Fly fishing, part 1

“Too many people, too many cars…”

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
~Norman MacLean

Dateline: Inside the outside

I grew up in a shout.

I grew up in a three story house framed by driveways and concrete.

One car garage for the Oldsmobile Delta 88, could see the clothing store roof from my bedroom window, in the summer when the wooden windows in the wooden sash got raised, could smell the special of the day from the restaurant vent fans on the roof.

I grew up watching the sunset glimmer off metal roof fans.

I played in a yard measured in feet, not acres, a small swing set, small blowup pool, rose bushes lined the neighbor’s garage.

Guy, Davie, Frankie and Vinny filled my block, at one time trees lined the middle of the street, it was a boulevard ‘till the city came and cut all the trees down, paved the road edge to edge.  Easier to plow that way, I was told.

They left the tree out front between our sidewalk and the curb, played step ball against the church across the street until Father Dominic came out and chased the “hooligans” away.

I grew up being blessed and cursed by Father Dominic. 

When the priests in the rectory weren’t looking, Sister Mary Josephine taught all the step ball boys how to swing a baseball bat. I was 12 before I figured out that Jesus might not have actually been a New York Yankee fan.

Father Dominic baptized me, one of my tears fell on his coffin, either blessed or cursed, he was a friend, most times just a guy who lived across the street.

Welcome to my childhood neighborhood.

Thought you’d like to know.

“…take me to Memphis, Mercury, or Mars…”

“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.”
J. R. R. Tolkien

I was 10 years old the first time I remember hearing, quiet.

And it scared me.

I stood on a small hill above a field of fresh cut Canadian hay, a bowl of darkness and stars sat above and covered the land from horizon to horizon.

My Grandma Tess held my hand and pointed out the man in the moon, I gripped her hand as a tear rolled down my cheek. I had never been in the open before, never been in the real dark before, never not heard anything before.

A city child without a city wrapped around.

I spent my 10th summer in Disneyland without the rides or lines or people dressed in masks.

In Canfield, Ontario, in 1962 for me there were only Grandma, Grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, cows, pigs and chickens.

From the summer of ’62 to the summer of ’66, once school ended my parents would drive me up to the family farm and drop me off, most of the new clothes I wore back to school were made in Canada, bought on Main Street, Dunnville.

It wasn’t until much later in life as an adult going through my parent’s estate did I learn of the family secret, as I spent afternoons waiting at the end of a long gravel driveway for my parents to come back for me, mother and dad and my younger sisters were going on vacations to beaches and amusement parks, without me.

At 17 I left home for good, never went back, was told once by an aunt, maybe an uncle, “It happens some you know, your mom, your dad, never bonded with ya much…”

Still hurts some, mainly at night, mainly on long drives, but then I remember holding my Grandma’s hand under a bowl of stars, remember sitting on Uncle Jim’s or Uncle Leo’s lap and driving the tractor mowing hay, remember the cows, the pigs, the chickens, and it’s okay.

A city child without the city wrapped around.

Welcome to my childhood neighborhood.

Thought you’d like to know

“…just a city boy looking for a home..”

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” ~Andre Gide

My first tractor, by age 12 I was driving it myself.

I can never hear quiet without smelling hay.

I can never look at the stars without hearing chickens or cows.

I can never look at a river and not feel the water of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada, tickle my toes.

The first frog I ever saw not behind glass was on the banks of the Grand, the first fish I ever saw not in a bowl was in the Grand, the first line I ever cast by myself landed somewhere in the Grand.

On hot summer days, once the cows, chickens and pigs were fed and soon after Uncle Leo would take a swig of his “medicine” and fall asleep under the tree up on the rise, Uncle Jim would take me in his big black Buick to a town called Cayuga where we would grab some sandwiches and cookies and worms and then head down the road to his special spot on the Grand where he would tie on my red and white bobber, make his special crinkly face when he put the worm on the hook and pat me on the back and say, “Cast away Donnie, always cast far son.”

Uncle Jim was a business man, wore a tie some when “we” fished, was a big man with a round face and round laugh, was my dad a lot. 

On the farm back then we had no electricity, no indoor plumbing other than a pump in the kitchen, logs lit the cast iron stove and cooked the food and warmed the water for a bath, in the middle of the night when the chamber pot in my room wouldn’t do it was Uncle Jim who got up and walked me outside to the far side of the barn and the little room with a toilet seat and a hole.

At night he read to me under gaslight or told me stories of the big towns of Pittsburgh or Chicago where he made sales. Later I would travel with him as he “prepared me to take over.”  Take over was his dream, not mine.

It was on the Grand with Uncle Jim eating cookies on the bank, with me waiting patiently for my bobber to bob when I first saw a man walk down the bank and straight into the water and then begin to whip the water and the wind with some kind of magic fishing pole and line.

Three feet out from my bobber he stood waist deep in the water swinging back and forth, line getting all wet around his legs, whip, whip, whip I could hear the line snap and the pole creak and then the flurry all came to a stop as he just let go, just let go.

