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Heather Radke

A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing With Your Father

Illustration by Steven Weinberg

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. Read more…