by Kat Mueller
We usually ride in silence. Sometimes we listen to talk radio. Or more like he listens to talk radio and I daydream out the window. There’s never music, always junk food. When I was a child I’d sleep in the back of the Suburban in dim twilight or dark night, with the smell of wet dog and the flicker of headlights, as he listened to talk radio. The drive is always long. Always. Coming and going in the dark. I have to ask to stop to pee, because he’ll drive forever.
This trip is no different. The drive is long. The air silent. But my heart is heavy and he knows it. My gazing out the window is different now than when I was a kid. I have the eyes of a refugee.
We stop in Cheyenne. We stop in Casper. Buffalo. And again in Sheridan— because I had coffee in Buffalo. I ask to stop, so we stop. We eat gummy orange slices and Boston Baked Beans. I hate them. But they’re there, stashed in the console like they have been forever. So I eat them. He listens to talk radio as I watch the countryside speed by the window and I feel like
I’m standing still.
It’s nearly sunset when we arrive and our legs are stiff. We stretch and unload and he starts a fire. It’s not cold, but he starts a fire. He always starts a fire. The country is beautiful and quiet, just as I remember it from the fall. The grass is green now, the crisp wind replaced by a pleasant warm breeze. The tall cottonwoods line the water, pure green against the clear sky that is now taking a hint of pink. Bighorns push up mighty in the far-off southwest. In their shadow a mountain that looks like a Bundt cake. The bugs are noisy. Grasshoppers. Crickets. What-have-you. The red winged black birds are busy complaining about something, as always, racing from tree to tree. I sit in stillness. He joins me after a while. It is perfectly
peaceful and it’s making me start to feel my skin again. Begin to feel like I live in this body as the sun disappears beyond the Bundt cake.
We rise early the next morning. I pack the food; he rigs the rods. It’s always this way. My job is easy, because neither of us eat much when we fish. Cheese. Coffee. Boston Baked Beans. The same ice chest. The same Stanley thermos. The morning is clear and perfectly spring. The bugs and birds are at it again. As I make my way to load the boat, hoppers leap from beneath my feet. It makes me think of the river and I get a little foreign quiver inside; something that feels like excitement. We fold the cover back on the boat. One fold at a time. Another, and another, the way we’ve always done it. Fold the cover to the bow. It takes no discussion. The rods are rigged and ready with whatever he has chosen. I slide them into place. Push rain coats up under the bow. Tuck the ice chest.
We drive in wading boots through the grassland. Pheasant make narrow escapes. Wild dogs bark. The boat click-clacks behind us. We let in at the dam. As I hold the boat the power of the water coming out of the dam makes me feel small.
We push off. I take to the front as he rows. He begins, as he does. Just as I expect him to.
“Get your rod.”
I do it.
“Cast at ten o’clock.”
I do it.
“Mend again. Just put a bunch of line out there.” he says.
I do it.
“Get ready. A fish is going to eat that.”
I get ready. It starts to drag so I pick it up.
“Too much line. Take in some. You can’t cast all that line.”
I do it. I cast. He wants ten. I give him ten.
“You gotta wait on the back cast. Let it straighten out. You’re gonna make a mess.”
I do it. I wait.
I throw some line back on the water. Mend. Mend again. He slows the boat.
The rig is drifting smooth. I hear him telling me in my head, but he doesn’t say it. A fish is going to eat. I’m ready. Wait. Wait... The indicator drops and I lift my rod tip. It’s on. The fish takes off to the right. I let him run and begin to assess in horror the quantity of fly line at my feet. I frantically start putting it back on the reel. It’s under my left foot. It’s wrapped around my forceps. My pack. I’m getting panicky and fumbling with my left hand as I hold tight on my right, hoping my index finger has a better idea of appropriate pressure than my mind does. This requires a level of grace and coordination I don’t have. Even as a girl. But I continue to put line on the reel until the fish turns and starts heading straight at the boat. At me. So my left hand goes from the reel back to stripping handfuls of yellow line. The boat is turning a bit, as they do, and I can’t get this fish on the reel. My heart is pounding and I’m starting to feel like a circus act, with the line, and the turning, and the fumbling. My father’s eyes on my back. His mouth silent. But I do. I get the fish on the reel. Finally. And I fight him like a girl. Fight him to the right side of the boat as my dad prepares the net. The fish resists, as fish do, and I’m afraid to push him. Don’t rush him... I can hear my dad saying in my head, so I let him run again. I bring him back to the left of the boat, this time,now turned almost horizontal to the river. The fish gives. He comes in, with my arm burning and my heart racing, right to the net that my father has outstretched. A beautiful fat Montana rainbow.
