In my father’s house, fly-fishing was often discussed but seldom practiced, just as my father preached from the pulpit each Sunday about humility, kindness, and occasionally love but rarely put them to good use either.
It wasn’t until years later, the summer we came together in Alaska, that his rabid self-defense of both piety and angling first cracked and I caught a glimpse of something soft and quivering — pink as a just-birthed mammal — within the Abrams armor. I suspect the light slanting off the central Alaska landscape had a lot to do with it. The Last Frontier has an unnerving effect on even the most careful of charlatans, a group for which my father was high priest for many years.
He built his reputation as a fly-fisherman from the weekly newspaper column he wrote for seven years in our small Wyoming town: “Outdoors with Dan Abrams.” Below the standing headline each week, a pen-and-ink fisherman stood hip-deep in a mountain stream.
That fisherman was not my father. He sat at home in his recliner where, when reclined, he could look at the antelope head mounted on the living room wall above him. He read every magazine that came in the mail — Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Field and Stream — working himself into a fever of machismo, a hot lather of inspiration. Then he spent weeks planning his outdoor odysseys — hunting, fishing, or camping in two-day bursts — from which he drew three months of newspaper columns. When members of his Baptist church asked how he sandwiched so much adventure between weddings, funerals, and sermon-writing, he never lied. “It’s not easy,” he sighed.
My father won numerous newspaper awards for writing about the best ways to dress big-game animals, backpack in the Wind River Mountains, and match dry fly patterns to the insect hatch. Once, he even won the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s prestigious “Buck Knife Award” for a nostalgic article about the time he and I hunted sage grouse near Riverton.
It was one of the few times we hunted together. I shot wild and high when the grouse exploded from the prairie and we drove home empty-handed. He never mentioned my poor aim in his prize-winning article.
On another hunting trip, this time through waist-deep snow in a fruitless search for elk, I carried his candy bars and rifle like an African porter.
We’d moved to northern Wyoming when I was eight years old and, after an initial, euphoric blitz on the area’s rivers, my father’s daily trips to the Snake, the Firehole, and the Yellowstone dwindled to weekends, then monthly excursions, then only on national holidays and, finally, he made a showy spectacle over wetting his line on opening day in April. By the time I was in sixth grade, he spoke of the wild waters like a parent wistfully talks about a wayward child he hasn’t seen in years.
As much as my father enjoyed the Rocky Mountains of the Lower 48, he panted like a horny schoolboy for the Upper 49th. If Wyoming was a fisherman’s Paradise, then Alaska was something higher than Heaven, a fish-filled Stratosphere of Ecstasy. He could never afford the time or money for his great northern safari and so he had to resign himself to living on the banks of what were universally agreed to be the best trout waters of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
“Someday,” he said to us in a husky whisper, “someday I’ll make it to Alaska.” We believed him like we’d believe someone who told us the Publishers Clearing House folks were standing outside our front door with an oversized check and a balloon bouquet.
We watched my father with pity as, with eyes closed and a smile misting his lips, he made invisible casts from his recliner, all the time dreaming he was on the banks of the Gulkana or on the decks of a Valdez charter. The salmon leapt into his lap like manna from God.
Fish swam throughout my father’s Sunday services in schools of metaphors. He peppered his sermons with images that described predestined salvation as “God’s well-timed cast” landing upstream where we, as “unsuspecting trout,” waited to be “hooked into the kingdom of God.” Instead of saying productive Christians should “bear good fruit in keeping with their faith,” he altered the passage to include something about “a creelful of keepers.” Few people sitting in the pews suspected he hadn’t got his waders wet in months.
In those guileless days of my middle childhood, I admit he trapped me in his spell. I read his fishing articles and believed he spent his spare time wandering the banks of local rivers. And when I do remember my Father the Angler, these are my landmark images: the nicks in his hands from embedded hooks, the smell of fish oil filtering from his clothes. The times he caught fish — as infrequent as national holidays — he stood at the sink, poking heads, tails and fins into the garbage disposal. His eyes sparkled as the whole house filled with the heavy perfume of trout.
I waited for him to teach me the mysteries of fish, to lead me by the hand along the Snake River, pointing out the character of the current. Nothing happened.
The one time we came together for a casting lesson, it was not on the banks of the Snake but in our backyard.
I stood with my hands in my pockets as he strung up the nine-foot graphite rod and tied a barbless streamer fly to the end of the leader. “You pass the line through the eye of the hook, then wrap the end back around the leader,” he explained, braiding the monofilament. “Then you make a loop, pass it through, then once again through the other loop, pull it tight and there you have it.” His voice was quick and complicated as an instruction manual and he finished the clinch knot before I could even see what his fingers were doing.
“Now, let’s pretend that crabapple tree over there is a pool in the stream you’re casting to,” he said and placed the fly rod in my hands. The cork handle squeaked against my sweaty palm. I was twelve years old and still believed I could please him.
