a man who didn’t know how to use a power drill. He told me he had never hung a picture with a hammer and nail, he’d only ever used tape. “Like, electrical tape?” I asked. He nodded. Without thinking about it, I offered to help him. My parents would never have let me graduate high school without knowing how to plunge a toilet, install a shelf, mow a lawn — skills that I suppose someone might consider male if it were 1950, but are really only markers of competence. It seemed neighborly to offer.
“Why don’t you just cut off my balls?” he said, laughing.
I had disrupted the unspoken rules of gender, but quickly acquiesced again — I wasn’t sure what to say, and so I laughed along with him, unable to find the words for my shock. I had let my guard down in that Brooklyn bistro, where we sat eating overpriced burgers by the light of Edison bulbs. I hadn’t expected such strict adherence to the femme and the butch. But I had performed my role too. I had laughed. I waited a week to break up with him.
The gendered rituals seemed exotic and cloistered. It wasn’t that I wished to have the male experience, and my brother longed for the female. It was that we both wanted our childhoods to be capacious enough for both.
My father believes that it is necessary to spend a long time at the fishing shop before fishing can begin. I thought it was all supposed to start early — the fish bit only in the mornings or some such thing. He reassures me that the fish will be there regardless. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a lot of hope for me catching a fish, and so wants to take his time looking through the bins. He tells me about every fly and talks me through the basics of lures and lead lines. He discusses “what is biting” with the other men in the shop, and they excitedly ask if we are there for the Hex Hatch.
The Hex Hatch, I come to learn, is the most coveted time of year to fish. Hexagenia limbata are a specific breed of mayfly that emerge all at once in early July. Adult mayflies live for just a few days, such a short time that evolution didn’t even provide them with a mouth. When the flies are nymphs, they live in the river. In early summer, as the water warms up, the nymphs rise to the surface of the water and their shells split open. The adult emerges, largely defenseless. These flies are easy prey for fish, who rise to the surface of the river and open their gulping fish mouths to suck in the bugs. This, in turn, makes the fish easy prey for the fisherman, who can float his fly on the river, tied to look just like the Hexagenia limbata, and snag trout after trout.
There is another stop before we end up at the river, though. We go to Gates Lodge for breakfast, which is quickly becoming lunch. In front of the Lodge is a sign that says searching the moon for the bugs of june. It strikes me as poetic, like something out of a Carson McCullers novella, and my father explains it is a pun about the Hex Hatch — the flies are larva in June and they hatch at night.
When my dad and brother came back from their fishing trips, they talked about Gates Lodge like it was the Shangri-la. They spent much of their time in cabins by the river. I imagined them in bunk beds, cooking hot dogs over a camp stove, setting their farts on fire. At the end of every trip, they cleaned themselves up and went to Gates for a proper meal. In my mind, Gates was a place of white tablecloths and delicate, flaky whitefish dinners. It seemed to exist in another time, with wicker fish baskets and leather-buckled tackle boxes, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway sitting next to each other in the corner, discussing poetry and fish.
When we get to Gates, there isn’t any fine china or ironed linens. Instead, we have a seat at a lacquered wooden table with paper placemats. We are in a room full of men. No Teddy or Ernest, but plenty of late-middle-aged, potbellied fishermen there for a hearty breakfast. I begin to wonder if there is a women’s bathroom at any of these places we are visiting and feel grateful that I’m not having my period. I can’t imagine there are any tampons for sale in the fishing store. It doesn’t feel like an environment that is hostile to women, just a place that hasn’t considered our presence.
The only other woman is our waitress, who appears to be in her 50s and seems to know everyone so looks at us skeptically. The cliché about the Midwest is that people here are friendly, but it isn’t an uncomplicated friendliness. We will all say hello and ask after each other’s children and other relations, but judgment is never far away. Part of the work of living in the Midwest is to always be guessing at what everyone is actually thinking as they ask you how your job is going or offer you second helpings of potatoes.
“What’ll you have, darling?” the waitress asks me.
“Scrambled eggs. And … bacon chocolate chip pancakes?” My father laughs and looks excited. He has been diabetic since he was a teenager, but has never taken the sugar restrictions very seriously. He wouldn’t order a dessert himself, but has no problem eating half of mine then upping his dose of insulin.
The waitress raises an eyebrow. “I guess we all have a part of us that is still a child.”
