The brilliant palette from the oaks and maples churned with vivid greens from the pines billowed up from the forest canopy below as my father massaged the controls and setup for a short field approach to the little airstrip in Ava, Missouri. The engines were reduced to near idle and the stall warning buzzer sounded just before we lightly settled onto the paved runway. Generally at this time brakes are applied and the airplane is brought to a controlled stop, except I could see my dad grinning once we touched down, calmly stating, “watch this…”
The airstrip at Ava was actually built on a hill, so that he didn’t even need to tap the brakes on that gorgeous Golden Eagle 421. We simply coasted uphill until the force of gravity slowed our forward momentum to near zero and turned right to taxi off the field. No one was there to greet us at this place. It was fall in the Ozarks and this airport probably hadn’t seen too many twin engine jobs like what we’d just flown in on. In fact, based on the ‘rental car’ left for us I wasn’t sure if anyone had actually been to this airport in as many years as I’d known on this great, green Earth.
After tying down 873LF we unloaded our bags from the wing compartments into the trunk of a shit brown Dodge Aries-K that proudly sported years of gravel dust caked over it’s faded finish. I could barely see over the windshield, sagging into the plush corduroy bench seat as we sped along the state-maintained pavement. My dad always seemed to enjoy that transition of flying a plane to driving a car, and later in life he would caution me against speeding after leaving the airport – it was an easy rule to break after descending from the heavens. The country highway climbed and descended hills and dales and wound down through ravines and along streams lined with limestone bluffs that exposed millions of years of sea life that once covered the great state of Missouri.
Our destination was ultimately revealed in the form of a well appointed ‘ranch’ spread across a shallow valley, abutting a picturesque stream lined with limestone outcroppings and occasional pools that ended in spectacular cascading ledges. We parked the Dodge in front of a motel-style room and unpacked our gear from the trunk. It was early afternoon and the fish were calling! Looking back I cringe at the persistence I must have inundated my father with at that time – he was my only companion on this trip but if he was ever annoyed, he never showed indifference to me. Perhaps I was aware enough to know when to lay off, and if so I owe that to my grandfather.
My grandfather had forcibly instilled what little patience I begrudgingly owned – I was relentless in pestering the man for time on the water when we visited their lake home near Hackensack, Minnesota. The pine needle-laden road in front of their little red cabin lead straight to the water’s edge, the only place of profound importance. That is what I remember most about Minnesota as a kid – pleading for my grandfather to take me fishing after I’d scared all the fish away from the dock. He’d load me into his red aluminum Lund and I’d lacerate the water or stare at a bobber with no perceptible level of discouragement. Occasionally we were fruitful – but mostly I remember taking instruction on how to kill “those damned perch” and how to behave in a boat, not necessarily how to catch fish. Those were the most formative days of my adolescent fishing career, until now.
Standing next to the veneered table in our cramped motel room I watched my father unpack his fly fishing bag to reveal a world of unimaginable opportunities. It’s hard to say if a kid truly knows their calling, but something was so profound in that moment I would say I had a revelation. It came when he unpacked the surprise – my 12th birthday gift. It was (and still is) an Orvis Green Mountain Special, 7’9″, 2 pc., #5 wt. rod, complimented by an Orvis reel. The cork felt soft in my left hand – not like the foam handle on spinning rods. Stringing the guides the line fell delicately in a pool on the ground, so new it coiled in memory. I was taught how to ‘clean’ the line by stripping it through a special cleaning rag to remove dirt and grime left clinging from the water. I was shown how to tie a perfect knot with super thin line that was part of a very long, tapered leader – because apparently trout could see everything. An assortment of flies was laid before me, somehow the perfect selection for this very body of water. We were in trout country, and I had just been given the means to start a lifelong obsession.
Memory has me working that stream alone – not next to my dad or even near him, which seems foolish considering the complexity of fly fishing to a complete novice. It was like I was handed something that required instruction and patience far beyond the capacity of a 12 year old kid, but I was more than ready to accept the challenge. He had loaded my new fly vest with the essentials, stuffed a net in the back pouch and cast me off.
