The Old Man's Flies
The thing I remember first, when I look back, is the summer Mitch copied the flies. It was hot out in the sun, in the fields. Cool like a swallow of water in the deep shade of the trees that grew by the river. My father had a farm—not large by today maybe—but back then, when it was all families—we were big enough. We had a river on the edge—marking where we stopped on one side and threading on back through the top quarter. That river, it was both deep and wide. It teemed with life. Which we took without thought because we were young. Whitefish. Perch. Browns which my father called Loch Levens but everyone else called Germans. Pike. Sometimes we took salmon, too, when they were running, out of that river.
We didn’t bottom fish like the local boys—we bought into that land, you know. The Cunninghams weren’t from there at first. My old man, Alistair Cunningham, he came from Fife, around Edinburgh. That’s in Scotland. He came to this country and bought our land right after the war. Nobody wanted that land, too much of it cut up by that river; and what wasn’t cut up or cut off was dust—over farmed. Abandoned in the 30’s. Left to ruin. But he bought it because of the river and because of the price and we farmed it. Did things the old way. Manure. Crop rotation. Fish heads. Planting by the signs. And it came round. Like everything my old man did, he knew what he wanted to do. He made that land come round.
Like my ma. She came round, didn’t want to be there at all when she got there, but she came round. Had three boys on that land, and two girls. Raised a few head of Jacob sheep. We used their fleece for making ourselves fishing flies. Them, some feathers and the hair off the deer hides my father shot. You don’t need much for making a fly, just a hair or two—but the hair has to be right. Can’t use cat or dog.
We didn’t make fancy flies like they all do nowadays, with the foam and the beads and the coloured tufts of wool. Don’t know if we would have if we could anyway. There’s nothing right about fooling a fish with a exact model. No, we made our flies from feathers and hair and wires on a hook. We each had our specialties.
My youngest brother, Jake, he would make duns like crazy—using nothing but deer hair and wire. German Browns, they loved them. Me, I liked a parachute, I’d drive my old man crazy picking white hairs from the calves tails in the barn for them. But nothing worked better, and I liked attaching the hackle feather. Depending on what kind you got, your parachute would either attract the fishes attention right off, or it’d rest easy, not getting anything down in the river riled, for the fish to just come across, nice and slowly, as you bring the fly back... then you’d get a strike, all of a sudden. That was the best part, that all of a sudden strike. Then the hard fast jerk, to set the hook. Maybe that part was the real best.
My old man, sometimes, if the mood was on, and he was drinking his Christmas Scotch, and we boys was calling for it, he’d get out his special box. He had the old family flies in that box—six of them, set in individual spaces made in the box, three matched pairs. Wet, dry and spent. Each of them setting on their own handmade hooks. Over a hundred years old, each one of them. Secret Cunningham recipes, my ma would laugh. But my old man didn’t laugh. He treated them flies like there was magic in them. Just sat there, with the box open on the table, the lamplight spilling in it, just looking at them. Told us their names sometimes but he wouldn’t let us boys touch them. They were something to look at though, even if we couldn’t take them out and touch them.. All of them sitting there in their box, with their bright tails catching the lamplight. Got them from his old man, back in Scotland, who got them handed down from his. Then, too good to be used, he’d say, and he’d put the box back away in the bottom drawer of the secretary. Saving them. One day he was going to use them.
My oldest brother, Mitch, he had a book on flies. My old man would rib him, telling him he never heard of no fish who read a book to find out what to eat. But, Mitch would keep looking at the book, flipping here and there, from wet fly to dry, to nymph—he liked them nymphs. Fun to tie. More interesting blop from the trout when they struck. And he could copy anything. Gordons. Adams. Zulus. Wulffs. Gingers. Used everything he could lay his hands on to make them, too –squirrel, skunk, opossum, pigeon, piglet, kingfisher, fox, any animal at all—all of them would go into his flies. He’d read about them from his book and he’d tie them.
He copied them family flies early one spring. He’d broken his leg right at the start of planting time, so with my old man, my ma and us kids hardly in the house (we did most of that farm work by hand)—he had a free run of it. Every day, excepting for breaks for meals, he was alone in that house with the box of flies, his pliers, wires, feathers, furs and his rotary vise.
He used some handmade hooks he got from the jar my old man kept. The old man kept everything, you know, or made them hisself, even hooks. And with those bits of hair and feathers he had, and them hooks, Mitch tied himself every one of them flies. Took them out and put them back a hundred times a day, every time he thought somebody was coming in the house.
He never told us while he was working on them—we would have been too tired to care much anyway. Farming hard like we done takes all the joy away—even the thought of fishing can’t put it back all at once. So, he waited til we was done. His leg was nearly healed up by then, too.