I first learned about ice floes and fishing shanties and the ways of men secondhand. My father read my brother and me the literature of outdoor adventuring at night before we went to bed as we sat at the kitchen table each with a bowl of Cheerios. If we were out of milk, he would grab the orange juice. “Its just as good!” he’d say, and we never knew any different until we were years older. It was over those bowls of sweet oats that the poetics of the outdoors — and the peculiarities of masculinity — were transferred to me through the wide vowels of my father’s booming Michigan accent.
Swiss Family Robinson, White Fang, and Huckleberry Finn were in heavy rotation, as was a series of satirical books that told tall tales of men eating gross things while hunting. My father seemed to like the self-reliance, the fraternity, and domestic activity of outdoor life. It reminded him of something — his brothers, I always thought, but I think now it must have reminded him of a part of himself that was wild and also a part that was tame. The stories were of domestication and danger; it seemed that to live outdoors was to take up and control all the space there was, to turn trees and rivers into houses and wild animals into pets.
It was my brother who found A River Runs Through It, that most American and romantic story of fly-fishing and brotherly love. We read it to each other on Sunday nights in a ritual that was as close as we ever came to church. My brother once wrote me a card with the last paragraph of the book scrawled out in the penmanship of a seventh-grade boy: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” It was this book that made me want to fish, that last paragraph in particular. There seemed to be something mysterious in the river, something transformative in the act of fishing itself that would change a man or show him a kind of grace. I wanted access to that mystery.
My mom and I stayed home to paint our nails and watch romantic comedies. My brother and father came back with tales of salad dressing made out of pickle juice, pranks played, and enormous fish caught and released.
But there were also long sections of the story that described fishing: what fly was used, how they cast their rods, where in the river the MacLean brothers were standing when they caught the big fish. Those parts were boring to me — I never knew what they were talking about. But my brother loved them. By then, he was going on fishing trips with my dad, and knew the specifics of fishing. He knew that it was not only a romantic undertaking, but a practical one. It wasn’t just poetry, it was also science. I think he saw that the mystery came from it being both.
As a kid, I had imagined my father learning to fish in the classical way in his backyard, the oldest boy in a family of 10 children. Flicking a rod on an imaginary clock from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock, casting the line far out into the mowed lawn, reeling it back in, and casting it again. I saw this in movies and saw my brother learn that way in our own backyard. It seemed fitting that my dad would have learned that way, too. My dad and his brothers were outdoorsmen who thought of hunting and fishing as casual weekend sports. They were the kind of family that knew how to shoot guns, but weren’t great hunters. Once, my uncle Chris let me shoot a BB gun in my grandparents’ basement, because it was winter and we were bored. They often went deer hunting and came back with a couple of squirrels.
As we drove north for our trip, I asked to hear the story of how my father learned to fish — one I thought I had heard many times before. “I taught myself in college,” he told me. It turns out, he had only learned bait fishing as a kid. His father and his uncles fished off a boat, using live bait kept in a coffee can. In the ’70s, in college, my dad and his roommate had decided that fly-fishing was more ecological, classier, and they had taught themselves from books in the library. Stoned on the quad in front of their dorm room at Michigan State University, they flicked the rod from 10 to 2.
The story disappoints me a little. I liked the legacy of the lessons I was about to get — the passing down of the ancient knowledge of rods and reels. It disrupts the romance that my dad learned it in a book. I suppose it means I could have learned it in a book, too. That the rituals of masculinity, not just the narratives, had long been freely available in the Time-Life Complete Home Improvement Series and the Orvis Guide to Beginning Fly Fishing.
The night before my dad and I left for our trip, I tried to put on his waders in the basement. You need waders to fly-fish. If done correctly, you will be standing in a cold stream for hours, feet planted on the round rocks of the riverbed. Waders keep you dry and warm and have grippers on the boot soles to keep you from falling over as you walk against the current.
My dad is tall, and he bought both of his pairs of waders when he was about 30 pounds lighter. On his body, they are taut and stretchy, on mine they are enormous and slouchy. We both are going to have to make do. I try to walk around the basement and nearly trip and fall onto an industrial-size bag of cat litter. He promises me that once I’m in the river, the extra fabric will suck to my legs and I won’t be able to tell the difference. I’m skeptical.
After breakfast at Gates, it is early afternoon, and we drive to Jim’s, a place where my dad has been renting canoes and cabins for decades. The truth is, it has been some time since my dad has come up to Grayling. My brother left home 15 years ago for college then California. My uncles are all old men now, happier to sit on their decks and watch the birds than to sleep on lumpy bunk beds. My dad’s best friend from college used to come here with him, but he too has moved on to other hobbies and other friends.
