Marcel Proust wrote about memory in his novel In Search of Lost Time. He explained how eating a Madeleine at 30 can create a flood of lucid memories about events when you were 5. According to Proust, time, in these moments, is obviated. Fly fishing reminds me of Proust’s Madeleine. I think it’s what draws us to the water; a timelessness associated with each riffle, each drift, each cast, and each fish.
My grandfather died on my birthday near the end of my first year of law school. He
had been a surgeon in Texas. He was endowed with a quick wit, a dry sense of humor, a wry smile, poor fashion sense, and the hope I would grow up to be a doctor.
He loved fishing. We fished together in Rockport, Texas on Estes Flats, bait cast and jigging spoons and plastic worms in the shallows for redfish and speckled trout. He could talk about fishing for hours. His white eyebrows would lift and his hair would turn into an excited mess when he talked about fishing for coho salmon in Kenai, Alaska during a mid-1990s trip.
After law school, my wife – then pregnant – our daughter, our cats, and our dog all moved to Alaska. I would learn to fly fish in Juneau, Alaska. Despite living in Rockport, Texas, living within driving distance of the Sierras, living close to the Florida Keys and Florida tarpon, and even living in the fly fishing mecca of Missoula, Montana, I would finally learn to fly fish with Mendenhall Glacier behind me.
This was not Norman Maclean’s religious brand of fly fishing.
This was fly fishing with streamers, and by streamers, I mean meat: big, fat rabbit strips, lead weighted, tungsten coned streamers named the “dolly lama” or “mother of all leeches.” As fly fishing goes, the fishing technique was rather simple: cast as far as possible, mend a few times, let the streamer sink and swing in the current, once your line becomes tight, let the fly dangle at the end, then strip and jig the streamer back in.
The apostles would have been horrified.
My first-year fly fishing, I fished a low-tide estuary on the Friday evening of Labor Day weekend. I could barely cast the dolly lama more than 30 feet. I did my best, and let out another 20 feet of line when it fell into the current. The streamer drifted and swung out wide. I stripped once, and felt the line go tight. I set the hook as hard as I could. The coho jumped and darted. I looked down at my reel and saw only backing, with the reel spinning wildly and uncontrollably. Once the fish stopped, I reeled quickly and tightened my drag. The fish, feeling the resistance, ran again. It jumped; tail walking a bit this time in the clear saltwater. Its next runs were dogged, stubborn runs, with head shakes before and after each run. It took me several minutes to bring the fish in.
When I finally tailed the fish, I thought about my grandfather: his poor fashion, redfish, Estes Flats, and Madeleines.