I pulled orange line from the reel and whipped the rod from side to side. I remembered the motion from reading one of his newspaper columns.
“No, no,” he said. “Here, like this.” He stepped behind me, circled his arms around my body and started casting vigorously as my right hand clenched the butt of the rod, trying to feel that secret rhythm of casting. “You bring it to the ten o’clock position and stop. Count to three, then snap the wrist forward.”
The line whistled through the air, the fly popping at the end of each cast, as he took control of the rod and my hands. The cork squeaked in my hand and my teeth clacked as he pumped my arm back and forth.
“Ten o’clock, stop, snap! Ten o’clock, stop, snap!”
I went to bed that night mumbling the magic formula over and over, my right arm throbbing. I dreamed of lines knotted and kinked by the wind, of trout swimming through the grass of my back yard, and of my father standing on the opposite bank of an impossibly wide river.
Many years later, I left home and, like the prodigal son, went my own way. That is to say, I became a practicing fisherman.
I moved to Oregon, Montana and, yes, Alaska where I fished the Willamette, the Madison, and the Chatanika Rivers. When I took my first tentative step into the Madison River and was nearly swept downstream, I realized how little I knew about water. Undaunted, I taught myself how to wade icy streams, navigating the slippery rocks as if I’d been doing it for years. I learned to choose the most trout-tempting fly patterns, to tie secure knots and to remove hooks from the jaws of madly flipping fish.
I did not purposefully look for traces of my father as I walked the cobblestone banks, but, still, I heard his condescending voice in the gurgling current telling me the best way to read the river.
When I mentioned my new interest in fishing during a phone conversation, I received a package in the mail two weeks later. Inside were boxes of flies, reels, leaders, diagrams of knots, and a three-page, single-spaced letter of fishing tips. I vowed not to bring this on myself again.
So, years later, when my father came to Alaska for a visit and we camped along the banks of the Tangle River, I strung up my rod without saying a word, unsure how to act around him as he busied himself with his gear. He’d begun planning this trip six months earlier, when five tons of snow lay heavy on the waters and the fish slumbered beneath the ice.
There was unmistakable tension between us. After all, I’d entered Paradise before him. I’d moved to Fairbanks in the dead of winter seven months before my father’s visit and already I’d cut holes in the ice of Harding Lake and pulled warm trout from the dark water below. Several times that spring, I’d haunted the shores of that same lake, gently assassinating the fish who came to feed at the edge of the ice during breakup. And then there was the early-season salmon trip to Montana Creek, which I didn’t even have the heart to mention to my father during our long-distance phone conversations. His voice was already distorted with jealousy. The forty-five-pound king I wrestled out of Montana would surely break his spirit.
But now here he was, on the banks of the Tangle River and bristling like a child on Christmas Eve.
“Take it easy, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got all day and most of the night.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, blowing on the drab fly to fluff the hackle. Nervous spittle from his mouth clung to the tips of the elk hairs.
His fishing vest bulged with nail clippers, hooks, coiled tippets, and enough flies to make him look like a wild fur-and-feather beast. He said his new graphite rod cost more than $400 and by the amount of time he spent attaching the reel and fitting the sections together, I saw he was determined to get his money’s worth.
Finally, he said in a voice that chimed like bells, “Let’s go hit the water.”
The Tangle River is less than two miles long, a short, snake-shaped stretch of water connecting Long Tangle Lake to Round Tangle Lake in central Alaska near the town of Paxson. The lakes, and their umbilical river, lie in one of those shallow valleys for which interior Alaska is famous. The terrain has been scooped by bulldozing glaciers, yes; but it’s also been smoothed and patted back into a gentle undulation of eskers, muskeg, and puddle lakes. The landscape couldn’t have been more different from the jagged upthrust of the Wyoming Rockies in my father’s backyard.
Grayling and lake trout frolicked in the Tangle River, spawning in its glacial waters like hormone-crazy teenagers. The word “tangle” is a descriptive term for the maze of lakes and streams in the drainage system. In the seven square miles surrounding us, hundreds of braided channels and melted glaciers outnumbered patches of dry land where we could be sure of our footing. As my father and I walked with our fly rods held high, it was hard to think of the water as anything but metaphor.
The land around us glittered with the thousand waters of the state’s year-round moisture. The bog slowed us down, sucked at our boots. I turned to warn my father about lacing up tighter, but his face was already wrapped in a dreamy, foggy gaze. He was looking at the New Jerusalem rising from the Alaskan tundra. Any minute now, the Four Horsemen would come galloping across the muskeg.
Instead of the Book of Revelation, I thought of Genesis: this was something closer to Noah, wringing out his clothes after the ark ride.
