Fly fishing, Fathers, and Children

Copyright 2011, Kenneth H. Lokensgard
One of the most beloved works in the centuries-old body of fly fishing literature is Norman Maclean’s novella, “A River Runs through It.” It was published as part of A River Runs through It and Other Stories, by the University of Chicago Press in 1976. The well-known opening passage has always resonated with me.

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and flyfishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

I earned a doctoral degree in Religious Studies. And because my scholarly work has involved the religious practices and beliefs of indigenous peoples — practices and beliefs that rarely correspond to those found in Christianity — I have a broad understanding of “religion.” To me, religion is that which, to paraphrase scholar and mentor Charles Long, provides “ultimate orientation.” In other words, religion is that which helps us understand where we come from, where we stand in relation to others, and where we are going. Thus, it provides both identity and meaning. It makes sense for me, then, that Maclean said that religion and fly fishing were essentially one for him and his family members. In fact, not only does it makes sense to me, it also expresses my own feelings about the relationship between religion and fly fishing. Neither I, nor, I think, Maclean would suggest that fly fishing can replace “traditional” religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or the practices and beliefs of the indigenous peoples with whom I work. Rather, it simply functions in much the same way that established religions do; it helps many of us find “ultimate orientation.”

Maclean’s book resonates with me for another reason, unrelated to his religious views. Like him and his brother, my two sisters and I are the children of a Presbyterian minister. Moreover, my “home waters” are in the same area in which Maclean learned to fish. That area is The Big Blackfoot River drainage in western Montana.

Just as Norman Maclean did, my father grew up fly fishing with his own brother and father. Unfortunately, his dad was a hard man, who did not make fishing (or much of anything else), enjoyable to his sons. Still, fly fishing was one of the few ways through which my father and his brother could connect to their dad at all.

Our family cabin, on a lake in the Big Blackfoot River drainage.

As an adult, my father always kept fly tackle at our family cabin. And even if he largely left the practice of fly fishing behind, he encouraged it in me. I remember flinging the occasional “Royal Coachman” onto the waters of the lake, near which our cabin stands. And once I grew more interested in fly fishing, he taught me all the requisite knots and passed along the other pieces of fishing knowledge he retained.

My father and I, before fishing.

My uncle left fly fishing behind as well. Sadly, he had an even more difficult relationship with my grandfather than my dad did. There is little doubt in my mind that this difficult, often violent, relationship contributed to my uncle’s debilitating mental illness. When he retired from his life as a professor, though, he did try his hand again at tying flies. And shortly before his death, he gave to me a size 12 “Black Gnat.” It had been his favorite fly, as a child.

My story only resembles Maclean’s in a broad sense — both of our fathers were Presbyterian ministers living in the same area of Montana, and both of us find fly fishing meaningful in the deepest of senses. When it comes to day-to-day family life, however, there is probably a greater resemblance between my father’s and uncle’s lives and those of the Maclean brothers. Unlike my grandfather, the Reverend Maclean treated his sons well and shared his love with them. On the other hand, like Norman Maclean, my father lived a life during which he was always concerned about his brother, until my uncle died from cancer.

A trout I caught, while fly fishing with my father.

Like the Reverend Maclean, and unlike my grandfather, my dad has always been loving and supportive, despite carrying some demons with him. We have occasionally fly fished with each other through the years. Until fishing together this summer, however, I think we let close to ten years pass since our last outing. It was important to me, then, that when one of my sisters called from Missoula a few days ago (as it happens, she attends the Rev. Maclean’s old church there) and said my dad might finally be ready to fish again, that I meet him at the cabin with my gear. My sister was right, as she most often is when it comes to family matters. My father and I had a great time on the lake. Clearly, it brought back a few unpleasant childhood memories for my dad. But it just as clearly meant a lot to him to get out on the water once again with his own son.

My daughter, during her first fly fishing excursion onto the lake.

I recently became a father myself. I have a beautiful little girl. While she is not yet two years old, she, her mom, and I were able to fish a bit on the lake earlier this summer. She saw her dad catch a fish with a fly for the first time, and she loved it the experience. Fishing may never be religious for her, as it was for Maclean and as it is for me. Nonetheless, I trust it will always be a means through which she can connect with her father. I also trust, however, that she will be able to connect with me during every other imaginable activity too. In spite of their love for each other, this was not the case in the Maclean family, and it was certainly not the case for my father, uncle, and grandfather. Thankfully, life is all about change, and my daughter is the very embodiment of change and possibility.

My daughter helping to release the trout her

7 Responses to “Fly fishing, Fathers, and Children”

  1. Erv Faulmann Says:

    My heart wells with these words, Ken. Your family, and the surrounding glow of love that emanates from it, continue to be a part of my life-tale in both quasi-direct (e.g. facebook comments and the far too scarce visits) and indirect (distant holding/prayer) ways. Your reflection here demonstrates how that love is often expressed in the sharing of spiritual practices. Indeed, that is a primary basis of all religions – shared spiritual practices. May the Great Fish that has blessed the headwaters of your life, continue to nourish your flowing path of life.

    Like

    • kenov Says:

      Thank you, Erv. Needless to say, I thought of you as I wrote this. Many of those early, happy memories of being on the lake include you. I do hope we can catch up in person before long. We’d have much to talk about. I’m sure my wife and I will be out that way one of these days.

      Like

  2. The film, A River Runs Through It, Twenty Years Later « The Literary Fly Fisher Says:

    […] Midcurrent Fly Fishing News alerted me to a great article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Written by Carly Flandro, the article is about the 1992 film adaptation of Norman Maclean’s ”A River Runs Through It” and its impact.  A copy of Maclean’s 1976 book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, always had a presence on our shelves in Helena and at our family cabin near the Big Blackfoot River.  The book, and particularly the title story, had special meaning to me, because I was the son of a Presbyterian Minister, and he was the one who introduced me to fly fishing (see my previous post). […]

    Like

  3. Michael Mitchell Says:

    I’m in the process of publishing a book of father daughter images and life lessons for dads (similar to my blog lifetoheryears.com), and I found this post of yours while searching for pictures of dads fishing with their daughters.

    Would you be willing to let me include one of you and your daughter in the boat in my book? In exchange for allowing one of your images to be used, you’d receive written credit in the book and a free copy once it’s published.

    Please let me know if you’d be willing to let one of your pictures be included.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    -Michael
    lifetoheryears.com
    facebook.com/lifetoheryears

    Like

  4. Michael Says:

    I’m in the process of publishing a book of father daughter images and life lessons for dads (similar to my blog lifetoheryears.com), and I found this post of yours while searching for pictures of dads fishing with their daughters.

    Would you be willing to let me include one of you and your daughter in the boat in my book? In exchange for allowing one of your images to be used, you’d receive written credit in the book and a free copy once it’s published.

    Please let me know if you’d be willing to let one of your pictures be included.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    -Michael
    lifetoheryears.com
    facebook.com/lifetoheryears

    Like

  5. Norman Maclean Literary Festival | The Literary Fly Fisher Says:

    […] It lies along Highway 83, in Missoula County. Because my sisters and I share a cabin in the area (about which I have written numerous times) and because it lies along the route to another family property in Glacier National […]

    Like

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