My dad loves to fish! Me, not so much. But I love fishing with my dad.
There’s so much I wish I’d done differently when I was young. I was often too hard headed and foolish to lean in and heed his counsel. I was often too distracted by knick knacks and Nintendo to really enjoy his presence. I was often too lazy and weak to get up early or linger outside in the cold to learn how he fixed and took care of our cars, our home, our animals. Yet despite all these regrets, I’m so grateful that I went fishing with my dad. The memories are priceless. Allow me to tell one story…
Looking back on times fishing with my dad makes me love my dad all the more. I’m so grateful to God for those memories, even though in the moment I wasn’t the most joyful, willing son. My dad loved to take me fishing and the fish he loved to catch the most were Steelhead. The Clearwater River and Snake River, home to some of the biggest and most beautiful steelhead, were just a short drive from our home in Northern Idaho. We’d often take the boat out early on cold foggy mornings. My dad would cajole me out of bed and we’d load up all the necessaries and hit the road, often well before dawn. All in search of the illustrious steelhead.
Steelhead are impressive fish. They’re rainbow trout who decided to leave the cozies of fresh water and venture out into the vast deep and blue, salty sea. I remember simple drives with my dad to Spring Valley Reservoir to catch little rainbow trout. These small trout were still vivid and beautiful, but I’d often feel bad these little fellers never had the thrilling exploits of their adventurous kin. These bad boys, ocean-going rainbow trout, are so full of color and so full of fight. Like salmon, they head downriver when they’re young to brave the vast ocean expanse, and then return up, up, up river, to spawn. But ask any seasoned angler and most will confess, that pound for pound, the sleek, streamline steelhead puts up much more of a fight than cousin salmon. Steelhead average 5 to 15 pounds. The Idaho State record is just over 30 pounds, caught on the Clearwater River back in the 1973.
The Clearwater was our destination one particular morning in early December. With boat in tow, we wound our way upriver to the put in. Fowl and fog lingered along the frigid banks. The sun, like me that morning, felt slow to rise and crest the steep mountain ridges of this river sanctuary. Young and dumb and half awake, I failed to appreciate all the beauty and glory that encompassed me and whispered joy; instead I grumbled about how cold it was going to be out there on the boat. My dad was patient and quiet, enjoying time with his son doing something he loved, a needed respite from the fishing for men that filled his heart and plate on most other days.
We got the boat wet, set the lines, and worked the river. Upriver, downriver, with lots of waiting, waiting, waiting… there’s lots of waiting on these adventures. My dad enjoyed the waiting, the quiet, and simply time spent on a beautiful river, with good company, and hearts hopeful for an epic catch. Some days on river, though, and it felt like often most days, the only things we’d catch were the river bottom or snags, or the occasional neighbor if our casting got sloppy. And if I was honest, I hated the waiting. The mornings were cold, I was stuck in a boat and had to go to the bathroom, there were limited snacks to entertain. Sad, but true. We are petty creatures, at least I am.
Yet looking back, despite my petty particulars, there resonates a deep fondness and gratefulness to God for these times with my dad. But enough self-reflection, I promised a story about catching steelhead. Til that cold December morning, I had yet to see my dad land one of these beautiful beasts..
The morning was cold and we were waiting, and still waiting, and waiting some more. Our lines and lures were set and wet. We’d done our part, now we simply needed a fish to take bait.
We watched and waited, as the rods and lines performed their subtle rhythm and dance; we longed for the deep dip of the tip. As you sat quietly, watching your line troll the depths of the river belly, you wondered what lay below and every little bop or bip of your rod, made you question and hope. But then, at long last, zing, zang, bang, FISH ON!
Steelhead love to run. When you hook a steelhead, they will often run out far and fast. And this invisible beast below, despite the frigid river’s chill, ran hard, hot, and fast. A dance ensues between angler and fish, as the fisherman tries to lead but also follow the fish’s cues, knowing how much to give and how much to take. You don’t want to snap the line but you also want to keep the hook set and not let line lag. A laggy, saggy line and the steelhead will rip that lure right out.
This particular morning, the fish fight was my dad’s. I’d fight my own fish another day, which resulted in a rod broken in half and my dad holding the two pieces together, while I reeled and reeled, and squealed with delight like a kid in a candy store, as I landed a 13 pound beauty. But that’s another tale and this fight was my dad’s.
The steelhead ran out, far and fast, as we wondered if he’d have enough line. And then a sudden U-turn, and my dad reeled like crazy to keep the line taut. This back and forth seemed to last forever, in, out, in, out, as the steelhead tried to break the line or loose the hook. My dad kept rhythm, patiently giving and taking. The give and take was a long obedience. Would this submarine of a fish ever tire out and breach the surface? The tension was thick, with every pull and reel, we hoped and prayed the line wouldn’t snap or slack.
And one amazing thing, to return to a bit of self-reflection. It is astounding and quite sublime how once that fish was on, and the battle began, all my thoughts of cold and complaining, boredom, or bathrooms, instantly were replaced with the joy, thrill, and expectant hope of my dad catching this fish. There’s no where else I would have rather been. I was living the dream, right next to my phenomenal dad who loved me enough to take grumpy ol’ me fishing, so that maybe, just maybe, we’d land a beautiful fish that would make all the waiting and waiting, so worth it; the momentary, light affliction was instantly swallowed up in glory and joy.
The long fight slowly wound down. The end of the line got closer and closer. This behemoth of a beast was about to breach. And then the moment, I saw my first majestic shiny steelhead; I remember it vividly. The fish’s dorsal fin broke the smooth water’s surface. Wait, I thought this was the Clearwater River not the Pacific Ocean. This fish looked like a shark; it was huge! I couldn’t believe my eyes, I’d never seen a beast this big, so up close and personal.
But just cause we saw the fish didn’t mean we’d caught the fish. As all fishermen know, it doesn’t count til that fish is in your boat and in your hands. My dad finished strong, we netted the fish, and at last this smooth, shiny, noble steelhead, slipped and slapped in the belly of our boat. 36 inches long, 18 pounds thick.
The picture here is priceless. That day with my dad will last forever. It captures so much for me. My strong, patient dad. Chubby, happy me. A glorious fish and a glorious day with my dad. Other days we came home with nothing but tall tales and wishful dreams. But that day, we won! Fish on, Fish in the boat. My dad is awesome! My dad loves to fish, especially with me. Thanks dad for such a momentous adventure. I will hold it close forever.