It was nearly ten o’clock at night when we approached the Tangle River. At two hours short of midnight, the sun still burned brightly. My father, unaccustomed to the 24-hour daylight of Alaska’s summers, blinked and shaded his eyes as he searched the water for what he called “dimples,” places where the trout rose to gulp insects from the surface but never fully broke the tensile strength of the water. A dimple is to a fly fisherman what rustling vegetation is to a hunter. For one brief moment, he can pinpoint the feeding fish before it submerges again to the riverbed. Though hunting requires proper aim and gentle trigger squeeze, fly fishing involves not only aiming and casting but also grace — breathing life into a feather-and-tinsel fly through fifty feet of line.
My father pulled line from his reel with a sharp ratcheting sound and flung his fly halfway to the opposite bank. When it hit the water, he sighed — a sound of exhilaration, long-pent-up inside his chest. I watched as he pulled the line back with his left hand, the fly skimming the slow current like a surfer. A white wake trailed the hook.
“The idea is to work the whole stream,” he said.
I nodded, biting my lip, and moved upriver away from him.
I stood at the mouth of the river where Long Tangle Lake emptied southward. Here, the current was warm and nearly silent, save for the spots where it brushed against the long grass of the banks. The shallow river gradually deepened as it moved away from the parental lake. Grayling the size of minnows flitted among the small rocks. These were the immature fish, the ones who’d bite at anything as they swam in schools less than a hundred feet from the lake where they’d hatched. As I watched the river, twenty mouths the size of pencil tips broke the surface like a quick, violent hailstorm. A caddis fly, dipping too near the river, had just fallen prey to the feeding frenzy. I thought of casting, but knew that even the smallest hook in my box of flies would be larger than the heads on most of these fish.
I heard a sharp “Hey! Got one!” and turned to see my father set the hook. He brought his arms up like a referee calling a touchdown and the five-inch grayling flew over his head, landing in the dirt ten feet behind him.
As I walked downstream to my father, he twisted the hook out of the grayling’s mouth. A tiny ooze of blood seeped from one corner of its jaw. The fish was young and soft. One firm squeeze from my father’s hand would mash it to a pulp of scales, fins and bones.
“Not worth keeping, is he?” my father said as he dunked the fish back into the water. “We might as well throw him back.”
I thought of my father’s sermon on the prodigal son. The same cycle of sermons were resurrected every five years and I’d heard his commentary on the New Testament parable at least four times. I pictured him leaning over the pulpit, purposefully not looking at me sitting in the back pew. As I stood on the banks of the Tangle River, I tried to remember the tone of his voice when he preached that sermon but found I couldn’t. I wondered if he’d found fault with the father who let his son go out into the corrupt world or with the child who rejected the love and security of his family.
There were, I realized, layers upon layers of invitation and promise in my father’s voice (and I’m speaking now of his Sunday voice which, as with most men of the cloth, is different than his Monday-through-Saturday voice). For that hour each week, his baritone was barbed with the mysteries of mercy, the promise of salvation and, as I was now realizing, the tease of a paradise like Alaska.
Suddenly, I remembered its high, lingering pitch. I could almost hear it mixed into the current of the Tangle River and wondered, with a stab of guilt, if I’d been the one to short-change the relationship with my father.
Together, we watched the young grayling swim to the middle of the river. “He’ll be fine,” my father said, staring at the water long after the grayling was gone.
“Let’s move downstream,” I said, hoping we’d find larger, more athletic fish in the stronger current.
“It’s worth a try,” he said. It was a cool evening, but his forehead glistened with sweat. The mosquitoes were out in full force, diving in and out for his blood, but he didn’t even seem to notice their stings. He moistened his lips and looked at the river as if the two of them were lovers reunited after a long absence. I led the way as we walked along the riverbank, keeping pace with the current. I tried to imagine myself doing this when I was nine years old, but couldn’t. My father followed close behind, brushing loudly through the grass.
In that moment, I felt an invisible pane of glass break inside me and a flood of conflicting emotions, strong as the current at our feet, rush and tumble from my heart to my head and back again. Mixed with my bitterness was an unfamiliar feeling of sorrow for my father, for all the moments like this he’d missed. This and every other river in the world had always been here, flowing over the rocks and mud and grass at the same unwavering pace, waiting for him, for us. All the words he’d ever written or spoken had failed to bring us any nearer to the water.
It had taken the land, Alaska in all its prehistoric barrenness, to bring us together. Prehistory. That was it. Maybe this was the river of Genesis, the first river of the world. I stopped walking, caught up short at the irony of the thought.
My father also paused, turned. “What is it, son?”
I looked at him, trying to put the land into words. The water sang, the mosquitoes hummed. “This place…”
“Sure is something, isn’t it?” He cocked his head and eyed the low sun.
“Something,” I said. “Yeah, something.”