I was there to practice my craft and become the great fly fisherman my father was, destined to roam the American West with fly rod in hand. All I really knew about fly fishing at the time was there sure seemed to be a lot of casting involved. It was hard to figure how all that casting resulted in catching fish, but hell – I could whip that line with the best of them. Not sure how many flies I busted off that day in the trees along the stream’s edge but it was damn far more flies than I put to the fish. When I wasn’t robbing branches of singularly and spectacularly colored leaves I would try to discover that overhead rhythm of looping the line in front and behind, in front and behind…then came the sage advice from dad who was of course not really that far away after all, “Hey pal, it’s hard to catch a fish unless you have your line in the water…”
One thing I would be remiss to omit here is that we actually caught fish. Big trout – huge rainbows. These fish were ravenous! Even a novice 12 year old could catch those fish, and my father was genius to make these waters the site of my baptism. Turns out not too far above the first pool in the stream was a rearing pond. And, one was expected to keep the fish they caught and payment per pound was rendered at the end of the day. I don’t mean to detract from the ambient beauty of it all – the natural setting was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my home state and I was impressed. For all I knew this is how trout fishing was done – amble up to a stream, whip the line around and monster trout would leave the security of an undercut or from behind a fallen log to snatch wooly buggers from the current. Magic – I was a pro right out the gate.
By the end of our first day I remember pulling a stringer of fish from the water’s edge to proudly show my dad – who was undoubtedly calculating the imminent price per pound we’d be paying at the lodge. Maybe this wasn’t unlike letting kids bowl with bumpers or learning how to drive at a go-kart track, but none of those experiences laid before me a clear cut path of an endless pursuit filled with happiness. Allowing kids to experiment and explore without imposed and obvious boundaries fosters imagination and the all-important taste of freedom. I can’t honestly say that my dad kept tight reigns on us as kids – in fact we were on the verge of finding the true Lord of the Flies in those Missouri woods around our house. So freedom wasn’t something we yearned for, but independence was becoming an interesting concept. Everything we did as kids we did together or with our dad – hunting, fishing, flying, skiing – it was never done for one but with all. Fly fishing was different, however. It was singular. Crappie fishing improved with the more lines over the side of the boat, but on the trout stream your odds improved if no one was there to witness your success in fooling Mother Nature. Until this discovery, fishing was something I associated with my grandfather and Baby Lake and my brother sabotaging the bait by releasing worms and leeches to the inky depths below. I had watched my dad wade rivers in Montana and New Mexico and Oregon most of my life, finding subtle beauty in the sound of fly line disturbing the air as birds and insects competed with the sound of water plying course over stone and sediment. I remember the smell of sage and cattle as we crossed fence lines to stalk meandering streams in the pastures of Wyoming. And never any people – we were almost always alone it seemed.
I don’t recall how many days we fished on that private stretch of farm-raised trout heaven, but it was enough to fan a bonfire of obsession for me. Fishing is the only remnant from my childhood that still seems worth pursuing beyond the acceptance of others. It took me to places I never imagined I’d visit and has humbled me so bad I actually quit once like it was a bad habit. When we left Ava, Missouri that October back in 1989 I think I could actually see over the windshield of the plane a little better, and I damn sure had one extra feather in my cap – I was a fly fisherman.
That was a gift I’ll never part ways with. My daughter is chomping at the bit to start fly fishing but she’s got a few years to go. When the time is right the old Orvis Green Mountain Special will be there for her. I will introduce her to the art of fly fishing much in the way my father did for me – so she can feel the strike at a fly and the consequent bend in the rod. I can’t say if fly fishing will resonate with her or if it will fall somewhere in line with bowling and laser tag, but it will be my gift to pass along. I even have the original fly vest my dad gave to me in that motel room. It should fit her nicely.