Monday, April 13, 2020


Editor’s note: My friend Chad Wilde has a way with words. His guest posts over the years are some of the most read works on this site. This story is no exception—an enjoyable throwback that comes at a time when we’re looking for healthy distractions from what is going on in the world. Enjoy and stay safe.  

“whither thou wish inside
we will follow” – Will Oldham

Rarely do gifts given stand the unwavering test of time. Things are lost, sadly. Or used up. I only have a handful of physical items I can hand to you, point to, and say: I’ve got a story about where that came from, and have it come out being any kind of story at all.

I have a pocketknife/money clip that’s been on my person every single day for better than a decade, that’s one of them. A pair of gloves, never worn, given me by a special person to celebrate a particular accomplishment. A tip-up with words wood burned carefully into its cross sticks to tell me that the gods do not deduct from my allotted span the time spent in fishing.

I have a journal given to me by my children inscribed with the words, “Don’t Try.”  I have a pocket watch my wife gave me on our wedding day. This gift I only wear when it fits the appropriate outfit, it doesn’t go with Carhartt overalls so it’s pretty rare that I break it out. Its face reads, “Whither thou goest I will go.” 

There are stories behind all these things, good ones.

These things, they mean a great deal to me. This is why they stand the test of time. And time itself has carved even greater meaning on them. Etched in deeply, seated in relationship between gift giver and recipient and then in turn the object in question. 

Of all these special gifts, the one that has probably had the longest and deepest impact on me has been the fly rod my father gave me sometime in the early 2000's. At that point in my life, I desperately needed new inspiration, and in that rod, I found it.

I had graduated college and found myself on unsteady footing in the wide world. Suddenly, life wasn’t constrained in the walls of a classroom. I had no measure of performance to guide me.  Was I getting an A?  No, lord no.  But was I at least passing as I stepped out into real life? I wasn’t sure I could answer that in the affirmative and none were grading my endeavors to tell. 

I didn’t know much about anything, contrary to what my diploma said. I had read a lot of great books and written much to dissect, evaluate, and explain them. I was familiar with the classics, romantic poets, the beats. I was well read on Vietnam era literature and Charles Bukowski.  I had an inkling of what mechanical vocabulary I should use should I ever find myself at a cocktail party where poetry came up in conversation. Luckily, it never did. 

I stood on the cusp of the rest of my life with a degree in English literature, a pile of student loan debt, and a job doing custodial work. Those quaint editor jobs in the big city were for the trust fund kids whose parents could afford a loft’s rent for them, not me. So, I took what work I could find and just started working. I’d figure it out, that was the angle.

I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Naturally, with such confusion throbbing on me, I did what things I did know to do. One of these things was fishing. In those days, I used an ultralight spinning outfit. 

I got other slightly less poor paying jobs to put on my pitiful resume. I got a crappy apartment. I got out on my own, and I got some better gear to be a better fisherman. I viewed my resume as my report card, and I tried to make my C’s look like at least B’s through flowery language. You can’t put lipstick on a pig though. I didn’t know what to really do, so I just went fishing.

I found that fishing was somehow different in those days. I was in my twenties and I was well read if not well educated in any realistic sense of these words. I considered myself reasonably intelligent. I soon found that as I applied myself to fishing, I was pretty good at it and improving.  I did so, every time out.

It wasn’t long after that I was getting straight A’s on my spin rod. And then, my father gave me my first fly rod. 

Fly fishing had always been somewhat of an exotic dexterity to me. Some mysterious craft, practiced by men who tended to avoid the places I fished. However, I would glance them, these fly fishers, at times. I’d see them casting and working their lines and I’d wonder how the hell they did it. 

It seemed some secret practice to me. It was beautiful to watch. Delicate and foursquare, an art form wrapped in a leisure activity. It was utterly unapproachable I felt. But it really wasn’t. 

My father, in his wisdom, must have seen that I needed something. On my birthday, October 9th, he gave me a long tube and small box in gift wrapping.  It was an LL Bean Quest fly rod with a matching reel.  It was a 5-weight rod, and it was 7’6” long.  The reel came spooled with fly line and a leader already affixed to the business end. 

I will never forget receiving this gift. When I opened the plastic tube by removing the cap, it made a deeply satisfying audible popping sound. Inside the tube was a rod sock and inside the sock was the rod itself. As I removed the sock from the tube and then the rod from the sock, I was struck by a sentiment that rings true all these years later: it was a thing, wrapped in a thing, wrapped in a thing.

It was somehow special to be so. These layers coming away until the inner core was unsheathed fully, a rod to then be fished. To remove and use it, or put it away, required care. It felt more important than the spinning rods I’d always used.

I thanked my dad profusely and told him he had given me a new hobby. I was motivated suddenly.  At this caesura of my life, a page was turning. New form to emerge on a new blankness that stretched for who knew how long in front of me. 

