I made a promise to my father on his death bed, and now I have to break it.
May 18th, 2017, exactly one month before Father’s day, My dad passed away.
He only wanted to go fishing one more time
The thing Dad wanted more than anything, was one more day of us fishing together. He had been tinkering on a small 14′ boat and setting it up to troll flies for rainbow trout, one of our favorite past times.
Dad was dying of prostate cancer, and had a heart attack. We knew he wasn’t going to make it to fish this spring, but kept hope against hope. After he came around from his heart attack, I got to tell him how much I loved him, how I felt, and that the first fish of the season was going back in the water for him no matter what.
Less than a week later he was gone. I spent days fixing up the old boat to ease the grieving. I got the little 4hp outboard running, patched the fiberglass Sears & Roebuck Gamefisher from the early 80’s, maybe late 70’s. I even gave her a new coat of paint and finally the boat dad was trying to put together for our trip out on the pond was ready to go.
Fishing for dad
Today, I took the afternoon off and launched the boat in one of our favorite ponds. Two rods, one on each side, the day was perfect. I have been fishing a couple of times this spring, and haven’t really caught anything worthy of being “Dad’s fish”. My daughter and I decided it had to be a targeted species and a “keeper” to count.
I had a couple bites, some even came close to getting netted, but managed to elude me. Finally my rod doubled over! The reel was singing as line peeled off. The rod was thumping hard, this was a FISH!
Trolling flies is a delicate business, I only have 6 or 4 lb fluorocarbon line on the end. You can’t demand the fish come to you or force it. If you do, you either break off or pull the fly free of the fish.
The monster fish and I struggled against each other, when he demanded more line, I gave it, when he got tired, I reeled as fast as I could. “Dad, here comes your fish!” I said.
Not even half way in, the second rod doubled over and started singing, line was peeling out and the drag was complaining but holding firm. I couldn’t address it, I had my hands full with the first fish.
2/3 of the line in and my 6 wt fly rod snapped in half with the fish’s struggle! The second rod was still peeling out line fast. I threw the motor in neutral and shut her down. If I lost #2, so be it.
Dad’s fish and I battled it out on a half a rod until finally I felt the slick fluorocarbon in my finger. Only 30 or so feet to go, I started watching the water where it met my line. Holy Hanna Barbara it was a big ol Rainbow. He was tired, and snaked his way across the water. When he got a look at me, he went for another run, and I let him have the line. Back and forth onto the fluorocarbon we went, until eventually, he had enough and I got him to net.
I dropped him in the net on the deck and started reeling frantically on line #2. I figured it didn’t much matter WHICH one of these went back, one was for dad. The second thug had pulled out three more colors beyond the 3 and a half that was already out. I started reeling frantically, something was coming… then nothing. I had lost the #2 trout by letting the line go too slack. I didn’t want to let it drop to the bottom of the pond, so I had to keep reeling.
Once I managed the lines, I got the beast of a trout on the front seat to measure – 20 and 1/2″ and thick as an ox. He had been out of the water for some time by now, and it occurred to me that I shouldn’t attempt to return him. I put him in my small cooler with pond water (in which he did NOT fit at all). He began to protest, thrash and regurgitate some nymphs. I stared at him and he at me. My guts were twisting. Everything I knew about fish said keep this one, my promise to my dad was ringing sharp in my ears and I couldn’t un-hear it.
To break a promise
Either way, this was not going to end ‘right’. I put him in the water gently and held him by the underside moving him forward and back. I decided that if he floated, he would have to be kept.
He thrashed and slipped out of my hands, then began a dreaded roll to the side, but instead of floating, he was sinking. I thought I’d net him and try again, but before I could pull up the net he was 8′ down and listing.
I don’t know if the fish survived. If I had kept him, I know he wouldn’t, but would have been a tremendous meal and a story about Dad’s Fish. I wondered if he would lie at the bottom and expire, or some around when he hit the cool waters and right himself. Both scenarios are entirely possible. I hadn’t seen a trout simply sink like that before. I decided to be a little agnostic about the event and imagine that if the fish lived, it was Dad’s fish in the pond, if it died and such things were real, I hoped that my dad would catch it on whatever pond he was fishing this day.
In the end though, I decided I must break the promise I made to my dad on his death bed. Yes dad, the first fish is for you no matter what….. but it will be the first fish I can RESPONSIBLY catch and release and I know will survive. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment that sound great, but when it comes time to carry them out, it’s a mistake.
I catch and release many fish each year. If I catch something that won’t survive being returned, and is part of my daily bag, it needs to remain in my daily bag. My dad wouldn’t want to see anyone wantonly tossing back fish that wouldn’t survive. It’s not what he taught me, it’s not who I am. “First fish is for you no matter what!” Came to haunt me today.
I amend my promise to dad, “The first first of the season that I can responsibly release… no matter what!”
Is the promise I think he would prefer.
I love you dad, I’ll miss you, and I hope that beast of a trout has found you if you’re out there.