Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Life Encountered

The idea for this collection of obscure thoughts and trivial observations from the mud began in early 2010. I was in one of those transitional places that life puts us in and desperate to find something my mind could focus on that didn’t involve lawyers or money. So I bought a ninety-nine cent notebook at Target and started putting words in it.  It took three years of thinking about it, reading every fly fishing blog I could find, blind writing exercises and lots of pages from that notebook being ripped out and thrown away before finding the courage to hit the publish button the first time.

I found a few surviving pages from that first notebook this morning filed away in an old folder in the back of my desk at the office. I had been looking for them since teaching a fly tying class over the winter and talking about a very simple fly that had been shown to me by an older gentleman nine years ago. My encounter with him was brief and random but became part of the underpinning of whatever this thing has become.

It was a Friday night and I had been on a job site in Boston all day. Knowing beforehand that I’d be coming out of the city late in the day and not wanting to sit in Cape traffic on Route 3 I had thrown my gear in the truck with the plan of stopping off in Weymouth and fishing one of my old haunts. It wasn’t until I got there and reached in the back for my waders that I realized they were still sitting in the driveway at home. I knew the water was a little too cool to comfortably wet wade but the sun was still up and the air was warm. So I changed into a pair of shorts I had remembered, laced the Timberland’s back up, walked into the water and started casting.

I was a few fish into the evening when the sun fell from the sky and the air cooled as it met the water. I started to shiver a little and stood there for a few moments watching the skyline of downtown Boston start to light up. That’s when I saw him, off to my right fitted out in hip waders, a flannel shirt and one of those old caps that train engineers used to wear. I walked out of the water, sat on a rock where I had left my gear bag and a jacket and tried to warm up as the old timer hooked up on nearly every cast. He was smoking a cigar as he fished and its sweet smell washed over me bringing back memories of watching Pudge and Yaz from the bleacher seats at Fenway.

I was thinking about heading for home when he looked back, walked out of the water, stopped in front of me and introduced himself as, “Name’s O’Reilly.”

“You lasted longer than I thought you would.”

I laughed and said, “Yeah, I forgot my waders in the driveway this morning. I’m an idiot.”

He took a puff off what was left of the cigar, looked back at the city skyline and said, “Doesn’t make you an idiot. I forget things every day.”

He leaned his rod up against a boulder and sat down on a rock next to me. There was enough light left that I could see it was an old Fenwick rigged with a Pflueger. I liked him immediately. We talked for about twenty minutes…about striped bass in the seventies, the crash of the population and how it had come back, his twenty year hitch in the Navy and how much the world had changed in his seventy-four years.  He pointed to the lights of Boston with the cigar in his hand.

“Life used to be simple but the world got real complicated, real fast. It all goes too fast, no one slows down anymore.”

I nodded in agreement and we sat in silence.

Taking the last puff on his cigar he looked at me and said, “Life is like this cigar, at first you think it’ll last for a long time, you can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, watch it burn to the very end and then linger in the smoke until it disappears. And then it’s all gone.”

He turned away, looked toward Boston again and quietly said, “I’m in the smoke now.”

He sighed, turned back toward me and reached into his shirt pocket and brought out something rolled up in aluminum foil. I thought it would be another cigar as he unrolled the foil but it turned out to be four flies about five inches long. He held one up, just a simple reverse tied bucktail with some flash in the core, and then handed them all to me.

He pointed at my rod and said, “I don’t know what you’re using, but this is the only fly I ever use. It’s what has worked for me all these years. You take ‘em, kid, I don’t think I’ll be needing them anymore.”

He stood up and pointed to a man not much older than me standing under the trees behind us and said, “Guess it’s time to go. That’s my boy, keeping an eye on me like his mother used to. Used to be I took him to the playground on Friday night, now he brings me out to play.”

I walked back to the parking lot with them and shook hands with my new friend as his son helped him into the car. He broke down the rod and as he put it in the trunk he explained his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and that while the days were the hardest, his dad seemed to have more clarity in the evening hours so on good days they would come out to make a few casts. I shook his hand and he thanked me for spending a few minutes with his dad on what was probably his last time out fishing.

I’ve forgotten the fish that I caught that night but I’ll never forget Mr. O’Reilly. I fished those flies he gave me all that season. They caught just as well as other flies I used but a fish on those flies had more meaning. I still build a few of them every season and think of him every time I tie one on to the leader.

The smoke may be gone but the story lives.

From the early pages
15 May 2019

Friday, May 3, 2019


I walked to the water tonight to start the season. I stood in a light rain being driven into my face and studied the water. I had low expectations. The water temperature was still a little low, the sky had rained more often than not for what seemed like weeks leaving the water in front of me the color of iced tea and I had about an hour left of the incoming tide. Not the most favorable conditions but every season needs a starting point and all day long I had that gnawing feeling that if I didn’t go, I’d be missing something.

I paused at the water’s edge before stepping in and watched the rain drops leave little marks on the surface before being almost instantly absorbed. Like the rain drops, this place has absorbed my history. I smiled in the irony. For twenty years I’ve come to this same spot for the first attempt at “getting on the board.” That first fish of the season, what we all think about during the off-season. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the experience that matters, the knowledge gained each time out, history written by volume of sought experience, not volume of created content.

Out of habit, one which I’m trying to break, I reached to my jacket pocket to make sure my phone was there.  In the back of my mind an argument began with the Id demanding that if a fish were to be caught that it be “photographed and immediately posted”, the Ego proclaiming “it’s just fishing” and the Super-ego chirping something about buying in and selling my soul.

It’s just fishing. I stepped into the water thinking about that as I threw line. In fly fishing we try to entice a fish, in this case a striped bass, to eat a cluster (sometimes a Cluster-F.*#) of natural or synthetic materials tied to a sharp piece of metal that we cast at speeds somewhere around 400 to 600 feet per second into water that can be moving, in this instance, about 4 miles per hour, on a planet that rotates on its axis at 1040 miles per hour while circling the sun at just under 67,000 miles per hour. On top of that, while fishing, we can upload images of our catches to social media from our phones nearly instantly at speeds measured by Mbps. I have no idea what that is but it sounds fast. I’m not smart enough to understand the physics of it all, it just seems clear that the world is already moving fast before we try to influence it.

As I continued to stare out at the water and work the rust out of my already marginal casting, I thought of a notable quote from F. Bueller, the preeminent American philosopher of the 1980’s:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

More looking around. Less uploading. Copy that, Ferris.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did go tight to the first stripe of the season and I did take a photo of it before I released it.

And I did post (upload) it as a voice in my head chirped something about buying in and selling out.

From the water
28 April 2019