At the time, I lived in Manchester, CT. I went immediately to Farrs Sporting Goods. This wonderful store sold and still sells everything from field hockey sticks and skateboards to camping and fishing gear. In the fishing section, they had a rotating display case with flies in it. Each fly was presented on a small card in the case. Written on the cards were the fly’s name and a strange number, a reference to which bin it could be found in the area below the display case. 

I had no idea what a March Brown #14 was or an Adams #12, but they both looked fishy to me.  I took three of each. I could understand a streamer fly, it being a minnow imitation. I was accustomed to using Rapalas and inline spinners that also imitate minnows. I took two streamers, both size #6 white Zonkers. I noticed at the bottom of the display there were bigger flies, intended for bass fishing. One caught my attention. It was a deer hair mouse fly. It had a rawhide tail and tiny little ears. I took one of those and also bought a fly box. 

After this spending spree I had some flies and a fly rod, but was fresh out of cash. Being out of cash was no big deal for me. I generally was at the time, 13 out of any given 14 days (the 14th being pay day, when I was ever so briefly flush with the stuff).

In my car, a 1988 Cherokee Sport, I arranged my fly collection in one neat row of the box—six dry flies, two streamers, and one deer hair mouse. “There,” I thought to myself. Nine flies. There was a lot of room left in the box. 

In my hometown of Willington, there is a TMA or Trout Management Area that was closed to spin fishing. 'Fly Fishing Only' read the signs posted everywhere. Naturally, my friends and I considered it civil disobedience to fish this water with our spin gear. 

I knew enough to know this stretch was the best water in the river and I didn’t see why it was relegated only to those who fished with flies. I also knew enough, through experience, that there were fish in that water all year round. Willing trout that rarely saw a Mepps Spinner. Poach and release was my mantra. 

I was crafty and sly in my journeys there.  I never got caught and I caught a lot of trout on spinners and, if that failed, live bait.

The day I got my first fly rod, I considered stampeding directly into the TMA with it and my nine flies, but wisely figured it best to ensure I could actually do this type of fishing. I went to a field, removed the thing from the thing from the thing, and rigged it up. I tied on one of my March Brown #14’s. As I stripped line off the reel, it made a clicking sound. And then, with the line pooled at my firm set feet, I began.

I was always an athlete. I have good coordination, and this helped me to quickly pick up a basic modicum of ability to cast fly line. I pulled the fly line back behind me as I’d seen done, the line unfurled backwards. When the line was behind me, I thrust forward and it flew out in front of me. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I can do this.” I made roughly three more practice casts before heading to TMA. Yes, of course I could do this.

I walked purposefully down the railroad tracks that ran adjacent to the TMA.  I made my footsteps firm. I didn’t need stealth since I was about to legally fish the TMA for the first time. I crashed through the bracken and underbrush and barreled towards the gleaming river at a deep cut bend that I knew held fish. 

My very first backcast instantly and predictably entangled my fly and leader in a tree limb behind me.  “Ah,” I thought. I’m not in a blissfully open field. I tried to get the fly out of the branches it was tangled in, savagely yanking on it until it broke it off. Now, down to eight flies and a shorter, stouter leader, I did what anyone would do. I tied on another March Brown #14 and marched directly into the river.

Mind you, I had no waders, and the water was cold.  It was October in New England, but I didn’t care. I waded far enough out into the flow that I could create a cast. Knowing nothing about drift, and less about how to mend fly line, I was instantly overmatched. I kept at it though, working until my feet were brutal cold and numb in my hiking boots. I was about to call it a day and retreat with my eight fly collection still intact when, at the far end of a drift, a miracle happened.

The March Brown #14 hung there in the current, chugging along as no creature in nature ever has. Something rose from the flow of the river and nipped at the fly. 

I saw its rise form clearly, and the dimple left on the sheen of the river’s face. I missed the hookset but gained heart. I fired another poor cast to the general vicinity. As the fly drifted, the fish rose again, and took. I yanked back to set and the hook somehow found purchase. 

Frantically, I stripped in line and, there at my cold feet, thrashed a very respectable fallfish. The blank page had a new notation. I had caught a fish on a fly rod.  I was proud of myself. That night, I called and told my dad. 

I began to fish in stillwater, ponds I knew to hold bluegill and bass. I caught enough panfish to keep me going back before fall gave way to winter. I noted that bass apparently do not like Adams #12s.  On some of those 14th days, when I was flush with cash, I’d return to Farrs Sporting Goods to buy more flies. I arranged them in my box. I liked the orderly way they’d fit into tidy rows. For Christmas that year, I asked for waders.