My father seemed to like the self-reliance, the fraternity, and domestic activity of outdoor life. I think it must have reminded him of a part of himself that was wild and also a part that was tame.
We pull off to the side of the road and look at the river to scout a spot to put in our canoe, and I get my first real glimpse of the river that my father so dearly loves. This section of the Au Sable is called the “Holy Water,” a distinction no one can explain in the abstract. It’s a catch and release, no-kill section of the river, and this is one of the most storied trout fisheries in the world. In that sense, it is holy — a place of life, not death.
But one look at the river and there is no question: This place is holy in the way that natural places often are. It is quiet and wild, transcendent and feral. The trees hang low over the brown water. Roots make up the banks, and leaves decay at the edges. It is late summer, and cicadas hiss long hisses. There are worlds and life cycles beneath the surface — minnows and flies and fish and turtles. It is a place of life and death, and there is the most holiness in that.
There are many small bends and pools where fish will hide and breed, which is why the river is holy to fishermen. My father points out these places, and I can see that he sees the river in dimensions that I can’t. To me, it feels like a familiar wilderness, placid and serene in an almost nostalgic way — these are the trees and sounds I knew growing up. It is that for him, too, but it is also a place of entomology and ichthyology, a place where he has fished with his brothers and his son and his friends, and now a place where he has brought his daughter so that she can see about the things that men do.
When we get to Jim’s, Jim only barely remembers my dad after a bit of prompting, despite his many years as a renter. But then there are lots of weekends and lots of cabins, and Jim also keeps a boat down in Florida, where he takes very wealthy people fly-fishing for Tarpon. I feel all the years he has come to this spot, and all the years he hasn’t. I wonder how many more times he will see these holy waters. But it isn’t his way to think much about that. He’ll see them this time, with me, and he’s happy for that.
It is the movie version of A River Runs Through It that I love these days. The beautiful casts, the sweeping vistas, the hunky men: watching it is a kind of shortcut to feeling. The soundtrack and the ’90s cinematography put me right back in my parents’ basement with my brother, each of us trying to pretend we aren’t crying in the last minutes of the film. It’s the story of two brothers, both fishermen, who grow up in Montana and become very different men — Norman, a serious scholar who goes to Dartmouth, and Paul, a poker-playing reporter always in debt to the wrong people. They find each other again and again when they are fishing in the Blackfoot River, holding onto a bond of childhood and seeking closeness through experience rather than words.
There are almost no women in the movie, only a girlfriend, a mother, and a prostitute. It doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test. But women are good at imagining themselves into the parts of men, if only because men are often the only decent characters. The film inspired thousands of women to take up fly-fishing, a strange fact considering not a single woman performs that activity in the story. For 10 years after the film came out, some of the most famous fishing schools in the United States had more women than men learning to tie flies and cast tight-looped lines.
This river is holy in the way that natural places often are. It is quiet and wild, transcendent and feral. The trees hang low over the brown water. Roots make up the banks, and leaves decay at the edges.
For all the years I’ve watched the movie, I switch between the moments I see myself as Norm and the moments I see myself as Paul; the times I feel stalwart and surefooted and the times I feel wild and talented. Either way, I imagine myself fishing in the currents of the Blackfoot River in Montana, roll casting a fishing line over the water, small and strong in the forest. I imagine myself competent and tough, and therefore male, an equation that makes me queasy.
I wonder now if part of the reason I never went fishing with my brother and father as a kid is that I didn’t want my gender and youth to become synonymous with my incompetence. When I think back on it, I certainly would have been welcome if I had ever asked to join. But by the time I would have gone, I would have been a girlish interloper who was still learning — the worst one, the youngest one, and a girl to boot. Even then, I didn’t want those ideas braided together. It is only years later, as an adult, that I have let myself be a novice and a woman — that I have given it all a clumsy, childish try.
My father and I rent a canoe. Jim says there are no ladies’ bathrooms in the vicinity, so I change into my swimsuit in the outhouse, awkwardly trying to step onto my shoes so my bare feet don’t touch the floor. Jim drives us up the river and talks to us about politics on the way.
“People think this is Trump country,” he says. “City folks see us up here and just think we are a bunch of hicks. But I’ve been renting people cabins and canoes all spring long and haven’t met anyone voting for him. I think the real Trump supporters live deep back in the woods, with a still and confederate flag.”
