Wednesday, November 26, 2008
TWO TROUT FOR THANKSGIVING
“I was just thinking how good a trout would taste, Sonny,” my father said, smiling at me from the other end of the laden kitchen table. We’d just finished our Thanksgiving meal—a huge, turkey-and-all-the-trimmings feast which could easily have accommodated three times as many people and still filled the refrigerator with leftovers afterwards. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last Thanksgiving I’d get to share with this wise and quirky man who loved the outdoors with thoughtful passion, and had spent countless hours rambling woods and fields, on lakes and streams, passing this love along to his only child. Dad loved God, family, nature, books, music, and shaping bits of wood into everything from guitars to benches to custom details in fine homes such as fitted cabinets or an exquisite spiral staircase. I’ve tried to embrace his values wholeheartedly, though I’m sadly deficient when it comes to woodworking skills; the best I can do is hammer together a deck or garden shed. A couple of years earlier, Dad had suffered a mild stroke. There didn’t seem to be any permanent damage afterwards, but he’d then begun having mini-strokes, and each one took a slight toll. During the last twenty-some months I’d watched my father age twenty years. From a robust seventy-three year old he’d become a faltering seventy-five…and the change was swift and heartbreaking. Several times during our holiday meal the talk had turned, as it often did, to fishing—fishing for bass, bluegill, walleye, catfish, crappie, and then when we got to reminiscing about fishing in Michigan, salmon and trout. I guess that’s what started my father to thinking—remembering those skillets of fresh-caught trout, fried in butter over an open campfire, the chill morning air redolent with woodsmoke and pines, rose-breasted grosbeaks whistling from nearby thickets and the tannin-stained stream burbling merrily along a dozen yards away. I remembered such times, too—and I knew we’d never get to reprise those wonderful adventures together. But I also knew I could give him a small part—literally a taste—by supplying a trout or two. And so, on that bittersweet Thanksgiving Day twenty-six years ago, I abruptly left the table and drove an hour north to one of the only genuine trout streams in Ohio. It was sunny, but cold and windy, a wintry November afternoon. But after I’d parked by the bridge, layered up in warm clothes and waders, rigged my fly rod, and begun following the faint streamside trail to the pool I intended to fish, I thought I just might have a chance. This isn’t a fishing tale, so I won’t go into details—except to say that after a half-hour of casting practice, I suddenly saw a trout swirl on the surface. Then another began to feed…and a third. I made my presentations, floated my flies past the hungry fish, and summarily caught two. I didn’t try for the third. Never take more than you need…and always leave something behind. My father taught me that, and it’s the cornerstone principal of good outdoor stewardship. I was back home in time for the supper encore of our dinner’s leftovers. In some ways, I enjoy these secondary meals more than the primary event. One feeds your hunger, though it comes with the excitement and pressure of having fussed about getting everything on the table just so and on time; the other is leisurely, laid-back, with ample time to savor—feeding both body and soul. Dad was pleased with the trout—a pair of silver-phase browns, plump and solid, fat from feeding on the stream’s prolific caddis. I promised I’d fix them for his lunch the following day—and he grinned at me and nodded. “I’d like that, Sonny.” I’m sorry I didn’t get to spend every moment of that long-ago last Thanksgiving Day with my father. But I tried to make up for it by spending every day with him thereafter I could…until that early June afternoon of the following spring when Dad suddenly passed away. In a way, though, Dad went with me on that Thanksgiving Day trout trip—just as he has accompanied me on every fishing trip of my life, and every outdoor ramble I make, whether it’s to gather mushrooms or pawpaws, explore a hill-country woods, watch birds, or pick up a sack of walnuts to feed backyard squirrels. My father taught me how to do all those things, and a thousand more. I miss him still. But his love and guidance remain as fresh in me today as if he were still sitting at the other end of that old kitchen table, smiling sweetly at me and telling me about the birds he saw at the feeder that morning, or a wildflower he’d recently spotted beside the road, or maybe reciting a line or two from James Whitcomb Riley about things a country boy understood. When I bow my head and say grace on Thanksgiving, my father is always one of the things I’m most grateful for…a blessing worth remembering. Happy Thanksgiving!