When spring came, I started bringing both my fly and spin rod to the rivers and ponds I fished, in my new waders of course. I was more successful with the spin rod, and it was just too easy to use. I caught a lot of trout on Rapalas. I found myself picking up the fly rod on the walk back to the Jeep from where I’d end up having stashed it. When I did use the fly rod, I caught more tree limbs than fish and thus depleted my paltry collection of flies

I had yet to catch a good fish on a fly, even by my own low standards. I’d caught fish, just nothing that deserved breaking out the disposable camera for, though I did anyway. 

As spring turned to summer, I stopped trout fishing entirely and took to the places they lived to swim rather than fish. There is nothing quite like swimming in a trout stream. Having lived in northeastern Connecticut all my life, I know several local chest-deep pools to do so. In those days, rope swings still hung from opportune limbs over deep enough water to swing from them.

I am an avid swimmer and I prefer to swim in natural environments, though a pool will do in a pinch. One such spot was a reservoir with a public beach. Both smallmouth and largemouth bass swam there, some were pretty decent fish. I’d generally go there on summer evenings at dusk for a quick dip. After swimming, I’d enjoy the feeling of my skin drying with all the windows in the car down, with a good song playing on the radio and a road soda. 

One night, as full dark came in, I stood waist deep in the water and looked out across the reservoir.  I ran my fingers through my hair, scratched my wet head. I began to make a fly casting motion with my empty hand for some serendipitous reason. I peeked back over my shoulder and realized I had backcast room for days. I still had the mouse fly in my box.

I started going to that reservoir more often, at night. I’d bring the fly rod only, taking pleasure in assembling it. I learned to tie leaders together. And each time out I learned to enjoy just the process of it. In the dark, I learned to feel a fly rod load. I caught nothing but, in my heart, I knew it would come if I did it enough. 

Somehow, I knew for me there was much to be said of what those men I used to watch did. What I had considered sorcery in form, elegance in some way. I viewed fly fishing as a craft and an art. I wanted to know it better. I began to take pleasure in just casting a fly rod. I did it in the parking lot of my shitty apartment.

Then, one night, my younger brother and I made a run out to the reservoir. We swam, and then fished. I was wading down the beach trying to double haul line and chuck the mouse as close to the shadow of a dock as I could. It was a very quiet night and I could tell how the fly was working by its sound.

There was enough ambient light to show the slick black, wet silken surface of the water’s ripples. I could see the dim outline of the path the mouse fly took back to me as I stripped it in. Each time I worked the fly, it came back empty and I picked up the line and did my best to shoot it back out there. 

The thing was, and I knew it deep down, my grades were improving. I was giving myself this gift of learning. I deserved it. My casts grew a bit longer, my leader straightened a bit more. I couldn’t see this occurring full well in the dark, but I could feel it. 

And that particular night, as the mouse fly paused between strips, a fish took it. I can still clearly hear its take in my mind. An audible gulping sound, and an eruption on the surface of the water, too close to where I knew the mouse fly to be for that eruption to be anything but a big fish eating. 

And I set on it in the dark and I knew I was connected to the first real fish I’d hooked on my fly rod. The ambient light showed a boil on the water.

In the dark, I could feel the bass leaping from the water, splashing back down, and then running. By the run alone, I knew it was a smallmouth. No largemouth runs like a smallmouth. The smallmouth is faster and more urgent on the line. I played the fish well, gave it no quarter, and landed it on the sandy beach. 

Elated, I lipped the fish. I held it in the water and called into the night as quietly as I could for my brother, who came and took my picture with the fish using my disposable camera. 

I took another picture, of just the fish this time, the disposable camera flash echoing off the amber golden flank of the bass. My shivering, rollicking gladness quaking, all that happiness in the dark night frozen there forever in the harsh momentary illumination. It was amazing. I held the fish for a moment longer than needed, and then it kicked its tail and dissipated into the dark water.

I took the camera to the drug store and had the film developed. In the car, I took out the pictures, found the one of just the fish and held it. It was a 19” smallmouth bass, to this day the biggest I’ve taken on a fly rod. I had measured it against the rod and cut a scratch into the blank that I later measured at home with a yard stick. It was such a gift. 

I may lose my pocketknife. God forbid if I lost my pocket watch. These things may happen. I’d be busted up if either did so, but they could happen by some ill twist of fate. But I will never, ever lose that fly rod my father gave me. All these years later, I don’t even know how many rods I currently own, but that LL Bean 7’6” 5#, now with a broken tip, that one is up on the wall safely retired with a mark on the blank at 19”.

And the photo of just the fish lives framed on my wall, but more so in my own mind. Forever. Ironclad.

The best gifts are the ones with stories behind them. Fishing itself, hell, it is just such a gift. 


  1. Frigging awesome. Really. It is laconic and descriptive, normal and surreal. Cool stuff. I'm a friend of Sonny's!

  2. Kierran, thanks for another wonderful read.
    Wish I had thought to stop by sooner.
    ~Dave M