The Fishing Hat
Bill returned from Germany and the Army of the Occupation in 1955. He brought back with him a taste for good lager, a barracks degree in Pinochle and Poker, and a newfound love: Fishing moving water with Mepps spinners.
Since then, he’d wooed and married my mother, fathered three children and worked until the bitter end for 3 successive small companies that each failed to adapt as wholesale and retail modernized in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. Bill had his full share of life’s lows and though he perhaps was shorted a couple of high notes, he was the calm and quiet force that kept our family close and my siblings and I feeling secure even when we really weren’t. Dad had come through life with no complaints he felt were worth mentioning and very few regrets. We were all profoundly grateful to have Bill as our father.
On a sunny Saturday last spring Dad sat in the passenger seat beside me for a drive down our personal “Memory Lane”. The well worn green felt fedora on his head was a present from an unknown local who somehow crashed the informal going away party held on my father’s last night in Germany. All Dad remembers is that the man appeared out of nowhere, spoke no English, happily paid for his share of the rounds and insisted with exaggerated gestures that my father accept his hat as a farewell gift when the party broke up. It became Bill’s “fishing hat”, and the only non-GI cover I ever saw him wear. Dad was at his core a creature of habit and whenever that green fedora came up from its appointed place in the basement, my heart would race because it could mean only one thing: We were going fishing. That spring day, however, this long standing rule was finally broken: We were not going fishing.
At 82, frail, and about to begin a course of radiation and chemo from which he would never really recover, there wasn’t a spot on any of our favorite streams where Dad would be able to safely get to the water and wet a line. Unsaid but understood was the realization that making only a few casts or fishing from just one spot without the ability to continue upstream would be worse than not fishing at all. So, we left our rods at home. Instead, on this day when Dad wore that ancient and improbable hat for the very last time, we were taking a driving tour of the streams which were the central setting of our relationship in my youth.
Heading out of the city we talked a bit about his health and upcoming treatments, but soon the intended spirit of the day took over, as I had hoped it would. Our thoughts and words began to unhurriedly mine the golden memories of all those times when he was doing the driving and the rods were in the back of the family station wagon. Approaching hill country, we drove past the Polish American club and recalled how neighbors were renting out parking space on their lawns for $10 a pop, and doing brisk business, the day that Bobby Vinton played there back in the 1970’s.
Soon thereafter, we came to the first and least of “our” streams, the Powder Mill. Instead of just driving over it, as we usually did, I pulled the car into the adjacent dirt lot. Dad spoke of how he used to stop for a couple of casts by the bridge before sunup on the way to his favorite river: the Farmington. He fished alone back then. Once I was old enough to join him he always chose to skip the Powder Mill on the way out: It was overgrown with trees and brush. Mepps spinners cost a buck apiece in those days and I couldn’t cast well enough to avoid snagging them. In later years we sometimes stopped on the way home to give the Powder Mill a try, usually when we were either trying to complete a limit or avoid a skunking.
I looked fondly toward the establishment at the other end of the parking lot. It used to be called the Dew Drop Inn and it was where I had my first beer when I was 14: A friend and I were on the homeward leg of a very long and hilly bike ride. Jerzy had immigrated from Poland 8 or 9 years before and his family held a different view where drinking was concerned: Jerzy had already developed a taste for beer. It was a hot July day, we were parched from more than 30 miles of peddling and thought we both looked old enough to get away with it. I told Dad about how we got our “story” straight before going in, using the fact that we arrived on bikes instead of in a car as a positive…to explain why we didn't have our wallets or ID. Dad smiled knowingly and recalled how I hadn't been brave enough to tell this story to him and Mom for the first time until long after I’d turned 18. We shared our first big laugh of the day agreeing that Mom hadn't been the least bit amused by my belated confession.
Our next stop was a somber one: Jimmy had been my best friend since early childhood. He was with Dad and I the very first time we drove into the Grandville State Forest to give the Hubbard River a try. We fished downstream from the access road and found that the Hubbard ran through a series of cliffs and gorges. This terrain, rugged for the southern Berkshires, had shaped the river with fast chutes, large boulders and even a few pretty decent waterfalls. There were also plenty of wild brookies and we recalled how they were biting reasonably well that first day despite the fact that the sun was high and the water was clear. Jimmy would go on over the next 3 decades to became an avid and very accomplished kayaker. On Saint Patrick’s Day Eve the year before, Jimmy lost his life while kayaking on a rain swollen Hubbard. Today we talked not of that tragedy but rather about the skinny tow-headed kid that was so often the “third wheel” and my partner in crime when Dad and I went fishing.
