I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
John Prine, “Souvenirs”
The old man sat in a chair next to the picnic table, which, today, was a makeshift bar stocked with a dozen bottles of whiskey. Most were bourbon, but one was an orange-flavored liqueur and another a fifth of scotch that cost more than a decent pair of waders. The old man’s assessment of the arrangement was simple. “Bourbon and some other stuff that isn’t bourbon.”
A younger man crushed a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass, added a dash of aromatic bitters, a jigger of bourbon, a few cubes of ice, and topped it off with some water and a slice of orange. He secured the drink in the old man’s wrinkled hands and waited for the response.
“Ah, my favorite drink,” the old man said. “Until it’s gone. Then the next will be my favorite.”
Today was the opening day of trout season, and the modest little fishing camp was overrun by men who had come to celebrate what the old man called “the first day.” Some of the men were doctors or lawyers or other local dignitaries who didn’t fish, but most fished at least a few times during the year.
The old man had been a splendid fisherman in his younger years, back before Time stole his strength and mobility. But many years had passed since he tramped through the woods and waded the rivers of his beloved Upper Peninsula, gathering mushrooms and gorging on wild berries in secluded environs known only to him. Now—on those rare occasions when he fished at all—he cast from a rusty old chair perched upon a rotting wooden platform on the shore of the camp’s small spring-fed pond. And today, in the wake of a cold April morning, his arthritic fingers struggled just to hold his drink. But the younger man who’d made that drink knew that those worn fingers had killed or released more trout than most fishermen would ever see. For when the old man was the younger man’s age—in his early fifties—he fished the local rivers and ponds harder and better than anyone.
The men in the group closest to the old man were exchanging lies about trout they hadn’t caught and rivers they’d barely fished. But with an unusual gush of honesty, one of the men declared that he hadn’t caught a good fish in years. The reason, he asserted, was that the local fishing had gone to hell. Several others agreed that it was hardly worth going out.
“If the greedy loggers and miners have it their way, and the bureaucrats in Lansing keep looking the other direction every time some slithering lobbyist puts a dollar bill in their hands, then all our rivers will be completely ruined,” one of the men said. “Hell, we might as well sit on our asses and drink all afternoon, then buy a few pounds of fish from the tribe and call it a day.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” the younger man said to the old man. “It must have been something to fish these rivers and ponds in the good old days.”
The old man sat his drink on the table and pulled a small plastic box from the pocket of his shirt. He struggled to open its lid, then poured several colorful little flies into the palm of his hand. All the flies were a style that the old man and his friends called The Betty, although most fishermen would say they were Royal Coachman Trudes.
“The best fly I ever fished,” the old man said. “I probably caught more than half my fish on flies that looked just like these.” Then he took another fly from his box and gave it to the younger man. It was a fly that most people would call an Adams.
“I hardly ever caught a fish on that fly. One of my worst flies,” the old man said. But the younger man knew that the Adams was one of the most effective flies ever tied.
“Do you know why that fly was so bad for me?” the old man asked, then answered before the younger man could respond. “Because I rarely fished it. I didn’t give it a chance. It sat in my box for years and I didn’t know how wonderful it was because I didn’t take it out, tie it on my line and fish it.
“The good old days are like the good old flies. You never know how good they are until you take them out of the box and fish them. So go to the river this evening and wade in. Feel the current push against your body. Hear the birds sing their courtship serenades. See the mayflies dance while the sun sinks into the pines. Do it tonight. Do it tomorrow. Do it the day after that. Those men are wrong, you see. The good old days you want are right here, right now. Don’t leave them in a box filled with regret.”
That was over thirty years ago. Now the younger man was an old man who sat in a bamboo chair while a crowd of younger men spread about the camp to celebrate another first day. One of the men carefully prepared a drink, placed it in the old man’s hands and waited for the response. Then, shortly after that, the old man told me a story about the good old days.