“Well,” he shook himself…as if he, too, had seen the chink in the armor. “Those grayling are waiting for us.”
When the Tangle River crossed under the Denali Highway bridge, it took on an entirely different character of water and fish. My father and I walked to a spot where the river was narrow and mean, lashed to a gray froth like an ocean in the winter. Here the sound of a million drops of water roaring across the submerged rocks drowned out all but the most necessary words between us. “There,” he said and pointed at an exposed flat rock, large as a table, ten feet from shore.
I analyzed the architecture of the river with my self-trained eye. I would have picked something a little closer, where I could drop my fly off the rod tip straight into the water and let the current wash it downstream. I’d worked this kind of water before and never had much success. I was frustrated by how quickly my dry flies got sucked under after hitting the choppy riffles. No trout would be tempted by a soggy hunk of feathers and deer hair, I thought.
Just below the rock the river smoothed briefly before breaking up again.
“That’s where the fish are,” my father said, standing at my elbow. I flinched at the sound of his voice. He’d watched me study the river. “Go ahead,” he said. “See where the stream divides around that rock? That’s where you want to put your fly, then let it float down to the pool.” I hesitated and he said, “It’s okay if your fly goes under the surface.”
I looked at him, my face pinching sharply. A drenched dry fly? I didn’t remember reading that technique in any of his newspaper articles.
“Trust me,” he said.
I took the fly between my fingers and blew on the hackle to dry it, then tossed it into the river and stripped out line, enough to reach the rock. Since I was surrounded by a dense ring of willows, I couldn’t bring the rod tip up to the ten o’clock position, so I tried a roll cast. With a tight swirl of my rod, the line spiraled out, flipping the fly upstream of the rock.
“Nice cast,” my father said. He stood on the bank with his rod in his hands. He raised his eyebrows and jutted out his lower lip in genuine surprise at the success of my cast. I’d worked for months to find the right rhythm of the roll cast.
Just as I feared, my fly dipped below the surface, caught in the tug of the river. But then, at the base of the rock, it did a very surprising thing. Instead of sinking to the bottom, it popped back up like a cork and hovered in the pool for several seconds before the line, also caught in the current, dragged it downstream. I knew those few moments on the surface of the pool were enough to catch the attention of any fish below.
“Hey,” I said. “It works.”
“Of course it does.”
I lifted the tip of my rod and cast upstream again and again, working the same lane of the river until finally on the one perfect trip around the rock we saw a small splash and the fly completely disappeared.
I heard my father say, “Now!” But I didn’t need to be coached. I pulled down on the line with my left hand and raised the rod with my right hand. The line filled with an electric tension that hummed between my fingers. If I’d touched my father, I could have zapped him with a shock.
“Bring him in close and I’ll grab him.” My father leaned out over the water, reaching for the leader. Wrapping it between his fingers, he pulled the fish onto the bank and we both stared at the two-pound grayling. It was a thing of wild beauty. It flipped once then stilled under my father’s hand as he spread its large, sail-like dorsal fin.
“Look at that,” he said. “This is one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.”
I didn’t doubt him for a second.
He pulled a buck knife from his fishing vest and sliced through the belly. I helped him scoop out the heart, the stomach, the gills and within minutes we both reeked of fish musk.
I held the gutted grayling between my hands and my father took a picture.
“Well,” he said as he washed his hands in the stream, “let’s see you do that again.”
“What about you, Dad? Don’t you want to fish, too?”
“Oh, maybe I will a little later on. But first let’s see you catch some more.” There was a wary catch in his voice — not the confident baritone of Sunday mornings, but the troubled tenor of someone shoved up against a lie.
He nestled his fly rod in the crook of a nearby tree, then lowered himself to the ground. I looked at him, then nodded without saying anything else. I realized my father had come all the way to Alaska, marched the whole distance to his glacial Zion, to watch me fish. He was counting on me to catch my limit, to soak my hands in fish oil.
I blew on the fly and tossed it in the water again, conscious of my every move. I felt his eyes on my wrists, my rod, my fly. I thought of his hands covering mine that day in the backyard as he and I cast toward the crabapple tree. “That’s it,” he’d said then and now. “That’s it.”
Another fish hit my fly. And another. And another. My creel filled with fish — fat grayling, the wily ones who had eluded fishermen for many summers. My father spent most of his time watching my roll casts spiral upstream, the wet thin line sparkling in the sun.
At the end of the day, he said, “I’ll say this much, you’ve turned out to be a darn good caster.” I barely heard his voice above the roar of the water.
After so many years the words were unexpected, like a hook snagging a rock in an otherwise easy stretch of water. I knew it was the highest praise he’d ever give me. I turned upstream so he couldn’t see my face and all that rippled on its surface. After all, in my father’s house the things that mattered most were so seldom expressed.