Opening day lessons live on
Thomas Wayne King
Ploinnk. Shhh ... Trout fishing on Rock Cut Creek, a wild, remote stream in tangled spruce forests and dense brush, just north of Solon Springs. Dropping in my hook and worm now. Placing it just right. The fast current sweeps my bait silently into dark, surging water under this log. Trout are here. Ploinnk...
My Dad, Victor, started it. As a young farm boy from the Rice Lake area, he had dreamed of trout fishing. But Vic often told me how he never fished when he grew up because his older brother Henry died tragically in a lake accident. Dad was 43 when I was born. He taught me to ski before I was 2 years old. I’ve skied ever since; 62 years of skiing now, my lasting winter passion.
And, he taught me to fish trout.
Vic finally got to try his fishing dream about the time I was a baby. As I grew up, he patiently tutored me on fishing the wild, narrow streams of Wisconsin’s Northland. By about age 5 or 6, I was his fishing buddy. Dad’s simple, primitive ways to catch native brook trout worked. He was a minimalist. I learned his method well.
Fishing with just our wits and a few basic “brookie” tools, was always memorable and challenging fun. It never got old. A short rod and reel combo with thin monofilament line, a # 6 barbless hook tied with Vic’s special fisherman’s knot (plus two or three replacement hooks in my wallet), along with my knife, and a few plastic bags in my pocket for my catch. That was it for gear. Worms and larvae for bait were everywhere in the forest along the stream, if you knew where to look under logs and leaves.
“And remember,” Vic would say, “You don’t really fish native brook trout. You hunt them.” He meant that you strategize where trout might wait in the rushing stream, under which banks, log jams, tree roots; their heads pointed upstream, looking for food tumbling in to their hiding spots through the swirling, roiling northern rootbeer waters.
Shhh ... There goes another one upstream, running for the next hole. OK, gonna slide that way. So quietly. Ploinnk.
You learn to move silently, smoothly on trout stream trails. Trout can hear and feel ground vibrations. You step deliberately and slowly. Heel first. Don’t get caught up in the brush. I swear, my hook snags more branches in the air each time I move than it does fish some days. I swear. Yes, I do. Often.
Vic and I were best friends. We fished Rock Cut on opening day of trout season nearly every year for half a century. He had lost his own father when Vic was 8, so Dad and I knew our having each other was special. Even in his early eighties, as Dad began to slip from my grasp into that nether world of long, slow Alzheimer’s decline, he and I cherished our bond. We spent so many days together even then, in nursing homes for nine years, just being together silently; breathing, thinking, sometimes walking halls.
Dad died at about age 91. I was not with him that day. I’ll never know where he was during all those missing-memory years, but he, the real Victor Henry King, had gone.
Nevertheless, I held on. Everything special he taught me continued during those years and now. Skiing, hiking, camping, writing, working hard, caring for family ... and trout fishing. I taught our sons, knowing they will teach others. Vic’s precious mentoring will never be lost. We live his lessons each day.
That’s what you do when your best friend, the smartest man you’ve ever known, leaves your world. You go forward with what he gave you ... for life. You keep on with what he taught you; with what made the memories you will hold forever.
So I ski each early November here in the Northland, and try to get in my 30 or more ski days each year. Had 106 ski days two years ago. Vic would love it.
And here I am again, on the first Saturday of May, Opening Day in Wisconsin, on wild, challenging Rock Cut Creek, fishing the way Dad taught me more than 50 years ago. Hiking far upstream, fishing the west side of the stream on my way up for several miles (remembering him on one side; me on the other), then crossing over miles in, fishing my way back downstream to our parked car, relying on the basic, stealthy ways he taught me: dependable, familiar skills giving me respite, often from a world of sorrows over the years, in this sacred stream valley; remote, yet connected forever with our memories so treasured.
These rich memories are real wealth to me. Memories of sound, sight, and smell of forest, stream, and trout in our hands. In our pans. Memories of mindful confidence in our forest navigation with no maps, no compass, no GPS, no cell phones. Pride in showing our catches to each other, talking over where and how we got them. Memories of cleaning and frying our trout and eating them together, cooked over our small fire back at camp. How much of life we shared on Rock Cut Creek.
So, I am fishing alone right now. But I don’t feel alone. Today, as I hike and fish this stream again, I almost believe I can hear Vic on the bear trails way up ahead. He taught me. He still leads me. There is so much we could talk about after all these years of being apart.
Just in case, I shout upstream, “Hey Dad ... Wait up! For just a minute ...?”
Copyright 2012, Thomas Wayne King