My father's only child, I was an obvious candidate to be his fishing companion. He taught me to bait a hook, cast and reel in, play the fish to tire it, and, then, gut and clean my catch.
My most vivid memories of our fishing outings are those at Lily Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By age 6, I'd learned Lesson No. 1 in fish behavior: They liked an early breakfast, which meant crawling from our sleeping bags before dawn. In our clunky Plymouth we climbed the winding road to the lake. Holding onto a waist-high wire, we crossed Glen Alpine Creek's wooden-slat footbridge, built atop a beaver dam. A path led us to the boat tied up at the water's edge.
My father rowed us through the dark green channels among the lily pads. We spoke softly, the only other sounds, the liquid dipping of the oars or an occasional bird cry. Choosing a promising-looking spot, he'd rustle through his tackle box among sinkers, spools of nylon line, fishing flies, and cans of worms, searching for hooks and weights. We baited our hooks, cast our lines, and waited. For those few hours, the little lake was ours.
My father and I had an uneasy relationship. I was an introverted child around him. He and my mother bickered constantly, and he had a drinking problem. His behavior had too often embarrassed me.
But on those fishing mornings, there was no bottle hidden in his jacket, no slurred speech, no glazed eyes. I felt safe there with our fishermen's talk. Here my father was on his own turf. He could teach me the lessons of fishing – not only the how-to's, but other lessons he didn't know he was imparting to me:
We wouldn't always get what we came for.
With patience, though, we might.
The wait could be as satisfying as the reward.
Much could be heard in the quiet of the dawn.
Silences between two people don't need to be filled.
Sometimes a foolish trout found my hook. I'd reel it in, and my father would scoop it out with his net. We estimated its length, admiring its identifying markings. He'd remove the hook. When the fish had eaten their fill, we would row back to shore and head to camp, where my mother waited with a welcome breakfast.
I don't remember how old I was the last time I went fishing with my father at Lily Lake. Eventually, I became more interested in snaring boys. But those times spent fishing were the closest moments I had with him as a child.
My father is gone now, but I returned recently to Lily Lake. I crossed the wooden footbridge and stood on the shore. A silver flash broke the water's placid surface, spreading glistening concentric rings. I was there again with my father, rowing through islands of lily pads, and I whispered a thank-you for what he taught me.