As a city folk, I had to admit that I had been pretty sure this was Trump country, but I’m glad to be disabused of my prejudice. I like Jim and the waitress and the other fishermen, and I’m glad for there to be one less divide between us. A few months later, I will think about Jim and wonder how he too had been so wrong about the election. Sixty-four percent of the people in this county would vote for Trump, surely a much higher percentage than the number of stills.
Jim lets my dad and I out with our metal canoe, a couple of paddles, and some beaten-up life jackets, then drives away. We plunk the canoe into the river, and I awkwardly climb in. My dad stands on the riverbank and prepares us to launch. He is starting to look like an old man, with a big round belly and weak appendages. His arms and legs look skinny and pale. I can’t help thinking my parents will both always be about 40, strong and tan and capable, and that I, in turn, will always only ever be young.
The athletics of the afternoon will be a confusion of roles. My father is the one who knows how to fish and how to canoe, but I feel like I should be doing the harder work because I am 30 years younger, in better shape, and not diabetic. I am constantly offering, and he is constantly turning me down, and we both seem to feel embarrassed about this dance we are doing. I am still his child, after all, and no one wants to feel like they are getting old. Canoeing down a river in the direction of the current is pleasant and easy, though, so there isn’t that much required of either of us.
As we stand in the cold and rusty water, fishing feels less like a ritual of maleness than a ritual of growing up — something passed between child and parent.
I half-heartedly paddle from the front and my dad steers the boat from the back, our oversized waders, box of Hexagenia limbata imitations, and peanut butter sandwiches shoved into the bottom of the canoe. It is quiet as we go along. We don’t talk much, which is my dad’s way after he settles. I feel a little bit in charge of filling the void, but can’t bring myself to try too hard. In the end we just paddle and look at the trees and enjoy the day.
The afternoon light has turned golden and the day has started to feel fleeting when my dad finally chooses a spot and we pull the boat over to the riverbank. There is a house here and a deck, which my dad assures me is “not really private property” and therefore a good place to pull out our gear. Dad assembles a rod and reel, and I do battle with the waders. I jump into the water, and of course my Dad was right. The neoprene sucks tight to my legs and I can walk as easily as one ever can in a river. It doesn’t matter that the waders are the size of my father and that I am the size of me.
He hands me the rod with a fly on the end and shows me how to cast. 10 o’clock. 2 o’clock. Don’t get it stuck in a tree. Flick your wrist at the end a little. Yeah, that looks about right. Just keep doing that. I keep doing it, over and over again.
“But when will I catch a fish, Dad?”
He laughs. “If you stood there all day, you’d be lucky to catch one,” he says.
“Even in the Hex Hatch?”
“Yep, even now in the Hex Hatch.”
We stand there awhile, watching the river, waiting for a fish to rise. He adjusts my technique, shows me where to point my rod, tries to explain how flies float and where fish swim. The water is freezing and dark, the air is hot and sweaty. We stand there in the same spot for an hour or so, and I get to know the curve of this section of river well. There is a slight bend here, as the river moves around a willow. The tree dips into the water and the current tugs at its leaves. I adjust my cast to avoid snagging the branches after a few mishaps. I see how the light changes on the river just a bit over the course of the time we stand there. The sun sinks just a few minutes down, and the shadows grow bit by bit. I keep casting, over and over again.
I never do catch a fish, and really no one is surprised. My father and I stand in the river and wait, enveloped in activity, feeling the closeness of experience, rather than words. We are far away from the question of manicures and bathrooms and emasculating competence — or maybe we are right in the heart of those questions, which are always written on our bodies. As we stand in the cold and rusty water, fishing feels less like a ritual of maleness than a ritual of growing up — something passed between child and parent, something capacious enough to hold my city clothes and my blow-dried pony hair and my curiosity and my inability; big enough for the masculine and the feminine, the son and the daughter. My father is delighted to have me in his world, to teach me about fish and flies and rods, to share this activity with his child who is finally interested.
A few weeks later, I talk to my brother about those fishing trips he used to go on as a kid. I asked him what they did and why he liked them.
“It wasn’t like a big men’s club,” he tells me. “It wasn’t just farting and cards. Although it was some of that. The reason I loved it was because you could stand in the river for long afternoons more or less alone. The river bends enough that you couldn’t see anyone else, although we all knew we were there. I stood there alone but in company in that beautiful place. It all felt so big.
“It was one of the only times I felt small in a good way,” he said. “It felt right-sized.”
Heather Radke is a writer, curator, and audio producer who lives in New York.