“Good,” he says, and I smile.
We continue downstream and I cast at ten o’clock to the boat. Sometimes nine. Sometimes eleven, but I pick up and put it back out at ten. The rod is heavy and big for me, so I struggle a little until I find my groove. He watches me from behind and I wonder how ugly my cast is. How nauseated he is to witness it. Farther downstream we take to shore on an island. We always stop here. It’s a good spot. He instructs me again.
“Head 20 yards up. The fish are three feet out. Don’t walk into them. They’re shallow. Get a long drift. Let it tail out.”
I do it. I’ve taken many fish out of this hole on my own, but I do it. I do what he says. Because he knows. And it’s how we do it. I head up—guessing at what 20 yards might look like—find my spot, and cast. I get a fish on immediately.
He calls up from below. “What you got goin’ on there?”
I bring the fish right up in the shallows of the bank as my father has taught me to do with no net. It’s slimy and flopping around. I set him free after a moment and he rushes away. It feels good. I get my line out again and get another fish. Just like that. My father is below me still, fiddling with something. He’s standing in his stance. The way he always stands. His silhouette only that of my father.
He calls to me again without looking up, “Don’t show off now.”
The fishing we experience is what we’ve come to call “stupid fishing”. And when you say it, you have to smile. It’s part of the effect. I fish all the way down the run as my father fishes the back side of the island and up to the top. I catch as many fish as I miss. It seems like a lot. I fight a seriously pissed and seriously strong fish for quite a while, with my heart racing and
my hands fumbling, until the delicate balance of too much pressure and not enough screws me. I lose him in heavy water. I break off to the split-shot and tie all the shit back on. Tippet, fly, tippet, fly. I stab my finger. My tongue. My finger again. Who hooks their tongue? I think. I can hear the sound of a thrashing fish from where my father exists somewhere beyond the bushes. I think about the fish I lost. My flies in its mouth. My inner soundtrack plays circus music in my head. My father comes around the bend smiling.
“Stupid,” he says.
We make our way down the river as the sun moves across the sky. From island to bank to wherever. He drops the anchor. I pull us to shore. In silence, for the most part, we do this. My father watches me fish. Directs me. Then he goes above or below and absolutely murders it.
“Keep your rod up. Keep him out of that heavy water!” he yells to me.
“Keep your rod up!”
I do it. I don’t respond.
He comes down to me from time to time to net a fish when the shore is too far. A big Brown breaks off at the net during a fumble.
“Don’t ever let anyone net your fish.” he tells me.
He always tells me this when he breaks off my fish. I put the rod down for a while and pick up feathers that blow across the shore. As a girl it was rocks.
Now it’s feathers. I sit in the shadow of old cottonwoods on a log chomped by a beaver. I watch my father fish. We listen to the sounds of the river. Wave at passing anglers. In silence for the most part.
“We’re going to get a hatch at sunset,” he says, as we travel to the next spot.
I nod, mouth full of Boston Baked Beans.
I remember as a teenage girl wondering what he was thinking in this silence. If he was thinking I was doing drugs. If he was thinking I was having sex. If he was waiting for the right time to ask. And I wanted him to ask me, because I wanted to tell him that no, I wasn’t. That I was good. That he could be proud of me. But he never asked. Now, as an adult, I know why he never asked. Why we never spoke of such things. It’s because it’s not what he was thinking in those times of silence. He’s not sizing me up, nor waiting for an optimal time to drop an atom bomb of a question. He’s thinking about fish. Only fish. And I know this now, because it’s what I’m thinking. The only thing I’m thinking. Occasionally my mind drifts to home. To my shambles of a marriage that waits for me there. What the family I have made are doing right now in my abrupt absence, but a rising fish is enough to snap the thought away. And we both hear the sip and watch it. And we’re both wondering what the bugs are doing.
Yesterday, not even 24 hours ago, my father and I sat across from each other at Chuck E. Cheese. I wore my smile, as I always do, but my eyes couldn’t hold it up. I’m weary and my age is showing in my face from stress and crying. This stress. Birthday cakes, in-laws and friends, presents and noise. My precious child who has no idea what is about to happen to his life.
Everyone looking at me. And my father’s heart that’s aching for this boy who has become the apple of his crystal blue eye. His heart aching for the boy and for me: his baby girl.
