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Know the West

The family legacy of fishing

In a day on the river, a grandfather and grandson find joy despite the lack of fish.


Ten-year-old Jake fishes at Lake of the Woods in Oregon.
Ingrid Hansen

In the 19th century, in a letter to his wife, Leo Tolstoy wrote that “the purest joy of all is the joy of nature.” Toward the middle of the 20th century, when I was 8 or 9 years old, my great-grandfather, John Brant, a descendant of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, taught me to fish for trout on a creek that ran through his property in western Pennsylvania. I remember the day I landed and released my first brook trout on a fly. ­Afterwards, as we walked under a clear sky through springtime woods back toward the farmhouse, Granddad, his strong brown arm across my bony shoulder, told me: “Out here, outdoors, in the woods and along the rivers and creeks, is where you’ll find most of your happiness.” Since that magical day, I’ve learned, over and over again, in many places and in many different ways, that Tolstoy and Granddad Brant were right.

Now here I am in the 21st century, an old man in southern Oregon fishing with my grandson Jake, who just turned 16. Jake’s angling life began 10 years ago, when, using a hunk of salami for bait, he tried and failed to catch a perch that had somehow ended up in the irrigation tank on our property outside Ashland. Not long after that, my wife, Hilde, took him to a nearby lake, where he caught a planted cutthroat trout on salmon eggs.  Later that same year, casting an elk hair caddis fly, he landed and released 10 or a dozen fat rainbows in a friend’s pond near the North Umpqua River. The following morning, I drove him down to the river, and, after half an hour of fishing a small gray nymph, he hooked and landed his first wild trout at the Fairview Pool.

Our most recent outing together was on the upper Rogue River, water I’ve been fishing for 50 years. In chest waders and studded boots, we made our way across a shallow riffle and around a car-sized boulder, and finally crossed the narrow bedrock channel that made the chest waders necessary. Jake, at 6-feet-5, had less trouble than I did. 

He carried our fly rod, and I carried some truths that I didn’t want to share: the knowledge that anadromous fish runs have long been in steep decline for a multitude of exhaustively documented reasons; that the dams and hatcheries built to alleviate the problems have only made things worse; that before Jake was born, there were days when I landed six or eight steelhead a day, and now I feel lucky to hook that many in a year; that back when stoneflies hatched in the water we were fishing today, 30 or 40 trout made an average morning.         

We stationed ourselves on a waist-deep gravel bar near midstream. A deep, slow channel ran along the opposite bank. Boulders strewn along its bottom created eddies and crosscurrents where trout could be expected to feed. A few yards below our stand, the ­widening channel became a gravel-bottomed ­steelhead riffle.

Jake covered the trout water with a small floating muddler, casting upstream and across, dropping the barbless fly in the likely places. He mended the floating line well, and in half an hour raised three small trout. Two turned away before they touched the fly, and the third took it, but the hook didn’t connect. 

To cover the downstream riffle, we tied on a steelhead pattern, a No. 6 Skunk. Jake quartered his casts across and down, mended upstream after the line landed, and the fly swung slowly through the holding water. He stripped off a yard of line between casts, and when he had reached his limit took a long step downstream between casts. I wished hard for luck, wanting him to feel for the first time in his young life the elemental surge of a wild, powerful steelhead on a downstream run. 

But I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t happen.

While Jake fished, a small flock of mergansers flew upstream so close over the water we could hear their rapid wing-beats. After the ducks, a whistling osprey circled high overhead for several minutes. A pair of Canada geese trailed by six downy goslings drifted by and stopped across from us to rest behind a curtain of alder leaves that brushed the cold, clear water. All the while, somewhere behind us, a water ouzel sang.

After two hours, as we waded out, the water ouzel’s song called a helpful notion of Thoreau’s to mind: that many men go fishing all their lives without realizing that it isn’t fish they’re after. 

The water ouzel’s song rippled in the air behind us as we left.

Michael Baughman lives with his wife of 50 years and his extended family in Ashland, Oregon. His eighth book, Grower’s Market, is a novel about combat veterans raising illegal marijuana in the Northwest. It was published in March 2015.