A few feet from my nose the line just seemed to float through the air and the rush of the Grand, and the whips and creaks went silent as the line uncurled and rode the wind downstream and when it landed it just laid on the water, too smart I thought to sink as the man in the water just pulled the string back with his hands not with the reel and the other end of his line was, miraculously, bobber free.

Over and over, out there in the water there would be whip, whip, whip, float, float, float, pull, pull, pull, over and over, and my bobber just sat.

Finally the man in the water came over my way, he stood on the bank and did something with the end of his floating string. I asked him if he needed a bobber, I had an extra one, he laughed and said he was okay, asked me what I was fishing for, I told him I really didn’t know, he asked what I was fishing with, I told him I had half a hot dog on the hook, “my Uncle Jim ate the other half.”

“Are you fishing with just string mister?”

“No, I’m fly fishing.”

“You catching any flies with your string?” Makes sense now why his floating fishing string is in the air so much and why he pulls it back every time it lands in the water without catching a fly.

The mister looks up at Uncle Jim who himself is catching some Zzzz’s.

Then the mister walks over to me and opens up his hand and in his big palm I see a little bug. I personally as a kid didn’t much like bugs and wouldn’t think of holding one in my hand so just when I back up some the mister says, “I’m not catching flies I use flies to catch fish, see.”

And then his big hand gets the bug way to close to my small face, “Hey mister, is it dead, I’m sorry I didn’t kill it I just sort of looked at it just a little.”

“No, it’s not dead I just tied it this morning.”

I look up at the mister in complete awe, not only is he not afraid of bugs but he can actually grab and tie them up.

“How did you catch it and not kill it while you tied it up?”

At this point the mister puts down his brown whicker purse thing that he wore around his waist and kneels down to my level and says, “It’s not a real bug, it’s made with string and feathers, and I make it so it looks like a bug to fool the fish.”

And then he drops the not a real bug bug into my hand.

I’m just a city boy with not a real bug bug in my hand, I understand the mister may be afraid of real bugs and that’s why he uses not real bugs but up until that moment in life I never even thought of the possibility of having a not real bug bug in my hand.

In my city, all the bugs, were real.

“…’cause l wanna go…”

As we drove back home I showed Uncle Jim the not real bug bug in my hand, told him the man told me that it was a “fly,” and that he wasn’t fishing for flies he was fishing with not a real bug bug fly for fish.

“Really, what was he fishing for?”

“I don’t know, I asked him is this fake fly bug small because he was fishing for small fish and he told me that weren’t so but that the fish had smallmouths so I guess that’s why he made the fake fly small.”

Uncle Jim just laughed, guess he thought using fake bugs to catch real fish with small mouths was funny too.

I kept that fake fly bug for years on the dresser of my room up at the farm, never saw the man with the magic floating string again at the river, I stuck with my bobber and half a hot dog, never caught anything but tales from Uncle Jim and a knowing that there was a magic land beyond the city.

In my 16th summer I got a car, a job, a girlfriend and never left the city for the farm again.

In my 21st summer the farm was sold. I heard the farm house was modernized, some of the land was sold, the bobber and the fake bug fly, only memories.

Uncle Jim in my office at home
That’s the farmhouse behind us, I’m 2, still in the full body cast (you can tell by the casts on both my feet) that’s Uncle Jim holding me and his wife, the lady who taught me to read, Aunt Irma.

In my 25th summer, Uncle Jim died, my office at home is lined with old photos of me and him, to this day I cry when I think of him gone.

I’m a city guy with the soul of a Canadian farm within.

I’m a city guy who still feels the Grand River tickle my feet.

It’s been 48 years since I’ve listened to the quiet.

Been 48 years since I’ve held a fake bug bug in my hands.

Been 48 years since I watched magic string whipped and float in the air.

48 years…

“There you go, db, that should work.”


“db you okay?”

I’m standing in a mom and pop fly fishing shop on the Farmington River in Connecticut, my fishing buddy Mac is looking at me in the way he looks wondering if my meds need rebalancing.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, just drifting back, been a long time since I had a fake bug bug in my hand, old memories that all.”

It’s been along time since I left mister fisherman for flies on the banks of the Grand River, haven’t been around fly fishing in over four decades, never actually imagined it would sneak back into my life.

And yet.

Yet, in my hand sits a fake mosquito that I paid $7.47 for while swatting real mosquitoes.

I’m about to step into the clear waters of the Farmington and fly fish.

Just me and Mac.

We stand still, both smiling, Mac a doctor, me a news guy, we come here to fish, to get away, to listen to the silence.

We both hear the quiet.

But only I hear the cows, the pigs, the chickens.

But only I smell the hay.

But only I feel Grandma Tess and Uncle Jim’s hands.

Fly fishing, it seems…

…ain’t only about the flies, or the fish.

“…where the buffalo roam…”
City Boy
Keb Mo

“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”
~ Alan Alda


To be continued…

Read More: Part 2 | Part 3