“You wanna go fishing?” He asks me.
“Yeah,” I reply, “I’d like to go fishing. I’d love to go fishing. But I can’t. Not now.”
I dole out coins from a plastic cup to my excited birthday boy. He squeals something about guns and runs back into the madness. I smile again at my dad. But I want to cry, deeply ashamed that I can’t seem to hold it together for these people. These lovely people whom I adore.
“Let’s just go,” he says. “Now. After this. Just go grab your gear and we’ll leave. Be there by sunset.”
I shake my head. No, I can’t.
I turn and watch the two grandmas talking. Being cordial. My mother graceful and kind, as always. And I have to get the hell out of here.
“Okay,” I say, “let’s go.”
And we are here now on this river that seems like a million miles away from the ringing games, screaming children, and five-hundred-pound stone on my chest. My family, my child, my husband: watching me lace up running shoes. All of them wondering if I have the guts to go. All of them with an opinion why I shouldn’t. And the judgment is suffocating. I need this day. On this river. I need to breathe. And my father is handing it to me like a life raft.
As dusk comes, we approach the hole we’ve been planning for. Anticipating the sunset hatch. We set anchor below a butte in a turn of the river that runs slow and deep. We watch. The water is just about black now in the shadow of the butte and the temperature is dropping. I put on my jacket. Warm up my coffee as my father is tying on something. Biting line in his teeth. Flipping through boxes. Tying knots with his eyes on the water. I wait, getting a chill. A little mouth breaks the surface. Then another a few feet away. And another. We say nothing. Bugs are landing across the dark water. Floating like little mini sailboats on the sea. He hands me the rod.
“Okay. Get it out there.”
I do it.
I pick the line up and shoot for a fish that’s rising up above the boat. I miss.
By a long shot. I attempt again.
“To the left. Out more. Do you see that? Do you see that fish?” he says.
I see a black mouth on black water. It’s popping up intermittently. I don’t see this fish that my father speaks of. I don’t possess, among other attributes such as grace and coordination, my father’s X-ray fish vision. What I see could be one fish, could be five.
I false cast and try to avoid the Russian Olives that tangle themselves up the butte behind me. I try to count in my head how many times he unhooked me from the bushes today. How many flies he tied back on. My thoughts come back to focus on my cast. I search deep for rhythm. Timing. Grace. I wonder what I look like to him. To anyone. My one girl circus. I cast out over the location of this feeding fish. I cast several times until I nail my distance.
I set it softly on the water. It drifts with the rest of the sailboats. I can’t even tell the difference. A nose rises and sips it in. I lift my rod. The line goes tight. The air is quiet and cool. I let the fish tire out and then bring him quietly to the boat. Touch him. Release him.
“Your cast is excellent,” my father tells me.
My heart swells. A midge lands on my face.
The rises are getting more frequent and the bugs thick. We exit the boat quietly and wade waist deep into them. I hold onto my father’s shoulder. The fish are rising now in such numbers it’s creating an effect that makes me think of a hot tub. I have never seen anything like it. I cast to them as my dad stands at my side. I set the fly on the water. Soft drift. Quiet take. And then the fish goes bonkers. Jumps. Runs. Runs some more the other way until I bring him in. My dad nets my fish. We smile at each other in this silence. My dad heads off to fish below just as I hook another fish. He returns again, sighing with a smile. As I fight the fish, my dad hooks his net to my back.
“Here. Just take it,” he says, and he heads down to partake in this bubbling madness of noses.
The light is almost gone and the water to my waist is cold. I’m starting to shiver. If we had people waiting at the takeout for us, we’d be in big trouble tonight. But it’s just me and my dad and this ridiculous wet dream of a midge hatch. We’ve got nowhere else to be. I wade slowly back to the boat with my arm burning a burn I’d never complain about. I get back in the boat and bundle up to my neck for warmth. I watch my father in his stance, his black silhouette against the water, fishing with precision and grace. I think about him at my age. In my situation. If he was as confused and ashamed as I. If he still is. If any of this ever goes away. And a fish rises to his fly. His line goes tight. I smile and think... stupid. And for the first time in my entire life I realize: I am him. I am my father’s daughter. Through and through.
Kat Mueller is a photographer, writer, and third-generation flyfisher. As a little girl, she dove into the wrong race and beat a pool of boys at 25 yard freestyle. She never lost her love for the water. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her son Sam, husband Geoff, and wild dingo Mike. You can view her writing and fine-art photography at www.katmuellerphoto.com.