The Roaring Fork sluices through congregations of ghost-white Aspen trees in righteous, urgent froth. You can hear it before you can see its roiling surface: an eternally crescendo-ing exhale. And so you might walk a few paces forward and go from stargazing at the tinsel aspens, whose leaves whistle in the breeze, to the roar of that river.
That riversong entranced my father. When we spent summers in Colorado, he passed long stretches of it on the banks of the Roaring Fork, dry fly fishing.
There has been much written about the art — the near spirituality — of fly fishing. There will be nothing novel here on that front, in part because I do not count myself among its initiates. But I learned from watching the arc of my father’s cast and observing the intensity of his devotions to its craft a lot about doing things the right and good way, and also, improbably, about writing. And writing the right and good way.
My father liked to fish in the morning, before afternoon shadows interfered with his odds of success by confusing the fish into seeing phantom predators. He had a few different cast styles depending on the speed of the water and the density of foliage on the banks — a roll cast meant he could keep his line free from the entrapment of thick overhead branches, but his curve cast was a thing of beauty: a filament shimmering, suspended, in a perfect “s” over his head. The sound of the reel, the whip of the line, the soft plunk of the fly onto the water’s surface. This was rhythm: this was incantation: this was the sound of art at the hands of a master.
He’d usually spend some time observing the insects, especially the flies that occasionally laid eggs on the water’s surface, so that he could thumb through his case for a dry fly that might match.
He was so fastidious on this front that he’d usually gut the first fish he’d catch and thumb through its belly to find out what it’d been eating. Occasionally, too, he’d politely ask a fellow fishermen retreating from the riverbank: “What’re they biting?” He occasionally discarded their input, I noticed. It always seemed to me more a formality than an earnest inquiry, sort of a tip of the hat in passing. Because my father had his own mind about things, and an enquiring mind it was.
Once on the water, he thought about his positioning, his shadow, the coves and enclaves the fish might shelter themselves in, whether he should brave a few feet of the water in his green rubberized waders. And he could always see trout well before the rest of us, his eyes trained in their necromantic shape-shifting.
I learned, while watching him read the waters of the Roaring Fork, the elegant shape he cut when focused on doing something he loved. I admired his focus, his precision. The tedious selecting of flies, for example: he’d sometimes try five or six different kinds, giving each multiple dozen casts. Some days, he’d lay a catch of a dozen rainbow or brook or brown trout across a rock while engrossed in his handiwork. Other days, he’d return to the car empty-handed, but never ill tempered. He’d just come back the next day. It was more about the process than the product, though we never minded when his labors bore fruit: fresh trout, dredged in flour and egg-wash and breadcrumbs, pan-fried in butter, for dinner.
I learned, obliquely, about the art and obsession of writing watching him on the Roaring Fork. The careful selection of materials, the interaction of different ingredients and inputs, the quiet and persistent dedication to a craft. The fussing over details, the trimming of the line with those stubby little clippers attached to his vest. The fact that there were no short-cuts: just the repetitive, introspection-inviting rituals of casting a bamboo rod out into a wild river. And the solicitous tweaking of this and that–the adjustment of his cast, the application of a gel to a dry-fly to keep it afloat, for example–were all subtleties I observed and absorbed and now find myself practicing in the realm of language, where there are also no short-cuts, and where rituals matter, and where the dip or float of a particular phrase can hang on the sound of one little word — say, chelonian — I might agonize over for half a day. But mainly: where the addition or retraction of a detail can leave you with the catch of a lifetime or a soul-crushingly blank page.
And so when I am writing and I find myself in a flow, the words appearing on the screen before me before I’ve even processed them, I think of my father on the Roaring Fork, reeling in his rainbows, a look of mildly shocked glee on his face. And I am grateful to be an extension of his gesture.
+The photo at top is actually of my brother fly-fishing the Roaring Fork. I couldn’t find a good one of my father on the river, so my brother — in many ways my father’s double, and a similarly devout fisherman in his own right — will have to do.