Coming out of the State Forest, conversation was understandably sparse as we resumed our drive toward the Farmington. We decided to pass over our ultimate destination to visit a tributary first. The Buck and Clam River had started out as an afterthought in my father’s mind: A smaller stream to be fished only when the Farmington was either too crowded or too high and discolored from rainfall. The Buck and Clam was also more difficult to navigate, straying from the road more than the Farmington. For it’s entire length the opposite bank was only an underhand flip cast away so in many areas it had a full canopy of trees and any decent sized deadfall went from one bank to the other as well. In other words, it was a true small stream.
I had learned only recently when looking at a topo map that the portion we traditionally fished was technically the Buck River as it was upstream from where the Clam River joined in. I shared this bit of trivia with Dad as we were driving alongside, and then asked if he remembered the very first time he’d ever taken me to fish the Buck and Clam.
he replied with a wry chuckle and we proceeded to weave together our two sides of that particular story.
Jimmy, my younger brother Kyle, our neighbor and his son were sharing a large tent with Dad and I on the only camping trip we were ever to make. Our site was near the banks of the Farmington and the plan was for The Dad’s and the older kids, Jimmy and I, to take turns keeping the younger kids safe and amused while the other pair fished. Weather forecasting in the early 1970’s could only charitably be called a Science and it rained far more than expected that weekend. Everything at the campsite was soaking wet, the Farmington was blown out and unfishable, tempers were short, the kids were fighting with each other and driving the Dad’s crazy. Jimmy and I complained constantly about not being able to fish and largely shirked our duties as babysitters. Out of a desperate desire to restore some semblance of peace at the campsite, Dad suddenly and very curtly told Jimmy and I to “get in the damned car”. We sped off without any further explanation from him, arriving at the Buck and Clam then driving upstream and well beyond any portion of the river that I had seen before. The flow was up but reasonably clear and not nearly as high as the Farmington. He showed us a bridge and uttered his first words since the start of this little venture,
“I’ll pick you up here in 3 hours”.
Continuing upstream a hundred yards or so, Dad turned right onto a dirt road and went perhaps a quarter of mile further before pulling over and stopping at another bridge. He spoke for the second and last time,
We scrambled to grab our gear. As soon as we swung the station wagon’s rear door back shut Dad turned the car and sped away. We knew that he was really pissed off, but remaining locked in full brat mode we were just happy we’d gotten away from the “little” kids and finally had a chance to catch some fish.
We ate what we caught in those days and when Dad picked us up later we proudly showed him about a dozen beautiful wild fish, including 2 16-inch browns and one that measured just over 18”. Back in the present, I told Dad how disappointed Jimmy and I were at the time with his lack of reaction on seeing this impressive haul, which included the biggest fish either of us had ever caught. He arched his eyebrows, causing the brim of his hat to rise as well and answered,
“I seriously considered spanking the two of you for being so miserable all weekend. I was already mad at myself for giving in and letting you fish. I got even madder when I saw those big browns because I was really hoping you two had not only gotten skunked but had fallen in like you deserved!”
We laughed until tears formed at the corners of our eyes. After drying them, we went on to recall other special moments on the Buck and Clam, eventually heading back downstream. On the way we discussed how, partly as a result of Dad’s plan backfiring, it was this river which became the stream of my youth and how even my father slowly came around to preferring the Buck and Clam’s then healthy population of wild brookies and browns to the stocked fish of the Farmington, our next and ultimate destination.
The Farmington River had quickly became Dad’s favorite upon his return from Germany back in the late 1950’s. Though well stocked and well known, it was able to handle the fishing pressure and methods of the day. Dad recalled how there were plenty of holdovers and a decent population of natives for about the first 10 years or so that he fished it.. From the mid 60’s onward, however, increased pressure and other less obvious factors slowly reduced the fishery to a put and take proposition.
Nonetheless, the Farmington still held a very special place in our hearts: Dad taught me to fish on its banks, and no one understood or appreciated his feelings for this river like I did. We turned on to Route 8 and traveled leisurely upstream pointing out our personal landmarks and recalling the events that made them so significant to us along the way:
-“The Nursing Home Hole” where I saw a trout strike my lure for the very first time some 45 years before and the spot just above where Dad had said I could wade across and find a beaver pond full of brookies. He never made the trip with me, but I found it to be exactly as he described. I often went over and caught a keeper or two as he patiently worked the main river, waiting for me.
