Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Mentor

The Mentor

Copyright 2009   Erik F. Helm

It had been quite an evening. One of those spring twilights where the warmth of day disappears into floating mist over the stream and the blue-winged olives came alive over the riffles. Jim had caught half a dozen brookies so full of color that they seemed to glow against the gathering darkness. I had tried out a new olive pattern of my own design using a dyed wool body blended with small flecks of polar bear hair and had hooked so many fish that I had lost count. Then again, I stopped counting long ago, as I felt that the trout were individuals and not numbers, and deserved better than to be reduced to statistics. This was only the second time I had fished with Jim. President of the local fly-fishing club, he was quite the angler. Tall and thin, he stooped like a heron as he fished, and his long arms uncoiled and shot strong casts which placed the fly where he wanted it…almost. There were a few flaws in his presentation and angles of attack, but I found years ago that advice unasked for is often unwelcome, so I kept quiet.

As Jim took a seat beside me on the bank to sip hot chocolate from the thermos, he asked the question that must have been on his mind for some time. “Al, I don’t mean to pry or anything, but I have fished with some of the best trout fishermen in these parts, and I have never seen anyone fish with the almost casual perfection that you do. Do you mind telling me how the heck you got so good.”

Everyone has an ego. Some are over-inflated but delicate things always needing to be stroked or else detonate with fury or depression. Others are tiny things too hidden in existential angst to ever be totally free of entanglement. When I was younger, I wore my ego on my sleeve, as do most young men so full of life and possibility. I knew that I was damn good at fly-fishing, and having to prove myself against one and all in some testosterone driven manhood competition, I had become an asshole. At twenty-five, I thought I knew everything there ever was to know, and wanted to prove it to the world by getting in everyone’s face. I was obsessed with numbers of fish caught, and never left a rising fish.

Jim lit his pipe as I sighed in reflection, recalling with vivid memory the person I once was.

“It was like this,” I began.
“I first cast a fly when I was fifteen. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had fished my way across three states trying to prove something to myself that should have never needed to be proven. Dad may have been away too much with his job when I was young, but the ego stroking that I had undertaken showed that down deep, I doubted myself. I badly needed approbation, and looked for it everywhere…. with a flyrod.”

“It was in Pennsylvania on a small spring creek that I finally learned restraint, reflection and appreciation. An old man named Herb provided those lessons. After satisfying my ego needs by catching stocked rainbows by the dozens, I was walking back to my clunker for a can of beans when I spotted a bent figure in an old faded and stained floppy hat. He was carefully watching a riffle that was alive with rising fish, but was not casting. His rod, which was made of bamboo, rested in his still hands. I couldn’t stand it.”

“I carefully waded towards him and tossed a cast into his riffle. A 12-inch rainbow eagerly ate the fly and as I whooped in delight, he slowly turned and became aware of me. ’Well hello there!’ he said as he smiled towards me. I remember telling him that I had already caught 36 fish and that that rainbow had made 37, or something of the sort. He nodded in appreciation, ignoring my foolish and rude behavior. ‘How many you get?’ I asked him. ‘None yet, young man, I am hunting for a single fish.’”

“Hunting. I remember he used that word. I figured he was nuts or something. I strode off after that, not having introduced myself, but having proved to the old man that I could catch a fish right out of his riffle.”

“After I devoured my can of beans I began to wonder about him. There was an old green VW bus at the pullout that must have been his, but he had not returned to it. Nobody could spend a whole hour in a single riffle I thought. After all, there were more fish to be caught. As I passed the stream in eagerness to catch the last of the evening fishing, he was in the same spot. His rod was still beside him on the grass, and he was still peering through the reeds and bramble towards the riffle.”

“I don’t quite know why I decided to watch, but I did. I knelt down behind a clump of brush to watch the old coot fish. After a bit, I became worried. He sat so still that I thought that perhaps he had fallen asleep or had a heart attack, but then he moved. Ever so slowly, his head peered over the long grasses and his long bony hand picked up the rod. He made a single back cast and a slow accurate forward cast that placed his fly in a little back eddy at the side of the riffle under the overhanging grass. A half-second later the riffle exploded with a shower of droplets as a huge brown trout engulfed the fly and began an aerial ballet. He played the fish with an expertise I never would have credited him with, and after releasing it, slowly stood up.”