He showed us them flies secretly one night, when we was supposed to be sleeping. He had them in a cigar box stuck under his bed. They were brilliant copies, them flies were, alright. Even Alice, our sister, coming in from the other bedroom because of our whispering, even she admired the job he’d done.
Now I know that people don’t like it when I say this, but I have to say it all the same—girls are always trouble, even if they are your sister. That very night Alice got it into her head that she wanted to compare the new flies to the old ones. Right then and there. Mitch wanted to too—to show what good copies he made. But he wouldn’t have said nothing if’n Alice hadn’t started in like she did.
In the end I went. Jake was too young to go, Mitch still had his leg all up in the cast. We never even thought about making Alice go, even though it was her idea. No, it was me who went and got them old flies.
I snuck down into the parlour where the secretary was and brung the old man’s box back up to the bedroom while Mitch was laying in state with his cast. Alice and Jake watched by the door in case my old man came out from the kitchen where him and my ma sat of a night—my old man reading out loud something from seed catalogues or them new fishing brochures that started coming by, my ma sewing on something and biting off threads.
I figured they’d catch me. I had a bad feeling about this. But they didn’t. And when I got back with my old man’s fly box, Mitch had already taken his new flies out of that cigar box and laid them all on his bed. Six of them. Then, one by one, he took out them old flies, taking great care with them, and he laid them right next to his ones. He was a good fly tier alright. I couldn’t tell the new from the old. Even holding them up close, they looked the same—or pretty near the same anyways.
It was them old hooks that did it Mitch said, or I couldn’t have done it so they were that close in looks.
Then we put them all back again, Mitch’s flies in his cigar box, the old man’s flies in his box and I snuck down again and put the box back where it went. They didn’t catch me that time neither.
It was months later that Mitch finally got his cast off—the first thing he wanted to do was some fishing out by the big oak tree that marked the top of our piece of the river. It was summer by then. Hot and dry, except for down by the river. There it was different, with a cool made from wet stones and heavy shade that could not be lifted and made warm.
All of us kids, except Jeannie who was still a baby, went that day, taking lunch with us, and Mitch’s secret copies.
Sitting under the great oak, with his healed up leg stretching in front of him, he fitted his rod together. Then, getting up and pulling that cigar box out from his creel, he picked out the first fly copy. Carefully he knotted that fly—the dry—to his leader. He pulled out his line.
It felt like he was taking forever. We were all excited to see that fly in action. I couldn’t wait to see it, I knew it would work like a charm because of all the fuss my old man made. Even if it wasn’t the real one.
Mitch drew back his rod. He had a nice rod, a Horrocks-Ibbotson with nickel silver fittings, he worked nights at Plover’s dairy farm, helping clean up, to make the money to get that rod. It was evenly weighted with an automatic reel. He cast. It was a beautiful cast. The line lingered in the air like it was floating before it touched the river. Then... we waited. Nothing happened. Mitch carefully jerked the line. Nothing broke the surface. I remember thinking we waited a long time there, waiting for that strike.
My brother Jake took up the wet copy-fly. It was a beauty—it had a long tail like nothing we ever used on that river. He tied it on tight. Then he cast. His rod wasn’t as new as Mitch’s was, it was split cane, a Scottish hand-me-down from the old man, with an old wooden reel, but it was still a good one. Cast like a dream in his hands, that rod. Get his flies to go where ever he wanted them.
The wet fly riffled out across the river and hit the water exactly where he wanted it—right down in the first edge of shade on the other side. He gave it a second or two to settle down in the water, then he tightened his line and twitched his rod—pulling that fly up against the current.
But nothing happened for him either. No movement. It was as if there were no fish. Not so much as a bubble broke the surface.
Mitch handed me over his rod. I let him take mine—I had a pretty nice one at the time—handmade it was, with a nickel plated reel I mail ordered out of some outfit in Montana. I was using real silk line, too. Not that Mitch cared much. Oh yeah, he had his automatic reel and his fancy fittings and all, but in his heart he was a fly man. Nothing mattered in the end to him but what he tied to the leader.
He knotted the last copy-fly on it. The spent, my old man called the one he kept in his box. Then, limping a little, and watching as me and Jake still got nothing with them flies we used, he walked out into the river, right out into the strong of the current. He cast that last fly high—thought he’d like to get it lost in the overhang of the oaks, but it just missed them—and his line landed with a heavy fall just up from me and Jake.
The first strike came within seconds—the fish swallowed it deep, pulling down on the line and setting it self—that fly must’ve looked mighty good. Mitch was beside himself—he did it. He got the copy perfect. And the fish took it just like the old man said.
By the time we dug it out, the hook had broken up into bits and the feathers, the fur, the wire—they had all come apart. Fallen to pieces, just like that, as we pulled that fly from the maw of the trout. Well, that shouldn’t have happened those pheasant feathers were brand new, Mitch started to say, then he stopped. We all stared at the wet mess and the busted hook. We knew what happened. Oh damn it, we knew. Even Alice knew.
