Eric Clapton, Tom Brokaw, Jimmy Buffett, and Emma Watson. What do they have in common? They are all dedicated fly fishers. Fly fishing is a very old art, first written about in 1486 in The Book of St. Albans by Dame Juliana Berners. It is a passion steeped in history, art, science, and philosophy. A way to get deeply involved in the wonder of the wild world. For me, the gentle art of fly casting is my personal version of Tai Chi. Slow and easy with a fluid motion that has become akin to meditation for me over my lifetime.
Once there were three of us. Mark, Dick, and myself. Mark and Dick were fellows I met on the Current river who became two of my favorite fly fishing companions. Heart-and-soul kind of people who came to know me as Tom, not Shipley from the musical group. We fished together for several years, but Dick, the bearded man in the picture above, passed away last year. Mark and I still hit the river together, but Dick is always in our hearts and often part of the conversation. “Dick always loved this part of the stream, especially in the morning when it was shrouded in mist.” Dick will always be with us.
There is more to being on the river with a fly rod than catching a trout. Actually, that might be the smallest part of it. I think that is why Dick, Mark and I became friends. We all understood that what we were doing was not like something you would read about in Field and Stream or see on one of those television fishing shows. It is an endeavor more closely related to music and poetry than to sport.
Fly fishing requires being quiet. Quiet enough on the river so that not even the mink or otter sitting on the log recognizes you are there. A successful day is not the one when you catch the most or biggest trout but when you get that peaceful easy feeling watching the doe and her two fawns crossing the river below you. When you have been quiet enough to go unnoticed by the inhabitants of the forest. One of those times when you forget about yourself because you are so taken in by the wonder of the woodlands around you.
I first met Dick on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was watching several trout eat something floating on the surface of the water. A splash here. A gulp there. As I sat on a log trying to figure it out, a bearded man with a friendly voice asked if I knew what the trout were eating. “Not a clue,” I answered. And he was off, only to return in a couple of minutes with a window screen he had taken from his vacation cabin up the hill. He stuck in down in the middle of the river, pulled it up, and brought it over to me, still sitting on the log trying to figure things out.
The screen was full of the tiny bugs that were floating on the water. We spent a while going back and forth trying to figure out what they were, and if we had any flies that looked like them. We eventually identified the little buggers… pun intended… and in a short while, we were catching trout and laughing at our success. From that day on, we were friends. The kind of friend you know will last a lifetime. I always wondered what Dick’s wife thought when he grabbed the window screen and took off to the river.
Mark is the most beautiful fly caster I have ever known. His fly line sweeps through the air like the gentle current beneath our feet. Before I met him, I would sit and watch this guy with the magic arm making circles in the wind. Truly a thing of beauty. The gravel parking lot along the river’s edge is where we met. It’s not just a place to park the car. It is a meeting place for a fraternity of men and women from all over who sometimes spend as much time talking to each other about the day’s happenings as they do on the water. If ever there was a friendly place for people with a common passion to hang out, this is it. A place where acquaintances quickly become friends.
There is a spot in the parking lot where vehicles, made for such things, can cross the river. There was usually a car parked there with a cooler holding a coffee maker sitting next to it. It was Mark’s. Somewhere along the way we met. The fellow with the white shirt and the large Panama hat, sometimes standing on his head on the bank above the river. I knew this was a man that I would like to call my friend. Mark had known Dick for a long time and even stayed at his cabin from time to time.
A red ATV came pulling into the parking lot. It was Dick. Dick seemed to have it all backward. He spent his summers in Florida and his winters in the Ozarks. I would have done it the other way, but that was Dick. Aside from being a great fly fisher, Dick was also very social. He had a cabin on a hill above the river and would check out all of the access points along the way to see who was there.
Dick knew everybody’s car or truck. You could count on him looking for you if he saw your vehicle. It seemed like every time I climbed out of the river and got back to my car, Dick would be there with a good word… a question about how the day had gone… and always wanting to know who I had seen that day. As I said, the river has a fraternity of fly fishers from all over, and we are all friends. River friends. So one day when Dick pulled into the parking lot to say hello to whoever was there, Mark and I were talking, and there we were. Three friends, made in an instant, who would go on to spend years on the stream together.
Dick had been very sick and hadn’t come up from Florida one winter. I was worried as were his friends. How was he doing? Had something bad happened? Was he going to make it back to his cabin at all? A year had passed and still no Dick. It was a hot summer day and I had hiked down a horse trail to a place on the river where I could get in and then wade down to a stretch of stream that had been called “The Heartbreak” by some of the guys over the years. If you wanted to get away from the world, nothing could be more peaceful than an afternoon at “The Heartbreak” when a familiar voice called out “Tom.”
It was Dick in a canoe with his wife Leslie. He knew the guy he was coming up on was me. He had seen my vane in the parking lot. He pulled over and we talked for quite a while. We both had a lot of questions, not having seen one another in quite for some time. That is the last time I saw him. It was a year or two later as I pulled into the parking lot and headed to the car with the cooler holding the coffee maker. Mark was not his usual upbeat self as he broke the news. Dick had passed away in Florida. He turned away for a moment, I believe to hide a tear, and we spent the rest of our time talking about Dick and sharing some precious memories.
Mark and I still spend wonderful days on the river together. He has become a good friend off of the river as well. We have become close enough now to visit one another, know each others’ wives, and have dinners together. And we fondly remember the days when once there were three of us.