+If your dad/sibling/loved one is also a flyfisherman, you must know about the brand Poncho. They sent me one of their fishing shirts last winter and I gave it to my Dad. I think it is the only gift I’ve ever given him that he’s liked. And he really liked it.
+For those of us a little less outdoorsy: consider the puff sleeve. Ha. How’s that for contrast? Also consider this epic blouse (WANT) and this pearl-adorned handbag.
+I wrote recently about the sconces we are installing in our new apartment — and oh my goodness, how incredible are these?! They are too feminine for our overall living area look, but I do love them. Can you imagine them flanking a gorgeous piece of abstract art?! To die.
+I’m liking this lightweight puffer coat for cooling weather. The colors are cool — ochre maybe?!
+I’ve fallen in love with this monogrammed linen bed pocket — how genius! Tuck it under the mattress and stow your remotes there. I am forever losing mine in my sheets!
+One option we have been considering in our new apartment is giving micro mini’s crib and buying a bunk bed for mini’s room, as we intend to have them share a bedroom eventually. How brilliant is this one with the pull-out trundle?! Perfect for sleepovers and also for training mini to get used to sleeping in a big girl bed!
+This pine cone wreath with its gorgeous velveteen bow makes me so excited to decorate for fall/winter.
+How cute are these terrier dog bookends?!
+Can you tell I’m obsessed with Aspen? My own personal Mount Helicon.
+A new Tom Scheerer interior design book is out!
+Love the look of Matouk’s Lanai pique collection for mini’s “big girl” bed, maybe with some contrasting fun printed sheets.
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8 thoughts on “Writing, Fishing, and The Roaring Fork.”
This is a beautiful essay. Like Mia, I’m not a fisherman (woman?), but your writing is so beautiful that it has me entranced, no matter the subject!
Curious about the Everlane lightweight puffer & warmth factor. One of my favorite things to do is to layer a slim puffer under a few of my looser wool coats to give extra warmth & avoid wearing my actual down parkas until it’s absolutely necessary (e.g. in a snowstorm or a sub-15-degrees day). I have a Patagonia down sweater in black which achieves this goal nicely, but am curious about the other colors in the Everlane one you linked. I am such an Everlane addict! haha.
P.S. Bunk beds are the best. My partner’s kiddos have them at our house and they’re so much fun!
Thank you, MK! I’m with you on Everlane’s liner styles, not sure about the warmth factor — which matters to folks like you in Boston! Anyone try them yet?!
Jen, Great stuff! And glad to hear your dad loved the Poncho shirt! All the best – Clay and the Poncho Team
🙂 YES! So beautifully made. Thank you again for the great gift!
Oh Jen! You are such a talented writer. Despite having absolutely zero interest in fishing, I was hanging on to every word as you described all the nuances of your father’s craft — what can be seen and what cannot, both of which you always capture so well. I love how you related it to your writing! Isn’t it so interesting how these lessons intersect different hobbies/passions…
Thank you so much, Mia — yes, what is “seen and what cannot be seen.” That’s a really interesting observation in the realms of fishing (where I quite literally could never see what my father’s more trained eyes could), observing a parent (reading between the lines), and writing (good writing “shows” instead of “tells”). Lots to unpack there, but what a great choice of words.
My husband is a fly-fisherman as well — The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing sits, at his insistence, on our mantle, amidst my favorite fiction. “It’s not just about fly fishing,” he says (just as The Ashley Book of Knots is not just about sailing knots). I’ve long been impressed with his ability to spend upwards of 10 hours a day in a river doing mostly nothing. It’s not an activity I have any interest in co-opting, but I do see the parallels with writing. Or running. Or anything that stirs up creative thought and tamps down the rest!
Both of those books sound like incredible additions to our home…kitsch galore. I think you’re right in the fact that fishing is as much about introspection — coming to a kind of quiet peace with oneself — as it is about anything else. (Same goes for any other hobby, like knitting, or running, or pottery-shaping — as you rightly point out.)