This wasn’t the game plan.
The supposed program was to do some fly fishing for trout with a local Virginia guide on a stretch of the Potomac River’s South Branch for the purposes of writing an outdoor column about it for a Shenandoah Valley newspaper.
What I wasn’t expecting on this seemingly routine assignment was having an extremely active 9-year-old boy along. And “extremely active” would be putting it mildly.
That nine-year old would, of course, be my son, Jack. I’d been expecting to meet the guide for some fishing on his home waters in Augusta and Highland counties. We’d met at an invitational fly fishing tournament for veterans last April on Beaver Creek.
With the super soggy summer we suffered last year, the guide and I made—and then canceled—more fishing trips than I care to recall.
The wet weather finally broke for a bit in early October. After some fast and furious texting back and forth, the guide and I crossed our fingers, set a time and date to hit the water for rainbow and brook trout.
A last-minute change in my family’s hectic DC-Northern Virginia schedule meant that unless I wanted to change plans with the outfitter yet again, I needed to bring Jack along. As a courtesy, I rang up the guide the day before and offered him a chance to gracefully back out from the now two-generation fishing trip. He said, “Heck no…what could be better than a father and son on the water fishing together?”
In fact, Jack is a heck of an athlete and getting him off the baseball diamond, basketball court or football gridiron to fish or hunt with dear old Dad on a weekend doesn’t happen as much as either of us would like.
Despite the challenges of getting my story done with a 9-year old along, the more I thought on it, the more I liked the idea of the two of us on an early morning road trip through the countryside in the family truck, laughing and telling stories over a cup of coffee, a bottle of milk and a couple of country store donuts.
That was until we hit the stream. As a hard-core Little Leaguer, I knew that I’d have to instruct Jack not to hurl rocks into the river, explaining that the splash would put the fish down and kill our chances of putting savvy trout on the business end of our fishing line.
He listened politely and nodded his head in agreement.
But I forgot, of course, to tell him not to bang boulders together or run up and down the banks, hooting and hollering and waving a big, dead branch wildly, playing an Avenger in an epic battle with a battalion of bad guys.
I immediately regretted getting him that sugar-soaked glazed donut—his favorite—on the way to the water. It was a bit cool that fall morning, so it was no surprise that, combined with Jack’s superhero antics on the banks, the fishing started out slow. But once he finished vanquishing villains—and the donut-induced sugar high wore off—Jack was ready to focus on fly fishing.
Eventually, the weather warmed up, the morning mist burned off and the fish began to bite. Jack really enjoyed fly casting, but he especially loved wielding the net for a lucky angler. Like a budding wildlife biologist, he intently studied every trout before safely releasing it back into the water.
I couldn’t help but smile at his curiosity over the floppy fish.
The guide pulled rocks from the clear, cool mountain stream and turned them over, carefully showing Jack the bug life beneath. To my amazement, my son placed the rocks gently back into the water, seemingly to ensure none of the aquatic insects were harmed.
“Progress,” I thought.
I really enjoyed fishing with Jack, who, naturally, proclaimed himself an “expert” after his short time on the water, freely dispensing angling advice to the guide and me. Of course, once he’d mastered this new hobby, his thoughts quickly turned to other things of high importance to a 3rd grader.
Like a fiercely famished Captain America, Jack asked, “Dad, I’m hungry, what’s for lunch?” I took a moment from my crazy-busy life to take it all in. The soothing sounds of the water’s riffles. The beauty of the surrounding hills. The changing fall foliage. The Virginia pastoral landscape was both idyllic and breathtaking.
I looked over at my little guy. He was bent over peering into the stream with my oversized polarized sunglasses perilously perched on his nose under a “Brookes Outdoors” baseball cap, trying to find another trout hanging in the current for us to try to fool.
I whispered to myself as I stood there soaking in the increasingly soft, post-summer sun: “If I could only make time stand still.”
When we stowed our fishing gear and climbed into the truck for the ride back to our weekend getaway in Shenandoah County, I asked him what he thought. He looked at me, smiled broadly and said, “Best. Day. Ever.”
I smiled back and replied, “Me, too,” silently hoping it’d be the first of many days for us together on the water—whether planned or not.
Dr. Peter Brookes is a full-time DC foreign policy geek and a part-time, award-winning Virginia outdoor writer. Brookesoutdoors@gmail.com