“I could stand it no longer, so I revealed myself and walked towards him. ‘Well hello again son!’ he said. To this day I remember this funny feeling when he called me ‘son’.  ‘How big was that fish?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I don’t measure them, but around 18 inches I would guess.’ I don’t know if it was curiosity or jealousy that made me ask how many fish he had caught out of the riffle while I was back at the car, but I did. ‘Oh, only the one,’ he replied.”

Jim nodded with understanding when I gave him a grin and half a wink. “I introduced myself then, and he told me his name was Herb. The VW bus was his. He offered me a cup of coffee and I accepted, having run out myself that morning. He was retired and a widower, he explained as he opened the rear doors of the bus and turned on an overhead light. The inside was filled to the brim with gear and organized meticulously. Overhead, fly rods of every size lined the roof of the vehicle, each in its own slot and cushioned by brown velvet. He had installed a bunk for sleeping, and a small desk for tying flies. A vise was at the ready and above the table were hundreds of small wooden drawers labeled with the names of numerous tying materials. Bookshelves covered the panel above the cot, and were filled with volumes of fly fishing literature and old leather bound books. They were all held in place by a system of straps.”

“’Just give me a few minutes, son’ he said, as he lit an old Coleman stove, and began pouring coffee beans from a brown paper bag into an antique coffee grinder. ‘Isn’t that a lot of work, that grinding stuff and all that?’ I asked. ‘Don’t you buy store-bought stuff pre-ground?’”

“’I used to’ he replied, ‘but now I just enjoy savoring the essence of the things of life.’ The coffee he handed me in an old chipped enamel cup was the best I have ever tasted, and I told him so. ‘Yea,’ he replied slowly, ‘sometimes the best in life is worth the work to attain it. How would you like to fish together tomorrow?’ he asked me. I told him that would be just fine with me. ‘Good, wake you up at 5 am.’ he said.”

“We fished together for three days, Herb and me. I thought I was good, but he tempered my raw skill with patience and refinement. We tied flies every night in the old green VW, and he taught me how to hand blend dubbing and how to spin wool bodies. We drank his coffee and he made breakfast before first light on the old stove and shared it with me. Despite his age, he was always up before me, and still active in the old bus reading when I fell asleep each night. Everything he did, from tying on a fly, to aligning the guides on his rod, to reading the water, he did with infinite patience and intolerance for anything short of perfection. His cast was the most slow and deliberate yet accurate and powerful that I have ever seen. He told me that the secret to great casting was practice, and ‘Visualizing the entire cast and presentation before you make the cast.’”

“When it came time for me to leave for my part-time weekend job at the A&W, he rummaged around in the shelves of his fishing van, and handed me a leather-bound journal. It had empty ruled pages, except the first, in which Herb had written an inscription.”

To Al;

‘Anything worth doing, is worth doing right, and anything worth knowing is worth the time it takes to truly know it. When you eat an apple, savor it. Look at the color and feel the texture. Pick it fresh from the tree, feel the bark, and smell the leaves. Sometimes, if you do it right, that one apple can be enough. Your friend Herb’

“It wasn’t right away, I was still too thick-headed, but through the next several years I began to understand what he meant, and his approach to life. We all have heroes and those we look up to, but up to that time, I had never had one myself. My nose was too far up my own ass until he showed me a different way of living, thinking, seeing, and fishing.”

Jim nodded as he tapped out the ashes from his dead pipe on the heel of his wading boot.
“I expect we all have met someone like that at one time or another in our lives. I guess that the best that we can hope for is that we are in the right mind to listen to them instead of the noise in our own head. You are a lucky man Al.”

He was right, I thought as I fingered the old journal in the inner pocket of my tattered Barbour jacket, now filled with forty years of memories and thoughts, I was a lucky man.


  1. this is one of the best posts I've ever read ,hands down !If we could live our lives like this in the work world we we would all be in much better shape .I love how he worked for just one fish ,and to savor an apple can be so sweet !

  2. Nutman;
    Thank you very much indeed. Glad you enjoyed this. It was fun to write.


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