But, we never told the old man about what happened on the river that afternoon. Not the one of us. Though it would have been nice to tell him how it was when that fly got struck like that just as it touched the river. But we never did.
Alice never told either, even though of all of us who knew, I thought she might be the one to tell. Especially when the old man got wind of her taking up with a feller who worked as a farmhand a couple of miles down from us. I know a thing or two about life and farming is one thing, farmhanding another, he would say. It didn’t help that the feller used a pole, neither. And she would glare over at him, over the lamp lit table, where them flies sat in their box and my old man looked at them and not at her and we boys waited for her to tell him what he did not know. But... in the end, she never did. And she never married that farmhand boy, neither—she married a lawyer, and became a society wife, so maybe it’s good she learned early to keep her mouth shut about things done in dodgy circumstances.
And, so it went. The years went on.
Jake went to college and became some sort of engineer, for all his being the best caster of the family he just up and left off it. Married a city gal and never came back to the land. Took up golf, which the old man didn’t hate so much because of it being a Scottish game. Jake golfed very well, having all that casting behind him.
Jeannie, the baby, went in for school teaching which Ma liked, but then she joined the Peace Corps and went to Bolivia and married some long haired feller she met there and they moved to California, which nobody liked. But she wrote nice long letters and gave the old man something to listen to when my mother would read them to him at night, in the kitchen. So it was alright, really.
Me and Mitch, we stayed on. Farming that land. Fished all the time, whenever we could. Evenings you would find us there, me, Mitch and the old man, on the river. By then Mitch had some fancy ways of fly tying—and a library of books on the subject—foil, nylon, wires in different colors. Making frogs and mice as well as what we used to use. He had himself a fiberglass rod, too. Me and the old man, we kept to the old ways—they never stopped making the bamboo rods, so we never stopped using them. Of course they weren’t as easy to find, but I didn’t mind. Didn’t have nothing else to spend money on anyways. And, I picked up Jake’s old rod from time to time. Just to keep it going.
The old man stopped fishing a few years before he died. Just too hard to get there to the river, in the evenings, in the end. He stopped taking out the flies, too. Not all at once, no, not all at once, but gradual like. A slow down. Life was leaving him in small steady measures. Too small to really take account of, but looking back you could see.
Mitch and me, we were fishing when he died. It happened during a mayfly hatch and the trout were biting and jumping. We were out there, Mitch with his fancy rod and flies and me with my parachutes and my bamboo, when my ma came down to the river. She just stood there, for a minute, watching us in the early part of the dusk as we cast and pulled our lines. Then we looked and we saw that she had tears streaming down her face and we knew. My old man’s soul leaped up with the trout into the grey air that evening.
The funeral was held in town, and the burying was held in the graveyard that would one day hold my ma and then Mitch and then hopefully me. And the next morning it came time that Jake and Alice and Jeannie who came back with their families—for they all had had children by then—had to go back to their lives off the farm, and we all had to say goodbye. But before we did that, my ma took out the box of family flies. She put them on the little table just where they always went. Then she opened it. The old man had left a note tucked under the lid. It didn’t say much, but it didn’t have to.
To Mitch, Ed, Jake, Alice, Jeannie. There’s one Cunningham Fly in here for the each of you.
Later that day, heading on towards evening, Mitch and me took them flies—all of them flies, the other three didn’t want theirs, thought we ought to keep them together and left them behind them sitting in the wooden box on the table—and we went down to the great oak tree with them. We took our rods and our tackle. Mitch took my old man’s bottle of Christmas scotch and we passed it back and forth. Then, instead of fishing them flies for the old man like we were aiming to do, what we did was take that box out into the river, right out into the deepest part where the current swirls and eddies over sunk rocks and the shadows almost meet from the trees on both banks and we opened it up and we let them go. The river took them fast. They swept away from us like they knew they was going somewhere. We watched as long as we could. Until we couldn’t see them anymore.
Then, we fished.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson’s work has appeared in Aesthetica Magazine, Bewildering Stories, The Australian Reader, Shatter Colors Literary Review, Flipside, Idunna, The Raintown Review, Dead Letters, The Hypertexts, and Arena among dozens of other places. The recipient of the New South Wales ANZAC Day Award for poetry, she also holds two gold and one silver medal for writing from the MacArthur Arts Festival (Australia). She's edited and contributed to the Arets Boker award winning Norwegian-press literary collection Undertow and a story of hers was included in the 2002 Edinburgh Festival of the Arts--Writer’s Quarter. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, near the Willamette River. Right after she began writing this story, she found an old cane fly rod, still in its tube, stuck in a corner of the attic crawl space of the house she'd just bought. Funny old world, isn't it?
Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.
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Fiction Copyright © 2006 Juleigh Howard-Hobson. All rights reserved.