-“The Sawmill” A shallow stretch of pocket water and riffles that I hated. Dad loved it, and somehow he managed to do well there, especially late in the season.
-“The Green Bridge”, under which I caught my first trout: An 11 inch stocked rainbow that nailed a #2 Mepps as it came over a large whitish submerged rock. For the life of me, I can’t remember either of us ever catching another fish there, though we always gave it a try when it was unoccupied…and I always tensed for a strike as my spinner passed over that particular rock.
-“The Lower Meadows”. A great early season run when the water was high and stocked fish were plentiful. I watched my Dad catch 3 16”+ rainbows on successive casts there once. It was a flat featureless muddy wasteland when the water was low.
-“Walt’s Hole”. The smallest, best and last in a series of good holes at the very top of “The Upper Meadows”. Dad was standing calmly by as I caught my very first trout on a flyrod there: A 13” holdover brown that hit a 10 cent hobby shop wet fly. Dad held his tongue as I panicked. I began alternately stripping line in and grasping it with my teeth so the fish wouldn’t take any back while I was reaching up for another frantic pull. A year or two before I’d watched him catch a spectacular 15” brook trout in full spawning colors out of this hole. At the time it was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen and remains by far the largest native brookie I’ve ever held in my hands.
Finally, we arrived at “The Country Cousins” a fairly nondescript and not usually productive stretch that we fished mostly because of the namesake diner that occupied a little pink wood framed building on the opposite side of the road. For over a decade we stopped there for breakfast every time we fished the Farmington, enjoying the home style cooking of the two women, presumably cousins, who owned it. The building was still there clad in what appeared to be the same very faded coat of pink paint. The peeling sign out front announced that it was now “The Country Cousins Book Shoppe”. Or it had been: We could see stacks of used books in the windows but the lot was overgrown and it looked like the store had not been open for some time.
“Well, that’s sad”.
I had to agree with my father. We had reached the upper limit of where we used to fish on the Farmington and were therefore at the last planned stop of our journey. The “Shoppe” in its current condition was a harsh reminder of just how much time and life had passed since those magical days when I came to know and love my father in a way and in a setting that would forever remain ours alone. The river itself seemed smaller here…now, and knowing that it would only be holding fish if some State employee had recently put them there made it far less intriguing than it had been back in the day. I found that I didn't want to look at my father just then, it would only serve to remind me how he too had grown smaller.
“Yeah, let’s head back”.
I turned the car and soon we'd left the Farmington behind. We rode in silence, eventually recrossing the Hubbard and coming to flatter terrain. Suddenly I wasn't quite ready to end our journey. Without asking, I pulled back into the parking lot by the Powder Mill.
“Let’s grab a beer”
I took his elbow as we climbed the steps and then held the door for him. We entered and sat at the bar without noticing what the place was called now. As we sipped our beer Dad tipped his hat back and offered an opinion, something he rarely did unsolicited:
“Do you know what I think was the main difference between us as fishermen?”
“You always seemed to know when to make an extra cast, or slow your retrieve and let the spinner hang in a particular spot, or switch to bait or your flyrod. I watched you catch a lot of fish after I would have moved on.”
“Maybe so. You always fished your way…fast retrieve, no more than two casts to a spot or down a lane. You covered a lot more water than I did and picked up fish that I’d never have gotten to.”
“Yeah, I guess I never believed in going back to the well too often.”
I thought about what he’d said as we slowly finished our lone round: Dad was only allowed one by his doctor these days so he savored his. When he finally set his empty glass down, his hand extended towards mine and as we slowly shook he said,
“This was fun, but it was also kinda sad. I don’t think we need to do this again, but I really did enjoy it. Thank you.”
I nodded in reply, not trusting myself to speak.
As we rode back to the city, I knew that while Dad would never return to this particular emotional well, I would.
Jimmy is gone, and now Bill is gone. I’m alone in my particular love for and understanding of these streams and what they meant to the three of us. I alone can stand beside or in these waters and remember what it was like to share them with my best friend and my father…my hero.
This coming Father’s Day, I’ll make the drive again and bring my 22 year old daughter along. She’s a good kid…a fine young woman, actually. And she knows that her Dad is very sentimental: She won’t completely understand all the nuances of the stories but she’ll enjoy hearing them anyway, and she alone will appreciate how deeply meaningful they are to me. Meagan and I do a little fishing now and then ourselves, in Long Island Sound or on the lake where we vacation, and we have some stories of our own.
I hope she won’t mind wearing the hat, and somehow I think she’ll manage to make it look as improbably cool and distinctive as it did when her Grandfather wore it.